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Someone has propped a frail and wrinkled woman on a metal folding chair by the entrance to Earl’s diner. The folds in her face are deep, like an dried apple doll I once saw in a folk museum. Her white hair is piled on her head in Navajo style, and she seems shrunken with thin arms drawn up. Her dress is traditional Navajo and I approach her with the respect due an elder. She’s selling beaded medicine bags and has a few dollars and quarters on her display tray.
“Ya’at’eeh.” I cringe at how poorly I form the greeting in my mouth, hoping she doesn’t take offense.
Softly, I hear her words, clicks and sounds I don’t understand. I kneel beside her and she touches her hand with bent fingers to each bag. I hear clearly, “$45.” More clicks, more explanation in Navajo, her hand on the next bag. “$45.”
I shake my head. I don’t have the money and won’t dishonor her by offering her $10, the only bill I have.
She moves on to each bag, “$45.”
“They’re beautiful. Thank you for letting me look.”
Then her hand with the bent fingers taps the change on her tray. With the saddest eyes she looks right at me and says, “All I have.” If it weren’t illegal to nab a woman from the streets, I’d have picked her right up and given her room in my RV, adopting a forever Grandmother. How could I leave her there? We gaze into each other’s eyes. Wiley old woman. Her black eyes twinkle. She knows she has me.
A younger woman, as in 70 not 240, steps up and begins to talk in Navajo and I’m let off the hook. As I walk away I hear another woman click in the Navajo way, but say in English, “I’d have offered you $35.” I smile. Humor in this culture is subtle, polite and true. Inside Earl’s I catch up with the Hub and we take a table in the full restaurant. Earl’s is the heart of Gallup. No matter which reservation or pueblo you come from, this is where you go. I’m aware that we are the only Anglo faces. Bilagaanas.
What is it to be a minority? Is it about culture, skin tone, position of power? I don’t feel like a minority in Gallup, the Indian Capital of the World. It’s not so much a reflection of my own sense of being, but that I feel welcome although a stranger to these parts. No one stares, or glares. I don’t hear snide comments or feel dehumanization of the other. Those are disconnecting experiences for any marginalized group. Toas musician, Robert Mirabal, sings a sad song about the disconnection that leads to the high rate of suicide among Native youth:
“Can you take it away,
can you kiss it away,
can you take it away,
can you kiss it away…
I’m the mirror that reflects all…”
I’m the mirror that reflects the forgotten and disenfranchised in America. I know what it is to feel alone and broken. I can recognize the brokenness around me in a place called Earl’s. And what I mirror is not disconnectedness, but acceptance, beauty and strength. There’s no pretense here. No one is on a diet, recovering from plastic surgery or driving the latest luxury car advertised for discerning tastes. I don’t know the stories seated around me, but I know they are rich with love and loss, pain and beauty. Beauty, not suffering. Recently a veteran therapist said to me and the Hub, “Pain in life is inevitable; suffering optional.” To me beauty is taking that pain and working it into something meaningful and connected.
Not everyone understands.
Since becoming stranded in Gallup, we’ve come to know that this is a busy RV park for travelers going elsewhere. This is not the destination. We’re the odd ducks who stay longer than a recovery day or two from driving what was once Route 66, America’s Main Street. Gallup emerged as an overnight hub for travelers going to LA from Chicago. Old motels with peeling paint and faded signs line the old Route 66 strip. Trading posts that once attracted tourists on the road now sell Chinese-made knock-offs online. Others sell plastic beads to local artists. A recent RV neighbor told us she went downtown and there was “nothing.” Gallup has nothing is a common phrase we hear from travelers.
Gallup has warrior-artists, people who battle the pain of displacement, irrelevance and poverty to produce visual treasures. I’m razzle-dazzled like the ghosts Mirabal sings of, “The dawn has come…” At Earl’s I anticipate the dawn, the parade of “sellers” as they are called, walking through the diner with their trays full of their art. Different genders, different generations, different clans or tribes. Each artist expresses their own designs, stamps artist initials to distinguish authenticity and politely shows what they have for sale. I’ve become curious to know about their designs, meanings and stories. I’m the literary artist seeking shades of words to tell the tale.
“It’s the sunset,” he leans in to tell me as if disclosing a secret. I’m chatting over a full cup of coffee with the Hopi man who makes pottery in traditional colors (black and white or red and black with white accents). Yet he has a few pieces with non-traditional hues. The one that catches my curiosity is a red clay pot with a band the color of butter circling its middle. Above lavender darkens to purple. Below is a band of dark green like mesquite. When he says it’s the sunset, I see it. I’ve seen it out my RV door. I can’t buy the pot but neither can I un-see the gift of its beauty, the sharing of its intent.
“Hey!” At the loud and friendly voice I turn to see my favorite silversmith. She’s the artist who walks to town on her Goodyear tires, in joking reference to her tennis shoes. KJ was the first artist we met and today she makes us feel like family. “You still here?”
“Still no transmission,” I say and she commiserates with us a moment then shows me her near empty tray.
“Sold ’em all. Ha! I better go make more!”
I’m happy for her. It’s like running into an author with a near-empty box of novels at a book fair. She tells us her son, one of three children serving in the military, has shipped out to Korea. Suddenly, politics have become real. How many patriots has this community lost? I’ve seen the profusion of American flags snapping in the wind at every cemetery we’ve passed on the reservations. Gallup is also known as the Most Patriotic Town in America. Home of Code-Talkers, medal recipients, those who gave their lives in service. It’s not a populist patriotism. It’s dedicated, honorable and non-partisan.
We don’t eat out often and usually we make it our one meal of the day, snacking on cheese and crackers or PBJs later. We don’t come for the food but for the community, the connection. I’ve ordered meatloaf, comfort food. The menu describes it as Spanish, which means it will have a red or green chili sauce. It wasn’t specified. In New Mexico chilis come green or red. You have to be careful. Red is actually mild. Green can blow your head off, especially if it has chunks of bright green chilis. Christmas is not just a holiday in New Mexico; it’s a combination or red and green chilis.
“Excuse me, I overheard you are having transmission troubles,” says the man at the next table, who had been quietly chatting with two women in Navajo. Turns out he’s a diesel mechanic. He and the Hub discuss the transmission and how to solve our problem. I listen, interject and continue to watch the walking art show.
Then my salad arrives and I’m transported to my roots. I’d ordered Thousand Island, a dressing not often on menus. Now I’m tasting the Thousand Island dressing of cowboys, a Depression-era recipe of ketchup thinned with mayo. It then occurs to me that meatloaf is also a Depression-era recipe, extending ground beef with saltine crackers. I once thought I grew up with traditional recipes, but now I’m facing the truth of that tradition — it’s poor food. I don’t mean the food is poor, I mean the people consuming it know poverty. The farmers, the fruit pickers, the Oakies, the Mexicans, the ranch hands, the transient. And I know why I’m struggling with the pain of my situation. It’s the shame of my impoverished roots.
I’m the mirror that reflects all. I realize my comfort in what should be a strange culture. We find comfort in poor food. We’ve gathered in a restaurant to pay money to eat poor food! The foodie in me wants to gasp and run away. Certainly for the same amount of money I can go buy some gourmet ingredients at the Gallup Safeway and whip up something tastier, fancier, richer. Instead, I own it. With absolute relish I eat my runny dressing, dig into my meatloaf with red chili sauce next to mashed potatoes with brown gravy and relish my plain pinto beans.
The beans I savor. Bare naked dried pintos hard boiled at least a day. This was the staple of my childhood kitchen. When you bite a boiled pinto, the fiber releases a distinct bean flavor. My grandmother grew these beans, dried them and boiled them with cloves of garlic. Even better, is to fry these beans in lard, mashing them as they fry. Refried beans. Mana of every westerner. Edward Abbey writes about refried beans and every initiate to the West eats them as the “Edward Abbey diet.” It’s my go-to. I always have a can of refried beans and a packet of corn masa tortillas. A little jack cheese and I’m transported to my comfort zone.
To realize this connection between my childhood and the those around me, I feel like I belong. Earl’s would not be the kind of restaurant I would have written about in my food column years ago, but it has given me a valuable insight. I’m no longer ashamed of my poor food roots. In fact, I didn’t realize I was and I’m pleased to have extracted that awareness. It brings me back to Mirabal when he sings about the burn of conflict we all feel because no one escapes walking in two worlds.
There’s the world represented by the ancient Navajo woman outside, the medicine world. Call it your spirituality, your Christianity, your Muslim or Hindi faith, your atheism. It’s your inner beliefs, your culture, your desire to know who you are and why you are. Mirabal says it has a dance, a language, the music and the arts. It’s all the beautiful things. The other world is that of confusion and computers, of cars and telephones. It’s chaos and yet we need it. He shouts, “Do you feel that burn of conflict? DO YOU FEEL THAT BURN OF CONFLICT? Yeah, I thought you did…” But then he prays for the next generation that their paths and transitions will be smoother, easier and that their fires will burn with hope, desire and love. “Do you feel that love? DO YOU FEEL THAT LOVE…”
Like the Taos People we live with our angels and demons. This is the dance between pain and beauty. Push into the fire, extract your art.
One concern I have as a writer it is that of right. What do I have the right to write? I’m all about diversity in books and making the literary arts available to all cultures. But do I have the right to write about other cultures? This was a topic at BinderCon LA in 2014. The grievous act is that of perpetuating stereotypes in fiction. In memoir, the concern is where does our story end and invade the privacy of another? I’m not sure I have the answer, but I’ll do my best to kneel in respect and try to understand. I’ll look for connections and common ground. I’ll share handshakes, art and laughter. I’ll be me and recognize you.
Writing Ike’s best friend, Michael Robineaux, as Native American initially felt uncomfortable to me. It wasn’t gratuitous. It was to honor a teenage sweetheart whose uncles had all been Marines. We worked together at a state park and he drove me crazy with all his boyish teasing. I didn’t know until later that he had wanted to ask me to be his girlfriend. I would have liked that, but I think we were both shy in that regard. I knew even as a teen that Natives were proud to serve in the military and I wanted to find a way to recognize that, thus my character’s creation.
What helps with developing any character is to think of him or her outside the frame of the story. What was childhood like? Did he move around or never leave until military service? What’s his favorite book, or does he like to fish after work? Is he neat or untidy? Who is his sister? What’s their relationship like? Does he hate a certain band? Why? And what food did he grow up with? What brings him comfort, or feels familiar?
May 4, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about comfort food. How can this familiarity influence a story or character? Is it something unusual, like Twinkies from the 1970s? Or is it something from home, from another place or time? Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by May 9, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published May 10). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Normal Tastes (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Tobasco Sauce?” Danni sat down with Michael and sprinkled her eggs liberally.
“I tasted it once on raw oysters, and it was not pleasant. Might have been the oysters, though.”
“I love fried oysters. If we ever ate out as a kid, we’d go to the Red Lion in Elko. I’d have liver and onions or fried oysters.”
“No hamburger and fries like a normal kid?”
“Nope, but if I’m to eat slimy things I like them peppered, breaded and fried.”
“Hmm.” Michael sprinkled two dots of sauce on his eggs. “Not sure I like food that bites back.”
Of course the Land of Enchantment would have some oddities. That’s the state nickname for New Mexico, and I’m studying the terrain as we drive from Gallup to Albuquerque. The first trip, when we went seeking a transmission like pilgrims, it looked too unfamiliar and undefinable. My comparisons to rosy Mars and towering pillars of Zion left New Mexico wan and pale, like the corpse of someone I didn’t know. I sought familiarity.
“Is that pavement?” The Hub asks as he’s drives.
Funny, I was trying to discern the same odd plates of black as if a road construction company dumped broken pavement from a defunct highway. Mile after mile of these black piles, I finally answer. “It’s pahoehoe.”
That earns me a sideways glance from the Hub whom I often call the Puritan for his annoying habit of correcting my speech. I like to throw out words he doesn’t know to make him think. I doubt I’m saying it correctly, but he doesn’t know Hawaiian inflection. I’m well-read and articulate but mostly mispronounce the words I know. I just don’t know how to say them. The Hub is a grammatical Puritan, and he’s chewing on pahoehoe. He’s also smart and knows my obsessions, geology being one. “Lava?” he finally asks.
Pahoehoe is one of my favorite geology words because it’s fun to say, and I don’t trip over it the way I do Quaternary, which is my favorite geological period. It’s when humans appeared as nomadic hunters and gatherers, when saber-tooth tigers were real and hunters could take down mammoths for a month’s worth of tribal meals and hide coats for all. It’s when volcanoes and glaciers were active. Pahoehoe is the form lava can take, having once been magma that oozed slowly across a place, creating nature’s own parking lots. You might say, the natural creation was thousands of years ahead of human technology to produce cars. Now we create our own pavement.
Evidence of my lava theory arrives as a roadside sign, announcing: Fire & Ice! It’s a turn-off to Bandera Volcano and Ice Cave. Where’s there’s an erupted volcano, there’s a chance for pahoehoe, hardened flat black lava. Bandera is one of the West’s best preserved eruptions and is about 10,000 years old, meaning it would coincide with ancient habitation of this region. The Hopi, Zuni, Pueblo and other Southwestern tribes claim to be descendants from the ancient ones, and yet all have different languages and cultures. The word Anasazi, often said to mean “ancient ones” actually means “ancient enemies” in Navajo. In the Land of Enchantment, there are many truths. Strange truths.
One truth about Bandera is that a collapsed lava tube maintains a 31 degree temperature, thus forming an ancient ice cave.
Another truth is that the resulting core might be an omphalos; a navel of the earth. Despite differing languages and clan cultures, the tribes of New Mexico say they climbed out of the earth’s navel and spread across the land (for creative takes on origin myths see Origin Stories). To the Pueblos, the journey continues, and some of the clan destinations included what we call “ruins” like Aztec Ruins National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park and Chaco Canyon World Heritage Center. All of these dwellings are said to not be abandoned, but occupied by the spirits of Pueblo ancestors. Many descendants explain that time is irrelevant and just yesterday they began their journey, climbing out of the earth’s navel.
Some sci-fi aficionados might liken this idea to portals in time and space. It’s so ingrained in native culture, that the kivas of the centers were built deep, round and accessible through the roof. When ceremonies were held, the people climbed down from the cedar roof with the reverence of entering the womb. Even today, the Hopi, Zuni and Pueblo clans regard these centers as sacred and spiritual. The Navajo say chindis (ghosts) populate these places. On the sandstone cliffs of Chaco Canyon, original inhabitants left behind painted hand prints. Imagine hovering your palm upon the print of your ancestor from 850 AD. Having visited Chaco Canyon with ravens eerily standing guard, I can believe in chindis easily. I can believe in the spirit-world of the Southwest. It doesn’t surprise me that Chaco closes at dusk.
The fact that Chaco Canyon is memorialized as sacred, introduces another truth and oddity: It is illegal to deposit the ashes of human remains at Chaco. My immediate thought was, who would do that? Evidently, “wildcat scattering” of cremated remains has become a thing, with reports of people spreading the phosphorous powder of deceased loved ones in public and scenic places from sports fields to Disneyland to scenic vistas. National Parks at the Grand Canyon and Yosemite offer scattering permits. Others, like Chaco Canyon, forbid it. Thinking on this unusual activity, I’m reminded how reluctant we are to discuss death and mortality. Yet, according to the Internet Cremation Society, over half of US deaths will result in cremation, and surprising (to me) it’s most popular in the western states.
Call me an old-fashioned story-teller who loves to read history in graveyards, but I had no idea.
My grandparents were each cremated, but it’s a vague awareness because they had funerals and were interred in the same cemetery where my great-grandparents were buried. I laughed, bittersweet, with my best friend when we were planning her funeral and she asked about being buried with the ashes of her beloved dog who died just months before she did. The answer was, slip “it” in when no one was looking! We did. The funeral home knew about it and simply looked the other way. Then there’s the story about Aunt Susie.
Aunt Susie was my cousin’s great aunt and when before she died, she asked that her ashes be scattered across the Sierras where she spent a lifetime hiking and fishing. It became a bizarre family burden as each person tasked with wildcat scattering Aunt Susie’s ashes died before completing the deed. Finally, after yet another family funeral, my cousin took charge of the ashes and told her dad that they would take care of it as they drove home from California to Nevada over the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
At a scenic spot off the highway and over one of the creeks Aunt Susie might have fished (it’s unknown), my uncle pulled over, and an argument ensued. He agreed to drive the ashes, but he wanted nothing to do with opening the plastic bag and relieving its contents. Neither did my cousin. Finally, her 10-year old daughter volunteered. The girl carried the bag to a rise above the creek and began swinging it in a windmill fashion. In horror, my uncle asked, “What is she doing?”
Who teaches another how to scatter ashes? We don’t even speak of it, let alone pass down tips and etiquette. It’s not like, “Put your napkin in your lap,” or “Say please and thank you.” No one says, “And whatever you do, don’t swing the bag over your head.”
My cousin’s daughter reached a point where physics kicked in, and the ashes indeed scattered, but also dumped over her head. She ran back to the car, face white with residue, eyes wide, sputtering, “Mom! I got Aunt Susie in my mouth!” It might be appropriate to note to the uninitiated that cremated ashes hold no health risk. No, the reason Chaco Canyon does not want unceremonious dumping, windmilling or burying of ashes with or without New Age crystals has nothing to do with health risk. It’s not even because it’s disconcerting to come across a questionable white pile on a public trail. It’s because Chaco Canyon is culturally sacred and memorialized to the Southwestern tribes.
The oddities don’t end here. (And if you, like me, are curious about the growing phenomenon of cremation and what to do with ashes, read Ashes Underfoot.)
In my quest to satisfy my curiosity over why Chaco Canyon would post such a sign as Don’t Scatter Ashes, I came across a 1998 article from The New Yorker by Douglas Preston, one of my favorite authors. But he discusses cannibalism among the Anasazi. Well, maybe that’s why the Navajo feared them as evil. And yet, it’s so unlikely. The Hopi and Pueblos have no stories of cannibalism. Often, the worst human atrocities are attributed to conquered or enslaved peoples as a way to justify their treatment. The leading archaeologist who put forth the theory has not consulted the tribes, and is at hostile odds with most colleagues in the niche field of Southwestern archaeology. Yet, in the Land of Enchantment, there are many truths. He has physical evidence of violence, dismembering and even pot polishing.
But why? One truth is that the Chaco culture achieved astonishing feats of engineering and art. Many scholars believed they lived a utopian lifestyle. A scientifically documented drought is believed to have ended the expansion of the culture. Yet, lingering Navajo stories of abandoned places holding chindis, of former enslavement seems at odds with the utopian and advanced civilization ideals. Even archaeologists have puzzled over why uncovered ruins from the era are often intact with valuables, as if people disappeared into thin air. Did they return to the navel of the earth? Did aliens transport them away? Was the culture good or evil?
What if we are asking the wrong questions? This is something important for you to think about as a writer. It’s vital that you ask questions others are not asking. If we all zip down the same paths, avoid the same uncomfortable topics and make assumptions everyone else believes, how will we ever write something new and different? When I began my research into Rock Creek I looked at all the theories and eventually asked enough questions, the questions other historians didn’t think to ask, and I came up with a new theory. For my historical writing, exploring women and others marginalized in history, the field is wide open.
The question the archaeologists don’t ask is that of human psychology. Preston explains how archaeologists cling to the concept of culture. The one archaeologist who pursued the cannibalism theory told Douglas in his article that the discipline needs to adopt a “Darwinian paradigm of evolutionary psychology.” He says archaeologists need a paradigm shift to “…understand the darker side of human nature in the archeological record.” This is where writers need to dare to go, too. I highly recommend reading Preston’s article, Cannibals of the Canyon. Not only is it one of the strangest looks at ancient culture in New Mexico, it’s excellent writing by one of my favorite Western authors. Read his bio and drool (or maybe that’s just me).
Back to the drive to Albuquerque. A second one is on the way. Progressive Insurance finally caught up with us in Gallup, although we managed the repairs on our own, it’s unlikely we’ll be reimbursed. But we all agreed that Camping World will be liable for a thorough inspection once we get to Kansas. The transmission wasn’t on the delivery truck today. Unless it vanishes like the Anasazi, it’s supposed to be ready for us to nab tomorrow. I’ll look at the drive with new eyes.
And don’t worry. I’m not going to expect anyone to write uncomfortable topics this week, unless you have belly-button issues and if you do, write it out.
April 20, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a navel story. It can include a belly-button, feature an omphalos (geological or cultural), or extend to navel-gazing (used in meditation or to describe excessive self-contemplation). Go where this oddity leads you.
Respond by April 25, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published April 26). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
The Need to Know (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Danni sat on her haunches, studying the bone fragment. The school bus had left, but this piece found by a third-grader intrigued her.
“Is that one of my ancestors?” Michael had returned with Bubbie.
“Mmm, probably not, unless your ancestors ate each other.”
Michael snorted. “You bone-diggers. Navel-gazing at everything.”
Danni stood up and stretched, surprised to hear the pain in Michael’s tone. “I’m sorry. No offense intended. It’s a deer bone, likely, but has pot-polish from being boiled. It says something about what occurred here.”
“Let the place be sacred, Danni. You don’t have to know every detail.”
Farewell to flying monkeys, the black chimps who once flew from mesas, proving jet seats safe for ejection. You gave me a road to explore land as strange and wondrous as Mars. Farewell to roads that skirt the baggy pants of scree, proving what drives up (the mesa) must drive down. Unless, one decides to fly or become a hermit. I could become a hermit until those Mars temperatures exceed my low tolerance for sun-baked heat or I remember my comfy bed.
Farewell to GhostRider, Utah’s saving grace for piss-water beer. It’s commendable that the straight-laced state legislates responsible drinking, but when my RV lands elsewhere than Mars, I’m going to have a pizza and beer in a bar that doesn’t require I have to eat pizza in order to be served a low-alcohol beverage. Wasatch Brewery, in great Utah irony, brews a respectable white IPA with an adult alcohol content but can only be purchased out of state. I’m onto you, Utah! I found your GhostRider IPA in Nevada, having crossed the Arizona Strip to claim it.
Yes, I’ve been bootlegging while on Mars.
Farewell candy-drenched colors of the sweet and arid desert. How pleasant you’ve been in winter (except when your clay clung like taffy to the truck tires). I never experienced the same day twice on Mars. The light slants at a different angle; the shadows dip into crevices; the partial or full sun filters color from rose to apricot. You are vast and varied, reminding me that creativity has a grand canvas and art is never fully realized, crafting still from the dinosaurs of yesterday to the shed lizard skins of future summer. I close my eyes and feel the vibration of the truck, in my imagination I can always return.
I offer my farewells to a western sun shining gold on thin steel clouds. If I had a GhostRider in my hand, I’d toast a brown bottle the direction of flying monkeys because I can see the mesas monkeys explored. I can see the squared top of Zion’s West Temple, glowing like a rosy aureola. I can see Molly’s Nipple, where I wanted to go, but the Hub couldn’t shoot up there on the black volcanic core. That’s okay. It’s good enough to see from here.
Here, is Fort Pearce. It’s rock ruins on a hill, overlooking a red slash across the desert along an intermittent creek. The red slash is what remains of the Honeymoon Trail, a level lower than where I first crossed it’s path. The fort protected those seeking temple sealing for their marriage, and was established during Blackhawk’s War. Poke around the place and you’ll discover why it was sacred to Native Americans: it harbors a fresh spring, the treasure of any desert. I’ve walked south from the fort to follow the western sun as it sinks.
I, too, sink into the land, pondering farewell.
How does one say goodbye to something that’s marked the soul and psyche? In order to write the land, any land — the microcosms in your own garden dirt or dust motes in your flat or moors in your backyard — you have to be present. Writers understand presence. You can’t write without being present on the page. Writing is not doodling, something you do during a boring meeting. Writing is not knitting, or any craft you can do while watching TV. Writing demands you be here, right now. The sharpest writing cuts through space and time. Therefore, to write the land one must be present with it.
And I am present, in this moment, standing on a spine of yellowed sandstone the color of an old bride’s weathered wedding dress. I’m mentally flipping through the album of memories, wondering when they will fade. It’ll all be here when I’m gone. It doesn’t require my presence, it’s colors don’t depend upon my eyesight. But we’ve had a relationship. Not a marriage, but certainly a fling. I caress the cheek of an exposed rock with my shoe, and sand lightly shudders between the contact. I’m not certain if the land is alive, or if I’m the one it electrifies to life, like it’s Dr. Frankenstein and I’m the monster. It’s my clay, my origin and one day to it I shall return.
Not today. Or maybe today. The Sioux Warriors faced mortality, saying, “Today is a good day to die.” Again, it’s about presence. When we are present, we face the duality of life and death within us. The creek and path below the ridge are at least 40 feet down a precipice. Like baby steps toward mortality, I step down the sand-slick rocks that form a natural staircase. At 20 feet above the creek, I peer over the edge. It’s no abyss, just a hard rock, bone-crushing bottom — with a curious hole the diameter of a soup bowl. It’s so round and smooth, potentially a grinding portal, and it awakens my curiosity. It will be the death of me. Edging closer I make a daring choice.
It’s only 20 feet. The sandstone has no more steps, but I carefully find footholds until I reach handholds. I’m not fit for mountaineering, but ah, the body remembers it. At this point I can still scale upwards, but my heart pounds at the realization I can also fall, and it’s too far to fall without cracking bones. A second decision. I decide to continue down to the ledge. I hope that hole in the rock is worth the one in my head where thoughts of safety fled the scene to let curiosity play. I’ve got flying monkeys in the brain.
Safely on the ledge, I still have another 10 feet to drop. Jumping is for younger, sprier bodies. So I sit and hesitate. I can see there is another ledge only three feet below my shoes. It’s the unknown that is in between. The ledge is a perfect hiding spot for rattlers. Now I think of rattlesnakes! A lizard zips past as if to say, “Yep! Reptiles are now active.” It’s the perfect time of day for snakes to also be descending to the water below. I look back up at blue skies and tattered clouds, deepening in color as the sun nears the horizon. Do, or die. Do, and die. Just do it.
The moment slows like a bullet in ballistics gel. My bare calves tingle at the imagined strike of a startled rattler. I hang them over the edge feeling as if I’ve made bait of my own body. I hop. Then quick hop the remaining rocks to the bottom. The empty crevice stares back at me like the empty chamber in Russian roulette. A surge of adrenaline gives me attitude and I whoop because I made it down a cliff face. Resting my hand on the iron patina of a boulder that fell long ago from the height above, I feel indentations. Looking closely, I’m stunned to realize my hand rests upon a block of petroglyphs, each one formed with rock-on-rock drilled holes.
The desert has just said farewell to me, too. I take this final gift, wrap up the memory in my hope chest, and feel as the pioneer women must have felt. Onward ho.
My thoughts are on Danni. As a character in WIP #1, she’s most present in the archaeology grid. Like a writer, she can hone her focus and spend endless hours at tasks others might not understand. She’s a historical archaeologist, which means her second place of presence is in the archives dungeon. It’s not hard to guess that Danni is an introvert. Ike, is not. He’s her connection to the outside world, the one who reached into the pit and said, “Hello.” He broke her focus and stirred her curiosity. With him gone, she’s out of sorts and craves the cover of her retreats. In such a way, that is how writing can be double-edged — it calls us to the present and yet demands such focus we are not present to anything else.
Like Danni, we all need to strike a balance between the oppositions in our lives. And we are often called to say goodbye. It merely opens a door to hello, that will also lead to a goodbye. Kind of like my favorite Beatle’s song “Hello, Goodbye”:
March 30, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a hello or a goodbye. You can pick any greeting that grabs you from howdy to fare thee well. It will be interesting to see how the collection intertwines the opposite greetings. Go where the prompt leads you.
Respond by April 4, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published April 5). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Ike’s First Hello (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Them Wranglers, cowgirl?”
She’d been focused on brushing the next layer, irritated someone would enter her grid to comment on her jeans. Without pausing, she said, “Want a broken nose, farm boy?”
“Farm boy? I’m hurt. I’m a fisherman. Can’t you smell me?”
Danni stopped and stood in the square pit. The corners of Ike’s eyes crinkled and he stood with a fly-rod like a staff. His pants were wet like he’d been swimming with the trout. He wheeled around, bent forward and pointed to the leather brand on the butt of his jeans. “You’re right—I got Wranglers, too!”
In my mind, my Aunt Mary McCanles is as stoic as the women painted in pioneer portraits. Grim smile, bun puled taut, knuckles gnarled from the hard work of homesteading folded passively on her lap as she sits in her rocking chair for the camera. The romantic notion that wagons west was the adventure we modern descendants missed, that times were once simpler and more decent is among the big western myths. It’s true, Mary had courage and the wit to survive. She worked hard to raise four sons and an invalid daughter on the vast prairie of Nebraska Territory as a widow.
Maybe it’s because of the romance of the west, or maybe because she was my kin, I find it difficult to access her complexity. She’s human and must have been a woman of dichotomies. Aren’t we all? Life isn’t just about our personalities and the places we live, but it’s the intersection between our worst and best traits on our worst and best days. Add to the mix a harsh land and the reality of migration, and Mary had no chance to be a paper doll from a children’s American West set. She was a flesh and blood, heart and mind, physical and soulful woman.
When I think of stories, I think in terms of what if. To me, that’s where the action unfolds. What if a woman followed her husband and his former mistress out west, migrating to a frontier? What if she left behind a home and family she’d never see again? What if her husband was gunned down one afternoon? What if is the blueprint for the external story.
Internally, motivation becomes a driver. Why would she follow her husband and his former mistress to such a place? How did she cope in a new community? Did his death change her? What about love? Did she love her husband because he was the father of her five children or did she marry out of a sense of duty? The internal story shapes the human triumph or tragedy.
For a work of historical fiction, research collects the facts that detail the story. These details include every day occurrences, such as the life of a pioneer homesteader. They can also give clues to personality through eye-witness accounts or remembrances. Newspaper clippings give tone to decipher attitudes and culture. For example, slavery in the US is unavoidable, reading a southern newspaper from the 1850s. The attitudes of the culture emerge in ads advertising poultry and slave auctions like normal events. They were, for the times.
I’ve talked about the story structure I use to write novels — a W that outlines the hero’s journey. Recently, I heard Matt Damon give an interview about an upcoming movie about the Great Wall in China. He called it a classic hero’s journey. Yet, I think even the tale of a woman on the prairie, sweeping a cracked mud floor and boiling laundry can be a hero’s journey, too. Rock Creek, my historical novel in progress, has five heroes. Two are historically accounted as one hero and one villain. I retell their story through the three perspectives of the women who knew them both and experienced the infamous event at Rock Creek one hot July day in 1861.
Only one character has the full hero’s arc — Sarah Shull. The remaining characters fill in the external or internal stories.
Motives for the two men have been debated over 150 years. I have new ideas on plausible motives to expand the narrow thinking of the men who have written the histories. I also have motives for the women. But Mary’s domestic motive has seemed bland to me — I don’t want to paint her as just another stoic prairie wife. And Sarah Shull, as former mistress, has been given several titillating motives and I didn’t want her to be a mythological soiled dove of the West. Nancy Jane has been vibrant to me because she is what any woman unfettered could have been — capable and feisty.
Writing into Mary’s dark intentions one flash a few weeks ago, I hit on an important plausible motive behind her pursuit of Cobb. It continued to worm its way into my imagination to give more fertile ground to consider motives of Sarah. How might Sarah’s knowledge of Mary’s motives shadow her own? That led to me thinking about Sarah’s friendship with Nancy Jane. After spending a weekend with a McCanles cousin whose research and opinion I respect, I was in a brain churning process. Do you know that feeling? That mind-space where you go over your internal and external stories trying to dig deeper for that coveted surprise you know is there, somewhere between the details?
Then a conversation with a trusted friend who knows the full story (something I protect from historians because it is a bombshell and will rock the Wild Bill World) led to a moment of inspiration. You might say, I had a perfect storm this week. When I sat down to tap out that inspired idea, 5,443 words later I actually had my motives emerge fully and I had my ending. That might sound odd — to find an ending to a historical story where we know how it ends. But of course, who would read it if I told the story from start to finish? That’s why novels are never a straight forward telling of the external story.
My W has been mapped out for Rock Creek. I have worked hard to fill in historical gaps; I scrapped the first half of the book; expanded the Nebraska accounts; and wrote Sarah Shull later in life. However, I’ve been stumped as to how to weave the three women’s perspectives to show the men in action and use Sarah’s reflections in old age. It all came together in this new ending I wrote. What blew me away is that Sarah had one last secret for me — a motive of her own I had never considered. And it would not have come to me if I hadn’t allowed myself to think of Aunt Mary in a darker way.
While breakthroughs seem to abound this month for both my novels in progress, I hoping for a breakthrough in my homeless situation. I have come to enjoy my RV with my little office, couch, kitchen, bedroom, shower and toilet. I don’t feel so “homeless” with such basic needs met, yet we are displaced and have to move on by April because the tourist season at Zion begins in earnest and rates go up beyond my earnings as a writer. The Hub was accepted into a VA vocational program and we continue to battle the stress of his PTSD, he being more stressed than me. Progress is slower than our timeline to move. And we have no way to move our big RV, something we said we’d figure out. Well, we’re still figuring! I’ll hope for some perfect storm of inspiration.
The first anthology is making its way back to our capable and talented Trail Boss & Editor, Sarah Brentyn next week. She and all the Rough Writers have been patient and I appreciate that. The Raw Fiction series is meant to be a platform for our anthologies, expanding the literary community here as one that discusses as well as performs feats of raw literary art. The synergy is evident in what we write individually and collectively among such diverse writers. Once we have Volume 1 under our belts, we’ll invite new Rough Writers to join our core of ranch hands and continue to grow.
With all this movement and wandering (imaginatively) across the plains of Nebraska Territory, I can’t help but think of migration. Immigration dominates world news as refugees seek asylum, countries ponder how to balance humanitarian efforts with safety protocols, and the US slams shut its borders and evicts “illegal” immigrants from our neighbor, Mexico. The announcement of 15,000 new jobs for border control is not one that has many cheering new jobs in America. What would we have done had Trump lived 150 years ago and was chief of the Plains Indians? Would the west have known such a migration as the pioneers? Would we have an Indigenous west, open to Mexico, closed to Americans? And we just discovered 7 new earth-like planets only 39 light years away! What will future global migrations look like?
February 23, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a migration story. It can imagine the dusty or arctic trails of the frontiers past or look to the travel across the galaxy. What issue about modern migration bans might influence an artistic expression in a flash? Migrate where the prompt leads you.
Respond by February 28, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published March 1). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Leaving for the West (from Rock Creek) by Charli
“Pa? Are you leaving us?”
Mary glared at her husband. To avoid the new administration’s secession policies, Cobb was leaving his sheriff’s post. Her family and friends no longer visited, political beliefs dividing neighbors and kin. “Answer the boy, Cobb. He’s your son. He deserves your words, not the gossip to come.”
“Monroe, anyone asks, tell them I’m seeking gold with the Georgians.”
“What about our farm, Pa?”
“Sold, son. We’ll have a new farm out west. Uncle Leroy will bring you all out once it’s settled.”
“Out west? Where they sent the Cherokee?”
“Further west, son. The frontier.”
Carrot Ranch is in the middle of a move. Same online home but new office on wheels. Thinking it would go smoothly was optimistic. The new RV Coach is a 2004 Alfa with real oak woodwork, office slide, master bedroom and a beautiful kitchen. It’s wonderful, yet overwhelming. So far, I locked myself out the first night, couldn’t get outlets to work and thought I had no propane. It’s a big learning curve going from a 19 foot camper to a 36 foot home and office on wheels. Thank you for your patience during this transition!
See you from this new space:
Bobo is having a rough adjustment. We had to go back to the vet because she’s not eating and drinking too much water. After numerous tests, she’s not experiencing kidney disease, which is good news. The vet thinks it’s behavioral — she’s grieving Grenny. The move only added stress. She’s on rescue remedy and a natural mood and joint enhancer. I might need to share it with her! She does like her new spot on the couch, though. She has a real couch! Keep her in your thoughts.
As of October 27, I’d say the Hub and I are no longer homeless. I cooked the first breakfast in four months this morning in a working kitchen. When I did the dishes and stuck my hands in hot, soapy water for the first time since leaving Elmira Pond, I cried. This move is proving emotional to me because I’m realizing how much we lost and went without. I feel like someone who held strong during a disaster, and once everything was over and good, my legs started shaking.
What we lived in for four months was not even the size of a studio flat. I now have a bedroom, and no longer have claustrophobic attacks. I have a full bathroom, walk-in closet, dressers, a recliner, a sofa sleeper (for guests!) and even a ridiculously large flat screen television. Once through the transition, I’ll be back in full swing. I have missed so much, and appreciate the support of this community. It’s my turn to come back and serve all you wonderful writers once again. If I could, I’d fix you all breakfast:
Extended Flash Fiction Challenge:
If you didn’t get to write a raptor flash, the deadline is now extended to November 1.
Raptors wheel on currents of air high above the La Verkin Overlook. Wings outstretched overhead, a visual blip on the terrain so vast that raptors seem hummingbirds lost in the vastness. The plateau beneath my feet is but a step to the mesas stretching to the south and the tallest sandstone cliffs and pillars in the world rising to the east. This mid-terrain is known as the Zion Canyon Corridor, part of the Grand Staircase of three national parks, Bryce, Zion and the Grand Canyon. Below, what the overlook is meant to view, is the Hurricane Valley. To the northwest are the Pine Mountains standing over 10,000 feet in elevation and to the southwest is the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. The mantra here is, “Take pictures, leave nothing but footprints.”
Looking up, the raptors soon dive and I find I’m looking down on feathered backs when they swoop past the cliffs and hang in the air over the valley below. It’s surreal and I want to add, “Let your imagination take wing.”
This land is a candy store to me. I want to nibble each chocolate for a taste, not sure which one I really want to devour first. When it comes to westerns, this is iconic and historic country. When it comes to geology, it’s a transition zone geologists call a conundrum. When it comes to raptors, songbirds, migrators, reptiles and more it’s a super highway for many and a unique home for some rare environments. I look up, I look out, I look down and the candy shop is endless. It’s still Mars to me but becoming home more and more. Familiarity is already unfolding.
Because so many western movies were filmed in this area, we all think of the Wild West as being further west than it really was. Granted, the west coast destination of California, Oregon and Washington Territory were west, but much of the activities of heroes like Kit Carson and Wild Bill Hickok took place in the “far west” of the prairies of Kansas and Nebraska or the mesa country of Colorado and New Mexico. Despite the implications that Hickok knew this land I stand upon, his far west was Santa Fe, New Mexico. That’s almost 600 miles east.
Before the US Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression, depending upon which side of the divide one stood) Hickok was still known by his given name, James Butler Hickok. He left his native Illinois for the Kansas Territory as a young man, about 1856 (according to biographer, Joseph Rosa). He would have been 19-years old. That same year, 28-year old David Colbert “Cobb” McCanles was elected a third term as sheriff of Watauga County, North Carolina. In five years, these two men would clash in what is known as the Rock Creek Affair (among other more fiendish titles).
It’s one of the earliest wild west tales, yet far removed from the iconic wild west where I watch raptors soar.
This makes me wonder — does it matter, the sweeping landscape? Does it make a difference if the gunfight occurred atop a mesa or in a lone road station in the Midwestern prairie? Of course, storytellers know the power of a setting to stage a scene or backdrop action. And yet, I once watched a Shakespearean performance of King Leer on a stark stage of gray monoliths. When the story takes flight like the majesty of the raptors, does it matter that they soar and dip among startling terrain or would they hold their own in nothing but blue sky?
I find myself fixated on the wings of the raptors.
Another day, and I’m drinking coffee at River Rock Roasting Company in La Verkin far below the overlook above. Two raptors are engaging in what looks like a dance over the gorge below where the Virgin River has cut a path. The land truly is a series of staircases. And the raptors own the air in between. I find it is the expression of flight that enthralls me most. It could be flat as a prairie and the raptors would still be the focal point. I’m lucky to get to see them, like celebrity visitors to the candy store where I live.
I believe in writing stories as compelling as raptors in flight. What you add or subtract are details that contain the story. Of course, there are many abstract ways to write, too and not all pieces of literature are story-forward. In fact, much of literature is character-driven and some of it is experimental. I’m a proponent of stories because I’m a story-teller. As a marketer I learned that people respond to stories. There’s even science that examines how the brain is hardwired for stories. Naturally I look to the raptors and see stories among pillars of sandstone and gorges of basalt.
October 19, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a raptor. Let your imagination take wing, or dive into natural science. Tell a story about flight, talons or tail-feathers. Create a myth or share a BOTS (based on a true story). Set the raptor in a spectacular place or focus on bird itself. And for clarification, raptors are eagles, hawks, falcons and owls.
EXTENDED! Respond by November 1, 2016 to be included in the compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Side-seat Driver (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Ike, look out!” Danni steadied her travel mug so she wouldn’t spill it. Habit. The mug was empty, but there was a small mass on the faded paved two-lane. Morning sun illuminated feathers Danni didn’t want her husband to hit after fixing the alignment on their truck.
Ike barely swerved, smiled broadly beneath his mousy-brown handlebar mustache and began singing, “There’s a dead…chicken…in the road…a dead…chicken…in—”
“Ike, that’s a hawk.” She leaned back into his chest, his right arm never once moved from her shoulders despite her jostling.
“There’s my side-seat driver. Awake now?”’
“Watch the road, Ike.”
Dreaming of Flight (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Beyond the whispering voices Sarah could hear the pounding of horse hooves. Like a falcon pushing off a fence post, Sarah took flight and could see the prairie stretch below. She was the raptor and Cobb the rider. He ran a blood-red bay with black mane and tail that whipped in the wind like a woman’s unbound tresses. The horse put his entire body into the run. Sarah pushed hers into flight. Together they covered endless buffalo grass until her coughing broke the spell. She was in bed.
Some feared to die. At 98, Sarah feared she never would.
Cute and furry are the mountain goats that live atop Scotchman Peaks in northern Idaho. Even their scientific name, oreamnos americanus, labels them as cute. It means, “a mountain lamb belonging to America.” Aw, what could be cuter than a mountain lamb? Funnily, they are not goats at all, but related to antelope and gazelle.
Nor are they sheep. The Cabinet Mountains, a craggy chain of the Rocky Mountains that span western Montana and the Idaho panhandle, are also home to bighorn sheep. Somehow, they aren’t as cute, but they do have magnificent curling horns. Tourist often confuse the two animals, and I’ve even heard one exclaim that she saw “bighorn goats.” The most notorious case of Rocky Mountain animal identity confusion is the story of the visiting hunter who shot an elk only to find out he tagged a llama.
For casual identification purposes, the mountain goats are cute and furry, white with black horns and beards (both sexes).
And they like salt. Ranchers put out mineral licks for cattle and horses, and it’s not unusual for deer to show up. Wildlife often gather in geological places where they can lick natural minerals, and mountain goats have a clever advantage — the ability to scale rock faces. They also have a newfound source atop the rocky vistas of Scotchman Peaks — hikers.
It sounds adorable. A cute and furry animal, greeting hikers, tongue extended. Like the attraction factor of piled kittens, unwise hikers offer a leg or arm to the mountain goats after a sweaty hike. Experienced hikers, like those knowledgeable of kittens, avoid such encounters with claws and cuspids, or rather horns and molars. Cute and furry mountain goats bite and butt. Last year, the main trail to one of the most spectacular vistas overlooking the Clark Fork and Lake Pend Oreille was closed due to a goat licking that turned ugly. A woman was bit.
Educating humans on good behavior in the wild is a small portion of what the Friends of Scotchman Peaks do. Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Phil Hough, executive director of FSPW for an upcoming (March-ish) article in Go Idaho. Their target goal is to gain Congressional designation an 61,800 acre roadless area as Wilderness. However, their mission is to conduct education, outreach, and stewardship activities to preserve this amazingly diverse and rugged area where cute and furry goats live. Anyone can become a Friend. I’m a Friend!
In fact, my first event after becoming a Friend was to help the group decide a raging debate: Wine or Beer? My friend (who is also a Friend) joined me. She sided with a pale ale and I chose Love (a Washington state red). We broke the tie with a bacon-chicken sandwich dressed with greens and blue-cheese. Phil greeted me like a friend, and I made a new one, local author and publisher, Sandy Compton. When I say anyone can join, I mean even a shuffling middle-aged writer who most likely could never reach the top of the peaks to see the goats and shoo them off her sweaty limbs.
FSPW are master community builders, bringing together diverse Friends. You can read more about their community building success in my upcoming article, but two points I want to make here. One is the power of community and the other is the significance of wild places to everyone.
The past two weeks, the Rough Writers and Friends have explored the themes of community and power. They are related. Communities pull together, gather, build up. That can be powerful. What impressed me about FSPW is how they focus their efforts of stewardship. Phil pointed out to me that many environmental or advocacy groups circle the wagons around what they are against. Instead, FSPW embrace what positive benefits stewardship and wild places have for Friends of diverse walks (hikes) and interests.
Wild places matter, even to those who are not active hikers or hunters. It’s important to our psyche to know that wild places exist. Consider the words of great souls who understood the importance:
“And this, our life exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” ~ William Shakespeare
“Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.” ~ Sir John Lubbock
“Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals.” ~ Aldo Leopold
Wild places are vital to writers. We find inspiration between sky and water, roots and crown of a tree, the wingspan of a kingfisher. We learn to use all our senses outdoors and seek wild spaces even if it is a city park or a backyard garden. We feel the pulsing energy of the land around us and we connect through it. We even melt into romantic notions at the sight of a cute and furry mountain goat. And what do we do with this? We write, of course.
Imagine the Nebraska Territory as Cobb McCanles first saw it in 1858. Pioneers had already cut ruts making haste to gold fields, promised land or future farms. Yet few actually lingered in the Territories. It was wild space to get through, pass by and go beyond. Buffalo herds still roamed, prairie fires burned seasonally and native grasses grew taller than a young child. Coyotes yipped and prairie chickens courted. A fringe-culture of traders, hunters, freighters and guides loosely populated the prairie before the Civil War. I believe Nancy Jane Holmes, the third female character of importance in Rock Creek, lived in one of these ungoverned wilderness societies.
Historians may disagree, but I believe that Cobb and his brother Leroy made it out to Colorado and back to North Carolina in the summer of 1858. Sarah Shull once mentioned later in life the brothers went out west that summer. It makes sense because antebellum North Carolina was rapidly on a comet path to war by then. Their father, James McCanles, moved with his wife and three married daughters to a cluster of farms in eastern Tennessee where Unionists were gathering and politicking. The McCanles brothers wanted no part of war and explored the areas beyond the Bleeding Kansas and Missouri border where the Border Wars between slavers and abolitionists were in full swing.
Beyond the Missouri River was Indian Territory. Wilderness.
Family anecdotes passed down through letters and generations say that Cobb and Leroy traveled west together. Some family vehemently disagree that Sarah Shull came with Cobb in late winter 1859. Yet surviving documents prove Cobb hired Sarah Shull in March of 1859. They both signed it so she had to be with him. Likewise, other documents place Leroy back in North Carolina at that time. It’s reasonable to assume the brothers did go west together as far as Colorado, but in 1858 not 1859. They would have passed through Rock Creek or other road ranches like it. Cobb knew Sarah grew up working in her father’s store and kept books. She didn’t want to be left behind where she was shunned because she bore a married man’s child, a child who died. Nothing held her to North Carolina.
But the married man, Cobb, was still married and had reconciled with his wife. They also had decided to raise their special needs daughter, almost unheard of in those days. Where else could a man like Cobb make new opportunities for his kin away from brewing war? Where else could he bring his former mistress to run a road ranch trading post? The wilderness beyond the Missouri River.
As to whether or not they encountered cute and furry animals is open to speculation. But I’m fairly certain pioneers wouldn’t have let mountain goats lick them. Who knows.
February 10, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about wild spaces. Is it a wilderness or a patch of weeds in a vacant lot that attract songbirds. What is vital to the human psyche about wild spaces? Bonus points for inducing something cute and furry.
Respond by February 16, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
My gratitude to Phil Hough and my new 6,000 new Friends for the use of this week’s prompt photo. The outstanding mountain goat shot is the capture of Betsy Fulling.
Unseen by Charli Mills
Nancy Jane adjusted the rear sight and held the longrifle tucked to her body. One mule deer, one lead ball. She bit back the curse for her brother for getting himself killed in a border raid. It wasn’t their war. They were wilderness folk, free-landers, friends to Cree and French traders who liked the American prairies.
Movement caught her eye. Jackrabbit. Its long ears upright, nose twitching. If she missed the buck, she’d snare the rabbit. It spooked, and so did the deer when two men rode up on horses oblivious to her in the grass, holding a gun.
What good is power?
A plane lands on the tarmac stretching across fields of corn. A man steps out from the plane bold as the name emblazoned like train graffitie. Sponsors can go jump in a lake. Newscasters can stick it. Don’t like him? Tough! And the crowd erupts. Cheers for the man of power.
Before you think my nation has gone completely bonkers, consider the underlying fear most Americans harbor without really processing what it means to live fear-burdened — iconic city skyscrapers went down one day on every morning news station; children bring guns to school to battle teen angst; veterans are homeless; home-owners foreclosed; job markets changed and nobody bothered to re-train employees; healthcare sucks and is the law; our own government spies on us. The NSA is reading this post (thanks for the traffic boost, guys).
How did we go from a founding father with wooden teeth and a powdered wig to this man in the plane? How did we collect so many fears like Beanie Babies?
History reveals, should you peak through the dust motes of time, that fear drives people to want a powerful leader. Consider the Israelites of Old Testament. They had God. God led them out of Egypt, fed them mana and quail in the desert, poured water from rock. But after a while they pestered for a leader. You know, a guy with a wig or crown or whatever the other people had. They were scared. They wanted to see a powerful person to feel safe.
The burden of fear leads to suspicion. Fear makes citizens claim Mexican immigrants are taking jobs and adding words like taco to our pure English language. Speak English like the rest of us! Which ones of us? Um, who has the purist accent? Who hasn’t add colloquialisms to the lexicon? Fear makes us think that helping humanity in crisis will topple more skyscrapers. You look different from me! Don’t look at me! Fear makes us take privileges like hunting and target sports for granted. I have the right to arm bears! I mean bear an arm in my purse, a firearm. I’m armed! I’m scared!
Fear makes us think in unhealthy ways. God provided leaders for the Israelites, but the people still went astray. Powerful leaders, you see, don’t often ease the fear. They fan the fear-fire. Why? Because they are powerful and they know your fear already controls you so they use it to control you more. The more they control you, the more powerful they are. Do you understand why a man landed in a cornfield with his plane and people cheered?
North Carolina in the 1850s had fears remarkably similar to ones today in America. Cobb McCanles switch political party alignments like shampoo. One party was built upon the fear that immigrants were going to hurt the economy. Another party was in protest to the party it sprang from. Yet another feared freeing slaves. As the state took more and more control on its own it became powerful. By the fourth time Cobb was elected as Sheriff, North Carolina was powerful enough to dictate that academies be armed; that special taxes be paid to fund potential war; and every man of age was conscripted to muster in the militia.
I wonder what Cobb would make of that man in the plane?
Yet history claims Cobb was a bully. He left North Carolina when the state powers began to grow too large and controlling. Obviously he was not attracted to being a part of a powerful paradigm. But as a man he was confident, perhaps overbearing at times. He loved his family, although he had a mistress, too. He made right by that mistake, though, took accountability. He built, expanded, gathered and led. Why did the people of the prairie resent him after he was gone?
Maybe Cobb had power, but not the kind that the people wanted.
Was he empowered? Did he empower his children? Or did his personal power dim their abilities and opportunities? Such are the deep thoughts a writer has delving into character and motives. Writers push into fear, poke it like scientists looking for truth about matter. Writers create powerful villains, powerful heroes, clashes of power and the good ones make us think about the forces.
February 3, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that explores the question, “What good is power?” Is it a story of empowerment, or a story of a dictator? Poke around power and go where the force takes you this week.
Respond by February 9, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Temper and Threats by Charli MIlls
Cobb slammed his fist on the table. Dishes vibrated and the children grew silent. Mary narrowed her eyes. “Temper, Cobb, does not make the man.”
He rose and nodded, jaw locked, eyes smoldering. He stalked out of the house. Minutes later Mary heard the pounding of horse hooves. He’d go to her. Well, let her endure his black mood.
Sarah watched Cobb race toward her cabin. Twilight made his form shadowy as a night bandit on the prowl. He reined in his sweaty horse and began the tirade he’d been brewing.
“Tomorrow I’ll clean up on Rock Creek!”
Hang tight on this prompt! It’s an important issue to explore. I promise something cute an furry next week. Also, please spread the news of our expanded contest and prizes: