Saturday Short: A Swim of Cormorants

photograph of cormorant on a rock

“Cormorant” by Kerry Helmer on Flickr CC-BY-ND

Ashleigh never trusted the cormorants that sunned themselves on the rocks outside the window of his office. His office overlooked the bay and every morning there was a group of cormorants on the rocks, wings spread like ragged capes, eyes closed against the glare of the sun or open under the weak light of cloud cover.

They weren’t raucous like the scrub jays or numerous like the pigeons, but the cormorants bothered him. He glared out his window at them even as they stood like silent winged statuary someone had forgotten to take in with the tide.

If he had ever been pressed to put into words why he disliked the cormorants, he wouldn’t have known what to say.

He took his lunchtime walk by the rocks, usually the cormorants had left the rocks by that time, and he was relieved. But today there was one cormorant still on the rocks and a girl, in a black slicker, sitting on the bench closest to the rocks. It didn’t smell like rain.

Ashleigh walked by, watching the bird out of the corner of his eye.

“They know you don’t like them.”

He started and found the girl staring up at him. Her eyes had an interesting halo around the irises. He’d seen it before but couldn’t place it.

“Excuse me?” He couldn’t think of anything else to say.

She gestured to the one cormorant still on the rock who looked like it was listening. “The swim, they know you don’t like them.”

“The swim?”

“The group of cormorants.”

“Oh.” He wondered why she knew such an odd piece of vocabulary. Most people he knew didn’t even know they were called cormorants.

“But they don’t mind you. They think it’s because you’re jealous.”

“Jealous? Of what?” He was not jealous, but annoyed his carefully planned routine had been upset. First by the bird and now by the girl.

“Because they can swim and fly, but you can’t. Also, we like the rain.”

He scoffed. “That is ridiculous. Good day.” He resumed walking without looking back when she called,

“Yes, it looks like rain.”

He turned around, but the girl was gone. And there were now two cormorants on the rock. The second shook out its feathers and droplets splattered the rock face. When he turned around to head back into his office, the first drops of rain hit his head and he could have sworn he heard laughter but there was no one around but the birds.

Saturday Short: Sidewalk Shadows

photograph of blurry shadows on a sidewalk

Come find me.

That’s all that was written on the blurry photo dropped through the mail slot in her front door on Sunday morning.

While most people’s first thought would be, “Who sent this to me?” or perhaps, “Who needs finding?” or even, “There’s no post on Sunday.”, Laura’s first thought was how much she hated that mail slot. She should have boarded it up as soon as she bought the house. It was drafty and now apparently a target for pranksters.

She stomped down to the basement and rummaged through boxes until she found her hammer and some nails. She ripped a wooden slat from a crate she hadn’t bothered to move when she moved in six months ago. One struck thumb later, she had the mail slot boarded up and had forgotten about the photo.

But the photo hadn’t forgotten about her.

It appeared stuck into the frame of her bathroom mirror when she got out of the shower the next morning. She threw it in the wastebin.

She opened her lunchbox to work through her break and found the photo on top of her sandwich and it went through the shredder. The photo, not her sandwich.

After a week of having the photograph show up in her shoe, in the egg carton, on her dashboard, and in her book, Laura threw her hands up and screamed,

“How do I find you?”

She looked down at the photograph and the writing swirled like oil on top of a puddle after the first autumn rain.

Follow the shadows on the sidewalk.

“Great,” Laura muttered. “Now I’m taking directions from a haunted photograph. I must be mad.”

But she picked up her coat and walked out her front door, photograph in hand.

Welcome 2018! (Or, plans for the new year)

Happy New Year! Happy 2018, dear readers!

Well, can you believe it? We’ve made it to the start of another year. Another 365 days around the sun to do some things. It’s exciting and terrifying. Like a new journal with 365 pages and we have to come up with something awesome to do. That’s a lot of pressure to make something wonderful, important. You know, not to waste the year just by having fun. But I think having fun is part of the point of creating, instead of trying to compete with people’s perfect Instagram or Twitter posts.

So what are you planning to do this year? What do you want to accomplish with your art or work or anything in between?

I always have super-audacious plans. Always. And I don’t accomplish all of it, even if I get a lot done. I seem to think that there are always more hours in the day than 24 and that I’ll never get sick or burned out or tired. But life has a way of bringing a reality check to any plans. However, I try not to let that get me down.

So what am I planning on doing this year?

I’m going to do a lot more calligraphy for the sheer joy of it (and because it’s important to remember that not every hobby has to become a hustle). I received some amazing gifts of new ink, nibs, and a whole ream of practice paper for Christmas and am looking forward to practicing and creating beautiful writing. I’ll probably share some photos, too, but I’m doing it for the joy of it and not for any hustle.

I’m going to continue writing with intention (check out Chuck Wendig’s post on this for inspiration). I’m still writing the first draft of what I started before NaNoWriMo and worked on through November (in between travel and getting a truly awful cold) and I’m hoping it will wrap itself up in the first couple of months of the year so I can let it sit and I can revise it later in the year. It’s the slowest I’ve written a first draft, but I also feel it is probably the most intentional writing I’ve done in fiction, too. It’s been frustrating sometimes to write slowly, but it feels like the words are coming out better, truer, with meaning. I’ll let you know how it looks once I get into the revising.

But I want to continue writing with intention, even if it is slower. I’m going to continue writing Saturday Shorts, which feed my need to play with fiction writing and satisfy my desire to complete a project. I hope you’ll continue reading them and hopefully enjoying them.

I want to read more books this year. I keep track of the books I read throughout the year and books I want to read. I have a healthy list and will hopefully get to read a lot of them in the coming weeks. I may share some thoughts on them from time to time and hope you’ll share books you love with others, too.

I’m looking forward to a year of continued creativity and art, with work and activism knit up into it all, too. Plus many cups of tea, naps in the sun with my husband and cat, talks with dear friends, and some travel for inspiration, too.

I hope you have a wonderful plan for 2018 that brings a smile to your face and keeps you buoyed through the inevitable difficulties of life that lay ahead for us all. I hope you have a supportive community, full of friends and family, that keeps you going. And I hope this year we make the world a better place in anyway we can. As Desmond Tutu wrote, “Each time we choose good, we add to the human treasury of goodness.” And that’s something I think we can resolve to do in our art and life. Let’s increase goodness in the world this year. That’s a plan worth resolving to accomplish.

Happy new year, dear readers. 🙂

Saturday Short: Endings and Beginnings

photograph of sunset over the ocean

“Wherever there is an ending, there is also a beginning,” Teacher said with that half-smile that made us know she was testing us with some private joke.

“That is obvious,” Jessica said with a sniff. As if she couldn’t care less about the matter, but actually was determined to sound the smartest and get the answer the quickest.

It was the last day of school for the year and I knew that we wouldn’t be allowed to leave for the Festival until one of us got to whatever point Teacher was making. The sounds of hammers and flutes could already be heard over the wind in the eaves and I jiggled my knee under the desk.

Teacher was still smiling and waiting for us to get to the answer. Mother said Teacher could have been a mystic in a cave, just a bit removed than the rest of us. On a different wavelength, she’d say, but not without fondness.

“Where there is a beginning, there is also an ending,” Joselle said as she tried to imitate Teacher’s half-smile. On her it looked like a smirk and matched her personality.

“Often, yes,” Teacher said. But that was not the answer she was looking for.

There was always a lesson to learn and I stifled a sigh while I fought the impulse to fidget in the wooden chair. It would creak and I didn’t want to be called on. I just wanted to run outside while there was still light because the days were short. And I wanted to get a maple candy with the change that would jangle in my pocket when I ran. I didn’t care about riddles and wisdom, even if they were from Teacher.

My mind wandered and the answers of the others in my class were merely humming nonsense in the background as I strained to hear more of the Festival’s sounds of preparation. When my name was called, I bolted upright out of my dream.

“What do you think it means?” Teacher asked.

All eyes were on me. I hated that. I wasn’t clever or fast or witty. And I didn’t have the personality to pretend.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “But it makes me think of the end of the year and the beginning of the Festival.”

Teacher said nothing but slightly, ever so slightly, nodded.

“And,” I continued, “I think someday I’ll care about beginnings and endings, but right now is more important to me…now.” I finished and felt my cheeks warming and no doubt they were now red. I wasn’t an elegant speaker either.

But Teacher smiled, a full smile. “Class dismissed.”

I smiled back and sprinted out of the door into the last sunlight of the last day of the year. A good beginning or ending, no matter how I looked at it.

Saturday Short: Portal Key

photograph of carved stone cornice on bridge pillar If you are ever in trouble, go to the portal key. It will know what to do.

Her mother said that every day on their walk to her elementary school. Every day when they crossed the bridge and passed the one, faded, carved stone pillar in the middle of the bridge. Her mother would touch it lightly with her fingertips, as if reassuring herself it was still there.

Still solid, she’d sometimes say so soft it was nothing more than a puff of breath.

When she was six, Flora never thought there could be trouble in the world. There was her, her mother, and her routine. There were always cookies on Tuesdays and singing on Sundays. Herbs in the summer and chestnuts in the winter. Nothing changed and no trouble could ever penetrate such a bubble.

But that was before today. Flora narrowly missed crashing headfirst into another commuter walking, head down against the wind. The sky overhead was grey, the color of the sidewalk, and smelled like rain wasn’t far off. Tears soaked the collar of her shirt as they skidded down her cheeks like the tires behind her.

She couldn’t look back. She wouldn’t look back. She only had to make it to the portal key. It would have to save her. The scene at her house, etched into her mind, told her no one else could.

Shooting out between two bicycles, Flora ran across the street, straight towards the portal key. Behind her a man shouted for someone to stop her, but she dodged the startled couple pushing their stroller. She slapped her hands on the stone, cutting her palms at the same moment she felt someone drive into her, not expecting her to stop and she fell with a scream over the bridge.

Screams from the couple with the child raised as someone tackled the man who had pushed Flora over the edge. But when the couple looked over the bridge, there was no sign of Flora, no ripple in the water, and while they would never admit it to the other, they both saw a scene for a brief flash that made no sense. But they were soon brought back by the crying of their baby and the sound of police sirens drawing near.

But sometimes late at night they would awake from a dream and remember they saw a tea shop floating in mid-air about the creek that day on the bridge advertising Flora’s cream in the plate glass window, before they fell asleep again.

Saturday Short: To Dreamland

photograph of hillside outside Waitomo, New Zealand

Do you ever dream in color? What do you see?

I see a far green land. The greens look too vivid to be believed. If I showed you what I see, you won’t believe me. The green grass and leaves and trees look like I could touch them and my fingertips would come away stained.

It is beautiful. I see a sky so blue that it looks like it goes on to infinity. I’m not even sure what infinity means. Does anyone? I mean, I know what it means, but what does it look like? How does it feel? Like slipping into a dream where everything is so beautiful that you scarcely don’t want to breathe—but am I even breathing—for fear a puff of breath will blow it all away.

And there are flowers, so perfect and pure and poisonous, I’ve started wondering if this really is a dream. In dreams nothing is supposed to hurt you, right? Everything should be peaceful and innocuous, but the flowers, they are still here.

But I’ve found I don’t care, as I slip into dreamland, but I don’t remember falling asleep.

I’ve heard the ringing of a trumpet, off behind the ridgeline, but I haven’t seen anyone else. But it calls to me, it calls me to come. Perhaps today I will stand up beside the flowers and begin walking down the hill to see what there is beyond.

But I wonder, as I feel the warm breeze on my cheek and look at my fingertips, still unstained,

How do I tell if this is my dream?

Thoughts at the Start of NaNoWriMo

Happy November! Can you believe it is already November? I feel like part of the year has gone missing, like it’s rolled under the couch and now we can’t find it so the year has been ridiculously short (and yet also feels like the longest year ever. Time is weird and wibbly wobbly, too.). So you know what November means. No, not quite turkey time here in the United States, but it is the start of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

I quite love NaNoWriMo. This is my fourth year of participating and it really is a lot of fun. It’s frenetic, too, because how could it not be? It is the start of the holiday season after all. But it is a wonderful month for writing amongst others here, as the days grow too short and the nights grow too long. For me it is hibernation weather, so having an outside impetus to get me out of the house after work is a happiness and getting out of the house to be surrounded by other writers is a joy.

It’s a slightly bonkers and wonderful thing to attempt to write 50,000 words in a month, crammed between life and work or school/work and life or any other combination of things we have on our plates. But it is fun and it is community-building and I love it.

I love the sound of keyboards clicking and pens scratching as we race to get in our world count for the day. The word sprints where our hands might actually get ahead of our thoughts, instead of the other way around. The laughter that only comes when everyone is just on the cusp between elation and despair that only other writers, other creatives, other people trying this mad thing can understand.

For most of the year, I’m a solitary writer. I prefer silence when I write as noise and music distracts me. I like the quiet of morning and evenings to write, when the cat curls up asleep next to me and my tea is still warm in my mug. I set deadlines and goals just for myself and keep them, more or less. But in November it’s my time to break out of that routine, to find comfort writing in a group, and to learn from others even if it is only by diffusion as we all lean over laptops and notebooks scribbling until our hands can’t take any more. But in November the ideas and compassion and encouragement swirl freely and I only have to reach out my hand to grab some to last me through to the next writing session.

So if you’ve never tried NaNoWriMo before, or you are an old-hand, I hope you’ll join us on this journey this month. Find your home region, go to a write-in or two, and be amazed at how much fun writing with your community can be. You never know what inspiration may come only when you are in the final stretch, typing as fast as your fingers can fly. It’s November 1st and anything is possible, dear writer, anything at all.

Saturday Short: A Haunted House

photograph of a house at night that appears like it could be haunted

Everyone knew the house at the end of the block, the one with the peeling paint and dry-rotted steps, was haunted. Everyone knew this like they knew that rain came from the sky and Tuesday always followed Monday. No one ever questioned how everyone knew this fact, but everyone knew it.

The house stood empty for years, since the beginning of time a high school student said when daring his friend to run up and knock on the door as they stood on the sidewalk facing the house, the sun going down, down, down as it was wont to do daily. His friend didn’t take the dare and they both lived until a quite respectable old age. Neither questioned how a house could stand since the beginning of time, if one assumed houses didn’t grow like trees or cats or mountains. But then, it was never quite safe to assume.

No one thought that anyone would ever live in the house again, assuming that someone once had. No one at city hall could say for certain who owned it. Perhaps it was now a ward of the town, like other abandoned property. But not even the mayor wanted to set foot in the house, not that he’d admit he was a bit afraid of it.

So the house stood empty except for the pigeons that roosted in its attic, coming in through a broken window, the baseball that broke it long since forgotten, lying under a shroud of dust. And a fox who lived quite happily under the porch steps, hauntings meant no never mind to foxes who have more important worries.

That was, of course, until a jaunty sold sign appeared in front of the house one day. It was the talk of the town. No one knew who bought the house and everyone wanted to be the first to know. Such a storm of gossip hadn’t whirled through the town since the cows escaped at the fairgrounds and ate the flower showcase. Everyone thought someone else was to blame.

No one saw anyone move into the house, no moving vans, no contractors, no sound of hammers or drills or saws, no movement inside, though everyone seemed to find a reason to saunter by the house. There was no change until one day the town awoke and the house looked brand new. It was like someone waved a magic wand. The sold sign now announced an open house at midnight the next day.

It was the talk of the town and everyone came. They lined up on the sidewalk and at midnight the front door opened and strains of music, sweet and slow, came wafting down the steps. And everyone moved forward as one towards the house.

But not the fox, he watched from across the road, in the moonlit shadow of a box hedge. The house now longer was home, but haunted and he was clever enough to know when it was time to move on. He faded into the night as the first person stepped into the house, crossing the threshold of the world.

 

Saturday Short: For the Love of Books

photograph of a book "lovely book!" by Tim Geers on Flickr CC-BY-SA

“lovely book!” by Tim Geers on Flickr CC-BY-SA

“What a waste of time!” the old woman said when she found me curled up in the corner nose buried in a book.

I blinked up at her, annoyed that she had interrupted just as I was getting to the good part and perplexed as to why she felt she had any right to interrupt me. It wasn’t like I had asked for her opinion. I couldn’t think of one nice thing to say in response so returned to the sentence marked by my right index finger. But, like an unnecessary secondary character, she of course didn’t take the hint and go away.

“I said what a waste!” she said louder and someone leaned around the bookstack and shushed her.

“I heard you the first time,” I said without looking up.

She hrumpfed. Whether at me or the shusher, I didn’t know and didn’t particularly care. “It’s such a waste of time reading novels. What do you have at the end? Nothing.”

I looked up and smiled the way my best friend said made her think of a cat when it has the upper hand and its pretty doesn’t know it yet. Apparently, it can be quite terrifying, if you know me. This woman, however, did not.

“If you think that, it’s a wonder you’re in a library.” I stretched my grin wider.

“Well, I never!” Her cheeks flushed as she turned and stomped away, her arms full of what I imagined had to be the most boring nonfiction books the library had in its collection. A novel tumbled off the top shelf, narrowly missing her head.

I went over and picked up the novel, which had thankfully landed spine down on the floor. “That was a very silly thing to do.” I smiled, a real smile. “She’s not worth losing pages for, you know.” I slid the book back into its place on the shelf.

“It’s not a waste of time,” a voice behind me said.

“I know that,” I replied to no one but the books and resumed reading.

Saturday Short: A Confusion of Chiffchaffs

photograph of chiffchaff on branch

Chiffchaff by hedera.baltica on Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

There was always someone who was more brilliant or faster or more clever, always. At least, that’s how Sharyn always felt. She kicked a rock out of her way as she walked home from school and dragged her backpack behind her. The rock skittered off into the bushes and startled a bird into flight. It was some kind of warbler. She wasn’t sure which kind.

The bird flew up to the lowest branch of the nearest tree and cocked its head to the side, considering her. “Why are you glum, human?”

Sharyn stopped so suddenly that her backpack hit her calves, but she didn’t notice the sharp pain. Her eyes went wide as her mouth dropped open.

“It’s rude not to answer. What’s wrong, human?” the bird asked again.

“Birds don’t talk.” Sharyn squeezed her shut and was sure when she opened them the bird would be gone.

It wasn’t.

Instead, it was closer, sitting on the top of the bush it had flushed out of only a minute before.

“Well, I don’t know about all birds. But I am a chiffchaff.”

“A what?”

“A chiffchaff.” The bird drew itself up to its full, small height and puffed its dull-yellow feathered chest. “The most noble of birds. And you still haven’t answered my question, human.”

“Oh, yes.” She scratched the back of her neck. “I’m not as fast or clever as the rest of the kids in my class.”

“And that’s why you are sad?”

“I’m not sad.” Her words sounded like a lie even to her.

“Of course not.” The chiffchaff, whose name was George, but they weren’t friendly enough yet for first names. “But they can’t be that clever.”

“Why?” Sharyn screwed up her face in question.

“Well, they’re not talking to me, now are they?”

“No, but how does that make them not clever?” Her head began hurting her like when she was trying to solve a long division problem with a remainder.

“Think harder.” The chiffchaff seemed to smile.

Sharyn started gnawing on her bottom lip. “Oh, I don’t know. I’m confused.”

George laughed and it came out as a rolling twitter. “Oh, no. A confusion is a bunch of us. You haven’t experienced that…yet.”

And she forgot all about feeling dull or unhappy as she smiled. And George chatted with her entire way home before he took off and joined his flock in the tree in her front yard. She knew then if she remembered nothing else, she’d remember it the chiffchaff and its flock, a confusion.