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: 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.

Saturday Short: The Community Bookstore

photograph of two polaroids of bookstores

It used to be, back when your mother and father were young and there were still such things as penny candy and magic, there was a bookstore in every town and every one was different. Some were so small that you would have sworn it could have fit inside a shoebox.

Yet the proprietor always managed to find the exact book you needed, when you needed it, even if you had no idea that particular book was going to make your heart sing.

Others were so large that you could lose whole gaggles of children amongst the stacks. Some did, only to be found at closing time by the store cat, asleep with picture books open in their laps.

Nowadays, when people live next door to each other for years, yet still can’t rightly tell each other’s name, there are fewer bookstores and less magic, too.

But if you’re lucky enough to find one in the town where you hang your coat at the end of the day, go in and say hi. Put your phone in your pocket and gaze around in wonder as you step over the threshold into a place of joy and welcome.

Find that book you’d forgotten, which made you brave when you were young. Pick up a slim tome, on the recommendation of a handwritten sign stuck precariously between the spines, that may just save your soul. Buy the fat novel with a title that tickles like déjà vu at the base of your neck on the advice of the bookseller whose smile crinkles the corner of her eyes when you say yes and who whispers that the book is one of her favorite friends.

There’s still magic in the world, though it’s hidden more often than not. But you can find it wrapped up in the pages found in bookstores owned by people whose veins flow with prose and poetry. Don’t be shy, come on in, and if you listen closely, you’ll hear the books call your name, too.

~~~

Dedicated to Renee on the occasion of the Grand Opening of Books on B. Thank you for bringing back magic, warmth, and community into our downtown through your bookstore. May all the pages of your days be blessed.

Why I’m a Hobbit (and not an Elf)

I know, I know. I’m not really a hobbit either, I’m simply a human. But of the two, I’m more of a hobbit than an elf (even if I really, really am enamored of the elvish interpretation of Art Nouveau). Why does this even matter? Well, because I was thinking about how what we believe is a good life, a worthwhile life, a life to strive for influences what we create.

Okay, I know that seems like a bit of a stretch, but I can explain. First, I love Tolkien’s writings and his worlds. I love Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Lord of the Rings (I mean, really, who can hear Sam’s speech near the end of The Two Towers and not get misty eyed?). And I really, really love Hobbiton. I grew up in a small farming town and I love villages. I love the countryside and gardening and tea and community and everything about it. I love the idea of having a simple life, a rooted life. I’m definitely a Baggins though because I love to have an adventure or two, too, but then I want to come home to a place that feels like home.

I sometimes wish I were more like an elf, but I’m not. I’m not graceful all the time and I’m sure not wise (yet) and I definitely can’t walk on snow. But perhaps that’s not the point and that thinking I should be like an elf is a way of perpetuating the idea that a life needs to be extraordinary to be a good life, while research tells us that joy is found in the small moments of what can appear from the outside as an ordinary life. (I highly recommend watching Brene Brown’s talk that touches on this idea, which got me thinking about these intersections between life and writing and meaning more deeply, again as her work usually does. Not to mention, having the courage to be vulnerable and keep sharing what I create and write, even when it’s scary.)

So what does any of this have to do with my writing? My love of Hobbiton and a hobbit’s life shows up in my writing even when I’m not conscious of wanting to put themes such as home and belonging and peace and good tilled earth into it. It shows up in my writing worlds that feature great open spaces and rolling countryside and people on reluctant adventures and the belief that people can create a better world, a just world. Thinking about what is meaningful to me allows me to more fully embrace the stories I’m writing, dig deeper and write what’s true (even when it cuts a little more closely than what seems fully comfortable).

I get to choose what’s a good and meaningful life for me and you do, too. And it’s fine for me to be a hobbit and for you to be an elf or a ranger or whatever else floats your boat and gets you home to where you need to be for your writing and creating. So if you need me, you’ll find me in my hobbit hole and I’ll put the kettle on for tea. Until then, watch your feet…(you know the rest). 🙂

Saturday Short: A Run of Chickens

photograph of a flock of chickens

“Chickens” by E Gregory on Flickr CC-BY-NC

The thunder rumbled across the valley and rattled the bottles in Ani’s shop. She glared at the grey clouds blotting out the afternoon sun, making the world look flat and grey. A crack of lightning looked like it would split the mountain in two. She hated the thunderstorms at the border between the seasons.

“As if the gods themselves were fighting over the change of the tide.”

A rumble of a different sort caught her attention as a gaggle of her neighbor’s children came rushing in the back door of her store as the next wave of thunder shook stifled yells from them.

“Careful! Careful! You’ll break your necks running like that through my stock!”

They came skidding to a halt, their tracks across her floor a study in mud. They fanned out around her like chicks, looking up with their wide eyes.

“Auntie Ani, tell us the story,” the eldest cried as he jumped with the next burst of lightning. The storm drew closer. He would soon be too old to not pretend the storms didn’t scare him.

She raised an eyebrow. “Oh, what story would that be?”

The sudden downpour of rain, pounding on the roof almost drown out their reply.

“Oh, that story! Well, I suppose we could do that, but clean your feet and the mud on the floor first.”

They scurried away and her floor was clean before she was able to shutter her windows and draw enough cushions around. The older children dragged the rest and plopped down.

Then Auntie Ani began her tale about the real reason for the storms. She wove her tale for an entire hour until the storm had ran dry and moved on and the sun wiped away the last of the clouds from the sky and the children were smiling with their storm fears forgotten.

“And,” she concluded wagging a finger that would soon be gnarled with age, but not today. “That is why one must always be kind to a run of chickens.”

A rooster crowed from across the square as if to signal his agreement.

“Or else the great goddess, Thunder Chicken, will send her fury after you and you’ll never be rid of the storm again.”

The children nodded sagely and Auntie Ani smiled before she shooed them away. She watched them as they scattered to their houses and hoped she would die before she ever saw the great goddess bird again.

Saturday Short: A Mural of Buntings

photograph of two painted buntings

“Painted Buntings” by shell game on Flickr CC-BY-NC-ND

“You must make your paintings come alive!” my teacher said as she shook her paintbrush at my canvas. “What’s this? This is not alive. Feel your painting!”

I stifled what I wanted to say by biting the inside of my cheek. The last thing I wanted was for my painting to come alive. I looked over at my teacher staring at me, along with the twenty other sets of eyes in my two o’clock intermediate oil painting class, as if waiting for me to speak and felt my cheeks get hot no doubt as red as the chest of the bird I was beginning to feather into being.

“I don’t think paintings come to life is such a good thing,” I mumbled.

“Not a good thing?” My teacher snorted as if my words were somehow offensive smelling. “To paint is to be alive. To not show movement, the feeling, the essence of life, what is it worth then?” She threw up her hands and turned her attention to the student next to me.

My shoulders sank with relief and I went back to carefully daubing crimson onto my canvas, assiduously ignoring those who still stared at me. My teacher and I were not talking about the same thing. I knew this, but hoped she never would.

At the end of the hour, everyone packed up their oils and moved their easels to the perimeter of the room to dry. I was the last one in the room even though I didn’t want to be, but my painting was beginning to worry me. If I just stayed away for a few days, everything would be fine.

“You know,” my teacher called over her shoulder as she opened the door to leave. “If you don’t start showing life in your paintings, you won’t do well in the class. I know you can.”

I looked back at my canvas, half-covered in paint and felt the pull I always did. I should never have taken out my brushes, should never have come back, but I didn’t know anything else. All I’d ever wanted was to paint.

The sun was on the other side of the building when the screams woke me the next morning, my paintbrush clutched in my hand. I watched the coffee spread across the floor, my teacher heedless of it staining the hem of her skirt as her eyes flitted about almost as fast as the birds that had torn ragged holes in my canvas.

I smiled, half with wonder and half with worry at the birds whose feathers rained fine droplets of paint whenever they flew. At least this time I’d known to paint something small.

“A flock of buntings is called a mural, you know,” I said and my teacher’s still-shocked gaze came to rest on me. “How’s that for alive?”

Random Writing Thoughts

This has been a particularly hard week and I’m not sure why. The weather hasn’t been as hot as the past couple of weeks, we’ve gotten rain (a bit weird, but not unpleasant), and there hasn’t been any huge crises at work (*knock on wood*), but it’s still been a hard week. I’m exhausted and just feel like curling up with a book and a cup of tea and ignoring my writing. I don’t know about you, but sometimes it feels a bit hopeless or pointless or useless especially with everything bad happening that needs our attention. So today, I thought I’d share some things that have helped me keep writing and creating, just in case you may be having a bit of a difficult week, too.

So it’s probably no surprise here that I’m a big fan of Chuck Wendig’s blog, terribleminds. I find myself laughing and nodding in agreement in equal parts when reading his posts and save them to return to whenever I need a bit of a lift (or a kick in the pants). I wanted to share three with you that have been helpful to me. First, his post on ways to stay motivated. Second, “So, You’re Having a Bad Writing Day”which I think says it all. Third, PSA to Writers: Don’t Be a Shit-Flinging Gibbon, I just love the post title and it’s good advice (though hopefully you don’t need it).

A dear friend gave me Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, which I love so I had to share this article on 14 writing tips from Anne Lamott. Funny and useful writing advice, what more could we ask for?

And, whenever I really need a kick in the pants I repeat to myself what Stephen King wrote, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

So what inspires you on the days that are really, really tough for getting through the day and keeping on with your writing and creating? I’d love to hear about them.

I hope you keep writing and dreaming and creating because it is important and it does make the world a better place. Plus, momentum is a power thing. Making progress in my creative work always energizes me to get other things done and help out where I can. I wish you all the best in the sometimes fraught, busy, tiring, but occasionally amazing days ahead. We can do this, together. 🙂

 

Saturday Short: A Bellowing of Bullfinches

photograph of a male bullfinch

“Male bullfinch” by Nick Goodrum on Flickr (CC-BY)

“You’re nothing but a birdbrain!” Sam yelled. The boys behind him laughed as they all ran away.

Their cackling reminded Tami of grackles. “That’s not an insult!” she shouted at their fleeing backs. They didn’t turn around. “It’s not,” she said to herself. The tears in her eyes said otherwise.

She turned and walked the other way, away from the boys, the broken blacktop, and the walls where their taunts echoed. There were no birds ever on campus except for the occasional turkey vulture circling lazily overhead or seagulls lining the flat roofs of the buildings before the storms rolled in.

It wasn’t her fault. The birds had called to her since she could follow them, toddling along behind them. They waited for her and, if she was quiet and very still, one would sometimes alight on her shoulder and chatter in her ear. They told her stories and tried to teach her songs. She remembered the stories, but could never get the songs correct. The birds said it was because humans’ throats weren’t made right, but they still loved her.

“Why are you crying?” the bullfinch flitted by her ear asked as Tami turned up the street towards home.

“Not crying.” She wiped the back of her hand over her eyes.

“Of course, but why are you sad? Are you sad your flock is gone?”

Tami looked up at the bullfinch and frowned. “I don’t have a flock.”

“Not those boys?”

She snorted. “No, they were making fun of me.”

“Birdbrain is not an insult. We are quite intelligent.”

She nodded. “But humans use it as an insult.”

The bullfinch didn’t answer, but didn’t fly away either. It stayed until Tami reached her house. “I must go talk to the others.”

“Stay safe,” Tami said and watched until the bullfinch was not even a speck in the sky.

The next day after school, the taunts began, again.

“Birdbrain!” they yelled. The other students in the yard hurried away.

The group of boys didn’t run away laughing, but began following Tami and her heart sped faster as their footsteps grew closer.

“Leave me alone,” she said to her feet and hurried down the street, pulling the straps of her backpack tighter.

“Come back, birdbrain!”

Just as she pushed off to begin her desperate sprint away, she heard a cry behind her. No, not a cry. A deafening roar of hundreds of bullfinches, their chirps and songs combining into a mighty bellow. Tami turned around and saw the boys stopped in their tracks like frozen deer as the bellowing of bullfinches circled overhead, casting a shadow of a roiling raincloud.

The first bird dove and struck its stocky beak against the crown of Sam’s head. He cried out and tried to hit the bird, but he was too slow. Another bird dove down and struck another boy on the head, pulling out a strand of brown hair as if it were straw for a nest. Then the bullfinches called as one and a wave descended on the boys, who cried out and began running away.

And Tami laughed, tears running down her face, hands white from clenching her backpack straps so tight. She watched the bellowing of bullfinches chase the boys until she could no longer see either group. When she got home, there was a bullfinch waiting for her in the yard.

“Thank you,” she said. She’d have liked to say more, but would have ended up crying, which always seemed to confuse the birds.

The bird seemed to smile, but that was of course just her imagination. “You never have to thank your flock. We are a flock.” Then the bullfinch flew away and Tami waved until at last she was waving only to the sky.

Saturday Short: A Wake of Buzzards

photograph showing 7 buzzards circling in the sky

“Well I Never!” by Nick Ford (CC-BY-ND-NC)

There are only two reasons to see buzzards circling, gliding, stacked like moving mobile pieces with invisible strings in the air. The first is that there is a thermal and they are simply having fun. Or, at least, I imagine it would be enjoyable to ride the air like it were as substantial as the ground beneath my feet. I told this first reason to my little brother as we walked, shoulders hunched beneath our packs away from town. The stack of buzzards slowly descending towards the ground as we distanced ourselves from them.

“What’s the other?” he asked.

“Hmm?” My mind had lapsed in its attention, a dangerous thing.

“What’s the other reason for the buzzards?” He pointed up and I winced, never good to point at a bird, especially a buzzard.

I nodded buying time to think. Questions work well for that, too. “Do you know what a group of buzzards is called?”

“A flock?”

“Nope, a wake.”

He wrinkled his forehead the way he always did when thinking hard. “Like not asleep.”

I shook my head. “No, like when someone dies and people come. They call it a wake.”

“Like a funeral.”

“Something like that.”

“Huh.”

I could almost see the machinery of his mind trying to piece things together, but he was still too young, thank whatever deities remained. Soon he’d be old enough to know, but not now. I tugged my sleeve lower to cover the new bandage around my forearm.

“So, what’s the second reason for the buzzards to circle like that?”

I tried to laugh, but it only came out as a dry cough. “I’ll let you think on it and tell me, okay?”

“’Kay.”

It took him more than two miles with the buzzards barely specks of black against the late morning sky before he figured it out.

Saturday Short: A Sedge of Bitterns

photograph of an American Bittern

“American Bittern, Adult, 9719,” by Len Blumin (by-nc-nd)

“That is the stupidest name for a group of birds I’ve ever heard.” Marie’s face puckered as it always did when she expressed her strong opinion about the unbelievable idiocy of someone or something in the world.

It made Dana’s want to shove Marie into the marshy water, but she resisted the urge by raising her binoculars and following an egret’s unhurried glide across the sky. Taking Marie out birding was a mistake, but their mother had insisted and Dana acquiesced, as always.

“A sedge.” Marie shook her head. “By far the stupidest.”

“How many could you possibly know?”

“What?” Marie turned around, shocked at the ripple of impatience in Dana’s tone.

“I said, how many names for groups of birds do you know? How do you know it is the stupidest?”

Marie glared and kicked up a cloud of dirt as she ground her heel into the trail. “Everyone knows they should just be called a flock.” She turned, startling a sparrow that had perched on a nearby thistle. “I’m going back to the car.”

Dana watched her go and took a deep breath that caught somewhere in the back of her throat. Sedge wasn’t a stupid name for a group of bitterns. It made sense. Both a bittern and a bit of sedge were easy to overlook, far from glamorous, and dull to the untrained eye. But they were both beautiful, if really seen. She swept her binoculars slowly and methodically across the marsh in front of her, but saw nothing but more sparrows and an egret. No bitterns today.

Her phone buzzed in her pocket. It was Marie complaining that she didn’t have the keys to the car and was being eaten alive by mosquitos. Dana sighed as she put her binoculars in her bag and turned to go back to the carpark.

“I don’t think it’s a stupid name,” she said to no one in particular as she hung her head walking back to the car. “I’d love to see a sedge of bitterns.”

And behind her, from deep in the reeds, came a loud, watery plunk of the bittern’s call as if agreeing with her. She was still smiling when she reached the car and even Marie’s incessant whining couldn’t dampen Dana’s happiness. Maybe, one day, she’d find a sedge of bitterns after all.