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In my mind, my Aunt Mary McCanles is as stoic as the women painted in pioneer portraits. Grim smile, bun puled taut, knuckles gnarled from the hard work of homesteading folded passively on her lap as she sits in her rocking chair for the camera. The romantic notion that wagons west was the adventure we modern descendants missed, that times were once simpler and more decent is among the big western myths. It’s true, Mary had courage and the wit to survive. She worked hard to raise four sons and an invalid daughter on the vast prairie of Nebraska Territory as a widow.
Maybe it’s because of the romance of the west, or maybe because she was my kin, I find it difficult to access her complexity. She’s human and must have been a woman of dichotomies. Aren’t we all? Life isn’t just about our personalities and the places we live, but it’s the intersection between our worst and best traits on our worst and best days. Add to the mix a harsh land and the reality of migration, and Mary had no chance to be a paper doll from a children’s American West set. She was a flesh and blood, heart and mind, physical and soulful woman.
When I think of stories, I think in terms of what if. To me, that’s where the action unfolds. What if a woman followed her husband and his former mistress out west, migrating to a frontier? What if she left behind a home and family she’d never see again? What if her husband was gunned down one afternoon? What if is the blueprint for the external story.
Internally, motivation becomes a driver. Why would she follow her husband and his former mistress to such a place? How did she cope in a new community? Did his death change her? What about love? Did she love her husband because he was the father of her five children or did she marry out of a sense of duty? The internal story shapes the human triumph or tragedy.
For a work of historical fiction, research collects the facts that detail the story. These details include every day occurrences, such as the life of a pioneer homesteader. They can also give clues to personality through eye-witness accounts or remembrances. Newspaper clippings give tone to decipher attitudes and culture. For example, slavery in the US is unavoidable, reading a southern newspaper from the 1850s. The attitudes of the culture emerge in ads advertising poultry and slave auctions like normal events. They were, for the times.
I’ve talked about the story structure I use to write novels — a W that outlines the hero’s journey. Recently, I heard Matt Damon give an interview about an upcoming movie about the Great Wall in China. He called it a classic hero’s journey. Yet, I think even the tale of a woman on the prairie, sweeping a cracked mud floor and boiling laundry can be a hero’s journey, too. Rock Creek, my historical novel in progress, has five heroes. Two are historically accounted as one hero and one villain. I retell their story through the three perspectives of the women who knew them both and experienced the infamous event at Rock Creek one hot July day in 1861.
Only one character has the full hero’s arc — Sarah Shull. The remaining characters fill in the external or internal stories.
Motives for the two men have been debated over 150 years. I have new ideas on plausible motives to expand the narrow thinking of the men who have written the histories. I also have motives for the women. But Mary’s domestic motive has seemed bland to me — I don’t want to paint her as just another stoic prairie wife. And Sarah Shull, as former mistress, has been given several titillating motives and I didn’t want her to be a mythological soiled dove of the West. Nancy Jane has been vibrant to me because she is what any woman unfettered could have been — capable and feisty.
Writing into Mary’s dark intentions one flash a few weeks ago, I hit on an important plausible motive behind her pursuit of Cobb. It continued to worm its way into my imagination to give more fertile ground to consider motives of Sarah. How might Sarah’s knowledge of Mary’s motives shadow her own? That led to me thinking about Sarah’s friendship with Nancy Jane. After spending a weekend with a McCanles cousin whose research and opinion I respect, I was in a brain churning process. Do you know that feeling? That mind-space where you go over your internal and external stories trying to dig deeper for that coveted surprise you know is there, somewhere between the details?
Then a conversation with a trusted friend who knows the full story (something I protect from historians because it is a bombshell and will rock the Wild Bill World) led to a moment of inspiration. You might say, I had a perfect storm this week. When I sat down to tap out that inspired idea, 5,443 words later I actually had my motives emerge fully and I had my ending. That might sound odd — to find an ending to a historical story where we know how it ends. But of course, who would read it if I told the story from start to finish? That’s why novels are never a straight forward telling of the external story.
My W has been mapped out for Rock Creek. I have worked hard to fill in historical gaps; I scrapped the first half of the book; expanded the Nebraska accounts; and wrote Sarah Shull later in life. However, I’ve been stumped as to how to weave the three women’s perspectives to show the men in action and use Sarah’s reflections in old age. It all came together in this new ending I wrote. What blew me away is that Sarah had one last secret for me — a motive of her own I had never considered. And it would not have come to me if I hadn’t allowed myself to think of Aunt Mary in a darker way.
While breakthroughs seem to abound this month for both my novels in progress, I hoping for a breakthrough in my homeless situation. I have come to enjoy my RV with my little office, couch, kitchen, bedroom, shower and toilet. I don’t feel so “homeless” with such basic needs met, yet we are displaced and have to move on by April because the tourist season at Zion begins in earnest and rates go up beyond my earnings as a writer. The Hub was accepted into a VA vocational program and we continue to battle the stress of his PTSD, he being more stressed than me. Progress is slower than our timeline to move. And we have no way to move our big RV, something we said we’d figure out. Well, we’re still figuring! I’ll hope for some perfect storm of inspiration.
The first anthology is making its way back to our capable and talented Trail Boss & Editor, Sarah Brentyn next week. She and all the Rough Writers have been patient and I appreciate that. The Raw Fiction series is meant to be a platform for our anthologies, expanding the literary community here as one that discusses as well as performs feats of raw literary art. The synergy is evident in what we write individually and collectively among such diverse writers. Once we have Volume 1 under our belts, we’ll invite new Rough Writers to join our core of ranch hands and continue to grow.
With all this movement and wandering (imaginatively) across the plains of Nebraska Territory, I can’t help but think of migration. Immigration dominates world news as refugees seek asylum, countries ponder how to balance humanitarian efforts with safety protocols, and the US slams shut its borders and evicts “illegal” immigrants from our neighbor, Mexico. The announcement of 15,000 new jobs for border control is not one that has many cheering new jobs in America. What would we have done had Trump lived 150 years ago and was chief of the Plains Indians? Would the west have known such a migration as the pioneers? Would we have an Indigenous west, open to Mexico, closed to Americans? And we just discovered 7 new earth-like planets only 39 light years away! What will future global migrations look like?
February 23, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a migration story. It can imagine the dusty or arctic trails of the frontiers past or look to the travel across the galaxy. What issue about modern migration bans might influence an artistic expression in a flash? Migrate where the prompt leads you.
Respond by February 28, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published March 1). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Leaving for the West (from Rock Creek) by Charli
“Pa? Are you leaving us?”
Mary glared at her husband. To avoid the new administration’s secession policies, Cobb was leaving his sheriff’s post. Her family and friends no longer visited, political beliefs dividing neighbors and kin. “Answer the boy, Cobb. He’s your son. He deserves your words, not the gossip to come.”
“Monroe, anyone asks, tell them I’m seeking gold with the Georgians.”
“What about our farm, Pa?”
“Sold, son. We’ll have a new farm out west. Uncle Leroy will bring you all out once it’s settled.”
“Out west? Where they sent the Cherokee?”
“Further west, son. The frontier.”
Mud is murky. It gets a bad wrap as dirty — it’s the stuff that clings to soles, tracking across clean surfaces. Dogs are notorious for muddy paws and children are often chided for playing in it. Politicians perfect the art of slinging it. Yet, there’s an allure to mud. It’s become the stuff to haunt me, fearing it’s slickness to slide a full-sized truck geared down into 4-low slowly over the rim of a snaking canyon road. So focused has my mind been on mud, I began to see it had lessons for me.
First, I have to admit I ventured up the mesas too soon. The sun came out after overcast and rainy days, after snow on the mesas and flash floods in the canyons. The sky spread out like a blue tablecloth inviting me to picnic beneath the warm sun. We waited a week. The Hub says, “It’ll be okay.” The dirt road that winds up Dalton Wash certainly looked dry when we turned up it.
“See, it’s dry,” says the Hub.
I watched the brush, the boulders, the small crevice of a creek. “Look! Deer.” Two mulie does with yearlings trot along side the truck like an escort welcoming us back to the mesas.
“See, it’s dry,” says the Hub.
Spindly apple trees stand like dead sticks in fields of mud on the first mesa level. It appears dry…on the surface. “I don’t know,” I say.
The road turns sharply right before climbing several thousand feet through a boulder-strewn canyon — the deeper crevice of Dalton Wash, cutting through layers of time. “It’s fine,” says the Hub.
I suck air hard and grab the steel frame between my lowered window and open wing.The canyon shrouded in shadow, the road cut deep with ruts begins to twist and rise. “Four-wheel drive!” I shout this like making the sign of the cross in reaction to danger. Salvation of trucks, entering unknown terrain. Holy 4WD.
“We don’t need it,” says the Hub. The truck lugs and if it stops we’ll spin tires; if we spin tires we might get stuck of slide off the road. Off the road to the left is gnarly debris, the scree of mesas. Off the road to the right is a rocky shelf, a wall of layered clay.
We need it. The Hub stops when the road flattens before a churning river of mud. Each current carved by a truck before us. That’s hopeful; Other Trucks have made it. He steps out into the road/mud-river and turns the hubs of each front wheel.
NOTE: Hubs engage or disengage the front wheel axles, thus engaging the hubs is to put both axles to work for climbing mountains or navigating spring mud. I have one Hub as in Husband and two manual locking hubs on my truck which requires the Hub to get out and turn. Although I live in Utah, I do not practice polygamy. One Hub is enough.
Hubs engage and Hub settles behind the wheel, we lurch forward and take on the incline the same time a truck above descends. There’s not enough room to pass and the descending truck can’t stop. Can’t. Stop. We call dibs on the wall and the other driver slides between us and the drop off to the canyon bottom below.
“Are we stuck?” I ask when my breath returns. The other truck slides to a stop behind us.
“We’re fine,” says the Hub and indeed we begin to churn mud like brown butter beneath the wheels and bit by bit we edge forward. Until the rock. It stops us and we slide back to where we went off the road.
“You folks stuck?” asks the driver of the other truck. He greets the Hub with a handshake and shovel.
“Just a rock,” says the Hub who proceeds to pick up a rock big enough to stop a truck. Like a shot put he heaves it over the edge. The other driver shovels a patch and we gun it so hard we fish tail out of the rut and up the road. We cant’s stop and the driver understands we aren’t being rude to stop and says thanks. We are entering the steepest grade and the mud actually lessens, but another truck is facing down at us. The driver is slow to understand he needs to hit reverse and hit it fast. We can’t stop or else we’ll slide backwards and off the road, into Dalton Wash.
The nose of our truck is inches from the nose of his and we drive this way the last stretch and then we pass waving, and telling them “Good Luck!” For a while, I’m happy to be in the sun walking through the litter of petrified wood, cherry-picking chunks of jasper. A wet winter has revealed previously buried treasure. By foot I make it to the edge of the Zion Wilderness and I pass through the gate. There’s something I want to find…
…Not today. The Hub catches up with me, the dog dodging between us on shaky legs, howling after rabbits like a banshee. We have to leave before the sun sets.
The sun glows like a distant apocalypse on the far horizon of another mesa. We don’t want to go down in the dark, yet we can’t see with the last rays of sun burning away our sight. We sit at the top of the mesa until the bright orb dips and we go down in dusk.
Sliding in mud.
There’s no stopping the truck. The Hub turns into each skid as the back end of the truck whips around. The back end slides right, he turns left. The back end slides left, he turns right. All I can do is focus on my breath. I think “breathe in” as I breathe out. Halfway down the mesa I realize I’ve focused the wrong words to each inhale and exhale. I calm the rising panic with the thought, it doesn’t matter; just breathe.
We get to the bottom and the Hub says, “See, it was fine.”
What I have learned…
Mud is still. It’s motion that causes the friction. Steady and slow is best
Mud is murky. It teaches me I don’t have to see to get through. It’s okay not to know all the details.
Mud is sticky. Persistence is the lesson here — stick-to-it-ness. Stick like mud to what needs doing.
Mud is mild. As scared as it might make me to drive on it, mud is not a torrent.
Mud has benefits. It has minerals, water and reflections of sky above. It calls me to look for what’s good.
My take away as a writer, is that writing is often messy and murky. It can be like mud. Sometimes, I think I’m flinging mud at the blank page, looking for what sticks. And revising feels like sliding down a mesa, and I feel uncertain how to control the weight of my words upon the flow. No one teaches you how to navigate mud and when it comes to the process no one can teach you to write your stories in your voice. Certainly we can learn to drive, and we can learn the craft of writing, but mud is the original material.
If you haven’t yet read, Carrot Ranch has launched a new guest series that gets muddy, exploring the idea Raw Literature. It’s meant to be an ongoing conversation from different perspectives, and a look at the lives of writers behind the screen. These are the essays so far, and I hope you take time to read, ponder and even submit an essay of your own:
- Memoir & What Lies Beneath by Sherri Matthews
- Rough Writer for Congress profile of Sarah Unsicker
- Natural or Explicit by Geoff Le Pard
- From Raw to Ready by Anne Goodwin
- Jewels on the Page by Jules Paige
With all that seems to be unfolding in the world, it can feel muddy. The challenge is to find something worthwhile — a piece of land worth preserving; a civic duty worth taking on; a cause you can contribute to; a way to bring art to the artless. Certainly we can create from the clay we are given.
February 9, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rainbow in a puddle. Is it a silver lining of sorts or a false reflection? Think about what it might mean or convey. Simple science? Hope? Or the doom of humankind? Create action or character reflection. Go where the prompt leads you.
Respond by February 14, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published February 15). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Faith (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“A rainbow in a puddle. We’ll have good luck in our search today,” Michael said.
All Danni could see was a biohazard in mud. She climbed into Michael’s truck and they left to follow leads on Bubbie, missing along the Pack River for a week.
“Did you see it?”
Michael was as bad as Ike, Danni thought. Signs, wonders, miracles. “Yes I saw the oil slick.”
“Ever the scientist. Today, have faith.”
Their first encounter with campers reminded Danni why she had none. The rednecks with AR-15s claimed they peppered a dog fitting Bubbie’s description. For fun, they said.
Balls of ice the size of frozen peas pelt my RV, and I know what it is to live inside a rattle.Winter on Mars is not what I expected. The red desert of southern Utah, dominated by the sandstone pillars of Zion and mesas of clay is a region carved by water and baked hard in the hot sun. Winter as I know it something white and gray. Winter in Virgin, Utah is colorful — vegetation turns green, white snow caps and stripes the mesas, skies display different shades of blue, and the clay darkens when wet. It’s wet more than I expected. And the rattling hail is the noisemaker of January.
These days, in the US, conversations between divided political alignments clamor over one another to be heard, but it only sounds like discordant hail on a fiberglass roof. We prepare for the transfer of leadership this month, and so much doubt has been cast upon what is true that everyone thinks their neighbor is a liar. Journalists scramble to uphold their profession in a hostile climate. No one trusts the media. Fake news has become a buzzword. Critical thinking and courtesy ran away with the dish and the spoon. And everyone tweets, including our incoming president.
Like my character Danni in Miracle of Ducks, I want to hide out in the basement of a research library as if it were a bunker and society has become dangerously zombie-like. I don’t want my brains eaten. I still use them. History, my haven of sorts, only mocks my desire to retreat by reflecting back to me the same noisy division happening right here, right now. My other WIP, Rock Creek, takes place at the cusp of the US Civil War (or War of Norther Aggression, depending upon which side you read, and read both). North Carolina featured then, and now.
David Colbert “Cobb” McCanles was a real person in history, and he was born in North Carolina. It’s a state marked by distinct boundary lines of class division. Plantations fueled by the institution of slavery stretched across the rich coastal plains. In the Appalachian mountains to the west, descendants of the Scots-Irish carved out a tough living growing grain and hogs, proud of their subsistence-living. Another class was emerging, educated and of minor means, seeking to participate in an economy that was heavily divided between ballrooms and backwoods. Cobb was from that emerging class.
History has not been kind to Cobb. Historians from North Carolina to Kansas have vilified his name, intentions and memory. James Butler Hickok, Wild Bill, was similarly muddied in history, but he had a champion who took to research as diligently as my character Danni. Biographer, Joseph Rosa, sifted through the opinions, examined as many facts as he could find, and applied careful consideration to his interpretations. When it came to Cobb, Rosa accepted the very opinions he dismissed for Hickok. Not exactly an even playing field. But Rosa taught me the value of diligent research.
While combing through North Carolina newspapers to find any mention of Cobb to corroborate or refute claims regarding crimes and career, I noticed a huge introduction of laws in January 1859, a month before Cobb left North Carolina. Other than finding it mildly interesting that the new state governance passed more laws than previous election years, I pushed past to find mention of sheriff activities. I thought back to this outline of law changes recently when I read the modern headline: “North Carolina is no Longer a Democracy.” I thought, North Carolina is experienced at this. It is almost as if the pre-Civil War politics is repeating.
As a fiction writer, I can imagine how Cobb must have felt after the November 1858 election. I believe he did not intend to get elected, but elected (for a fourth term) he was. By this time, he had moved his parents to Tennessee across the mountain pass where two of his sisters lived with their husbands who were twin brothers to Cobb’s wife Mary. He and his brother Leroy had already scouted the Colorado gold fields which were not producing much, and that’s most likely when Cobb first eyed the potential of the road ranch at Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory. Cobb wanted economic opportunity and the elected North Carolina body supported the slave industry and sought succession.
Reading over those law changes in North Carolina in January 1859, many required sheriff’s to take action Cobb must have felt was wrong. What do you do when your state is no longer “a democracy”? One option, the one I believe Cobb took, is that you leave. Today, I doubt people are going to leave North Carolina as the outgoing state government attempts to cripple the incoming leadership. After all, there really is no settlement on the next frontier. I may call southern Utah Mars, but fleeing to Mars for better opportunities is not an option.
So, I’m stuck here in an icy winter storm contemplating what to do next. Like Danni, I think I’m going to bury myself in quiet research, but like the women who followed Cobb, I’m also going to stand strong wherever it is I find myself standing. The sabers are rattling, but I don’t yet know if its an echo from the past or a vision of the future.
According to Chilean history, saber-rattling comes from an incident that took place on September 3, 1924, when a group of young military officers protested against the political class and the postponement of social measures by rattling their sabers within their scabbards. In case you might want to use this phrase in the prompt.
January 5, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rattling sound. It can be an intimidating sound of protest, a disorienting loud sound, a musical expression or a gentle baby’s toy. Go where the prompt leads you.
Respond by January 10, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published January 11). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Unexpected Help (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli MIlls
Coins in a coffee can rattled as the boy ran across the parking lot. “Dr. Danni Gordon!” He yelled.
Danni and Michael turned. She recognized the boy from the class she had toured with Bubbie.
“For you. To find Bubbie.” He thrust the makeshift rattle at her. She peeled back the lid to see dollars among coins.
“To find Bubbie?”
“I heard Bubbie the Archaeology dog was AWOL. I took up a collection for a reward.”
Despite her panic, she forced a smile. Michael joined her and asked, “AWOL?”
“My Dad’s gone to Iraq. He’s a soldier, not AWOL.”
NOTE: AWOL is a military term for “absence without leave.”
With the New Year reflections, I’ve decided to alternate working on my two WIPs. I’ll write from the one I’m working on for the week.
He told me he rode in wagons. Whatever faults I find in memory, that one has long held certainty for me. My Bumpa rode in wagons!
I can’t remember how old I was when my mother’s mother’s mother died of a final stroke. She was Mayme Ferreira Bundeson, born in 1888 Honolulu, Hawaii, and the wife of my Bumpa. He was born Marcus Bundeson in 1884 in Hollister, California where I was born. She was the daughter of a red-haired and green-eyed Flanders Portagee cast off from her home of Medaria, and married to a Brazilian ship’s interpreter. He was the son of poor Danish immigrants who planted apricot trees in California.
Bumpa went to the old folks home after his wife died. I don’t remember her at all. But I remember Bumpa at the home. Often, my mother dropped me off to visit with him while she went elsewhere. We played bingo with the other residents, and he told me about farming apricots and riding in a wagon. Maybe that’s why I felt a kinship later in childhood when I discovered the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder who also rode in wagons as a pioneer girl. Wagons were my entry point to a lifelong fascination with history. Bingo, Bumpa and wagons are all I know of my Danish heritage.
Until I read a curious article in the New York Times about Hygge.
Hygge is Danish for getting cozy. Evidently my predilection for cake, curling up with a blanket and a drink, and watching crime dramas (Peaky Blinders, Sherlock, Longmire) is part of my DNA. While Bumpa failed to mention this lovely Danish tradition, I’ve naturally been drawn to it, especially over the December holidays when winter is darkest and cold. Oh, yes, I’ve been in hygge-mode all week and plan to add Prosecco to my cozy nook to mark the New Year. After that, I’ll disrobe the fleece blanket and get to work on the ranch.
I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. However, I believe in the power of written goals and taking time to reflect on where you’ve been and where you plan to go. As a writer and literary buckaroo, goals are important to me. Whether you experience set-backs or success, you can learn from examining and adjusting your goals. My long-term goal is to publish fiction about women of the west and build a synergistic writer’s platform. My short-term goals are the steps to get there. Those are the ones I examine and adjust.
One benefit to setting goals annually is that you can reflect on what you expected and compare it to what happened. 2016 has not been an easy year, and I’ve had to confront a personal crisis that continues to rock my goals. I can reflect with disappointment on the short-term goals that didn’t fruit. I can reflect with gratitude on the solidity of community at Carrot Ranch. I can reflect on breakthroughs I’ve had in understanding my own long-project writing process. With much reflection these past two months (November was a NaNoRanCho) I’m eager to move forward.
My writing completely shifted and now I’m revising two WIPs at once. Flash fiction has helped me find my way through bothprojects. I also wrote personal essays about military PTSD and homelessness — two subjects that now feature in one of my WIPs. When I do publish Miracle of Ducks, I’ll have a list of pitches on those subjects to write articles in vetted publications to reach my target readers. That’s the goal. And it’s a big one. The short-term goals are to maintain that pitch list, better define who is reading those topics, finish the revisions, work with beta readers, complete final edits with an editor, and find a publisher or outlet.
That’s another adjustment I’ve made — I’m more open to independent publishing. I better understand the benefits of different publishing paths and can make final decisions later. This year I have two publishing goals, including our Anthology Vol. 1. While the delay was unintended, it did give me time to reconsider publishing options. I’ve gained a greater respect for flash fiction in the development of raw literature. Next week, I will introduce a new guest series to explore what raw literature is, how we are participating in literary arts at Carrot Ranch, and how writers can participate in this greater discussion of what the writing process is.
This year, I’m cautious. Instead of wrapping my arms around all the opportunities that pop up, I’m focusing on specific short-term goals, and I’m writing them down and plugging them into a greater business plan. It’s my map. I will refine my vision, too. A vision is the northern star by which I’ll plot my map. Instead of expanding my schedule at once, I’m adding incrementally, and waiting until it’s solid before executing the next goal. Already I prepared the way by changing the challenge date, deadline and compilation publication. Tuesdays will be the raw literature guest series. The intended marketing series will follow after raw literature is established.
So what is Carrot Ranch? “Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community online for those practicing craft, reading stories and discussing process.” The flash fiction challenges are the entry point, much like my Bumpa getting me excited about wagons, thus history. This is a place to get excited about writing. Your writing. And this post is to get you thinking about goals. Your goals. What you do matters to me, too. Together, we unite on the common ground where we are actively engaged in the literary arts. We create with words and craft with language. Whether we write YA, modern lit, historical fiction, humor, romance, children’s books or lessons, memoir, creative non-fiction, fusion rap, poetry, westerns or sci-fi we are all artists. Literary artists.
Take time to reflect. Even if it’s a hand written page or a post on your blog, write down your long-term goals and your short-term goals for 2017. But for now, it’s time to extend a bit more hygge with another holiday weekend approaching and a new year looming. Will you join me in a toast with something bubbly? Then get cozy.
December 29, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a cozy story. What is it to be cozy, to experience Danish hygge? It doesn’t need to be culture-specific, but it can be an interesting point of comparison or contrast. A character might long to feel cozy, or you might describe the perfect cozy scene. It may or may not include Prosecco.
Respond by January 3, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published January 4). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Homecoming (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Mary swept the hard-packed earthen floor. “Cobb, put my rocker by the hearth.”
“And the trunks, Wife?”
“Porch.” Her skirts flared as if she was dancing across a southern plantation ballroom. Children darted in and out the door, stew simmered on the hearth and Mary unpacked. She hung fresh calico curtains and made beds. By dark, tallow candles and stew in wooden bowls ended the day. It smelled like home. After three months of camping out of a creaking wagon, Mary felt a renewal of hope in her heart.
“Mary! Cobb! The new boys in the barn. They’re sick.”
Night Battle (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli MIlls
Danni sloshed her Prosecco the night they set off the M-80s.
Before the first explosion echoed through the river canyon, Ike rose from his sportsman’s chair. He set down his glass, poised for battle. He’d later say this was why he disliked bonfires — he needed night vision. Danni’s desire for marshmallows and warmth wouldn’t persuade Ike to risk night blindness. Her idea of cozy-camping never meshed with his need to stand guard between life and death.
He slipped into the dark. Danni almost felt sorry for the jerks who lit off fireworks near a former Army Ranger’s campsite.
Hidden Canyon Trail winds up the sandstone cliffs of Zion National Park, it’s narrow and chiseled path following chain bored into the rock. The chain is not a fence; it’s a hand-hold for those afraid of heights. Some don’t realize their own fear until dizzied by the vertical crags of Zion Canyon and its famous trails to places like Angels Landing, where the rim-rock trail narrows at the top where only angels could land. Yet, you can hike to this zone and walk where angels tread.
My challenge is not heights. I stick to the easy trails and practice moderate endurance. Yet it is December in Zion, and ice challenges any hiker. Unseasonable rain broke the warm weather and water hydrated the sandy soils flashing floods of red clay through any sort of natural drainage. In a land void of rainfall, what water does appear carves the geology into a natural wonder. I come seeking a gift to share, a sight to give, something unusual. First I sought icicles, now I seek running water in a dry land.
Already the Virgin River is less red as I drive to Springdale, the tourist town at the mouth of Zion Canyon. I’m hoping the water is yet flowing. When waterfalls are transient, you need to follow the rain. The height of the storm frenzied in the dark of night, when wind and rain lashed my RV so hard I thought I was at sea. Lightning ripped the heavy clouds with bolts of energy, and water roared in what is usually a placid creek behind our trailer. I couldn’t wait for the morning to to head to Zion and see the waterfalls.
Mud greets me at Cafe Soleil. It’s a small sign of ooze from behind a solid rock wall. Even the tiniest of cracks can’t contain the power of flash floods. What larger signs will I see? I order my peppermint mocha and the barista tells me last night’s storm was of summer monsoon proportions. Not typical of occasional winter rains.
“You should have seen the waterfalls yesterday afternoon,” she says.
“Will they still be running,” I ask.
“No. Some only last minutes.”
Minutes. Ephemeral. Fleeting. Short-lived. I’m the explorer come too late.
Like a rare orchid bloom, I’ve come to the jungle only to stop off and have coffee first. Will I get to see any remains? I prepare for mud and encounter washes of it across the canyon road. During tourist season, you have to take a shuttle up this road. Cars are not allowed when the ranks of tourists are in the thousands daily. Now it’s the regional tourists among a few Australians. I wonder if this is a vacation time for those in the Land Down Under? Many, like me, are surprised at the cold of a winter desert. We shift about in muddied trails, and I shake my head at the incredible crests of water evidenced by debris and red sand streaks. Last night, when none of us could see, this canyon was flooded. This morning, the flood orchid is gone.
One sign gives me hope — a small icicle dripping from an overhang.
Changing plans, I’m once again seeking icicles. I drive to Hidden Canyon Trailhead, crossing a small creek that was a river just last night. I stand at a fork in the trail; both rise steeply. If there is ice, taking the famously steep and narrow trail of solid sandstone doesn’t seem wise. It’s paved and mild at this point, but beyond is likely dangerous. Instead, I choose left to go to the Weeping Rock. I’m not certain if it’s high enough in elevation to form icicles.
The path rises through a tunnel of tree limbs and wild grapevine. Weeping Rock is known for its hanging gardens of golden columbine and crimson monkeyflower where rare Zion snails slither. But not this time of year. Again, I’m that explorer out of sync. I stand at the tunnel and can see the continued rise of the trail. Last week I was disappointed to discover the Emerald Pools were not gem-green in winter. Obviously there will be no flowers ahead, but I step through the twisting tunnel of living sticks and see something.
A waterfall the width of my hand still cascades after the flood receded.
That’s enough encouragement to keep me going. I’ll get to see an ephemeral waterfall after all. It’s not exactly thundering or impressive, but it’s an unusual sight. Along the way I see maiden’s fern green as fresh salad in spring-fed crevices. The springs in this hidden canyon are what makes the Weeping Rock weep. Park naturalists explain that the water storage is from rain collected over the past 1,200 years. Thousand year-old rain mingled with the flush of yesterday. And I’m starting to see the weeps.
I turn the wide corner that enters a natural grotto hidden from view and can’t believe what I’m seeing. That ephemeral waterfall is spraying so much mist that everything below, including Weeping Rock, is slick wet. And the elevation and colder temperatures after the storm have trapped the landscape in ice. Not only have I found icicles, I’ve discovered a rarely seen winter wonderland in the middle of a desert canyon. It’s so unlikely I expect Frosty the Snowman to greet me. And it’s so icy, I’m not sure I should step any further.
Had I died on that trail the saddest part would be no one would understand why. Why be so foolish to climb up ice to an icy grotto, to get wet and frozen by spray? Because that spray is ephemeral. Because I would not see the likes of this ice again. And because, like in the Gift of the Magi, I haven’t enough money to give you all a Christmas gift, but I love my ranchers dearly enough to cut off my long hair. My photos are my gift to all of you who gather here. Risking the ice was my sacrifice. I’m cheered to say I lived to tell you this. I’m overjoyed to gift you shots hardly seen in this wondrous part of the world.
Serendipity is the ultimate gift of seekers. I hope each one of you continues to seek and find the unexpected on your writing journeys. The paths often fork and always seem steep. You just have to keep stepping out, risk being vulnerable, learn as you go from both masters and your own observations, and explore what could be. Share what you find. Write.
If I had not stepped beyond that tunnel, I would have missed the Zion Winter Wonderland. So this week, we are going to explore what it is to step beyond a hidden point.
December 22, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that steps beyond. It can be a door, a tunnel, a worm hole in space. You can create an explicit for what “beyond” is or you can simply use the word. Follow the prompt where it takes you, beyond what you think you know is there.
And Merry Christmas, Peace on Earth, and Goodwill to All Living Creatures!
Respond by December 27, 2016 to be included in the compilation (published December 28). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
My flash will be up soon! Believe it or not, it has started to pour rain and it’s a few hours before dark and I’m going to see if I can spot any flash floods (from a safe and secure distance).
UPDATE: Back with my flash and a fabulous sighting to share! First, I wanted to explain that I don’t write my flash until after I confirm the prompt. The prompt begins with a photo from my collection. Sometimes I have a general idea, and other times the photo gives me one. My prompt post is my own challenge to connect ideas that I have to what is going on in the bigger world or my smaller corner to the picture and the original idea I had for a prompt. Much can change in the writing, so I write my flash after I finish my post.
I’m working on two WIPs. It’s not a situation I intended, but I hadn’t been able to sell my Miracle of Ducks manuscript. I had already committed to finishing my Rock Creek revision when I lost my home and office. It gave me the push to make revisions to MOD which I thought could improve it and reset the story in a western state. In other words, I took my own life upheaval as permission to disrupt my novel writing process. I don’t recommend it. But what I learn in revising one manuscript, I can apply to the other. And I clearly understand the truth that we evolve as writers from one novel to the next. Messing with the sequence is messy.
Writing my WIPs as flash fiction has been helpful. For instance, in MOD, I have to rewrite scenes that were set in one place for the new location. It’s not as easy as replacing town names or Lake Superior for the Rocky Mountains. The flash I’m sharing tonight is one of the key setting chapters that I’ve not been sure how to approach. When I pulled a scene out and distilled it to 99 words and to fit the prompt, I found a way into how to make more changes. Who would have thought flash fiction could be that kind of a revisionist tool? I didn’t and I’m the one hosting the challenge! The more I write my WIPs as flash, the more insights I gain. Plus, it gives me a chance to gauge feedback. And I’m not committing lengthy rewrites, just short ones to help me find the direction I’m seeking.
And back to seeking. I took off in a flash to catch flash flooding. Zion Canyon was shrouded in misting rain, the canyon walls dark and red with wetness, but no flooding. We ventured near enough to Weeping Rock to see that the intermittent waterfall that had iced everything was now gone. It truly was a brief sight. Even the ice was gone, although I didn’t go all the way up to the grotto. At the entrance to the Narrows, I walked along the Virgin River. That’s when an angel dropped down from heaven and flapped silently past me. I burst into tears at the sight!
If you ever read my blog Elmira Pond Spotter, you might recognize my feathered obsession with Blue Heron: he was part of my Paradise, my Private Dancer, and always entertaining me with Burlesque on hot days. I romanticized him as a poet, a knight, an angel. With the holidays coming, my heart has been heavy as lead. I miss my home. I miss the pond. I miss the way my life used to be. It’s part of what drives me to nature, an act of healing, of finding new inspiration. And as I stood there, Blue Heron flew past like he’d decided to join me on my displaced journey. So yes. I cried. Right there on the river. Then I wiped the tears, smiled and chased that bird a quarter of a mile up the river! Seeing Blue Heron on Red Rock is my Christmas miracle. At the very least it’s the serendipity of seeking. And finding.
Beyond Rock Creek (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Denver. Many who rode the stages were headed to Denver or back from the mining camps. Denver illuminated Sarah’s hope, a growing city by western standards. Respectable but not exclusive to those who were different. A woman could be an accountant there, run her own business. Nancy Jane always thought so. Sarah dreamed it could be so. Cobb had mocked her. Now she had the money he had owed her and none of the ties. Beyond Rock Creek was Denver.
If she’d known life awaited her with bitter disappointment Sarah would have stayed on the prairie and died young.
Getting Beyond the Past (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Ever study the old missionary graves?” asked Michael.
“No. I respect your elders who closed the burial ground,” said Danni.
“Why do you like cemeteries anyhow?” Michael stood by the gate, talking to Danni as she noted names on headstones.
“It’s a way to read history. I’ll show you. Come in.”
“Hmm, no thanks.”
“We’re not far from Tom’s. Want a drink for old time’s sake?”
“Old time’s sake? Like back when we hated each other?”
“I never hated you, Michael.”
“You hated me?”
“We both love Ike. That’s what matters.”
“Time to get beyond the past, then.”
Driving up Flying Monkey Mesa days after rain is risky. Wide enough for only one vehicle at a time, if you were to wind around a sharp corner to find slick clay or tumbled rocks, you could have difficulty backing down. The mesas up close are a marvel — made of such soft clay and sandstone it is a wonder they stand cohesively at all. The debris that slumps and gathers at the base of mesa reminds me of mountains that have dropped their drawers. Driving up a geological mess is taking a risk with heights and unstable material. But I really wanted another gander.
Rock Climber, middle daughter, joined The Hub and me in southern Utah for Thanksgiving week. I wanted to share all my stories of this strange new place, and I wanted to do so within the live setting.
We climb the mesa where live monkeys once tested the ejection seats for jets. In 1957, Marine test-pilot, John Glen, led the US into the supersonic age and space travel. He would become the first astronaut to orbit the earth in a capsule. I wonder if he felt like those monkeys did, having no control over that orbit beyond the ability to see if humanity could leave the pull of earth’s gravity. I wonder if he ever drove up this road to review the work that once happened at this base which led to mechanisms he depended upon.
Thoughts of monkeys and space travel fly out the window as we gander like geese — the sketchy road, the slump we rise above, the dry canyons that periodically pump with flood-water like intermittent veins, the promise of solid bedrock above, the surprise of a juniper forest taking shape. Much to see. Much to consider. Each time up this mesa is a deepening of its stories to me. And Rock Climber is entering the scene.
My children grew up knowing my affliction to gather rocks. While one embraced the science of geology, the other two have learned to run at the sound of me rattling my rocks in a box. They’ve not been keen at looking over my collection. And I’ve even begun to question my desire to collect. If they are part of a story, how can I capture what a rock has to tell? I share rocks with any friend who shows a remote interest. Some receive live photos of my finds. It’s not as important for me to have as it is for me to share. I share with Rock Climber the area on top of the mesa, littered with petrified wood.
To my surprise, she gets pulled into the search, laughing at all the rocks she’s pocketing. It’s as rewarding as someone who reads my stories, wanting to read more.
The Hub doesn’t share the rock enthusiasm, although he picks up a few. He’s antsy to get going. We both want to share an amazing view with our daughter although we aren’t certain the road will be good enough to drive there. Once on the Flying Monkey Mesa, the road winds up steep stone cliffs to the higher Smith Mesa. We encounter a Jeep on the flat and ask the driver how the roads ahead are. He’s says they’re bad and he had to turn around. The Hub continues on, reasoning the Jeep is shiny and new, and it’s driver is only reluctant to get it dirty.
We get muddy, blasting through several large pools of red water that obscure the road. It’s not on a dangerous incline, but still I squeal as we hit each pool, feeling the tug and slip of the tires. The water saturates the truck and we all laugh at the fun of it, until we remember our picnic in the back. The canvas pack is muddy, but our cheese and sausage are fine. We sit on the very rim of the highest mesa in the region and look out at a hidden geological gem — Zion’s secret mini-Grand Canyon.
The view takes neck-work. In a panoramic view, we can see all the way north to Kolob Canyon, the lesser known part of Zion National Park. Following that canyon east with its stunning giants of sandstone we see the swath of multiple canyons and smaller mesas known as Kolob Terrace. To drive up the Terrace is to go to elevations where elk and pines thrive among mountain meadows as if there were not a desert at its base. Stretching across the eastern horizon and yet towering over the Terrace are the famous features of Zion — the Patriarchs, the Angels, the Temples. It is a divine view.
Rock Climber has since gone home to Montana, full of living stories and a few rocks.
We settled into our work routines, we realized we yet have more to look at and resolve. The Hub struggles with managing his combat PTSD in the workplace. It’s not blatant and he often misunderstands directive and his superiors misunderstand his response. It’s something that has dogged him since leaving the military, but as he’s gotten older his struggle seems harder. Having dealt with it for so long without any help from the VA, we started pushing for help two years ago, and beat down the doors when we found ourselves homeless in June. While he has overcome some symptoms of PTSD, he’s developed severe anxiety to the point that the VA recognizes it as a service-related disability.
But will his new employer accommodate his disability? He’s on unpaid leave while they take 30 days to decide.
Advocacy on behalf of another is relentless work, yet with the VA it’s never-ending. In Spokane we had a team of doctors, nurses, mental health providers, social workers, and access to a vocational rehabilitation counselor. Trying to transfer everything to southern Utah has been slow. The VA clinic in St. George is elusive as monkeys on a mesa. They don’t answer their phone; in person they say The Hub isn’t in their system; and they don’t return voice calls.
When I twist my neck backwards to take in the view of hindsight, I see where his life, our life, could have been different if only he had received support from the VA to bridge back from military life to civilian. If only the VA had accepted accountability for his blown knees at age 25, he might have received re-education benefits. Instead we struggled through it on our own. Spokane is still helpful to us, but St. George is silent. I even called the Veteran’s Crisis Hotline to speak to a mental health provider and find other resources here. They had nothing closer than Las Vegas so they referred me to the Suicide Hotline, saying it would get me through to the local support network. Local, is Salt Lake City.And there’s no support here.
Tomorrow, we storm the doors of the St. George VA clinic. I want to go all Trump on them, but I will remember to take the higher road.
We are okay. We are safe in our new-to-us RV with a supply of propane for heat and cooking. I have my writing, which is always interesting to hear therapists applaud. It makes me think about how grateful I am for the community of writers here because I can tell my stories without feeling isolated.
The future, including Trump and circumstances, actually looks hopeful from this view. It’s not rose-colored glasses. It’s about making choices, taking accountability, and a willingness to give and receive kindness. After what we came through this year with all our losses, even losses for Carrot Ranch, I recognize the gains. It’s like I’m looking at that panoramic view, acknowledging that the grand beauty is the result of destructive forces. We might slump and weather, but something new is created in us during adversity.
I’m not afraid of the view. That’s the kind of writer you have to be if you are in this for the long-haul because there are no shortcuts up the mesa. And that debris is what every other writer has had to slump in perfecting craft, a weathering and writing process that never actually reaches perfection. But we strive. We write. Year after year. I no longer feel pressured to produce. It’s not production that matters as much as process. Keep progressing. Never mind the rock-slides that build up from rejection or disappointment in your own work. Never mind. Keep writing. A sandstone pillar will only emerge after much processing.
So let’s take a gander, this season of the Christmas goose!
December 8, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write using the word gander as a verb. A gander is a male goose, yet the Old English etymology of the word suggests it was once gandra which described a waterbird with a long neck (like a crane). In 1912, it became the act of taking a long look. What is the long look your story or character is considering?
Respond by December 13, 2016 to be included in the compilation (published December 14). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Silly Geese (from Rock Creek by Charli Mills)
Sarah walked in the shadow of cottonwoods across the chasm called Rock Creek. The water flowed tepid and slow, but spring floods gouged a deep course that made crossing difficult for wagons until the toll-bridge. Cobb’s family lived at the trading post and she slept in the smaller toll booth. Cabins separated by the natural divide. Sometimes when she walked, his children would see her. Their heads bobbed like silly geese above the blond waves of autumn prairie grass. Occasionally, Cobb gandered a look across the creek, but mostly he stayed with his flock.
He never really saw her.
Just Looking (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
A sea of long tails and chunky puppy faces churned in the birthing box. Soon they’d need to relocate. Ten puppies! Danni found herself gandering at the box several times while cooking dinner. The roan male, fat as a tick, stared back. The last time Ike called from Iraq she’d told him about the tails. He wasn’t thrilled she didn’t get them docked.
“The male has a tail like a sparkler with a tuft of cowlicks at the end.”
“That can’t look good.”
“He’s gorgeous, Ike.”
“What? Danni Gordon thinks a dog is gorgeous?”
Maybe, she thought. Just looking.
Standing at the fire-pit made of stacked Navajo Sandstone, it’s easy to imagine who has sat here beneath the bright stars. I can hear the fire crackle, the rise and fall of conversation, laughter, silent introspection of humanity beneath the universal diamonds of light. It’s smells smokey in my thoughts. In the rosy atmosphere of dusk, I can see the backside of West Temple from this vantage. It’s 8,000 vertical feet of the same Navajo Sandstone that rings the charcoal of a former fire. I’m already at an elevation nearing a mile-high. The city of Denver is at the level of this abandoned fire-pit.
Why am I here? It’s one of those stories about how chasing flying monkeys led to a second Grand Canyon that revealed a hidden plateau and I really just wanted see if I could test my geological knowledge and find petrified wood again. But instead I found a lost city.
Ah! You see the mind I have to live with?
Let me start with the flying monkeys. After writers at Carrot Ranch explored Oz, space and beyond I had to see the place from where the US Air Force launched live monkeys in test ejection seats for newly developed jets (1950s era). Every morning I look upon the point of Hurricane Mesa from my RV, knowing launch tracks and camera towers rust beneath the same sun that warms me while I swill coffee. Finally, I took to pestering my husband who was reluctant to go up another clay road. “It’s not raining,” I say. He loads his camera and our dog, and merrily we drive off.
Off, meaning into the wild red yonder, not off the cliff face we are now climbing with a truck limping from the last adventure up a mesa. The old Air Force road I almost convinced the Hub would be a decent route is proving to be a meandering, broken trail better suited for mules. I was certain it was a designated road on the map and in the books. No stopping now lest we slide off for certain, plunging to a death where I’d have to listen to my husband rant until we hit the ravines and boulders below.
At last the old farm truck lurches to crest the mesa. This is it! The place from where monkeys flew. A huge sign advises we go no further. “But I can’t see the tracks, the towers, what’s left of the base,” I say. My husband agrees with the writer of the rock-hounding book who got me excited for this place. It’s a big no-no to trespass on a fenced former Air Force base no matter the monkey business that took place where stunted cedar trees now grow, obscuring my chance of a view. Reluctantly, I point out the road that leads to petrified wood and agates as mentioned in the book.
I’m sulking as I pick my way through prickly pear cactus toward a wash. There’s rock strewn across the ground and I kneel for a closer look. Every. Piece. Petrified. Wood. Suddenly, I’m thinking, monkeys, what monkeys, there’s treasure everywhere! I stuff so much silicified wood into my pockets my pants hang close to falling off. Bobo trots past, panting, enjoying her romp. I find a raw agate the size of a softball and I’m panting. It’s maroon, streaked with black and caramel. Then I find another of near-opalized chalcedony. It’s smaller, like a golf-ball. I pick up a thumbnail-sized crystal that turns out to be a topaz. A topaz! I found a gem!
Swooning, pants sagging, I leave in the truck giddy with discovery. The Hub brags he found petrified wood. I refrain from saying even three blind mice could in such a littered geological field, and enjoy his rare excitement over rocks. We decide to see how far the road goes, marveling at seeps of water and hidden coulees. The road narrows and climbs again. This time we are topping the highest red layer of sandstone. Once on top of yet another, taller mesa behind the one that launched monkeys the land spreads all the way back toward what locals call the Kolab Terrace. I know we must be near the rim and I ask the Hub to stop.
We find the rim and it is a mini Grand Canyon that overlooks everything hidden by Zion Canyon. This is truly a back-country view seldom seen by tourists. We find RV neighbors who laugh upon recognizing us. They congratulate us on finding this semi-secret place. They sit in chairs perched a mile above the staggered mesas and canyons below. It’s like looking at a quilt in 3D. I’m dizzy, yet can’t resist sitting on the rim like I did once when I was 18 and saw the Grand Canyon which is only 140 miles south. I can almost see it from here.
Our neighbors are gathered to watch the super moon. They tell us the road is better going out toward Kolab. We drive on and stop when a massive golden orb rises behind West Temple in the distance. Wolves howl. Like a topaz for the ears. No one will admit to wolves near Zion, but Mexican gray wolves are suspected of ranging this far north of their country of origin. The only thing more perfect would be a flying monkey.
But that was two days before the Hub suggests we go up the mesa again.
He turns the truck the opposite direction and announces he want to see the mesa at the Coalpits Wash. But that is Zion National Park Wilderness, and access is by foot — no bikes, horses or dogs on that trail. He explains he means the road that goes back that way. Now I know which one, but it’s a driveway, not really a road. Part of the adventure is being proved wrong. The road is neither a driveway nor one leading to Coalpits Wash. It leads to the backside of Zion, to a hidden back-country, to the fire-pit of sandstone. To the lost city. Flying monkeys, what flying monkeys?
We crest another mesa and I recognize the geological level. “Stop!” The Hub is reluctant, wanting to explore more of the road. He stops and I hop out, eyes to the ground. Glass glitters and I see the fire-pit. It’s obviously a campsite full of modern humanity’s detritus. Then I see one, a piece of petrified wood. I was right! This is the level. Now I’m seeing shards of agates. Not the hunks from before, flakes. Flakes? I look around 360 degrees. Could it be? The city begins to unfold in my imagination.
I was 17 years old when the State of California published my archeological report of Alpine County. I won an Outstanding Science and Engineering Award from the Department of the Air Force of the United States of America that same year. Having grown up under the mentorship of “old-timers,” in a place full of layered history and anthropology, possessing a keen imagination, I learned to see lost cities. To me, it’s obvious. My mind flits through a list of factors — water source, flatness, elevation, food source, proximity to game, fire-pits. Old ones. Ancient ones.
This was a large encampment, and those who lived here long before the Mormons ever followed a prophet, centuries before Rock Creek had a station, long before the eras Danni studies in historical archaeology, the lost city prized what I do. Agates from broken pieces of petrified wood. The mineralization creates smooth, slick rock that is glass-like. It fractures like volcanic glass — obsidian — in conchoidal flakes to shape knives, scrapers, spearheads and arrowheads. Mars just upped the treasure hunt on me, though I know to be careful with my enthusiasm.
Chippings are debris, the cast-offs of artifacts. Artifacts are not legal to collect. When I was 18, I donated my personal collection to my county museum. When we packed up from Elmira Pond, in my hope chest I found remnants of that collection, probably pieces I had in dresser drawers or old jewelry tins. I gathered it all, including my long lost Air Force Award, original archaeological recordings and drawings of artifacts, maps, and my published work. It had lingered in the dark recesses of my hope chest, a painful reminder of my past. The time I studied to be an archaeologist. An old dream.
But I can still see. One doesn’t ever lose the sight. I let myself hypothesize and prove. Over there, by the fire pit, I’ll find lots of chippings. That was where there tools were crafted. Yes! More flakes, broken scrapers. Over there, near the scrubby pines, that’s where they fixed meals. Yes! I find a broken matate. And those flat rocks expanding past the trees to the rim. They crushed pinenuts and collected water. Yes! I find an old reservoir and pits. Many of the modern fire rings are built right on top of old ones. Shards of clay pigeons and brown beer bottle glass mingles with colorful chippings. Magical place and I lament I have no tobacco to offer the Ancestors. I will return with an offering. After all, this place was a gift to “see.”
Now I use my imagination to write historical fiction. Miracle of Ducks is not historical, but Danni’s career is. Her nemesis who she must befriend in Ike’s absence is Michael. He’s my conscience. He’s the one who calls Danni a bone-digger. He resents her interest in his ancestors and culture. She argues that she reads trash in the layers of dirt and that his ancestors would laugh at her carefully collecting pieces of debris to give the story of who lived there before. I felt as if Danni and Michael had traveled to this place with me. I cast the matate aside, beneath a juniper after showing the Hub, and taking a photo:
The exploration ends when Bobo tangles with a cactus and we have to pluck spines from her tender hide, nose and paws. As the sun sets I look across this lost city and can see the rim I had sat upon on the night of a super moon. As it does every night, the sun sets.
November 17, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that is told around a campfire. It can be a bonfire, burning trash can, a fire pit, something flaming outdoors. It can be a prop, and you can tell the story of anything — ghosts, ancients, jokes. Who is gathered and listening? Note the extended date (Happy Thanksgiving to US writers; may turkey take our minds off the one about to enter the White House.)
Respond by November 29, 2016 to be included in the compilation (published November 30). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Looming Giants (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
“And then that German pinned me, my face to his backside. Without much thought, I bit through his pants and clenched until he cried for mercy! And that boys, is how I beat the German Giant from Kansas.” Cobb tipped his bitters bottle and the bonfire gathering cheered.
Sarah listened from the porch. The more Cobb drank, the louder he told stories. She wondered at these men, many converts from the British Isles, headed to Mormon Zion with handcarts and talk of multiple wives. The women sat in the shadows, exhausted, on guard to fighting giants of their own.
Reading Miracles (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli MIlls
Campfire wasn’t light enough to read by. Danni shined her flashlight across the inky scrawl of penmanship no one today would have. She read aloud,
“The Lord will surely comfort Zion
and will look with compassion on all her ruins;
he will make her deserts like Eden.”
“Sounds biblical,” said Ike.
“It’s from the letters Max found in a cigar box. He said his father’s Mormon grandparents left Zion for a miracle in Idaho.”
“Oh, Ike. It’s just a story. It can reveal facts about pioneer migrations.”
By firelight, Ike grinned. Danni refused his miracles. Facts mattered.