Mike Tends His Vines

Beads of sweat collected at the ends of Mike’s shaggy hair as humid breath escaped in quick gasps from his red face. Although the day was young -after all, it was only 9 in the morning -the sun was beating down with a hot 89 degrees.

The vines on the fence behind Mike’s house had grown exponentially over the past month. After an abnormally long winter, the green parasites had celebrated the final arrival of spring with an explosion of conquest -entwining themselves all throughout the chain-link fence, on the tree, and even inside the shrubs that had resided docilely for the entire past year. Finally, the strangling encroachment had begun to bother even Mike, the sole occupant of the house, who normally took little notice or interest to the outside appearance of his property.

Chop.Clack.Snip.Chop. Slowly but surely, Mike’s clippers severed one tendril after another, leaving the once vivaciously rampant vines as a mass of severed stalks poking up from the dark rich soil. Behind him, the yard displayed a massive pile of leaves, thorns, and other signs of his conquest as a suburban agronomist.

Wiping sweaty palms on a stained and over-sized shirt, Mike looked on his handiwork with relish -he felt alive, the heat of the day and manual labor exciting his ‘manly’ instincts. This was a good day – “I could do this every day”, he thought to himself. Fantasies of maintaining the best lawn on his street quickly arose like epic stories before his imagination. With his newly found energy and inspiration, Mike began collecting the carnage caused by his work – vigorously raking and bagging the large quantities of green growth so recently cut in pieces.

After all the collecting was done, he began the laborious process of hauling every one of his black 30 gallon trash bags to the street. When the last bag of clippings sagged onto the curb, Mike sank down next to it. His already shaggy hair was now a solid wet mop, and his shirt and pants were three shades darker than whenever he had started. He was hot and uncomfortable -and even his earlier optimism and romanticism of ‘manliness’ could do little to counteract the headache that was coming on. Too much time had passed since he had walked the paths of his homeland: the air conditioned room and Doritos covered sofa called his name with the sweet siren song of careless ease. With a groan he stiffly arose off the curb and began trudging back around the house.

As he passed around his house on the way to the back door, the tiny stalks poking up from the ground along the fence caught his tired eye -they were the last roots of his adversary. Plucking these up would render him the final victor -the entangling and choking vines never to grow and thrive again in his lawn. For a long pause there was only the pounding of his head, the stickiness of his dirty and wet clothes, and the aches in his hands – “Ah, well,” he thought, “there is always tomorrow”, and he almost turned to walk into the dark cold door of his house. However, a nagging in his mind caused him to draw up short, he just felt wrong for not seeing what he had set out to do to completion -or as his favorite TV show character Ron Swanson had so eloquently quipped: “Never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing”. In spite of the complaints of his sore body, Mike resolved to refresh himself with water and attack the rooted mess after a trip to the hardware store for more effective weapons.

The End.

George & The Werewolf, Pt. 2

Previously on George & The Werewolf

Cold perspiration beaded on George’s brow as he squinted out into the inky night. The moon appeared briefly from behind a smoky cloud, casting a cold sterile light on the rock formations all around him, and then blinked out like a snuffed candle. He listened intently, but the cool whistle of wind between the rocks and his own racing heartbeat were the only sounds that greeted his straining ears. After squatting in silence for what seemed like an eternity at the edge of the crevice, he quietly crept back to the embers of his fire. Pulling a warm blanket around his shoulders, and wiping the sweat from his clammy hands, he set his back against the darkest wall, and resolved to keep watch until morning when it would be safe to move again. As he sat in the gloom, hour after hour creeping by, his mind turned to the horrible sound that had awakened him earlier—and it filled him with a cold dread.

George was not actually his given name. Being a stray from rural Germany, nobody actually knew what his parents had called him, or where they were. He had some memories of life before Mr. Acton, a wealthy merchant from Hessle, had taken him under his wing: brief glimpses of playful romps in the great green forests around his parents’ home, and times spent with nameless childhood friends. He also remembered the day that father had come home worried, and his parents’ hurried discussion was quickly followed by the family retreating from their secluded home to the town church some many miles away. Most of the small town had gathered that night, and he remembered not so much the faces—but the sounds: children whimpering, women pleading, and men both angry and fearful. But then there was THE sound, that terrible howl not quite human or animal, so unnatural it would make the blood of the stoutest human turn to ice. They had called it a ‘werwolf.’ Not many people believed in werewolves, George had found out. Mr. Acton had scoffed at George’s accounts of his childhood terror, and his classmates in school had written it off as attention seeking. Still, even as an adult, he could not escape the memories, and they haunted his steps—especially at night.

As the sky began to change from shades of navy blue to aqua, George stirred slightly beneath his blanket. He hurt all over, back and legs stiffly cramped from a long night without sleep. When he tried to set down his revolver, he realized that his hand had fixed itself around the grip, and only with slow painful motions could he gingerly pry each finger open. He stirred up the fire and put a small can of water on to boil. As he slowly cooked his meal, his mind turned back to the howl he had heard the previous night—it seemed so long ago, like a dream. “Maybe it was just a timber wolf? You let your childhood traumas color everything,” his exhausted mind thought. Staggering to his feet, he was resolved to finish out his contract this day for Mr. Acton, for according to the map he had received before crossing the Atlantic, his destination was very close.

The sun had risen slightly over the peaks of the mountains by the time George finished his breakfast and reloaded all of his gear in his backpack. Stepping out from the crevice, he felt the warmth of yellow light spill over him, and his spirits immediately lifted. Walking briskly, he continued up a narrow rock-fall that cascaded over the side of the cliff-face. Nearing the top, he found a small pool of clear water fed by a spring, and bending down he began to refill his canteen. As he rose and prepared to go—some tracks in the mud caught his eye: they were the tracks of a man, and next to them the tracks of what appeared to be a large wolf.

 

To be continued by Arrietty…

Window Corner, Window Seat

Window seats have always charmed me.  Perhaps I’m a bit of a romantic, but I’ve always thought a window seat would be the perfect place to read.  Not possessing one of my own, many years ago I invented a solution:  I began sitting on the floor beside my bedroom window.

With my back resting against an iron bed frame, my left shoulder shoved against a bit of wall where the bed and wall form a corner, and my left elbow on the windowsill, my “window seat” is not the most comfortable place to sit.  As I read, I shift into three or four different positions as various parts of me begin to ache or fall asleep.  Occasionally, I soften my seat with pillows or set my desk chair in the window corner, but I usually prefer the bare floor.

Butterfly on zinnia
Photograph by Arrietty

In spite of all the uncomfortableness, the spot is worth sitting in.  The window faces the east, and my spot is flooded with light throughout the day, making it one of the best-lit areas in my house.  I also enjoy the view.  When I glance out the window, I see flowers, grass, the vegetable garden, and trees.  The spot is peaceful and removed from household bustle, and I often sit with the bedroom light off, enjoying the copious sunlight.  Most often, I plop down by the window to read, but sometimes I bring a notebook and pencil instead, ready to record my observations of the world outside. Hummingbirds sip from flowers and then zip by in a blur of green iridescent feathers, squirrels play in the grass, and lizards hunt on the outside windowsill.  I have written several poems about the garden, animals, and rain outside while curled up in the window corner.

Admittedly, the view out the window can distract me from my reading, but that’s not always bad, and I tend to be easily distracted wherever I am.  Once when I gazed out the window, neglected book in hand, I spotted a snake gliding nonchalantly through the flower bed a few feet away.  I had seen this view so many times before that the blue racer looked alien in the familiar scene, and yet it seemed naïvely unaware of how it didn’t belong.

On another occasion, I was looking out at the flower garden and penning a poem about it when I saw a turtle trundling in the grass nearby.  I decided to include the turtle in my poem; it reminded me of how often the world contains surprises which I only catch when my head is up.

Carolina wrens
Top: Carolina wren photo from Wikipedia; Bottom: My sketch of a wren, based on a watercolor illustration in “Bird Songs” by Les Beletsky

Just this past Sunday afternoon, a flutter at the window caught my eye.  Looking up from my book, I saw a little Carolina wren had alighted on the outside brick windowsill, inches from my face.  It hopped back and forth across the sill, chirping cheerily.  I stayed very still and followed its little brown figure with my eyes, trying to note every detail before it flew away.  Then the wren hopped onto the window screen.  Its little claws clinging to the screen, it began progressing vertically up my window.  Finally, with a quick flutter of wings, it flew off to the vegetable garden and was gone.

Often when we set out to do something, we don’t delve into the “why’s” of what we do.  I doubt that when I designated my window corner as a new reading spot I was thinking about logical reasons why I was making my decision.  I made no pro and con chart.  Probably my brief explanation would have been “because it’s well-lit, and it’s kind of like a window seat.”  Only after years of enjoying the spot have I come to realize the many reasons why I like and continue to use the window corner.  My “window seat” is a special place where I can read books, write poems, or sit and observe the beauty of God’s creation that blooms, slithers, trundles, hops, and flutters in the world just outside my window.

Never! (Till I Feel Like It) (Part 2)

Chapter 2: The Middle

The day after Odyssey’s threat, the king waddled out into the garden for a noontime stroll. He sighed, removed his bulky crown, rubbed his bald head, and stared at the ground. Gradually, he became aware of strange, small shadows flitting across his path. He glanced up and saw an army of crows circling high above. He shuddered. He had once dreamed that a legion of birds had pounced on him and pecked at his ears.

Suddenly, the crows, with a mighty caw, dived down, straight at him, just like in his dream.

“AAAAUUUGGGHHHH!” the King screamed as the crows tore at his ermine cloak and pecked at the blood-red rubies adorning his waistcoat. “AAAAAUUUUUGGGGGHHHHHHH!” He flapped his arms wildly. He fled from the garden and through the palace halls, still pursued by the birds. Servants and courtiers scampered out of the way.

Finally, just as the crows succeeded in stealing his sapphire seal ring, help arrived. “I SHALL DELIVER YOU, MY SOVEREIGN!” cried the Head War Leader, brandishing his sword. Waving the weapon about, he nearly lopped off the King’s head and managed chopped a marble effigy of Jack the Giant Killer right in half. The crows retreated, comparing booty and cawing disappointedly to each other how “The good times never last.”

The King and Head War Leader, breathing heavily, watched their enemies depart. “That…puff…that…pant…Queen…huff…sent them!”

The Prime Minister cautiously approached. “Um…very-disturbing…um…are-you-all-right-your-majesty?”

The King had only time to gasp, “Yes,” before each of them started. Odyssey had appeared round the corner. She looked upon them almost pityingly before demanding:

“Art thou prepared to accept my mistress’s suit?”

“No…puff…thank…huff,” said the King.

“I…um…no-we-are-not.”

“NEVER GIVE IN!”

“Very well,” said Odyssey. “Thou shalt assuredly be visited again.” She disappeared to whence she came.

The next morning the King awoke with dread clutching his heart, caused by the screams filling his ears. He quickly slid out of bed and…

Crunch (splat).

The carpeted floor was swarming with cockroaches.

The King joined his voice to the chorus of yelps echoing through the Castle.   He had developed a fear of cockroaches ever since they had infested his bathroom. They had popped out of drains, scuttled under floorboards, and lurked in drawers, nearly driving him insane with paranoia. But he was king. He must be brave. He began making his way precariously from chest, to table, to chair, to desk, to couch, to stool, to wardrobe where he drew on a pair of silken slippers. Then, chomping his lip at every crunch (splat), he courageously investigated his home. There were cockroaches everywhere. The Prime Minister was cowering under the covers, eyes wide and teeth chattering. The Head War Leader was frantically trying to hack the tiny, nimble insects to bits with his huge, clumsy blade and making no headway.

All through that horrible day, most people, including the cook, refused to budge from their beds. Those who stirred discovered that cockroaches had completely swamped the gatehouse. The drawbridge couldn’t be lowered. Everyone was stuck in the castle, where the everlasting rustle of cockroach limbs played havoc with their nerves.

Finally, at ten o’clock that night, the Prime Minister, carried in a sedan chair, entered the throne room. The King was attempting to hold court and failing miserably.

“I…um…your-majesty…I…um…I-have-found-a…um…woman…um…who-says-she-can…um…banish-the…um…cockroaches.”

A fabulously shrunken hag hobbled in, clutching a bulging sack in one claw and a twisted cane in the other. “We have a cockroach problem,” she observed.

“Yes, Madame,” the King replied.

“Well, I can do away with them, for a price,” she offered.

“What will you charge?” the King asked.

“Twenty-thousand crowns,” the crone stated matter-of-factly.

That was an insane price. But no one gulped when the King declared: “Agreed.”

The unsightly woman drew a plain brown rock from her bag and placed it in the center of the Throne Room. She retreated ten feet and began slowly circling the stone, all the time drawing strange patterns in the air with her finger. She chanted:

Áyla ńyla éya súil.

Cóka Róka súil a rún.

Éka brán. Éka brán.

Fuiylááááááááá!!!!!

The old woman threw her arms in the air, pulled her hair, and jumped up and down. With each thump the cockroaches scampered further away. At last they disappeared altogether. Joy flooded the castle. The King, Prime Minister, and Head War Leader began laughing in relief…until they saw Odyssey enter the Hall. “Art thou prepared to accept my mistress’s suit?” she demanded.

“No,” said the King.

“Ahem…um…not-now…um…”

“NEVER!”

“Very well,” said Odyssey. “Thou shalt assuredly be visited again.” Then she turned to the hag. “And thou shalt assuredly be punished for thy treachery to our common mistress. Thou shalt never live to see the full moon.” With that, Odyssey turned away and returned to whence she came.

The next evening, the King and his court sat at table. “When is the food arriving?” asked the King, his stomach growling.

“I beg pardon, you majesty,” entreated a nearby servant, “but the Head Cook fell asleep in the blackbird pie and we were unable to wake her. We had to call for the Assistant Head Cook who likewise fell asleep in the mutton stew and we were unable to wake her. We had to call for the Under Head Cook who likewise fell asleep in the roasted peacock and we were unable to wake…”

“CUT TO THE CHASE, LAD,” called the Head War Leader, “WE’RE STARVED!”

“The kitchen staff has been cut by more than half because they have all fallen asleep. Thus dinner preparation is behind schedule.”

“Asleep?” queried the King, nervously. “What do you mean?” It sounded unsavorily like the fable of his great-great-great grandmother, Aurora Rosebud-of-the-Briar. His mother had told him the tale, which he had never liked—all that pricking your finger and dying and falling irresistibly asleep. Then his mother had maintained that the only moral of the story was that you must always double-check your guest list and never skimp on price.

The lad intoned: “Asleep. Adjective. Thirteenth century. Being in a state of sleep. Dead. Lacking sensation: numb. Inactive, dormant. Not alert: indifferent.”

The king huffed. “Go and see what they are doing now, boy,” he ordered.

Shortly the servant returned, pale-faced, trembling, and panicking. “They are all of them asleep! Everyone! And they will not be waked!” He tripped on the Marquis of Carabas’ train, and landed sprawling on the feet of the King. The boy did not rise, and immediate investigation revealed that he was…asleep.

There was a general stampede for the drawbridge. They all ran for it, servants first, courtiers next, and King, Prime Minister, and Head War Leader last. But the first souls that set foot upon the drawbridge immediately fell upon the ground, overcome by weariness. The rest dared not approach the portal.

“Woe! Oh woe is us!” sighed the helpless multitude.

From then on, people began dropping off right and left. “Oh please, please accept that Queen!” pleaded one elderly dowager duchess, as she sank to the floor. The next thing out of her mouth was a snore.

“The-poor-boy!” The Prime Minister was in the Throne Room, sobbing over his softly breathing son. “Ahem….um….bewitched…um…by-a…um…witch.”

“MAN UP, MAN!” ordered the Head War-leader, “HE WAS BRAVE TO THE LAST!”

“How many are left?” asked the King.

“Ahem…um…counting-us…um…three,” said the Prime Minister.

The Head War-leader yawned, then started. “NO! YOU SHALL NOT HAVE ME, FOUL FIEND! SHOW YOURSELF!” He too toppled over.

“Actually, ‘tis much more to the enjoyment to torment people from a long ways off,” observed Odyssey, entering the Hall. “Art thou prepared to accept my mistress’s suit?”

“No,” the King staunchly declared.

“I…um…I-think-perhaps-it-would-be-best-if…um…you-acce…” The Prime Minister fell over the body of his son.

“Well?” demanded Odyssey.

“Well, um, no…”

“Thou art next,” she warned, “and the last.”

“I…um.” The King froze in terror. His eyes were becoming heavy. His mouth was a gaping cavern. But just as his limbs began to fail him, he summoned all his remaining strength and shouted: “YES!”

“Say: ‘I am willing to accept thy mistress’s proposal,” Odyssey said.

“Yes! Yes! I am willing to accept thy mistress’s proposal!” cried the King.

Odyssey knelt and rolled the Prime Minister’s body off his son’s. She planted one quick kiss on the Prime Minister’s son’s lips.   Straightway the spell was lifted and the King felt new life run in his veins.

An Evening Writing Project…

Last Autumn I set a goal to try and improve my ability to write by setting aside some time to write every night, and although I am not currently following this routine, here is a short story I wrote one of the nights last fall. I wrote it using a “stream of consciousness” approach where I jumped in with just a basic idea (proud blacksmith) and tried to write the whole thing in one go. I hope you enjoy, and feel free to drop any comments or critiques below.

Clang. Tang. Bang. The hammer blows fell in measured time. A shower of sparks exploded with each impact of the hammer’s cold face on the red hot iron. As each blow fell, the muscles of the blacksmith’s arm could be seen to ripple with energy beneath his soot weathered skin. His hair was black, and he wore a thick beard that nearly hid his mouth from view. Bushy eyebrows overshadowed eyes which shown like coals. Called Jakall, he was the great smith of Amverdale, known for creating the arms and armor of such heroes as Merasmus, Ophis, and Bilthar: men who were known for great skill with sword and spear.

It so happened that on this particular day in early spring, before the heroes went out for the summer campaigns, that a certain stranger came to Amverdale. He wore a rough tunic that had once been white, but was now soiled by the dirt and grime of the road. His only possessions were a haggard looking horse, meager rations of food, and a sword at his side.  He approached Jakall, and Jakall, assuming the stranger to be a penniless knight of little worth said:

“Ye may as well pass on stranger, for you’ll find no labor here that can be hired without any coin.”

“Well,” replied the stranger in a dry and raspy voice, “I have no money to pay at the moment, but in some short time I should be in a situation to repay you ten times over.”

“I don’t do work on credit for men of no reputation,” Jakall said, spitting into the fire as he turned away from the stranger.

During all of this interchange the stranger had been bringing out a parcel wrapped in heavy cloth, and begun to unfold it upon Jakall’s bench. After he was done, he drew the hilt of his sword from its sheath and set it on the bench top, saying:

“And what makes you think that I am a man of such little renown? Is it my garb? Or the fact that my horse is worn and thin?”

“Sir…” began the blacksmith spinning toward the stranger angrily, but he was cut off in mid-sentence as he viewed the sword –or more precisely “pieces of the sword” –that lay on his workbench. The hilt and handle were intact, but the blade had been broken above the point of balance, and lay in several shards across the workbench. However, this is not what caught his attention, but rather the insignia that the pommel of the blade bore: a leaping leopard. Only one knight bore that insignia, and he had not been home from the crusades in the wilderness for many years.

“Sir Hector,” the startled blacksmith blurted out, “please forgive my impudence and my harsh words. But sir, please let me forge anew your sword to repayment the hurt that I have done your name.”

“The slur you have cast cannot be rescinded my good sir. Your fiery tongue makes you most unjust and will do you much harm if not kept in check. I wish to have my sword repaired. Can you do it? I am willing to pay you as I said before, no different; but if not, I shall have to find a better blacksmith than yourself who can do the work for me.”

“I will do it, and all else that my Lord commands, should my Lord forgive my rash and disrespectful speech.”

At this the stranger turned to go and said,

“You were forgiven before you asked. Now bear no guilt in your mind about past wrongs, but go forward a better man. Forgiveness heals all wounds, but anger only creates new ones.”

Writing with Wings

Years ago, while I was contemplating what made certain movies great and others not-so-great, my thinking went like this: good stories need to have a message—they have to teach the viewer something. But they’ve also got to be entertaining, because if the story isn’t interesting then nobody will care about the message.

Horace
Horace (drinking something dulce, perhaps?)

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was articulating the age-old purpose of literature as expressed by Horace in the Latin phrase “utili et dulce,” which means “useful and sweet.” The “useful” bit is the teaching aspect and the “sweet” bit is the part that entertains.

This two-fold purpose is almost everywhere one looks, so in this article I’m going to use the word “literature” to mean “a story told in an artistic way.” Notice that this definition of literature does not demand any definite form—it can be fiction, non-fiction, a poem, a movie, etc. Not an ordinary definition, and not one I typically use, but it may be helpful for this discussion.

Instructing and Entertaining

Why should literature be both instructive and entertaining? To find out, let’s not trust to the word of an ancient Greek alone. Leland Ryken, Professor of English at Wheaton College, points out that an even older source than Horace expounded this viewpoint: The Bible. Ecclesiastes 12:10 says:

The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly (NASB).

The first part of this passage “delightful words” corresponds with the “delighting” bit, while “words of truth” corresponds to the “teaching” bit. So we see that even the Preacher sought to write what was both true and beautiful!

This is an important connection for writers to make, and I have found both in my own experience and through observation that emphasizing one side of this balance too heavily is very easy to do. Teach too hard and a Christian work of fiction becomes little more than a jazzed-up sermon. Tell a story that entertains exclusively and the reader may experience thrills but ultimately find the story forgettable.

However, I believe that in particular the “delighting” aspect of literature is neglected in Christian writing (although lately I haven’t noticed it as much. Perhaps we’re improving?). I used to be this way: I would come up with a good moral that I wanted my story to have, and then I developed a story that reflected that moral. I focused entirely on the teaching component of literature and completely ignored the entertaining part. The results were contrived, lifeless characters who did things not because certain actions were part of their character but because that’s the way it had to be for me to get my message across. Needless to say, this is not an effective (or affective!) way to write.

Much more could be said (and has been said) on this topic, but the essence is still this: the purpose of literature is both to instruct and entertain. They’re like the two wings of an eagle, and both must function together for the eagle to soar.

There are other reasons why writers should embrace the two-fold purpose of literature, and to gain a fuller picture I would recommend reading The Christian Imagination. It is a collection of essays (most, but not all, of them very thought-provoking—that’s the problem with collections) by Christian writers about reading and writing that fueled the ideas in this post, particularly the essay entitled “’Words of Delight’: A Hedonistic Defense of Literature,” by Leland Ryken.

Lost and Found: Part Two

The following is the second part of the short story “Lost and Found.”Pine Trees and Sky

Even as he recognized the awful sound, Henry’s legs were already turning in the direction it came from.

“It’s Alice!  Go get Mr. Harrison!” he yelled over his shoulder to Danny and Fred, before sprinting into the trees.

“Alice!” Henry shouted.

His feet waded in leaves, and broken sticks made him stumble.  The noise of running feet didn’t seem to get any closer, but then, after several minutes of racing in what he thought was the right direction, Henry heard a sharp cry just as he skidded to a halt in a clearing: Alice was on the ground, crying and gasping as she clutched her ankle.

Alice was panting hard from her run.  Thinking about the snake that she had seen beside the stream still sent shivers down her spine.  Then she heard something large crashing through the leaves.  There was silence.  She considered letting the bear just eat her; then she changed her mind.  Her two tentative, teary eyes looked up.

“Oh, Henry!” Alice exclaimed.

Springing from the leaves, which scattered about her, Alice leapt up to rush to Henry and then collapsed as her injured ankle stabbed with pain.Pines

Henry ran forward and grabbed his little sister to keep her from falling.

“Are you all right, Alice?”

“I guess so.  Other than my ankle – I fell over a tree root – and that s-s—snake I saw,” Alice stammered.

“Here, sit down.”  Henry took charge of the situation, lowering Alice back to the ground and then slinging his backpack off his shoulder and digging items out one by one.

Henry took the sock and shoe off Alice’s hurt foot and wrapped the sprained ankle – well, he thought it was sprained – rather haphazardly in some springy gauze, which he taped with Band Aids.  Then, he pulled Alice’s water bottle from her backpack and handed it to her.  After completing these tasks, Henry sat down beside Alice and drank some of his own water.  The liquid was cool and sweet on his tongue.  As he rested, Henry strained his ears to hear the stream, but all he heard were the noisy songbirds and squirrels and the wind in the trees.  Henry peered hopefully into the forest in the direction he had come from, hoping to see the glint of the stream in the slanting late-afternoon sunlight.  No stream appeared.

“Are we lost, Henry?” Alice asked.

“Uh, I’m not sure.”

“Doesn’t ‘I’m not sure’ mean that we are lost?”

“Yes, we’re lost.”

“Well, how do we get un-lost, Henry?  What stuff do we know?”  By we Alice meant Henry, of course.

“I’m not sure, other than that moss grows on the north side of trees.”  Henry couldn’t help laughing at how stupid his words sounded.

“What did you learn from being a Boy Scout?  I thought they taught boys how to get un-lost,” Alice said, wrinkling her brow.

Henry frowned in thought, “Well, Mr. Harrison said that we’re supposed to stay in the same place and yell for help.  Let’s try yelling!”

Alice energetically joined Henry as they both shouted “HELLLPPP!!”

“Stop shouting.  Let’s listen,” Henry cut Alice off breathlessly, and they both became very still.

After a minute of concentrated listening, Alice whispered, “I don’t hear anyone.  Do you, Henry?”

“No.”

Henry waited for a minute more.  What can we do? he worried.

“Why don’t we eat something while we wait.  They’ll probably find us in a minute or two, anyway,” Henry suggested.

Despite his optimistic words, Henry didn’t feel very certain that they would be found soon, but he realized that Alice needed his encouragement.  All the leaders in the books he had read focused on keeping their companies’ spirits up.  That’s the least I can do to help, Henry thought.  He rummaged through the pack and produced a couple of peanut butter sandwiches Mom had made for them earlier and handed the one with Alice’s name written on it to her.

“Thanks, Henry.”  Alice accepted the sandwich gratefully after dusting some of the gritty brown dirt and bits of leaves from her palms.

Soon, the pair was munching happily away.  It was almost as if they had both forgotten being lost, Alice’s hurt ankle, and how lonely and scared they felt.

“Wonder what Mom’s making for supper?” Henry mused aloud.

“I think the menu said gumbo and French bread,” Alice answered.

“That sure does sound good.”

Alice murmured her agreement, staring at the leaves that littered the warm ground.

“Henry?”

“Mmm?”

“Shouldn’t we try to find the path or stream now?  It could be a while before they find us, and I sure don’t want to miss the gumbo.”  Alice felt her optimism blooming now that she had eaten.

“Sounds like an idea to me,” Henry concurred, taking the empty sandwich bag Alice gave him and stuffing it in the backpack with his own peanut-butter-smeared bag.

Henry closed the backpack.  Shouldering it, he stood and gave Alice a hand to help her stand on her good foot.

“I’m sorry for sending you back alone to Mr. Harrison,” Henry apologized as he helped Alice stand, putting her arm around his shoulder for support, “Did you see the snake when you were walking back?”

“Yeah.  I thought it was a coral snake, and so I ran away from it,” Alice admitted.  “I’m sorry for getting you lost with me.”

“It’s not your fault,” Henry mumbled, turning red at Alice’s apology.  He felt that it was all his fault they were in this fix.

“Oh, just a minute.”  Henry remembered something and slung his backpack to the ground.

“What is it, Henry?”

“I know where I entered this clearing, and I want to use my compass to figure out which direction it is.”

CompassHenry placed his compass on a flat spot of ground.  The arrow spun for a moment before stopping.

Facing the direction from which he had come, Henry began muttering to himself, “All right.  That way’s north.”  He pointed to his right.  “So that means we came from the west.”  Henry waved his hand at the woods he had traversed a few minutes before.

“Therefore, to find the stream, we need to head west,” Henry finished, slipping the compass back into his pack and swinging it onto his shoulder again.

The brother and sister began trudging west, stopping occasionally as Henry tried to find significant signs of where he had crashed through the underbrush.  An exclamation of “I think it’s this way” broke the silence every once in a while.  Ten minutes later, as she was leaning against the rough bark of a pine which chafed her resting hand uncomfortably, Alice suddenly exclaimed:

“Henry!  I hear the stream!”

At Alice’s words, Henry hurried forward, and in a moment he broke out of the trees and beheld the glistening stream.  Running back, he helped Alice, and they both stood in front of the stream, smiling with relief that they had found it.  The wind carried people’s yelling voices to them, and the pair began to shout excitedly, “We’re here!”

A great crashing noise grew louder every second with nearing yells, and a moment later, Mr. Harrison and the Boy Scouts broke into sight coming up the stream bank.  The spikey-haired boy spotted Henry and Alice and let out a wild yell.

“There they are, Mr. Harrison!”

Then there was mayhem and a stampede that even wild buffalo might have trembled at, as the relieved group burst upon the newly-found children.

Five minutes later, Alice and Henry, half-crushed from energetic hugs of relief and back-slapping, stumbled out of the forest cover onto the path near the bridge.

Path

The boys laughed and cheered so uproariously, that it took all of Mr. Harrison’s vocal power to be heard over them.

“Quiet, young men!” he yelled as they stopped on the path.  Then he turned to Henry and Alice.  “Please tell me exactly what happened.”

Alice looked at Henry.  He took the hint and began to talk, “Well, Mr. Harrison, I told Alice to go back to you, and she was walking back along the stream when she saw a snake and became so scared that she forgot about staying by the stream and ran off into the woods.  I found her right after she fell and sprained her ankle.  We waited a few minutes for you to find us, and then I decided to find the stream, and that’s where you found us.”

“You did a good job of keeping calm, Henry.  I’m proud of you.  Next time, though, both you and Alice need to be a bit more careful and not forget my orders,” Mr. Harrison cautioned.  He turned back to the rest of the group and barked, “All right, let’s head home now!”

And so, with Henry and Mr. Harrison helping Alice along, the group set off down the trail, towards home and gumbo and a life that would never quite be the same again.

Alice looked up at her older brother.  His brown hair was plastered to his hot face and his blue eyes were tired, but when he saw Alice looking at him, their eyes met, and they both smiled.  They understood that while they had been lost they’d found something else: friendship.

Lost and Found: Part One

Path

“Mom!  Please tell Alice she can’t come with me on the Boy Scout hike today!”  Henry yelled out of his bedroom door down the hall to where he heard his mother banging about in the laundry room.

“But Henry,” Henry’s 9-year-old sister interjected, “Mama said I could come, instead of staying with Grandma and Grandpa, while she cleans the house.  Mama says it would be better ‘cause they’re tired from their long trip.”  Alice bounced on Henry’s rumpled bed, her words jumping in time with her, as she sank her hands into the pleasant softness of Henry’s mattress with each downward bump.

Saturday morning sunlight sparkled cheerfully off the Calvin and Hobbes and Spiderman comic books that were sprinkled across Henry’s bedroom rug.  Henry turned around and faced his bed, snapping, “Alice, stop bouncing on my bed!  Mom said no such thing, I’m sure.  Besides, it’s a Boy Scout troop; why would they let a girl come, anyway–”

Just then, the children’s mother appeared in the doorway and said, “Actually, Henry, I spoke to Mr. Harrison, and he said that Alice could come.  After all, she is 9, and you can keep an eye on her.”  Mom strolled into the room with a cheerful smile, a pile of Henry’s clean laundry billowing in her arms.

“Alice, would you please dismount from Henry’s bed?  It’s not a pony for you to ride on, and I need to put Henry’s clothes there.  Thank you.”  Alice obediently plopped off the bed, smirking at her brother while her mother’s back was turned and mouthing I told you so! with triumph.

──

That afternoon…

Mom’s word was law.  Henry knew he would certainly get a whipping when Dad came home from work if he argued about Alice accompanying him, but he wasn’t about to stop sulking about it.  Frowning, Henry bounced in the front seat beside his mother.  He clenched the slick, sun-warmed leather of the armrest to keep from sliding around in his seat, while his bulging, brick-hard backpack banged against his shin.  The can of bug spray inside of it swished with every jolt.  Henry glared at his backpack and kicked it in annoyance.  His flashlight flickered on, making Henry even madder as he snatched it from his backpack’s side pocket and switched it off with a sharp click.

“Is something wrong with your backpack, Henry?” Mom asked.

“No, ma’am,” Henry muttered.

At the sound of life in the front seat, Alice’s head popped up in the backseat with the snap of her closing book.  “How soon will we be there?”

“Just five more minutes, and we should be at the trailhead.  Oh, and Henry,” Henry’s head jerked up, “I should be back to pick you up at five o’ clock.  Mr. Harrison said you’ll be done in three hours at the latest.  It’s a long trail, so don’t forget to drink a lot of water.  Make sure Alice drinks hers, too, and be sure to keep an eye on her,” Henry’s mother ordered.

The green mini-van turned off the rough highway onto a gravel road that was even bumpier.  Gravel rattled in the wheel wells.  Alice dove to save her little blue backpack from slipping off the seat beside her.

A minute later, Mom was hugging Henry and Alice good-bye and bouncing away, leaving them with Mr. Harrison and the rest of the Boy Scout troop.

“All right, boys – and Alice,” Mr. Harrison added after a pause.  “We’re going to have to walk pretty fast to finish this 8-mile trail by five o’ clock and still have a chance to spot some important plant specimens.  Fasten your backpacks and let’s get started!”  Following his command with immediate action, the short, lean man hitched his pack higher onto his shoulders and began striding along the trail, a pack of ten or so boys and one little girl huffing to keep pace behind him.

Pine TreesAlice caught the scent of pine trees and old leaves as she trotted along with the group.  Oddly, the decomposing leaves – still moist from a rain shower early in the morning – reminded Alice of Henry’s bedroom smell, but a little nicer, she thought.  A squirrel chided her from above.  This first sign of wildlife brought snakes and spiders slithering and scuttling into Alice’s train of thought, and she tagged a little closer to her big brother.

Henry didn’t even have to look to know where his sister was.  He heard her panting right behind him.  Scowling, Henry walked faster.  Why couldn’t Alice just stay at the back of the group?  Did she want to embarrass him in front of his friends?  Danny and Fred never brought their baby sisters, or brothers, with them on hiking trips.

Fred’s voice brought Henry out of his thoughts.

“Wow, Henry!  Your mother must really trust you if she’s letting you take Alice along with you.  I don’t think my mom would ever let Jane come with me,” Fred commented, bestowing a friendly jab on Henry’s arm.

“I don’t have a younger sister, so I wouldn’t know, but I think Fred’s right.  It does sound like your mom trusts you,” Danny joined the conversation on Henry’s other side.

Stunned by this admiration, Henry struggled to find an answer.

“Well, uh, I guess she trusts me.”

The boys’ conversation was interrupted as Mr. Harrison halted.  He pointed, like a witness accusing a criminal of a foul deed, at a vine on the side of the path.

“Do you see that, young men?  Can anyone tell me what that plant is?”  His head turned, and he surveyed the group through his scholarly-looking spectacles.

A tall boy with spiky yellow hair promptly broke out, “It’s poison ivy, sir!  ‘Leaves of three, let it be!’”

“Correct, John,” Mr. Harrison approved with a smile.  “Now, while we’re on the subject of dangers in the wild, can anyone tell me the rhyme about the coral snake.  It could be vital to your survival in the wilderness, because the coral snake is one of the most dangerous snakes in the world and happens to live right here in Louisiana.”

Silence descended for a moment, and then Henry quoted, “Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend of Jack.”

“Quite right, Henry.  Good job boys; now move on.  I’m hoping to reach the Pine Woods stream before long.  It crosses the path, and there should be some interesting wildlife in the area,” Mr. Harrison turned on his heel and advanced, his words floating back to the boys and Alice, who were now in motion again.

“Henry?”

Henry stared ahead, pretending he hadn’t heard Alice.  He even quickened his pace a little, hoping she would become discouraged and leave him alone.

“Henry, we won’t see any of those snakes Mr. Harrison mentioned, will we?  You’ll keep them away, won’t you?” Alice’s tone was worried.

“No, I doubt if we’ll see any.  Besides, Mr. Harrison will be sure to look after you, so you won’t need me, Alice,” Henry replied.Stream

Gradually, a rushing sound grew in volume from the direction in which the trail was winding.  Then, a turn in the path revealed a little stream burbling beneath a wooden bridge which sprung smoothly across.

Mr. Harrison braked to a stop and faced the boys to announce, “We’ll be taking a ten-minute break here.  You can explore along the stream if you like, but don’t wander off.  For those of you who are interested, I’ll point out some of the unique plants and animals that live around a stream like this.”  The yellow-haired boy joined Mr. Harrison as well as Danny and Fred.  Henry followed his friends, and Alice shadowed him.

As he stood listening to the drone of Mr. Harrison’s voice, Henry’s thoughts wandered.  He wistfully imagined how much more would he enjoy this trip if Alice would stop plaguing him.

After about a minute, Danny tapped Fred and Henry on the shoulder, and they wandered away from the group to talk.

“What do you say to walking upstream a ways?” Danny asked.

“Sounds fine to me,” they agreed, and began strolling upstream, in the opposite direction from where the other boys had disappeared.

Henry stuffed his hands into his pockets and pursed his lips as he whistled quietly, following his two friends.  For a moment, Henry forgot his shadow; however, a rustle and crunch in the leaves behind him soon reminded him of Alice’s presence.

Addressing the air in front of him, Henry spoke, “Alice, why don’t you stick with Mr. Harrison.  We’re going to explore, and I don’t want to have to worry about you.”

“But Mama said for you to look after me, not Mr. Harrison.”

Henry tried a new tactic.

“Alice, I’m the one in charge right now.  Go back to Mr. Harrison.  We’ll be back before the 10 minutes are up, anyway.”

Henry heard footsteps receding behind him down the stream bank.  Then there was silence.  Henry walked a little faster, trying to suppress the guilt that he felt at sending Alice away so rudely.  It’s safer for her, anyway, he argued in his head, joining his friends again.  The boys began to talk, and Henry started to forget all about Alice.

Suddenly, a shrill noise pierced the hot sylvan air.  There was the sound of running feet crashing off into the woods from somewhere downstream.  For one moment, Henry’s brain didn’t register what the noise was, and then the next moment he remembered it.  The house spiders, roaches, and millipedes knew that noise like it was their closest friend.  The amusement park rides that turned your stomach inside out knew that sound.  And so did Henry.

 

To be continued…

Be A Better Writer By Doing Nothing!

fruitWriting can often be a daunting task, yet so many authors seem to do it well. They manage to churn out 70,000 word novels every year, and sales figures indicate that audiences like their stories. On the other end of the spectrum are ordinary people (like me)–people whose longest piece of writing was probably a research paper they wrote in high school or college–and that’s maybe 3,000 or 4,000 words at the most. The idea of tackling a writing project over ten times this size understandably can seem impossible (this site gives a breakdown of the word counts of several famous books–an interesting tangential topic).

But it’s not impossible. Obviously there are multiple reasons that a writer becomes successful, but one piece of advice stands out in particular, wisdom I learned from a writer named John R. Erickson in his book Story Craft (who, regardless of what you think of the literary merit of his Hank the Cowdog books, has an excellent no-nonsense understanding of writing as a profession). Erickson’s advice is this:

producers can’t be consumers

StoryCraft

To put Erickson’s advice another way, those who successfully create can’t consume large amounts of what other people create.

In my own experience this principle has proved true. When I find myself at a loss for words it is usually because I’ve spent my time surfing the web or (more likely) watching movies or TV shows. These activities seem to drive out original thought as they are a mostly passive experience. This sounds counterintuitive, I know—in order to write well, stop listening to other stories? That sounds crazy! Yet I think Erickson makes an important point here—silencing outside voices allows us to find our own voice. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, it gives us the time to actually sit down and write.

Is this principle of consumer/producer always true? Well, no. That would be silly, but this emphasis can be helpful in counteracting natural tendencies…the real question becomes: do I have the time to be both an avid consumer and fruitful producer? In the end, there is a balance to be made…

Perhaps this is what holds many writers back. I think that there are hundreds if not thousands of stories in people’s heads on this very day that, if realized, would exceed the best work of the most sterling published author of today. But I’m afraid that doesn’t matter, because the successful writer isn’t the one who has the best idea; the successful writer can only be the one who finishes his idea. And the one who finishes is often the one who makes time to complete his work, the one who produces (bountifully!) and doesn’t consume (gluttonously!).

Note: In my introduction when I mentioned word counts I did not mean to imply that a writer should be overly concerned with how long a story is. I remember writing stories when I was younger where I would attempt to make the story as long as possible…for the sake of being able to say that the story was “x” pages long. This attitude tends to produce junk. The proper worry of writers shouldn’t be length but characters and plot instead…but that’s a tale for another day!