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July 11: Flash Fiction Challenge

The Ranch is open, but I’m on hiatus at the southern edge of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The unpaved backroads, hilly terrain, links of lakes and ponds, woods, and the Green Mountains disorient me and yet feel familiar. Several times, going around a bend or glimpsing the humps of ancient wooded mountains, I have anticipated a memory, experienced the feeling of recall only to remember I’ve never been here before.

As if that’s not surreal enough, I’m driving around in D. Avery’s truck. I’ve met her mom at the Juedevine Library where we introduced Wrangling Words in 99 words to Vermonters. I had a beer with her brother at the local American Legion where he’s a big mucky-muck very important person. I fed her dad’s chickens and survived a jaunt through the woods when her friend, a local librarian at the Craftsbury Library, said the trail was how to get there. I’ve never hiked through the woods across a mountain ridge to get to a literary event but, hey, I’m game!

Right now, D. has Vermont beans in a crockpot and is visiting with JulesPaige across camp on Greenwood Lake. She baked sourdough buns, and I made a green salad with tarragon dressing, using honey Jules brought from Pennsylvania. We are waiting for Ann Edall-Robson to arrive from Canada and Susan Sleggs from New York.

Pinch me. I’m living the dream of Some Day.

Some Day I was going to lead a nature writing retreat, call it a refuge because it would be a place to rest the writer’s soul and fill up the creative mind. The Refuge, like the Ranch, would be a safe space to explore Writing Dreams, and further craft, platform, and publishing while learning from the Nature Writing Greats who have influenced me over the years. I wanted to be like Annie Dillard or Wallace Stegner and have a special place from where I could write and inspire others to do so, too.

Greenwood Lake is D.’s special place, and she’s sharing. We had a day of getting to know each other, a day to build trust. The next day we played out loud going to the center of a waterfall, witnessing loon choreography, chasing loons and herons in kayaks, chatting up lake neighbors, and discovering mysteries in old cemeteries. I can imagine a young D. accompanying an uncle as he researched their old family ties here, running off and finding a curious obelisk. I can picture her opening the metal cover on the side, surprised to find a mirror inside. The mirror is gone but not the memory.

Lots of things did not happen before I stepped onto the plane to come here — I’m still waiting on final word with home and MFA. But never mind. I’ve come to the Kingdom, and it’s time to focus on that Some Day and share this Refuge, get it going to become an annual event. We welcome Ranchers tonight, including as koala proxy standing in for Norah Colvin. She also sent us treats and sparkling notebooks. Perfect for the realm.

Collections are going to back up as I’m on hiatus, but I will return to “home” by the 24th when D. and I are reading from last week’s responses to the microhistories. Thank you for joining us in that activity! I’ll return after that with good news and catch up with each of you and publish the collections (last week and this one). Because of my time away, I’m setting up the July 11 prompt to have an extended two-week deadline. I hope you have fun with it!

July 11, 2019, prompt: “My kingdom for a koala!” In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a koala in a kingdom. You can create a character out of Norah’s koala and give it a Vermont adventure. Or you can make up a story however you want! Can you pull off a BOTS (based on a true story)? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by July 23, 2019. 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.

Koala in the Kingdom by Charli Mills

Koala jangled plastic hips when the morning sun hit her solar panels. She danced with a big grin while three loons circled in a pattern like a watery Celtic knot. She guarded the birding binoculars from her book perch beneath wildflowers. Koala stood in a mound of chocolate covered macadamia nuts, watching the Lead Buckaroo sneak bites when she was supposed to be fixing dinner. Koala smiled when the card from her Australian writer connected the gathered Ranchers from the Kingdom to Down Under. In 99-words, no more, no less, Koala bore witness to literary art and writerly friendships.

July 4: Flash Fiction Challenge

This morning I prepared and consumed the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. I had left-over white bread to feed hungry house-painters and satisfy a seven-year-old boy. I chose right — the first sandwich I made for my grand-nephew K, I asked which bread he’d like, offering him the choice of whole wheat, sourdough, or white. “Normal bread,” he said. Yep. White bread.

I remember being seven-years-old and new to downhill skiing. We had recently moved to the Sierra Nevada mountains from the California coastal mountains surrounding old land-grant ranchos, buckaroos, and vineyards. We didn’t ski in San Benito County, but having been born into a horse culture, I found my balance readily (and later in life, lost it). You can learn more about why my school had us kids on skis at Norah Colvin’s new series, School Days, where she interviews writers to reminisce about formative educational experiences. When I discovered skiing, I also discovered American cheese.

American cheese, mayonnaise, and Wonderbread (a step below white bread in nutrition, in fact, it might not be bread but a 1970s cheap filler food). At home, we typically had sourdough bread or sandwich rolls, salami, tomatoes, onions, and jalapeno pickles. If we had cheese, it was most likely Monterey Jack. Sometimes, we’d have Tillamook Cheddar from Oregon. When we went skiing, we had those American cheese sandwiches, and to this day, they taste like The Best Day.

Problem is, once grown I realized American cheese sandwiches slathered with mayo on the bread with the least food nutrition value are not the healthiest choices. Lots of food I remember from the ’70s are best forgotten — eating powered Jell-o from the box, Tab soda, Suzy Qs, new potatoes in a can, Velveeta macaroni, and cheese, chipped beef from a jar, Vienna sausages, and pop rocks. But once in a blue moon, I’d fix my kids a grilled cheese sandwich, using my American cheese sandwich ingredients and frying it all in butter.

Let the holiday be my excuse. It’s Independence Day in America, and I splurged on American cheese. Tonight, I’ll go sit on the shores of Lake Superior in Eagle River, listen to local bands, drink Shorts Beer, and wait for the long dusk to darken enough for fireworks. The Hub doesn’t mind fireworks at all, in fact, he prefers to be the one lighting them off. But combat PTSD doesn’t always look like what the media tells us. Fireworks can and do trigger many veterans and pets. Others get excited. It’s good to be aware of those in your own circle of contact. Isolation can be a greater danger. Check on your veteran neighbors, make sure they are not alone.

Tonight, I’ll watch for ships on Lake Superior, using the marine traffic map and my binoculars. Every year, I wonder what it must be like to be on a Great Lake freighter, seeing fireworks blast from towns and celebrations along the shoreline. And that is the direction I’m steering this week’s prompt. This collection will be included in a live literary event at Fort Wilkins on July 25 when D. Avery joins me in reading 99-word stories. We’ll focus on Copper Country history, drawing from past collections and creating some new material this week.

It’s a different kind of prompt but still, flash storytelling. I hope you will stretch your creativity and lend a voice to this upcoming event.

On the home-front, we are nearing completion. The bankers and their blasted extended holiday mean no closing tomorrow. The title company is going out of their way to meet with the Hub and me on Saturday so I can sign papers because I’m flying to Vermont during our closing on Monday. If the bank fails to get the paperwork over to the title company during off hours, I’ll have to sign a power of attorney for the Hub to sign on my behalf. Other than the final messy frays, it’s looking good. Better than our patchwork paint job, but it passed the inspection, and that’s what matters. Almost home!

This week, history meets literary art. Keweenaw National Historic Park is all about the history of a place — the Keweenaw Peninsula. The National Park Service has a collection of microhistories, the stories of individuals, on their website. Our 99-word stories will use these microhistories as the prompt and will be included in a public reading at Fort Wilkins on July 25 by D. Avery and me. Join us in the fun!

July 4, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using your choice of microhistory from Keweenaw National Historic Park. Be historical, funny, or flagrantly fictional. Choose a character, time, place, or event. Be as creative as you want in telling the story (for those doing serials, how can you meld this into your own storyline?). Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by July 9, 2019. 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.

The Old Ramona (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

“Big Annie wrapped the American flag around her shoulders like a shawl to march with striking copper miners,” Danni explained.

Ramona frowned at the old photo. It was part of Danni’s Keweenaw collection where she had earned her master’s in industrial archeology. Before she met Ike in Idaho. Ramona used to relish stories about Big Annie who rallied the miners and spent time in jail in 1913. Now, Ike’s grandmother glared.

“Shouldn’t disgrace the flag that way,” she said.

Ramona left the room and Danni sagged. She missed Ike in Iraq more than ever. She missed the old Ramona.

June 27: Flash Fiction Challenge

Everything is happening too quickly and not fast enough.

It’s the energy of the tail end of a comet after a near miss with planet earth. It’s the spin of a car that comes to rest without striking the tree. It’s ducking the claws of an owl. It’s that moment when disaster passes. Back up to the heartbeat before when catastrophy or near-misses are both yet possible. That’s what my life feels like right now.

I don’t know the outcome. In my bones, I feel hopeful. I’m the seal hunter on the ice shelf, ready to provide but not fully understanding the impact of melting ice. I raise my spear to strike. The shelf can collapse, or I can return to my village with the first food since the long winter. I’m so close to having a home, I can see it rising from the blowhole.

But the ice — the unknowns — don’t always favor the bold. If you really want to be happy, don’t have expectations. Don’t be the hunter whose happiness depends upon getting the seal. In fact, go back and order a shipment of food from Amazon drones and settle. Settle for what is, quit fighting for what could be better. No, that’s not right. Hunt. Go after your purpose, your dreams, your desire. Have wild expectations. Encounter both joy and sorrow.

The baby birds died. The home loan got delayed. And Sgt Mills says no way are we building a starling nest box. It’s times like these I’m reminded that it’s messiest before the end. Every fresh start needs an ending. Every hunter needs something to go after and bring back. Failure is imminent. Death happens. But life begs to be lived in a big way.

Did I think last week was hard? I hadn’t encountered this week, yet. Is the universe giving me some crazy unexpected mid-term exam? Do I really want a home? Pouring over 2017 taxes so I can complete FASFA to start my MFA, I don’t know how we made it. The breakdowns. The miles. We traveled over 7,000 miles to get to the Keweenaw. Our expenses almost tripled what my income was. I hadn’t baked in three years.

Sunday I made a zucchini cake. Chocolate zucchini cake with dark chocolate chips. Why not? Go big or go home. Home is my aim, my focus, my consumption at the moment. The world hinges on home. I baked because seven local writers were coming over to Roberts Street for a writing workshop. I changed the venue, so I could live the dream — to have a workshop in my own home. I had the dishes, the couch, the desk, and a pan for baking. Three years, and I felt inept making batter.

But it turned out. The cake, the workshop, having writers in my home! Almost home.

And then Monday came with the VA’s review of the appraiser’s report. We thought we were ready. We were not. No peeling paint. None. And we also needed to repair a damaged storm window and install a safety rail in the garage above the ramp into the basement. I looked up the codes cited in the VA Lender’s Handbook, a 622-page reference. It even covered economic hardship — that painting would not be waived if it created an impossibility.

And it did. On Monday, my daughter picked me up to help plant flowers at her place. She explained that she and her husband were not able to make the extra repairs due to time and finances, that we would have to pay for them ourselves or wait until after her husband’s summer jobs and her trip to France. Last week was waiting, and I was beyond waiting. I had already taken bids earlier that day, and the work would cost several thousand dollars.

Feeling disappointed beyond words, I helped her plant, blood, and tears spilling down my face.

“Mom, you have soil on your forehead.” It wasn’t; it was blood from a black fly, the tyrants of the north that only live three weeks but can cause terrible bites. She told me this wasn’t like before.

I re-read the letters from before. The letter from the landlord in Sandpoint, Idaho thanking us for being good tenants but that we had 30 days to vacate the premise. The letter I wrote back, crafting it carefully as if it were hostage negotiations. The delayed response — “the owners think they can sell the house better empty.” Two weeks and my world crumbled in ways I never thought possible. No safety nets this time. No savings. No spare change. Help from friends, a hasty trailer purchase that only made our circumstances worse. Nowhere to go so we lived in the wilderness.

I’m not going to rehash the failings of the VA. Not only are they once again putting up hurdles for us to get into a home, but spectacularly, they sent us a letter, received this day, stating that the Hub had no authorization to get his knee replaced and they officially denied his medical claim. My mind rushesd between past and present. My daughter says this is not like before and though I can already imagine the impact crater, she is right.

Even if we don’t own the home, we can live here. We have a strong and connected community in the Keweenaw and at Carrot Ranch. The Hub has advocates besides me — his doctor, counselors, and the surgical team at Aspirus. The meteor is not going to hit us. But it will stir up the dust.

The Hub got testy with the person whose phone number was listed on his big fat denial claim. A thick packet that arrived in the mail this morning. She told him it was his fault for not securing authorization and when he proclaimed he had, she said there was nothing in his record. She said, “Don’t kill the messenger.”

“I will if it sends a message,” he said.

I groaned. This is why veterans are difficult. Everything is a battle tactic. Even in his agitation, even with PTSD, moral injury and brain injury, he’s more controlled than any civilian. I still trust him wholly in a zombie apocalypse. I just can’t trust him to remember to paint all the gaps or find his own socks. The call went south after that. He was calm. We quickly made for CBOC (community-based outpatient clinic) in Hancock. He also called Aspirus hospital and asked to speak to Dawn. She checks up on him. Both places had his back — they had his “six.”

We then drove up to Larium to Aspirus. While he tracked down the copies he needed from Dawn, I visited an ailing Warrior Sister. From her bed, she made suggestions. We talked about her diet (clear liquids for the moment) and beating cancer. I told her gluten-free, and dairy-free food could taste good and be simple. I’d help. She wanted to help me with the house. Sisters in the storm, adjusting our sails.

By this time, I needed coffee. A cafe meil to be exact. When near Calumet, one must go to Cafe Rosetta. On the drive home, the VA called back. I guess they were getting hammered by the Hub’s doctors. We all had clear copies of the authorizations from the VA. They conceded it was a mistake. However the denial is official, so now we have to find out how to overturn it otherwise we have to go and appeal it, like court. VA court. Kangaroo court.

We got home, lunched and the Hub went to bed. That’s the thing — his brain can only take so much. If he has to focus, he talks rapidly and won’t let others speak, or he loses his train of thought. It’s not conversational, but we haven’t had good conversations for a while. I’ve learned to let him ramble and take find joy and humor in it. I miss the deep conversations we used to have. He doesn’t realize they are missing and that’s okay. Better only one of us feels bad about it. A morning that requires all that interaction makes him sleepy. He reset.

Me, I painted.

And I’ll keep painting until our next inspection. Monday. We now hope to close July 5. Down to the wire. I hope to leave for Vermont properly homed. If not, like my daughter tried to point out, it’s not like before. I’m almost home, and I’ll paint my way into it one brush stroke at a time.

June 27, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that involves paint. It can be fresh, peeling or in need of a coat. What is being painted and why? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by July 3, 2019. 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.

 

Something Different (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

“Want some paint for that brush?” Danni smiled, remembering. Her brushing a mammoth tusk, Ike standing at the edge of the mud with his fishing pole. The first time they met.

A wet nose nudged her hand while she cleaned shards and the paint brush flew from her grip. It dropped to the concrete of the barn floor. “Det, you are a pesky hound.” She patted the dog and picked up the brush. Maybe she should paint.

If Ike wanted to do something different, then she would too. Danni left for the hardware store to pick out cheerful yellows.

June 20: Flash Fiction Challenge

Wait, I tell the starling.

Last year, Whirligig — a showy, loud and aggressive starling — showed up to the neighborhood, driving out the woodpeckers and entertaining my neighbor and me with his antics. This year, he spotted a hole in my SIL’s roofing job. A small triangular peak over the porch was missing a small chunk of fascia beneath old cedar shakes. Not a priority, my SIL was waiting to finish the job when the siding plates arrived.

Whirligig waits on no one. In an afternoon he nested into the space behind the facia, a small area of trim beneath the porch roofline. My SIL wasted no time in patching the hole. Whirligig found and expanded another. Nesting began in earnest with all of us dodging straw and string debris as we entered and exited the porch.

I’d go outside and Whirligig would fly from the porch eave to squawk from the lightpost across Roberts Street. “Stop nesting in my house,” I’d tell him. Some days, I’d be weeding or lugging my watering can and he’s be making Star Wars robotic chirps and songs. Despite his annoyance, I couldn’t help but laugh. Flowers bloomed and Whirligig courted.

We weren’t too concerned with his nest, waiting to boot him out after mating season. Starlings often build several nests. We didn’t think a female had joined him, only seeing Whirligig. Our conversations continued.

And then the VA home loan appraiser showed up. We didn’t think he’d be overly impressed with our flighty neighbor in the eaves, but given that the gap was in decorative trim and not structural, the SIL focused on finishing the siding plates popped off during last year’s roofing replacement. The Hub mowed the lawn, scrubbed the basement (hopeful man-cave) floor, and I cleaned the house, including places the appraiser never looked.

Instead, he looked in places like the defunct attic stairs. One of the first home-improvements the SIL completed in 2016 was to seal the attic with insulation. The stairs now go to nowhere. But the VA has a rulebook and rule 497 or whatever states that safe stairs have handrails. After the inspection, we learned the VA would not approve a loan on a house missing the ever-so-vital handrail to nowhere. They also don’t like peeling paint, or nesting starlings.

In a panic, we put out a call to our community. Did anyone have a handrail from a remodel (lots of people remodel  these old mining homes)? Could someone help us paint where the Hub couldn’t reach with a ladder? And who was willing to evict Whirligig? Copper Country Strong responded. Within hours, one of the veteran wives drove to town, met us at the building store, and declared her housewarming gift to be a handrail and hardware. Worried about the price, we said we didn’t expect her to pay if it was over a certain threshold. We laughed to find out it was only $14!

The Hub scraped and painted as sloppily as I imagine Tom Sawyer white-washing a fence, but at least it was no longer “peeling.” The SIL, who was supposed to leave for an alternative energy fair, finished work late and came over that night to finish the porch trim. My daughter and I scrapes and caulked the garage windows. I snapped three 100-year-old window panes, ripped my hot pink rubber gloves to shreds (I have no idea how) and got paint chips in my bra, deciding I’d rather write about home-improvement jobs than experience them.

The SNL nailed shut the gap Whirligig used and I couldn’t help but feel low. I know what it feels like to be shut out of a home for no good reason. Why was my home more important than his? It felt unfair and somehow too American — the arrogance of claiming home while denying it to others permeates our history. I did not enjoy being the evictor.

Over a late evening BBQ, the SIL assured me that the nest was an empty one. He couldn’t reach it, but nothing had hatched if there had been eggs. Later, after everyone had left, I stood on the front steps and watched Whirligig, silent on the lightpost. All I could offer was, “I see you. I hear you. I am sorry.”

He flew away.

It sucks to be disenfranchised in America. The process of trying to get recognized as a resident after being homeless is near impossible. Those who are chronically homeless or living rough on the streets or uncounted as they sleep in cars and drive across state borders when they get gas money are doomed to never rise from that lifestyle. The state of Utah recognized the plight of the chronically homeless in Salt Lake City. They realized that it was more cost effective to turn abandoned buildings into independent residences with no costs, no paperwork, and no strings attached. In Kansas City, a group of veterans invested in tiny houses for homeless veterans outside the VA system.

Just trying to get our driver’s licenses has been an ordeal. In Michigan, you have to prove citizenship with a birth certificate. Never mind that the Hub served his nation in combat. He has to prove he was born in the US. I brought our important  documents with us, but with all the transient stops we made at VAs across the western US, the Hub lost his birth certificate. He likely gave it to someone to photocopy to get service at a VA hospital and never got it back. But we prevailed and both have Michigan enhanced driver’s licenses.

Next are 2016 and 2017 taxes. When you cross five different states across two taxe years and have no permanent address, things get complicated. I wrote for clients and he worked for six different companies in five different states and sought medical care from eight different VAs. The IRS has a homeless veteran program but good luck talking to a live person. I filed 2018 taxes claiming Michigan residency, using my daughter’s address. As of January, the Hub is 100 percent disabled. Which gave me the education benefits to go get my MFA in creative writing.

Except — and there’s always an exception with the VA benefits — they don’t pay tuition. I was so devastated to find this out, but then I said screw it, I’ll go deeper into education debt. Ah, yes, but FASFA wants my 2017 taxes. I feel like I’m constantly grinding in circles. I didn’t know what to do next, but this place has good people and someone knew someone who had a CPA who could help. I felt skeptica, having inquired with other CPAs, but this guy, he was willing to take on all my complications. He jokingly told me he needed a good challenge after tax season.

Getting him all my documents, though, made me relive the events of 2016 and 2017. That awful day in March when I froze in panic after the landlords so casually told us we were “free to go” because the owners wanted to sell the place still feels cold in my blood. When the appraiser told us we’d have to fix a few things on the house my daughter told me not to worry. She said the same thing when the landlord sent us a 30-day eviction notice before we had another home to go to. I still don’t trust that I will have a home. The waiting right now is awful, and I think of that silent starling as a personification of my pain.

It is what it is.

This morning I woke up, stepped outside and heard chirping. I looked around for Whirligig but he was gone. With horror, I realized the chirping was coming from inside the porch eave. I sat on the steps and cried. The Hub came home from PT and he asked what was wrong. “Just starlings,” he said. But he saw my pain. And as gruff as he tries to be, he wishes no harm on anything. Without further words, he got a ladder and some tools.

Our daughter came over on her lunch break and found her parents ripping up the front porch. The Hub decided to remove the fascia because that was down where the SIL couldn’t reach. Our daughter chastized him for climbing a ladder, but held it sterady for him. I grabbed a moss-lined flower basket, emptied it but the lining and the Hub pulled the nest with its string and straw anf feathers into it, including two newly hatched birds and one pale blue egg. The birds heard our voices and gaping maws opened hungrily.

But Whirligig was gone. I dug up a grub (looking for worms), mashed it, and filled a dropper with water. I fed two babies and wondered if it were the right thing to do. After the Hub replaced the fascia, I hung the flower basket below the porch eaves. The babies chirped loudly and I hoped Whirligig and his Lady could hear. The robins and sparrows flitted about, and the bird community seemed distressed. Or maybe that was just me. I told them to find Whirligig. The Hub said the starlings had already abandoned the nest and wouldn’t be back. My daughter gently reminded me that nature would take its course.

After a late afternoon appointment, I came home and listened for the babies. I could probably hear them a mile away, they chirp so loudly. And to my relief and delight, I watched Whirligig land in the basket with a squiggling insect of some sort. I decided right then and there that if this becomes our home, we are building Whirligig a nesting box.

Meanwhile, we wait.

June 20, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about having to wait. Who is waiting and what for? Think about how the wait impacts the character or the story. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by June 25, 2019. 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.

 

The Beginning of a Long Wait (from Miracle  of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Waiting for the phone to ring, Danni started a batch of cookies. She stalked over to the phone. “Ring, damn it!” She picked it up to check the dial tone and returned to the kitchen. She started a pot of macaroni and cheese. The phone range and she jumped, answering.

“Hello?”

“Hello. This is the National Coalition for—”

Danni slammed down the receiver. She needed tea. Instead of boiling macaroni, she poured the water over a Lipton tea bag, watching the stain spread. Danni waited to hear if Ike lived after the attack on his convoy in Baghdad.

Raw Literature: Tell Your Story

By D. Avery

This past weekend I took time away from my regular work to peddle my written wares under the local author’s tent at the Nantucket Book Fest. This was my first time attending, and I was glad for the opportunity and exposure. If you’re wondering, I didn’t get rich, but I was enriched by the words of some of the visiting authors.

At the opening celebration of the Book Fest, three authors took to the pulpit (literally, it was at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House) to speak of their motivations. The question posed was, “How can we write when everything’s wrong?”

Ben Fountain asked, “How can we not?” The author of Beautiful Country Burn Again, also said, “I try to understand everything I can,” and spoke of language and writing being a tool for that understanding. Regardless of genre, writers are “the scouts and spies of the human tribe.” Dave Cullen, who wrote Columbine and Parkland, and who “writes because he has to, he writes because he gets to,” reiterated the idea of writers as spies, and told of his vocation, his “being called” to be a “participant observer,” as opposed to objective reporting where a distance is maintained.

Perhaps it was the “human tribe” line that made me think of our tribe here at Buckaroo Nation, where we report back to one another every week after receiving our mission, the prompt. We take up a lens, a spyglass, at times a telescope, at times a kaleidoscope, but we scout out a story and bring it back to the communal fire for sharing. Sometimes we bring back entertainment and sometimes truths, often both.

How can we write, when everything’s wrong? How can we not? The human tribe is a tribe of storytellers. Madeline Miller, author of Circe, reminded us that stories are where there are tears for things and where mortality touches the heart. With her references to the Aeneid a reminder of both the antiquity and the universality of stories, of the constant presence of monsters and dangers and journeys, her closing remarks also brought it back to the fire. “Stories say, ‘I hear you.’ Readers hear, ‘I’m heard, I’m here.’”

This and more I have also heard at the campfire of Carrot Ranch. Writers must write; readers must read. At the Book Fest, the theme continued when Alex Marzano-Lesnevich spoke about their book, The Fact of a Body, a book intriguing to me not for its content, which is grim, but for how they were uncovering one story and discovered their own. The interviewer called the writing “unflinching” and “brave” for the places it goes. Alex admits it might have been easier to have not gone there. But how could they not? Alex suggested that writing is a moral obligation. Their book not only gave the victim of the crime a voice, readers were given a voice, too many readers who had remained silent. Because of Alex’s book, these people felt their story had been told, that they were heard.

As Alex says in the introduction of The Fact of a Body, the book is “my interpretation of the facts, my rendering, my attempt to piece together this story. As such, this is a book about what happened, yes, but it is also about what we do with what happened. It is about a murder, it is about my family, it is about other families whose lives were touched by the murder. But more than that, much more than that, it is about how we understand our lives, the past, and each other. To do this, we all make stories.” The human tribe shares stories.

Sometimes, even in just 99 words, we might, after scouting and spying on pasts and places, on histories, come back with a story that, through the telling and the reading, becomes something more than we knew ourselves. We share in our community; we take communion of story. We might come to understanding or bring understanding through writing, through story making. Our words might make someone else feel heard. And that’s good for the human tribe.

Book Fest was not what I thought it’d be. It was much better than what I thought it would be. Book Fest made me feel like a writer, but not through volume of sales under the tent. True story: A woman whom I had met only the night before when she bought a book, came back to tell me she had just read the first story in After Ever and it made her cry. The story was about her friend she told me, and she was very touched by that. Did I sell a ton of books? I sold enough.

D. Avery lives on an island off the coast of Massachusetts with a husband and a cat. She is a teacher of middle school mathematics. She enjoys kayaking, baking sourdough bread, and reading. She sometimes write. People sometimes read what she writes. ShiftnShake is a place for you to read some of D.’s writing, including her weekly Ranch Yarns.

June 13: Flash Fiction Challenge

Many hands make light work. Women converged on Lady B’s yard, a twisting wreckage slammed by flood and debris last year. Someone — maybe a county worker — laid down straw last summer which snow matted like unruly hair. Depressed and unable to muck out her yard, Lady B expressed sadness. That’s when we formed an informal rake brigade. With six women and six rakes, we piled leaves and straw, collected debris and shattered ceramic pots. Lady B, 86-years-old, fussed over all of us with graciously served cups of sweet tea.

On Saturday, I’m looking forward to returning with annual plants to splash color in remaining pots, and give my friend something to water and care for each day. My daughter will join her hands with mine to plant, and other women plan long-term garden solutions. Approaching a year after the Father’s Day Floods, my community remains Copper Country Strong.

Across town, all hands are on deck to celebrate the Vet Center’s 40th Anniversary. A BBQ fires up, women set up tables laden with food — sloppy joes, taco salad, fruit salad, cheesy potatoes — and the color guard stands at attention. Vietnam Vets and their spouses stand to receive recognition pins.

But let’s back up past WWII, WWI and the American Civil War to better understand what the Vet Center is all about. President Abe Lincoln made a promise to the surviving soldiers and families of the Civil War. The following opens Miracle of Ducks, my novel-in-progress:

In his second inaugural speech, President Lincoln delivered a remedy of justice to those who have served a nation in times of war, understanding that the price paid by soldiers and their families comes at a cost to the nation:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

To this day, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs operates under a solemn commitment made to those injured in service and vows to take care of the families whose soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice. Less than one percent of US citizens ever serve, giving the entire group of veterans an obscure and minority voice. Veterans rarely speak up for their own justice, making it difficult to receive their benefits for what they endured. It is important that we speak up for them. That we welcome them home, understanding they won’t fit in with the civilians they protected. That we do the one and only thing they ever ask for — “Please take care of my family when I pick up arms for you.”

Those who marry these veterans are loyal. A service to nation that often goes unrecognized.

Miracle of Ducks gives voice to veteran spouses through the story of Danni Gordon. This character has evolved with my own understanding of the service spouses give to the nation. Mary Gauthier, a songwriter who works with veteran families to capture their experiences in song, sings about the War After the War. Here are the lyrics that resonate with the “invisible” spouses:

Who’s gonna care for the ones who care for the ones who went to war
Land mines in the living room eggshells on the floor
I lost myself in the shadow of your honor and your pain
You stare out the window as our dreams go down the drain
Invisible, the war after the war
I’m a soldier too, just like you
Serving something bigger than myself
I serve unseen, caught in between
My pain and the pain of someone else
I’m stronger than you think I am, I’m right here by your side
I am not your enemy I don’t want to fight
There’s no going back in time I know you’re not the same
But you are not the only one for whom the world has changed
Invisible, the war after the war

Yet, the price soldiers and their families pay comes at a cost to the nation. In subsequent wars, US citizens paid taxes to fund war efforts, which is why great thought was given before entering into such a commitment. Those who stayed home planted victory gardens, learned to cook and eat rice so that grains could go overseas to soldiers, went without nylons and other items to ration resources. When soldiers came home, citizens rejoiced with ticker-tape parades. And then came Vietnam, an unpopular war during a time of civil unrest. Soldiers became objects of derision.

The Hub remembers when Georgia hated the Army Rangers. They were barred from businesses and snubbed by society. Grenada changed that attitude and made the Hub wary of fickle views of citizens. He enjoyed getting a parade and allowed in establishments previously off-limits, but he still feels annoyed when someone says, “Thanks for your service.” I’ve tried to understand because I recognize that most people are sincere when they give thanks.

But consider this: Post 9/11 “War on Terrorism” has been the longest US war in history, and yet the smallest percentage of population serves. The toll on physical and mental health is high because of repeat tours. Giving thanks is not what Abraham Lincoln intended. The nation — its citizens — must bear the burden of the cost of war. What does this ideal look like in practice?

Soldiers get medical and mental healthcare without stigma, shame, or pressure to soldier up and take the pain and suffering in silence. That’s the VA’s job. On the homefront, soldiers get readjustment counseling to improve quality of life. That’s the Vet Center’s job. So what do citizens do? They can hire veterans, prevent homelessness, and break down barriers that cause veteran isolation. Isolation kills. Even though veteran suicides have dropped from 22 a day to 20, the VA reports that 14 of those suicides never sought VA services.

And I can tell you why — the VA is difficult to access and penetrate, staff often minimize or ignore concerns, funding goes into marketing a suicide prevention hotline instead of programs that encourage veteran inclusion and fitness, homelessness prevention is nonexistent and does not actually help veterans, and moral injury continues after service. Today, at the open house, I expressed my views based on three years of homelessness and 35 years of VA medical neglect to the regions suicide prevention coordinator. I gave her the view from the other side. And as a spouse, I don’t soldier up, I advocate.

My hands are not alone. As Josh Groban sings in The War at Home, “they are a million strong.” I stand beside my Warrior Sisters. Today, I wept as those of the Vietnam era were honored alongside their husbands with pins that represent their courage and indicate a grateful nation. My husband sat beside me and wept to see his Vietnam era Brothers honored and welcomed home. The Vet Centers exist because the Vietnam vets insisted on helping one another if their country wasn’t going to. The Vet Center exists to keep the promise Abe Lincoln made. It is the legacy of the Vietnam Vets.

Many hands make light work. Won’t you join me in bearing the burdens found in our own hometowns? A better world is not just about veterans. I know we are a global community, but each of us can see and meet the needs of others around us — helping a new mom, visiting the elderly and writing down stories, breaking barriers that isolate vulnerable populations, seeing the humanity in a homeless person, fostering community beautification, giving voice to the voiceless, taking on stories bigger than ourselves. We can all be of service.

June 13, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about the work of many hands. Is it a cooperative effort or something else? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by June 18, 2019. 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.

Difficult Decision (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Hands reached out to Danni as she slumped in her chair. “I can’t do it alone,” she said. The women in her group, surrounded her.

Roxie patted Danni’s shoulder. “What do we need to do? I’ll bring my vacuum cleaner.”

Everyone offered to help Danni tackle Ramona’s empty house. She wanted to be angry with Ike for his absence, leaving her to make the decision no one in his family wanted to make. Ramona’s dementia progressed beyond Danni’s ability to keep Ike’s grandmother safe.

“Will she hate me?” Danni asked.

“Nah, she won’t remember you,” said Roxie. “We’ll help.”

June 6: Flash Fiction Challenge

Most of the white beach-washed pebbles are limestone fossils, remnants of a former coral reef. Some are chert with a coating of lime. When I first began hunting rocks on the shores of Lake Superior, I couldn’t tell my limestone from my chert, but with one I learned to recognize glossiness and a microcrystalline structure, and with the other distinct patterns and often a macrocrystaline structure. If I could see crystals like rock sugar, it’s likely a limestone fossil. Yet sometimes — sneaky as metamorphosis can be —  chert can replace the original fossil structure.

A big black tote bag holds all my rocks not yet displayed in window sills or gifted away. The window sills are so nearly mine, I’m taking the chance to clean them. Deep cleaning. Nesting. Rock sorting. I don’t have time to sort rocks, so lively as my days have been, but I find comfort in the process. If my rocks are organized, if I can name them, recognize their details and structures, then everything might yet be okay. I could also go to hell in a big black tote bag, and it will still be okay.

Point is, it’s okay. It’s more than okay. I don’t have to name all the rocks, but I can dream of what I’ll do next with them.

In the span of a week, I spent the night with a ghost, attended and presented at a writing conference out of town, met my next great author mentor, helped my kids  move out of my not-yet house, picked out paint for the walls, got a bed (GOT A BED!), moved from the Rodeo Room to the Happy Trails (named rooms), deep-cleaned kitchen cupboards, swapped out the spice cupboard for the tea cupboard and contemplated how to fill the rest of the pantry, unburied my desk and planned how to live in more space than my previous four foot by two foot corner, spent late nights at the Lake with Cynthia to watch sunsets and listen to cold spring-peeper, talked to my neighbors, talked to my flowers (which confused a neighbor who thought I was telling him to “Grow, baby, grow”), planned curtains with the Hub’s cousin, and buried a grandmother.

Some of these things were more life-altering than others. My neighbors will adjust. Before Sunday, they were my daughter’s neighbors, now they are mine. Now they get to learn I talk to flowers and chipmunks and stare long and hard into the eyes of the stars late at night. It has to be late — I don’t get back from the Lake until dark, and that’s after 11 p.m. My new bed is glorious (do you hear angels singing?), and I’ve been slipping off to sleep earlier than normal. We are adjusting to space. We are preparing to own this space. The Hub leaves a trail of socks and discarded shirts from room to room like he’s marking territory.

Of all these things, the biggest splash came from the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association Writing Conference in Marquette. That’s where I met the ghost and my newest writing heroine. I want to tell you about my teacher, but you’re probably curious about the ghost story and starting to wonder if my new neighbors are right to think I might be a bit off my rocker. So first, the eerie tale.

When I signed up for the writing conference back in November, I didn’t know it would coincide with the weekend my kids would move out, and I was designated Cook to the Movers. Sunday was the official move day, and my conference was all day Saturday, so I canceled my second night and drove home afterward to fix strata and macaroni salad. I drove to Marquette on Friday after Warrior Wives group to attend a dinner for presenters and UPPAA board directors.

A funny thing happens when I get to a hotel — my inner introvert wants to curl up and stay in. But I had a BOGO free card for drinks, a $20 meal credit from the hotel for having signed up for the room during their Spring Fling, and the expectation to show up. Marquette is home to Northern Michigan University, which has a competitive MFA in Creative Writing. This gives the town a strong literary base. From that base, grew UPPAA which welcomes authors of all genres and forms of publication. When they asked for someone to join the marketing panel, I raised my hand.

Let me pause a moment and encourage you to attend regional writing conferences. When I lived in Minneapolis, I attended Loft events, Rain Taxi, and workshops throughout the upper Midwest. When I lived in Idaho, I won a scholarship to attend BinderCon in LA and worked with Montana organizers to bring a satellite BinderCon event to Missoula. Sometimes you have to travel, but the biggest gains are networking and learning the current state of the industry and publication interests. It’s fun, too! Which I told my inner introvert who just wanted to hang out in the room with the purple and lavender wallpaper.

Before dinner, I sat down with ten strangers. After dinner, I parted from new friends. I sat next to a brilliant children’s book author and her seeing eye dog, Floyd. I met a historian who writes about Upper Michigan history, and he told me about his latest discovery — an abandoned quarry where the town was built into the rock like some 1800s Anasazi city. It’s off the grid with no discernable road. I met the incoming UPPA president, one of my co-presenters who publishes regional imprints. Then I met the outgoing president, author of Haunted Marquette. He asked me if I was staying at The Landmark Inn, and I said yes, up on the sixth floor.

“Not the Lilac Room?”

“Uh, yes, the Lilac Room.”

“It’s haunted.”

After a brief chat about the librarian and her lost-at-sea lover, I was warned to check for screws in the bed. Upon retiring to my (haunted) room, I was skeptical. The room was bright and clean and didn’t feel creepy at all. I pulled back the sheets — no screws. Settling into bed, I read and nodded off, waking up to bright lights. I opened my eyes, and it was dark. I flipped on the bedside lamp, feeling a bit uneasy. I chalked it up to the ghost story playing with my mind. But when I turned back off the light and closed my eyes, I could see bright lights. I wondered if I was getting an ocular migraine, a rare occurrence but I’ve had three in my lifetime, and I see bright lights in my periphery. Whatever the phenomenon, it was difficult for me to fall back asleep. So I read and finally drifted off.

In the morning, I thought about my “haunting” and laughed it off as being tired, impressionable, and maybe something weird but explicable with my eyes. On a whim, I tossed back the covers and no screws. No sheet, either. I know there was a  top sheet because I folded back the cover and just used the sheet until I went to bed. I found the sheet at the far corner as if it had been neatly pulled taut all the way down. Not scrunched or kicked down. Pulled. I couldn’t explain it. I turned to coffee, but my Keurig would turn off seconds after I pressed the power button. I gave up, showered, packed, and gratefully left the Lilac Room.

What isn’t in the haunting stories is that the lovelorn librarian hung herself with the sheets in that room.

Okay! Moving on from haunted rooms (don’t let that deter you from going out of town to conferences). On my way out of the hotel, I recognized one of my author, idols. I was surprised because Karen Dionne had been at Finlandia University the week before and I was bummed to have missed her. I try not to idolize authors, but I have great admiration for her breakout novel. I called her by the first name and asked if she was headed to the Peter White Library — turns out she was our keynote speaker. I felt embarrassed that I missed that detail, but thrilled that not only would she be there, but I was walking with her. Karen is lovely and down to earth. And she had just sent off her next novel to her publisher. Like that morning. She rose at 4 a.m. and wrote until 9 a.m.

Good thing she didn’t get the Lilac Room.

I want to share with you, what Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic, says of teachers and why I look to my  favorite authors as mentors, whether they know I exist or not:

“Do you want to study under the great teachers? Is that it? Well, you can find them anywhere. They live on the shelves of your library; they live on the walls of museums; they live in recordings made decades ago. Your teachers don’t even need to be alive to educate you masterfully. No living writer has ever taught me more about plotting and characterization than Charles Dickens has taught me—and needless to say, I never met with him during office hours to discuss it. All I had to do in order to learn from Dickens was to spend years privately studying his novels like they were holy scripture, and then to practice like the devil on my own.”~ Elizabeth Gilbert

Karen Dionne shared with us her story and lessons from her journey. To me, she made a big splash when she said, “Have the temperament to take risks.”

And here I sit, at the end of what’s been a long journey to home, surrounded by all the risks I took to keep writing no matter what. And I will keep going. Don’t quit. Adjust, as needed. Learn. Take a deep breath but don’t quit. Bat-crazy stuff will go down in your life. Sorrows will rise, distractions will tempt. But stay the course. Writing is a journey with disappointing and astonishing destinations along the way. It is the act of writing, of shaping yourself into a Writer. Go catch stories, haunted, real, or imaginary. Find mentors. Take risks. Take risks with your writing and write something that scares you — not ghosts, but pushing into that deep place, feeling uncertain about what is rising to the page. Let it rise. Go write.

It’s been a rough few weeks for me emotionally. And it will be a difficult wait until we close. The Hub is having trouble with the transition, and I have to occasionally escape to the Lake to ground so I can return and practice patience when I want to come unhinged, too. No matter what, I still write. And sort rocks.

June 6, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that makes a big splash. It can be fluid, or you can play with the idiom (to make a big splash is to do or say something that becomes unforgettable). Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by June 11, 2019. 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.

 

Lucinda Arrives (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

The rumble of a Harley echoed across the valley, crushing the crackle of a nighttime bonfire. Ramona leaned forward on her lawn-chair and asked Michael, “Is that her?”

“Yes, that’d be Lucinda.”

Danni hoped Michael’s tension was excitement. Ever since he visited his aunts last fall, he spoke about the Navajo biologist he met at powwow. Lucinda rode her bike from Red Cliff, Wisconsin to Elmira, Idaho.

Rumbling up Danni’s driveway, the woman dressed in fringed black leather stopped and dismounted. Ramona gaped when Lucinda shook thick black hair from her helmet. “Oh, Michael. She’ll make a big splash.”

May 30: Flash Fiction Challenge

A chipmunk huddles in a hollow at the base of a stump. She hunkers down beneath dry maple leaves, quivering at my proximity. I ignore her. Go about my planting, aware she is inches from my left Keen. A massive black cauldron, likely a relic left over from copper mining, engulfs the circumference of stump. My daughter says it was a planter long before she bought this house in 2015. It’s hip-height and full of soil. Mullein and the bones of last year’s annuals remain. I’ve come to leave my mark with seedlings.

Beneath the flowering moon of May, I planted a bleeding heart at the corner of the house that was my daughter’s and might yet be mine. It’s an act of faith, gardening. Seeds may or may not germinate, but when they do, life breaks a crust of soil and becomes something. Every day, I water my Brussels sprouts still in eggshells, waiting for a garden. I’ve turned the dirt and wait for the Hub to help me with a few details before I can plant. The kids move this weekend, so I’m waiting. I ask the Hub if he’s excited about the Brussel sprouts, and he says he will be when we harvest. Not until they are on his plate.

That’s too long to wait. I’d lose hope if I didn’t enjoy planting and nourishing. I’d harden if I didn’t love something until it fulfilled its purpose. Yes, that means I’m often disappointed more than most. It’s painful. But the contrast feels real, feels like living. It’s risky business hoping for a home after the crashes we’ve had. I understand his protective stance, but I’m the planter as well as the hunter, going after the potential every day until it arrives.

As a planter, I’m an all-out plantser. Like a writer who crafts by the seat of their pants, I plant wild beneath the full moon and sow where I see potential. My daughter is a planner. She plots her gardens on grid papers and calculates the amount of sun and shade. Her spring garden blooms by design and she thins veg seedlings with measured exactness. I smile at the spreading raspberries, and she tells me, “Mom, you’ll need to weed those suckers mercilessly.” Kind of like the advice to writers — kill your darlings.

But like writing, I must first dream far and wide and get my hands dirty. I believe in writing to explore, to dig deep, to mulch and compost and feed and weed and plant and water and cultivate the story with bare fingers. My wide plantsing knows means errors. I’ll mistake the plant and the sun it needs. I’ll not like how something in the cauldron grows, or maybe it won’t like it. I’ll go soft-hearted and leave in too many seedlings, again. I’ll ignore the creeping raspberry runners,  I’ll plow the margins and plant in clumps.

For the two summers I’ve helped with my daughter’s gardens, I’ve abided by her plans. Tentatively, I’ve bought a few plants, grown the seeds I like. I’ve held onto hope that I might plant and plants. I’ve respected her boundaries, delighting in how different from me she is as a gardener. When I show her my blue cohosh, she asks, “Did you research it?” No, I bought the cutting.

So we are at the cauldron, pressing a myriad of seedlings into the pot along with my cohosh, a wise woman herb. We leave the mullein, and I transplant fleabane from the lawn. She raises an eyebrow. “It’s white,” I say.

The cauldron was her moon garden — all white flowers. We’ll wait and see what grows.

I’m not the only one in this garden who dreams big. I pat the soil gently, and the chipmunk decides she’s waited long enough. She darts over my shoe and dashes down the hole she’s burrowed in the strawberry patch. I know I’ll have to share because I’m not going to evict her. She’s not in the middle of the plants, and even if she burrowed elsewhere, she could still sneak in and steal bites of strawberries. I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to let the raspberries ramble.

The chipmunk dreamed of a place with abundance and shelter. But the unexpected arises, too. My old lady dog still remembers chasing gophers in Idaho, and when I walk her past the strawberries, she catches a whiff and old ears perk like a puppy’s in excitement. Bobo doesn’t get around well, so I think the chipmunk will be safe. Maybe we have to be on the lookout for the bad that can happen but not to the exclusion of the flowers and possibilities. With hope, I add to my daughter’s spring garden — something that rambles — catmint. She’s a bit surprised and reminds me that it spreads.

Yes, I’m in a spreading mood. Feather by feather, I plan to unfurl my wings and fly home soon.

***

My friend Cynthia is holding a Homecoming Event to help the Hub, and I plant a new household. We have two lists on Amazon, one for household and one for the future Roberts Street Writerly. Part of the dream I’m planting here is two guest rooms that will be space for visiting writers. Just as we did in Elmira, we offer the rooms without charge and invite the writers to read in the community, privately or at public events. If you want to help us get home, you can find our Household list here and the Roberts Street Writerly list here.

Our new address is:

1112 Roberts Street
Hancock, MI 49930

We still have to close, so keep June 20th in your prayers and positive thoughts. We have contingency plans if the worst happens. I’m familiar with that, but I keep in mind that I have a community and choices. We landed in the right place and will continue to get care for the Hub and even get to NYC for brain scans. Those won’t alter any treatment or definitely diagnose, but it will help track what is going on with his brain and how it could help the next generation of soldiers. I’ll be writing more about CTE, subcussive impacts, and impacts of aging on the veteran’s altered brain over at Medium.

I’ve planned to use my literary art to build awareness for the veteran spouse experience and veteran isolation, which are themes in my WIP. Next, I’ll be workshopping Miracle of Ducks in an MFA program that begins August 12. On Wednesday, I received official notice that SNHU accepted my military benefits. As part of a VA system, that’s a huge hurdle to get over, and I’m so relieved! I have to pay enrollment on Monday, and hopefully, the VA will catch up with me on those payments.

Like a darting chipmunk, I’m going for it all. Strawberries and mint, the fruit and rambles are in sight. And it’s looking beautiful from here. Deep breath! Skitter, skitter, skitter…

May 30, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes strawberries and mint. The combination evokes color contrast, scents, and taste. Where will the combination take you? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by June 4, 2019. 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 Peek (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

A hardbound journal lay open on Ramona’s bed. Danni reached for it, and  paused, examining the pencil strokes. On one top corner, strawberry plants clustered with leaves, flowers and berries drawn in great detail. On the opposite bottom corner, mint vined in sweeping strokes. Danni smiled. Ramona liked to say, plant your mint across the garden from your strawberries. On the page, the two plants formed a continuous frame around two little girls with identical braids and short gingham dresses, holding hands. All she could see was their backs and the pond they faced. Were these the elusive twins?

May 23: Flash Fiction Challenge

Work, work, and more work. If you want to know why my daughter is living on the Svalbard Archipelago, she’s there to work. Her partner is head chef at a top restaurant that caters to eco-tourists, and given that he’s fed scientists in Antartica and elite lodgers in Alaska, he’s no stranger to cooking on ice. She went with him for a few months, which turned into a year and a half.

Rock Climber lives on an arctic chain of islands in Norway, working in all the restaurants. Off-shift for one, another calls her in to wait tables or tend bar. She has the effervescent personality of a wandering bard, and I can understand why hospitality on one of the world’s most remote arctic places holds her in high demand. To get to work, she often has to travel by boat or plane. Stories bubble up all around her.

If you’re wondering why I have Rock Climber on the brain, it’s because she’s back on land, among trees, and in Montana for a friend’s wedding. This means cell-phone service! On ice, I rarely get to communicate with my daughter, just crossed messages. When she calls, my heart soars, and I soak up her stories and laughter and love. She might be the Sgt.’s daughter, the wild child of a US Army Ranger, but she’s 100 percent buckaroo storyteller.

I call my daughter Rock Climber because she embraces the thrill of the climb. A kinesthetic learner, she masters hand-holds and knows where her body is mid-tumble. For years, she competed in gymnastics. Now, she is the Polar Bear Whisperer. I’m not sure I like that designation because it implies that the bears seek her out.

One night, at a place where she works, a bear broke into the wine cellar and feasted on the fine vintage and chocolate. She says it was a bear after her own heart! As long as the bear only eats her chocolate and not her internal organs. When they go out of town past the guards, they carry rifles and flare guns, not to shoot the bears but to scare them off.

She tells me about commuting to work on a Zodiac, which are the same boats the Hub managed as the lead combat diver for his Ranger unit back in the early ’80s. The arctic sea spray leaves crusts of ice in her ears, and she has to wear a survival suit with a beacon. On one trip, the sea rolled and dipped as the boat cut through the waves. Rock Climber and her partner stayed at the bow, and when it tipped downward, two walruses emerged. These behemoths pack tusks, and she says she fears them more than polar bears.

Yet, like polar bears, they are dying.

The reality of climate change impacted the polar regions of our world first. Think of the Arctic as our canary in the coal mine. If you aren’t familiar with that phrase, let me explain. Coal mines emit deadly gases that will kill a caged bird before building up to levels lethal enough to kill miners. It can’t be detected until it’s too late. To say the Arctic is the canary means that our planet is changing so rapidly that species are dying. The bi-peds who can actually understand this and do something about it choose to agitate their fellows into arguing semantics and causes in a stupendous show of disregard for our environment. It’s like the American politicians spin the death of the canary into myth and convince constituents that rising sea levels are nothing more than falling rocks.

Walruses are falling into the ocean. From cliffs high above the northern waters where they feed, they plummet to their deaths, front flappers wobbling like hopeless wings. Their carcasses litter miles and miles of Svalbard. My daughter fears a walrus tusk ripping apart her commuter boat on frigid seas, but she cares about their well-being. They are not well, the flightless walruses. Once, they rose above waters to dry out in the sun on the shelves of ice. Now, icemelt forces them up dangerous cliffs to sunbathe. Without ice, they endanger their own lives.

Without ice, we endanger our lives, too.

Rock Climber tells me human bodies don’t decompose in the permafrost. If you think this is a gruesome statement, hold on, you haven’t heard the story, yet. In 1998 a crew of gravediggers from London punched their way through the ice to solve a global puzzle — what killed an estimated 20 to 50 million people worldwide during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic? Because permafrost preserves bodies, and what remains in them, scientists hired professional gravediggers to hack into a mass grave of seven coal miners who arrived near Longyearbyen already sick with the flu in 1918.

Today, without ice, these graves pose a biological disaster waiting to be released by the unprecedented mudslides in the region. Before Rock Climber arrived, an avalanche wiped out the rental her partner arranged. For the first year, the two of them couch-surfed between the various islands.  Svalbard is no stranger to the oddities of humanity arriving at the land of the midnight sun and retreating ice. Climate change, epidemics, mining, and tourism all in one place.

But not cats. Cats — and dying — are forbidden on Svalbard. Because of the isolated ecosystem, cats are banned to protect migrating birds. Also, a rabies outbreak started last year in 2018. Polar foxes contract the disease, as well as reindeer. Rock Climber has witnessed rabid reindeer, which makes me imagine Santa Claus horror stories.

For now, my daughter is happy to be stateside where polar bears don’t eat her chocolate, and people speak her native language. She loves trees and this planet. She lives at ground zero of a planet changing. Life is full of contradictions.

Denial wraps us up in a comforting blanket while we whisper the boogeyman away from under our beds. But to ponder walruses that can’t fly, polar bears that starve, and biology ripe for a zombie-apocalypse plotline seem horrific alternatives. The Beauty Way of the Navajo teaches that for all things out of context with life, we bring them back to the natural order. In a way, that’s what writers do.

We can write into the Shadowlands, shape what a world of great loss looks like, offer warnings more tangible than a flat-lined canary. We can write satire, use humor to call out political leaders making up science, or erasing it. We can write into the wave where the walrus yet live, put readers in the bow of a Zodiac prepared to journey to the center of their minds. We are writers. We can imagine the possibilities.

I can hear it in my daughter’s voice no matter the story — sad, funny, surprising — I can hear life.

In the end, it’s not about work. It’s not about what we did to save or end the planet. It’s all in how we live today. They say we only live once. But writers get many lives. Catch all the stories you can. Write them down. Find beauty among the rock outcroppings.

May 23, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story without ice. It can be a world without ice or a summer camp that runs out of cubes for lemonade. What does the lack mean to the story? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by May 28, 2019. 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.

 

Whiskey Ditch (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Honky-tonk music crackled over speakers, the kind her dad listened to – Merle Haggard. Danni’s boots crunched peanut shells on a floor that hadn’t been swept in years. Not recognizing anyone in particular, she noted the regulars easily – the hovering barflies and closed-eye drunks reliving better days. It’s the kind of place her dad would have entered, leaving her to sit in the cab of his truck, reading a book. For a moment, she felt small again. And it hit her. Ike had really left. Iraq had beckoned him becoming the other woman. Danni ordered a whiskey ditch without ice.

May 16: Flash Fiction Challenge

Two days after my middlest child turned 29 years old, I’m seeking trees. My daughter, Rock Climber, lives on a craggy glacier island in the Arctic, surrounded by massive mountains, polar bear prints, and eternal snow beneath skies as wide as any final frontier. She travels by Zodiac in seas so tumultuous she has to wear a full life-suit with a beacon. When she flies between islands, she lands on airstrips made of permafrost. For fun, she rides snowmobiles in the midnight sun and sends me goofy snapshots. When her dad was in the hospital, she taught her Norwegian friends to sing a raunchy rugby song she learned when watching him play in a Montana league.

This is my Bug Child. My wild girl crafted in her Ranger/Rugby father’s image.

She tells me she misses trees.

Have you ever lived someplace where there were no trees? Even in the North American deserts, juniper, pinion, and Joshua trees grow. I was born beneath a canopy of California oaks and raised in the Sierras where the Jeffry pines and cedars grow. Eyes wide open, I can still smell their scent — Jeffrey pines smell like vanilla when the sunshine warms their broom-like clusters of needles. I’m not a tree-hugger as much as I’m a tree-cuddler.

I used to ride my horse Captain Omega (don’t judge, I named him when I was 12, reading Greek Mythology) to the cedar groves. There, I’d sit with my back to a cedar with its auburn bark that I could peel like fiber. I used to compare the color of my long braids to the tree and pretend we were distantly related. I’d read, devouring books and traveling in my mind to places as remote as where Rock Climber now lives.

Trees are in my DNA. Bumpa, my nonagenarian great-grandfather who used to tell me stories when my mother dropped me off to visit him in the nursing home beneath the oaks. I only knew him in his nineties. He died when I was ten, and he was 99. But those stories live on within me, roots of his life touching mine. His parents were farmers from Denmark, immigrating to America. They came west to California and planted apricot orchards. He grew up, tending those trees. My grandmother continued to harvest their fruit even after her father sold the orchards. My mother and her sisters would eat green apricots until their bellies ached. I grew up eating dried apricots every Christmas. When my Bug Child was two, my mother taught her to filch fruit from low-hanging branches, declaring these were the one’s Bumpa’s father planted.

I once wrote a story about the sweetness of stolen sunshine, keeping in mind the female tradition of San Benito apricots. Those trees produced fruit I thought must taste like the ambrosia of the sun. Throughout life, I continued to nibble from trees. First apricots, and then the nuts from Sierra pines. Jeffry pinenuts are flat and acrid but carry that luscious scent. Pinion pinenuts are fat, greasy, and sweet. Yet they don’t produce every year. When pinenuts come into season, the Washo and Ute would flock to high desert groves and harvest from pitchy stunted trees. I can taste American history with each nibble, I can experience Johnny Appleseed with the plucking of wild apples. I dream of Rock Creek and Little House on the Prairie when I slurp the tart fruit of a wild Nebraska plum.

Family legend holds that my other great-grandfather could create trees. He knew how to splice and get a crab apple to grow on a Macintosh. What scientist do in labs with genes, my ancestors did with trees. They brought their own hybrids with them from the Basque lands, the Azores, and beyond. Not from Ireland though. I once had a family member tell me that the English cut down all the trees in Ireland, and perhaps my Irish blood still misses those trees. I’ve watched shows on how the modern English take care of ancient oaks, and Monty Don is welcome to teach me anything about trees. My British roots are all mixed up in the different eras of history, place, and culture but undoubtedly go back to the Celtic worshippers of trees.

Deciduous trees of the Keweenaw have root systems that communicate throughout the woods. When  I’m alone on a trail, I can hear them talking. White pines once grew in abundance on this peninsula, but like most other places, trees of today displaced the trees of yesterday. Climate change is displacing us all. Weather patterns and extreme weather events change what trees grow where.

At times I feel like a wind-whipped pine holding onto the cliffside. Then the sun comes out, or a gentle rain washes away the dust. Maybe I’ll find a home in a tree, a nest to call my own.

So I ask again, have you ever lived someplace without trees? Can you imagine having to hunt for them, to grow up not knowing what it is to smell bark or rake leaves or taste fruit?

My daughter misses trees. So I am seeking trees to give her stories to remind her.

May 16, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that goes in search of trees. It can be one particular tree, a grove, woods, or forest. What makes the tree worth seeking? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by May 21, 2019. 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.

 

Laid to Rest (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Danni asked Ike to fall the tree, an ancient Ponderosa with thick plates of bark assembled like puzzle pieces. She estimated it had stood over the abandoned cemetery at least three centuries before burials. Mostly sawyers and log-camp followers found final rest beneath its branches. A hundred years ago, this Ponderosa would have netted the logging company enough money to cover wages. Yet they had spared the tree. Danni didn’t guess why, but she asked her husband to fall it because he understood the code of the forest. He’d remove the diseased old-timer with respect to those it guarded.