Places I Know

For a long time all of my fiction was set in the Midwest. When I moved to Kuwait I was determined to write a book in one year and the first stories were all set in Wisconsin, pulling from my hometown or college town settings. I had just moved from Colombia and was living in a desert on the Gulf and still, I could only write of four seasons and small towns. I wrote lives I didn’t live. I think that’s fine, but as I practiced writing more fiction I put my places into the pieces. I took a cue from my essay work which relies on place, because place is often important to our situation, perception and insight, and practiced setting my characters in the Middle East or on holiday in Eastern Europe. Now I pull from all the places I know. I still love a good Midwest setting. The piece I’m writing now is set in Wisconsin but one of the characters is Korean, and the return trip to Seoul is informed by my living here now.

Before summer break, a writing friend recommended The Portable MFA by the New York Writers Workshop, and this summer I started flipping through the first pages. There is a prompt called Poem, Dream, Conflict that the story below comes from. Think of a line of poetry, a recent dream, and a problem you’re having with another person. Write flash fiction pulling from those three things:

  1. Poem. Write one or two paragraphs based on the resonant line of poetry (or prose) you chose. Then skip a line.

  2. Dream. Write one or two paragraphs using fragments of themes from your dream. (It’s unnecessary to make any explicit reference to the text you used for step one.) Again, skip a line.

  3. Conflict. Write one or two paragraphs concerning the conflict you thought of. (Again, it’s unnecessary to make any explicit reference to steps one or two.) Skip a line.

  4. Putting it all together. Begin weaving together elements from steps one through three. Follow your impulses. Something is probably already occurring to you.

And here, the piece that came from this exercise. Set in Kuwait. What I wonder when I write a place that many people may not know, is which details set the place. The Kuwait in this story is different from the Kuwait of my neighborhood, is different than the Kuwait of our weekend walks along the Gulf.


The Water From The Air

The sand was hot. Joelle high stepped to the water’s edge and waded to her thighs. The sun was bright, the air already an oven midmorning. Sweat beaded her hairline and breastbone. Cool water lapped her thighs. In college she’d read a poem by Maxine Kumin and lines stayed with her a decade later. I took the lake between my legs. / Invaded and invader, I / went overhand on that flat sky. Joelle dipped under. She swam a little ways to where she couldn’t touch the sand with her toes and treaded water there, facing the beach. The first time Zaid brought her to his family’s chalet he told her everything that was different from when he was a boy.

Joelle tilted back in the water so she floated. The sky was white. She closed her eyes. She rolled onto her belly and swam to the beach, rose from the water and ran across the sand to the shade of the veranda where she rinsed her feet before going inside, dripping footprints on the cold tile.

Zaid lay on a couch in the main room. He might have been asleep. It was Ramadan but he fasted loosely – a cigarette in the morning, an apple or glass of water in the afternoon – or not at all. Joelle bent to kiss his brow. He made a small sigh. Joelle went to the shower and stood under the warm water. Once, she told Zaid she knew she’d regret these long showers when the world was without an excess of clean water and he replied the world would be gone before then. She finished rinsing and dressed in loose linen, picked out a book to read in the main room. Days at the chalet reminded her of that scene in Gatsby – Daisy and Jordan unmoving on chaise lounges, deciding to go to town because. Joelle arranged herself in an oversize shair opposite Zaid. She opened a bottle of sparkling water, and her book.

Zaid woke an hour or so later, after noon. You shouldn’t have let me sleep so long, he said. Joelle shrugged. You looked peaceful, she said. He propped on an elbow. I was not peaceful, he said, I was dreaming you are away from me. It was not peaceful. It was like a long journey without a map. I couldn’t see the storm. Zaid sat up. He said, I reached out to you like this and you were not there. Sometimes when Zaid spoke he sounded like a child who was part of not this world. Joelle unfolded her legs and went to Zaid. He wrapped his arms around her waist, rested against her breasts. Please, he said, Please don’t go from me.

Joelle kissed the top of Zaid’s head. I have to go, she said.

No, no, no. Zaid said this when they talked about what Joelle was late to realize, that Zaid may keep her for himself, but not to marry. She could have left then but she liked his company, liked his gifts, liked the distraction he was. In a month she would leave Kuwait with little more than she arrived with two years before.

I can fix your visa. You can have my apartment in Salmiya. Zaid had said this before. He would do that, if she agreed. Joelle kissed the top of his head again, tugged gently at his hair so he tipped up to see her face. She kissed his brow, his cheek, the corner of his mouth.

It wouldn’t be fair, she said, To me. Or to your family or to the woman you are supposed to engage. It wouldn’t be fair to you.

Before it was for play, Zaid said, But this is not for play.

Pretend it is, Joelle said. Zaid was only ever gentle so when she shifted to step out of his embrace, he let her.

The next day Zaid fasted. Joelle ate alone in the kitchen. She read a second book. She let Zaid sleep and pray. The chalet was quiet, which they both preferred, and that evening as Joelle prepared iftar her belly was full of possibility – if Zaid married her, if she carried his child, if they were fair to one another, if each gave more than the other. She arranged dates on a plate, poured sweetened labneh in a glass, and waited until it was time for Zaid to break his fast. She could see he’d honored the day. He was calm. He followed her to the table on the veranda and took a slow drink of the labneh.

I think you are right, he said. He put a hand over hers. He said, I am not fair to you. I am not kind to you, to do like this. You are beautiful, Joelle. You are pleasure and joy. Zaid removed his hand from hers. She would eat with him now, but not sleep with him later. They would return to the city – he, rested – and in a month she would call the day before her flight out, to say goodbye, and they would cry.

But that night when they lay in bed together for a last, chaste time, Zaid touched her hair and cheek. He leaned over to kiss her tenderly. He fell asleep and dreamed she was away from him but in the morning all he remembered was a taste of peace like dates. Joelle lay awake in Zaid’s bed until she could not guess the hour and then she got up from the bed and walked quietly through the large cool rooms.

The sand was warm but the moon did not burn. At the water’s edge she dropped her towel and walked into the Gulf. She swam again to where she could not touch. Here she rested back on the water and then, letting her belly go, she began to sink. Another line from the poem came to her. Joelle opened her eyes and for a dizzy moment, could not tell the water from the air.

 


Read about Maxine Kumin or enjoy her poem “Morning Swim”

Going For It Because There Is No Right Time For Any Of This

If I write a chapter, my knee will heal because I will have yielded to this thing I am supposed to do: write a fucking book. This book is not a fucking book, but the process looks like a fucking process from here. This is a book I have imagined for nearly two decades. I have ideas: a collection of short stories with overlapping characters or place, essays or stories for each country stamp in my passport, a multigenre meditation on faith and motherhood. Rarely have I wanted to write a novel, but I have two situations I might develop. One, a year at an international school in South America. Two, a month home. Each of those situations would read a little memoir-ish to anyone who knows me. Four or five years ago I decided to pursue publication. But my effort was lukewarm and now I am more apathetic than hopeful that I’ll publish anything substantial, though I continue to write and revise while wondering to what end.

So when my knee quit a couple of months ago, at the end of our first year in Korea, I thought of how tightly controlling I am with my body. Prone to anxiety and melancholy, I rely on running to unwind the tensions I carry. I crave the work of my body, the sweat and effort, the ease of falling into a cadence. A couple of months ago, this daily tack was gone and though I believe God works through ordinary suffering, I am selfish to admit I’d rather endure extraordinary suffering than lose my routine. I left Korea with a limp, apopros the transition year in southeast Asia, and spent a gorgeous summer in Wisconsin not waking early to run, and instead padding my ass and waist with beer and cheese. On a walk one morning I thought about this book. That morning I was in a better mood, thinking how this time away from running might be a blessing to my body and mind. Now, two months into an endorphin shortage, I think of either going on antidepressants or bashing my knee in to end all hope of recovery, because I think it’s the hope that kills me. The glimmer of something that might turn out okay, or even good. When I think of faith, hope and love, I understand the faith required, the love necessary to get through my time on earth, but I fall short on hope.

There are times when I think I need to let this book go or write it all at once, on fire. Now I have tied this book to my knee, which is probably superstitious and stupid, unless it isn’t and what I need to do to heal my body is commit to an idea that’s been residing in my bones for years. On better days I do not think of this project as a fucking book, but just the book or Chapter One. If I can get a first chapter drafted, the rest of the book will line up. Something about writing Chapter One feels insurmountable but I liken these first pages as a signatory commitment to the full book, finished within a year.

I wonder if my pores will clear when I finally write this fucking book too. It is this: long ago I decided to be a writer and the weight of a book just sits in my belly. Now, unable to run my feelings quiet, and sitting in the middle of the living room while my daughter hot glues a cracked plastic tub together so she and her brother can make a habitat for sea creatures, I wonder if the only way out of a book is to write it, even though I am afraid. I am in the middle of noise and helpless waiting so this is as good a year as any to write a book, with dread. But maybe also with hope. I have been starting Chapter One for years.

 

About A Little Kid That Does Some Things That Other People Don’t Do

I had to bring this story to a close. What fun to fill out an idea my son gave me! I asked Grant to illustrate a scene or two from this story. I’ll post those and a light edit/ revision sometime this summer.

I’ll write a reflection on my month of sustaining creative momentum but briefly: writing this wild story was like writing poetry. I loosened my hold on style and syntax. I just had fun. I need to draft like this more often. While I was thoughtful, especially as I neared the end of the story and I wasn’t sure what should come, I was freer in this drafting – there was no pressure to make this story do anything other than show itself.

As before, skip ahead to the bold sentence if you’ve read the previous post – I start you at the beginning of the last paragraph of the previous post. I changed one or two details in that paragraph when I picked up the story.


The Home We Are From

When Trife was eight, he found his home. He went away from his village to chase the knife sharpener to see if he might take Trife on as an apprentice. His father said he was no good in the field and his mother refused to feed him if he didn’t work. But there was no work. Of the dozen families in the village, each had its own oldest son, most of them older and better equipped than Trife to fish or hunt or build or dig or plow. No one needed an extra boy around. And the knife sharpener, when Trife caught up to him too many small hills and three giant hills away, also didn’t need a boy around. But the knife sharpener at least stopped and sat down, patted the ground next to him and asked Trife his name and from what village he came.

Havi, Trife answered. He made a wave motion with his hand. He said, Back there.

Havi. Ah, Havi. Yes, the knife sharpener said. He’d only been to Havi the day before and already the collection of tiny hovels and dirt patches was gone from memory. But he remembered the well where a girl leaned so far over to retrieve her bucket the knife sharpener looked away for fear of death. Now the knife sharpener took out a loaf of bread shaped by the hands of son who was more useful than Trife, and tore a piece to share. The boy shook his head and the knife sharpener shrugged, took a bite and chewed. Trife picked at a scab on his ankle. He couldn’t watch the bread travel from hand to mouth, hand to mouth. The knife sharpener still would have shared but Trife felt too foolish refusing the kindness to ask for bread now. When half of the bread was gone, the knife sharpener stood. Trife stood then.

I’m sorry I don’t need a boy. It’s not much fun anyway, going from town to town sharpening knives, the knife sharpener said, People yell a lot and curse my mother. People don’t pay anything for good work and usually accuse me of bad. If a baby has red hair, they think it’s me done it. And fair enough, it might be me that done it. I can’t say. I go one town to the next all year, all seasons, no rest, a big circle that takes a year or two depending how many knives. But one day I’ll go a straight line instead of turning and see if knives exist over there.

Trife had quit listening but looked up when the knife sharpener pointed. Both the knife sharpener and the boy leaned forward as if against a wind. Their eyes scrunched. Over another dozen hills there was a small puff of dust kicked up by horses. And in the small puff of dust, little squares of red. The knife sharpener turned to the boy and said, If you run now you might tell your village. Trife looked from the man to the puff of dust. His legs were tired. The knife sharpener was already hoisting his bag on his back and cutting across a narrow field before Trife could ask what to tell the village and then he understood some resting instinct awakened by a scent like garlic and sweat. Trife started running over the many small hills and the three giant hills to return to his village to tell his father and mother about the puff of dust carrying flags.

He did not make it to his village in time. At the crest of the last giant hill, the horses pounded past. Trife watched from the side of the road. The men riding the horses were strong. They carried so many pointy weapons. The horses looked angry. The men and the horses thundered by without looking at Trife, though they must have seen him as a little dot turning into a boy. Trife coughed on the dust. He raised a hand to his eyes and squinted. For a moment, the whole world was quiet.

Trife waited two days before returning to his village. Something in his stomach said to stay away so he did. He found a tree to climb and waited until the morning of the second day when he saw the puff of dust appear on the other side of his village. Again, the whole world was quiet as he walked the road toward the little hovel where his mother would be poking the cooking fire, his father already lifting rocks from soil, his brothers and sisters carrying sticks for the cooking fire or fetching water or being more useful than he was.

All the village sounds were gone. Trife stopped at the edge of the village and listened. His stomach told him the village was empty of any living people and he didn’t want to see any dead people. But his stomach also said he would die too, if he didn’t eat. He thought for a moment. He could walk to the baker’s hovel and take bread. He walked around the village, along the low stone wall that bordered some of the hovels, and then climbed over the wall at the baker’s hovel, dropped to the ground and saw the baker’s wife and son so dead Trife decided they were only sleeping and he was only being a naughty boy stealing bread and later his father would hear about it and smack Trife’s head. Even though the baker’s wife and son were only sleeping outside, after breakfast, Trife tilted his head up when he walked by so he didn’t have to make up a story about the baker’s son liking to sleep like a fish, with his eyes open. Trife was happy to find a forgotten loaf in the ash of the oven, so burned it blackened his hands when he cracked the crust open to eat the center of the loaf. Trife ate facing the low stone wall and thought if there was anything he needed from his hovel but decided he really couldn’t see his family sleeping in the daytime. This part of him was all gone. He climbed back over the wall and walked back the way he’d come, past the tree he’d climbed two days ago, past the spot the knife sharpener offered a piece of nice, fresh bread. He walked and walked. The sun disappeared. The moon lit the road. The night air got cold. Trife shivered but continued walking, supposing that over this hill there would be a village, or over this hill, or over this hill. Finally, Trife curled up like a fawn and slept.

He woke to a shadow standing over him. Two days had passed but neither the boy nor the shadow knew Trife had lied curled up in a bed of grass for that long. The shadow extended a hand to pull the boy to standing and Trife found his legs didn’t work for a few minutes. Like a fawn or foal he collapsed on his knees, stood wobbly, fell again. The shadow made a tsk tsk sound and sighed, lowered to sit with the boy whose face and arms were imprinted with blades of grass. Trife closed his eyes. He wanted to return to sleep, to drift on a rolling wave of nothing until the soul lifted. A gentle hand touched his brow. The shadow shifted to pull Trife to its lap and then Trife felt his tired body go soft against the soft shadow, and he decided this was a nicer way to drift until the soul lifted. Boy, the shadow whispered, Boy, you can’t go away from here. Trife opened his eyes to see the face of a mother, but not a mother like his own. His own mother had sharp angles and deep lines, eyes that disappeared in a squint, and a frown she wore even on Sundays, but this mother looked at him close and tenderly as though Trife were the loveliest boy she had ever seen. This mother caressed Trife’s dirty face and kissed his brow and whispered that everything was going to be good now, everything, and her voice was calm enough, her eyes clear enough that Trife believed her and didn’t try to do anything except not drift away. The shadow mother and two young men with her lifted Trife onto a cot to carry him down a steep ravine to the edge of a woods. Trife closed his eyes.

The hard part was not drifting. The two young men sang little songs about the trees and sun. The shadow mother chanted quietly. Trife was warm and cold at once. His soul kept slipping from his grasp. He lifted from his body and had to catch hold of his hand to pull himself back on top of his resting form, to suck another breath of air, to stay where he could best hear the young men singing and the shadow mother chanting.

He did not know this next part until he was older, when his shadow mother let slip how afraid she was for the week after they brought Trife to the woods. First, she thought he would die from hunger and thirst, his body eating itself. Then one afternoon Trife was lying on a cot near a fire when he moved to stand and fell into the flames. The children playing nearby shouted and the mothers came to find the boy lying in the flames but when they dragged his body out, they found Trife’s skin was as pale and unblemished as when his shadow mother had washed him that morning, and only his clothes had burned. Now his shadow mother was afraid the boy would be sent away because no one of this world can lie in flames, unburned. That morning the mothers and children agreed not to tell the fathers because as kind as the fathers were, a boy who did not burn in fire was a frightening thing to have in the small tent next to your own. For a week, Trife’s shadow mother stayed near her boy. Later, when Trife was much older, his shadow mother confessed she loved him more because she was afraid how wonderful he was to touch fire and be unburned.

(Many years after, when Trife had his own children who climbed too high and jumped, swam where the current was swift, ate a berry without looking at the color of its hat, or ran a flat palm over a candle flame, Trife understood that wild love his shadow mother had for him, an awe at all a child withstands to grow).

After his shadow mother told Trife the story of his falling into the fire but not burning, he ran across the clearing to his friend Jod’s house to ask what Jod remembered about the day he didn’t burn. Jod pretended he didn’t understand the question until Trife poked him in the ribs and said his shadow mother already said it happened, get on with it, and then Jod confessed he had seen Trife fall into the fire but was too scared to call out. Instead, Jod stayed where he was while the mothers ran from their garden work or cooking fires to pull Trife from the center pit. Jod told him something his own shadow mother hadn’t told him, that the children and mothers and birds all went silent when Trife’s shadow mother rolled him over to see his pale, clean skin unburned.

How long ago was that? Trife asked. Jod shrugged. He said, You didn’t have hair on your face yet. Trife touched the wisps of whiskers on his chin and cheek. Jod said, Now that you know, want to try it again?

Trife thought perhaps he’d used all of his unburning up in one go. His shadow mother regretted telling him the story because her son refused to help kindle a fire for a year after, until it was time for him to leave the woods for his turn. Every boy and girl took a turn. Sometimes a boy or girl left the woods alone but more often they partnered with another boy or girl to leave the woods. After a year or so, when the turn was over, the boy or girl came back to the woods with a sack of spices or herbs or cocoa powder or coins or paints or fruits just about to go bad. In the year he or she had been away, the mother and father prepared a new tent for their son or daughter. The night before Trife took his turn, his shadow mother stayed awake and watched her boy breathe and thought how she had known him his whole life. She could see in his sleeping face the way he looked when he was an infant at her breast, even though this was not how she met her boy. She met her boy at the end of her turn and loved the child so fully to not desire another.

Jod joined Trife on his turn and together they walked the path out of the woods and onto a narrow road cutting through such tall grass the road was invisible at a distance. Trife hadn’t left the woods since the day his shadow mother and the two young men carried him in, so the sun and openness of the land was unsettling. Each night, Trife curled up like a knobby kneed foal, pulled grasses close and covered his head with a cloth. Jod laid an arm’s length away, sleeping as he landed on the ground with arms and legs making funny angles, as comfortable on his back as on his belly. One evening Trife decided to sleep like Jod and Jod decided to sleep like Trife. While Jod rested soundly because he could sleep deeply even in a storm, even with a rock in his ribs, Trife looked up at the stars, terrified. He counted as high as he could, dizzy at the vastness of the sky and thousand points of light, dizzy at the magic that brought those lights to view only at night, and then in fear, he passed out. The next morning, Jod thumped Trife’s shoulder and said, See, boy, it’s good to sleep as you land.

Trife and Jod agreed to walk north. During the first months they ate cheese that reeked because it’d been forgotten in a cave on purpose, and they drank water that tasted of metal, and they walked a ridgeline that would have been their death if a foot stumbled, and they saw a bird with a beak as long as its neck, and they ate a plant they shouldn’t have eaten which made them vomit but not until they’d both seen visions. Trife and Jod were dirty and stinky and no one was there to tell them so. When the pair arrived in a village or town, they took a bed at an inn or found an alley behind a tavern. People moved away from them until Jod grinned and offered a joke. Jod was their way into a dining room or church. Jod was their way into a dance or picnic. They stayed in a village or town for a few days or weeks before continuing their turn and Jod was only tempted once to remain behind when Trife packed his bundle. A girl with red hair in a town of dark hair followed Jod around, turning her back to Trife until Trife understood to leave the couple over the hill behind the mill. When Jod joined Trife for dinner at the inn, Trife said, I think I know the girl’s father, and told the memory of the knife sharpener offering a loaf of bread.

Another month or two passed before Jod asked if Trife might find his way to his village. They were walking on a long stretch of road between one lost village and the next, and no one had passed them for hours. All they had between them was time. Trife was quiet, thinking of the way to his village, remembering a hill he’d see from his hovel’s westward window, a giant hill with lumps like a rooster comb. I don’t know it’s still there, Trife finally said, It might be all gone.

But you remember where? Jod asked.
I do. Or I think I do. There’s a hill like a rooster comb.
We can find that.
We can.
Let’s go on then. Let’s go find your village.

From then, their turn became a search. Most boys and girls took wandering turns of happenstance. Most boys and girls arrived back at the woods with goods and stories and a sense that it might be better to settle the tent made for them, to do the work ready for them, to bear the children waiting for them, better to take the woods than wander. But Trife and Jod infused their turn with mission. Find the rooster comb. Find the village. At each village or town, at each roadside inn, Jod leaned across the table or counter and asked, Did you ever see a hill like this? And he would set a hand on his head, waggle his fingers. Like a rooster? Trife took a needle and thread from his bundle, took off his shirt and stitched the outline of the hill across its belly so the next time they asked, Have you seen a hill like this? they might only point to the tiny measured stitches rolling up and down Trife’s torso. For another month or two they asked. And then one night at the hearth of a poor inn whose fire died early, another traveler recognized the hill.

Jod elbowed Trife and said the traveler, This boy is from there.
From where?
A village near.
Near the hill? That village – was it a village?
Village enough. There was a baker and butcher, Trife said.
That village is gone.
Gone! said Jod.
I know, Trife said, But I want to see.
I can tell you it’s gone. I was there not a week ago. I passed around. I don’t go through places like that.
Places like what? Jod took a long drink of ale. He looked at Trife. Gone? You know it’s gone?
I was there, or near, when the village went away. I was half this.
Sleeping death? Pox? Fire? Jod finished his ale.
It was men with swords and spears, Trife said and the traveler crossed himself and murmured. And I don’t know why. I’ve wondered why. But after, that’s when I came home.
You have two homes.
One, I think.
Two. Or one now, seeing how the first is gone. Jod patted Trife’s back. You still want to go then?

The next morning, Trife and Jod set out with directions from the traveler. They thought they’d gone so far north as to tip over the earth, and maybe they nearly had, but now their long days of walking had brought them near to the village, near to the woods where they’d started their turn eight or nine or ten months before. While they walked, Jod wanted to know all Trife remembered of his childhood. What was your family like? What did your mother cook? What did your father do with his hands? Did you have a brother? A sister? Did you sleep on a cot or on the floor? Who were your neighbors? Was there a pretty girl? Did you learn numbers? Did you have a festival? Where the seasons as they are in the woods? Though Jod had drank the ale, Trife felt the after in his own body. His head was swollen, his tongue slow, his stomach unsettled. Finally, all of Jod’s questions unanswered, the pair settled into silence. That night when they lay at the side of the road, Trife curled and Jod sprawled, Jod reached across the space to take Trife’s hand. Jod whispered, I won’t go if you don’t want to go. Trife held Jod’s hand, missing his shadow mother who still held his hand and kissed his brow. Both boys drifted to sleep like that.

In the morning Trife propped on his elbow watching his friend sleep. Trife lived in one half of his life. This was easier. He didn’t go to the village in his mind, rarely in his dreams. His body made shell around his other body so Trife could leave the small child curled like a fawn, dying, while he grew taller and learned to weave, plant and harvest, hunt. The small child had stayed in his shell since Trife arrived in the woods. No one asked to see the small child. His shadow mother held him most of his first year in her tent, looking into his eyes as she spooned broth into his mouth, looking into his eyes as she rubbed the atrophied muscles of his limbs, looking into his eyes as she sang stories. He was born new. So he did not live that other half. Now, he saw how abandoned Jod was in his sleep and he wondered if all the woods children slept like that, if his own shadow mother slept like that before he came and she curled her form around his to still his shivers and heal his heart. What had he missed by living the first half of his life?

On the third day walking, they recognized landmarks the traveler gave. The village was one or two days from where they slept that night. After Jod fell asleep, Trife got up and walked back to the road. He stood looking toward where his village was gone. Once when I was very young. Trife held that phrase in his mind for a moment. He made his lips shape the words. Once when I was very young. Once when I was very young. And then he waited to see if the boy might crack his shell to say what happened once when he was very young. I can wait, he whispered, I can wait all night if you like. Once when I was very young. Once when I was very young.

Trife would have liked to sit on his father’s knee and hear the gruff voice say something silly. Trife would have liked to hide his face in his mother’s apron and feel her hand pat his hair. He would have liked to be in a pile with his brothers and sisters on the dirt floor of their hovel, laughing and rolling. He would take a moment at dawn when his mother scraped porridge from the pot or a moment at dusk when his brother shared a blanket. For a long time Trife stood in the middle of the road waiting for the boy to tell him a story, and then he returned to where Jod lay undisturbed, and curled his body around the boy he was. Before his mind went quiet, he remembered remembering. He remembered something important, before his mind went quiet. And when his mind went quiet, the boy in his shell woke so that Trife’s dream was of his hovel. Perhaps he was three or four, in the dirt and grass out front. A sister with him. And nearby, his mother nursing a swaddled baby. The sunlight was bright but cool. Trife wanted to turn and look at his mother or reach out to his sister but in this dream he was only a little boy drawing lines and figures in the dirt.

The next morning they woke to mist, started walking the direction they supposed would show them the hill like a rooster comb. Trife thought about the dream, his little boy self making lines and figures in the dirt. He would lay down now, to sleep to dream again of that same little boy self, but they continued walking. Jod was unusually quiet, a mercy which allowed Trife the hours to examine each part of that scene in the front of his hovel, playing in the dirt and grass. His sister was to his left and he saw her finger draw a long line before she swept the line away with her palm to draw it again. What he wanted was to see her face, the color of her hair and eyes. He wanted to know if this sister was also a friend, if they were fond of each other, if she was tender enough to save the heel of bread when he was sent away without a meal, if this sister was someone he had trusted. He wanted that to be true but the dream did not tell. In the woods he did not guess if someone loved him. His shadow mother loved him. Jod loved him. Trife returned to the dream. One dream was not enough to know.

By afternoon the mist burned away and Jod saw the hill like a rooster comb. Trife was just imagining his first mother had loved him very much, and his father too, and his brothers and sisters whose names and faces were smudges in his mind. If the day his shadow mother found him, the day she held him close, the days that followed when she sang to him and spooned food to his mouth, if he had then remembered his first mother and father and brothers and sisters would their names and faces now be smudges? Many years from this afternoon standing at the top a one hill to identify the rooster comb of another hill, Trife would look up at a sky like this and ask for more than the first and only dream he’d had of playing in dirt in front of the hovel. And many years after that, with his own children having their own children, those dreams fell from a sky like this and he lay in dirt shaking and crying and laughing because all the dreams at once was too much for an old man.

The village was not entirely gone. When Jod and Trife returned to the woods to end their turn, they brought a hammered copper bowl, tiny glass bottles, and a sharp knife they’d taken from what Trife thought was his hovel.

Don’t you remember then? Jod asked, when the two boys stood in front of a low stone outline of a hovel. The wood and straw that built the hovel to standing height was gone. The table near the cooking fireplace was missing a leg. Trife turned a slow circle. The other nearby hovels looked much the same. The only hovels that he knew hadn’t been his were the ones with an odd silver candlestick or a piece of mirror. The baker’s hovel had his oven, the butcher’s hovel had his smoke shed leaning to one side. Trife looked back at this hovel in front of him and shrugged. He said, This is it. Jod put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. Jod said, Should we bury the dead? Both boys looked around and saw only fragments of the dead. It seemed the village returned to itself. Neither boy wanted to touch the spare bones.

Can you imagine, if you hadn’t run off?
I didn’t run off.
You did.
I had to find work to eat.
You’d be dead like this now. You’d be earth.
Yes.
I’m glad you ran off.
I had to.
Yes, and I’m glad.

The boys were not spooked as some travelers were by the abandoned village, the story of its demise. They decided to sleep nearby and Trife lay like Jod, looking at the sky with stars in its mouth and thought that if ever a dream of his days in that hovel or the nearby fields would come, it would be that night, and he welcomed sleep with the hope his dream would be peace. We know he did not dream of this early time until his very late time, but that night Trife did dream of peace.

A year or so after his shadow mother and her companions carried him into the woods, Trife climbed so high in a tree he tasted a cloud. He opened his mouth to breathe in the cloud. He made a nest in the crook of a two limbs and rested.

(855 words added/ story is 4716 words total)

About A Little Kid That Does Some Things That Other People Don’t Do

I’ll cut my own slack and say that while this story isn’t finished – which would have been a great culminating post for a month all about sustaining creative momentum – I will finish the story tomorrow or the next day. Today I subbed in a grade one classroom and as energetic and wild and fun as a roomful of seven year olds is, I’m too knackered to think of a good end to Trife and Jod’s turn. Pick up at the bold sentence if you’ve read the previous post. Sorry to say I end the draft mid-sentence. But try it sometime. Feels good. 


The Home We Are From

When Trife was eight, he found his home. He went away from his village to chase the knife sharpener to see if he might take Trife on as an apprentice. His father said he was no good in the field and his mother refused to feed him if he didn’t work. But there was no work. Of the dozen families in the village, each had its own oldest son, most of them older and better equipped than Trife to fish or hunt or build or dig or plow. No one needed an extra boy around. And the knife sharpener, when Trife caught up to him too many small hills and three giant hills away, also didn’t need a boy around. But the knife sharpener at least stopped and sat down, patted the ground next to him and asked Trife his name and from what village he came.

Havi, Trife answered. He made a wave motion with his hand. He said, Back there.

Havi. Ah, Havi. Yes, the knife sharpener said. He’d only been to Havi the day before and already the collection of tiny hovels and dirt patches was gone from memory. But he remembered the well where a girl leaned so far over to retrieve her bucket the knife sharpener looked away for fear of death. Now the knife sharpener took out a loaf of bread shaped by the hands of son who was more useful than Trife, and tore a piece to share. The boy shook his head and the knife sharpener shrugged, took a bite and chewed. Trife picked at a scab on his ankle. He couldn’t watch the bread travel from hand to mouth, hand to mouth. The knife sharpener still would have shared but Trife felt too foolish refusing the kindness to ask for bread now. When half of the bread was gone, the knife sharpener stood. Trife stood then.

I’m sorry I don’t need a boy. It’s not much fun anyway, going from town to town sharpening knives, the knife sharpener said, People yell a lot and curse my mother. People don’t pay anything for good work and usually accuse me of bad. If a baby has red hair, they think it’s me done it. And fair enough, it might be me that done it. I can’t say. I go one town to the next all year, all seasons, no rest, a big circle that takes a year or two depending how many knives. But one day I’ll go a straight line instead of turning and see if knives exist over there.

Trife had quit listening but looked up when the knife sharpener pointed. Both the knife sharpener and the boy leaned forward as if against a wind. Their eyes scrunched. Over another dozen hills there was a small puff of dust kicked up by horses. And in the small puff of dust, little squares of red. The knife sharpener turned to the boy and said, If you run now you might tell your village. Trife looked from the man to the puff of dust. His legs were tired. The knife sharpener was already hoisting his bag on his back and cutting across a narrow field before Trife could ask what to tell the village and then he understood some resting instinct awakened by a scent like garlic and sweat. Trife started running over the many small hills and the three giant hills to return to his village to tell his father and mother about the puff of dust carrying flags.

He did not make it to his village in time. At the crest of the last giant hill, the horses pounded past. Trife watched from the side of the road. The men riding the horses were strong. They carried so many pointy weapons. The horses looked angry. The men and the horses thundered by without looking at Trife, though they must have seen him as a little dot turning into a boy. Trife coughed on the dust. He raised a hand to his eyes and squinted. For a moment, the whole world was quiet.

Trife waited two days before returning to his village. Something in his stomach said to stay away so he did. He found a tree to climb and waited until the morning of the second day when he saw the puff of dust appear on the other side of his village. Again, the whole world was quiet as he walked the road toward the little hovel where his mother would be poking the cooking fire, his father already lifting rocks from soil, his brothers and sisters carrying sticks for the cooking fire or fetching water or being more useful than he was.

All the village sounds were gone. Trife stopped at the edge of the village and listened. His stomach told him the village was empty of any living people and he didn’t want to see any dead people. But his stomach also said he would die too, if he didn’t eat. He thought for a moment. He could walk to the baker’s hovel and take bread. He walked around the village, along the low stone wall that bordered some of the hovels, and then climbed over the wall at the baker’s hovel, dropped to the ground and saw the baker’s wife and son so dead Trife decided they were only sleeping and he was only being a naughty boy stealing bread and later his father would hear about it and smack Trife’s head. Even though the baker’s wife and son were only sleeping outside, after breakfast, Trife tilted his head up when he walked by so he didn’t have to make up a story about the baker’s son liking to sleep like a fish, with his eyes open. Trife was happy to find a forgotten loaf in the ash of the oven, so burned it blackened his hands when he cracked the crust open to eat the center of the loaf. Trife ate facing the low stone wall and thought if there was anything he needed from his hovel but decided he really couldn’t see his family sleeping in the daytime. This part of him was all gone. He climbed back over the wall and walked back the way he’d come, past the tree he’d climbed two days ago, past the spot the knife sharpener offered a piece of nice, fresh bread. He walked and walked. The sun disappeared. The moon lit the road. The night air got cold. Trife shivered but continued walking, supposing that over this hill there would be a village, or over this hill, or over this hill. Finally, Trife curled up like a fawn and slept.

He woke to a shadow standing over him. Two days had passed but neither the boy nor the shadow knew Trife had lied curled up in a bed of grass for that long. The shadow extended a hand to pull the boy to standing and Trife found his legs didn’t work for a few minutes. Like a fawn or foal he collapsed on his knees, stood wobbly, fell again. The shadow made a tsk tsk sound and sighed, lowered to sit with the boy whose face and arms were imprinted with blades of grass. Trife closed his eyes. He wanted to return to sleep, to drift on a rolling wave of nothing until the soul lifted. A gentle hand touched his brow. The shadow shifted to pull Trife to its lap and then Trife felt his tired body go soft against the soft shadow, and he decided this was a nicer way to drift until the soul lifted. Boy, the shadow whispered, Boy, you can’t go away from here. Trife opened his eyes to see the face of a mother, but not a mother like his own. His own mother had sharp angles and deep lines, eyes that disappeared in a squint, and a frown she wore even on Sundays, but this mother looked at him close and tenderly as though Trife were the loveliest boy she had ever seen. This mother caressed Trife’s dirty face and kissed his brow and whispered that everything was going to be good now, everything, and her voice was calm enough, her eyes clear enough that Trife believed her and didn’t try to do anything except not drift away. The shadow mother and two young men with her lifted Trife onto a cot to carry him down a steep ravine to the edge of a woods. Trife closed his eyes.

The hard part was not drifting. The two young men sang little songs about the trees and sun. The shadow mother chanted quietly. Trife was warm and cold at once. His soul kept slipping from his grasp. He lifted from his body and had to catch hold of his hand to pull himself back on top of his resting form, to suck another breath of air, to stay where he could best hear the young men singing and the shadow mother chanting.

He did not know this next part until he was older, when his shadow mother let slip how afraid she was for the week after they brought Trife to the woods. First, she thought he would die from hunger and thirst, his body eating itself. Then one afternoon Trife was lying on a cot near a fire when he moved to stand and fell into the flames. The children playing nearby shouted and the mothers came to find the boy lying in the flames but when they dragged his body out, they found Trife’s skin was as pale and unblemished as when his shadow mother had washed him that morning, and only his clothes had burned. Now his shadow mother was afraid the boy would be sent away because no one of this world can lie in flames, unburned. That morning the mothers and children agreed not to tell the fathers because as kind as the fathers were, a boy who did not burn in fire was a frightening thing to have in the small tent next to your own. For a week, Trife’s shadow mother stayed near her boy. Later, when Trife was much older, his shadow mother confessed she loved him more because she was afraid how wonderful he was to touch fire and be unburned.

(Many years after, when Trife had his own children who climbed too high and jumped, swam where the current was swift, ate a berry without looking at the color of its hat, or ran a flat palm over a candle flame, Trife understood that wild love his shadow mother had for him, an awe at all a child withstands to grow).

After his shadow mother told Trife the story of his falling into the fire but not burning, he ran across the clearing to his friend Jod’s house to ask what Jod remembered about the day he didn’t burn. Jod pretended he didn’t understand the question until Trife poked him in the ribs and said his shadow mother already said it happened, get on with it, and then Jod confessed he had seen Trife fall into the fire but was too scared to call out. Instead, Jod stayed where he was while the mothers ran from their garden work or cooking fires to pull Trife from the center pit. Jod told him something his own shadow mother hadn’t told him, that the children and mothers and birds all went silent when Trife’s shadow mother rolled him over to see his pale, clean skin unburned.

How long ago was that? Trife asked. Jod shrugged. He said, You didn’t have hair on your face yet. Trife touched the wisps of whiskers on his chin and cheek. Jod said, Now that you know, want to try it again?

Trife thought perhaps he’d used all of his unburning up in one go. His shadow mother regretted telling him the story because her son refused to help kindle a fire for a year after, until it was time for him to leave the woods for his turn. Every boy and girl took a turn. Sometimes a boy or girl left the woods alone but more often they partnered with another boy or girl to leave the woods. After a year or so, when the turn was over, the boy or girl came back to the woods with a sack of spices or herbs or cocoa powder or coins or paints or fruits just about to go bad. In the year he or she had been away, the mother and father prepared a new tent for their son or daughter. The night before Trife took his turn, his shadow mother stayed awake and watched her boy breathe and thought how she had known him his whole life. She could see in his sleeping face the way he looked when he was an infant at her breast, even though this was not how she met her boy. She met her boy at the end of her turn and loved the child so fully to not desire another.

Jod joined Trife on his turn and together they walked the path out of the woods and onto a narrow road cutting through such tall grass the road was invisible at a distance. Trife hadn’t left the woods since the day his shadow mother and the two young men carried him in, so the sun and openness of the land was unsettling. Each night, Trife curled up like a knobby kneed foal, pulled grasses close and covered his head with a cloth. Jod laid an arm’s length away, sleeping as he landed on the ground with arms and legs making funny angles, as comfortable on his back as on his belly. One evening Trife decided to sleep like Jod and Jod decided to sleep like Trife. While Jod rested soundly because he could sleep deeply even in a storm, even with a rock in his ribs, Trife looked up at the stars, terrified. He counted as high as he could, dizzy at the vastness of the sky and thousand points of light, dizzy at the magic that brought those lights to view only at night, and then in fear, he passed out. The next morning, Jod thumped Trife’s shoulder and said, See, boy, it’s good to sleep as you land.

Trife and Jod agreed to walk north. During the first months they ate cheese that reeked because it’d been forgotten in a cave on purpose, and they drank water that tasted of metal, and they walked a ridgeline that would have been their death if a foot stumbled, and they saw a bird with a beak as long as its neck, and they ate a plant they shouldn’t have eaten which made them vomit but not until they’d both seen visions. Trife and Jod were dirty and stinky and no one was there to tell them so. When the pair arrived in a village or town, they took a bed at an inn or found an alley behind a tavern. People moved away from them until Jod grinned and offered a joke. Jod was their way into a dining room or church. Jod was their way into a dance or picnic. They stayed in a village or town for a few days or weeks before continuing their turn and Jod was only tempted once to remain behind when Trife packed his bundle. A girl with red hair in a town of dark hair followed Jod around, turning her back to Trife until Trife understood to leave the couple over the hill behind the mill. When Jod joined Trife for dinner at the inn, Trife said, I think I know the girl’s father, and told the memory of the knife sharpener offering a loaf of bread.

Another month or two passed before Jod asked if Trife might find his way to his village. They were walking on a long stretch of road between one lost village and the next, and no one had passed them for hours. All they had between them was time. Trife was quiet, thinking of the way to his village, remembering a hill he’d see from his hovel’s westward window, a giant hill with lumps like a rooster comb. I don’t know it’s still there, Trife finally said, It might be all gone.

But you remember where? Jod asked.
I do. Or I think I do. There’s a hill like a rooster comb.
We can find that.
We can.
Let’s go on then. Let’s go find your village.

From then, their turn became a search. Most boys and girls took wandering turns of happenstance. Most boys and girls arrived back at the woods with goods and stories and a sense that it might be better to settle the tent made for them, to do the work ready for them, to bear the children waiting for them, better to take the woods than wander. But Trife and Jod infused their turn with mission. Find the rooster comb. Find the village. At each village or town, at each roadside inn, Jod leaned across the table or counter and asked, Did you ever see a hill like this? And he would set a hand on his head, waggle his fingers. Like a rooster? Trife took a needle and thread from his bundle, took off his shirt and stitched the outline of the hill across its belly so the next time they asked, Have you seen a hill like this? they might only point to the tiny measured stitches rolling up and down Trife’s torso. For another month or two they asked. And then one night at the hearth of a poor inn whose fire died early, another traveler recognized the hill.

Jod elbowed Trife and said the traveler, This boy is from there.
From where?
A village near.
Near the hill? That village – was it a village?
Village enough. There was a baker and butcher, Trife said.
That village is gone.
Gone! said Jod.
I know, Trife said, But I want to see.
I can tell you it’s gone. I was there not a week ago. I passed around. I don’t go through places like that.
Places like what? Jod took a long drink of ale. He looked at Trife. Gone? You know it’s gone?
I was there, or near, when the village went away. I was half this.
Sleeping death? Pox? Fire? Jod finished his ale.
It was men with swords and spears, Trife said and the traveler crossed himself and murmured. And I don’t know why. I wondered why. But after, that’s when I came home.
You have two homes.
One, I think.
Two. Or one now, seeing how the first is gone. Jod patted Trife’s back. You still want to go then?

The next morning, Trife and Jod set out with directions from the traveler. They thought they’d gone so far north as to tip over the earth, and maybe they nearly had, but now their long days of walking had brought them near to the village, near to the woods where they’d started their turn eight or nine or ten months before. While they walked, Jod wanted to know all Trife remembered of his childhood. What was your family like? What did your mother cook? What did your father do with his hands? Did you have a brother? A sister? Did you sleep on a cot or on the floor? Who were your neighbors? Was there a pretty girl? Did you learn numbers? Did you have a festival? Where the seasons as they are in the woods? Though Jod had drank the ale, Trife felt the after in his own body. His head was swollen, his tongue slow, his stomach unsettled. Finally, all of Jod’s questions unanswered, the pair settled into silence. That night when they lay at the side of the road, Trife curled and Jod sprawled, Jod reached across the space to take Trife’s hand. Jod whispered, I won’t go if you don’t want to go. Trife held Jod’s hand, missing his shadow mother who still held his hand and kissed his brow. Both boys drifted to sleep like that.

In the morning Trife propped on his elbow watching his friend sleep. Trife lived in one half of his life. This was easier. He didn’t go to the village in his mind, rarely in his dreams. His body made shell around his other body so Trife could leave the small child curled like a fawn, dying, while he grew taller and learned to weave, plant and harvest, hunt. The small child had stayed in his shell since Trife arrived in the woods. No one asked to see the small child. His shadow mother held him most of his first year in her tent, looking into his eyes as she spooned broth into his mouth, looking into his eyes as she rubbed the atrophied muscles of his limbs, looking into his eyes as she sang stories. He was born new. So he did not live that other half. Now, he saw how abandoned Jod was in his sleep and he wondered if all the woods children slept like that, if his own shadow mother slept like that before he came and she curled her form around his to still his shivers and heal his heart. What had he missed by living the first half of his life?

On the third day walking, they recognized landmarks the traveler gave. The village was one or two days from where they slept that night. After Jod fell asleep, Trife got up and walked back to the road. He stood looking toward where his village was gone. Once when I was very young. Trife held that phrase in his mind for a moment. He made his lips shape the words. Once when I was very young. Once when I was very young. And then he waited to see if the boy might crack his shell to say what happened once when he was very young. I can wait, he whispered, I can wait all night if you like. Once when I was very young. Once when I was very young.

Trife would have liked to sit on his father’s knee and hear the gruff voice say something silly. Trife would have liked to hide his face in his mother’s apron and feel her hand pat his hair. He would have liked to be in a pile with his brothers and sisters on the dirt floor of their hovel, laughing and rolling. He would take a moment at dawn when his mother scraped porridge from the pot or a moment at dusk when his brother shared a blanket. For a long time Trife stood in the middle of the road waiting for the boy to tell him a story, and then he returned to where Jod lay undisturbed, and curled his body around the boy he was. Before his mind went quiet, he remembered remembering. He remembered not burning once before. He remembered something important, before his mind went quiet. And when his mind went quiet, the boy in his shell woke so that Trife’s dreams were of his

(908 words added/ story is 3872 words total)

About A Little Kid That Does Some Things That Other People Don’t Do

I thought I might finish Grant’s story today – but. Still, I am having so much fun working from the character name and short plot sketch Grant gave me! As a reminder, his prompt to me is: He’s going to go to the woods, that’s what I’m thinking of. And he should be a person who goes to a village and then the village gets invaded, so then he goes all the way into the forest where no one finds him and he meets some people who are really nice to him and they go on a journey to lots of places and then they go back to their town and fix it up.

If you’ve read the first two parts, skip ahead to the bolded sentence. I promise a finish next post.


The Home We Are From

When Trife was eight, he found his home. He went away from his village to chase the knife sharpener to see if he might take Trife on as an apprentice. His father said he was no good in the field and his mother refused to feed him if he didn’t work. But there was no work. Of the dozen families in the village, each had its own oldest son, most of them older and better equipped than Trife to fish or hunt or build or dig or plow. No one needed an extra boy around. And the knife sharpener, when Trife caught up to him too many small hills and three giant hills away, also didn’t need a boy around. But the knife sharpener at least stopped and sat down, patted the ground next to him and asked Trife his name and from what village he came.

Havi, Trife answered. He made a wave motion with his hand. He said, Back there.

Havi. Ah, Havi. Yes, the knife sharpener said. He’d only been to Havi the day before and already the collection of tiny hovels and dirt patches was gone from memory. But he remembered the well where a girl leaned so far over to retrieve her bucket the knife sharpener looked away for fear of death. Now the knife sharpener took out a loaf of bread shaped by the hands of son who was more useful than Trife, and tore a piece to share. The boy shook his head and the knife sharpener shrugged, took a bite and chewed. Trife picked at a scab on his ankle. He couldn’t watch the bread travel from hand to mouth, hand to mouth. The knife sharpener still would have shared but Trife felt too foolish refusing the kindness to ask for bread now. When half of the bread was gone, the knife sharpener stood. Trife stood then.

I’m sorry I don’t need a boy. It’s not much fun anyway, going from town to town sharpening knives, the knife sharpener said, People yell a lot and curse my mother. People don’t pay anything for good work and usually accuse me of bad. If a baby has red hair, they think it’s me done it. And fair enough, it might be me that done it. I can’t say. I go one town to the next all year, all seasons, no rest, a big circle that takes a year or two depending how many knives. But one day I’ll go a straight line instead of turning and see if knives exist over there.

Trife had quit listening but looked up when the knife sharpener pointed. Both the knife sharpener and the boy leaned forward as if against a wind. Their eyes scrunched. Over another dozen hills there was a small puff of dust kicked up by horses. And in the small puff of dust, little squares of red. The knife sharpener turned to the boy and said, If you run now you might tell your village. Trife looked from the man to the puff of dust. His legs were tired. The knife sharpener was already hoisting his bag on his back and cutting across a narrow field before Trife could ask what to tell the village and then he understood some resting instinct awakened by a scent like garlic and sweat. Trife started running over the many small hills and the three giant hills to return to his village to tell his father and mother about the puff of dust carrying flags.

He did not make it to his village in time. At the crest of the last giant hill, the horses pounded past. Trife watched from the side of the road. The men riding the horses were strong. They carried so many pointy weapons. The horses looked angry. The men and the horses thundered by without looking at Trife, though they must have seen him as a little dot turning into a boy. Trife coughed on the dust. He raised a hand to his eyes and squinted. For a moment, the whole world was quiet.

Trife waited two days before returning to his village. Something in his stomach said to stay away so he did. He found a tree to climb and waited until the morning of the second day when he saw the puff of dust appear on the other side of his village. Again, the whole world was quiet as he walked the road toward the little hovel where his mother would be poking the cooking fire, his father already lifting rocks from soil, his brothers and sisters carrying sticks for the cooking fire or fetching water or being more useful than he was.

All the village sounds were gone. Trife stopped at the edge of the village and listened. His stomach told him the village was empty of any living people and he didn’t want to see any dead people. But his stomach also said he would die too, if he didn’t eat. He thought for a moment. He could walk to the baker’s hovel and take bread. He walked around the village, along the low stone wall that bordered some of the hovels, and then climbed over the wall at the baker’s hovel, dropped to the ground and saw the baker’s wife and son so dead Trife decided they were only sleeping and he was only being a naughty boy stealing bread and later his father would hear about it and smack Trife’s head. Even though the baker’s wife and son were only sleeping outside, after breakfast, Trife tilted his head up when he walked by so he didn’t have to make up a story about the baker’s son liking to sleep like a fish, with his eyes open. Trife was happy to find a forgotten loaf in the ash of the oven, so burned it blackened his hands when he cracked the crust open to eat the center of the loaf. Trife ate facing the low stone wall and thought if there was anything he needed from his hovel but decided he really couldn’t see his family sleeping in the daytime. This part of him was all gone. He climbed back over the wall and walked back the way he’d come, past the tree he’d climbed two days ago, past the spot the knife sharpener offered a piece of nice, fresh bread. He walked and walked. The sun disappeared. The moon lit the road. The night air got cold. Trife shivered but continued walking, supposing that over this hill there would be a village, or over this hill, or over this hill. Finally, Trife curled up like a fawn and slept.

He woke to a shadow standing over him. Two days had passed but neither the boy nor the shadow knew Trife had laid curled up in a bed of grass for that long. The shadow extended a hand to pull the boy to standing and Trife found his legs didn’t work for a few minutes. Like a fawn or foal he collapsed on his knees, stood wobbly, fell again. The shadow made a tsk tsk sound and sighed, lowered to sit with the boy whose face and arms were imprinted with blades of grass. Trife closed his eyes. He wanted to return to sleep, to drift on a rolling wave of nothing until the soul lifted. A gentle hand touched his brow. The shadow shifted to pull Trife to its lap and then Trife felt his tired body go soft against the soft shadow, and he decided this was a nicer way to drift until the soul lifted. Boy, the shadow whispered, Boy, you can’t go away from here. Trife opened his eyes to see the face of a mother, but not a mother like his own. His own mother had sharp angles and deep lines, eyes that disappeared in a squint, and a frown she wore even on Sundays, but this mother looked at him close, tenderly as though Trife were the loveliest boy she had ever seen. This mother caressed Trife’s dirty face and kissed his brow and whispered that everything was going to be good now, everything, and her voice was calm enough, her eyes clear enough that Trife believed her and didn’t try to do anything except not drift away. The shadow mother and two young men with her lifted Trife onto a cot to carry him down a steep ravine to the edge of a woods. Trife closed his eyes.

The hard part was not drifting. The two young men sang little songs about the trees and sun. The shadow mother chanted quietly. Trife was warm and cold at once. His soul kept slipping from his grasp. He lifted from his body and had to catch hold of his hand to pull himself back on top of his resting form, to suck another breath of air, to stay where he could best hear the young men singing and the shadow mother chanting.

He did not know this next part until he was older, when his shadow mother let slip how afraid she was for the week after they brought Trife to the woods. First, she thought he would die from hunger and thirst, his body eating itself. Then one afternoon Trife was lying on a cot near a fire when he moved to stand and fell into the flames. The children playing nearby shouted and the mothers came to find the boy lying in the flames but when they dragged his body out, they found Trife’s skin was as pale and unblemished as when his shadow mother had washed him that morning, and only his clothes had burned. Now his shadow mother was afraid the boy would be sent away because no one of this world can lie in flames, unburned. That morning the mothers and children agreed not to tell the fathers because as kind as the fathers were, a boy who did not burn in fire was a frightening thing to have in the small tent next to your own. For a week, Trife’s shadow mother stayed near her boy. Later, when Trife was much older, his shadow mother confessed she loved him more because she was afraid how wonderful he was to touch fire and be unburned.

(Many years after, when Trife had his own children who climbed too high and jumped, swam where the current was swift, ate a berry without looking at the color of its hat, or ran a flat palm over a candle flame, Trife understood that wild love his shadow mother had for him, an awe at all a child withstands to grow).

After his shadow mother told Trife the story of his falling into the fire but not burning, he ran across the clearing to his friend Jod’s house to ask what Jod remembered about the day he didn’t burn. Jod pretended he didn’t understand the question until Trife poked him in the ribs and said his shadow mother already said it happened, get on with it, and then Jod confessed he had seen Trife fall into the fire but was too scared to call out. Instead, Jod stayed where he was while the mothers ran from their garden work or cooking fires to pull Trife from the center pit. Jod told him something his own shadow mother hadn’t told him, that the children and mothers and birds all went silent when Trife’s shadow mother rolled him over to see his pale, clean skin unburned.

How long ago was that? Trife asked. Jod shrugged. He said, You didn’t have hair on your face yet. Trife touched the wisps of whiskers on his chin and cheek. Jod said, Now that you know, want to try it again?

Trife thought perhaps he’d used all of his unburning up in one go. His shadow mother regretted telling him the story because her son refused to help kindle a fire for a year after, until it was time for him to leave the woods for his turn. Every boy and girl took a turn. Sometimes a boy or girl left the woods alone but more often they partnered with another boy or girl to leave the woods. After a year or so, when the turn was over, the boy or girl came back to the woods with a sack of spices or herbs or cocoa powder or coins or paints or fruits just about to go bad. In the year he or she had been away, the mother and father prepared a new tent for their son or daughter. The night before Trife took his turn, his shadow mother stayed awake and watched her boy breathe and thought how she had known him his whole life. She could see in his sleeping face the way he looked when he was an infant at her breast, even though this was not how she met her boy. She met her boy at the end of her turn and loved the child so fully to not desire another.

Jod joined Trife on his turn and together they walked the path out of the woods and onto a narrow road cutting through such tall grass the road was invisible at a distance. Trife hadn’t left the woods since the day his shadow mother and the two young men carried him in, so the sun and openness of the land was unsettling. Each night, Trife curled up like a knobby kneed foal, pulled grasses close and covered his head with a cloth. Jod laid an arm’s length away, sleeping as he landed on the ground with arms and legs making funny angles, as comfortable on his back as on his belly. One evening Trife decided to sleep like Jod and Jod decided to sleep like Trife. While Jod rested soundly because he could sleep deeply even in a storm, even with a rock in his ribs, Trife looked up at the stars, terrified. He counted as high as he could, dizzy at the vastness of the sky and thousand points of light, dizzy at the magic that brought those lights to view only at night, and then in fear, he passed out. The next morning, Jod thumped Trife’s shoulder and said, See, boy, it’s good to sleep as you land.

Trife and Jod agreed to walk north. During the first months they ate cheese that reeked because it’d been forgotten in a cave on purpose, and they drank water that tasted of metal, and they walked a ridgeline that would have been their death if a foot stumbled, and they saw a bird with a beak as long as its neck, and they ate a plant they shouldn’t have eaten which made them vomit but not until they’d both seen visions. Trife and Jod were dirty and stinky and no one was there to tell them so. When the pair arrived in a village or town, they took a bed at an inn or found an alley behind a tavern. People moved away from them until Jod grinned and offered a joke. Jod was their way into a dining room or church. Jod was their way into a dance or picnic. They stayed in a village or town for a few days or weeks before continuing their turn and Jod was only tempted once to remain behind when Trife packed his bundle. A girl with red hair in a town of dark hair followed Jod around, turning her back to Trife until Trife understood to leave the couple over the hill behind the mill. When Jod joined Trife for dinner at the inn, Trife said, I think I know the girl’s father, and told the memory of the knife sharpener offering a loaf of bread.

Another month or two passed before Jod asked if Trife might find his way to his village. They were walking on a long stretch of road between one lost village and the next, and no one had passed them for hours. All they had between them was time. Trife was quiet, thinking of the way to his village, remembering a hill he’d see from his hovel’s westward window, a giant hill with lumps like a rooster comb. I don’t know it’s still there, Trife finally said, It might be all gone.

But you remember where? Jod asked.
I do. Or I think I do. There’s a hill like a rooster comb.
We can find that.
We can.
Let’s go on then. Let’s go find your village.

From then, their turn became a search. Most boys and girls took wandering turns of happenstance. Most boys and girls arrived back at the woods with goods and stories and a sense that it might be better to settle the tent made for them, to do the work ready for them, to bear the children waiting for them, better to take the woods than wander. But Trife and Jod infused their turn with mission. Find the rooster comb. Find the village. At each village or town, at each roadside inn, Jod leaned across the table or counter and asked, Did you ever see a hill like this? And he would set a hand on his head, waggle his fingers. Like a rooster? Trife took a needle and thread from his bundle, took off his shirt and stitched the outline of the hill across its belly so the next time they asked, Have you seen a hill like this? they might only point to the tiny measured stitches rolling up and down Trife’s torso. For another month or two they asked. And then one night at the hearth of a poor inn whose fire died early, another traveler recognized the hill.

(1846 words added/ story is 2958 words total)

Chance Chanced Upon Us

April was rough. Claire named one of our tough spring events The Devastating Time and by mid-April I decided the title was apt for the whole month. Now near the end of May I can’t remember exactly what made all of April a slog but I do remember one evening at the dining table when the kids suggested a game, we started playing and I was totally blank. I played my turns, but I couldn’t laugh. Inside, I wondered if I’d finally broken something. April was the month I considered revising our four or five year plan to settle this place. Perhaps just one more year. I was sad again we’d missed moving to Kenya. I was tired of the effort of being here.

This weekend I met my friend Erin for coffee. I am so glad we get to be near one another again. That wouldn’t happen if I were in Nairobi. All year Erin has encouraged me with her kindness, listening and wisdom. She has heard me draft versions of my experience here. What happened when we got jobs and planned to move to Korea was Justin and I were certain we belonged in Korea. And when we arrived, we were certain we belonged in Korea. We are still certain this is a good place for us, a right place, and we are glad for the events and people and ideas that brought us here.

At church we just finished a study of the book of Ruth. Through the story of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz, the author illustrates the perfect provision of our God – there’s a phrase used at the beginning of the story to show the happenstance of Ruth gleaning in Boaz’s wheat field. Chance chanced upon her. Reading now, and knowing the lineage of Ruth and Boaz, knowing that so many generations away is King David, and so many generations after is Jesus, we know this is not chance but divine orchestration. After church today we all headed to the Han for a picnic and I sat with an older woman named Els who echoed in her own life the care God has to place us here or there with this person or ready for that event. Els said, God is sovereign. I know that chance chanced upon us in our coming to Korea, a country and region that we had not considered but then recognized as our fit.

But once I arrived, once I had my work and routine, I wasn’t certain why I am here. That is what Erin hears when I talk. That I am glad we are here. That I think we belong here. And that I have no idea what I am doing here. But this weekend when she and I talked, I understood something in a new way.

My position as school is in the Utility department. I am a full-time substitute teacher. Most of the time this is really fun. Some of the time, it’s really difficult. Rarely, it’s terrible. Being a full-time sub means I may wake up one day and teach junior kindergarten and wake up the next day to teach AP Psychology. Sometimes I am in the elementary, middle and high schools in a single day.

One of the reasons I am here is to learn how to be where I am.

Being present is important to me. I try. I really, really try. And in the years since my son was born, I’ve felt less and less a fight to stay with what’s in front of me: marriage, children, work, writing, relationships. In Kuwait, I meditated on Psalm 16:5, 6.

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places: Be here, now. Grow here, now. Enjoy here, now. So while I was in Kuwait, I started learning this practice, to be where I am, to be useful and open and ready where I am, to love and desire what is right where I am. And in Kuwait I had the lines I traveled to school, to the Gulf, to coffee, to church, to the Gulf, to the Avenues, to brunch. I had so many little routines, like a coffee order each morning or stretching each evening or running my miles each day or walking a loop around campus between classes. All these little routines I could expect or anticipate just made the day work.

And then I move to Korea where my work day is just not the same from one to the next. Outside of the school day we scrambled for a new routine of walks or games or dinner, a new way of gathering with friends, new transportation. And inside the school day, we made our way too. But instead of enjoying a sense of control or competence in a new classroom, I’d surrendered to this odd, challenging role as a sub. What I love about the work is seeing the school from the unique vantage of stepping into a variety of grade levels and subject areas, appreciating the work of so many of my colleagues, enjoying the fun of so many different student ages and personalities. But the work can feel disjointed. On Friday I conferenced with grade seven writers, but unless I make a point to return to their classroom in another week or two, I won’t read the finished essays. One day I was in the pool encouraging kids to kick with straight legs, put their faces in the water to blow bubbles, while one boy didn’t want to get into the water at all, despite gentle coaxing – and I wonder if he got his body wet by the end of his swimming unit. My first day in junior kindergarten I sat cross-legged with a couple of boys building Lego and one girl walked up to me, put her hands on my cheeks and made a fish face. We laughed. So I really love this job but it’s stretched me to be where I am.

I think that’s why I’m here. One of the whys of Korea is for me to better learn how to be where I am. Love and serve where I am. Surrender to the moment, the work, the conversation. Chance chanced upon us and we are here in Korea, nearing the end of our first school year and it is good we are here and I am glad we will return.

(1094 words)

About A Little Kid That Does Some Things That Other People Don’t Do, Continued

Last night we walked to dinner with another couple whose kids are grown and out of the house. I run with Jen most weekends and am so glad we all got a chance to connect in a new way. My kids need different people in their lives. I get boring. Last night I loved listening to Jen and Erik talk with Claire and Grant. Grant was telling Erik about his story that I’m writing. Today I told him how far I’d gotten and he reminded me what comes next. Tomorrow I’ll try to finish the story and get Grant’s feedback. Below, I’m posting the full story. If you’ve read the first part, skim ahead to the bold sentence.


When Trife was eight, he found his home. He went away from his village to chase the knife sharpener to see if he might take Trife on as an apprentice. His father said he was no good in the field and his mother refused to feed him if he didn’t work. But there was no work. Of the dozen families in the village, each had its own oldest son, most of them older and better equipped than Trife to fish or hunt or build or dig or plow. No one needed an extra boy around. And the knife sharpener, when Trife caught up to him too many small hills and three giant hills away, also didn’t need a boy around. But the knife sharpener at least stopped and sat down, patted the ground next to him and asked Trife his name and from what village he came.

Havi, Trife answered. He made a wave motion with his hand. He said, Back there.

Havi. Ah, Havi. Yes, the knife sharpener said. He’d only been to Havi the day before and already the collection of tiny hovels and dirt patches was gone from memory. But he remembered the well where a girl leaned so far over to retrieve her bucket the knife sharpener looked away for fear of death. Now the knife sharpener took out a loaf of bread shaped by the hands of son who was more useful than Trife, and tore a piece to share. The boy shook his head and the knife sharpener shrugged, took a bite and chewed. Trife picked at a scab on his ankle. He couldn’t watch the bread travel from hand to mouth, hand to mouth. The knife sharpener still would have shared but Trife felt too foolish refusing the kindness to ask for bread now. When half of the bread was gone, the knife sharpener stood. Trife stood then.

I’m sorry I don’t need a boy. It’s not much fun anyway, going from town to town sharpening knives, the knife sharpener said, People yell a lot and curse my mother. People don’t pay anything for good work and usually accuse me of bad. If a baby has red hair, they think it’s me done it. And fair enough, it might be me that done it. I can’t say. I go one town to the next all year, all seasons, no rest, a big circle that takes a year or two depending how many knives. But one day I’ll go a straight line instead of turning and see if knives exist over there.

Trife had quit listening but looked up when the knife sharpener pointed. Both the knife sharpener and the boy leaned forward as if against a wind. Their eyes scrunched. Over another dozen hills there was a small puff of dust kicked up by horses. And in the small puff of dust, little squares of red. The knife sharpener turned to the boy and said, If you run now you might tell your village. Trife looked from the man to the puff of dust. His legs were tired. The knife sharpener was already hoisting his bag on his back and cutting across a narrow field before Trife could ask what to tell the village and then he understood some resting instinct awakened by a scent like garlic and sweat. Trife started running over the many small hills and the three giant hills to return to his village to tell his father and mother about the puff of dust carrying flags.

He did not make it to his village in time. At the crest of the last giant hill, the horses pounded past. Trife watched from the side of the road. The men riding the horses were strong. They carried so many pointy weapons. The horses looked angry. The men and the horses thundered by without looking at Trife, though they must have seen him as a little dot turning into a boy. Trife coughed on the dust. He raised a hand to his eyes and squinted. For a moment, the whole world was quiet.

Trife waited two days before returning to his village. Something in his stomach said to stay away so he did. He found a tree to climb and waited until the morning of the second day when he saw the puff of dust appear on the other side of his village. Again, the whole world was quiet as he walked the road toward the little hovel where his mother would be poking the cooking fire, his father already lifting rocks from soil, his brothers and sisters carrying sticks for the cooking fire or fetching water or being more useful than he was.

All the village sounds were gone. Trife stopped at the edge of the village and listened. His stomach told him the village was empty of any living people and he didn’t want to see any dead people. But his stomach also said he would die too, if he didn’t eat. He thought for a moment. He could walk to the baker’s hovel and take bread. He walked around the village, along the low stone wall that bordered some of the hovels, and then climbed over the wall at the baker’s hovel, dropped to the ground and saw the baker’s wife and son so dead Trife decided they were only sleeping and he was only being a naughty boy stealing bread and later his father would hear about it and smack Trife’s head. Even though the baker’s wife and son were only sleeping outside, after breakfast, Trife tilted his head up when he walked by so he didn’t have to make up a story about the baker’s son liking to sleep like a fish, with his eyes open. Trife was happy to find a forgotten loaf in the ash of the oven, so burned it blackened his hands when he cracked the crust open to eat the center of the loaf. Trife ate facing the low stone wall and thought if there was anything he needed from his hovel but decided he really couldn’t see his family sleeping in the daytime. This part of him was all gone. He climbed back over the wall and walked back the way he’d come, past the tree he’d climbed two days ago, past the spot the knife sharpener offered a piece of nice, fresh bread. He walked and walked. The sun disappeared. The moon lit the road. The night air got cold. Trife shivered but continued walking, supposing that over this hill there would be a village, or over this hill, or over this hill. Finally, Trife curled up like a fawn and slept.

(672 words added/ story is 1112 words total)

About A Little Kid Who Does Some Things That Other People Don’t Do

At the end of the school day, Grant and I were waiting for Justin and Claire so the four of us could bike home. Grant and I were sitting on the speckled tile outside the fitness center. He had just bought bright orange cheese balls from a fundraising table and I was thinking about whatever I had yet to get done. I looked over at Grant. Hey, I said, I need a story idea. Can you give me one?

A story?
Yeah. I need to write one. I can’t think of anything.
Write about a little kid that does some things that other people don’t do.
Wow. That’s good.
Can it be about a boy?
What would you name the boy?
Grant.
That’s you.
Turner. Or – Grant started playing with sounds. Or, Trife. Or Cur – Curft.
How about Trife?
Okay.
What about Trife?

And then Grant gave me the bones of a story and while he spoke, I typed to keep up: He’s going to go to the woods, that’s what I’m thinking of. And he should be a person who goes to a village and then the village gets invaded, so then he goes all the way into the forest where no one finds him and he meets some people who are really nice to him and they go on a journey to lots of places and then they go back to their town and fix it up.

Now you know the story, but how will it go?

The Home We Are From

When Trife was eight, he found his home. He went away from his village to chase the knife sharpener to see if he might take Trife on as an apprentice. His father said he was no good in the field and his mother refused to feed him if he didn’t work. But there was no work. Of the dozen families in the village, each had its own oldest son, most of them older and better equipped than Trife to fish or hunt or build or dig or plow. No one needed an extra boy around. And the knife sharpener, when Trife caught up to him too many small hills and three giant hills away, also didn’t need a boy around. But the knife sharpener at least stopped and sat down, patted the ground next to him and asked Trife his name and from what village he came.

Havi, Trife answered. He made a wave motion with his hand. He said, Back there.

Havi. Ah, Havi. Yes, the knife sharpener said. He’d only been to Havi the day before and already the collection of tiny hovels and dirt patches was gone from memory. But he remembered the well where a girl leaned so far over to retrieve her bucket the knife sharpener looked away for fear of death. Now the knife sharpener took out a loaf of bread shaped by the hands of son who was more useful than Trife, and tore a piece to share. The boy shook his head and the knife sharpener shrugged, took a bite and chewed. Trife picked at a scab on his ankle. He couldn’t watch the bread travel from hand to mouth, hand to mouth. The knife sharpener still would have shared but Trife felt too foolish refusing the kindness to ask for bread now. When half of the bread was gone, the knife sharpener stood. Trife stood then.

I’m sorry I don’t need a boy. It’s not much fun anyway, going from town to town sharpening knives, the knife sharpener said, People yell a lot and curse my mother. People don’t pay anything for good work and usually accuse me of bad. If a baby has red hair, they think it’s me done it. And fair enough, it might be me that done it. I can’t say. I go one town to the next all year, all seasons, no rest, a big circle that takes a year or two depending how many knives. But one day I’ll go a straight line instead of turning and see if knives exist over there.

Trife had quit listening but looked up when the knife sharpener pointed.

(694 words)

How I Do This Thing

Rarely easily.

Sometimes while wearing earplugs.

Often with a clock ticking down to draining the pasta or bedtime routine or my own sleep.

Often knowing there are half a dozen other things I should be doing instead: stretching my hamstring, stain treating a pile of kids’ clothes, unpacking the last boxes from our move, reading a book, cleaning the fridge, reorganizing art/ craft supply cupboards.

With much joy and doubt.

Right now my husband is folding laundry. He is working efficiently. He promised Grant they’d build Lego in a moment. Grant wants to know where the dark gray pieces are. Where’s the dark gray bin, Papa? Justin points toward Grant’s room. I put it in there, he says, It’s there. Go look. Justin is so good at supporting my writing. I don’t think he reads most of what I put up here unless I tell him to, or want his opinion. The content of my writing is of occasional interest to him, though when I give him a piece or ask him to sit and listen while I read, he usually likes what I say. Or has a question. I did not marry a man who thinks my art is hot. And he knows it won’t make money. But still, he tells me to go write. He sends me out to a cafe or folds the laundry while I sit at the dining table with my laptop open. Once or twice a year he braces when I start to weep because I don’t know why I write this much when I haven’t got a way forward I can’t see where it goes I don’t know who will read this I have no connections I am afraid I am too tired each day to make anything really go with this work what is this work why am I doing this I just can’t see what for and why didn’t I start publishing fifteen years ago because no one knows my name I haven’t been anywhere maybe I should self-publish or maybe I should quit.

I can’t quit. Knowing that makes me feel a little ill. I do this on purpose, even when the writing drags and the intrinsic motivation is more habit than hope.

Keep writing, I write in my notebook. Drafts are interrupted with all caps commands: KEEP WRITING KEEP WRITING. I feel a tilt in my work. I have new stories in my head that I put on the page in different ways. KEEP WRITING. I have old stories that deserve work. When I run or while I bike or on the subway platform, I’ll think how to reset a character, reshape the plot.

How I do this is slowly.

Maybe a month ago my friend Tara, a poet and writer, and I talked about how we fit writing in our regular life. Writing is part of our regular life. But we have more hours of practice elsewhere. She is an accomplished educator. We are mothers. She said we should go away for two weeks sometime. Go away and write without distraction.

Around the same time she and I talked, I had another conversation with Justin. I said, I’m not getting an MFA. This is it. That might be the moment I really decided I can’t do an MFA just to do an MFA but I am going to write like I’m earning one. This is good. I can push my writing as far as I can go.

Also around this time I saw a student art show and learned a little about Sammie Kim. Her art is precise, wild, imaginative, odd. She appreciates risk. I told her I wanted to buy one of her pieces because her work is what I want from my own practice: what pleasure to leap, what diligence to work, what trust to risk. I am buying two of her pieces. One, an exact ink drawing of two pinecones and the other a memory of her and her brother during childhood, with thoughts and sketches floating in the air. I love that two such different pieces are from the same creative mind.

From the other room I hear Justin ask Grant if he knew eleven was a prime number. You mean a good number? Grant asks. A prime number, Justin says. It means eleven is divisible by one and itself.

On the living room floor is the art project Claire started. Miniature watercolor paintings the size of playing cards.

Our night is quiet now. I’ve written through bedtime routine. Now to bed. Finally.

(759 words)

Absolutely Not A Shock

Shelly Wheeler was ready when her sons’ school got shot up. She was standing in line at Starbucks when her phone dinged. It was around nine am. Her oldest twin Dylan messaged

Mom somethings wrong were on lockdown i’m ok

Later in interviews, Shelly recalled the next part differently. In interviews with local and national television news crews, Shelly said she knew at that moment her children were in danger. She said it was a mother’s heart. But what happened was she looked at the message and her body and mind paused. The man in line ahead of her ordered his venti americano but she couldn’t move her feet forward to order her usual latte. So maybe she did understand, at a molecular level, that this text signaled a shift in her world, but when her feet would not move and her mouth could not form a word, Shelly didn’t think she was entangled with her sons’ present experience. She thought she was having a stroke. The barista leaned forward a little and asked if Shelly was okay. Before Shelly could will her head to nod or her tongue to work, a woman at nearby table shouted, Oh my God! Oh my God! And jumped so quickly from her seat the chair tipped over. Oh my God, the woman shouted again and then, There’s a shooter at the school!

Shelly turned as though underwater and saw a woman who looked like any number of mothers of teenagers. This woman was already at the shop entrance and then half jogging twenty steps toward a Toyota, key fob in hand, headlights winking. Shelly turned back to the barista whose mouth was open and said, My sons are there. She held up her phone. My twins, she said. Shelly’s legs would still not respond but her thumbs worked again. She messaged Dylan

Put your phone on silent
Tell the others your with
I love you

She messaged her younger twin, Gabe

Baby, are you ok?

She messaged her husband, Don, who was already at his construction site an hour east. Neither Gabe nor Don replied immediately. Shelly looked up to see the barista still waiting, perhaps not for an order but for further news about her boys or the shooting. Another barista called, Jacob, americano. The man and woman in line behind Shelly asked if she needed to sit. That’s what shook her awake again. No, she said, No. I need to go. Thank you. And like that her legs worked and she floated toward the door, across the parking lot, to her sedan. She called her supervisor and said she’d be a little late, that something was going on at the boys’ school. Sirens screamed by. Shelly was split between her body and the space just above. She pushed the ignition start. She used a turn signal to exit her parking spot. At the light she checked her phone but there were no new messages.

By that evening, anyone clicking on an article or news clip about the shooting at Bayfield United High School would see her face, hear her voice and in the following days as she refined her narrative, she would emerge as a representative for the tragedy. Her sons lived and yet she could speak most eloquently about the loss. That morning on the drive across town, Shelly whispered soundbites and dug through her bag with one hand to find her lipstick which she reapplied at the red light before calling Don to tell him he should get in his truck and head home. Don asked was she sure it was a shooter and for the first time since receiving Dylan’s text, she considered the possibility that the lockdown was overprotective. Maybe nothing was wrong. Three years ago when the boys were in eighth grade there was a school shooting in Austin that killed seven kids and she’d watched all the interviews with students, teachers, and parents, and read all the op-eds, followed the trial of a fourteen year old boy who was mad because his girlfriend broke up with him the week before. The girlfriend was among the dead. Shelly devoured the tragedy. She did not understand why anyone was shocked at the tragedy, especially after the photo and story of the ostracized shooter ran on the nightly news. The kid looked nuts.

After Austin, Shelly followed every school shooting, even the under-reported ones like Milltown and Chattanooga where the loss of two and three students respectively did not garner national interest. If Don noticed the tabs on her computer, he didn’t say anything. Shelly joined the PTO and pushed the district to adopt a program that educated the student body about the effects of bullying and funneled troubled students into counseling. At each new school shooting she recognized herself in the semicircle of parents gathered at the fire station or holding candles at a vigil or speaking in the weeks or months after in the halls of state and national government offices.

Shelly said to Don, It’s real. I know it is. That exchange played well when Pepper Nelson of NBC spoke with Shelly while Don was at her side. Don nodded solemnly and said to Pepper, My girl knew and I’m glad I had the sense to listen.

Shelly knew just what to say when Pepper cued the cameraman. Shelly turned her face a little to the right and said it was such a shock that this kind of thing could happen in Bayfield. This wasn’t the kind of place where something so tragic could happen. This was fabulous against the backdrop of the now empty school building whose doors were wrapped with yellow police tape. This was fabulous interspersed with footage of the evacuation of students with hands on their heads, FBI and law enforcement in crouched positions on rooftops, behind cars in the lot. Shelly sniffed a little and said she mourned with the other mothers and fathers. We are all Bayfield today, she said.

That evening at home, jittery from adrenaline and rank from fear and worry, Shelly sank on the couch between Dylan and Gabe and pulled them to her, awkwardly. They were sixteen years old, tall and muscular, probably the kind of students who walked by the shooter without saying hi. The boys let their mother hold them pressed against her breasts. Shelly relaxed her arms and the boys sat up. Mom, Dylan said, I was really scared. I thought I might die. For a moment, Shelly wished he’d said that when Brock Evans interviewed the family an hour earlier, because it was so vulnerable and perfect for the story. If a boy like Dylan could be afraid, what was America coming to? She kissed his cheek, patted his hand. I’m sorry, sweetie, she said. Gabe cleared his throat. Gabe hadn’t talked since she’d picked him up from the football field where the student body congregated after the shooter was apprehended. Shelly turned to her younger son. He opened his mouth as if to speak. She looked just above his head where she knew he was.

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