Architects and Gardeners

hayden

“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is… But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”  — George R.R. Martin

Me, too. I have often wondered if I took my college writing teacher (the wonderful poet Robert Hayden) too seriously when he strongly suggested that I stop trying to be an architect and answer my true calling as a gardener.

After I completely re-wrote my first novel, You, in your Green Shirt, a soul-killing third time –we’re not talking about major editing, we’re talking about a complete re-write – I swore that I would architecturally plan my next novel.  I didn’t.  When I hit a dead end with A Little Birdie Told Me that stretched out for well over a year, I once again swore that I would never plant a seed again and wait to see what grew.

Though my third novel Pushing the River “showed up” somewhat more intact, as it was inspired by real events, it was, in every way, the result of long years tilling the soil and caring for the seeds.  Although I sometimes dream of note cards, and plot outlines, and lengthy character profiles with extensive back stories, I have come to terms with the reality that I am, and will always be, destined to plant seeds, tend them, watch for signs, and let them grow.

Here is the latest snippet from my fourth novel The Rocky Orchard.

figure-blueberryMazie waited at the porch door, standing on her tiptoes and watching for Lula to come through the orchard at her usual time. When Lula was close enough to hear, Mazie called out, “Lula, do you know what I just realized?  It’s blueberry time!  It should be just about peak blueberry-picking.  Right now! You probably haven’t even seen them.  They grow along the bank on the far side of the road – the stretch of road that runs right along the length of the orchard!  See what I mean?  If you’re walking through the orchard itself, you’d never even know the bushes were there!”

Lula turned her body around. “Ah, right as rain, Mazie.  Sure enough, I’ve never seen a single bush.”

“That’s because the road at the far end of the orchard – where you come in over yonder —  it’s deep in the shade of the woods.  The orchard opens everything up.  A little patch of sun hits the bank, and Voila!  Wild blueberries!”  Mazie regarded Lula, noted how heavily Lula leaned on her walking stick.  “Are you tired, Lula?  Do you want to rest up with a tall glass of water?  I was thinking I might go and pick some.  Was thinking that I would whip up some blueberry pancakes for us.  Have us a true hearty breakfast, if you’re game.”

“My word, that does sound lovely,” Lula said.

“You can wait here, if you want.  I’m happy to go and pick them.  If you want to sit a spell.”

“Oh, heavens no.  Not so tired that I can’t pick a blueberry off a bush.  Not to mention, can’t trust a weekender to tell a truly good ripe berry from a bad one,” Lula said.

“Oh, ouch,” Mazie said. “I was wondering how long it would take you to bring up the ‘weekender’ thing, me being an interloper and not true country and all that.”

“Well, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.  Just meant to say that of course I want to come along,” Lula said. “Assuming you have a proper berry-picking bucket, that is.”

pail

Mazie sighed playfully and did an exaggerated eye roll. “Gosh, let me go look.  You stay here and rest; don’t strain yourself trying to think up any more witty-but-caustic things to say.”

“Do you have any idea why some blueberries have that white coating-like stuff on them and others don’t?  Should I stay away from the whitish ones?” Mazie asked Lula.

“I do know!” Lula said.  That white coating is called the ‘bloom.’  It’s a slightly waxy substance that the berry produces; the bloom protects it from pests and bacteria that might harm the berry.  Isn’t that amazing?” Lula’s delight radiated from her.  “It’s also a sign of freshness.  It’s the other blueberries that we should stay away from.  The berries start out with the bloom when they’re beautifully ripe, but it fades as they sit on the bush past their prime.”

berry.picking

“Do you know everything, Lula?  Cause it’s really starting to seem like you know everything,” Mazie said.

“Heavens no, dear,” Lula said.  “But like I told you, I know a lot about things from around here. I’ve always been here, like I said!”

“What’s the tenth decimal place of pi?” Mazie asked.

“Five,” Lula said.

Both women stopped picking and looked at one another. “Well, I’ve studied a few other things along the way, I suppose,” Lula said. She spread her arms and shrugged her shoulders. “My bucket is getting pretty full, Mazie.  How about yours?”

How-to-pick-wild-blueberries-4

 

Outhouse

 

out3

old-outhouse-in-baw-jeff-swan

Here’s a new snippet from my novel-in-progress: The Rocky Orchard

Mazie rubbed her hands along the back of her chair, then along the table top.  “I guess I should deal another hand?” she asked. “I’m not really sure what to do.”

“Mazie, gin rummy is a grand old game, indeed.  Nonetheless, I suggest we get off of this damn porch and give you a chance to feel the sun on your face, even if all we do is take a lap or two around the house.”  Lula hooked her arm through Mazie’s and tugged her gently toward the porch door.

Lula stepped off the porch.  The steep path that led to the road straight lay ahead of them. The short distance to the orchard sloped to their right. Lula bore left.  She and Mazie walked, arm in arm, across the flagstones that ran along the front of the house.  Passing under the canopy of towering pines, the two women paused at the edge of what Mazie’s family had always called “the lawn.” The swath of coarse, broad-leaf pasture grass that took up a good quarter-acre on one side of the house has always been referred to as “the lawn.”  Her parents kept the assemblage of mostly-green, low-growing plants trimmed very short, so from a distance, it presented a vast visual field of verdant green.  From a closer vantage point, the lawn looked exactly like what it was: dry, cocoa-powder-colored dirt covered sporadically by weeds, clovers and various invasive plants that had been chopped off close to the ground.

“We seem to be headed directly for the outhouse,” Mazie said.  Was that your intention?  To get me off the porch and into the fresh air and then explore the old outhouse?”

Lula laughed and squeezed Mazie’s arm.

Toward the far end of the lawn — quite far from the house but in the dead center of the grassy field — a small, wooden structure that could only have been an outhouse perched.  “Speaking of things that completely terrified me,” Mazie said.

“Really?” Lula asked.  “The outhouse?”

out4

outhouse-sept-2015

“Oh my gosh, are you kidding me?” Mazie said.  “Every single thing about it scared me.  Including – and this is my lot in life, Lula; this is my lot in life that I am this particular sort of a person – I am the sort of person who worried about the people who lived at this farm before my family bought it!  Before there was a working toilet in the basement, and they would have had to actually use the outhouse for all of those outhouse-y-type things.  It’s so far from the house!  I worried: what if someone were really sick, or just waited a little too long, or there were little kids who were just learning to use the bathroom?!  Or, what if it was the middle of the night?  Although my parents told me that people used chamber pots in the middle of the night, which is just a different kind of gross and scary and gruesome.  Anyway, the basement sump pump — which, by the way, I was also terrified of – well, it would go out of whack on a fairly regular basis.  And when it did, we couldn’t use the toilet. We’d have to muster our Early Settler, pioneer spirit and do our toileting right out there in that outhouse.

I was scared just reaching for the door, waiting for the sound of the noisy spring that whined and complained when you pulled the door open, then snapped the door back lightning-quick, with a ferocious thud.  I was immediately convinced that I was trapped, that the outhouse held me prisoner and laughed at the silly, naïve trust I’d shown by having entered.  I was a goner.  But just in case I was wrong, and that my brother might try to mess with me while I was in there – which he often did –I locked the rusty old hook-and-eye latch, being convinced that it would rust in place, but not before giving me a fatal case of tetanus.”

“What an imagination you had, dear. It takes my breath away.”

“I’ve hardly begun, Lula.  Do you know that there is always a breeze that blows through an outhouse, blows right across your…bottom.   I guess I don’t know about all outhouses, really, but there was a hefty breeze blowing right across my ass in this one!  Now, how could that be?  No breeze blowing across the lawn, no breeze blowing through the little outhouse room, but a good, stiff breeze blowing across my ass. I used to get in all kinds of crazy positions, looking up and down and here and there at the way the little house was built, even looking right down into the unspeakable depths where all that bodily waste fell, trying to figure out how there could be an eternal breeze.  Only thing I could figure: had to be haunted.  Another reason to be terrified.”

“And please notice that I’ve gotten this far without mentioning the smell. Holy cow, how could you not be scared out of your mind, as a little kid I mean, by a smell so strong and so awful that it surely must spring from something Evil, something way beyond just…shit.  I rest my case.”

“Well, if that’s your way of saying that you’d rather not explore the outhouse…” Lula said.  “I thought it might be an interesting diversion.”

“There’s that sense of humor of yours, Lula.  Such a card,” Mazie said.

outhouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aftermath of a Dream

girl-having-nightmare

Here is the latest snippet from my novel-in-progress, THE ROCKY ORCHARD.

“Lula,” Mazie said.   Lula held her hands on Mazie’s upper arms and squeezed.  A shudder ran through Mazie’s body and left her trembling.  Her lip quivered and she said “Lula” again, as if testing the sound of her own voice.  “What just happened?  What in the world just happened to me?”

“You were telling me about your dream.  It must have been very powerful, especially for such a young child,” Lula said.

“But I was really there.  I felt the same exact things that I felt at the time.  When I had that dream in the first place,” Mazie’s breathing became uneven again.

Lula ran a gentle hand down the length of Mazie’s hair and brushed Mazie’s cheek with her fingers.  Mazie felt the tension drain from her body, and she inhaled a great breath, feeling the mountain air rush into her lungs.  “Your memories are quite vivid, dear.  And that particular dream was so frightening. You must have been so scared, so confused.”  Lula squeezed Mazie’s hand and asked, “Did you ever tell anyone about it?”

Mazie let out a small chuckle and said, “No.  No way.”  She thought for a moment and added, “I might have gone into my parents’ room.  I used to do that when I was still little.  If I was really scared about something, I would get up and wander into their bedroom and crawl under the covers beside my mother.  They would never wake up or anything, but I would lie there for a while.  I used to watch the little patterns and swirls that your eyeballs see sometimes when it’s dark and still.  They were strangely comforting; in fact, I would crawl into their bed and wait for the patterns to show up.  After a while my mother would stir and say, ‘OK, Mazie, that’s long enough.  Go back to your own room now.’  But that was OK, really. My parents’ bed always smelled really strongly of the two of them, all intermingled, and between the smell and their heavy breathing and the little floating dots, I felt OK again.”

Lula smiled but said nothing.

“You must think I was the strangest little kid, Lula.  Well, I told you I was.  Now you can see for yourself.”

“Not so far, dear.  Not so far.”

cabin

 

The First Time I Died

saddle.shoes

When we get back home, I am convinced that I am adopted, that I come from different people entirely than these two grown-ups who ping-pong between sphinx-like impenetrability and crazy, nonsensical laughter.  I start to have scary dreams.  In some of them, we are back on our road trip vacation, and my parents leave me behind at one of the endless places where we stop.  In others, I try as hard as I can to run away from something awful, but my legs don’t work.  It’s like I’m in super slow motion, while the rest of the world – and the scary threat – come closer. 

And then, I die.  For the first time.

 It’s so hot, and so dry.  The sky is a burning blaze of white. No wind.  The air is so still that it’s completely silent.  It’s like being in a movie theater when the sound snaps off, and the picture continues.  I think I must have suddenly gone deaf, and I look around to see if anything is moving – a branch, a lizard, a bird – something I should be able to hear.

curtis2

There is young woman in front of me.  She wears full native dress. A skirt that goes all the way to the ground, a long sleeve shirt with the cuffs rolled up to reveal inches and inches of bracelets. She has a single, waist-length braid that’s bound with a thin leather strap. She turns when I approached the edge, briefly, then looks back down. She doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t say hello, which I think is odd, because almost everyone says hello to a four-year-old child, especially one who is approaching the edge of the Grand Canyon.

She sits very near the edge herself. But she’s not actually sitting.  I realize that she’s crouched, and she stays like that, as if it’s the most relaxed position in the world. She is weaving a basket. I watch the quickness of her hands, young hands, and I think she might be very young despite the baby beside her. A papoose. I am proud of myself for knowing the word for an Indian* baby who’s all bound up in a beautiful little cocoon. The baby is wide awake, but utterly silent, his calm black eyes staring far into the distance.

I think that both of them must be miserably hot. In my 1960 shorts and sleeveless blouse, I can’t imagine how they seem so——————

Complete 20 Volume Set Of Edward Curtis' Landmark The North American Indian

My foot slips. My saddle shoe’s heel scrapes against the parched dirt. It’s so slow at first, just a grating of my calf.  I feel the skin rub away, then the first tiny droplets of blood rising to the surface. But then time speeds up.  My feet fly out from under me. I am face-to-face with the white-hot sky.  I am in free fall.  Falling, Falling.

My back hits first. The sensation, the pain I suppose I would call it, lasts for a mere second. It’s like the wind being knocked out of me, except I know that it’s not the wind. I am surrounded by the blackest darkest night, but within the black, an ocean of spark-like bursts fly from my body in all directions at once. I die.

I am dead. 

I am gasping for breath I am trying to reach the surface I am trying to keep my lungs from bursting I am straining to see something besides the sparks inky black nothing and the sparks and I gasp and I cough and I sputter and an arm is on me no two arms are on me, they’re around me and it’s Lula and she’s with  me and I hear words, she’s saying words to me.  She is saying, “You are right here, Mazie.  You are right here.”

curtis

 This partial chapter from my current novel has been reworked from a piece I wrote a few years ago.  You never know (or at least I never know) how writing will proceed.  For me, it’s never orderly. As I now envision The Rocky Orchard, this cast-aside piece now stands as a pivotal scene in my fourth novel.

Bottom three photographs: Edward S. Curtis

 

 

Bad Apples

levi.apples

Here is a new snippet from my current novel THE ROCKY ORCHARD.

Up until I said that last bit to Lula,  I was right there, right on that boat.  I could see the walls of the cabin heaving up and down; I could smell the faint trace of salty air mixed with baby puke and the strong smell of the thick coats of varnish on the boat’s wood.  But now I feel ashamed, self-conscious, about being such a serious and scared and kind of creepy little kid.  I’m back on the porch.  I take a big drink from my water glass and look through the porch screen to the orchard.  Little green apples have started forming on the trees.

“You know what, Lula?”  I say.  “I don’t remember eating a single apple from that orchard that tasted good.  Ever.  With all the different trees, and all the different varieties of apples – not a single one, not one that you could pick off the tree and take a big bite out of and really like it.”

“You don’t say,” Lula sounds absent-minded.  She rearranges several of the cards in her hand without looking up.

“My mother fed them, sprayed them, pruned them, read books about them and fussed over them. In the end, we made gigantic amounts of applesauce every fall. Even pies made with those apples weren’t so great.”  I feel awkward, and pissed off, for no reason at all.  I say, “Seriously, they tasted like shit.”  And then I feel like shit.  Maybe Lula hates swearing.  Maybe she’s decided I’m a motor-mouthed, foul-mouthed, suspicious-if-not-paranoid creep.  Maybe she won’t come back.  I want her to come back, so I let her win the game.  And the next one, too.

william-rickarby-miller-still-life-with-apples

She pushes her chair back.  She’s getting ready to leave.  I’m scared so I say:  “Lula, here’s the thing.  When we got back from that trip, I had a dream.  I died.  In the dream.  But I thought that I really had.  Died, that is.”  I hate myself for my naked attempt to reel her in, to make her interested enough to come back again tomorrow.

Lula says, “you don’t say,” as if it’s the most mundane thing that she’s ever heard, or pretty near it.  “When I come back tomorrow, I’ll look forward to hearing more.”

You don’t say!”  I know I’m being mean, mocking, and Lula looks at me like I’ve wounded her.  “Those are the exact same words you said when you left the other day.  Exact. Same. That’s a little weird!”

To my surprise, Lula laughs.  “Never said I wasn’t a little weird, Mazie.  Never said.”

Jean-baptiste-simeon-Chardin-_Three-Apples-Two-Chestnuts-Bowl-and-Silver-Goblet-...Silver-Goblet-_

Paintings, top to bottom: Levi Wells Prentice, William Rickarby Miller, Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin.

Jewelweed

Here is a sweet little snippet from my new novel, THE ROCKY ORCHARD.

jewelweed

“Good morning, dear!”  Lula said brightly as she stepped into the porch.  “I brought you some flowers I picked along the way.  Thought it would brighten up our table to have a nice centerpiece while we played our gin rummy.”  Lula held out a bunch of wildflowers on long stems, stunning little orange and yellow spotted blooms that looked like tiny orchids.

“Oh my God, they’re beautiful!” Mazie said.

“Watch this,” Lula said as she reached out a single finger and touched what looked like a green pea pod attached to one of the stems.  With Lula’s barest touch, the seed pod burst apart and shoots of curly green confetti shot out.

Mazie gasped, then laughed. “Oh my gosh, Lula, I’d forgotten all about these things!”

“Aren’t they a marvel?”  Lula said.

“I used to love these!” Mazie gushed.  I remember the first time my brother and I discovered them.  The orchard was filled with them; they appeared out of nowhere.”

“That’s because they’re wildflowers,” Lula said, “All wildflowers appear out of nowhere.”

“I can’t even remember which one of us – my brother or me – accidentally touched one of the seed pod things while we were looking at the flowers, and BOOM, an explosion of…crazy seeds, right?  Crazy seeds disguised as tiny party streamers!  We spent the whole afternoon combing through the orchard and popping the seed pods.  A whole afternoon.  When we’d found every single one, we lay down on the ground, head-to-head, staring up at the clouds and making up stories. That was a great, great day.”  Mazie threw her head back and laughed.

“It’s jewelweed, sometimes people call it orange jewelweed or spotted jewelweed,” Lula said. “The common name is touch-me-not.  You can see why.”

“We never had any idea what they were.  Looked for them every year, but I don’t think we ever found them again,” Mazie said. “Made it seem like some kind of…magic.”

“Oh, wildflowers do seem to have minds of their own – they appear here and there and disappear.  But it’s Impatiens Capensis, not magic,” Lula said.

“What?”  Mazie asked.

“That’s the Latin name for the plant – Impatiens Capensis.”

“You’re starting to remind me of my mother.  She knew a lot of things about a lot of things, too,” Mazie said.

“The juice from the stems and leaves has long been used for itching – going back ages.  It can actually stop poison ivy from getting bad if you rub the juice on right away.  I’ve even heard tell that it can clear up ringworm, and athlete’s foot as well,” Lula said.

“Now you’re really reminding me of my mother.  When I was a little kid, I was convinced she had to be making stuff up – no one could really have such an encyclopedic knowledge of so many different things.  Later on, we used to tease her that she got some kind of secret newsletter that was filled with random bits of information, and she would memorize every bit of it while we were at school, just waiting for an opening to throw in some new tidbit of knowledge.”

“Everybody around here knows about ol’ jewelweed,” Lula said.

“ ‘Everyone around here’ just happens to know that Latin name?”

“Oh, well, I suppose not,” Lula said.  “Now that you mention it.”  She gave Mazie a wry smile. “How about we put these beauties in some water and play some cards?”

“Thank you for bringing jewelweed, Lula.  Thank you for reminding me of one of the very best days I ever had,” Mazie said.

 

The Hand You’re Dealt

I’m about 11,000 words into my novel THE ROCKY ORCHARD, so have not exactly perfected the elevator speech.  Here’s a stab at a synopsis, following by a new snippet:

A woman retreats to her old family farm and encounters an older woman. The two form a friendship over daily gin rummy games. As the younger woman reflects and remembers her past times at the farm, it becomes increasingly unclear exactly what is happening.

harry.lapow

Mazie and Lula cut the cards to determine who would deal the first hand.  Mazie drew the ten of spades.  Lula drew the nine of clubs, and Mazie began to shuffle. “You know I promised myself I wouldn’t talk you to death again today, but, do you know what?  These cards were here when we bought this farm. The Bishops – the people who owned this place before my family did – just walked out one day, and we walked in.  They left everything.  Everything! Like a neutron bomb had gone off.  Every sign of human life had vanished; every remnant and relic stayed behind.  The kitchen cabinets were filled with their dishes.  The drawers held their silverware, their cooking utensils, their pot holders.  Towels hung on the towel racks.  Freshly washed sheets lay carefully folded in the upstairs bureaus.  Extra ones, because all five of the beds had sheets and blankets and pillows already on them, carefully arranged.  They left their board games, and their decks of cards, even their jigsaw puzzles with a piece or two missing, in an old oak table.  I used to go around each room of the farmhouse, opening every single drawer and looking at the things inside.  It was as if my family had walked right into someone else’s life.  I mean, look at these cards!  At some point in history, somebody went into a store somewhere and looked through all of the decks of playing cards, and they picked these – the ones with the Grecian urns overflowing with fake grapes.  One deck with a watery purple background, the other deck a muted peach.  Someone thought these extremely odd cards were the perfect thing.  And here we are, two people who were complete strangers just a few days ago, who met by chance, now playing a game of gin rummy with those very cards, so many years later.”

“Two people who at some point may play gin rummy,” Lula said.  “Or may not.”

“Point taken. Your turn,” Mazie said.

tandy2

tandy

Top photo: Harry Lapow

Bottom photos of Jessica Tandy, the image I have of Lula.

 

Dew

Early morning dew on grass

I hope you enjoy this snippet from my novel-in-progress, “The Rocky Orchard.” And if you’re in the same general vicinity of the U.S. that I am (Chicago), I hope this snapshot of a glorious summer day provides a bit of comfort against the brutal cold!

There was not a cloud in the sky the next morning, the sun dazzling the first second it burst over the horizon.  The morning dew, heavy on each individual blade of grass, lit up into a sea of sparkle as millions of dew drops reflected the sun’s rays.  Mazie opened the porch’s screen door and let it slam its completely-familiar slam behind her.  She needed to feel the carpet of wet grass outside on her bare feet.  She kicked a foot hard into the grass, sending a fountain of droplets into the air.  She watched their arcs of ascent and fall.  The power of the early sun combined with the chill of the dew on Mazie’s feet sent a thrill through her entire body.  The eerie silence of yesterday’s fog had been displaced; the forest erupted into raucousness, birds seeming to have increased their volume in jubilant recognition of the day’s beauty. An industrious spider had spun an intricate web that ran from the screen door to the nearest bush, and each of the delicate strands glistened with dewdrops.

dew.spider

Mazie kicked once again into the grass, and when she looked up to watch the droplets spray into the air, there was the old woman, walking stick in hand, standing at the near end of the orchard, no more than twenty feet away.

“Oh, hey!  Hey there.  Hello.  Sorry, I don’t know your name,” Mazie said.

“Lula, dear. My name is Lula,” the woman said.

“Holy Cow,” Mazie said.  “My mother had an Aunt Lula – my great aunt!”

“Well, it was actually a rather common name way back.  Sometimes short for Luella and sometimes for Lucretia, even Louise or Talullah.”  Lula tapped her walking stick against the bottoms of her shoes to knock off the clumps of dirt, and she adjusted her hat.  “Funny thing is: my name isn’t any of those.  It’s Eulalia.”

“Eulalia!” Mazie said.  “That’s beautiful!  I’ve never known anyone named Eulalia.”

“Oh, I’m glad you like it, dear.  Can’t say that I was ever nearly as excited as you seem to be.  Not that I ever heard anyone call me that.  I was Lula as long as I can remember.”

“I’m not sure that I can call you Lula,” Mazie said. “Sometimes we just can’t stray too far from the ways that we were raised, I guess.”  Mazie smiled.  “My parents would faint if I called an older person – a person who was older than me; I hope I’m not offending you – my parents would die if I called you ‘Lula.’”

“Are they here, dear?”  Lula pretended to crane her neck and did a quick, exaggerated scan of the area.  “I hadn’t seen them.”

“No,” Mazie laughed.  “All alone here.  Just me.”

“Then I think you should call me Lula, and I should call you…?

“Mazie.  My name is Mazie.  Not short for anything.”

 

Creek

The blog posts have been coming fast and furious lately.  The new novel, THE ROCKY ORCHARD, has some good momentum going.  I’ve been at this long enough to know that it will not always be thus.  There will be lulls.  Meantime, enjoy!  Let me know what you think.

hunter-creek-trail

All I wanted to do was come here.  After it all happened.

I stole my parents’ car.  Well, would you call it stealing, really?  I “borrowed” it without their permission, without them knowing.  And, it was two years before I had an actual driver’s license, but that’s kind of a technicality. They had been letting me drive since the summer.  Every time we came up here, to the farm, they would take me out driving.  Everybody does that out in the country.  So yeah, city streets and the high speed of the expressway was a little unfamiliar, but I figured it out well enough.  I just had to be here.

Everybody thinks of the woods as being so quiet, but they’re not.  Most of the year, they’re noisy.  Really noisy.  Birds and frogs and toads and crickets and cicadas and branches snapping and leaves blowing.  But it’s a good noise, the kind of noise that lets you think.  The kind that opens up your brain instead of suffocating it.  But it was winter when it all happened, with a fresh snowfall of nearly a foot; the woods had a completely different sound.  it’s a kind of silence, but thick, somehow.  The sounds are muffled, but you can sense that they’re there, behind a curtain.  It’s ominous, and dazzling, all at once.

I parked the car behind the house like we always did.  When I got out, I just started running, right for the creek.  The water moved fast enough that it rarely froze in the winter.  I could hear it after I had barely run a few feet. I stumbled in the snow in my headlong, blind rush to get there.  I could tell from the tumult that the creek was high, that the water would be roaring over the rocks.  While I was still a distance away, I reached down and took off one boot, and then the other, and pitched them into the snow.  I did the same with my socks.  And I ran straight into that creek, the water so high that it reached my mid-calves and drenched my pants.  Fiery sharp stabs shot all the way from the bottoms of my feet straight into my brain, and I just stood there.  I stood there with my feet in the creek until I was sure that in one more second my legs would buckle underneath me; they would no longer be able to hold my weight.  In one more second, I would not be able to get out of the creek, would not be able to run back to the house.   I sobbed from the pain, my breath coming in great frozen gasps.

I made a dive for the bank of the creek, and lay face down in the snow, my frozen legs and feet waving in the air towards the winter sky.

winter.creek

Void

Another excerpt from the novel I am currently writing, tentatively titled “The Rocky Orchard.”  Also an homage to Mary Oliver, and all those who find the natural world transformative.

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The following morning, Mazie looked out the kitchen window above the sink to a dense, gray nothingness.  She filled the ancient aluminum coffee pot with cold water and strained her eyes, but the fog was pea-soup dense. That was what they called it in that neck of the woods, as Mazie recollected, and she had not seen a fog of its like in a long while. Looking out the window, she could not see to the edges of the farm house.  The walls faded and bleached into nonexistence, vanishing into the gray.  Fog as thick as this drank up all sound, except for the intermittent plops of water, the humidity so high that droplets condensed out of thin air and fell heavily to the ground.  It reminded Mazie of being in an airplane, flying through an impenetrable cloud bank, surrounded by an utter void, feeling as if she were being propelled deeper and deeper into nothing at all.

Mazie fretted that she would not be able to see the older woman when she came walking through the orchard.  Or, Mazie thought, the woman may well decide to bypass the orchard altogether, as she would not be able to see the treacherous rocks endangering her path.  In this kind of fog, people and things appeared out of nowhere, without hint or warning, when they came close enough to emerge from the fog’s grip.  They disappeared just as fast.

Mazie wrapped a light sweater around her shoulders and grabbed her coffee cup from the porch table.  She held the screen door and closed it gently behind her, barely making a sound.  The door’s usual slam seemed like it would be an intrusion into this silent, featureless world.  Mazie wandered the short distance to the near end of the orchard, where the ancient apple trees appeared out of the gray, one by one.  She ran her hand along the craggy bark, ran her finger in the grooves between the bark’s scales.

Mazie took a couple more steps into the orchard.  On one of the low-sitting but jagged rocks, she made out the faint remains of white paint.  Even in dim and fog, the old paint produced a chiaroscuro of light and dark in the deep crags.  Her father had painted a number of rocks throughout the orchard, a warning for himself and anyone else riding one of the family’s ride-on lawnmowers through the obstacle-course orchard.  Mazie was fairly sure she had never mowed the apple orchard, never wanted to try. But her father approached it as a challenge, a game, to see how fast he could go, careening around, turning sharp corners, timing himself.  She could picture him in his perennial work outfit – a plain white tee shirt and light blue pants – perched high on one of their two mowers with a whisper of a smile on his face.  He hit various rocks many, many times.  Mazie could never forget the sound.  The noisy, constant engine halting in an instant, giving way to the thunderous scrape of metal against rock that seemed to shake the surrounding woods to their core, then stop dead in abrupt silence.

One time had been different.  The metallic crash was not met by silence, but by the continued whirr of the engine and within it, the sound of her father screaming “Help!  Help me!” with panic in his voice.  On one of his daredevil sharp corners, the mower had tipped completely over, on top of him, and the blades had kept on turning.

Mazie shuddered, though her father had been fine.

She wandered back toward the house, and climbed the path to the dirt road.  Mazie looked in both directions, taking her time, in case she might see the older woman walking along the road.  She saw a slight movement at the very edge of visibility the fog would allow, but it vanished.  It may have been the woman, Mazie thought; but she could not be sure.

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top photo: Ben Woodward