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.

Thirty-Nine Stories

Today I am thirty-eight years old. When I think about my age, I take inventory against whatever my mother was doing at my age. There is no way to say if she was better than me at her age thirty-eight, or if I am inching ahead at my age thirty-eight, but for the marvel of comparison I can’t help but tick through the list. She celebrated the first birthday of her fourth child while her first child started university. She paid a mortgage, drove a minivan, and meal planned. My daughter just turned ten, my son eight, and university enrollment is still far enough away that I sometimes wonder if the world will end before the kids get a chance to be adults – even though statistically (where are those statistics!) now is supposed to be a safer, less violent, better time to be alive than any of our previous centuries. I am living in an apartment I didn’t choose, and I ride a bike or take the subway. I never meal plan.

Maybe I will turn this little paragraph into an essay. Maybe I’ll ask my sister Joanna if she does the same thing. Or my brother Nate, if he thinks of Dad as he adds a year. Maybe Mom thinks of her mother. Mom and I are both firstborns. We made our mothers. Or maybe on my birthday, Mom remembers who she was when she was thirty-eight, chalks up a similar list. Yes, maybe this will become an essay. One of thirty-nine stories I will write to celebrate this, my thirty-ninth year.

Before I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to work in an office or be a teacher. Both of these jobs seemed like play. One year I received a desk organizer for my birthday and I kept the little compartments stocked with paper clips, pens, post-its, and smiley face stickers. I took a highlighter and pen to the JC Penney catalog, circling and crossing out items, taking calls from imaginary customers and enjoying how official I sounded when I repeated item numbers, sizes, colors. Dad would hand over a thick stack of those postcards you get in magazines, all advertising something computer related, and I filled our fictitious names and addresses. This was office. School was an old teacher’s edition of a grade two or three language arts text, its gloss pages bound by a thick white metal spiral. I gave spelling tests. I asked the comprehension questions. I flipped through the pages efficiently. I used a teacher voice that could border on insincere patience. But then I wanted to be a writer.

There is no way to play at being a writer. If you want to be a writer you cannot pretend to write. You must write. What you can pretend – what I have often pretended – is that you have a readership, that a book deal is nigh, that what you write won’t disappear in thirty years. Thirty-Nine Stories is not about pretend. Thirty-Nine Stories is about me being a writer, for real.

During my thirty-eighth year I cornered Justin in the bedroom one night. This does not go anywhere fun. I put my hands on his shoulders and said, Look at me. Still not going anywhere fun, even though that evening I’d had two glasses of wine. Justin looked at me and I said, I missed an MFA. I am going to write like I’m getting an MFA. He said, Okay.

Well, here is the fun part. Parameters! Thirty-nine stories completed in one year. Stories: narrative fiction or nonfiction. I can revive old ideas, return to incomplete drafts, but I must also write totally new work. The quality of pieces will vary. I will revise what I want to revise. By the end of the year, I want fifteen strong pieces. Pieces: may vary in length: ten (or fewer) pieces of 500 – 1000 words; at least ten pieces of 5000 – 10,000 words; at least three pieces of 10,000+ words. And for the readership (you) I will post excerpts/ full drafts of each finished story, though process posts may be more interesting because even I want to know how I plan to write thirty-nine stories in one year.

Places I Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Water From The Air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

CRAFT Essay: Kleines Cafe, Vienna

Read the first draft of the piece here and the finished essay here


I wrote the first draft of this essay in Kleines Cafe, on a three day trip to Vienna from Budapest. When I returned to Budapest I set my laptop on a dresser in the front bedroom of our apartment there and typed from the notebook, posted with a quick look for minor errors. I always miss something.

(One time when I was six or seven years old I drew a woman wearing a dress made of ruffles, a dress so long that I used two sheets of paper. I put the drawing on the fridge and a day or two later noticed that under her puffy sleeves, I’d forgotten her arms).

That summer we were in Budapest, preparing for our last year in Kuwait. We understood the school year ahead would be made of decisions that shaped our individual and family life. I was thinking about my history of passive decision making and how I now wanted certainty as we chose a new country. What I didn’t want was to just land somewhere. What I really wanted was to have a place in mind and go there. At that point I could not guess where I might be when I was writing notes in December 2017 of my new dayplanner. The thought was promise. The thought was fear.

I returned to the essay – thinking of the first thoughts as potential essay – last autumn when I reread the piece and found more to explore, particularly the faith element. I also asked an editor to read through the first draft, to help with verb tense and structure. A couple of years ago, I decided to practice expansion as revision. Paring down is great. Knowing when to open is also great and my editor helped me see what a reader might want answered.

I grew the essay from its first typed draft by writing around ideas (identity and faith) I wanted to expand. While I am less afraid to write about what I believe, I am more wary of getting something really wrong and misleading readers by not fully examining my faith – even the tricky bits  which necessitate faith. Always I find starting in my notebook best. I see my thoughts in my hand. I use the pages to pace. I jump around and repeat, cross out. During this process I questioned why I write about anything personal. There are two impulses when I write from my mind heart body spirit: tell all like I’m naked, or shut up. What I wanted from this revision is a piece that looks at my past to understand the present of that summer, to better explain why I wanted to make a good decision – perhaps less for the country we’d move to, and more for the process of trusting God to lead as I listen.

 

I Sustained Creative Momentum

And survived! This was a great month for me. I filled a notebook and drafted a little over seventeen thousand words. I bush burned. I practiced fiction on a tilt. I wrote about my faith. Really, I just kept going,

I started the month with four rules. (You can go through the month of May to find I ticked each).

  1. Have fun most of the time
  2. Experiment: structure, tense, POV, syntax & usage
  3. Reuse ideas but don’t pick at old drafts
  4. Daydream draft

And I supposed I’d add a fifth rule before the month was up because I prefer odd numbers. (If we have third child, you will know why).

I have been certain of and wobbly about my writing for years. Once or twice a year I make a plan to write a lot and submit work for publication and write amazing pieces about interesting things and then I open my notebook. And then I open my laptop. I do the writing. That was the fun of this month. Sustain creative momentum! Don’t overthink! Generate! Make!

I did find a fifth rule: Figure out what comes next. I ended the month with another conversation with David Lee. We were talking about what comes next. How do you share your work? I write for the pleasure of writing, for the fun of storytelling, to understand or explore. But I am impatient for readers. Unless an editor or agent reads what I have here, and asks for finished work, or unless I spend an hour or two each evening submitting files to literary magazines with the hope my pieces land in print – I won’t make it as a traditionally published writer. For all the certain and wobbly years I’ve picked at publishing, making lists of online and print magazines journals collections that might choose my work, I have published very very little outside this space.

A few years ago I counted my finished work and found a book length multigenre collection. This was an amazing and awful realization. I have finished work no one is reading. Anything I submit for publication likely receives a cursory glance before the form email comes back. But I rarely submit anything. Perhaps because I wrongly (or realistically) lack trust in the traditional publishing process: I have no connections to that world, no boast-worthy MFA, and no wild voice or experience that might find my name on a book cover.

I began Piecemeal to share my practice and chart process. Part of writing is finishing a piece. What I am going to do now is share more finished work here. For years I’ve kept the majority of my finished work in files you don’t read because most literary journals will not publish previously published work. This month I thought how sad that I am always writing about process while keeping a chunk of that process tucked away on the slim hope I hear back from a literary journal. Who reads literary journals?* My writing is not that precious. Read it.

The creative space is saturated by incredible talent and early practice. I think that’s great.** We have an inherent desire to build design write paint sew sing make play. I write because there is joy in creating. There joy in the difficult work of revision. There joy in finding the right way to say what I want to say. And now I share because this ability to make a paragraph or find a line of poetry or shape a story from an image is a gift. You do not have to read what I write, but it will be here if you want to.

So here I start before I’m ready. You can find finished work posted on the Culled page. I will rotate the pieces I share and post a craft essay on each.

 

 


*I write this question totally aware that blogs are not really a thing anymore. And yet, I persist.
**I think being creative is great. I occasionally rant about the attention given to terrible writing (you can sell garbage pile sentences about vampires and sex) but I doubt I’ll top this take on the glut.

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 That Does Some Things That Other People Don’t Do, Continued

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(672 words added/ story is 1112 words total)