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July 22: Flash Fiction Challenge

Troubled times have come to my hometown.

The prompt photo shows an undated modern main street of Markleeville, California where I lived from 1974 to 1985. In 1988, I returned to marry my Ranger in cowboy boots in a meadow where I rode my horse and pushed cattle during the summers of my teen years. Markleeville has been described as picturesque, tiny, historic, and beautiful.

The town sits in a bowl, flanked by irrigated ranch pastures, surrounded by forest and beneath the peaks I know so well I can trace their outlines with my finger pointed to the sky. Raymond looms tallest over 10,000 feet in elevation. Markleeville is nearly 5,500 feet. It’s a mountain town.

Like most boom and bust towns out West, white settlers built where they could take resources. Lumber, grazing, minerals. Jacob Marklee built a toll-bridge in 1861, anticipating a mining boom. Already, the Comstock Lode of 1859 at Virginia City, Nevada sparked interest in the eastern side of the Sierra. Jacob filed his property claim in Douglas County, Nevada. Having grown up in Markleeville, it’s logical to think of it as Nevada. But it isn’t. Jacob filed in the wrong state. He ran cattle where I gathered cattle for the Ted Bacon Ranch. He built a house next to the one where I grew up. Jacob lost a gunfight in 1864 and the county courthouse and sheriff’s department now reside on his mis-filed ranch along Markleeville Creek.

Makes me wonder what Jacob called the creek. Or what the Washoe place names are? Funny thing about “discovery” in America is that the land came with its Indigenous. In 1970, a newspaper report quoted ol’ Weesie (you might spot her here in the Ranch Yarns as “Frankie”). It was one of many articles California cities over the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains wrote about the quaint town with its famous trout fishing and fresh air. Notably, the Washoe are left out of that article and many others. They weren’t even roadside attractions. Invisible.

I write stories to make visible those who live unseen. Weesie/Frankie is one of my childhood heroes. I saw and heard my elders and my Native neighbors. To me they weren’t invisible. They gave me a deep appreciation for my home, rooting me in its history and culture. Alpine County is an ancient place older than the 1864 house I grew up in next to the Markleeville General Store. I knew all its nooks and crannies. I was the weird kid who rollerskated to get her horse from his pasture. I rode and knew the secrets of the land.

Isn’t that the way of hometowns? As Bruce Springsteen sings in his classic My Hometown, an elder — an uncle, parent, neighbor, mentor — takes us for a ride and says, “Take a good look around. This is your hometown.”

This song has always cradled my heart. Time stops and I’m transported to my hometown. I used to run “with a dime in my hand” to the school bus stop across from that brown building in the prompt photo. It’s the infamous biker bar called the Cutthroat Saloon. It once graced Silver Mountain City until the English money ran out and Lord Chalmers deserted his wife Nettie. My first foray into historical fiction was about Silver Chalmers, the daughter who disappeared. The Cutthroat (named after a species of trout native to Alpine County, not pirates or bikers) was the Alpine Hotel and after 3,000 miners, merchants, loggers and families left the mining town, residents of Markleeville moved the structure. No a small feat.

Why did I have dimes in my hand? Because the bartender would toss the coins from his tip jar into the road every night after 2 am. Eight years old, and I ran to the stop in the morning to pick up dimes and sometimes a quarter or two. I think he only lasted that school year and no other bar tender shared his tips (or lured children into the highway, not that there was any traffic).

Memories go up in flames. Markleeville and every stop along the bus route is evacuated. The Tamarack Fire rages zero percent contained. Fire has confronted the town since 1866 when the first Markleeville General Store burned to the ground. I counted over a dozen fires in my newspaper research from 1885, 1939, 1947, 1948, 1954, 1955, 1984, 1887, 2008, 2015 and many smaller burns in between. What struck me as I read is that the fires used to be much smaller, even ones that blazed through second growth timber (meaning what forest grew back after the heavy logging for all the area mines during the Comstock days).

I smell trees. Jeffrery pines. The trees of my childhood. They might look similar to the Ponderosa pines, but they smell distinctly sweet. Like vanilla. I’ve never lived anywhere else out west that carried the scent of Jeffreys. It’s arid on the eastern slopes of the Sierras thus thick with sagebrush. I can smell sage, too. I can’t find any evidence that the seeds of the Jeffreys are edible, but likely I learned on the school playground from my Washoe friends that they taste as sweet as the trees smell. I can remember squatting on the ground beneath a particularly large pine, cracking open pine seeds and eating them at recess.

It all smolders now.

The Tamarack fire has burned so hot that the teams can’t fight it with air retardant. In my memory, air power was vital to fighting forest fires in Alpine County. It’s unfathomable to me that these latter fires out West are so much hotter that they create their own storm systems and blacken the sky. My dad was a firefighter. Like many, he was a volunteer, and at one time a crew chief for the local engine. I remember him telling about the firestorm that overtook him and his crew. They were on the line, protecting structures on Mesa Vista, when the storm blew up. He said it sounded like a freight train. The air crisped so hot his contact lenses shriveled and fell out like grit. They sought shelter under the fire engine and a borate bomber dumped its load on the truck, saving their lives.

The following year, in July of 1987, another firestorm blew up and burned Woodfords, Alpine Village and Mesa Vista where my parents lived. When I couldn’t reach them, Todd and I drove from Fallon, Nevada, and took dirt roads I knew so well to get around the road blocks. We got as far as the Walker Camp (a Washoe village) and Jeffrey pines blazed like torches. We watched flames shoot impossibly high into the sky and churning smoke. We could go no farther. A July 30, 1987 newspaper reported eye witnesses, one saying:

“It looks like a nuclear war,” says Lt. Stan Pope of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department.

30 Jul 1987, Page 3, Reno Gazette, “Alpine County Fire”

I remember the bombed out look. I remember the grief and determination to rebuild. I remember the relief that my parents’ home had survived a second fire in two years. Another home they lived in, the one where the bear got into their kitchen garbage can one night, sitting on the floor like an overgrown toddler, that house sits at the edge of the burn. The horse pasture on fire. I wish I had my favorite photo of them dressed up in their finest turquoise western outfits ready for a wedding. The photo below is in the background of that shot. This is where they lived. Markleeville is just down the road.

Noah Berger, AP SF Gate 2021

As I’ve been following the #TamarackFire, memories burn. I can’t help but recall what it felt like to ride Captain up this trail or that. I remember where the old barbed wire wrapped around a stand of trees, surrounding the sunken graves of unnamed Washoe. It’s not how they buried their dead. They built platforms. I know where that sacred burial place is, too. I can tell you all the places I used to swim, along creeks, streams, and ditches. I search for names among residents and those commenting on the social media channels to find the familiar people from my hometown. It’s a different generation. A turnover of names.

The woman in this video talks about the stress her parents are going through. They lost everything in the Acorn Fire (the one in 1987). She wasn’t born yet. Her parents were at my wedding that year, months after losing everything. I used to babysit her older brother.

I haven’t mustered the courage to call my parents. I don’t want to stress my dad. He remains a staunch conservationist, an old school mountain man semi hermit who has old ways to maintain the health of the forests. He fought for years to get officials to listen to him. He always said this would happen. Our hometown is forever changed. All his hard work to log in a conservative way, up in smoke so thick satellites can’t register the hot spots.

Here’s a comparison of where I got married.

Todd and I rode in the surry pulled by Jet from Markleeville to Turtle Rock Park where we had our reception.

Hometowns change. As Bruce Springsteen sings, jobs leave, people leave. Natural disasters, wars, sickness. Every generation confronts changes from aging to obliteration. I’m reminded that it’s not the hometown that matters as much as it is the community. This is no longer my community, I haven’t been back since the late 1980s. I feel confident that the existing community will rebuild and hold each other up. I wish them the best. I’m grateful that the Hung A Lel Ti residents can go back, although they may have to evacuate again. I hope they can be part of the greater rebuilding, no longer invisible to the community but part of its healing.

I’ve been fascinated and horrified by the power of forest fires all my life. I’ve been as close as one can get to witnessing fire’s destructive beauty. It is burning and yet it is renewal. There are pine trees that only open their cones to propagate seeds through fire. Indigenous people lived for thousands of years in Alpine County. They lived with fire. Our century of fire suppression was misguided. We need better, wiser solutions to live in harmony with the awe-inspiring environments that surround our hometowns. I wrote a forest fire in my novel Miracle of Ducks and how it brought out the best in the community. How it forced Danni to confront death and life.

This next week, I’m taking a vacation with my good friend. You might know her. She hangs out with Kid and Pal. Some say she writes them. Maybe they write her. Know that I’ll be in good company, sitting along the lake shore, camping and savoring campfire stories. She’ll get an earful of all the stories this fire has brought to light for me. I even have an Alpine County Bigfoot story for her. I will not post a collection or challenge next week, so you have two weeks to ponder your own hometowns. Or hometown for the characters who have a story to give you.

July 22, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a hometown. It can be your hometown or a fictional one. Who is there? When is it set? What is happening? Go where the prompt leads!

**NOTE: TWO WEEK DEADLINE** Respond by August 3, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Markleeville by Charli Mills

I’m eight years old running after the bus, crying. A car stops. “Don’t cry honey. We’ll catch the bus.” I don’t know who she is, but I get in her car. She speeds, making good on her promise. She’s the mom of a girl in my class. I don’t make friends easily. I prefer adults, especially the old-timers no one visits. They tell me stories, like what Monitor looked like when it wasn’t a vacant flat of sagebrush. Hometown will always be the people who saw me. I carry stories of Markleevile in my heart long after they’ve gone.

🥕🥕🥕

July 15: Flash Fiction Challenge

I’m having a serious meltdown.

Mause ate my turquoise Keens. She chewed through the straps by the start of warm weather. Keens are my power center. Keens have seen me through adventures, interviews of farmers, and recovery from back surgeries. Keens give me stable footing. They are my travel companions, my outdoor gear. This particular pair went to LA when I won a scholarship to a writers conference. The color symbolized my dream to teach writing and welcome writers to retreat space.

It’s not the first time I’ve lost a pair of Keens to a wild animal (puppies are feral beasts). You can read my 2012 lament to Keens lost and then found destroyed along the Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior in A Tale of Two Keens. But something has changed.

They don’t make Keens like they used to. It’s more than fashion travesty when a brand you love changes. It feels like betrayal. I was loyal, why couldn’t you be loyal too, Keen? It’s not just me. Other jilted shoe-lovers mourn the loss of a dependable brand. So far, since the beginning of May, I’ve ordered and returned four pairs of Keens. None of them fit. I tried different sizes, styles and genders. The fit was the whole reason for our foot affair. The shape is gone, the love with it.

I tried Merrels and kept a pair. But they are not Keens. If I walk to long in them, the front straps rub my pinky toes.

Today, a pair of coral Chacos arrived in a box. The river rafters and hiking enthusiasts out West swear by this brand. I’ve snubbed my nose, content with Keens. Now, I rip my package in desperation for a new shoe mate. Immediately, I swing a foot sideways to place a sandal. I can’t get my toe under the right strap. Why are there so many straps? A folded card has a series of instructions numbered at each strap and shoe placement. Easy as 1-2-3.

Uh, no. I have to sit down because I’m not understanding the entanglement. It’s a sandal. My foot should slide in place. This is when dyslexia pops up to help my brain with a problem. I can’t figure out anything left/right oriented. Like the one way streets in Minneapolis because they use the circle with a line to say don’t turn the direction of the lined arrow except my brain can’t interpret which direction I’m not supposed to go and every time, I’d turn down the wrong way. In Zoom meetings I point the wrong direction to things behind me. I struggle with math, maps, phonemes, pronunciation, and time.

Cue the meltdown because I don’t have time for this strap nonsense.

There I was, sitting on the couch, attempting to put my foot through a puzzle of straps when I pulled the toe straps wide open. You see, if the directions had been written out instead of a numbered visual, I could have comprehended how the Chaco straps pull through the bed of the sandal. I managed to get one on my foot. Then the next foot. Mause ate the instructions while I fussed.

I stood up and one foot said, “Okay,” and the other said, “wtf…” I started to spin. I didn’t intend to spin but that directional disorientation couldn’t figure out which way my foot was supposed to go. I rotated in a circle and still couldn’t get my foot straight on the sandal bed. The straps held. At times like these, I usually laugh. Because, what else can I do? Well, I did the other thing. I burst into tears.

It’s been a week in two days, and not just because I can’t find a pair of sporting sandals. I’m overwrought by unscheduled time and competing tasks and wondering who in my house is crazier? (I’m pointing at Mause, who’s looking at me.) Am I too busy to call the numbers I researched to search for answers to where does the mind of an aging veteran go? Or am I really as tired as my bones feel? Despite it all, good news rises in the midst of chaos.

Finlandia University offered me the Adjunct Instructor position. I have two classes to teach this fall semester! Adjunct means contract. They’ll hire me as long as there are classes available. It’s great because I’ll have a base income to cover me while I build my education platform here. It gives me flexibility without having to force my feral writing brain back into a 9-to-5. It’s also a foot in the door to the Academic World. It’s beyond what my turquoise Keens had hoped for!

The transition is only a season. I hope for days that fit better into my weeks. I hope for less confusing straps and triggering moments. Truly, I am grateful to have such trivial complaints as, “My dog ate my shoes.” But sometimes, we need to embrace the time of the dark moon and have a proper meltdown. Now, I can stop actively searching for work, which is a huge weight off my shoulders. Time to prepare for teaching!

As long as I don’t have to distinguish my left from my right.

July 15, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story using the word meltdown. You can use it to describe an event or emotional reaction. You can create a new meaning or explore the word origin. You can Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by July 20, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Years After the Meltdown by Charli Mills

His meltdown 25 years ago had terrified her.

Max refused to stroke the cat rubbing its head against her folded arms. She leaned against one of two posts holding up the front porch. The exterior needed sanding. Through the open door to the three-room cabin – kitchen, sitting room, bedroom – Max noted cooling cherry pies, lace curtains, jelly jars of garden flowers. What some would call “a woman’s touch.” Her dad lived alone.

She’d been seven when the church elders drove him from their South Range home, beating him with fists and folded newspapers. Mascara and tears streaking his face.

🥕🥕🥕

July 8: Flash Fiction Challenge

Mause proves me slow. She bounces and flies, covering ten times the territory of my pace. For each one foot in front of the other I step, she is rompy-bompy to the end of her leash and back asking, “Are you there yet?” I’m a slow-plodding T-Rex, so slow my bones are fossilizing.

The clear evidence of our different speeds of life emerged like a cliched smoking gun. I observed Mause watching me water flowers from the top of the deck. When I turned off the water, and closed the mudroom, I opened the basement door and screamed. The creature that leapt at me was not a massive Wolfrick spider or racoon. It was Mause.

The only explanation for her traveling the greater distance to beat me to the back door is that I’m slow. She is quicksilver.

Do you ever feel that way as a writer?

We seem to fall into two categories. The rompy-bompy book authors and the dinosaurs that follow. I’ve had other writers confess to me their concern. They worry that they are too slow when they learn their peers have published yet again and they are still hand-painting illuminations on a manuscript. To this I say, know and appreciate who you are as a writer. We can share paths as peers but we can not compare our strides. Long or short, our pace belongs to each of us.

We are free to change. Frankly, I have no desire to bounce like Mause. When I considered what took me so long, I realized I had paused. I noticed how the mudroom smelled like cedar because it’s where the sauna is. I scanned the garden shelves for any overlooked items that might want to go outside. I noted with satisfaction that I had enough tomato cages if my plants grow. A misplaced frying pan from our wandering days reminded me to add it to my camping gear. I felt the tickle of a cobweb and brushed it away from my face. I wondered, where did my jawline go and will I get it back or am I destined to become a fabulous crone? The idea scared and intrigued me. Only then did I reach for the basement door.

Surprise! Eight-month-old puppy paws reached up to punch my belly.

At first I wanted to believe in Mause’s magic (because she is). But I rationalized that she was smart enough to have seen me disappear into the mudroom from the deck and she flew through the porch door, across the sun room, through the kitchen, to the upstairs basement door, pushed it open, flew down the stairs across the painted cement floor to greet me. She was probably wiggling in anticipation as I meandered in my head.

I’m a processor who lives a rich life in my imagination. You can’t believe the universe inside. No wonder I slow down. I’m time traveling. While Mause zips from a leaf to a June bug, I’ve visited stars and written manifestos and Russian epics. I can be still in my body the way she can spring from paw to paw, spinning to catch her bobbed tail. In the end, we are all protons, energy that can’t be created or destroyed. Yet we can arrange ourselves infinitely. Believe what we want about what it all means.

Some of us write and publish quickly. Some of us compose in our heads and drag the suitcases around the world until we decide to drop a manuscript. It’s okay. Be you. I’m being me. Mause is Mause. “Unabashedly,” as a friend said to me earlier this week during a three-way conversation about societal pressures. I belong to a small group of Women Doing It Their Way. Each of us is on a different career path or entrepreneurialism. We were talking about how the fast pace of modern culture pressures us to be something we aren’t.

Who pressures us as writers? The quick answer might be ourselves. But where and when and from whom did we internalize the voices that tell us we are not enough? Not fast enough. Not smart enough. It warps our expectations. Soon we believe there is something wrong because even a dog moves quicker. But I reject that because I know the Writer that I am. I know that this…this moment…this right here, right now is my Writing Life.

I am the writer who spots a downy white feather against a blue sky and can watch it float on unseen drafts of air and by the time it lands on the head of a budding milkweed, I’ve constructed a thousand lives for the winged unicorn who dropped it. I am the writer with blood memory in a foreign land who sings to the bones of my ancestors mineralized on the shore of an inland sea none of them ever experienced. But there they are. I remember stones. I can’t remember home. I am the writer who believes in unicorns and have witnessed my dog become one. More on that in a bit because I’m a writer who likes to weave unlikely silken thought threads into a story that looks like a Bohemian sundress on a lumberjack. I’m a writer who sits a lot and needs a dog to take her for walks only to get lost in the green of summer trees, forgetting that time exists.

You don’t need to understand me. I don’t. I am many things I haven’t even begun to explore. But I am a writer and that’s what I do. I go deep. And I’m slow, observing the senses, emotions and mysteries beyond the single note of a robin happy for the sunset and smorgasbord of dusk-flying insects. Where was I? Oh, yes, Mause the Unicorn.

If you have children (grandchildren, or were a child) of a certain age of videos, you might be familiar with the classic, The Last Unicorn. An evil old man used a flaming bull to round up all the unicorns and drive them into the sea. If you look into the crest of white foaming waves, you can see them.

When the heat of what will probably be our hottest summer day drove me away from my desk, including the outside office, I sought relief at Lake Superior. Mause is young and still uncertain about water. But she’s determined to chase down waves. Lake Superior had little rollers on that hot day. I was waist deep, standing on tumbles stones, coaxing Mause to swim to me. A wave would rise and distract her. She crashed to shore in a cresting wave, and momentarily, white foam blended with white fur and the brown speckling morphed into rocks.

Mause disappeared in the spray like a unicorn. It was a moment of magic. She crested with several more waves and I laughed with delight at my captured puppy unicorn. Some of you might be afraid I’m going to make you write about unicorns…again. Do not fear. I have feathers on the brain. And communism.

I’m editing a fascinating historical novella about how easy it was for communists to dupe Americans during the Great Depression. I’ve been immersed in researching 1930s newspaper accounts regarding a spectacular international incident that links the Michigan Upper Peninsula to a spy trial in Finland. It has made me rethink how people reacted to the loss of jobs and lack of food. I tried my hand at exploring that time in my 99-word story.

Go be you and write to find who you are, knowing you can revise at any time. And remember, it doesn’t matter if you are fast or slow as long as you are living your Writer’s Life.

“To me success and fulfillment lead in two different directions: one outwardly to the hope of glory, the other inwardly to the guarantee of peace.”

Rasheed Ogunlaru

July 8, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that features feathers. It can be a single feather or more. Where did the feather come from? Does it hold meaning to the character or story? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by July 13, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Red Feathers of 1932 by Charli Mills

She plucked the chicken, swiping a feather from her forehead. Now what, thought Nella. Dumplings tonight wouldn’t stop the hunger pains to come. No more eggs. No more breakfasts for loggers. Loggers turned to the rails. Hoboes for hire. She brushed off her mother’s borrowed apron. When she left the northern peninsula to teach in Detroit, she never imagined she’d return broke. But the economy crashed, no one could pay taxes and schools closed. Capitalism. She growled the word. It had robbed all workers down to the last chicken. Tonight, she’d join Frank at the meeting with the communists.

🥕🥕🥕

July 1: Flash Fiction Challenge

I was not the local celebrity riding the circuit on a tour bus. The twenty Vietnam vets and four of their wives were. Of course, we all thought the big star of the day’s road trip was the 90-year-old Korean veteran with his son along for escort. Our trip leader and bus driver represented the post 9/11 era and I was odd duck in between the Gulf War and Vietnam. A wife, not a soldier.

If ever I think I can’t do this, I look at the women before me. I call the Vietnam-era wives the long-haulers. They’ve been through stuff that would make Rambo quake in his combat boots. Every last one of them deserves a medal of honor. Even the ones who tap out.

But I’m not writing woes today.

Our trip to White Pine was about healing and respect with dignity. We all boarded the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center tour bus in Houghton and drove to White Pine 90 minutes away. The Vet Center in Houghton is across the lift bridge from where I live in Hancock. A ten minute drive from my home on Roberts Street.

White Pine, like most towns on the map in “copper country,” is a former company town built around a mine, one of the last to operate in our area. The place looks like something out of a dystopian novel after post-industrial decline, and yet, it is where we went. In a former mine administrative building or warehouse or large equipment depot, is an unlikely operation. Three men create and maintain replicas of the Vietnam Memorial known as The Wall. In an obscure corner of Upper Michigan, a region often left off of contemporary maps or mislabeled as Canada, a small organization houses The Moving Wall and its collected memorabilia.

Considering that the half-sized replica has toured all fifty states since before I graduated high school, I was surprised to find out how close such a solemn piece of history and healing is to my home. When our Vet Center arranged the tour, I signed on to go. When I lost Vet Center services, I asked to be included nonetheless. Then my services were reinstated. Point is, bears couldn’t keep me away.

And we did see a huge black bear but that was at lunch after our tour.

Most of my favorite Vietnam vets came for the ride. They came to seek what only each of them sought privately. They came out of curiosity. They came to support one another. The wives came to understand. They have carried a massive burden for forty-something years or more and they wanted to glimpse who they were in all of this. Dignity. Yes, we could agree that no matter the pain and folly, we all wanted to feel a sense of human dignity faced with participation in a great indignity that still reverberates throughout the world.

Vietnam vets rebelled. Vilified, gaslighted, and discarded, these soldiers started motorcycle gangs, turned to addictions, and demanded recognition for PTSD and moral injury. It’s hard to reconcile the men with canes, limps, and walkers disembarking our bus to the bad boys of their younger years. Yet, inside the warehouse of The Moving Wall, posters, photos, and bumper stickers on the wall capture the essence of their experiences. I watched as our group sucked breath at the enlarged photos that took them back to the place they try to forget.

Home changed while you were away.

The industry of the place didn’t keep them in dark thoughts, though. They expressed curiosity for the home-grown process to recreate plates of names through screen-printing and endless rubbing with a wet chemical compound. I hung out with one of my Ojibwe writers, and our most recent widower. I listened. We swapped jokes. I chose to ignore the sexist pin-ups. They pointed to familiar objects, told me childhood stories, but none spoke of Vietnam. All watched as the process enfolded.

That’s when I spotted an old photo that looked familiar.

A group of soldiers in uniform posed for a photo. When you know combat soldiers, you understand the body language. This is not a before ‘Nam photo. It oozes attitude and hides pain. You can tell it’s post-service. Behind the men, peeking over a shoulder and resting her hand as if to comfort and protect, is a woman who could have been my best friend. Kate wore her hair like that in the mid-seventies. Not only was she support for her Vietnam veteran, but she supported his friends, too. It wasn’t her, but it could have been any of my Vietnam-era Warrior Sisters.

It’s a rare photo that catches an invisible role. I’m captivated. It could be me. It is every veteran spouse.

We are a part of something bigger than ourselves.

I move on and catch one of my Warrior Sisters drawn to the photo. She stands before it a long time. I watch the screen-printing and glance back to my friend. Finally, she raises her phone. She snaps a shot of the same photo I saved, too. I catch up with her in the “saloon” to sign the guest book. It’s set up like an in-country bar with posters, jukebox, and memorabilia. She startles and says, “This is back in time. I wonder if the jukebox works.”

Next, my writer friend walks in and startles. “They got the lights right,” he says. I look up and notice the lights are covered with a fabric I don’t recognize.

Another Warrior Sister walks in and says, “Oh, my.”

I sit with them. Then I startle. I spot a poster for a rodeo where four generations of my family rode, including me. Although I didn’t ride bulls like my father, grandfather and great-grandfather did in Salinas. I also see a burlap sack with a bull head and the message, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.” No kidding, that is the first piece of writing advice anyone ever gave me when I was but a teen, writing for the local newspaper. We left the time capsule, comforted to find the sun shining, the year 2021.

Goats might have been licked here.

We lingered only because it’s slow, boarding a bus with bad knees, back surgeries, and bullet holes. Our rucksacks shared. We share the pain. We share the jokes. We share touches and hugs from behind. We head to lunch and break bread while the biggest black bear we’ve ever seen munches outside (they feed bears at the Konteka). We ask the waitress if the bowling alley is open. She explains the difficulties of COVID rules, like having to wipe down the balls afterward. <Insert Warrior Sister dirty joke here.> We howl with laughter, making the men blush (that’s how we get back at ’em for the pin-ups).

The bus ride home feels too short. Our spirits are high, our bellies full, and we are all connected, everyone of us in this small group on a VA bus. I share my search for a Finnish Tree Wizard. I get ideas where to find one. The 90-year-old roles his eyes. He’s a Finn. We hug and laugh at the Vet Center parking lot. One of the vets shares eggs with us “gals.” They’re from his pet chickens. He won’t accept money for them. I make a mental note to send him some books I think he’d like to read.

We slip into obscurity, no longer on the celeb VA bus. Until we share the next bear sighting.

Not a place to eat outside. You’d lose a hamburger.

July 1, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about “the old photograph.” What is captivating about it? Where did it come from? How does it incite a story? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by July 6, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

The Old Photograph by Charli Mills

She found him in the 1979 yearbook. The bottom row. The old photo wasn’t vintage. Some would argue it was modern. He played football. Four years. He sat shirtless, his blonde hair long, wavy. The football team had fathers who’d served in Korea, grandfathers in WWII. A few had older brothers, younger uncles, or cousins who’d served in ‘Nam. The ones no one spoke of, or to. The dispersed ones. She thought the photograph ancient because he looked so young. So guiltless. So pre-Grenada. Head hits, concussive blasts, and one knee-shattering jump. He never wore his hair long again.

🥕🥕🥕

June 18: Flash Fiction Challenge

My peonies and poppies are in perfect balance this year in the potager garden — softball-sized blooms of fuchsia framed by papery petals of burgundy and coral. I’m not as balanced but blooming nonetheless. My timing is off, driven by unscheduled chaos and income opportunities. Mostly, it’s all unfolding but less elegant than my flowers.

Mause is banned from the summer office, having romped through my hummingbird boxes. To her credit, she didn’t step on any flowers but I can’t allow her to chase bumbles and birds in a space I created for such winged critters. Anyhow, she prefers to stretch out across lawn, dandelions, and fleabane (and, yes, this native perennial lives up to its name).

She’s smart about her leash and outdoor cable. She knows the limit of each lead’s length. It’s the exact premise by which we, as writers, accept a constraint (99 words) and create within that framework. Mause can chase a witch’s hat I fly like a kite at the end of a gardening bamboo stick and never hit the end of her leash. It amazes me how she can stay laser focused and yet within her parameters.

Yes, I’m taking notes, Mause.

Sometimes, we have to reconfigure our framework. Maybe we get used to writing 99-words but we want to submit a 1,000-word story, write a novel, or practice haiku. Our first step is to develop a sense for how much space we have to shrink or expand a story. At its most basic, a story begins, meanders, and ends. Someone does something and there is a final consequence. A story take place somewhere — in Italy, on Venus, or in the mind of an ant. If we bemoan our parameters, our limitations, we miss the fantastical creativity that can happen within.

It comes down to balance. Being off-balance doesn’t mean we need immediate remedy. When situations, stories, or surprises leave us feeling lopsided we can explore the experience. So, you might say, I’m learning yoga post-MFA as a veteran spouse in a downward spiral. If ever there was a time I needed my pack, my Warrior Sisters, it is now. No one else has the insight on veteran spouse yoga.

However, the Pandemic has treated us harshly. We lost one of our strongest warriors to cancer. Another lost her husband. Three of us have had struggles with our spouses and no VA support because the system assumes our soldiers are right in the head when clearly they are not. “What the veteran wants,” is a refrain we hear when they refuse meds, treatments, or diagnoses. Three others are hanging on by their fingernails. We have not all met up together in over a year.

Today, my Warrior Sisters gathered and listened to me wail over my loss of Vet Center Services because of my husband’s ill-timed actions, lack of comprehension, and worsening aggression. The system is messed up. The system is not for the veteran families. Even though divorce is considered one of the symptoms of what soldiers experience in service (they are 60 percent more likely to separate or divorce), it’s difficult to find support as a spouse. I can’t get Mary Gauthier’s song, War After the War, out of my head.

Who’s gonna care for the ones who care for the ones who went to war?
There’s landmines in the living room and eggshells on the floor
I lost myself in the shadow of your honor and your pain
You stare out of the window as our dreams go down the drain

Invisible, the war after the war

Mary Gauthier

After all my struggles to complete a novel about a soldier’s wife, in the end, I wrote one about a soldier’s wife who found her pack. “I’m a soldier too, just like you, serving something bigger than myself.” (M. Gauthier) Having other women to share experiences with is akin to soldiers sharing with other soldiers. We might be invisible, but we witness each other. More important, we compare notes. The impact of PTSD and TBI on an aging brain is common yet commonly ignored. Getting to meet outside official doors calmed my despair. I’m still a BAB. And a writer. I told my pack today, I already had the opening line to Danni’s sequel, and we all howled with laughter.

I got this yoga move.

As for stretching myself in other directions, I’ve been updating resumes, CVs, submitting applications, following up on references, following leads on projects and clients, and tackling business tasks. I’m completely revamping my social media strategy, but don’t ask me yet what that is. I had lively debates with peers in school, which has led me to consider different platforms. We have many choices and in the long run, what will work best, how and why. I’m testing my flexibility.

Communities are excellent for networking because we know (and appreciate) one another. I’ve had offers to hand deliver my resume, explore their connections for work, and guide my attempts to branch out. Someone referred me to a family seeking an editor for their 93-year-old father and I mentored their process and quoted my rate for the project. I got the gig. Someone else told a local tribe that I’d be a good person to contact for a three-month project. They offered me the contract. My local SBA rep who has been working with me (patiently) helped me file LLC papers today so that I can clearly delineate between mission-based literary outreach at Carrot Ranch Literary Community and income-based work through Carrot Ranch, LLC.

I’m discovering new tools, too. When I arrived to the Keweenaw, I joined a business for creatives group called Rising Tide. I’m now using their HoneyBook tool to set up my contracts and projects. I’m exploring platforms like Trello to find one I can use for group coaching. And, I’m going through all the resources I gained from school to pull out what’s useful. I’m even practicing with sound recording to develop podcasts to interview Carrot Ranchers and experts to offer advice to the community.

I’m grateful for the supportive environment here. Be patient with me as I stretch, breathe, and seek a new life balance. If anyone were to ask me what I thought my purpose in life was, I’d say that I’m here to lift up others to find their purpose. I know I’m a storycatcher, a writer, a word/bird/rock/garden nerd, and I aspire to publish and teach. But really, it’s all about encouraging others to discover, grow and heal through literary art. That’s my purpose. I’m not timely right now, but bringing you this space at Carrot Ranch is a priority.

What better time, though, to seek balance than at the solstice. In the northern hemisphere, Summer Solstice is June 20; in the southern hemisphere, Winter Solstice is June 21. Around the world, day and night balance perfectly. May that mean something to you, magical or practical.

June 18, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that features a solstice. What is the era and setting? Use the solstice as a celebration, metaphor, or talking point. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by June 22, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

To Dance by Charli Mills

Maia met the girls at the Biting Fly for vodka shots. They toasted her ancestors, the ones who came from Finland with nothing but their knowledge of the old ways and hope for a new Finlandia in this place called America. They worked as mules in the copper mines and stayed after the boom busted. Maia, at 80-something, remembered her grandmother sharing childhood memories of the kokko, the massive community bonfire at Juhannus. Her girlfriends weren’t Finnish but they relished the hippie vibe of a solstice celebration on the beach. They swayed with men, and Maia danced with ghosts.

Author’s Note: The Toivola midsummer bonfires have been held at Agate Beach since the 1890s. This author is going on solstice to catch ghost stories.

 

🥕🥕🥕

June 10: Flash Fiction Challenge

It’s a bit of a chaotic time. Transitions. On a global scale, we are all transitioning from pandemic to (hopefully) post-pandemic. Personally, I’m transitioning from MFA to post-MFA. I’m searching for an agent, a job, and a New Life. Times like these can feel uncomfortable. When my nerves are jangled, I get outside or arrange colors and textures. Gardening and designing can combine into an obsession.

My daughter and I spent the last few weeks, haunting the local greenhouses, hovering over flowers, discussing “holes” in the gardens that need to be filled. She has her moon garden and I have my potager, fairy, and hummingbird gardens. Mostly, I have perennials or bulbs in the first two. Last year’s holes host Sweet William, roses, and poppies. The fairy gardens are like me, a bit of a mess right now but with promising signs of shaping into something. For now, I’m avoiding my messes.

That leaves the hummingbird garden — aka my summer office. I had big plans and little seeds to plant perennials in the three-tiered planter box on my deck. Alas, I only managed to plant a flat of French Marigolds. My daughter planted a wall of flats, but the particular flowers I was hoping to place in my box didn’t do well. I had my heart set on establishing Monarda and lantana. None of the greenhouses had either until I swooped into Pat’s Foods, a local grocer, and found some. Excited, I told my daughter and we arranged another trip.

Let’s just say, my daughter and I should not be allowed to plant shop together. Throughout winter, we watch all the Monty Don shows we can on Amazon Prime. I have several of his books and daughter draws elaborate dioramas. I use Canva. Our heads float in a greenhouse, disconnected from thoughts like, “Do I really need a shopping cart full of annuals?” We are both going through emotional distress. Her dad, my husband, and one of America’s vets slipping into a crack that is now a chasm is forcing hard decisions and creating unsafe conditions. So, mother/daughter in duress, we buy happy-place flowers.

My daughter has a job. I do not. She has a partner who frowns at me when we show up at their homestead, carrying flats of flowers. I go home to my puppy-infused space, hoping if I plant enough flowers, I can stay and my wounded warrior can quietly walk away. Post-MFA, I can no longer ignore that his care is beyond my capacity. Panic never recedes and I play my part to keep the peace. The doctors continue to shrug off answers. They can’t rule out long-term TBI or CTE but they say the white matter lesions are not worrisome (despite other correlating symptoms). I’ve done all I can do and I’m trying to jump off this sinking ship.

I reach for my oxygen mask and he doesn’t understand why I won’t keep breathing for him.

Therefore, I exhale the colors of joy like an alchemist who transforms despair and depression, guilt and grief, into life. Petunias the colors of periwinkle, wine velvet, raspberry pink, and limencello emerge from the vines and stalks of greenery. I’m transformed elsewhere. It’s like the act of writing — thinking into being. Before I completed the hummingbird garden, a ruby red throat buzzed my activity. Happiness pushed clouds away.

At last the summer office came to life with buzzing mascots. The Poet Tree shades the deck and I park on a gardening knee pad atop yoga mat with a throw pillow between my back and the hummingbird flower boxes. Mause has become my office mate. She’s a restless sort, repositioning every few minutes and on guard to robins. She eats the occasional maple leaf and tries to dig where I have dug. She’s not ideal for sharing a cubical but she is cute.

Mause at HQ

Carrot Ranch offices are now open on Roberts Street in the outdoor hummingbird suite. Mause prefers peanut-butter-buddies if you visit in person.

June 10, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a new way to office. Has the office changed? Can we return to normal after big changes or time away? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by June 15, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

Her Own Office by Charli Mills

Moonflower Johnson’s preferred people call her “June.” Applications forced her to disclose her full name and job interviewers raised an eyebrow or coughed to cover surprise. She watched them squirm with a need to ask. She never offered an answer. June preferred to office outside where she had homeschooled her five children and tended to the miking goats. After 30 years beyond her career, she longed to office remotely, back home, outside. But motherhood was not considered experience for the office. Her degree had gone dormant. She decided to create her own office. Outside. And used her degree differently.  

🥕🥕🥕

June 3: Flash Fiction Challenge

As I blindly swing a staff of driftwood beneath my couch, I’m thinking Mause needs a leash for her collection of balls. They scatter to places she can’t reach. She retrieves balls of all shapes and sizes from her walks. We have six tennis balls, eight baseballs, and a soccer ball. Driving to Boston (a Keweenaw ghost town, not the city), I spied something in the road. So did Mause. It was a ball. I drove past and she protested loudly. I’ve tried hiding her balls, limiting playtime, and introducing her to other games. Still, she remains a ball-obsessed seven-month-old pup.

One of Mause’s favorite ball distractions is a puppy play-date. With outdoor activities and vaccinations high among my circle of friends, we get to introduce our pups. Evidently, Covid dogs are a thing. If it feels like many people you know — yourself included — got a dog during the height of the pandemic, it’s true. Shelters in the US have even reported that they are running out of dogs to adopt.

A typical puppy play-date means hooking up with dogs of a similar age and temperament for activities. We don’t have a dog park in our region, yet. On Sundays, my SIL holds “dog church” for friends with dogs to walk the trails he maintains on 19 acres. This is how Mause met Violet. On a leashed walk, dog owners can find out (safely) if their dogs make good friends. Violet is closer to two-years-old but still has a lot of puppy antics in her. She’s a lab mix and not much bigger than Mause. Because they hit it off on date one, we set up date two.

We — the two-leggeds — had to find a place to take the four-leggeds. Hikes or walks are good, but we wanted to see how the girls would do off-leash. I’ve been taking Mause to my favorite beaches, including the dog beach at McLains. Technically, the rules state that dogs must be on-leash, but most owners allow socialized dogs to be under voice command. Violet is a recent rescue dog and Mause is a recent critter so we agreed to test our pooches on recall — the ability to come when called.

Violet and Mause met at the parking lot at McLain State Park near the dog beach. Armed with pockets of dog treats, we walked both pooches on the trail through the shoreline forest. Mause pulled me the entire way, leaping through the sand. I was nervous about letting her free but also realized she was as obsessed with Violet as she is with balls. Unless Violet ran off, Mause would stick around.

Unleashed, both dogs sprinted along the shoreline, waves lapping at their paws. No other dogs (or people) were in sight. We tested our powers of recall, and both ran back to us, ears flopping happily. Together, Violet and Mause discovered games around massive circles of driftwood, how to lap water from waves, and digging in the agate-bearing gravel. Violet’s two-legged mom found a beautiful agate in situ and I found two small ones. Not bad for a doggy play-date.

No longer leashed by school, I feel a bit like a dog that’s roamed the neighborhood and is missing the structure of a leashed life. Not that I want my collar snapped, but I’m aware that it’s up to me to create the structure. I’m still waiting for my diploma and official transcripts to apply for jobs. I’m also still dragging my feet to reengage social media. My desk looms like a doghouse and I know I have to plant my seat in the chair and get back to the platform, future plans, and writing.

I will make dates to run unleashed and return to more disciplined walks. Already, my mind is churning with the balls of a new book to write. I set a hard fast rule that I can’t leap into exploratory practice beyond 99-word stories until a project is complete. Every writer is different and chooses different publishing paths. In my chosen industry, the leash is tighter and the walk must be complete before unleashing to search for the next obsession. I admire the way many indie writers can craft quick works, but I yearn to go deep. Neither way is right or wrong. It’s important to learn the length of your leash or if you agree to work with one. Discovery is my unleashed time and I’m excited for my upcoming play-dates with characters that don’t even have names yet.

In the meantime, I need to clean up the Ranch, fix some barns and back pages. My MFA helped me see that this community is based on mentoring and that’s how it will remain. Carrot Ranch exists to make literary art accessible 99-words at a time. As a place of mentorship, I’d like some feedback from the community. Mentoring at its heart is encouragement. This is a place where you are encouraged to write stories within the 99-word constraint. What encourages you as a writer of literary art? Do you have ideas for Carrot Ranch moving forward? Is there something the Ranch can offer on its pages to help you grow as a writer?

I’m building an education platform that would unfold in phases. It is part of income building for me as an author, something we worked on in our MFA program. I have a good idea of who my target audience is for students and I want to assure you that I see a separation between community and clients. Can someone from the community become a client? Certainly. However, I do not plan to target the community. I bring this up because I don’t want to put up barriers to literary art or make the community feel like there are expectations. There are no obligations to play, share, and connect here.

So, I’m asking you what would be helpful at Carrot Ranch for your growth as a writer that is not part of a cost structure. List of resources? Posts about craft or platform? Pages that would support the community? How? I’m asking you to help me refine our community to live up to its mentoring ideal. Weekly challenges will continue with an annual contest. Are there other events of interest? This is an unleashed time of discovery! Let me know any thoughts, ideas, or feedback by the end of June. You can comment or shoot me an email wordsforpeople(at)gmail(dot)com.

Time to leash up!

June 3, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story being leashed. Is it literal or metaphorical? Who or what is leashed. How does it set the tone? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by June 8, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

Restraint by Charli Mills

Restraining six leashed sled dogs required brute strength. Max wasn’t the only woman to run the Copper Dog, but she was the only one to hold six dogs and six leads while muscling a single fan-hitch. It’s how the Arctic peoples ran dogs. Not that Max gave a shit. Her natural skepticism heightened by eight years in the Marine Corp didn’t trust her crazy tree-wizard deadbeat dad who claimed Sami blood in their Finnish veins. Why she had come back to the Keweenaw, she couldn’t say. Sometimes you have to poke the bear, her former staff sergeant would say.

🥕🥕🥕

May 27: Flash Fiction Challenge

Midges, mosquitoes, gnats, and black flies. Oh, my. With the burst of warm weather in the northern hemisphere, come the hatches of tiny flying insects.

Mause is learning the ropes of gardening, which means she knows how far her cable reaches and that biting my tulips elicits a response from me. She’s content to watch me pull young maple trees (who knew that would be my greatest garden weed) and gnaw on a fallen branch. But when she rolled over and exposed a belly full of bullseyes, I felt panic rise. My pup had the measles or Lyme disease!

Turns out, the classic bullseye mark associated with tick bites does not occur on dogs. Black flies — also called buffalo gnats — leave the mass of red rings on dog bellies. Mause didn’t seem to mind. I’m allergic to the fly’s saliva, and my bites swell and itch horribly. Grabbing my homemade plantain salve, I applied it liberally to Mause who then licked it appreciatively.

Apparently, plantain in coconut oil is tasty.

The belly bites heralded the tiny flying insect season. They are here. Mosquitoes don’t bother me as long as I have plantain leaves nearby. It grows where mosquitoes live, including my natural lawn. I use an assortment of essential oils and will try making a catnip oil after hearing a neighborhood rumor that it is good for bug repellent. Nothing repels black flies. I heard of a local rock picker who wears a hat with fly-tape and mosquito netting. A website advises smearing petroleum jelly on a hard hat and dressing like a Victorian, covering exposed skin.

Insects can be good fodder for fish and fiction. Think of the fun you can have as a writer, exposing your unsuspecting characters to a swarm of midges. What action might evolve? What character flaws might mosquito bites reveal? If you are writing a regional story, you can research the biting flies.

So far, Mause has had the most bites and they have cleared up. She now chases me through the house when I dab my mosquito bites, having developed a taste for salve. “No lick,” is a new command. While my kiddos visited, we were not harassed by black flies. We spread gravel across what I now call my beach patio and then headed to a Lake Superior beach with BBQ takeout from the Fitz.

After we shared a meal, I introduced Mause to waves. She barked at the rollers as they washed across the beach at a slant. I took off her leash and she chased waves, barking and receiving mouthfuls of water in return. The waves ended at the river’s entrance, and she’d march back to me and renew the chase. I don’t think this is going to be a water-loving dog!

My son joined me in my search, quickly learning the difference between quartz, prehnite, chert and chalcedony. “What’s this, Mum?” He held up a large pink agate the size of bubble gum. He’s a quick learner, that one. My best moment was sharing the hunt with him, and delighting in his finds. The pup ran herself ragged, covered in beach sand and slobber. She fell asleep with her head on my daughter’s shoulder on the ride home, drooling.

Flowers and flies awaited our arrival but within two days the weather shifted. A late winter or early fall, hard to tell in the Northwoods. It’s been a complicated week with lots of personal transitions and I’m wiped. I’ll take the return of cold for now in exchange for reprieve from bites.

Black flies or not, I will travel to Copper Harbor to honor those who gave all this Monday, Memorial Day. I’d like to remember for first cousin twice removed, George Anthony McDermott. My dad shares his name, and according to his WWII draft card, we shared auburn hair and hazel eyes. He worked for one of the fruit packing companies which makes me think of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. He was raised by his half-Portuguese, half-Irish grandmother in Oakland, California where his uncles left to work ranches nearby. George earned the Bronze Medal for “heroic achievement in battle” on Leyte in the Philippines. He died of combat wounds November 6, 1944 and is buried next to his grandmother in Oakland. I wish I knew more of his story.

May 27, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes tiny flying insects. Think about how the insects shape the scene or add to the action. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by June 1, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

McArthur Wasted Men Like Flies by Charli Mills

Mud and biting flies greeted Sgt. McDermott on the Pacific Island of “lady.” Leyte sprawled, a slattern who rolled soldiers in the mud. Swatting possessed insects proved futile. At night, it rained. Supplies failed to reach American soldiers. McDermott’s unit fought jungle diseases and gunfire unsupported. They lived on coconut and sugarcane, sweetening sweat and blood for the insects. Ormac Valley loomed for the taking. “You’ll get a medal, Sarge,” his men said for his efforts to conquer the last outpost. Before the official battle, McDermott dropped from a sniper’s bullet. His men dropped like flies the next day.

🥕🥕🥕

May 20: Flash Fiction Challenge

Maple pollinators coat the ATV trail. The ground is such a livid neon yellow that it messes with depth perception and I wobble my first steps across the tree litter. The transition from spring into the life of summer comes amidst a hail of pollen, blossoms and organic fluff. I’m walking the dog for the gazillionth time because she’s too picky to poop in the detritus of spring. A winter puppy, she misses her snow banks.

Mause rears on her lanky back legs to snap at dandelion seeds floating across the lawn. On impulse, I’ve plucked two full dandelion heads to make a wish, or two. It’s the eve of my birthday and earlier celebrations for graduation wind down. Tomorrow two of my grown kids and their partners will be in town to spend a weekend of yard work with mom (for mom?). Already, the three kids pitched in to buy me a dump-truck load of pea gravel to build up my bonfire area. I wish for the weekend to extend as long as possible to enjoy time with them.

The puppy, now six months old and a master chewer, has exhausted me this week. I’m on my own with her as the Hub has flown out to Nevada to be with his family. She notices everything around her, like dandelion seeds spreading wishes and piles of tiny rocks. She decides to dig, helping us spread the gravel. Back home, past the woodland shadows and ground mists of blue forget-me-nots, she flops on her belly, panting, seeking the coolness of the grass. Her white coat glistens like the patches of fleabane scattered across my shaggy lawn.

It’s hot and muggy today, and I’m thinking about the naked farmers I once interviewed for a article. I can’t recall the name of their pizza, a secondary product they made from their naked veggies. It’s not the pup’s bare belly on grass that brought me to muse digging in soft soil sans clothing. It was one of the Rancher socials last Saturday and a conversation about World Naked Gardening Day that emerged. I knew this would have to be a prompt for May! Why not? How could skinny dipping beneath a garden hose go wrong?

Sometimes, writing can feel naked. (You knew I’d try to stretch a connection, right?) We write raw and vulnerable, even when we craft fiction. We hope to present our work fully clothed to readers but often we find that they strip away our outer veneer and see us beneath our carefully arranged words. We are like naked gardeners, exposing ourselves as we explore humanity.

Let’s be carefree as the trees and cast our clothes to the breeze for this one! And if you have a garden, send D. Avery some photos (of the garden, not the gardener) for her Saddle Up Saloon Garden Tour at shiftnshake@dslayton.com.

May 20, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about naked gardening. Is it the veggies or the gardener who is naked? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by May 25, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

Slip Up by Charli Mills

An early summer scorcher in the Great Basin robbed the buckaroos of their appetite. Bev wasn’t about to see her gang shrivel in the sun unfed. She sliced cold cuts and tomatoes and packed almonds and dried apricots for the trail. Wilfred, the ranch foreman raised a wooly eyebrow but kept silent. He advised everyone to tank up on water and required they carried canteens. After Bev cleaned the cookshack she headed for the garden, feeling sluggish. Later she’d claim she slipped in a pile of fresh horse apples when the crew returned early to find her gardening naked.   

🥕🥕🥕

May 6: Flash Fiction Challenge

Back at the Boston Homestead where my daughter and her husband are expanding their farm across what was once a neighborhood of company copper miners, their hens escaped the coop. The girls didn’t go far. Chanticleer, the rooster who crows when I sing to him about eating cracked corn, didn’t stray from them. They gathered among the budding blueberry plants and partied.

I’ll accept that as my cue to follow suit. Somebody blow party horn.

School’s out, but may the learning never cease. How quickly coursework gave way to gardening. Black soil slips under the tips of my fingernails, erasing twenty-one straight months of studies and writing for an MFA. Technically, I get my degree by mail after June 1. May is limbo month. A month of fresh ideas, starts and new paths. A month to find joy among emerging flowers, seedlings, and dreamers.

I’m with the chickens, pecking after the best blossoms. Except my escape from the student coop calls for cake not flower petals. I’ll confess to having had two lemon cakes already. One in late March after I completed my thesis. The special women in my veteran spouses group lent their stories and struggles. My protagonist met her own group of warrior sisters, ones she would called BABs. Danni Gordon gets cake in THE MIRACLE OF DUCKS. Lemon cake. When I completed my thesis and turned over my manuscript (MS) to my BABs, one of them made her famous lemon cake. After she read the MS, she baked me a second!

A fun aside to the second cake: Coming home from our last group meeting, I had lemon cake in my car. I stopped in Ripply where I haven’t been in ages because of the pandemic. In front of a friend’s house, we distantly gathered, delighting in the sunshine and recent second vaccinations. It seemed surreal to “people” and then I remembered. I had cake. A small village street consumed a lemon cake. Forgotten birthdays and private celebrations surfaced. Through shared cake, we felt human again.

I’m distancing my grad celebrations which is really an excuse to camp for three nights. But first, to Bayfield and the Old Rittenhouse Inn on Monday. My novel began in Bayfield. It flared in many directions, and in the end it became ashes. The thesis I wrote rose up from the ashes of my first novel to become a Phoenix among my drafts. I kept the title and protagonist but changed the premise, crafted a plot, and created a compelling character arc with a memorable group of women who carry the burdens their husband’s bring home from the battlefield. For me, to visit Bayfield is to reconcile the full journey I’ve been on to write my novel.

After a night in Wisconsin, I’ll pick up my incredible celebration cake from three Chippewa sisters in Minnesota. Then I return four hours to the Keweenaw to camp for three nights at McLain State Park. Cake, bonfires, cacao, and the sound of surf and spring peepers. Friday, I’ll go home to wish my Svalbard daughter a happy birthday. Then it’s off to the Unicorn Room for a Musical Zen Sound Bath with my sound therapist. She’s offering to do the meditation that bathes participants in sounds from drums to crystal bowls. It will be live on her FaceBook page at 5 pm EST on Friday, May 14. If you are interested in sharing this experience with me, shoot me an email at wordsforpeople(at)gmail(dot)com for links and instructions.

On Saturday, May 15, I’ve set up three Zoom Rancher Gatherings to cover a diversity of time zones and availability. Hop on to meet and talk with fellow writers at Carrot Ranch. Maybe meet the chickens of Boston or the wild Mause of the House. Celebrate. Socialize. I’ll read a snippet from my thesis and ask any questions about MFAs or writing. Bring your own bubbly! Times: 9 am/2 pm/7 pm (Eastern Time US).

If you are interested in the sound bath, socializing on Saturday, or setting up a time to chat, shoot me an email at wordsforpeople(at)gmail(dot)com for links and instructions. If you want to send graduation cards, you can mail to headquarters at 1112 Roberts Street, Hancock, MI 49930.

It’s my birthday on May 21. My son and daughter-in-law are driving up from Wisconsin for the weekend. I will complete my celebrations that weekend and start the new journey in earnest. For now, I’m going to party like hens let loose in the berry patch.

Note extended deadline on account of Party Business.

May 6, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about party hens. Who are these chickens and why do they party? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by May 18, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

The Hen Party by Charli Mills

Chanty shook his coxcomb. “Party ‘til the cows come home. Farmer Brown doesn’t know his party hens.”

The hens lunged for the blueberry patch. In the morning Farmer Brown would blame a blight or a bloke. Either way, he wouldn’t believe his best layer had a spare key to the coop. Seventeen hens clucked and clogged beneath the moon.

“It’s time,” said Henny Penny. They slowed their shimmies and wrote their plans in chicken-scratch.

“Party hard, Ladies. We have to write the next campaign to get a Madame President in Office.” Henny Penny held the party line – Chicks Only.

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