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Mona slinks across the dining room table, wraps her body around the edge of my laptop and brushes long whiskers across my hand. It’s become a ritual of sorts. The cat begs permission to perch upon my chest every afternoon. I grumble. I’m on multiple deadlines and focused, not wanting the interruption of a pestering feline. She’s not even my cat. Mona insists; I resist. Push the cat away, push the cat away, push the…oh, all right already!
I’ve learned it’s easiest to coax her into the curve of my left arm, as if inviting Mona into a sling. She presses against my chest, settles squarely on the bosom she believes to be her personal cat shelf, tucks her splayed toes into the crook of my arm and purrs. Her warmth radiates and I rest my chin on her tiny head. I stop. I don’t write on deadline; worry about the interviews not yet arranged; fret about my lateness to my own ranch; I don’t think about anything but the purring, the warmth, the love I suddenly and inexplicably feel in this paused moment.
I want America to sit with a cat purring against its breast.
Mother of Exiles: Give me your tired, your poor… (Emma Lazarus)
…ask not what your country can do for you… (Robert F. Kennedy)
…we are united in common values… (President Barrack OBama)
If you get, give. If you learn, teach. (Maya Angelou)
If the great American people will only keep their temper… (President Abraham Lincoln)
I am the American Dream…It said you can come from anywhere and be anything you want… (Whoopie Goldberg)
Only Americans can hurt America. (Dwight D. Eisenhower)
“A constitution, as important as it is, will mean nothing unless the people are yearning for liberty and freedom.” (Ruth Bader Ginsburg)
One of the amazing features of Carrot Ranch is that it’s a literary community without borders. It invites diversity — different ages, gender identifications, experiences, genres. We marvel at the different ways each writer approaches a challenge and how each responds. Some write by the seat of pants; some polish and revise. Some base flash fiction on a true story; some grasp at neon threads of imagination. We find common ground in writing, pursuing what it is we do creatively with words. This is literary arts open to all writers.
It’s important to acknowledge our diversity and common ground because this is an American ranch. And our nation is struggling with its history and healing. While the world is being battered by terrorism, America is becoming its own worst terrorist. Two cars-as-deadly-weapons within a week — one in Barcelona, Spain and another in Charlottesville, Virginia. I cringe to even compare the two but it is necessary to understand the difference. In Spain an extremist group has claimed responsibility and world leaders denounce the violence. In America an extremist group had gathered to express white supremacy and those opposed to fascism staged a counter protest. A reported neo-Nazi plowed his car into the protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The POTUS blamed both sides.
Stay with me. This is not meant to be a political rant of runaway horses. Hug a cat. Feel the heartbeat, the warmth, the love, and let’s move on to statues.
As a historian of the American West, I’m sensitive to the complex influences and impact of the Civil War upon westward expansion. It’s not as simple as pro- and anti-slavery divisions. Kansas Territory with the nickname “Bleeding Kansas” became embattled before the war between those who wanted to make it a slave state and those wanting to abolish slavery. Yet, even abolitionists were racists. Some of Wild Bill Hickok’s early letters home from Kansas espoused prejudice views and language. He was the son of an abolitionist and as a boy partook in getting slaves to freedom in Canada.
The south often refers to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. From this perspective, the issue emerges as one of states rights versus perceived federal tyranny. The idea is that America fought for its freedom, therefore states held that they shouldn’t be controlled by the interests of other regions. Of course, no one can miss the ultimate irony of a nation proclaiming its freedom on the backs of slaves, indentured servants, and cheap industrial labor. Free for whom? Which leads us to the greater underlying cause of the Civil War beyond its issues, institutions and ideals — power and control.
There are those who want power, and there are those who don’t want to be controlled. This human dynamic is probably as old as sex. Slavery: power over another population; control of land and property wealth. Abolition: power over the moral attitudes of others; control of social behavior. Industry: power to take at will; control over workers and wealth. These power struggles play out in politics, place and among people at odds. One solution might cause a ripple elsewhere. But the bottom line of ending the ugliness of power and control is captured in the vision for “equal rights.” This is where Americans divide. Whose rights infringe upon whom?
Don’t kill babies. That’s clear as a cliched bell to everyone. Who’d kill a baby? Well, now we tussle over the definition of when life begins and who controls that life in a woman’s uterus. No, we aren’t discussing that here. The point I want to make is, hug a cat. Not a real cat this time, but think of what it means to hold a cat, feel the purring, the warmth, the love. Now give someone else that cat. What would it look like? To me, I see men and women of faith who love life from its earliest conception, loving the women who approach an abortion clinic. I see them offering blankets, hot cocoa with marshmallows and inviting them to talk, asking them what’s going on, how can they be of service, of help. Listening.
Did you hear that word? Listening. Listen to the story of another. We all have our narratives. We are all vulnerable and feel scrutinized. Actively listen. What if we thought up ways to offer an outreach of cat hugs and listening?
Statues. I didn’t forget. We need to listen to the stories behind these Confederate statues. I don’t want to see civil war over the Civil War. Twice now death has come to Virginia behind secessionist symbols. First it was the Confederate Flag, waved by convicted killer, Dylan Roof who tried to start a “race war” by barging into a black church in Charleston, shooting nine members of its congregation. That’s when the Confederate Flag as an American symbol came under fire, and rightly so. Once a symbol of states rebellion, the General Lee has evolved into one of white supremacy and hate. That’s when calls went out to dismantle or add to Confederate statues in the US, most located in the South.
Statue toppling is something associated in countries of extreme unrest or violent rebellion. It also gives me pause as a historian — are we rewriting history as some claim?
In my research of Rock Creek, I recall a story about a statue placed in Tennessee or Kentucky 20 years after the end of the Civil War. It wasn’t one of the big-name military leaders, but a man who was a Confederate, captured by southern neighbors and repaid for the earlier killings of eastern Tennessee’s Unionists (those opposed to secession, like Cobb McCanles and his family). By rights of capture, the man should have been imprisoned, but instead he was quickly hung. I can’t recall the controversy exactly, but I remember the intent of the statue — to heal the rift between neighbors living with the aftermath of the Civil War.
However, the majority of the Confederate statues in question were raised during Jim Crow laws when black men and boys hung from southern trees like Strange Fruit. Or during the 1950s as the Civil Rights movement gained momentum. Most of the decisions to fly the Confederate flags in southern states also came after states were mandated to eliminate segregation. Symbols of power and control. Symbols to intimidate. The statues do hold history, however, but the memory of historical events. Decision to erect them and take them down are commentary on the history, not about erasing it.
Out West one lone Confederate statue is on the map of those proposed to come down — Helena, Montana where I went to school and researched the state’s colorful mining history with deep struggles of power and control rooted in divisions that came west with Civil War soldiers. Ultimately, the statue will come down. It was erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy, and although I’m not an expert on the subject, I understand they are connected to or support the Klu Klux Klan (have you ever heard of a stupider name? Oh, yes — Nazis). Let me take a deep breath and hug the cat…Better.
If you are not American and do not know about the KKK, they are a domestic terrorist group started after the Civil War with the single purpose of harassing and eradicating the freed slaves and their descendants. They march alongside the neo-Nazis. They used to where white robes and elaborate pointy hoods and masks. They seriously look like sheets or bags with eyeholes. But they kept their identities hidden and often intimidated other townspeople to participate. I heard many KKK stories in Kansas from only a few generations back when I was researching. Power and control. That’s why these statues are coming down. We aren’t calling to rewrite history, but to amend our understanding of it.
It’s scary for many Americans who have not had to confront the violence behind these symbols. I know that Confederate statue in Pioneer Park in Helena. I’ve seen it so many times at gathering and events. It’s a large urn with a dedication plaque. POTUS tweet-stormed about how “sad” it is that these “beautiful” statues are coming down. I look at old photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. and listen to old reels of his eloquent speeches and feel sad this beautiful man was cut down. I’m okay removing stones. We can build something different in our public squares and parks.
It’s like writing. We don’t throw away the first draft because we revise. We come back to important elements, eliminate what’s unnecessary and build up what is stronger. Today I tweeted, too. I wrote, “America needs a revision. When we draft we make mistakes. We go back and revise and revise until we improve what we started.” When I was looking for American quotes that inspired me, I found this one by Winston Churchill, who noted that we tend to write bad drafts but do well to revise:
“You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”
Another quote, and one that led to this week’s prompt in addition to Mona, comes from a woman I admire greatly, Michelle Obama:
“The fact is, with every friendship you make, and every bond of trust you establish, you are shaping the image of America projected to the rest of the world. That is so important. So when you study abroad, you’re actually helping to make America stronger.”
Michelle encourages us Americans to make our nation stronger through friendships and bonds of trust abroad. That’s what the Ranch is here for — to create a place where we can come from anywhere, create bonds of trust and friendships, and create art with words. Literary art has a place in this mixed-up world. It can be for escape, exploring, learning, teaching, delighting and agitating. Now grab a cat and a pen…
August 17, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that heals America. Difficult and idealistic, I know. Think about building bonds of trust or stories of friendship. It could be a positive story about America. Bonus points for hugging a cat.
Respond by August 29, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published August 30). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Community Mutterings by Charli Mills
“Move your car!” Stan yells from his porch. Viola ignores him, dropping off kale for her friend.
“It’s a fire lane!”
Viola mutters, “There’s no fire, old codger.”
The young mechanic next door nearly swipes Viola’s Honda, racing his Dodge truck again. “Idiot!”
Finished with her garden deliveries, Viola drives to the vigil. She’s expecting the liberal-minded to light candles for Charlottesville. Solidarity. As the wife of an Iranian grad-student in a small American college town, she misses urban diversity.
Viola’s eyes sting when she sees Stan hobble from his neighbor’s Dodge, both lighting candles. “Glad you both came.”
Pipers are calling to blueberries plumping on the bush. Anytime Superior fog rolls in and the air turns cool and smells like rain on bedrock, locals nod and say, “Berry growing weather.” At times the gray coolness confounds my sense of season, and I scoff that berries are growing on the Keweenaw when elsewhere I know temperatures are blasting heat across most of North America, and in Kansas the tomatoes grow visibly in the time it takes to drink a cold bottle of hard cider.
Evidently blueberries grow in the coolness of Copper Country. Maybe the plants root over lost veins of native copper and beef up on mineral supplements organically occurring in the skim of dirt abandoned by miners. Pans of blueberries cover the kitchen counters, tempting me to pluck “just a few” and go back to writing at my improvised dining room office. They are as real as the tomatoes down south I imagine sliced and sprinkled with lemon pepper. It must be summer nonetheless in the western hemisphere.
My plaid shirt is appropriate — it hides any blueberry stains upon its dark blue and gray weave and makes the piping feel like the song of my soul. I’m not imagining that one — the pipers are truly calling. Every Thursday they practice bagpipes at the fire station a few blocks down the hill. On a rainy day full of the dreary work of a writer — line editing, communicating with designers and setting up phone interviews for client work — I’m whisked away to the magical realm within by the sharp simplicity of berries and music.
There’s a key scene in Rock Creek: Nancy Jane is burying her baby, digging the prairie dirt alone. Her Pa has gone off to borrow a suit. Never mind the suit’s owner wasn’t around; Joseph Holmes is not one to feel obliged to have permission. Whiskey is often the only lens he has on navigating life. Unfortunately he crosses paths with a small group of men on horseback headed to a road station. One is a fiddler from Appalachia, a descendant of ousted Scots-highlanders and a former sheriff. The other is his cousin and the third man is the owner of the suit. Thus Nancy Jane meets Cobb McCanles the day he drags her father across the prairie sod to test the man’s questionable story that he borrowed the suit for his grandson’s funeral.
In the hero’s journey, the structure I use to frame novels, or even in the three-act classic structure, certain scenes act as keystones to the story’s architecture. Some of you might recognize this scene because I’ve played with it in flash fiction previously. As the story takes shape, I revisit this scene and dig deeper. It has an emotion so buried, I must go beneath the prairie roots to untangle it, and bring it to the surface. Why do the women of Rock Creek matter? Because, for so long, their buried (and burying) stories have gone unheard.
Why do we hear pipers calling in our hearts and minds as much as in our ears? It penetrates us deeply; an emotion difficult to articulate; an experience we have and label it life. Life is a simple four-letter word. No embellishments. No tongue-twister. It’s neither harsh nor sweet to hear. It’s easy to say. Difficult to define. The pipers play life notes and berries taste like a moment suspended from life. This is the taste, the feel of the life experience I’m chasing down on the page from the women who came from Scotland in the 1700s to the lone prairie a hundred years later:
If you recognize the song, you’ll understand it is a musical score to represent on of the great American classics in literature: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. He wrote romantic (not Harlequin, classical) histories about American frontiers. I think of my path as parallel, only I’m rewriting the frontiers to include women and their myriad of motives beyond, “I’ll go do the dishes now.” Which brings me to another song that reminds me of women and the West:
I’m looking for Nancy Jane’s prairie song, for Mary’s, for Sarah’s. Where is the John Wayne for women?
Pipes and berries know no gender. Say what you want about traditions but anyone can listen to the pipes and pick berries. We’ve conditioned ourselves to receive male stories of epic adventure and diminish female stories as domestic. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a frontiers woman. Just because she wore braids didn’t mean she only did dishes and poked a needle in some fabric. Heck no, Laura was out running the banks of Plum Creek, chasing her dog Jack and riding her horse at breakneck speeds along the shores of prairie lakes. It’s not surprising that I went from her series of books to Ian Fleming’s. Laura prepared me for adventure and it never occurred to me that only men could be James Bond.
However, it crept into my early writing, focusing on male leads because I wanted to write epic westerns and exciting histories. Now I seek to polish up experiences like Laura’s and present frontier women unfiltered. To me, what remains key is finding those moments that feel like pipers calling to summer berries. Motives. Passion. Regret and revenge. Dreams. Death. Life. Passing on one’s tightly held blueberry of a moment to another. Pipes. End scene.
August 10, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) include music and berries. It can be fantastical, such as the music of berries or a story that unfolds about a concert in a berry patch. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by August 15, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published August 16). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Forbidden Fruit (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
“Save the seeds,” Nancy Jane said, berry juice running down her chin and cleavage.
“Nah. To make Otoe dice. Fun game.”
A canopy of trees dappled the sun where bluffs and a thicket of buffalo berries barricade this hidden spring. Nancy Jane bathed here. Naked. No wonder she laughed when Sarah protested hiking her skirts to ride horseback astride.
Sarah sank her teeth into the small black fruit with a golden center, wanting to laugh. If she did, Cobb might hear. Perhaps a trick of the mind, but she swore she heard strains of his fiddle nearby.
Science. It’s what brought my eldest and her spouse to the Keweenaw, where Michigan Tech has been a public research university since 1885. She’s now Director of Research News, writing and directing science stories for several academic publications, including the university’s research blog, Unscripted.
While I’ve had rocks on the brain since arriving — a common Keweenaw affliction — I’ve been pondering the relationship between arts and science. As a literary artist, science fuels my imagination. Yet science relies as much on creativity as it does data. As a geoscientist and dancer, my daughter understands this dynamic and writes about the intention of Unscripted:
“…This is a place where metaphor and methodology meet. Where curiosity inspires conversation, art, and science. We write the research you can’t find on news wires, capture science in action, and speak frankly about the work we do. Often succinct, we’re not afraid of an in-depth exploration either. Yeah, Unscripted is a university research blog—and then some.”
Metaphor and methodology. It’s like finding a mineral in its matrix with a spectacular inclusion at the juncture. As writers, we work to balance what drives our rawest ideas with the structure of craft. And like scientists we don’t go at this alone. We share research, theories and ideas. We encourage that curiosity to drive both art and science.
Tonight, I’m in a weather warp. Rain pummels my umbrella and I’m chilled in a sweater. Half-way up the hill I realize the “path” we chose is actually a broad rain gutter. At the top of the hill we’re greeted at the door with amusement and the comment, “Not from here, hey?”
(Note: “hey?” is an inflection not a question, a Keweenaw colloquialism.)
“Hey! No, we just relocated.”
“You’ll like it here, hey?”
We already do. The stress of the past year fades each new day, even though we face medical mountains and home hurdles. We have a safe pad at the home of Michigan Tech’s News Director and her Park Ranger/Bubbler/Baker/Solar Man. We’re exploring options to use the RV to get homed, setting up VA appointments and growing the Ranch. You might have noticed the banners for Carrot Ranch changed here, on Facebook and Twitter. That’s part of the growth that has been delayed by a year of wandering on wheels.
Branding is both art and science. The art appeal is subjective — it always is, so don’t take it personally if someone likes or dislikes your art, it’s not a true measurement. However, I like the art and what it conveys: we are a literary community. Ann Rauvola, my long-time friend, colleague and CR designer uses her skills, her scientific knowledge of color and collage to create the art. I’ll let you in on a design secret — the banner is a fusion of three photos. But the shot of the bird and horse? Hey! That one lucky shot from an afternoon of photographing the interplay between blackbirds and Elmira Pond ponies.
A science part of branding is consistency. The change was meant to be subtle, and yet I didn’t do it until I could upgrade all three banners. This is in preparation for a launch of Patreon in preparation for a launch of an annual rodeo in preparation for a launch of the first CR anthology in preparation for work on the next. Whew! Timing is everything and a misstep, or a house loss, can really throw a monkey wrench in the workings. It’s why I’m grateful to have this Keweenaw stability to actualize the literary community vision.
Why, you might ask? That’s a legitimate question.
My process is both art and science. The latter coming in the form of research — historical or natural. The art flows from the writing. Like the Unscripted researchers, I want that conversation and connectivity. Art and science is best shared, and we do learn from and inspire one another. As a platform for my writing I can be the lone cowpoke or a lead buckaroo. A community of writers is dynamic, and together we make a bigger footprint in the writing world. My long projects are, well, long so collaborative short projects keep me going. I hope you find something here, too that gives you purpose in being here.
At the heart of the community is taking time each week to interact, play and think. You all make me think. And I like thinking.
Which is why I walked up a rain gutter to listen to a scientist speak on the world-class mineral collection at Michigan Tech for a program called Science on Tap — a pub crawl with scientists. Four more blocks in the rain and we arrive to hear a second presentation on the shipwrecks of Lake Superior and here’s where science bent my brain. First, an oceanographer stands before us declaring the Great Lakes “inland seas.” He explains ocean currents and government funding; how he has to explain science to a current administration not keen on it.
Then, he tell us we can see with our ears.
I’m all ears. Show me…And he does. Through a series of slides he shows us photos taken at sunset, elongating shadows. He points out optical illusions, and how to see beyond. Then he shows us slides of Lake Superior where it’s so deep it’s always dark in her ice water mansion where thousands of ships have wrecked. You can’t see those depths with a camera, but with sonar you can create a picture of light and shadow. Sound makes an acoustic image of many historic wrecks on the lake (cue Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of Edmunds Fitzgerald).
“Superior, they say, never gives up her dead…” And it’s estimated that more than 30,000 lives have been lost in this lake. This is why the scientists do not sound map more recent wrecks like the Edmunds Fitzgerald — not only is it an iron ore ship busted in half on the deep floor of Lake Superior, it’s also the grave of 29 men with family who yet live. In our collective psyche, we all think of Lightfoot’s song in this region, the scientist even admits to owning the musician’s collection of albums. Where science doesn’t go out of respect for the recent dead, our imaginations do. Art and science help each other to see.
Scientists have sent down dive teams on other wrecks they’ve discovered through the sight of sonar. In 1895, divers identified one of the wrecks as a coal ship struck and sunk by a steamer in thick fog. Four crew died in that wreck and the legs of one can still be seen poking out from spilled coal of the shattered hull. During WWI, the French worked on secret mine-sweepers in Thunder Bay (Lake Superior on the Canadian side). Two ships were lost in a November blizzard on Lake Superior without any clue of where. Two captains and 76 men disappeared. The search with sonar continues.
As writers we create images with words to tell these stories, to show these stories. Sound is often a sense overlooked in the craft of creating that image. It’s intriguing to think of how sound can map an action, character, tone or scene. Can we use sonar, sound navigation, to make a flash fiction? It might be difficult, but the art and science is there to push us to try.
August 3, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) use sound to create a story. Just as you might “see” a scene unfold, think about how it might sound. Even one sound to set the tone is okay. Go where you hear the prompt lead. Feel free to experiment.
Respond by August 8, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published August 9). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
A Grating Sound (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Gears ground when the all-terrain vehicle powered up the slope. Danni heard Evelyn shout, “Giddy-up, Mule! Haw! Haw!” The revving engine faded, and a drone of voices washed over Danni like white noise. She studied the sonar graphs, puzzling over the dark features buried four feet below the Kansas clay. Trowels scraped, volunteers called to one another and the porta-potty door slammed intermittently. Danni focused. The active noises blurred.
“I’m a gardener!” A high-pitched voice like nails on a chalkboard.
Danni grit her teeth hard enough to hear enamel chip. A child. Who brought a child to her dig?
Crystalline waves slap behind my knees. A copper sun sinks slowly toward the horizon, extending sunset from about 8 to 10 p.m. The best time to catch the waves at Calumet Water Works, a public park and beach on Lake Superior, is around 7. If the waves roll just right, they act as a lens to the tumbled rock beneath the surface of clear water that has not a trace of sediment, algae or vegetation. Pure water, fresh water from ancient and icy depths.
Agates bring me here like a junkie looking for a hit. Just one more rock.
Beachcombers walk the long evening in either direction: dogs stroll and children in rubber boots and neon swimsuits dart along the shore like tropical fish. Serious rock-hounds lug buckets and agate scoopers, quickly scanning the wave-saturated edges for glints of agates among the red and black basalt, broken and tumbled smooth into goose eggs. The agates and other stones of interest are marble-sized or smaller, each year decreasing in population. Agates have no mating cycle in geology.
How to find an agate: go to where they are found and look. Rock-hounds can’t tell you how to develop an eye for them, but you can learn tips: look for luster, look for quartz. What does that mean exactly? If you were in your yoga pants and rock shoes, and me in mine, we’d go to the edge together and I’d pick up several rocks of white to show you — this is dull, like a teacher’s stub of chalk. It’s limestone. But it could be chert if it’s glassier, like this one. See? That’s luster. Chert is silica, but fine grained and opaque.
See that one, glinting white as a wave recedes? That’s nice. No, not gneiss… I mean, it’s nice and all, pretty, but it’s not that secondary metamorphic rock. Let me see. Hmm, yes, it’s a granite, has quartz but that’s not the quartz we’re looking for. The shiny you see is mica. It’s a mineral that forms in flakes. The black spots are hornblend. Sometimes you can see pink crystal faces and that’s feldspar. This is granite. Not gneiss, not schist. Don’t take schist for granite.
Ah, here’s a possibility, a white robin’s egg just rolled up with that wave. Catch it before it rolls back down! Let’s look at it. Nope. Toss it back it’s calcite. Lots of calcite and zeolites on this beach. They are silica, too. Quartz is silica. Different heat and pressure results in different grains (crystals) or lack of them, smooth like glass. Calcite is softer and has less luster than quartz. Here’s one: see how translucent it is? If we were lucky and this were an agate you would see distinct rings or bands. I found one white agate with a delicate banded eye of apricot. Exquisite but the size of my thumbnail.
My daughter — she picked up this massive caramel agate of banded chert the size of a fat fig. She’s got an eye. She and her hubby also have matching geology degrees. He has his masters. Seems like the more a geologist masters the more he says, maybe. As in, maybe that’s Thompsonite. I find lots of pretty maybes that glow when wet but dull when dry. Kind of like writing — when it’s fresh with wet ink it’s an agate of a scene. Dry it becomes a maybe page.
We’ve only learned about luster, quartz and white rocks to look for tonight. I forgot to mention that you should look for odd shapes, the not-quite-marbles. If dull they could be fossilized limestone of honeycomb coral. I have a terrific eye for fossils, maybe because I rock-hounded on Mars and in Nevada and Montana where inland seas left fossilized coral beds. I once found a coral fossil the size of a economy car. A gold mining company had left it behind in an abandoned pit because fossils aren’t currency.
The Industrial Age drove the copper miners to seek the webs of shiny copper formed in and on quartz of the Keweenaw. They dug deep and long, mining since the Cliff Mine founded in 1836. No one can say for certain why the copper formed here. Perhaps alien spiders spewing webs of copper or God’s game of where-did-the-Almighty-hide-that-mineral? Junkies have come to this beach before me, looking to get a rush from the naturally sluiced rocks found here, chasing down their origins.
Rock-hounds say the motherlode of agate is off the shore and if you’re serious you should buy scuba gear. I’m tempted. Maybe I can snorkel. Oh, look — this one is covered in fiery copper strands as thin as silk, the color of the last spill of molten metal from the sun on water. The copper is subtle. It’s hard to say what to look for; hard to say what to write. But the more you show up to the beach and the page, the better your chances of finding a crystalline wonder. Develop your eye for it. And don’t mind the slap of cold waves or the constant grind of rocks. It’s natural.
July 27, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using the word crystalline. It can be used in typical forms or in creative ways (like the name of a town). What meaning does it hold for the story or character(s)? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by August 1, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published August 2). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Clearly a Party Site (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Danni crouched and considered the crystalline structure of the rock in her hand. The lab had scoured Kansas clay from its coarse features. Pink. Granite. Not the Woodland sandstone hearth she had expected to find at this depth. What did it mean? She glanced at the identified bones – beaver, deer, elk.
“Dr. Gordon?” One of the Lawrence students approached, sweaty after a humid day of trowel-work. “Wanted to invite you to a pig roast this weekend.”
“Yeah, my uncle’s a pit-master”
“A pit…It’s a pit not a hearth! Ha! We’ve discovered a thousand year old BBQ site!”
During my first attempt to make a pie crust, I slammed the ball of dough on the kitchen floor like a tennis player who lost the match. I grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and somewhere along the lines she wrote I became convinced that a happy home had pie. If I couldn’t master the crust, would I ever find happiness?
Throughout the years others have tried to teach me how easy it is — add ice water only to the dough; vinegar is the secret ingredient to great flakes; beat an egg yolk into the water; don’t over-knead; don’t under-knead; use a wooden rolling pin; stick your tongue out just a little to the left and it will all be okay. I’ve savored the crust of others, but never accomplished the task.
My fillings are divine, and I have a talent for spicing anything. Even when I omit the sugar, something Laura once wrote about doing, my balance of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger hold up. But that blasted crust; I just can’t get it right. I began cheating, buying refrigerator crusts, but even those substitutes can fall apart.
Does a home truly need pie?
Odd thing is, I prefer cake, and I make a marvelous yellow cake with deep dark chocolate frosting. But there’s something about pies. America is baseball and apple pies; Norman Rockwell captured Americana by painting pies from the oven. And Laura, well my beloved heroine of the frontier pioneers, mentions pie in nearly every book she penned.
Every time we moved when our kids were little, the first thing I’d think is that the kitchen needs a pie. Think of the wafting aroma of baked apples and buttery crust. The heat it gives off as it cool on the windowsill. Home is where the pie is. But there is not going to be a new home. The Calumet house fell through the cracks of miscommunication. The chickens are safe from becoming my first Michigan pie.
It’s disappointing to report, especially after the shared excitement and celebration last week, but it was not to be. When we accepted the rental offer, I told the landlords we’d discuss the matter with our kids and give them a move-in date. I asked for the full cost and was quoted first month, last and a deposit.
It was going to be tight. In fact, I burst into tears at JC Penny after realizing I couldn’t even buy the bargains. I realized the rental would strap us in a way, I couldn’t see how we’d make it work. We could afford the place month to month; we couldn’t afford to get in and buy the things we needed — like a pie pan or pants.
All our stuff remains in Sandpoint in storage and we have no plan to retrieve it this far. We simply keep paying on the storage. Because I earn an income as a writer, we don’t qualify for homeless veteran programs. I mean seriously, who works while homeless? I’ll tell you it’s extraordinarily difficult even with a flexible job like writing. That was the whole point of stabilizing. So when the landlord expressed disappointment that we wouldn’t move in until August 1, and tried to pressure us into paying for July to keep the rental, we passed.
As much as I’m craving pie, I’m also relieved.
We don’t want to be a fixture in our daughter’s home, languishing in her space, but they have kindly offered us the time we need to find the right place, save up money and figure out how to retrieve our belongings. In saying no, I felt empowered. So did the Hub. We’ve had to make so many hasty decisions or be at the mercy of transmission shops and VA gatekeepers this past year, that it felt good to make a decision to not be pressured too soon.
Like a kitchen with pie, it feels right to take small steps to stabilize. Already, Todd has had multiple VA appointments and slowly that wheel is turning again. His CBT intake begins today, something we’ve pushed to do for years and finally are receiving. Lots of personal goals are back on the table after being shelved, and I might find office space locally. We are still establishing roots in this marvelous community.
I know it’s a good place because the cultural heritage here is a lunch pie in the hand — pasties. It’s a heated debate as to whether or not the meat pies are of Finnish or Cornish origin, but I know the best pies in town come from a Fin family. I can imagine how miner’s wives once swapped recipes in their kitchens long ago, passing down assimilated foods for their descendants. My latest obsession is to look forward to a pasty on the beach before combing for agates.
Laura Ingalls Wilder has something to say about pie that reminds me about how I feel when writers gather around the table here to partake in the weekly meal, share their talents and hopes, express their ideas and encourage each other in writing:
“Ma said nothing, but a little flush came up her cheeks and her eyes kept on smiling while they ate that delicious pie.”
My pie crusts in the kitchen aren’t much, but my challenges are like a crust by which to frame the filling you all bring. So on that note, let us dig into pies.
July 20, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that features a pie. You can make it any kind of pie, focus on filling or crust, or tell us about the pie-maker. How does pie set a tone in a story? Does it warm the hearth or bring disappointment?
Respond by July 25, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published July 26). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
A Ruined Pasty (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli MIlls
Danni settled into the sand of Sioux Beach, burying her heals in warmth. A crowd of locals splashed in the bay off to her left, leaving this bit of solitude near the sloshing waves. She unwrapped her Bayfield Pies pasty from thick paper. It warmed her fingertips, and her first bite of crust filled with thin slices of carrots, potatoes and beef made her toes wiggle.
“Mmm…” Danni’s eyes closed while she chewed.
A shadow crossed her face and Danni opened one eye. Michael Robineaux. Ike’s best friend. He hated her, and he made her pie taste like sand.
Sails gain minimal height over rolling waves, riders like astronauts flip their bodies to the universe until gravity beats wind. They land, carving a crest of water. Not to be defeated, these wind-&-wave riders reach again and again for stars we can’t see in an overcast sky. Wake boards point to unseen constellations, but fall light years short of any terminus. Like writers, these Argonauts shoot for the moon. We never truly arrive, pointing our sails or words into the wind and leap perpetually.
We live for unexpected landings. Adventure or insights gained from a brutal crash, success and failure meld into multiple attempts that don’t end until we end the ride, pull the sails, clear the screen. Who wants to end when there’s so much wind yet to catch? So many words yet to write? The stars are near. The stories within reach. Type so fast your fingers lay a rooster-tail across the keyboard.
Blonde girls sell red strawberries along the foggy highway.
It’s a riddle to me. The wind-&-wave riders commune with my own seeking, but these girls make me question my location. My time. My space. Where am I? The fog tricks my senses, cloaking the season until my wandering mind marvels at strawberries in winter. No, it’s summer in the western hemisphere. Fog, berries and blondes. If I left Mars, I think I made an unexpected landing on Neptune.
In the southwest, where sand is its own artisan, attempting to blow its own glass with temperatures reaching furnace levels, red Mars is easy to see. Mesas and sandstone, heat and dry arroyos are the closest I’ve come to writing from another planet. Yet, now I find myself in this cool, watery and shrouded world. The blondes tell me its fine berry growing weather. And quarts of luscious sweet summer bites are only $4.95 while they last. Evidently Neptune must grow its own taste of summer because I see nothing else here that acknowledges the heat of Mars or the jungles of Kansas.
After a year and 27 days of wandering in search of home, I’ve found chickens. Look, chickens!
Like ladies in petticoats they run with wings as if to hike up their feathered skirts of buff, brown and red. The cock among them runs like a lady, too and they are charging me as if to respond to my distracted delight with a distraction of their own: Look, people! I cringe upon seeing the spurs, knowing the feel of such talons. I have little memory of the actual rooster attack except for falling to my young knees and covering my head with hands, screaming until my aunt beat the rooster to death with a broom. I don’t remember that it died, but feel bad, as if I caused his early entry to the stew pot, or so the ancient family story goes.
This fella is cheerful, the ladies excitable, and I throw back my head to laugh.
It’s foggy, but through the fine mist I can see twin spires of a Catholic Church bricked in Jacobsville Sandstone. I pause to wonder which group of miners dedicated this towering feature. All around me are chickens and miner’s houses in varying forms of decay. An Elvis poster hangs in a window across the street. Next door the house is neat as a pin, old, but standing tall. The next house is only a remnant of a cobbled rock foundation. Across from the rubble is a house about to go on sale at county auction. It will cost the buyer about $5,000, but no one gets to see inside until after the sale. It can be guts of joists and junk, or a gem in the rough. The house next to it has a malamute fixating on the chickens.
Here’s a look at the green and gray, the twin spires and the miner’s houses. Cue the choir:
The Hub and I fully intended to come to Michigan. It was the half-baked plan after reeling from the loss of home, of Elmira Pond and writing space. But the trailer we had leaked and didn’t pull well. The Hub went into a tactical response and we’ve been our own band of Argonauts ever since, picking cherries in Wallace, Idaho, discovering RV parks and migrant fruit-pickers in central Washington, landing on Mars for winter, taking detours through Pueblo nations, digging into the history of Kansas and Nebraska, passing the Midwest metropolises to arrive at one of the weirdest borders in America.
The Keweenaw was never for the feint of heart. Hard-rock miners from Cornwall and Slovenia, Sweden and Spain, Italy and Ireland, jack-hammered over 9,000 feet below after blue veins of copper for an industrializing nation. The Quincy Mine had 92 levels of darkness, as if to prove Dante wrong. Cemeteries are full of tributes to miners who died in the mines. The land itself is a peninsula poking its finger into the belly of Lake Superior, a fresh water lake capable of snapping an ocean-going steel freighter in two. It’s not connected to the state of Michigan, but is considered its upper peninsula (the U.P., thus naming its residents “yoopers”).
Mostly the Finns remain. Sisu, and all. It’s a Finnish construct for grit. To live on the Keweenaw takes grit. The summers are cool and the winters accumulate over 300 inches of snowfall called Lake Effect. That explains the fog, too. Lake Superior creates its own climate. The locals will tell ya, hey, that it’s da freshest air in the world. If fresh means cool, I’d agree. It does feel fresh as spearmint gum in my mouth. I wonder what the chickens make of winter? The townsfolk of Calumet, the village housing said chickens, has no ordinances and welcomes eccentricities.
This video shows a sunnier side of the village and the coffee shop where you’ll find me writing on occasion:
The chickens and I have an announcement: we are going to be neighbors for a year. The Hub and I are renting a home after homeless wandering, to experience the Sisu it takes to live on the Keweenaw through winter, to meet up with the artist community, and to continue the fine services we’ve encountered in the U.P. for the Hub. Yes, we are going to be yoopers. We don’t know if we’ll stay longer, go back out west or venture to yet another planet. For now, we’re going to take this unexpected landing and yet, keep aiming for the stars like the wind-&-wave riders.
Tonight my future landlord welcomed me to the town that once boasted of 30,000 citizens. I will join the 700 who remain. A new home, a new adventure, new stories to catch.
July 13, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about an unexpected landing. It can be acrobatic, an unplanned move or created into a metaphor. Go where the prompt, or chickens, lead.
Respond by July 18, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published July 19). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
The Coming Storm (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Wind gusted and cottonwoods along the creek groaned. A nightfall storm closed in. Sarah hadn’t meant to stay so late in the company of Nancy Jane, but venison stew and friendship offered made Sarah linger. How long since she’d had a friend?
A branch cracked and Sarah screamed, escaping the limb’s descent. A man hollered at her to get out of the trees. Topping the gully, Sarah recognized the young stock-tender who rarely spoke. Hickok led the way as trees began to snap.
Hickok’s dugout provided an unexpected landing from the raging storm. And an unanticipated reaction from Cobb.
It’s a muddle of music and smiling people in sunglasses beyond the orange fence of plastic netting. Entrance requires a red wristband and resolve. It’s Independence Day in the US and on the Keweenaw Peninsula, locals flock to Eagle River to celebrate. As crowds go it’s relatively small, but it’s still a crowd and I’m yet an introvert among so many unfamiliar things. What is it about unfamiliarity that seems unnerving?
Earlier at a beach on Lake Superior I heard the lament of a six-year-old boy, “I can’t overcome my fear!” I turned my gaze away from the rolling waves, to inspect a group of young boys splashing in the water. They were playing an imaginary game, a team of heroes on a mission. Except for the lone reluctant hero in a life vest and swim goggles who stood while his friends floated and swam. I can’t overcome my fear.
His tone was one any of us at any age could cry out. We fear new places and faces. We fear what we don’t know. We fear change. So we stay in the shallows, watching for danger.
I take a deep breath and extend my wrist to receive a band. I’m committing, going in, going deep. I’m shaky at first, not knowing anyone, but soon I follow the wafting aroma of smoked brisket, and loving arms reach for me with the familiar call of “Mama!” It’s my eldest and she’s with her husband in line for food. Fear melts away with a familiar anchor.
And maybe that’s what each of us needs — a guide to bring us in to a new harbor, a light to show us the rocky shoals. Once received we open up to the newness. Another boy at the beach stood up with his friend and together they went into the water. A few fearful cries soon diminished into laughter and together they splashed and played heroes. With my own lighthouse guiding me through the community event, I opened up to meeting new people and experiencing a Copper Country celebration.
A curious man approaches wearing pants of apricot and a silk neck scarf. My daughter mentions he’s filming a documentary and he invites us to a fundraiser with an invitation that is both artsy and strange. I wonder who he is and why he’s making a film. My daughter is part of a belly-dancing troupe and her husband drums. They know many people in the community who are living life to their own beat. I’ve yet to figure out the local beat, but feel more at home among the artistic and eccentric. I’m searching for the literary artistic and history eccentric.
So I ask the filmmaker if he’s from the area. He was born and raised on the Keweenaw, leaving in increments until he made it to NYC where he’s been making films for years. One of his films was received at the Sundance Festival in 2009. He tells me, “They’ve all been wondering what I’ve been doing since.”
“This documentary?” I ask.
He rolls his eyes with exaggerated drama. “It’s not a documentary. Well, I suppose some parts are. It’s creative. It’s different, no genre like it exists. It’s my creative expression.”
“I see.” Not really, but I see enough to hook my curiosity and decide I’ll go to the fundraiser and learn more. I might meet some writers, as I’ve heard there are a few about this area. One is even hosting a workshop on poetry and flash fiction. Ha! You bet I’m going to that one.
Then the filmmaker in the apricot pants explains what he’s been doing since his Sundance success: filmmaking. “It’s what I do. I make films.”
It’s what I do. I write. It seems such a simple statement on one hand and so bold on the other. And yet, in writing I do so much more than tap keys or splatter sentences in ink. I process. What I feared and faced, I write about at some point whether it’s something I acknowledge consciously or not. What I fear and think I’ve smothered also comes out. It’s not all about fear, but fear certainly has great sway over us.
I think about fear as fireworks flare in the sky. I watch the shadow of a person fogged in pyrotechnic smoke light the mortars on the beach. Is he not afraid of his task? I watch my husband who says he loves the fireworks display, and recall last year’s holiday when he charged across a Forest Service campground in the dark because someone was “shooting.” It was fireworks and he soon realized after a camping neighbor calmed him down.
The difference was not the fireworks but the unfamiliarity — he expects fireworks at this event.
Houses stretch three stories tall around this region. Most are old houses from the grand mining era pre-1900s. The bedrock is too close to the surface to dig basements so they are rocked as the ground level, then the main floor and a second. Some bigger houses have a fourth attic or maid’s quarters. They look scary to me, tall and speaking of deep snow and old ways. Yet I love the house my daughter owns. She and her husband have painted the walls vibrant colors, the hues of sunflowers and of sky and deep lake water.
Did technology bring about too many changes, or ones that left people without a lighthouse to guide them? I always thought the globalization of the internet would bring us all closer together. In many ways it has. Perhaps blogging, writing, are mediums of light that shine a path to bridge cultural differences. The fear expressed by many in the US reminds me of the child’s admission, “I can’t get over my fear.” Instead of looking for a way, some people have backed out of the water and barricaded themselves on the beach.
It’s not that there’s nothing to fear. Terrorism itself is the invoking of fear; it’s meant to terrorize. Water can be dangerous; children do drown. But we have choices. We have offers of hands to join together. It reminds me of the Great American Desert beyond the Missouri River, which terrified Americans yet beckoned them to cross for riches or land. Many did overcome their fear and a few even settled, including the McCanles family.
In my research, I’ve come across a written oral history of a family contemporary to the McCanleses — the Helvey family. Frank Helvey was 19 when his family decided to run a road station the same year as Cobb bought Rock Creek. The Helvey’s bought the Big Sandy Station 15 miles up trail from Rock Creek. Frank writes, “With McCanles and his men I was very well acquainted, and can say that a wrongful impression was given of him, and of the affair between him and Wild Bill, who I also believe was much maligned.”
Why do we run around in the dark with an inferior torch claiming the world is scary and preferring to only see in front of our face what we think we know? The settlers “knew” the Pawnees and Otoes were dangerous. The historians “knew” Cobb was a bad hombre. Many waited until people like the Helvey’s and Mary McCanles carved homes and ranches and communities on the prairie before they decided it was safe to wrest away from the remaining reservations. Indeed, there were a few raids on settlers in 1864 and 67, but in comparison to the massacres by US Cavalry, it was the Natives who should have had the greater fear.
It’s not that fear itself is so bad. Fear is a warning — proceed with caution; be safe. Entrepreneurs and artists take calculated risks — they strategize to overcome doubt and fear to do or create something new. Fear is best acknowledged, not justified. It’s fear justified that skews thinking and actions. In this recent body of research, I read about the Pawnee and Otoe and how fearful they made the settlers in their war to save their hunting grounds. That fear became an entrenched justification for robbing them of their lands. The extreme prejudice I’m reading in this history echoes today.
Like the boy on the beach, we need to overcome our fears to participate fully in a modern and connected world of many cultures. Like his friends, maybe we can offer to light the way for others.
July 6, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about a beacon. It can be from a lighthouse or other source. Use the word literally or figuratively and go where the prompt leads you.
Respond by July 11, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published July 12). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Night Riders (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
“Nancy Jane, it’s dark. I can’t see!” Sarah reached for her friend.
“Beyond the ravine we’ll have light. Come on!”
When they emerged from the creek oaks and cottonwoods, the plains remained cloaked. Stars cast no light on this moonless night, but lone campfires topped the hills. Sarah asked, “Why are people in small camps? I thought they were afraid to sleep outside groups.”
“Nah, those are the fires warning where the ridges are.” Nancy Jane whistled and her horse nickered in return. “Ready, Sarah? Let’s ride the plains and let the Otoe night signals light our way.”