Which Goat Was This Name

This story came to me two or three years ago. I started drafting with the end in mind. I quit because I couldn’t think how to write the end (I didn’t want the end), and when I returned to the draft in November I was surprised the story I’d nearly finished in my head was only a five hundred word start. Before you read: I wrote this story first thinking of Syria and the refugees desperate to escape death, and then I thought about this story as response to the horror of Yemen’s famine. Now I finished the story and am afraid to post but will. Please do not read what you do not want.


The children came ashore in three low, leaky boats and sat on the white sand. Two resort cleaning staff crossing behind the beachfront villas saw the children’s hunched shadows and called Sandu who was just rising to start his day. He walked quickly to the beach and saw the silent children sitting in three lines facing the water. Sandu motioned to his staff and from a distance they conferred. The guests would wake soon. There was a woman who practiced yoga at sunrise. Sandu called his superior who was still sleeping. It was no use. The cleaning staff looked at Sandu and then past the children, to the empty boats bumping in the shallows of the four star Cherish Resort. Sandu pulled at the hair behind his ear, a habit of childhood that returned rarely: at his wedding to a woman he met two weeks previous, at his promotion, at news of the death of his father. He dialed his superior again and left a voice message. We are being invaded.

One of the cleaning staff suggested they take the children back to their quarters. There are too many, another argued. Sandu counted and said, Fifty-seven, plus or minus two or three. He couldn’t tell if some of the bigger children were holding infants or bags to their chests. We have to go see, sir. Sandu nodded. You go, he said. He watched the two cleaning staff amble across the sand toward two of the bigger children. They all kept their voices low. Sandu looked down the row of villas and checked the time. The sky was just getting light. That yoga woman could never sleep in. But if she did it was possible, wasn’t it, to get the children off the beach, maybe into a conference room, though that would be a far walk from here. The boats came from a neighboring island, loosed by wind perhaps. Sandu looked at the sky, looked at his watch. The children were silent.

One of the cleaning staff came back up to Sandu. There are seventy-one at the start. Only sixty-three now. We might have miscounted at the start. Sandu rubbed his jaw, then tugged gently at the hair behind his ear. He asked, Where are they from?

Sir, they thought they were going to Australia.
In those boats?
Yes, sir, they are on the sea for seven days.

Sandu walked down the beach to the yoga woman’s villa. She was here by herself. Miss Elena. She wore linen in shades of fog. He’d been in her room twice, once to deliver an airmail letter she’d requested be delivered day or night (he’d been thankful the letter arrived midmorning and he only interrupted her tea) and once to pick up a package for overnight courier service. She kept her villa clean, seemed only to sit in one chair at the table and on one sofa in the front room. She practiced yoga at sunrise, and took long baths in the evening. The more Sandu considered, he decided she was the guest that concerned him least. She would not howl about the children.

There were four other villas on this beach and two of them occupied for the week, one by a British couple in their seventies who read through the morning and napped through the afternoon, and the other by an Arab couple in their thirties who called Sandu with endless requests. Colder ice, more towels, an unopened bottle of Johnnie Walker. The Arab couple would not be pleased. Perhaps they would accept an upgrade to a villa on the Blue Lagoon beach.

Sandu neared Miss Elena’s villa as she opened the door so that when she looked up, she startled to see him. He and other resort staff attended the villas as anonymously as possible to give guests a sense of privacy and ownership. Unless requested, no villa offered a butler, maid or nanny but Sandu took care to anticipate wants and needs and after nearly two decades of hospitality he understood how to provide or fulfill without crossing an illusionary line, without causing imbalance or discomfort; equally important, Sandu understood how to leave a guest alone, how to wait for a raised hand, tilted head, uneaten lunch that said a want or need. Now Miss Elena, whom Sandu knew preferred to be left alone, startled but calmed when Sandu said, It is me, Miss Elena. Sandu from the resort. I know you enjoy sunrise yoga and I hoped to show you another beach you may enjoy.

If it okay, Sandu, I prefer our beach. She gently closed the door to her villa and stepped onto the sand.
It is okay, but this morning the beach is occupied and I know you enjoy solitude.
Miss Elena looked at him for a moment and Sandu realized how this must appear. A male staff member luring a single woman to a secluded beach. Sandu coughed and said, I do not mean to alarm. I only – I – and Sandu had no words. He did not want to say what came out of his mouth. Miss Elena, he said, There are children on the beach.

Children?
They arrived at dawn on boats.
Boats?

I do not want you or the other guests disturbed, that is all. If you are amenable to practicing yoga on a different beach – Sandu gestured toward a path leading over a small, manicured hill of low plants and tall trees. For a moment it seemed Miss Elena would not take his direction, but then she nodded. He walked ahead of her, silently, and left her where the path returned to sand.

It is very beautiful, she said, Thank you.

You are welcome. Sandu turned to walk back through the resort, to the beach with children. Already he was afraid what the cleaning staff might have decided without him.

What will happen to the children?

Sandu pulled at the hair behind his ear. He said, I do not know. We will take care. Then before she could ask any more questions, he set off, more quickly now, and when out of view, started to run back to the beach with children.

The children were silent yet. This surprised Sandu. He motioned again for the cleaning staff to join him. His supervisor was still not answering the phone and the other guests could wake or the younger children could cry. Three empty boats drifted in the shallows. Sandu said quietly, This is what we must do. We must take the children to the field behind our housing and sit them in rows on the grass there. We will ask the kitchen to prepare rice and fruit. Sandu called the kitchen manager who was often last to bed and first to rise and requested rice and fruit. Then he walked to the edge of the water and stood before the rows of children sitting cross-legged on the sand. He raised his hands to get their attention but all the little faces were already looking up at him, waiting, so he coughed to cleared his throat. He spoke without raising his voice, in English. He could not guess if they children understood. A few blinked. A few nodded. He used gestures, pointed at the cleaning staff, and at the instructions of a couple of the older children, the group stood and formed two lines and without much rustle, followed the cleaning staff off the beach, along a path that made its way to the field.

What was left on the beach were pocks of footprints, fans where tiny hands played with the white sand. In the shallow water, the three empty boats. Sandu rolled his pant legs and waded to the nearest boat. It was lined with plastic. It reeked of urine and feces. The children had arrived from somewhere, with nothing. Sandu called Manny at the Cherish Marina, to see about removing the boats. He left a message. He called his supervisor again who still did not answer. He swept the beach quickly and thought which embassy might have an answer, which charity or mission on one of the other islands might send a ferry to rescue the children.

By noon his supervisor was still not returning his calls. Only a text: Take care of the children. The boats were gone from the beach. Where the children had sat silently, the old British couple now dozed under the shade of an umbrella, their rum diluted by melted ice. Sandu hadn’t seen the Arab couple, which wasn’t unusual. For three days they requested brunch mid afternoon. He was not worried about disturbing them. He was worried about Miss Elena. He now understood what would come of the children and he should not have said a word to Miss Elena that morning. He lacked discretion. No, he lacked foresight. Sandu did not want to see Miss Elena before the children were gone from the field because he did not want to say any more of the truth to her, about what he was now arranging, about what would be finished by the time she decided to call the concierge to ask to speak to Sandu because he was not answering her calls and she wanted to know about the children on the beach.

The children on the beach? the concierge would ask.
Yes, Sandu told me this morning that boats arrived. Boats with children.
The concierge would pause, having no knowledge of boats arriving or children on the beach.

Sandu again called the kitchen manager, asked to speak with the butcher. Each week Cherish resort slaughtered its own pigs, chickens and ducks. But now the butcher did not understand his request. He balked at what Sandu asked. Sandu could feel the situation slipping. The children could not sit in quiet rows in the sun for too much longer. Two months ago his supervisor instructed him to take care of the cats, feral cats who had come over on a day ferry and were pissing on the beach sand. The year before that Sandu took care of guest’s child bride who wailed for two days before Sandu offered the girl a strawberry juice at dinner, laced with sedatives. Sandu spoke again to the butcher, to be understood plainly. I need three sharp knives, Sandu said, For goats in the field. Sandu bit each word, then softened his tone. He was lightheaded, and asked for a box of sandwiches to also be ready when he came by the kitchen.

When the butcher slaughtered, he worked in a space hidden from Cherish Resort guests, a small patch of dirt behind the storage shed where white plastic chairs, folding tables, old clothes and table settings, extra plumbing fixtures, and the bounce houses were kept. Sandu carried a bag with the three knives and sandwich box past the rows of children (sixty-seven, the accurate count). He opened the storage shed and found a white bucket and filled it with water from a spigot. Then he called one of the cleaning staff to come to him. There were few times when Sandu had to speak with threats. Usually his requests were reasonable. Even the unreasonable requests of guests he could phrase to make the chore simple, and he understood when to couple a task with the promise of a reward, but very occasionally Sandu exercised fear to inspire compliance. Now Sandu showed the cleaning staff the knives and said what he would do and how the cleaning staff would help. You will bring the children, one child at a time, he said. He spoke slowly.

You will not show any fear.
You will not alarm the children.
You will not speak of this to any other person.
And if you do, you will not go home to your own children.

Ever. Do you understand?

Sandu’s phone beeped then and he checked the number, answered and replied to a question about pineapples and mangoes while looking at the cleaning staff. He hung up and said, There is no other way. No one will take these children. They are not even children. I think they are goats. Yes, it will be like goats.

One cleaner looked about to be sick. Sandu gestured to a bush and the man leapt across the dirt to bend over and heave. When the cleaner was finished, he dipped a hand in the bucket of water and rinsed his mouth, then walked away without looking at Sandu. Tell the children there is a boat to take them to Europe, Sandu said, and the cleaner raised a hand to acknowledge. For a few minutes Sandu waited, wanting to look around the storage shed but not looking, trusting the cleaner wanted to see his own children again, here on earth, so when the cleaner came with the first child, Sandu smiled. His smile was kind, warm, nearly tricking the hand that reached for the knife so that Sandu had to let go the smile, take the child’s arm, press a palm to the mouth and nose of the child and quickly cut her throat. The cleaner recoiled. Sandu set the knife down, lifted the girl’s body and carried her to a wheelbarrow. He rinsed his hands, patting them dry on his pants, and dialed another number to call for Manny who did much worse to beat down civil uprisings, who could not find work anywhere but far from home and who did not speak about his past except when very drunk, such as one time when Sandu found him on a guest’s yacht. Manny trekked the wheelbarrow back and forth, dirt patch to quiet cove, for the hours it took to kill the sixty-seven children, and dropped the bodies in old rowboats he covered with blue tarpaulins.

The first twelve were children. Even as Sandu held a hand over tiny mouths, stilled the wriggling bodies by crushing ribs with his thighs as though taking a piggyback ride, even as he drew the knife quick and deep across tiny necks, he understood these first twelve were children with mothers and fathers who thought a boat ferried safety. These twelve boys and girls had aunties who kissed their cheeks, uncles who slipped a candy into tiny hands, cousins who chased up trees and down streets. There were signs of love, like thread bracelets or improbably tidy braids or a careful patch on a shirt or a thin silver ring. The first twelve were children who saw Sandu with a light trust for the barest moment before he grabbed at them to press his hand tightly, to keep their screams inside. And then after the first twelve, all the children were goats, even the smallest who would not learn to speak, until the end.

There was more blood than Sandu anticipated. Manny worked diligently with downturned eyes. Sandu lost count. He was hot and the iron smell nauseated him. He asked the cleaner what number this was as Manny pushed the wheelbarrow down a narrow path, and was surprised to learn he was only just past halfway. He sighed. His arms were sore from holding the goats, from pulling the knife. He didn’t want to ask the time. He remembered the sandwiches and rinsed his hands in the bloody water but had no dry, clean spot on his pants or shirt to pat dry. He picked up a sandwich. The bread turned pink. The cleaner watched without speaking, eyes glazed like fever. Sandu ate quickly and gestured the cleaner to go bring another goat.

He was nearly finished. The children were nearly finished. The cleaning staff and Manny were nearly finished. The children were children again, these last six or seven. One boy had a grain of rice on his chin which Sandu noticed as he reached for the thin arm, thin boy, thin neck. And after him, the last of the goats were children who could not be made goats. Sandu’s back ached and his hands hurt. At the end he stretched his arms overhead, rolled his neck. He spoke briefly with Manny who only needed short words to understand the children must go far out to sea, away from any current that might bring their bodies to any shore. He spoke for a longer time with his cleaning staff who could not meet his eyes until he commanded them to look up. This could not be helped, Sandu said, There is no good place for children who come from nowhere. To show kindness, Sandu allowed the next day off and dismissed them to their night. He stayed behind the storage shed to empty the bucket of bloody water. There was a great mess of blood and dirt, a thick sludge Sandu hadn’t noticed in the middle of his work and it was too much to call usual for a slaughter. The ground took the blood quickly as it took rain and there was no way to dig its depth. Sandu thought for a moment how to take the blood from the earth and decided instead to give more earth to the blood. He pushed Manny’s wheelbarrow to the cove where the children now lay in neat rows under blue tarpaulin and walked the wheelbarrow into the shallows to rinse the blood, then scooped sand with his hands to fill the wheelbarrow before returning to the red dirt and emptying the load. He did this twice more to be certain, then found a rake and pulled the earth over the blood.

Leaving the patch behind the shed, swinging the bucket at his side, the knives ruined now, Sandu crossed to where the cleaning staff asked the children to sit. The children were silent all day which Sandu thought a curious blessing. Sandu surveyed the grass where the children had waited to board the boat taking them to Australia or Italy or wherever they thought they were going to live. He nudged a tuft of grass with his toe. The area looked clean. It was secluded. Likely no one saw the children. And the story of what happened was that the children boarded boats for another island, which may be true if Manny chose an island bog. Manny he could trust. The cleaning staff were diligent but he saw how they could not look at him, how they bowed their head when they approached with the next goat, how they could not lift their heads until he commanded it. Sandu was not yet sure what he would do about the cleaning staff.

At his small living quarters, Sandu turned on the shower. Always he was economical. He turned the water off to lather. He rinsed quickly. He took a nail brush to clean the red brown under his nails, staining his cuticles. Sandu finished and stood wet and naked in the tiny bathroom. He was suddenly very tired. He turned the water on again, to its hottest, steaming the round mirror and scalding his back.

On the other side of the island, guests played in the water or laid on the beach or lost the afternoon to expensive wine or platters of food. Miss Elena did not call Sandu or the concierge to ask about the children. She rested in her bed made up with white linen, then bathed in water scented with lavender oil, then dressed in shades of ocean to walk to the main hotel for dinner, rather than order room service as she preferred. Perhaps because her day began in so unusual a way, it must end with a slight, evening deviation from routine. At the hotel, Miss Elena asked to sit on the patio where she could see and smell the water. Near her table was the old British couple puzzling over a piece of paper the man held in his palm. Miss Elena lifted a hand when the woman looked up. Miss Elena asked what was interesting on that piece of paper and then joined the British couple at their table at their invitation. The three of them passed the paper.

I don’t read Arabic, Miss Elena said. Perhaps one of the staff?
We like a good mystery, see, said the old woman.
So when we found this in the sand, the old man continued, We thought to find what is written, by whom and why.
I think I may know, Miss Elena said. I woke early and this morning Sandu told me boats arrived in the night, boats of children. Perhaps one of them, from a pocket?
Boats of children? The old woman furrowed her brow. Wouldn’t we have heard something?
I did not hear a thing, Miss Elena said, They were quiet at ghosts.
Did you see them?
No.
What has come of them?
I don’t know. I imagine they are cared for.

The table let the conversation lapse as drinks were delivered and after, each was lost to his or her own ideas about boats of children arriving in the night, and where those children might be. Miss Elena looked at the scrap of paper now in the center of the table and touched its edges. It is curious, she said, and when she looked up she saw Sandu across the patio speaking with one of the waitstaff. Miss Elena lifted a hand to call him over. He walked toward her, smiling first at her and then at the old British couple.

If I remember correctly, Sandu said, You are each near the end of your stay at Cherish.
Yes, the old woman said, And it has been lovely. We chose dates to return.
Wonderful, Sandu said. He turned to Miss Elena. And you? For you it has also been a pleasant stay?

Miss Elena said yes. There was a pretend game between Sandu and his guests. The pretend he didn’t already know the answer to his question, the pretend that the guest’s life and stay were truly private, the pretend he could smooth any ill. When he looked at Miss Elena looking up at him now, he saw how pale her neck was, how childlike. Miss Elena smiled. I am curious, Sandu, about the boats of children. Can you tell us what happened?

Sandu cleared his throat. I made a call, he said, And spent the day moving the children from the island. He dropped his voice and said, I really prefer, Miss Elena, that we not talk of the children. It was never my intent for any guests to know of their arrival or, now, of their departure. Sandu looked at the old British couple, to include them in his confession. He bent at the waist a little and said, I am relieved to tell you each child is moved to safety.

Miss Elena put a hand to her heart. She closed her eyes. Thank you, she said, All day I wondered.

Sandu straightened. He was about to move through the patio, to check on other guests, to assure his staff of his returned presence, when he saw a slip the slip of paper. He tilted his head. He knew the paper. He saw these little papers all day, pinned to tee shirts or peeking from pockets. Miss Elena followed his gaze and picked up the paper, held it out for him to see. We found it, she said, Well they found it. On the beach. It looks like Arabic and I thought perhaps a note from one of the children. Do you read Arabic?

Sandu shook his head no. He did, a little. I can look into this, he said, and put the slip of paper in his pocket. It may only be a note from one of our other guests, he said, and smiled. I would not want their privacy compromised in any way. Miss Elena dipped her head, like a schoolgirl in trouble with her teacher, and Sandu again saw her neck. He could sense in his body how close he was to slipping, how careful he now had to be to keep his mind from spilling out his mouth. He remembered the other times followed by this same crucial turn, and pulled at the hair behind his ear. Sandu nodded to the old British couple, to Miss Elena, and before he left, promised to tell her the message, if it were not private. Miss Elena smiled. Sandu walked away but watched Miss Elena throughout her meal. Watcher her drink wine and talk lightly with the old British couple. Watched her play with the pendant of her necklace. Watched her shift her weight in her chair, watched her laugh after a second glass of wine. He thought he could not sleep if Miss Elena did not show him what he needed to know, and he nearly ruined it by returning to the table with a made up translation of the note – a line from a love poem, easily attributed to the Gulf guests – when she laughed and Sandu understood she believed him that the children were on boats again, going away to live. What else would she prefer to believe?

Sandu left the patio then, walked along manicured paths passing guest villas, passing staff lodging where he paused to listen under the dark window of the room shared by the cleaning staff but hearing nothing, walked on to his own small rooms where he took the paper from his pocket and read the name, the place, and wondered which goat was this name, this place.


This is story two of thirty-nine. Started two or three years ago. Draft finished 2 December. 4244 words.

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)

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)

Writing From Headlines: Hawaii Emergency Alert

The Hawaii emergency alert. I read about this and maybe a day or two went by and I was still thinking about this because it makes your stomach funny to think about such a horrible thing happening, to spend a very long short time supposing you might die imminently. I am morbid enough to think about these things even when there isn’t a supporting current headline. Around the world and throughout history, men women children are put right next to their cut from life to death, made to see it, think it, wait for it. So when I read about Hawaii, of course I thought what I would do. And then I very quickly put me out of my mind because it’s really awful to think about.

Instead, I made a writing exercise. I want to create a full piece with different voices to tell the story of not quite an hour. I avoided reading personal accounts of those terrifying/ surreal/ unsettling minutes until I had a few ideas drafted in note form. Below are the first two of five situations. Finished, the five parts contribute to one piece.

Writing fiction is one way I think about who I am. My notebooks are almost entirely filled with journaling and prayer, notes, lists. The Hawaii emergency alert reminds me of my own fears and I might have written an essay about those specific fears but I’m bored of or over or far away from those fears. I know those fears very well. What I don’t know is what it’s like to find out you may die or breathe radiation this morning. I think we should all take time to be a lot afraid of terrible things but not live in that fear for very long, just long enough to be glad when you breathe where you are again.

One more note on the following. The first piece, “Do That Thing,” is about honeymooners. They have sex. They waited until they were married to have sex and now they are on their honeymoon and a ballistic missile is headed their way and, really, I think this is a nightmare scenario for any purity pledging young person even if they believe God is good. I actually really like this piece because it was tragic and funny and tragic to write but sex happens in the story and if that is uncomfortable to read, skip ahead to “Basketball Camp.”

MISSILE THREAT INBOUND

 

One Situation, Three Flash Fiction Pieces

I’ve been working on one school’s application for two weeks and I wish that was an exaggeration. The application is made up of tough questions I can’t answer in the space provided, questions that would meet a pause before answering in an interview. I understand the thoroughness of the process – the school is Christian in deed, not just name, and administrators want to know not only what kind of teacher I am but also how my faith works. And in between drafting and revising the application for this school, I’m writing cover letters to other places too.

This is not a post about job search stuff though. This is a post about how I missed writing fiction and joined a class for one of my favorite exercises from What If? which is to write five mini-stories of a single situation. 

Situation examples:
Mom walks into her daughter’s room
Two strangers next to each other on a plane
Someone takes something from someone else

I stole the last idea from a student (apropos) but only managed three mini-stories. Even so, what fun and challenge to step away from cover letter land.


Some Of Us Know
The sophomores were stealing again. Mr. Shannon already talked about it at the grade level assembly in October, then again in December. Don’t leave your bags around, he said, but the kids all left their bags in heaps outside the canteen or strewn like dots on the outside of the track. Security and maintenance staff had to show their backpacks, turn out their pockets at the end of a shift. Then the scholarship kids got called in one by one. A girl named Valentina laughed when Mr. Shannon asked if she knew who was stealing. You think it’s me, she said, Because I wear sandals from Bata?

It was too easy, Eduardo found. And fun, to slow his breathing and steady his pulse. The first time he stole on a dare. He took the slim phone to a booth in Unicentro, swapped the sim card and sold it for the cost of a good sushi dinner to a taxi driver. Now, in history class, Eduardo saw a rose gold line under a paperback on Catalina’s desk. He hadn’t stolen from a girl before. He had a small collection of black and silver devices at the back of his wardrobe that he almost wanted his maid to find, for the relief of contrition and repentance. Daniel and Santiago hadn’t stolen since right before winter break. Eduardo wasn’t sure anyone else was still in the game.

Catalina looked up then. Eduardo didn’t look away. She bent over her notebook, one hand cupped around what she wrote. Then she tore the page from its spiral and folded it over twice. Catalina held the note in her hand. Eduardo got up and walked over to her, took the note. His heart was wild. He sat at his desk again and unfolded the paper. Some of us know. Eduardo swallowed. He could feel Catalina waiting. He looked up but she was only bent over a book, her finger following the lines.

I Give You
For a week I do not put you in a bassinet or crib. I hold you against my breast, let you suck. I have no milk yet. I have only white pain at your strong suck. For a week I wait for my milk to come and you pull at the nipple, turn away, sleep, wake to pull again while I believe all the literature I read about colostrum nourishing you until my body decides the milk comes. I drink a beer. There is something about the malt. I remember a woman saying a beer relaxes the mother, reminds her body to let go. I hold you and wonder what I need to let go. Women carry emotion in their hips, I read.

My hips sink into the sofa. Paper dolls come with little skirts or shorts that fold over the abdomen, the upper thigh. That’s what hurts, the middle band of my body, like my hips opened all their doors and everything fell out. Your suck tightens my uterus. I know this is good. I read it was good.

I haven’t held a baby in years but now, you fit my arms. You snug against my belly. You flop over my shoulder. When you are nursing, I watch your jaw work. I touch the nape of your neck. This is the most delicate we are, together, and I have this surge that goes up my body that makes me say out loud, Be careful. I am so tired. For a week I have dozed and started, afraid to let go of you. But now I am tired and make a little nest for you on the floor next to the sofa and I stretch my legs out and close my eyes. We sleep for a long time.

When I wake, my breasts are engorged. I read this might happen. How the milk comes fast and fills the soft tissue to bursting. I sit up. I need you more now. I pick you up and hold you to my breast, help you latch because the nipple isn’t slipping easily into your mouth. I watch your jaw work. My breast is like a firework, warm sparks of milk letting down and you choke, pull away. My breasts are leaking and I help you again. You find a steady suck and I think of the empty cradle of my hips, the better weight of you in my arms, and I wonder what we will hold together as we make our way.

What I Can Do
Tasha’s daughter came down the stairs one morning with her hair combed in a slant across her face. Tasha said, “Lizzi, I can’t see your eyes,” and reached a hand to brush aside the curtain but Lizzi ducked away, went to the cupboard for a bowl. “You look mysterious,” Tasha said but Lizzi only hunched over her cereal. When the style lasted a few days, Tasha suggested they go to the Cut ‘n Curl next weekend, have the fringe done like that actress that’s everywhere, what’s her name. Lizzi didn’t answer. “Would you like that?” Tasha asked. Lizzi said she guessed so. A year ago, Lizzi dyed a pink streak in her hair. She’d worn a red cape to school most of spring semester. Now in seventh grade, Lizzi didn’t know if she wanted her hair cut.

That Saturday, Lizzi sat in a salon chair while Tasha watched her daughter from a fake leather couch, flipping through a magazine. The stylist was a woman in her early twenties who asked questions about school and favorite bands. Lizzi was quiet. The stylist got quiet too. She took her time, pulling lengths of hair to check evenness and snip strays before blow drying the cut, showing Lizzi how to work a bit of gel through her hair for texture. “There,” the stylist said, “You look great. This cut suits you.” Lizzi looked at her reflection and smiled. Tasha wanted to hold her daughter, kiss her forehead. They bought a bottle of gel and a round brush. Tasha hugged the stylist.

On the sidewalk, Tasha reached for Lizzi’s hand and for a couple of blocks, it felt like nothing invisible had shifted, like Tasha had only imagined the tremor. Tasha suggested a pastry or hot chocolate. A trio of girls was walking toward them. Lizzi’s grip tightened. All three girls smiled. “Hi Lizzi.” “Hi Lizzi.” “Hi Lizzi.” Lizzi ducked her head. “You must be Lizzi’s mom,” said one of the girls.

“I am,” Tasha said.

“Lizzi is in my social studies class with Ms. Bryant,” said the girl.

“Lizzi, your hair looks gorgeous,” said the second girl.

“Did you go to Candace?” asked the third girl.

Lizzi didn’t say anything. The girls blocked the sidewalk. They looked from Lizzi to Tasha with wide eyes and lip gloss smiles. Tasha understood then. There had been a tremor in her daughter. Tiny fractures in rock that could shift and open a wound at the surface.

“Excuse us, girls,” Tasha said and the three made way for her and Lizzi to walk on. Tasha could hear the trio behind them now. “Excuse us, girls.” “Excuse us, girls.” “Excuse us, girls.” Tasha held Lizzi’s hand all the way to the bakery, ordered two mugs of hot chocolate and two almond croissants and found the table near the bookshelf where they always sat. “Lizzi,” Tasha said.

“Don’t, Mom.”

“Lizzi, those girls might never be nice to you.”

“I know, Mom. I don’t care.”

Tasha didn’t say anything for a moment. She cared. Those tiny fractures in rock might not open a gaping ravine at the surface. Those tiny fractures might instead compound where no one sees, turn rock to gravel, cause a landslide. Tasha took a sip of hot chocolate. She watched Lizzi bite into the croissant. “Tell me what I can do, love,” Tasha said. Lizzi looked up, powdered sugar on her lip. “This is nice, Mom.” Tasha had another sip of hot chocolate. “This is nice,” she said.

A 50 Minute Paragraph

About a year and a half ago I drafted a story in three parts about a town somewhere out west. The story came to mind as I read my way through Psalms.

From Psalm 135

15 The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
    the work of human hands.
16 They have mouths, but do not speak;
    they have eyes, but do not see;
17 they have ears, but do not hear,
    nor is there any breath in their mouths.
18 Those who make them become like them,
    so do all who trust in them!

The passage startled me. It’s vivid and frightening. I thought what it might look like if a group of people went mute, deaf, bowed before silver and gold idols. If they became as those chunks of metal, without breath. I wrote the draft quickly. About a year later I workshopped the story with some friends, all of whom wanted the piece to be expanded.

I agreed. And tucked their notes away. I took the notes with me to Budapest this past summer. I flipped through the pages, thinking how to revise. But I didn’t write. I didn’t make any new notes.

I’ve had this story in my head since I first drafted it. I can see the landscape. The faces of the Edges. I want to get it right and I know any revision risks getting it only almost right. (Like the butterfly Ann Patchett talks about in “The Getaway Car,” the beautiful vision we’ve got for a piece that we pin down on the page at the cost of smudging its wing). Even so, today I sat at the dining table with the notes out again, opened my notebook, and started writing more. One paragraph more. The first wedge of expansion.

The one paragraph felt good to write. Lately I’ve opened my notebook to journal or pray or think in loops but this afternoon it felt good to return to fiction and better to start a revision I’ve put off. At the end, I had a page of writing, most of it with lines drawn through, a single paragraph hidden in the sticks, a single paragraph that opens the way for more paragraphs to tell the better story.


The discovery of gold in surrounding fields.

The gold rush was already five years on. In forty-nine and fifty, a few townsmen cut south to join wagon trains west, sending occasional letters home reporting rain and sun but no news of gold. Most of the men and women in town didn’t have an appetite for gambling on a stream bed. Their great risk taken a few generations before, the very risk that planted them at a yawning canyon, was tempered by a sense of practicality, also traced back a few generations, that supposed the land at the canyon was enough and there was no need to find clearer air than this, or a deeper river or darker soil. Most of the town agreed the sun turning the canyon to gold in late afternoon was rich enough. Before forty-nine, settlers continued to find their way to Canyon Ledge by way of misreading maps, following the wrong river or falling out with wagon masters. Those settlers arrived surprised by the tidy grid of a town, the surveyed acreage. There was no need to push on after a night’s rest. But Californian gold calibrated hearts due west so the town received no more stragglers, no more accidental settlers, so that when Marshall Severson turned up yellow metal with his plow, the only men and women in town were those who could’ve gone on quite happily without the  gold or the ribbons, shoes, pianos, bridles, window panes and pigs it might buy.

Flow & Revision Work (!)

This year I thought a lot about flow. I really wanted to flow. I was annoyed how easily distracted I am. Especially when I sabotage myself. More BBC? More TV? More recipe feeds? All the while thinking my writing never goes anywhere. So this afternoon I had this clear moment. There’s a story I need to revise and I’ve been thinking about it all week because I care about how it’s told. And this afternoon I got out comments from a few friends who read the piece and started drafting expansion in my notebook and then moved over to my desk to open the file and actually make my writing go somewhere.

All the before thinking helps. I mull pieces. So I’ve had this piece in my head off and on for over a year since I drafted it. I’m not done, but I spent two hours standing, typing and thinking at my desk. Claire was on her bed reading Boxcar Children. Grant pushed his giant green dump truck back and forth. Justin was in the hall sawing and hammering. Then all three of them decided to move the keyboard from one end of the apartment to the other and Claire started a dance party. This is the space I have and I kept at it, cutting and expanding, all the way to the last scene which needs more help and focus than I’ve got in me now. But what happened was I looked at the clock and realized I’d been at my desk for two hours. My jaw dropped. I didn’t think that happened, the jaw dropping. But now I know (again) I can flow with Claire playing boogie woogie and Grant making truck / plane / train noises and Justin taking a passing kiss.

Here’s a sample of my revision work. The original first:

Dawn ran north, each step sparkle of pain on the top of her foot. She turned on a narrow crowned road and ran toward the county line marked by a small green sign. There was a corner she called hers. She’d found it on one of her first long runs, when she’d been out of breath and stopped to stretch. She’d looked up and seen that no one was around. No long gravel drive to a hidden house, no field entrance. She’d hear or see a car in time to resume running or duck into the windbreak. Once or twice a month, on a weekend run, she came here to think. For ten minutes or twenty, she’d look up at the sky or cut through the windbreak to stare at the field or squat to examine tiny rocks tarred to the road.

It was almost noon when Dawn made it to the corner. She cut into the windbreak to relieve herself, pulled her running tights up as a car passed. She watched from the windbreak as the vehicle dipped and surfaced on the retreating hills. Her foot was broken. She was sure of it. She flexed the toes, toward and away from her shin. Knowing what would happen – a splinter of white – she jumped on the injured foot. A gray knot in her stomach now and the orange fringe at her shoulder. She was five or so miles from home. She had limped most of the last mile here.

Maybe a rest, she thought, stupidly. A rest wasn’t going to heal the invisible fracture on the second metatarsal. She run through pain before. Splintering shins, a rite of her first marathon training. Deep hip pain that came and went. Tight calves. A tight piriformis that tugged her gait to one side. Sparklers under her kneecaps. A knot just under her left shoulder blade. Singing hip flexors. Tendonitis in her ankle. And now her foot. Dawn hopped on the injured foot one more time, to be sure.

And the revised:

Dawn ran north, each step a sparkle of pain on the top of her foot. She turned on a narrow crowned road and ran toward the county line marked by a small green sign. Up ahead, at the top of a slope was a corner she called hers. The t of Northpoint and Portage. She’d found it on one of her first long runs, when she’d been out of breath and stopped to stretch. She’d looked up to see that no one was around. On one side of Northpoint a long windbreak of scrub pines protected a corn field. On the other side, maples and oaks. No long gravel drive to a hidden house, no field entrance. She could hear or see a car in time to resume running or duck into the windbreak. Once or twice a month, on a weekend run, she came here to think. For ten minutes or twenty, she’d look up at the sky or stare at the field or squat to examine tiny rocks tarred to the road. During the fall, she ran there to see the maples turn yellow and red, the oaks turn orange. All winter, brittle rust oak leaves held onto their twigs while the maples reached knuckled fingers to the white sky. Now it was spring and Dawn watched the ditches for new grass.

It was almost noon when Dawn made it to the corner. She cut into the windbreak to relieve herself, pulled her running tights up as a car passed. She watched from the windbreak as the vehicle dipped and surfaced on the retreating hills. Her foot was broken. She was sure of it. She flexed the toes, toward and away from her shin. Knowing what would happen – a splinter of white – she jumped on the injured foot. She was five or so miles from home and she’d limped most of the last mile here. Once more she jumped on the injured foot and let out a cry. The fringe drifted a little over her shoulder and she swatted at it. She took off her shoe and pressed her thumb the length of each metatarsal.

Maybe a rest, she thought, stupidly. A rest wasn’t going to heal the invisible fracture on the second metatarsal. She ran through pain. Splintering shins, a rite of her first marathon training. Deep hip pain that came and went. Tight calves. A tight piriformis that tugged her gait to one side. Sparklers under her kneecaps. A knot just below her left shoulder blade. Singing hip flexors. Tendonitis in her ankle. And now her foot. She put her shoe back on but didn’t pull the laces tight.

Now wasn’t that a fun two hours!

Knee Deep In Narrative

Timing is everything. At school we’ve left poetry for fiction. Today I introduced one of my favorite flash fiction prompts (more below). And at home I’m taking an online creative nonfiction workshop through Stanford Continuing Studies. This week I’m working on a personal essay for workshop, but the flash fiction prompt is too tempting to skip, one I return to each semester and still love.

The prompt from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter:

Write five mini-stories (limit: 200 words each) to account for a single event or circumstance, such as a man and woman standing on a city sidewalk, hailing a cab. Each story should be different – in characters, plot, and theme – from the others.

So this time I’ve asked my students to use this exercise to explore narrative choices: first/ second/ third person; limited or omniscient narrator; past or present tense. Since we have five (super short, nonthreatening) stories to write, we can play with the choices we make as authors. Play along at home!

If you’re looking for a situation or circumstance to get you started, here are some we came up with in class today:

A father and son at a football match

A young woman steps onstage

Two friends at lunch

The power goes out

The phone rings but no one answers it

I like the idea of this prompt generating a finished piece, either as a longer story born of an itty bitty draft; or as a series whose parts stand alone but, when purposefully ordered, create a stronger whole.