Fiction: The Encounter

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J ballcapThe trail map claimed it was only fifteen feet’s worth of elevation change from the parking lot to Copeland Falls, but it sure felt like more. Donald felt the weight of every year he’d lived, and some he hadn’t. The insulated backpack bounced heavy against his spine; every step required unreasonable effort. He’d never planned to take this trip by himself. Ellie had seen a picture of Bluebird Lake wreathed in wildflowers, and it had topped her list of trails to hike. But now the loneliness pulled him downward, away from the heights. He wished he hadn’t promised Ellie he’d make this trip, even without her. But today of all days, her absence gaped.

The air was still, the faint warmth of cinnamon and butterscotch wafting from ponderosa pine. The promise of the quiet was what had caught Ellie’s imagination. But as he walked, the roar of water falling emerged from the silence, along with voices, faint, but growing louder every moment. Soon they came into sight: a family, three boys, one of them in a backpack, a girl wearing an oversized ballcap, and their parents. They were moving slowly; in a moment he had overtaken them. He was prepared to pass them without speaking, but the girl, who was holding her father’s hand, turned and spotted him. He had only a moment to process the almond-shaped eyes, the curled ears, and recognize Down syndrome, before her face lit up. “Oh hi, Geepaw, hi!” she shouted, the word “hi” drawn out at either end.

Colorado Cousins Trip 603Despite himself, he smiled. “Hi, sweetheart,” he said.

“I be see!” she yelled, thrusting a tiny hand, palm flexed, toward him.

Nonplussed, he flicked his eyes toward the mother, who smiled ruefully. “I be six,” she interpreted.

“Is today your birthday?” he asked, surprised.

“Yah!”

The roar of the falls justified the shouting now. The boys ran to look at the crashing cataract, but the little girl stopped walking as Donald bent down. She clasped her hands in front of her and tipped a heart-shaped face up toward him. Her smile outshone the sun. “Well, I’ll be,” he said. He gestured to the symbol on her hat: an orange circle with a large W in the middle. “Wartburg?” he said. “Wartburg College?”

“You know Wartburg?” said the father. “I work there.”

“My wife graduated from there.” Donald looked up at the man. “Today was her birthday, too.” Ellie had spent her whole life teaching kids like this one to read and write. It all seemed like a little too much coincidence. His eyes misted. “You know,” he said, pulling the backpack off his shoulder, “my Ellie died last month. I promised her I’d have cake and ice cream at Blubird Lake on her birthday. But I’ll bet she wouldn’t mind if I shared it with you here instead.”

*

I had more I wanted to do with this “ice cream and cake” prompt, but I’m out of time and out of words. In case you hadn’t intuited it from the photos and the family described, I based this in part on some encounters we had with other hikers along the Wild Basin trail at RMNP in June. But most of it is fiction. We certainly didn’t have ice cream and cake at Copeland Falls. Although we did have peaches. 🙂

Write at the Merge Week 29

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Fiction: The Choosing

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They called him Elder, because his eyes looked old although his face looked young. Alana had found him, all those months ago, face down in a clump of ferns beside the stream, wearing strange clothes and speaking no language anyone ever heard. Where he had come from, still no one knew, but Elder now spoke their language, and mothers plotted which of their daughters he would wed.

But Alana had no mother, no father. No one to speak on her behalf. And time was growing short. Tonight, at the full moon, the village would gather at the Broken Face and pull out all the Old Things, making music while those of age were bound for life, until only the Unwanted remained. Most years, everyone knew who would be paired with whom, but no one knew what the Elder intended to do, and so neither did anyone else.

Alana squatted with the other girls grinding grain, but her eyes followed the Elder as he climbed nimbly from one roof to the next, repairing thatch.

The sun climbed toward midday, the houses, the trees, and the people growing sticky beneath it.

When the grinding was finished, Alana gathered her things and looked up to see the Elder melting into the cool of the forest. She knew he sought solitude by the stream. She had often watched him, though always from a distance.

Until today. She rustled a palm branch to warn him of her approach. He looked up. The wary expression cleared. “Oh. Hello, Alana.”

Now that she was here, she didn’t know how to start. “Elder, tonight is the Choosing.”

He looked tired. “I know.”

“You have told no one what you intend.”

“I intend nothing.”

“But this is how things are done.”

“It is not how my people do things.”

“You are not with your people. You are here. And we need you.” Her voice shrank to a breath above a whisper. “I need you.”

She might have thought he had not heard, except for that tiny tremor below his chin, the only expression he allowed himself in public. But not here. “I know you grieve,” she said quietly. “I know you seek solitude to mourn those you lost.”

He looked sideways at her. “You see much, Alana, for one so young.”

“I am not so young.”

He sighed. “You belong with your own, Alana.”

Photo by SilverStack, via Flickr

“No one will choose me,” she said. “I am without family. Without bridal price. I am alone, like you. We are the same, you and me.” She crouched beside him and put a hand on his wrist, holding out the fine, clear bell her mother had bequeathed her for the Choosing. Once, it had stood upon a stand of some sort, but that had broken long before her mother received it for her own Choosing.

He glanced at it and shook his head. “Alana…”

“Elder, you say I see. I see you. You hold your grief as if it will keep you alive, but it will not. The living belong with the living.”

He eyed the object in her hand. “Do you even know what that is?”

“A bell.”

He eyed the Old Thing, and his lips quirked. “It had another purpose, once.” The smile faded. “So beautiful, and yet in the end, no more than a cup.”

It did look like a cup, but she had never seen a cup that stood upon a stand. “Every bell is just a cup until it is struck, Elder.”

He met her gaze, and the sadness in it softened to a smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes. He took the Old Thing from her. “Call me John,” he said.

*

This is a departure for me. I never have felt very comfortable writing in sci-fi/fantasy/far-future-post-apocalypse kinds of genres, but that’s how this little proto-romance developed in my mind. Hope you enjoy. (Sorry it’s long. I tried to cut it, I really did.)

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A Fiction-Writing Mama Stares Down Summer Break

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Photo by Eye-the world through my I, via Flickr

I’m working right now on the last (I hope!) major revision of my novel. I tend to be self-conscious about my novel. Its characters are so precious to me, so real, so alive, that exposing them to the real world feels like a high-risk venture. As if someone might judge me based upon their story.

Which, of course, is kind of the point. You know how in English class you used to gnash your teeth when teachers forced you to analyze themes and symbols? You wanted to shoot off your mouth and say the author was just writing a story, and never intended all that other stuff to be read into it. Well…you would be wrong. Maybe not every story has a deeper layer–maybe some of them are just for entertainment–but the good ones, the ones that stay with you all have a point. In this book I have a point (or twelve) I want to get across, but I’ve seen enough proselytizing masquerading as fiction that I’m pretty obsessed with making sure I don’t do it.

I used to get lost in my characters. I would become dissatisfied with my life, and spend all my time pretending to be my characters walking around through my day. It was not a good thing. I finally had to take a hiatus from fiction in order to get my head straight about the border between reality and imagination.

I have a much healthier relationship with my characters now, but they still have the power to preoccupy my brain power. At the best of times, a story is a living thing, burning its way out of you. All you have to do is plant your butt at the computer, and the words pour out for hours. That doesn’t mean they pour out without rewrites. You still jump around in a 400-page document, strengthening connections, incorporating ideas that came to you later, adding scenes and–more painfully–deleting them. But it’s a fire nonetheless, a fire that consumes time and attention and–hopefully–blank pages on a screen.

This is where I am right now. And it’s awesome. But also excruciating. Because my life does not allow me to plant my butt at the computer and vomit verbiage (or more accurately, revisions) onto the screen for hours on end. In the absence of that freedom, my brain is constantly problem solving in the background, so that when I do get the chance to sit down with a keyboard, I can just write.

There was a lot of “background work” going on this weekend, between family gatherings, extended family gatherings, house cleaning and family game nights. All of which I enjoyed, but still the novel tugs at the heart strings, clamoring for the attention I can’t give. Yesterday morning I got up at 4:55 a.m., went running, and sat at the computer anticipating a heavenly hour and a half to work before the family got up…and then remembered I had to write a blog post. :/

Today, summer break officially begins. Summer in our household means daily chores, weekly field trips, and curtailed writing time. I have so many things I want to do with the kids this summer–craft projects, outdoor play, picnics, some religious formation. Cleaning and organization projects.

And I have nonfiction projects jumping up and down and wagging their fingers at me. I haven’t been ignoring them, but the time has come when I have to prioritize them over the novel, and I’m dreading it. I don’t mind working on them, but I know how hard it is to get this kind of momentum going on a novel, and I don’t want to lose it. I want to finish this thing and start sending it out.

So life goes on, a juggling act as always. Only for the next three months, there will be more players on hand.

Fiction: Wedding Day

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There’s been a snag in the blog tour plans for This Little Light of Mine, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to post a short story instead, and join up with the Write On Edge folks–something I haven’t had a chance to do in weeks. Who could resist crafting a story on those two photos? (Incidentally, I’m not including them b/c they’re all rights reserved, but please go see them here and here. They’re amazing photos.)

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Forest Fires in Idaho

Forest Fires in Idaho (Photo credit: Thomas Good)

This was supposed to be my wedding day.

Instead, I stand with my sister and my friend, the three of us clad in our wedding finery, staring at the wall of flame scraping the blue from the sky, devouring evergreens that have stood since before my parents were born. Trees that sheltered our childhood games and witnessed my first kiss. Trees that stood guard as Tommy slipped the ring on my finger.

Trees that were supposed to witness our vows. I think of the chairs set up in the clearing, the carpet spread for my father, the judge, to preside. The wind spinners, lovingly crafted by my sister and hung from low-hanging branches.

The early-spring wind, heavy with the smell of smoke, whips my hair as I stare, willing Tommy to appear from within the inferno. Even at this distance I can feel the heat, yet I shiver with cold. Please let him be all right. Please.

Carrie squeezes my hand. “He’s lived in the woods his whole life,” she says softly. “He’ll be all right.”

It’s what I’ve been telling myself ever since the wildfire began. But as a helicopter zooms overhead, dumping orange powder, I shake my head. “He should’ve been out of there already.”

At noon, my parents bring the mountains of food prepared for the reception and spread it out for the fire crews, who wolf it down and trudge back to work. The chief stands there turning his cap in his hands. At last he takes a deep breath and says, “Folks, I’m real sorry, but it’s not safe here. I’ve got to ask you to evacuate.”

In the silence that follows, the only voice is that of the fire, a low-pitched, unintelligible utterance from the depths of Hell. My eyes burn as I stare into the variegated depths, but nothing can make the shifting shadows coalesce into a human being.

The chief shifts uncomfortably. “Look, the only way out of this thing now is the bridge on North Street. You’re welcome to wait there…”

My mother wraps an arm around me, forehead resting against my temple. Her fingers tremble. “Come on, Joy,” she whispers.

The far end of the North Street Bridge fades into a shroud of smoke and fog rising from the cold river. On the opposite bank, shadowy figures move. The voice of the fire taunts me as it gnaws at the backdrop of my childhood. Tommy, please.

By evening, both body and soul are numb. The thick air glows weirdly as the masked sun drops close to the horizon. A pair of figures emerge from the roiling mass, one clad in bulky fireproof gear, the other limping, wrapped in a blanket. My breath catches. Carrie grabs my arm.

I shake her off and take off running. Tommy lets go of the fireman and catches me to him. “Joy,” he whispers hoarsely. “Joy.” My name has never sounded so beautiful.

Smudged face, smoke smell, it doesn’t matter. It’s a perfect moment. Thank you. Thank you. Tommy looks over my head and sees my father. “Hey, Joy,” he says. “I see a judge. How ’bout we get married?”

 

Fiction: Escape

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A bit of fantasy for your Wednesday morning, inspired by this picture (no really, click it open)….

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Evergreen Delicacy:  Asparagus FernThe moment Clarissa saw the forest, she knew. She knew it in the shadowy hush that clung to the spired evergreens; she knew it by the tingling that crept down her spine. The world she’d always sensed, the Otherness that hummed in the back of her mind, just beyond her senses, and beckoned her to escape an unfriendly reality–that world was here, waiting for her.

Her room faced the forest, not the fjord that lay at the base of the steep hill. The innkeeper apologized, but Clarissa barely heard him. The water wasn’t what drew her. As soon as he left, she opened the window and inhaled the odor of enchantment: fresh like clean air, spicy like evergreen, cool like water, plus something vaguely cinnamon that must be magic alone.

For years she’d tried to find a way to bridge the gap to that shimmering existence just beyond her senses. She’d almost given up finding the gateway. If it didn’t exist here, it didn’t exist at all.

She slept with the window open, and when she woke, it was to the sound of rain tittering on slate. She donned her rain slicker, anxious to escape the enclosing walls. The front door creaked loudly, echoing through the silent building. Shivering with anticipation, she darted barefoot into the rain.

The trees stood like towering sentinels, inky against the hunkering sky. Beneath their shelter, the rain filtered down, muted. Her feet padded soundlessly on a carpet of fallen needles. The sense of enchantment grew stronger the farther she walked. It tingled her skin, then danced away again. It teased her senses, shimmering in the periphery but disappearing when she turned to look.

The rain tapered off, leaving only the muted drip of stranded water droplets sliding off evergreen. Hesitantly at first, then with confidence, the crickets began singing. The hum intensified until the very air seemed to tremble.

English: A Fjord in Norge

English: A Fjord in Norge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As dawn drew near, Clarissa could feel the magic in the forest growing stronger, its time approaching. She stepped lightly, her bare feet tamping down the soft, wet grass. Her toes lost all feeling, but the prickling in her skin was constant. It was very near, now. She could almost see the shimmer in the air, a flurry of wings half-visible in the growing light. A cool, clean breeze tinted with cinnamon raised the fine hairs on her face. She pushed back the hood of her slicker. Show me, she whispered. The shimmer focused to a silvery line that stretched before her, and the firs breathed, Come.

The trees thinned, the thread warming slowly to gold. She stepped from beneath the shelter of the trees. Far mountains glowered beneath storm clouds, but here the air shimmered. Her breath caught as a gossamer sphere drifted lazily across her vision. It hung there, bobbing. She exhaled slowly, and as if responding to the warmth of her breath, the image in its depth sharpened, an vision of promise shimmering in gold.

Clarissa smiled and reached out to enter her new life.

*

Only in retrospect do I realize I already used the name Clarissa for a character. This is not meant to be the same person, but somehow this girl just needed to be named Clarissa. There was so much I wanted to evoke about who this girl is, why she’d be so eager to escape but it didn’t want to come through and I’ve learned that when I keep hitting a brick wall it generally means it’s not supposed to be there. Maybe down the road I can do something with it.

As for the image, you really need to click here to get the visual I used as the Write On Edge prompt today. I wanted to use it in my post too but I am very leery of copyright issues, and I just couldn’t find to my satisfaction that the image was okay to use. So please click it!

Fiction: Smell/Elixer

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Those two words are Write At the Merge’s prompt for this week. For a change I knew exactly where I wanted to take this one: back to Carlo & Alison.

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Photo by Luke Stearns, via Flickr

Alison and her husband sat in the basement, sorting the overflow of three decades. They worked quietly. The weight of a thousand unspoken hurts piled between them, utterly transparent, utterly insurmountable. She wished for music, for talk radio– anything to keep her mind from dancing ever closer to the conclusion that her marriage was over, and had been for years before she realized it.

Amid the piles of memorabilia and forgotten holiday decor, the past seemed very near. It began with news clippings about prizewinning wines and tiptoed backward: Jeremy’s fatigues, the box of personal belongings that had accompanied his body home. She still wasn’t ready to open it. Instead, she shoved it aside and reached into a deep crevasse the box’s removal had revealed. Her palm brushed against rough wood. She pulled the box out, and her hands stilled. “Carlo,” she said softly. “Look at this.”

He turned. She slid the lid off the top. Inside a single bottle of wine nested in shredded newspaper. Its handwritten label proclaimed Everlasting Love, 1973. “Is that…?” His voice was tinged with awe.

“I think it is,” she whispered. “I thought they were all gone.”

He took the box from her and lifted the bottle. They had made this wine together, from start to finish, in the first year of their marriage, back when they still lived in New York, when life was lived hand to mouth and James Summerhill hadn’t yet begun to think about finding a partner in a winemaking venture.

“Do you remember the nights we spent in the basement, babysitting this vintage?” he asked.

The smile opened every vein in her body, flooding them with heat. There had been much more than babysitting wines to that week. She could smell it now, that distinctive combination of yeast and grape and basement and desire. “I remember.” She brushed at his hair. “Your hair was black as night. And your eyes…” She swallowed. “It was like they saw right through me.”

Carlo took her hand. It felt warm. Strong. She had forgotten how much she liked holding his hand. “We were good together in those days,” he murmured.

How was it possible for memory to recreate a smell so perfectly? The desire in his eyes set her nerves to singing. Five minutes ago she’d been contemplating the end, and now… She dropped her gaze and saw something that made her gasp. “Oh, Carlo.” She touched the crumbling cork, which had begun to darken as wine soaked through it, allowing the aroma to swirl around them in bewitching tendrils.

Carlo surveyed the age-damaged seal, and a tiny, mysterious smile played on his lips. “Well, there’s only one thing to do now,” he said. Taking her by the hand, he led her out of the room, to the bar in the main part of the basement, and pulled down two glasses.

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Fiction: Martyr

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Martyrs Statue

Martyrs Statue (Photo credit: jiangkeren)

Carlo was waiting at the ninth hole with his business partner and his parish priest when a boy came out from the clubhouse with a slip of paper. “Allison?” asked James, seeing his expression, while Father O’Keefe circled his ball, trying to puzzle a clean shot out of the worst setup the longtime trio had ever seen.

Carlo nodded. Was it so much to ask her to leave him alone for the length of a golf game? “She wants me to invite you both to dinner.”

The hesitation was so slight, he might have imagined it. Then the big man smiled and pulled out a silk handkerchief to mop his dripping face. “Your wife’s the best cook I know. I’m not about to turn that down.”

Carlo managed a weak smile. “Wonderful.”

Fr. O’Keefe muttered suddenly; both men turned to him. “That’s a Hail Mary shot if I ever saw one,” called James.

The priest spared them a withering glance. “Oh, ye of little faith!”

“There’s no way you’re getting clear of that tree in one shot.”

O’Keefe, who had returned to his shot, swiveled back. “So sure of yourself! You’re a betting man, James. If I hit this shot, you come to church Sunday.”

James laughed and folded his arms. “So…how’s she doing, anyway?” he murmured. “Since…you know.”

“Since Jeremy died, you mean.” Carlo liked and respected his partner, but the man’s discomfort had been on full display ever since the Army brought the news of his son’s death. But Carlo reined in his irritation, allowing only a twitch in his jaw that could be interpreted as grief instead of anger. “She’s fine,” he lied. “Much better now.”

Actually, she barely left the house. She was so needy he sometimes considered making up a vineyard emergency just to get a breath of fresh air. He hadn’t, because she had been right about him: Jeremy’s entire life, Carlo’s focus had been vines and wines, not family. His regret on that account could not be articulated. So he tolerated her demands, her long-suffering resentment, and her perpetual sense of wounded, victimization.

But that didn’t mean he had to like it.

A club swooshed and contacted the ball with a satisfying clink. Carlo and James shaded their eyes against the bright sun and watched Father O’Keefe’s shot arc gracefully into the air, splitting the gap between two branches on its way to a soft, two-bounce landing on the green.

James whistled. “That was one in a million, Father.”

The priest smiled smugly. “A little help from the Communion of Saints never goes awry. Look what a prayer from a martyr or two can do!”

James laughed. “Nice try, Father. You’re not getting me in the pew just because you had a lucky shot.” He slapped the other man on the arm and went for his bag.

Martyr, thought Carlo. Yes, that was the perfect word. He shared his bed every night with a martyr.

*

Returning today to Carlo & Alison, whose story I’m exploring from different angles as I try to figure out a structure and plot for it. Other pieces in the series (unconnected snippets, not a coherent narrative):

In The Mist

Heartbreak

Makeover

Magic Hour

Dinner With David

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