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December 6: Flash Fiction Challenge

If winter on the Keweenaw Peninsula of upper Michigan were a masterpiece, then the sky works in collaboration with Lake Superior. Together they manipulate air temperatures to create color and texture. You might be surprised to learn that Lady Lake prowls on land during the winter. I don’t mean waves that batter her shores — she’s an artist hovering in the air, twisting her waters into a scattering of icy snowflakes, mist, or battleship-gray clouds.

Today’s collaboration features patchy blue sky milky as glacial till. After a furious night of banshee-snow, Lady Lake has calmed and sorts her art into glowing pink remnants of moisture that look like clouds made of shell. Soon the sun will dip, but it won’t grow as dark as you might expect. That’s the gift of living in a snow globe — all that white from below to above captures light.

Colorful Christmas lights make the neighborhood festive. We humans add our own imprint upon the natural winter art of the region, expanding the collaboration. I’m surrounded by an ever-changing canvas.

Is the nature of art collaborative?

It’s like the philosophical question — if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it make a sound? Sure, it might reverberate, but if the vibrations don’t hit an eardrum, the sound is not heard. Art requires one to produce and another to receive. I suppose an artist can appreciate his or her own work, but the sharing creates a dynamic. In such a way, artist and reader/viewer/listener/beholder work in collaboration.

As a writer who’s share work, you’ve probably experienced comments that observe something in your story you did not intend. And yet the reader points it out. To some, this interaction can feel disconcerting. But we don’t have to own (or defend) the alternate perspectives. We can embrace it as an expansion. As a collaboration of sorts.

Like another philosophical question — which came first, the chicken or the egg? — I also wonder which came first — art or the inspiration?

When did you first become inspired to craft stories or imagine the lives of characters? Likely you read or were read to. I remember Mrs. Couch reading to us every day in first, second and third grade. In fourth, fifth and sixth grade, Mr. Smith read us YA sci-fi. In seventh and eighth grade, Mr. Price required us to write weekly spelling stories.

Growing up in a buckaroo culture, I heard stories swapped with regularity and recognized that the tellers had a rhythm and often delayed an element of surprise for humorous effect.  I read comic books, Laura Ingalls Wilder, classics, Ian Flemming, Louis L’Amour, and discovered romance novels.

And everywhere I stepped I was acutely aware that others had passed this way before me from the Washo people to the likes of Kit Carson and nameless pioneers. History told it’s own stories if you knew how to read a cemetery or discarded artifacts of another era.

Somewhere in the mixture of all those influences, I found inspiration to write stories I imagined. Mostly, I get strong impressions about people who lived where I do now because I’m curious as to why they came to some of the remote regions I’ve known.

When does inspiration become art?

Often, these near-winter days, I watch the dense gray bank of moisture that rises up from Lake Superior. I get a better view when I cross the Portage Canal and look back toward where the Lake nestles below the ridge of Keweenaw hills with start white birch and leafless maples. I image Lady Lake “soaking up” before she creates a storm across the sky. As writers, artists, we do that too — we soak up.

Then we let it out. Lady Lake can change wind directions so swiftly that I can see the snow shift out one window and yet still blow the opposite direction out another window. To me, that’s a master who can blow all those details and craft their shapes in multiple ways at once. Drafting is often like spewing snow.

Yet, the masterpiece is not complete until after the snow. Wind can reshape drifts, temperature can crystalize snow and suspend icycles, sun can sparkle, and sunsets can add color. Writers return to the storm upon the page make it into something different, something new.

Inspiration also comes to me from those who create in different mediums.

Growing up, Greek mythology, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones inspired me (hence my fascination with the hero’s journey). I could recognize artistry and felt drawn to it — I once spent my entire month’s earnings on a hide painting a traveling artist painted when I was 14. Music moved me. I played the radio, records, 8-tracks, and cassettes all the time, and thought the greatest invention in the world was the boombox.

Johnny Cash, Regina Gigli (the print artist I cleaned house for), John Beata (the cowboy foreman I rode for who trained horses like an artist), and Bob Parker who hand tooled a leather scene of my horse were my go-to’s for inspiration. But I never dared to think I could collaborate with any of them. Not that I had a chance to work with Johnny Cash, but I knew plenty of dancers, musicians, poets, crafters, and artists.

Somehow I thought I had to do my art on my own. My guilty pleasure was to “feel” a song and let it color a story I wrote, or admire a painting and imagine it’s likeness in a character. One writer would post a story and ignite a spark of an idea. Last year, one Carrot Ranch writer invited others to add to her Boots flash fiction in what emerged as a collaborative murder-mystery.

I think it’s natural for creative impulses to rise and feed others as much as it feeds our intended interest. Like Lady Lake, we soak up. And we share.

Last night I was listening to an interview with Hozier, an Irish musician. He was influenced by the 1960s civil rights movement in America, and its impact on his own country. His latest song is not only one that honors those who influenced him but also features the voice of an American blues singer who knew the very protestors in his song. What a collaboration!

“It’s not the song, it’s the singing!” What that makes me think is that it isn’t the art but the making of it. It isn’t the story so much as it is the catching of it. Art in action and the more people involved, the more powerful. I don’t mean in its creation but in it’s sharing and influencing and making new.

Consider Hozier’s first song. It moved a young Ukraine ballet dancer, and this video of collaborative art went viral:

And when I say collaborative, I’m talking more about the natural space of artistic influences. Hozier didn’t know about this dance project. I think the record label got snippy about it at one point, but in the interview, Hozier was humbled by the interpretation and use of his song. So much that he did collaborate with Sergei Polunin on a new song.

We are like Lady Lake and the sky. Every week we soak up, share and form a collective voice on a single topic. Creativity knows no bounds.

There’s something open and uplifting about art expressed without boundaries, taking influence from other artists and mediums. This week, we are going to turn toward graffiti, an expression of art on the street. How can we take it to a story in 99 words?

December 6, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about graffiti. It can be an artist, art or the medium itself. Get out your can of spray paint and go where the prompt leads you.

Respond by December 11, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

A Sign (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Danni traced graffiti on the grain-car. What did it mean? A message? A name? Traffic stalled on both sides of the tracks where it crossed the highway. She didn’t want to think about Ike who had been ahead of them. Better to study the graffiti and let Ronnie find out what happened. She wasn’t in a hurry to know.

“Danni?”

She stiffened and asked, “Who got hit?”

“An elk.”

Danni blew out the air she’d been holding in. “Ah, damn elk.” Ike had made it across then. Maybe the graffiti was a symbol of gratitude to live another day.

November 29: Flash Fiction Challenge

The last of the turkey and wild rice soup is gone. Officially, Thanksgiving has ended, and the break at Carrot Ranch is over. The barn doors open, the campfire is stoked, and we are ready to share stories.

My mind wanders like a sailor on the inland seas of the Great Lakes. From wooden craft to steel ones, many a ship scatters across the floor of Lake Superior. Writing something big is like navigating dangerous waters — it can be sink or swim, and when the gales of November come early, well, we ride out the storm. We write into the dark of night.

I have a confession to make: I’ve felt frozen since March of 2016. If I looked at a calendar, I could probably name the exact date. Just weeks before, I had led a successful BinderCon live event in Missoula, Montana. I was flowing between two manuscripts, developing sketches for another, writing a weekly history column for a regional magazine, and writing a quarterly publication for a client.

Every morning I rose to more migrators on Elmira Pond. Mergansers, buffalo-heads, widgeons. A research room flanked my large office where I dreamed that one day I’d have a custom table for small workshops in North Idaho. Already I had a writer’s room where guests could stay to write and experience my “peace of Idaho.”

I froze that March day when our landlord sent me an email informing us our lease was up and the owners were planning to sell. All along I had wanted to buy the place, but they weren’t interested in selling. The long-term lease was fine with us. We had no intention to move. Now what? That uncertainty seeped into my bones the way I imagine the sound of the final bell ringing on the Edmond’s Fitzgerald.

Of course, the journey that unraveled was so far from anything I thought would happen. Early on I knew I could succumb to bitterness.

“This hand is bitterness
We want to taste it, let the hatred numb our sorrow
The wise hands opens slowly to lilies of the valley and tomorrow”

~from Natalie Grant’s “Held.”

In the midst of losing our rental, it was apparent something was not right with my husband. What had been easy to dismiss could no longer be ignored. I never thought we’d actually be homeless long, but it’s been two years and five months. Of course, we finally made it to our daughter and her husband after wandering the west, and we finally got the Hub the medical help he needs.

My North Idaho has given way to my Keweenaw. And I’ve rediscovered wander and peace. My Carrot Ranch community never faltered, and like wandering bards we continued to flash. Many circled the wagons when I needed it and have become cherished friends.

But my confession that I froze is an essential lesson in tenacity. I’ve said before that writing is more about tenacity than talent. You know I’ve hung in there, but I also lost my writing mojo — that magic I felt when I chased stories and worked with my characters. I lost my joy.

Last year I signed up for NaNoWriMo to jump start my missing spark. And I couldn’t get past 17,000 words. I experienced a great freeze when I tried to get the flow of my WIP moving. Several months later I asked for help from a few close alpha-readers (these are readers you know and trust and differ from beta-readers who are less familiar with you as a writer and more familiar with the genre you are writing).

Even with their honest feedback, I still couldn’t thaw. Frustrated, I turned to work on other projects. More recently, I asked a few more alpha-readers to look at my original manuscript. Maybe I should go with the original story and setting. With feedback and indecision for a setting, I signed up for NaNoWriMo again.

TUFF was my tool. Flash fiction is not part of my deep freeze, so I used that to flash my way into writing 1,800 words a day. Then something magical happened. Oh, the joy, the writing mojo returned, and I cranked out 91,000 words. Not that they are great words or even a cohesive draft, but from their depths, I salvaged a new perspective, a new character to carry a burden that wasn’t working on my protagonist.

The world of Dr. Danni Gordon, archeologist and reluctant wife of a warrior who doesn’t know it’s time to quit, came to life.

It’s important that I retain and share two important lessons — first, just because you can’t feel the creative magic doesn’t mean you quit writing. Second, community is everything. We cannot be writers in isolation. When I went into the dark of night, I never felt alone. I was like a ship that could send and receive signals.

Don’t quit and don’t quarantine yourself from your tribe.

How amazing our technology is and how it can connect us! I’m choosing to celebrate technology because it’s so easy for us to curse it and wonder if it’s complicating our lives. We, humans, are complicated. Technology is not going to simplify anything for us. But it opens doors of wonder for the creative and curious – right now, I’m communicating with Carrot Ranchers all around the world from a remote shore with waves and ships we can all monitor while listening to a favorite station from our resident yarnist in New England and reading a book that arrived from (old) England by an author and friend who reminds us all that we write because we are in the process of “becoming someone.”

Keeping connected to creative expression is one of the tenets of Carrot Ranch. It has helped me, and I hope it helps you. Now, we are going to write about what it is to go into the dark night.

November 29, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using the phrase “into the dark.” What must a character face? Write about an encounter, journey, relationship, or quest. Follow the ship’s lights on gloomy seas. Go where the prompt leads you.

Respond by December 4, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

 

Rescue in the Dark of Night (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Shivering, Danni danced with both her hands flash-frozen to the chukar cage. They ignored her. Danni breathed deeply, wiggling each foot, swaying. Blackjack stomped in his stall, lowered his head and nickered. Danni cocked her head, listening for a vehicle. She told her horse, “Wishful thinking, boy.” In the dark of night, Danni marched, thought about hot chocolate, and imagined a noon-day sun overhead. Blackjack’s head rose, ears perked and alert. Danni strained to hear soft crunching in the snow. She crouched, helplessly stuck to the cage when the barrel of a rifle opened the barn door. Ramona arrived.

November 8: Flash Fiction Challenge

While up north on the Keweenaw Peninsula, I overheard one elderly local tell a monk that an early October snow was no indication that we’d have a long winter. At the time, I was returning from a brief retreat at a lighthouse keeper’s cottage, and the monks were closing up shop for the winter and selling the rest of their jams while fat fluffy flakes covered the ground. I bought six jars. Who could resist blackberries jammed in rum?

It was like overhearing a riddle, though. My mind pondered how early snow could be anything but a long winter on a peninsula fiercely guarded by Lady Lake Superior who has the power and desire to create her own snow globe? It’s different from out West where a late August blizzard in the Rockies reminds us to prepare, but that long cool, even warm, autumns could follow.

Here, the snow means snow. It didn’t stick, but it didn’t return to blue skies, either. The gray mist and soggy cold rain feel dreary. The snow falls brightly and white-washes the world, removing the dinginess of constant cloud cover. Snow illuminates the globe Lady Lake keeps on the mantle of her ice-water mansion. Snow has returned.

And with flair. Of course — it’s Lady Lake. Why not be a drama queen on the fourth day of the 41 North Film Festival at Michigan Tech University? I walked out of the Rosza Center, following a film on the WWI Hello Girls, and into the lobby with 30-foot glass windows facing east. Snow fleeced the view. The next film up was a work in progress called Copper Dogs about female dog-mushers in our region. Well played, Lady Lake.

Culture and snow fill our winters, so I don’t mind. Travel, for me at least, shuts down. After my terrifying drive in a true Copper Country blizzard at the start of last winter, I vowed to be a winter home-body. Students return to our universities and with them come cultural events. So it’s a good time to hunker down. The film festival filled my well.

Tuesday night, I returned to the Rosza Center to listen to Welby Altidor speak on creativity and collaboration.

Altidor believes that each of us possess creative genius, but it must be cultivated and developed through practice. Creative courage is more than practical tools and strategy, it’s a way life for Altidor and those who dare to embrace it.

Yes, yes, yes! You betcha I was going to drive across snow-paved roads to listen to Welby. He was speaking my love-language — make (literary) art accessible!

Welby was the creative director for Cirque du Soliel, and as a dancer and choreographer, he understands the universal power of telling a story. Art is the great communicator wrapped in many mediums from movement to written words. He began by telling us that every good story includes three elements.

Welby teaches that every good story includes love, power, and transformation. You could compare this to the classical teaching of the Greeks, who perfected the three-act story: pity –> fear — > catharsis. Love seems more universal to me than pity, although I understand the Greeks intended for an audience to love the protagonist enough to pity his or her plight. Power is what we might call tension and leads to the Greek ideal of the audience fearing for the well-being of the protagonist. Catharsis is an emotional release (from the fear) and transforms the audience.

Note that in the hero’s journey, the three acts still apply. Of course, I started thinking, what would Anne Goodwin say… After much discussion on the model of the hero’s journey failing to capture the protagonists who don’t change or return with an elixir, I had an a-ha moment. We change. Not the protagonist, but we — the writer, the reader, the creator changes.

That’s the universality of the hero’s journey. Even if the hero falls flat, the creator of the story needs to provide a transformation for the reader — a greater awareness of self, others, or the world around us. And Welby was speaking directly about creatives and how to build creative teams. We must love our art enough to give it power and transform ourselves and audiences.

Welby’s book (and presentation) center on creative courage. To create transformative work we must start from a place of caring. Like at Carrot Ranch — we gather because we care about literary art. We care about writing. We care about stories and words and what we can do with them. We care about our stories. We care about the stories of others. This is the beginning of creative courage.

What comes next wouldn’t surprise anybody who understands Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but it might surprise you to think it applies to art. We need to secure safety. Yes, creativity needs a safe place to plant the seeds. That is also the purpose of Carrot Ranch — to create safe space to practice, explore and discover our literary art. I felt like Welby was looking at our community!

For collaboration, Welby says we next need to foster trust. Our literary community builds trust through positive feedback and consistency. We also learn to trust the 99-word constraint as a creative process. Our weekly collections are creative collaborations.

So what happens next? This is where we get to play with danger!  Welby explains that art pushes limits and takes calculated risks. Writing dangerously is to push deeply into an idea that you might think is on the fringe. It’s breaking the rules to create something different. It’s risking creative failure, submitting to a contest or writing outside your comfort zone. It’s earning the “runs with scissors” badge.

Once we start writing dangerously, we dream! We experience breakthroughs! We grow!

Welby went on to say that many of us are disconnected from our superpowers. Part of our mission in life is to discover them, accept them, and share them with the rest of the world. He asked us to tell the person seated next to us what our superpower is. If you can identify your superpower, you will better understand your voice as a writer.

And don’t think any of this creative business is easy. It isn’t. Welby also points out that there is a war on imagination. He said it hit him hard when he had the opportunity to go to North Korea, and he recognized constrained people the way his father was. It’s rooted in fear of failure. Methods might be taught and learned, but what we really need is creative courage.

A significant shift occurred the night I listened to Welby, and it didn’t have to do with my creative art. I wondered as I took notes, how can my family create fertile soil for the Hub. No matter his condition, our circumstances, or unknown future we need creative courage. I looked again at the seven dimensions of creative collaboration and realized the answers were there.

My daughter went with me to listen to Welby speak. We stepped out into the snow, and I told her that the seven dimensions could apply to her dad. She went home and sketched the concentric circles around each one and posted this statement with her photo on Instagram:

Great talk tonight with @welbyaltidor@rozsacenter. Here’s the mental model he presented; good insight into how to rebuild relationships and goals with Sgt. Mills. Walking the tightrope of late effect traumatic brain injury (LE-TBI) starts with taking care, raising safety nets, and building trust.
#creativecourage #love #veteranfamily #braininjuryawareness #tbiawareness #onestepatatime”

And Welby Altidor replied:

“Great stuff! I love your reinterpretation! Honoured it provided inspiration. Never give up!”

On that fine note, let’s move on to mashed potatoes. In the US we near the festival of turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy — Thanksgiving. I’m working on my menu and my novel which seems like opposing creative efforts. But Welby told us that fitting two things that don’t go together is how the troupe creates such memorable choreography and art in Cirque du Soliel. His examples: drones and lampshades; clowns and robots; treadmill and hoop-diving.

So we are going to write mash-ups that pair an unusual superpower with mashed potatoes.

November 8, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that pairs mashed potatoes with a superpower. It can be in any circumstance, funny or poignant. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by November 13, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments. Rules & Guidelines.

Fast Hands (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills

Nancy Jane flung the bowl of mashed potatoes at Horace. The bowl bounced off his shoulder and Hickok caught it midair. Horace hadn’t even moved except, Sarah noted, his eyes had widened the way a cow might look when protesting a lead rope to the milking barn. No one spoke as glops of white, buttery mashed potatoes slid down Horace’s shirt. Nancy Jane growled and slammed the heavy oak door when she stomped outside. Sarah understood her friend’s upset with how poorly Horace had handled Cobb’s interference at the station. More than that, she marveled at Hickock’s super speed.

Flash Fiction Challenge: November 1

Rain clouds the color and weight of lake-tankers hang over the neighborhood. These days, I don’t know if the moisture is pelting rain or sloppy snow — it’s the season of transition all around the world.

No matter the hemisphere, change is happening. The sun slants, the weather patterns shift, and we feel uneasy. We crave the light.

After managing the leads of three dogs, I unbuckle the collars and let the beasts pound across the hardwood floors, nails clicking as they all head for the dog water. My pea-coat harbors husky fur and I pretend it’s trendy wool. Bidding the dogs farewell for the evening, I head back out into a spit of rain and behold a sight —

The setting sun, momentarily free from its captor of steely clouds, diffuses light across the neighborhood of three-story mining house all with the steeply pitched roofs of snow-country. Like a laser beam, the sun illuminates the thinning orange maple across the road, and it glows like amber. One of my hearty, hale, and elderly neighbor’s steps outside across the street from me with an old film camera. He takes a photo.

“Never seen the likes before,” he tells me.

A moment is all it takes to change our world. Light can alter us, uplift us, convince us that “a new dawn, a new day” is all the hope we need to face more gray clouds and uncertainty. I’ll take it as a good omen. After all, I’m on my way to a Diwali feast — a celebration of light over darkness.

I imagine Michigan Tech’s international students feeling far from home. The engineering and technological university prides itself on a diverse global student body. But Houghton (on the south side of the portage canal) and Hancock (on the north side) remain remote. They only exist because of the 125-year-old copper mining industry. The industry’s legacies are two universities and a peninsula full of poor rock ore and ghost towns. What a strange place this must seem.

Yet, they bring their culture with them, sharing it with the community. Like Diwali when the Indian Cultural Club spends three days cooking a meal and weeks preparing a show full of romantic matchmaking, dancing, and music. I head out, aiming for the light.

Last we gathered at the Ranch for a weekly challenge, we watched stories of a Prade of Nations unfold. After month-long Rodeo, we return to a festival of lights. It seems the hopeful side of transformation.

The Hub spent the month in Minneapolis at the Poly Trauma Center. We are learning to focus on what he can do — a light. He’s learning to let go of his worry over cognition and focus on loving-kindness. Think about that a minute. When faced with the changes of an altered brain, when faced with any transition or uncertainty, what a light to focus on — loving kindness.

And isn’t that the essence of all the holidays that are about to descend?

Loving-kindness. Light over darkness. Good over evil. Hope.

Like the elderly neighbor, I want to snap a picture. I want to remember the warmth of food served to me by gracious college students facing exams and loneliness for home. I want to believe in the points of light we can all be when we spread kindness. It doesn’t remove the pain or gloss over the fear; it accepts that we have a choice in what we do next.

Light a candle.

Not giving up hope on my long-suffering novel and the mess I’ve made of it, I’ve backed up to an earlier, crappier version, but one that is complete. I already know I’m going to tank significant portions. I’ve mostly decided on where to locate the wandering characters who must feel as homeless as I do by now. And I’m going to listen — listen to their story instead of trying to force mine upon them. Writing is messy. But I’m going to light a candle every night and show myself that loving-kindness as I kick it into gear and rewrite it.

You know what that means — yes, I’m doing the NaNoWriMo event. And I’m going to TUFF my way through writing every day. I’m also committing daily time to Vol. 2 which is lagging behind the tight schedule I set. In a perfect world, I’d be, well, perfect! But I’m imperfect. I process slowly. I get tied up in knots and angst my way into woeful prose. I bleed across the keyboard and forget to compress the wounds. I’m ready to light my way home.

My storyboard for Miracle of Ducks hangs on the wall, stripped of all its notes. Bare bones. Today, I write those bare bones, I free-draft Danni’s story — 1,800 words. Then 99, 59, 9. Then I start to plot the storyboard, delete or TUFF chapters 1,800, 99, 59, 9 words each day until I hit 50,000 words. I trust the process to get me back on track. I seek my own elixir.

Tune in on Fridays to catch winner announcements for all the October Rodeo contests. With each announcement, I’ll publish the qualifying entries on a page under the Rodeo tab. We still have two live contests, and I encourage you to check them out. Both are free and have prizes:

Sound and Fury by D. Avery asks you to write a story that shows the sound and the fury of an intense and dangerous situation that the main character willingly chose. Closes Nov. 7 at 11:59 p.m. Top prize $25.

Old Time Radio by Charli Mills asks for 99-59-9 words for radio spots to capture the history of the Continental Fire Company. Closes Nov. 7. Three winners get $25 each and a chance to hear their story produced into an actual radio spot.

I want to thank all our leaders, judges, participants and sponsors (please take time to look at the sponsor ads along the right-hand column and click on those that interest you). The community effort and participation makes the Rodeo a fun way to stretch our writing skills. Thank you!

Now to shed some light on the season of transition! Welcome back to the weekly challenges.

November 1, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a festival of lights. It can be any holiday, event or moment. Express the hope of light over darkness. Or use it to highlight injustice. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by November 6, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments. Rules & Guidelines.

 

Festival of Lights by Charli Mills

Glass shatter during dinner. Papa grabbed the boys and we sheltered beneath the table. Patterns of woodgrain forever etched my memory. Mama stood until Papa hastened her to hunker down with us in frightened silence.

We waited for boot thuds and forced entry. A truck engine revved. Guttural voices hurled invocations hard as the pick-ax that smashed our front window and toppled our Menorah – “Big-nosed Jews!” “Death to Hymies!”

My 10-year old mind probed why Papa’s features fated us to die. Friends at school said, the Holocaust wasn’t real, grow up, get over it, this is 2018 in America.

September 13: Flash Fiction Challenge

Center ice is dry concrete today, formed into a temporary roller rink with lime-green and hot-pink tape. It’s the final game for the Roller Derby at Dee Stadium, summer’s yin to winter’s coming yang of ice-hockey.

The wooden risers ascend steeply from the concrete below. Painted the color of tomato sauce mixed with cream, I realize I’m hungry for pasta. Spaghetti has been a constant in my marriage — soon to be 31 years next week. Like pasta in my life, much has changed. My daughter and SIL don’t eat pasta (no eggs or gluten), and the Hub’s spaghetti is not something he fixes anymore.

Thus I crave it. Our humanity craves the comfort zones it has known. Spaghetti calls stronger than kale chips.

At the make-shift roller rink, I settle for a vegetarian pasty and a cold Grizzly Pear cider. Suomi, the restaurant serving up their pasties, include a sugar cookie to look like a Finnish flag. Hockey, pasties, and Finns color the Keweenaw Peninsula. But so does pasta — as a mining mecca of copper for more than 150 years, Italians ranked among the many immigrants who settled here for work.

Before the roller derby game, I had been hiking around the hillside ruins of the Cliff Mine, erected in 1846. The hike, led by Keweenaw National Historical Park Rangers, included the abandoned Protestant cemetery in the land set aside for growing food and grazing. By 1852, the plot was required for burials. Wives and children succumbed to the dangers of motherhood and infancy; husbands and pre-teen boys fell to mining accidents.

Half-way up the ridge midway between Hancock and Copper Harbor, miners dug where copper once littered the ground in native form so pure, a person could forge it into tools and weapons. In fact, indigenous groups had surface mined copper as far back as 6,000 years ago. The Keweenaw is among the first places where humans mined metals.

More recent mining first attracted Cornish miners who brought skilled labor and technology to the Keweenaw. At Cliff Mine, evidence of their technology remains in the rock ruins, buildings shaped to house processes of stamping copper from ore. A rounded foundation hidden among the overgrowth of maple and birch hints at a whim. Many surnames on fading gravemarkers speak of Cornish heritage.

What boomed on the Keweenaw caused prices worldwide to slump. Mines in Cornwall faltered as those along the wild shores of Lake Superior flourished. Cornwall’s contribution to mining was more than technology — it was in skilled labor of men who spread around the globe with their knowledge. These were the “Cousin Jacks.”

One such Cousin Jack worked the Avery Shaft at Cliff Mine. It took miners 45 minutes to crawl up 900 feet of ladders, and the mine Captain asked this Jack if he could replicate a man engine — a Cornish devised platform built to remove miners from the hole. Although history did not record his name, it notes this man’s ability to improvise one, sparing the miners their long commute.

Often, I think of the hardships of these men deep in the rocks tunnels. Then, I gaze at the ore, unable to stop looking. They must have felt a similar pull, compelled to seek out the veins and follow them. Can you imagine finding copper pieces as large as 120 tons? Nowhere on earth is native copper found in such massive quantities. Elsewhere it must be extracted from other minerals.

For perspective, outside of the Keweenaw, the largest native copper nugget weighed in at five pounds.

Thus I live in a town called Hancock (a Cornish surname) where every restaurant serves a pasty. From outside the Dee Stadium windows that line the top of the wall facing Quincy Hill, I can see the outline of a mine, hoist, and railbed. Hancock also has two Italian restaurants and a smattering of Italian surnames.

Like dragonflies and poor-rock ore, Cousin Jacks and Guidos came together on a ridge that runs through us all in Copper Country. Together we gather to watch our sports and share our food.

September 13, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes pasta. It can be spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, or any variety. It can be a meal or a work of art. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by September 18, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments. Rules & Guidelines.

NOTE: Flash Fiction Challenges go on hiatus September 27 and return November 1 to make way for our 2018 Flash Fiction Contest. It’s free to enter. Five unique contests led by five Rough Writers — Geoff Le Pard, Irene Waters, Sherri Matthews, Norah Colvin, and D. Avery — debut every Wednesday in October. Each contest remains open for a week and has its own take on flash fiction. It’s free to enter, and first place in each Rodeo contest is $25. Catch the 24-hour Free-writes, too (September 19 and 25) to qualify as one of five writers to compete in the TUFFest Ride

If you want to sponsor the event, check out the different levels of sponsorship.

September 13 Flash Fiction Challenge Entry Form

 

Fancy Food on the Prairie (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills

Nancy Jane slurped her plum. “True story, Sarah.”

Sarah bent over the creek, avoiding plum juice her friend didn’t seem to mind. “Why would someone hang dough from the rafters?”

“To dry it.” Nancy Jane tossed the fruit-stone, then rinsed her face.

“But why such long strands?”

Nancy Jane shrugged. “The ones he brought with him in his Conestoga were brittle as bark but cooked soft. We had fresh-churned butter and chives over them. I still think of trying my hand at dried rafter dough.”

“Is that what he called it?”

“No, he called it something silly, like ‘spag-hettie’”

September 6: Flash Fiction Challenge

It’s not a stairway, but it is a path to Heaven. I’m walking cream-colored pavers, delighting in a profusion of white flowers from sweet alyssum that hugs the path to grand clusters of panicle hydrangea the color of vintage cotton. White daisies with dark centers nod to bumbles and spindly green stalks as tall as my hips explode with blazing white stars. I’m stunned by all the beauty as if the Milky Way took to seed here on earth.

The stairway is lined with books, writing quills, and instruments of science. The stairs themselves are crafted of wrought iron, spelling out the alphabet and hidden words. A fireplace with settee and chairs beckon the reader in us all with promises of tales to unfold. Downstairs more books line the walls, and two antique cubbies form nooks in green velvet. This is not the stairs to Heaven, but to a book-lover, it might as well be.

Appropriately, the stairs to book sub-heaven grace a cluster of buildings called The Fortress, Great Hall, Classroom and Library. In the middle of a square courtyard between castle and brick walls, an iron wizard stabs his staff into the ground and reaches heavenward (actually, Heaven is on a hill behind him).

Yet there be dragons! On the castle turret of the Fortress ringed in lightning rods, a flame-skinned dragon bares teeth and strikes a paw toward Heaven below. Another dragon snarls from a dungeon three stories below. Deep Space lies between, but first one must access a wizard’s alley, Kings Cross, a slide down the Rabbit Hole into Wonderland, a trek across a desert and more dragons, including one that protects a hoard of computer hardware.

You might be surprised to learn that my son, Runner, works near Heaven. His workplace is epic — a 950-acre campus of strange, fantastical and out-of-this-world offices, classrooms, and employee space comprising the Epic Systems Corporation Intergalactic Headquarters. It’s a software company to support the healthcare industry and is privately owned by the most successful female IT company founder in the world.

When Runner got the job five months ago, we celebrated his success. Friends in  healthcare gushed, “He must be so smart.” Epic has a reputation for hiring the most brilliant, and we always knew Runner was as bright as his sisters. He is a Project Manager, and it’s interesting to hear of his company’s value-based operations. I read them on a bathroom wall (and yes, the bathroom was epic).

Our running joke as Runner gave the family a tour was that everything lives up to the company name, including the wind turbines to power the campus, organic farms to feed the near-10,000 employees, underground parking garages, and an 11,000-seat stadium built five stories underground in a complex called Deep Space. I straddled a rattlesnake, battled dragons, and chased Alice down a slide to Wonderland. I walked down Diagon Alley, but by another name thus not to infringe upon HP copyrights. However, J.K. Rowling is quoted on several walls.

Here’s a drone-eye view of Epic:

You can also learn more about the company through stories and snapshots at Epic’s website.

We took a few photos of our own, although it was hard to break away from simply experiencing the place with Runner as our tour guide. Over the weekend, I saw other proud families grinning and gawking as sons and daughters led the way. My daughter joked that her brother joined a cult. My SIL wanted to join if only to play D&D on campus. He fell for the dragons.

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We finished our tour just beyond Heaven at The Farm where cows and sheep lurk in the hallways. After an epic walk across campus, we grabbed Cow Bikes and pedaled back to The Fortress where Runner had parked his brand new Mini Cooper in the Great Abyss. We later enjoyed his mixology talents (he supported himself through college as a bartender), including a rum daiquiri Hemingway used to drink. Because we were in Wisconsin, I ate cheese every day I was there. Heaven!

One final word — as we continue to prepare for the Rodeo in October, 24-Hour Free-write contests to qualify as one of five writers to compete in The TUFFest Ride will post. I’m also looking for some more sponsors if you have a book or blog you might want to advertise. Use the contact form if you are interested.

Carrot Ranch is a literary community to engage and support all writers. If you want to claim Rancher Badges to support your own goals, you can contact me with your request as it is September already. And if you want to read how 99-words can help you get to 50,0000, I recently was asked to write for NaNoWriMo. You can also catch my latest marketing article at BadRedhead Media for Rachel Thompson.

Now, to write!

September 6, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about an epic workplace. It can be real or imagined. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by September 11, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments. Rules & Guidelines.

 

Upward Mobility (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Mist rose from the pond with the morning coolness of a mountain camp at 7,000 feet. Danni stretched in sun salutations on the sagging porch of her Forest Service cabin while coffee percolated. The aroma grew strong, and she padded back inside on bare feet to pour a cup. The rest she saved for her thermos. As she drove her quad toward the archeological dig, Danni spotted elk, a skittering coyote and a Cooper’s hawk. At the worksite, trenches waited for the volunteers who would follow. She contemplated her epic workplace. At last, Danni would be the lead archeologist.

August 16: Flash Fiction Challenge

The sun dips late, casting its copper hue over Lake Superior. The lower it sinks, the redder it grows and forms a brilliant pink path from horizon to shore. The sky takes forever to darken in the Northern Hemisphere even after summer solstice. Sparkling planets and stars pop like diamond studs across a jeweler’s midnight blue velvet.

This is the season of the Perseid meteor showers. Time to wish upon shooting stars.

JulesPaige reminded me about the connection of comets to my WIP, Rock Creek. In 1858, before Cobb McCanles left Watauga County, North Carolina with his one-time mistress, Sarah Shull, a comet had featured in the October sky and slowly faded by the time the two left in February 1859.

Cobb’s Father James McCanless, known as The Poet, marked the occasion of Comet Donati:

THE COMET OF 1858

Hail! beautious stranger to our sky,
How bright thy robes appear,
Noiseless thou treds thy paths on high,
And converse with all our stars.

In radiant flame of glowing light
Thy silent orb rolls on,
Through vast eternities of night,
To mortal man unknown.

Thy magnitude thy fiery glow,
Thy towering wake of flames,
But mock our wisest skill to know,
We’ve barely learned thy name.

Through boundless depths of space unknown,
Beyond the realms of days,
In blazing language of thy own,
Thou speaks thy Maker’s praise.

This week, I’m sharing a different kind of post, a longer scene that features the Comet Donati. I shared this in 2014 when I wrote the first draft of Rock Creek. Although my novel has evolved from this early writing, including my later decision to give Cobb two bs to his name, this scene holds an essential piece of the later tragedy that unfolds for the McCanles family who had hoped to escape the coming war.

Perhaps the comet was not the glorious sign James thought it to be. It turned out to be a natural phenomenon occurring before an unnaturally violent war between families and neighbors. Unfortunately, human contempt is not as uncommon as a visible comet.

Excerpt From Rock Creek:

“Truthfully, it grows fainter as it passes us by. Comet Donati,” said James.

“That’s a pretty name.” The cider was sweet and warm as Sarah drank.

“It’s named after the Italian astronomer who first sighted it last summer.”

“Is it an omen?”

James leaned against the oak tree and looked skyward. “Omens are for old ladies.”

“What do the old ladies say? It’s not as if any speak to me.”

“They say that such terrible lights burn for killed kings and slain heroes. They say a bloodbath is coming.”

Sarah shuddered. “And what do you say?”

James raised his upturned hand to the comet. “Thou speaks thy Maker’s praise.”

A clomping of hooves sounded from the snow-covered road. Cob was walking Captain and leading another horse.

“Evening, Da, Sarah. Are you ready, lass?” Cob swung down from Captain and stood eye-to-eye with his father.

“Might I dissuade you son?”

“You may not. What it done, is done and now I must flee. Leroy will follow with his family and mine in the spring.” He grabbed Sarah’s bundle and began to tie it to the saddle of the second horse. Sarah wondered if she would have to walk.

“I cannot imagine a more beautiful place than Watauga, this lovely vale. I brought my children here to make a home. And now my children leave. My grandchildren, too.”

“Da, come out with Leroy. Get out of here before the war.”

“Bah! These traitors who talk of succession are just blustering. A new President. We have a Constitutional Unionist on the ticket…”

“Enough of politics.The west is were we can prosper.”

“Yes, and I hear that Mormons can have many wives.” James looked pointedly at Sarah.

“Leave her be, Da. Mary knows I’m getting her out of this place so she can have a fresh start, too.”

“Do not be leading your family to a cruel fate, David Colbert.”

The two men grasped arms until James pulled Cob to him. “May angles guard over your journey. Your mother and I shall weep in our old age, not seeing the single smokestack of any of our offspring.”

“Come with Leroy, Da. At least go to Tennessee. It’s safer at Duggers Ferry and you’ll have two daughters to spoil you in old dotage.”

“Ach, I’m not leaving my native land. How could I stray from the Watauga River? Who would fish her silver ribbons the way I do?”

“Then mind yourself angling and take care of mother. Fare thee well, Da.”

To Sarah’s surprise, Cob reached for her and slung her up into the saddle as easily as he had tossed her bundle. He swung up behind her and seated her sideways on his lap. He nudged Captain and the horse responded with a spirited trot.

Sarah heard James call, “Farewell.” His voice sounded choked with tears, yet she couldn’t deny her joy at leaving this place. She would be a free woman.

It was hard not to fidget and the night grew even colder. Sarah watched the comet as they rode up the mountains, cresting the ridge and breaking through drifts of snow. Occasionally they would pass a cabin or farm, a coon dog barking in the distance, but no other signs of life.

“Where are we going, exactly,” asked Sarah. West seemed like a grand place, but she had no idea where west or how long it would take.

“We’ll catch the train at Johnson’s Tank.” His voice rumbled in the cold silence of the mountains.

Johnson’s Tank was a start. Sarah had never seen a train and now she would get to ride on one. Somehow she failed to summon the earlier excitement and she glanced at the comet, hoping it meant nothing at all. Yet, it had to mean something. It was no coincidence that it appeared in her darkest hour of despair or that it was still present the night she escaped the damnation of her family’s punishment. It had to be a sign for good. Her lucky star.

Sarah must have dozed off because she awoke, startled to see the light of dawn shining from behind them. They had ridden out of the the mountains and the land before them was rolling with woods and fields.

“You awake?”

“Yes.”

“Good. I have to stop.” Cob reined in Captain. “Slide down,” he told her.

Sarah did and hopped to the ground that was wet with dew and free of snow. Cob dismounted and handed her the reins. He stepped a few paces and with his back to her, she heard him urinating. Her face grew flush and she realized she needed to do the same, but how could she?

“Do you have to go?”

“No.” She stood uncomfortably aware that she had to go even more now that she had denied it.

“Just go.” He took the reins from her.

“Here?”

“Pick a clump of grass and sprinkle it with dew. How about that clump there?” Cob pointed to a small bent row of grass in front of Captain.

Sarah looked each direction and finally walked around to the other side of the horses. Lifting her skirts and spreading her knickers she squatted with her back to the horses feeling somewhat shielded. Her stream sounded like a roaring river in her ears. Rearranging her underclothes and skirts, she turned around to see Cob leaning against Captain staring at her with a big boyish grin. “I knew you had to go.”

“Do not watch me!” Sarah turned away, feeling the flush rise from her neck to her scalp.

“It’s natural.” He chuckled.

“For men, perhaps.” She turned back around and glared.

“Oh? And women politely pass on pissing? What happens when you have to…”

“That’s enough!”

“Time to mount up, my damsel in distress.” Cob bowed as if he were a gallant.

“Rogue.”

###

Thank you for indulging my historical fiction as a post this week. For those of you who’ve kindly expressed interest in my veteran saga, we are still in a holding pattern, waiting for news on whether or not the Hub will “get a bed” in Minneapolis. His therapist is now pushing to help that cause, as well.

On the Keweenaw homefront, we have the urgent sense of savoring every last ray of summer sunshine. Winter is coming. And for our writing prompt this week, so are comets.

August 16, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a comet. You can consider how it features into a story, influences a character, or creates a mood. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by August 21, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.

 

Origins of Comets (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills

Sarah spread a quilt on the knoll above Rock Creek to watch the night sky.

“The year before I was born, stars landed.” Yellow Feather pulled a pitted gray stone from his medicine pouch. He passed it to Nancy Jane.

“Feels kinda like lumpy metal.”.

“It’s heavy, too. This is a star?” asked Sarah.

Yellow Feather said, “My grandfather found it where many small stars burned the prairie grass.”

“Look – there’s one,” said Nany Jane.

“I saw it! Did you see Comet Donati last year?”

Yellow Feather laughed. “Comet Donati? That was just First Shaman urinating across the sky.”

August 9: Flash Fiction Challenge

Ed peers at me from behind the ferns. He’s caught between the darkness of the deep woods and the sunlight pouring through the opening in the trees. I’d like to think Ed is “Ed McMahon” with a Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstake check the size of a refrigerator door and enough zeros to last a lifetime of book-buying. Or Ed, as in the name of a yet-unknown publisher who knocks to say, “Golly-gosh, we love your writing – here’s a contract.”

No, Ed is a deer. A soft-eared doe with big dark, curious eyes peers at me from a glen in Minnesota that I’ve never seen. The photo is a gift, one of several that Keto Man gave me after an interview.

First, Keto Man is the very last member-owner of a co-op I will ever interview. He marks the conclusion of an era for me, the final one after seventeen years of interviews. During that time, I caught the stories of hundreds of co-op members, organic farmers, artisan cheese producers, and entrepreneurs.

Peering back at that time in my life, I see all who I interviewed as part of a colorful tapestry of a vibrant community food system. Food cooperatives in the US rose out of the need for people to have whole food. The movement countered processed meals, added sugar, and expense. In Berkley and Minneapolis, co-ops adopted the symbol of a fisted carrot: Food for people, not for profit!

Sound familiar? Carrot Ranch…Words for people! Sure, I lopped off the “not for profit part” because I emphatically believe literary artists, like all artists, should be valued and paid for their work. The name Carrot Ranch acknowledges community activism centered on fairness, and as a literary arts community, I believe in the power of writers to rise and say something powerful in the world tussle between chaos and order.

Literary art belongs to the people, not the ivory towers or pocketbooks of profit-first publishing. People first. Nothing against publishing dynasties or ivory towers. I love New York and vow to go back as a published author one day. But the industry strangles voices with a profit-driven model. And I’m not against higher education — I’m headed back to the ivory towers of liberal arts next month.

Of course, my position at Finlandia University suits my inner maverick. As an adjunct, I’ll be teaching a CTE Marketing course to high school juniors and seniors who get to enroll in college. Already I get to circumvent some of the pomp of being a full-fledged prof. I’m invited to the week-long orientation for new professors, but I can pick and chose which events to attend. I like that.

But I did have to get fingerprinted and entered into the FBI database. That’s a requirement of the Copper Country School District. I understand and made the most of my jail visit to the Houghton County Sheriff’s Department. I even got to sit in the sheriff’s office and talk to him about teaching (he used to be an adjunct at Finlandia, too). He agreed to talk to my class about how professionalism is part of his department’s brand.

In fact, I’ve been reaching out to many local business owners, companies and entrepreneurs to speak as guests. I hope to have one a week. I want to expose my students to many varied ideas about what they could do with a marketing career. And I want to drive home the only rule my classroom will have: always be professional. If any disciplinary issues arise, as administrators fear given that this is the first time they’ve opened their campus to high school students, I can begin with, “What would a professional do?” One required reading for the course will be “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield.

Keto Man didn’t think our interview would last 20 minutes. My former client wanted one more member-owner profile after I completed my last project for them. As is the case with such last-minute stories, they turned over a willing candidate to interview. Keto Man didn’t think he was interesting. He wasn’t. He was fascinating and inspiring.

For starters, he led me to a dark place, as dark as the woods behind a deer. Like me, he has no cable television thus eliminating the 24-hour news media nonsense. While I support journalism and believe in a nation’s free-press, the US saw the information age give way to the misinformation age. Keto Man directed me to Jordan Peterson and The Intellectual Dark Web. I’ve only watched a few clips and not anything I’m compelled to share yet, but I fully understand the allure of intellectualism, of long conversations, of discourse.

As a literary writer, I support what Jordan Peterson says: When you are in college and have those years carved out for you, read every book you can in the library. Yes! Read deep and read broadly. It reminds me of how I often struggled as a writer in my twenties because I felt I didn’t have anything to say. And I was right. The twenties are for reading, for digesting. Sure, writing is a huge part of processing what you think about what you read, but you must input information and experiences, first.

Also, I’d add – go live! Go be a parent and understand that dirty diapers are daily, and you’ll get over yourself in a hurry. Go to college and cram all night, write every day and read every book until your eyes cross. Go work a job, any job, especially a job that doesn’t fulfill you, so you can understand what does bring you satisfaction. Go to the mountains, to the sea, to the desert, to the city, to someplace new. Go travel and talk to people who are different until you understand they are just like you.

And never stop. Never stop learning, experiencing, and using your voice to say something. Observe. Create. Express. Write. Repeat.

I connected with Keto Man. I understood his interest in long conversations and civil debates. I like the idea of the Dark Web for taking hot social topics and debating them on a long forum and following up with audience questions. Yes, I long for more intelligent discourse. However, I also long for more compassion. As with everything, balance.

Further in the interview, Keto Man explained a health crisis he experienced to which he responded by eliminating all sugar and grains. I felt inspired by his action. He’s on a ketogenic diet which has eliminated the culprit of inflammation. He is able to process his health so differently from many veterans like the Hub. Next time a VA doctor says the Hub is normal for his age, I have a comparison.

My adjustment with the Hub correlates to a phrase Anne Godwin gifted me with last week: my veteran’s a reluctant patient with a hard-to-diagnose condition. He’s not normal for his age. Even the 86-year old man who conversed with me at the beach/office today could hold focus better than the Hub.

I’m writing, and occasionally peering at others, as I’m officing from a picnic table at Hancock City Beach. A man with two teeth approaches and tells me a joke in such rapid Finnish-English I laugh, not because I understand but because I don’t. Then I tell him a joke. Evidently, this is a Finnish custom for opening a conversation. He lingers and asks why I’m at a picnic table with a computer on such a beautiful day. Exactly! It’s such a beautiful day, I wanted to go down to Portage Canal and write.

Tomorrow we have the first of several evaluations for the Hub. They will be peering into his service records, his medical records and at his old bones. I’d rather be peering at rocks or at a deer that might be named Ed. That will come later.

August 9, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes  an act of “peering from the woods.” Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by August 14, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.

Ed in the Woods by Charli Mills

Ed was peering at me again. I could feel his gaze crawl across my shoulders. Let me finish the chapter, Ed. The Legendary Leaphorn is in the arroyo. The tickle continues. I persevere, finish the chapter and set down Tony Hillerman’s latest southwest detective book.

Snagging a sip from my gin, tonic, and blueberries, I grab a fresh-husked corn.

Ed still peers at me from the edge of the woods. His ears twist like radar. Slowly I raise my offering. He hesitates, leans in and nibbles from my hand. The deer dashes off, leaving me to read in peace.

August 2: Flash Fiction Challenge

Monty sits on what remains of Cynthia’s deck in Ripley. Much of the rubble from the landslide remains, and yet life boldly rises. The apple tree uprooted and hanging over the fury of water that flooded Ripley Creek after the mountain slid, grows like a tree from a fantasy novel out of the gray and green rocks. Apples hang heavy in its branches.

A clump of roses takes root in a barren patch of dirt and kale spreads like weeds. Milkweed, nectar to butterflies, protrudes in clusters, tall green and promising to flower. A daylily nods its orange head by the deck. Purselane spreads across the rocky ground like nature’s band-aid.

I watch the Hub pet Monty, Cynthia’s charming rescue dog, a Daschund. He’s sitting down, which is good. Typically, the Hub would be gnashing his teeth at the pain in his knee, but he tells me the gel shot he got on Mondy is working. He’s tired, and no shot will take away the instability of both his knees.

The Hub gave us a big scare on Tuesday, ending up in an emergency room. His VA doctor offered to drive him after determining his blood pressure was through the roof. The day before, when he got the shot, the nurse raised the alarm over his dangerously high blood pressure, but he told her she measured it wrong. He can be surly to deal with in such circumstances.

On Tuesday we went to the local clinic for a weekly visit. Afterward, he wanted to see the Marine nurse he likes. I like her, too. She fights for him to get the care I’m fighting for him to get. She and his primary care doctor are the best. But often the referrals they make get denied by the VA. Slogging through the system is never easy.

I returned home to conduct a phone interview for a profile I’m writing, so the Hub drove back. He asked the Marine nurse to take his blood pressure because she does it right. She said it was THAT high. The doc came in, and both told him he needed to go to the emergency room immediately.

When his calls came through to me, I was on another call — the DVIBC had called me back, and it wasn’t a call I could miss, so I ignored his. He only told me he wanted to “talk” to the Marine nurse. I didn’t know he was checking up on his blood pressure. Or that he was in crisis.

I was managing the ongoing crisis — the Hub’s head. We’ve been down a scary path of weakening executive function over the past eight years. When it got bad, I pestered him to get seen for PTSD. I didn’t know what else it could be. His family and friends always talked about how changed he was after service, and I knew his quirks and moments when I’d call him out as “Sgt. Mills” because of his intensity.

But these past few years have been crisis hell. I couldn’t understand why, when we lost our rental two months before we could get into our next one, that he’d insist on going into the wilderness. I’m still traumatized by the experience. That’s when I started fighting hard as I ever have to get him into the VA. Before it was his knees. This time it was his shifts in thinking and behavior.

The VA had no trouble diagnosing him with combat anxiety even 33 years after the event. But he wouldn’t stay put. Next, we were off like a rocket to Mars (southern Utah) because it was a chance for him to get back into his aviation career which he loved. But he couldn’t do it. He was fired for PTSD symptoms.

That’s when I got scared. My husband was not acting like my husband and yet he couldn’t see it. I grieved terribly. I felt like I lost him, and in many ways, I have. A few widows have put it in perspective for me though — I still have him. It’s a bitter pill. But I charged on, getting him up to Michigan with him resisting the entire way.

Even now, it’s a weekly battle for two therapists and one ready-to-give-up wife to keep him here. I love my new community. I love being close to my eldest and youngest. I love Lake Superior and her tempestuous moods and generous rocks. I love new friends like Cynthia and Cranky. I love what the Red Cross discovered when they came to the Keweenaw — we are an intact community.

The Hub wants to leave. He hates mosquitos. He hates snow. He hates feeling bored, and he hates not being able to connect thoughts. He hates that his knees hurt so bad after years of needing a replacement.

You might notice a difference in attitude, and that’s part of the rub. But still, I fight to get him care. His therapists were the ones to catch on that something more was going on with him. That led to suspicion of traumatic brain injury (TBI). It would take sleuthing the pieces to puzzle out what happened.

We all knew about his hard landing into to combat.

The Hub’s mom got a phone call early in the morning of October 25, 1983, that her son was on his way to Grenada. A determined US president confirmed on television that he deployed US special forces – Navy Seals and Army Rangers – to rescue US medical students on an island that Cubans had fortified to build a runway for Soviet planes. So much for a dairy farmer’s wife to comprehend.

How could she know her son was jumping with a concussion? He didn’t even know.

Less than a week earlier, a fellow Ranger spearheaded the Hub in the face during a soccer game and knocked him out cold. He was ticked off to get pulled from the game. Knocked out cold and that’s all that happened. That’s the culture of “Ranger Tough.” Within days, he was flying in a C-130 to combat.

The Hub jumped with a T-10 parachute which Airborne uses for mass combat jumps. His rate of descent increased with his heavy load — a mortar round and all the communications gear for his unit. He hit so hard he bounced. He hit right knee, hip and head…bounced…hit his head again. He wore an M1 helmet which the Army acknowledges was not designed for impact. He essentially wore no head protection for 174 career jumps.

It would take almost five years for the Hub to realize that the pain in his knee after that jump was from bone fragments and a complete internal derangement of his knee. He had continued to jump, play soccer and rugby, all on a broken knee. That’s the culture of “Ranger Tough.” As much as I’d like to smash that tough attitude, I also recognize that it conforms to his identity.

When we go to the VA, I fight him as much as I fight them. I must be “Ranger Wife Tough.” He’ll ignore pain or report it’s low, then go home and rail about the pain. I won’t go into what it’s like to be married to a veteran, really only other veteran spouses get it, and many of them are exes. It’s not a glorious role.

But I know the Hub is a good man. He’s been a good dad, and I always felt safe with him (up until wilderness homelessness and Mars wanderings). Just as I did when I was raising three children, I ask, “Why this behavior?” Each new puzzle piece comes with a “why.” I keep arranging, searching the scientific studies, reading articles from the National Football League, reaching out to experts, asking for more tests.

We now understand that the Hub’s symptoms at the end of his military service and after he came home were likely due to TBI. PTSD certainly factored in — simply surviving Ranger Battalion required the maximum effort and PTSD is proof that one is a survivor. Another piece of the puzzle was linking his combat dive specialty after Grenada, after a TBI. It compounded the lack of healing.

But the brain can and does heal. The problem is what they call second impact syndrome. After a concussion, the brain releases tau, a protein which destroys more of the brain’s neurons. It leaves the brain vulnerable until it heals. If the brain suffers another impact (even a jolt), more tau is released. This is why repetitive concussions are dangerous. They lead to degenerative brain disease.

Chronic Traumatic Encephaly (CTE) can only be diagnosed after death through autopsy. Researchers are studying the brains of retired and living NFL players to look for clues. One marker is the presence of white matter brain lesions which also manifest in dementia. The Hub’s brain MRI reveals white matter brain lesions.

Symptoms include loss of executive functioning which explains why at age 55 the Hub was diagnosed by a VA psychiatrist with ADD. He never had ADD as a child or teen, or even hinted at it with learning or behavioral problems. But loss of executive functioning in adults is often confused as ADD. So it makes sense.

It’s why, when a doctor tells the Hub he needs to take the pills to lower his blood pressure, the Hub argues with him that he doesn’t have high blood pressure.

But today was a victory. In therapy with his Vet Center PTSD counselor, he recognized himself in a younger veteran he recently met. The signature wound of Iraq and Afghanistan is TBI. And most soldiers with TBI have PTSD. The VA, once it began to understand the immensity of the problem through recent TBI research, began screening all post-9/11 veterans.

The Hub is pre-9/11. When he came home, his parents wanted help, but no resources existed.

The fact that the Hub could see his own symptoms in another person was a huge moment of clarity. He understood why we were focusing on the two in-patient treatment options we have. He’s agreed to either one that comes through for him. I’m beyond relieved. He’ll have a team of medical and mental health professionals to work with all his issues.

Like Cynthia, though, we wait. We wait to find out if and when. She will rebuild a new home. We will rebuild a different life.

As I watch the Hub pet Monty while talking roofs and walls and how to live in a house with no running water or floors, I feel we are all going to be okay. I feel like it’s a yellow tent moment. We’ve pitched our tents and wait for the stars to come out. My tent is yellow. The color of sunshine and hope.

August 2, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a yellow tent. Where is it and who does it belong to? Think of how the color adds to the story. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by August 7, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.

Wanting to Hide (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli MIlls

Danni unzipped her tent. Vapors rose from the creek where it meandered smooth and flat across a meadow dotted with daisies. The sun cast colors across the eastern horizon of sharp mountains. She checked each boot, a habit from growing up in Nevada where scorpions liked to take refuge in a cozy shoe. The feel of laced boots gave her confidence to face the day. The volunteers would soon be arriving to camp. Ike had always teased her about how bright yellow her tent was – “Astronauts in space can spot it.” Today, she wished she had his camo tent.

July 19: Flash Fiction Challenge

White-washed buildings gleam beneath a blue sky streaked with high clouds. They’re the kind of clouds that don’t do much more than add brush strokes to a painting. No humidity. No heatwave. No black flies. Sunshine rests comfortably on my head as I carry a box of books and my computer to the western garrison.

I’m at Fort Wilkins to give a presentation on how to use flash fiction to explore history.

1844: Fort Wilkins stands to protect the copper. A young nation encroaching further west, the Michigan wilderness known to the fur traders and voyageurs, marks a lucrative spot on territorial maps. From the decks of sea-faring, Great Lakes mariners can trace veins of copper rich ore to the shoreline of the Keweenaw Peninsula. At its tip where land juts into lake like a bent finger, the Pittsburgh & Boston Mining Company stakes its claim. The garrison of soldiers with memories of the War of 1812 forge a fort. Peaceful as a Sunday picnic. No one badgers the copper miners.

Mowed summer grass surrounds the fort grounds as it faces a lake — not Lake Superior, but Lake Fannie Hooe. A small gurgling stream flows from the lake, past the fort and mingles with the greater one in a half-moon cove with pinchers of craggy rock at each point. The John Jacob Astor floundered in 1845 after missing the safety of the harbor.

Champagne doused her prow on the shores of Sault Sainte Marie – the first tall ship built on Lake Superior. The pride of the American Fur Company, she bore the name of its progenitor. Cutting across heaving waves, she carried cargo and passengers. Eight could squeeze around her dinner table. Fully loaded with winter supplies for Fort Wilkins, she sailed for the harbor. Crashed upon the rocks, every man in the garrison soaked by surf and slashing rain fought to release her. No one died, but with supplies lost to the Great Lake, together they faced a winter of rations.

After I set up in the lecture hall, I eagerly head to the harbor. An artist’s rendering superimposes a modern photo of the harbor with the wreck of the John Jacob Astor. It’s part of an interpretive display to explain the shipwreck. The cove seems pleasant, not one that could take down ships, but I’ve seen Superior on high energy days.

It’s neither too cool nor too hot. It’s a perfect spring day, a gift in mid-summer. The greater gift is the death of black flies. Those winged beasts fed upon my blood just a week before when I came to Copper Harbor to hike in the old growth cedar grove. This evening, I’m alone, savoring my time on the rocky beach.

I settle into a seat of warm pebbles to eat bison jerky made with cranberries and seeds. Almonds and dried apple rings finish the light meal. My energy rises before a presentation, and I eat little. Afterward, I’ll be ravenous! Likely the fish and chips will be closed by then, and I’ll make do with organic fig newtons.

For now, I relish the moment of perfection. Life rarely offers such a perfect mingling of nature, anticipation, tasty fare, sunny skies, warm pebbles and lapping water. I watch the Isle Royale Queen approach the harbor and promise myself that one day I will have a writer’s retreat on the island.

It’s a bucket list kind of place — so remote in Lake Superior, it takes six hours to reach.

Wolves sheltered on the dock in crates. Daddy’s expression never changed but I could feel his tension. He didn’t want wolves on his island. This was our third summer on Isle Royale since Daddy became National Park Superintendent. Mother said some zoo in Cleveland wanted to purge its wolves, but they were too used to people to set loose on the lower 48. So, they shipped them to Daddy by boat in crates. That summer, shadows followed me and my sister, but never materialized where we walked or played. If wolves knew of people, they knew to stay away.

Recently I collected the oral histories of two sisters who lived in Ripley but summered on Isle Royale where their father had served as the National Park’s second superintendent. It was happenstance that I met the women. In flood-torn Ripley, of all places. They described their childhood to me, living next door to Cynthia’s house and attending school at what is now an apartment complex next to the fire hall.

99-words is catching on in the Keweenaw. I love its artistry, the form’s ability to distill a story in surprising ways. I love how it births creative moments, solving problems with a constraint. I love how it can be a tool. To the entrepreneur, 99 words are 45 seconds. One 99-word story can express a vision. Eight can launch a compelling pitch. To the historian, 99 words can digest historical facts, fictionalize the gaps and imagine times past.

Fiction lets us question history, to dig deeper than the facts and records. Writing historical fiction is all about asking what if…and why…and how…and who would… We might know when, but we want to know so much more. In my own historical research, I find that these questions drive me to examine the records more closely.

I learn about the mystery of Lake Fannie Hooe. A friend from my veteran spouses group grew up not far from Copper Harbor, spending her summers exploring old mines and logging camps the way I did in my hometown. She told me that legend has it, Fannie was a little girl, perhaps the daughter of an officer, who went missing. As they circled the lake they called, “Fannie…! Fannie, hooe!

They say, they never found her body.

As a story-catcher, I have an affinity for “they say” stories. Usually, they are not accurate historically, but they contain a nugget of humanity. “They say” stories express our fears or need to be entertained. I find “they say” stories fun to research. When I lived in Idaho, I wrote a column for a magazine that explored local history beginning with they say. From there, I tried to match the story to historical records.

Questions help discovery. The night of my presentation, I had planned for attendees to write their own Fort Wilkins flash fiction. I forgot that writing can be intimidating to non-writers. I tried to convince a wide-eyed crowd that they could pencil their own historical fiction. Realizing their trepidation, I led the questioning and did the writing from their responses.

The one prompt they all wanted to explore was, “Who was Fannie Hooe and why did she go missing?” Two historians from the fort sat in on the presentation and knew a great deal about the real Fannie. She was from Virginia and came as a single woman to Fort Wilkins to help her pregnant sister. She was not a girl, but a young lady. They say she went missing, mauled by a bear or murdered by a spurned lover.

Truth is, she returned to Virginia, married and lived a long life.

Flash fiction remains my favorite tool to explore history. It allows me to write quickly from multiple perspectives and test different points of view for my characters. If I don’t like a POV or discover a different path for a character, I’ve only committed a batch of flash fiction to the discovery instead of having to overhaul chapters or revise an entire draft.

Flash fiction lets me push into the space between the gaps. It lets me crawl under the skin of those the record shows were there. It tolerates my line of questioning with 99-word answers.

July 19, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about Fannie Hooe. Although she is a legend in the Kewenaw, feel free to go where the prompt leads.

Respond by July 24, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.

 

Grandma Fannie by Charli Mills

Grandma Sarah rocked with restraint as we drank mint water over chipped ice, a luxury in 1870s Virginia, especially after the War. Grandpa Hooe was a Union officer, commissioned in the wilds of Michigan. Grandma told stories about how they met at Fort Wilkins the year she stayed with her sister. She told me how her nickname was the same as mine – Fannie.

“My bonnet blew off, and your grandfather swore he was bedazzled by the sun on my blond hair.”

All the men from the garrison courted her, but she left the wilds with Grandpa as Fannie Hooe.