Archive for the 'storm stories' Category

Sailing

I was alone for 15 years or so, alone the way we are when we are not children. How is alone now, what is the shape of alone, do you know? I shook a stick once at alone and it hissed back at me, a snake, a goose, a small cat with big green eyes. I have shaken my solitude so hard that all of its fruit fell to the ground and lay there fallow, lay there unseen for year after year. Little nuggets of solitude, little nuggets of loneliness, they lie there in an orchard, an orchard of past stories, stories from before the travels that took me away, away from hearth, from home.

I left in the winter of my 15th year, as is traditional. I rode a small horse with a fine Arabian head. Not the horse of the nobility, nonetheless a horse that suggested connections. I might be an important bastard, said the horse, I might be a well placed clerk in a prosperous, powerful and dangerous religion. Religion being, then as now, a dangerous and dishonest pursuit, was very appealing to second sons. I might have been a second son, that was generally agreed upon, or a bastard, again, that also was agreed upon. 

I left in the winter of my 15th year, leaving my lady and my lord in disguise, to travel and claim a kingdom for my own in lands far away. Once taken, I would return to tell the king and queen, my mother and father, about my acquisition, and then they would name me heir and bond me and mine forever to them, in spite of my bastard status, in spite of my feminine nature, in spite of my brother, the king’s first son, who was more of a bastard than I was ever likely to be. In spite of his mother and father’s marital status.

I left in the winter of my 15th year, as is traditional, riding my horse with my man to the edge of the sea, where I left both and boarded a ship with an uncle, who agreed to allow me on board as long as the secret was kept, but who could not guarantee my safety if ever all was discovered. This uncle was a first cousin to my mother, a man named Thomas Wilcomb, and he let me onboard at some personal risk. I came aboard as first boy, and looked after his parrot, kept his books, and ran away as soon as ever  I could, so that I might seek my own fortune, and not simply add to his.

Southern fried girl

I am a southern fried girl. I am a southern fried girl. I am tearing off my wings and dipping them in hot sauce. I am a southern fried girl.

I read a story once about a man who had a need to get away from where he was living. Arkansas, I think, but it coulda been Oklahoma. Anyway, there was a bank and a whole lot of people who lost the farm – that expression always makes me think of my daddy – bought the farm, actually, but that’s close, lost the farm. So he and his family put together all their money and drove out to California, where they could eat oranges picked fresh off the tree.

Not me. I am southern by choice, I am. Allergic to oranges; they give me hives. Peanuts too, come to think of it, and they do grow peanuts around there, but anyway I ain’t moving to California if all they got going for them is a buncha oranges and people with shiny orange skin and six pack abs.

But what I had been thinking about was someplace with less sun. Sun makes me sick sometimes, seems like it don’t ever go away. One damn sunny day after another. First I thought I’d go to China and live on a boat on the Yangtse river. A junk. I pictured myself leaning back on a pile of soft cushions, leaning my hand out one side of the boat, eating Peking duck from a bucket, and some good looking man rubbing my feet with warm oil. Turns out China’s not hiring American, though, not buying American either, and keeping all their money in their own towns, which don’t seem like a bad idea, though it never seemed to happen in the south, which I had decided to leave, as I mentioned before.

I pictured these mountains in my head, and they were foggy and cool, and there were lakes, and fish, and not a whole lotta sound. I don’t like a whole lotta sound. Makes my head feel funny. I like to sit back quiet and cool and let the water brush past my fingers, brush past my fingers. China was out of the question though, I could tell after I looked into it some, so I got to thinking about Oregon, or Alaska, or Washington, and those looked closer to what I had in mind. I took the bus – the Labrador Lines, Greyhound was too expensive for me – to Portland and stopped there for about two days before I ran out of money. Then I went west, into the rain forest, and it was quiet there, and foggy, and there were lakes, and rivers, and any number of hairy, mildewed river trolls who were friendly enough to a good natured deep fried southern girl, and I got a job and a place to stay. Drove an old blue truck around, delivering eggs and local herbs. Then one day Hal, who grew the herbs, says to me, we’re done with that truck, go put it away for now. And he gives me the key to Nirvana, his electric car that goes up and down the Oregon coast, runs on moss and powdered crab shells, and I drive smooth and quiet as a cat, and that’s what I like, that’s what I like much better than hot dry sun and smoke and trucks with their screaming truck stop brakes. A little quiet, that’s what a southern fried girl can live on for awhile.

(Prompt: three pictures, chosen randomly. 15 minutes. To be added to Zola stories, in Mayhem Texas.)

Bottom feeder

another giant squid

This is what it’s like to be a bottom feeder. First of all, we love ink. Ink is invisibility. Ink is darkness. Ink is what we write our history with. Look out there, out there into the vast whiteness. It has nothing to say until the ink drops into its wide open. No turning back once the ink has been spilled.

You want to tell your history, that’s fine, nobody’s stopping you. You want to tell someone else’s history, that’s different. There’s danger there, smells like sulfur, smells like burning cactus, smells like the brushfire or the war that can rush in and wipe out an entire clan.

Once I was playing cards in the back room of a little trailer house in Four Corners and I heard the wind pick up suddenly, and it was like I could see them even from inside, tumbleweeds rushing across the black night and suddenly igniting, igniting like monks in red robes, self immolating and taking down the fragile open country and everything that lives there with it.

I understand the meditative life of the tumbleweed, I understand the need to move, to feel the wind catch and carry us somewhere new. I knew about that even before I left Navajo country after the fire. I found my home on water, water green and blue and dark, almost black, where I fell in and never went back to dry land again, not for more than two, three days at a time. Long enough to find myself lurching when I came back to dry land, feeling the hitch and pull of gravity and rotation more strongly than I felt them on the water.

My family’s been landlocked for hundreds of years, most of them. My sea ways made me foreign, weird and unrecognizable as a giant squid, coming up from the deep only rarely, with gifts for my sister’s children, and then her grandchildren, until I am the only old salt on the Navajo nation, bringing seaweed ristras and monkey balls and painted tentacles. I stay a couple days, give them the salty sweet taste of my bottom feeder’s life, and then I leave again, leaving behind nothing but a trail of ink, and a history they can fabricate from the secrets hidden in the bright open sky and the black mesa reaching in the four directions around them.

For me, I add two more directions: straight up into the heavens, and straight down, into the cold, dark waters, where the wild shy ones live, where I feel most at home.

Storm

Then all hell breaks loose. My front tooth is chipped as I am thrown forward and against the ceiling. The windows break. Something is wrong with gravity, and with the street itself, buckling and kicking, a wild horse, an avalanche, a flood, an earthquake.

Every disaster movie ever made is dancing like sugar plums in my head. I’m waiting for ancient indian burial grounds to vomit their dead, I’m waiting for giant dancing spiders to descend, grinning, to snap me in half with monstrous jaws. I’m waiting for tsunamis, one after the other, to smack against this inland city like concrete, a wall of water harder than diamonds. This is about the right time to reconsider religion, or whiskey, or all the incredible sex I might have missed, or the books I might have written. Instead, I had been sitting up in my bed in my flannel nightgown, with a cup of chamomile tea and a Lilian Braun mystery. The disappointment I feel in myself at this apocalyptic moment is hard to describe. I wish I’d been doing something else. Something mysterious, deep, sensual, creative. I’m tossing around like a rag doll still, looking out the window as the city collapses and debris begins to fly. I am waiting for a white rabbit, waiting for a waistcoat, waiting for the fall to come to an end. When it does, I am returned to gravity with a thud and there is, suddenly, an absolute silence.

Wedding in Cliché, Missouri

baptist church

“Gracious and good heavens,” said the minister, who was smiling like the cat who swallowed the canary. “You all just sit right on down here and tell me how this came about.”  He gestured at the two straight-backed chairs across from the desk where he’d been sitting, surfing the web, thinking about his sermon for this weekend: Curiosity killed the cat, and other reasons not to question God.

Hannah and her beau, Cliff, sat down carefully, awkwardly, looking down at the seats before they sat, as if they were afraid of whoopie cushions or snakes hiding under the thin cushions. Once seated, Cliff began to sweat profusely, fresh acne rising to the surface in apparent reaction to sitting discussing the pending nuptials. Hannah, fresh, pink and bland as a commercially grown apple, sqeezed his hand and said, “We are considering a couple of different places?” with a rising inflection at the end that said maybe this was a question but maybe it wasn’t.

Cliff’s not sure, but he thinks he might be dumb as a stump, way his daddy always said he was. All he’d been trying to do, see, was turn over a new leaf, and when he met Hannah, he said to himself, well, boy, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, and next thing you know he’s sitting across from the Reverend Richard “Bull” Bullock, resident minister of the Turncoat Baptist Church in the tiny town of Cliché, Missouri. Cliff’s not been entirely honest with Hannah, who in her turn has not been entirely honest with him, and in this respect they are well suited to one another.  Better take my medicine like a man, Cliff says to himself, and tell her about parole and all that later on, if it comes up.

Hannah’s attendance at Turncoat Baptist is perhaps not as regular as she’s led Cliff to believe, and in fact up until six months or so ago, she’d been working out of her home, sending out political spam several hours a day, and she’d saved up enough for a nice Baptist identity, although she hadn’t quite gotten around to changing her name. Debbie, she thought, or Anne, something plain and protestant and ordinary, something that would fit right in Cliché. She’d made friends with the Reverend Bull just as soon as she moved into her little house in Cliché, early bird gets the worm, that’s what she told herself.

She squeezed Cliff’s hand again and smiled. “I love you,” she said to him, and looked down modestly at the engagement ring, then back up again at the minister.

“Reverend Bull,” she began. “We’ve just been talking? And we can’t decide between a religious ceremony and maybe going to Vegas instead? I told Cliff we should come talk to you?”

The Reverend Bull rubbed his hands together and began, “The love that holds a marriage together for an entire lifetime should be as big as the whole outdoors. This is a step not to be taken lightly. Have you talked to each other about what marriage really means?”

Cliff opened his mouth to answer, not knowing exactly what he was about to say. Before he could say anything, though, in fact, quite suddenly and without warning, a shot rang out.

15 minute freewrite: word associations; cliches.

Zola runs

After one hour. One hour. Not a talkative child, not really, but after one hour of riding in the high nest of a truly big semi cab, the girl starts to talk to the man behind the wheel. Ever been behind the wheel? Lot  of things to hear, and that high seat, looking out over the great highways, it’s a map, it’s a history. That driver, old-ish at 50 from driving hundred of thousands of miles, he’s like the pope, or a grand wizard, looking down on people like ants, and the girl is an ant. The man behind the wheel starts feeling himself to be a spiritual advisor. Life is the road. The road is life. He says stuff like that. So she starts to talk, and he listens in his big head Wizard of Oz way until he realizes no, this kid and her kid, that he picked up on a black road in a deep night, they’d really need to be far away from here.

This is where not too much can be said, or folks who are still here might suffer, might find sudden bad luck visited upon then. Even still, even now we can say that the girl brought her belly and her secrets with her on the road between Abilene and Padre, thanks to the big rig driver who was not the wizard of Oz, who set her off a little bit away from where she’d been going, back toward family who were willing not just to hide but to twist her secrets to keep the family looking right into the eyes of God.

Here is where time challenges some of what we know, because the woman, the child, the birth, the release of life into the open space – they push us uncomfortably toward the primitive, the unsanitary.

Zola labors

She refused a cigarette and did not want to sit down.

“I have been jealous before, don’t think I haven’t. This just isn’t it.” She said. She paced and the light in the room was hard and white. She was soft and brown. Soft and brown and angry, in more trouble than she knew. Too young, this girl. Odds were against her, if you want to know the truth.

“Tell us again why you shot him,” said the younger man, who might have been good looking if it weren’t for the bad skin and that expression. A flat expression, flat like a sidewalk, that gave nothing back. Zola stopped pacing and smoking for a minute to look at him. She had the cigarette hanging out of her mouth, like she’d practiced when she was learning how to smoke, and it was burning her eyes. She wiped them dry, and put the cigarette out.

“Going to tell you again that I didn’t shoot him. You got a hearing problem?” She said and she looked at him and dared him to tell her fuck-all. She rubbed her big belly and said she needed to sit down before she went into labor. The younger man looked away, sudden discomfort marking his face, adding to the acne scars and he looked too young to be hard like a sidewalk. She felt sorry for him, with that bad skin, maybe he might not be such a bad guy if…

The older man interrupted this line of thought with a sudden hard bang on the table. Hey, she thinks, suddenly energized by loud noises at this late stage of her pregnancy, these two are playing good cop/bad cop with me. The fog and the hormones cleared like a rough weather front all of a sudden and she played her one and only card. Childbirth. Clutching the belly, she crouched suddenly down and commenced a good primitive wail, like she’d learned in that Lamaze class her social worker had been taking her to. She leaned, she wailed, she tried to pee herself but couldn’t quite manage it. Bubba one and two couldn’t tell, though; she’d scared them already with that first round of deep breathing.

Zola prayed to the gods of delivery to spare her from an actual early labor, and they were listening. She was out of the hard tile room with the sharp white light and into the warm unconditional arms of her social worker and a maternity ward, where she spent the next three weeks as a ward of the state, eating good and with blankets, stuffed animals, and unlimited cable TV. They cut off her cigarettes, but this was better than jail and interrogation, she figured, and when she did finally give birth to that hairy little girl, she was happy to see the pink skin and the long newborn fingers, and all in all, she was glad she scared holy crap out of a couple of redneck cops if it led to this cadillac delivery, all nice and clean like she’s a lady with full medical coverage and a husband somewhere waiting in the hallway to come in after all is birthed and bathed and settled to pretty rights.

On more than one occasion in the life of Zola Gorgon, she’d fallen into a hormonal trance that convinced her that all was well and safe and easy. On more than one occasion, she’d snapped out of it in time to avoid permanent damage. This was one of those times.

 

Clovis woman

cavewomanTeddy Roosevelt’s daughter studied archaeology and she wore trousers. This was very modern and expected of her as the daughter of a great adventurer and a seeker of primitive cultures. She had a mustache, a light downy mustache, very feminine, that she bleached in her youth but rather cultivated as she grew into her identity as more than an adventurer’s daughter.

I should say that this daughter of Teddy Roosevelt is entirely fictional, and that any resemblance between her and an actual daughter of Teddy Roosevelt is coincidental. Some of the places may be real, but all of the people are fictionalized representations of a moment in history. She is the great adventurous American female. Fearless. Flippant. Carries a whip, brushes the dust off of her heavy khaki trousers and goes looking for antiquities. There she is at Blackwater Draw, cheek to cheek with archaeologists male and female, digging in the dirt, scraping, brushing and uncovering great mounds of bones. Early man. Bison graveyards. Spear points.

The air is dry and water is unpredictable. A sudden rain turns the excavation site into a gullywash out of which a sudden chorus of frogs announces the tendency of water and water creatures to hide just below the surface. They drink gin in the starlight while frogs serenade them, cicadas making a counterpoint and diggers singing the juke joint songs of the day. They draw mammoths in the dirt with pointed sticks – here, we see a spear point that wounds but does not kill the beast. It wanders off and is found 16,000 years later, skeleton intact, spear still buried in the ancient scapula. This is tangible evidence that we were here.

Clovis man is a manly man, with rocks and spears and flints. He is worshipping life and water and the blood of animals long before Teddy Roosevelt puts on his pith helmet and carries the swaggering bravery of the American West to the White House. Clovis man eats whatever is there: roots, bugs, cuddly small mammals, frogs in the wet season. But he dreams of meat. Big meat. Meat on the hoof. Clovis man invented barbecue, Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter is sure.

Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, whose name is Clarissa, adores Clovis man. She imagines him rolling his own cigarettes, out of the locoweed that surfaces in these dig sites periodically. She smokes along with him and looks up at the stars, whirling now in the big universe just as they did in the night visions of Clovis man. When she pictures him, he is well dressed, in skins that cover his private parts but show the sinewy legs, and with shoes. She pictures him in rope sandals, and she pictures him drawing in the sand with a sharp stick, just as she is doing now.  The eminent archaeologist on the dig, Dr. Edgar Howard, makes an occasional effort to get close to Clarissa, but in her imagination she is having a joyous fling with the first real man in America. She imagines showing him the first locomotive, the first printing press, the first combustion engine. She looks at his spear design and she knows him for the first American, ingenious, an engineer even in his primitive state. She does not marry, and this is no surprise to her father, who til the end of his life shouted loud and jubilantly and clapped her on the back like an equal, like a brother. And indeed, they were very much brothers under the skin.

(25 minutes. Prompts: multiple words and phrases, collectively generated.)

Woman with a wandering eye

blonde-lady

There in the firelight sits a man, a dog, a chunk of meat and a knife. On the wall is a florid oil painting of a peacock walking across a garden, while a pale lady in a silk gown with a dangerously low bodice, wearing piles of yellow curls, sits on an ornate bench, holding her pekingese in her lap.

The man is drinking something: ale, if he’s been working with his men out on the moors; red wine, if he has guests of the more refined variety. But no, he’s got a chunk of meat and a knife. Let’s give him some crusted bread and devonshire cheese while we are at it. His complexion just got a bit higher, and one notices that the pale lady in the portrait appears to be looking at something over a low hedge: the gardener, is it? He’s a fine rustic lad, with a simple name, like Thomas or young Will. She’s looking at him over the hedge, while the pekingese is staring off the canvas at the meat lit up by the firelight.

The man and his ancestors have been in this home with its drafts, its wet stone walls, its brocades and warming pans, for over 400 years. This man, like others of his line, craved travel in his youth. He was the first of his people to travel across the ocean to the wild open west, the muddy roads, the rutted wagon trails. He was the first to break a palomino on the open range, the first to trade in furs and leathers and strange stories sent back across the wide seas. His letters to his father, who was staying in Constantinople with his second wife, were full of lies, and had more of truth hidden in them than he wanted his father to know. His mother, she of the pale hair and the lusting eye, was gone by then. She’d died of a fever one year when the garden was neglected, and the fruit trees had a late cold snap in May. The gardener was found leaning against a wall, dead of a bee sting, according to the parish doctor.

The man’s name is William, after all the Williams in their long line, and his eyes are not a pale hesitant blue like his mother, or a distracted grey, like his father. His eyes are green, the green of seas with warm currents, the green of coastal treasures, the green his descendants would see in the land beneath them 400 years later as they flew over New Zealand, or Brazil, or the western coast of Canada. Green turns to blue and then wanders out into the ocean, where sailors have travelled months at a time to reach the islands of tropical dreaming. The man’s name is William, he of a long line of Williams from chilly lands who have travelled the world in their younger days for hundreds of years. They have travelled to green islands and warm countries: palm trees, coconuts, lava flows, rice fields, machetes, oxen. All things foreign in a world spinning and gradually growing smaller, slower and coming to a resting place.

The pale woman’s descendants travel the world now on thin, light titanium bikes, wearing clothes that wick away moisture, and meals in tubes. They, too, love ale, all her green-eyed daughters, grand-daughters and great great grand-daughters, their friends and lovers. All of them love adventure, and slobbery dogs and frisbees, and all of them love the feeling of otherness that carries them in their strong female bodies through places where the fair-skinned woman with yellow curls and her pekingese were never able to go. And all of the woman’s sons and grand sons and great grand sons keep going back to their place by the fire, century after century, to their ancestral hall, and wait for the women to come home.

Insomnia Island

island

Then it was August and I was tired. It was the heat, or it was the ghosts. I sleep with the ghosts. This is a kind of insomnia. What is it about ghosts that threaten the sleep? I think I know the answer – they live in no time, measure no intervals, and live in a continual present. — postcard from home

Martha was insomniac and did her best thinking while neither asleep nor awake. She said sometimes to Maria that it would have been better if she’d invited lepers into the house, more socially acceptable.

“I brought a leper into my house,” she said to Maria one morning, after she’d been not sleeping for a week or more and the ghosts had been having an especially exuberant period. Her skin was bright white, and her eyes shining – she was in one of the interludes of calm brilliance that prolonged sleeping or not with ghosts seems to bring on.

“Belladonna makes the eyes bright, doesn’t it?” said Maria, looking at Martha and wondering again how to make her sleep.

“Belladonna means beautiful lady – does that make the eyes bright?” Martha said in response, and she smiled again with that sharp, shattered look, and the two of them decided silently, together, to go somewhere else, to leave the ghosts behind for a week or two, or until Martha slept an entire night through. They packed their gear and their soft camping clothes and they went to her happy island, where ghosts may not enter, and there they stayed for almost one month.

Now it is September, and I’ve been sleeping for one week. There are no ghosts, there are no mosquitos, there are no questions in my sleeping mind. Sometimes I see shadows in the corner, but when I turn and look, these are usually animals, the ordinary, evasive animals of island life. A gecko, a gull, a small mammal with little feet like hands that looks at me curiously and leaves if I stare too long. Maria has brought me pineapple and mango and fish, and we’ve cooked and slept and dreamed, and there are no ghosts, no lepers, no forbidden spirits to enter our resting place on this bright white beach. This morning I walked into the shallow blue water farther and farther away from the shore, and I could see every shell, every bit of sand, and my ankles are warm in the water. I turned around and looked behind me, and there she is, waiting for me like I’m a sailor coming home from the sea. — postcard from Insomnia Island

At the end of the month, they went back home. Martha got brave, taking a few risks every day, reading and talking and watching whatever she wanted, and the ghosts did not come back, and the lepers stayed away from the door, and the sun when it shone through the bedroom window found them both sleeping, each with one leg hanging out of the sheets in the cool early morning air.


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