The advice that Mark Twain gave in a letter to D. W. Bowser in 1880 is famous and often quoted even these days. Here it is in full:
“I notice that you use
plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to
write English – it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let
fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it.
No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be
valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when
they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit,
once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”
This is advice, you would probably agree, that is well worth following.
But notice, too, Twain’s subtle deviations from his own advice, notably
in his regular use of the ‘rule of three.’
‘- fluff, flower and verbosity -’
‘-wordy, diffuse, flowery –‘
I wouldn’t dream of suggesting he should follow his own advice for
simplicity more closely, as the letter reads so well. Perhaps it just goes to
show (to paraphrase an adage) that rules are for the obedience of the novice
writer, and the guidance of the gifted one.
But who was this D.W. Bowser that Mark Twain was writing to, four years
after he became famous for Tom Sawyer?
Bowser was a twelve year old schoolboy with an early talent for writing.
He was persuaded by his teacher to send the famous writer some of his own work together
with a copy of his school report. Mr Twain was obviously impressed, and struck
up a correspondence with the boy that went on for over two years.
Nothing much else is known about young Bowser,
other than that he adhered to the writer’s request not to allow their private
correspondence to be published. The letter containing this advice, and other
correspondence, didn’t come to light until after his otherwise unremarkable
death in 1939.
There has been a dispute in my daily paper about the use of the word bellwether. A reader complained that the word was regularly being used as a synonym for barometer, an indicator of change so to speak. For example, the way a particular town votes in a bye-election is seen as an indication – a bellwether – of how the whole country would vote in a general election. But this was not what he understood the word to mean.
The original meaning of bellwether was a lead sheep, usually a castrated ram with a bell round its neck, that other sheep would follow, making the shepherd’s life a bit easier. The word comes from middle English belle (bell) and wether (castrated ram). Even by the thirteenth century, though, the word was being used to denote a leader, initiative taker, trendsetter etc. and not just a special member of the flock. Hundreds of years later, my city, Coventry, was seen as the bellwether for pedestrianised shopping centres. Other towns and cities soon followed (learning from the mistakes the Coventry town planners made as they did so). You could describe Mary Quant, the fashion icon, as the bellwether for the popularity of the miniskirt in the 60s.
My Collins dictionary, bought in the 1980s, supports the newspaper reader’s assertion. It has just two definitions of bellwether: a lead sheep wearing a bell, or a leader. However, a more modern edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary includes the definition of the bellwether as an indicator of the way a situation is about to change. These days I rarely see the word used in any other context. It just shows that language is a living entity that constantly adapts and evolves in meaning. All of us, including the newspaper reader who complained about wrong usage, need to try and keep up. It’s probably also time I bought myself a more up to date Collins dictionary.
I recently went to an open day at the local medieval weaver’s cottage that has been restored to close to its original design. It was a fascinating step back in time – the smallness of the house for a family, let alone the only upstairs space being put aside for the loom; and the damp and smokey living conditions, with the only source of heat a fire in the middle of the living room floor and no chimney. It’s no wonder, when you add the fragments of fibre escaping from the yarn as the weaver worked his loom, that most of the inhabitants suffered with chronic chest problems.
The guide was a mine of information about the the last man who had lived there as a weaver, Apparently he needed twelve local women – spinsters – to spin enough yarn for him to keep his loom going full time in order to sell enough cloth to keep his family (and pay the spinsters). The spinsters were not necessarily unmarried. In the fourteenth century, the term merely described a woman’s occupation. It was not until the seventeenth century that it came to mean a woman who was not married and, by inference, past the age for marriage – on the shelf, so to speak.
The guide pointed out a large shelf in the main room, about six feet up from the floor. It was here, she said, that the children of the family slept (the weaver and his wife had a tiny bedroom for themselves). This would also include the older daughters who had not found husbands. I have heard of the term ‘on the shelf’ for women who were past the age to find husbands, so this seemed like a convincing origin for the phrase.
However I thought I’d best check before passing it on as fact. Unfortunately no dictionary or Google search, or phrase book, that I have looked up gives this as the meaning. Whilst it is true that since the nineteenth century unmarried women over a certain age were often rather unkindly referred to as being on the shelf, as if they were unsold and unwanted shop goods, or long forgotten records in an office store-room, I could find no reference to a literal shelf where these unfortunate women would be left gathering dust.
I would love to be wrong about this. So if anyone out there has an an actual source that can confirm that some of our long forgotten maiden aunts used to sleep on shelves, do please get in touch.
Ever started listening to a comedy on the radio and had to switch off because the canned laughter is driving you mad? Because the jokes simply weren’t that funny, so why be forced to find them amusing? Wouldn’t the programme be better without any laughter as a backdrop? Give it to me straight man, I’ll laugh when I want to!
Canned laughter was not introduced to improve bad jokes, but
to indicate to the listeners that it was actually a joke (you don’t say!) But
recent research has found that the canned laughter does more than just signal a
joke has just been made and, far from being a turn off, it makes the joke seem
funnier. The research, recently published in Current Biology, tested this theory out with 70 victims – sorry,
human guinea pigs. They were told 40 bad jokes either without a laughter track
or with one. The average joke rating was 2.8 out of 7, but with the laughter
track the rating went up to over 3. So still not very funny then. Professor
Scott, from University College London says of this finding: “What we think it
means is the laughter track glues itself onto the joke in a way that is hard to
ignore … The laughter makes the joke more than the sum of its parts.”
Laughter, according to evolutionary biologists, is one of the mechanisms humans use to bond with each other. It is, they say, a fundamentally strange thing to do on your own. Even canned laughter therefore helps us to connect.
What does this mean for the writer engaged in an occupation almost invariably done alone? Except it isn’t; not really. There are numerous connections being made all the time. In a good book the characters relate to each other and feed off each other, be this for tragic, or earnest, or downright comic effect. And, of course the reader is always present in the author’s mind – have I set the scene properly? Given the characters suitable names to reflect their personalities? Given the plot the right number of twists?
The reader needs clues that a book is meant to be humorous. You could say the writer has a metaphorical can of laughter on the desk beside her to draw on when, cue drumroll, she wants to make the reader laugh. And readers do laugh when reading funny books. I have embarrassed myself on planes and trains by laughing out loud. I would like to think that some of my own work has made a few people laugh – or at least smile briefly.
My first problem as a writer is coming up with a compelling opening paragraph. The harder I try, the more contrived it becomes. Very occasionally I succeed but, exhausted by the effort, the rest of the story just peters out.
As a result I have some sympathy for the jobbing journos on local newspapers who week after week are expected to create not one, but several eye-catching stories even during a week where nothing much has happened on their patch at all. The magazine, The Oldie, has regularly printed examples of such non-stories in their column Not Many Dead, and some years ago they compiled an short anthology using the same title.
Here are a few of my favourites from the section on local papers, reflecting the sometimes less than giddy pace of life we experience in the provinces. I’ve selected them because, behind the sheer banality of the stories, and the somewhat tedious attention to detail, there is a hint of unexplored depths of human emotion and drama behind the incident – the starting points for a series of cracking new stories perhaps? (Though making something compelling out of the last example would, I feel, be a bit of a challenge for even the most creative writers among us.)
A forty-five minute
discussion between parish councillors resulted in the decision that each item
on the agenda should take ten minutes. BURTON MAIL.
Four Forest Heath
councillors mingled with royalty when they attended a garden party at
Buckingham Palace. NEWMARKET JOURNAL
A security guard on
patrol at a building site in Liversedge last week, returned to his office to
find thieves had stolen two packets of peanuts. Police believe that one packet
was salted and the other dry-roasted. DEWSBURY PRESS
Glossop Police were
called to Manor Park on Friday night. A resident had found an injured duck and
also called an RSPCA officer. The duck was taken to Victoria Vets at 9pm but
died at 9.30pm, with the Police present. GLOSSOP CHRONICLE
people went to a summer solstice rave in a field by the Thanet Way, near the
Roman Galley on Saturday night. A public order official told them to leave by
9am on Sunday, which they did. ISLE OF THANET GAZETTE
An unnamed lady cyclist was not badly hurt when she fell off her bike in Burgess Hill. BRIGHTON ARGUS
I meet a lot of interesting people on this blog, who have come to writing along very different routes. Robert says he sobered up when he was thirty five and really started thinking about writing again then. It had been an old dream that got lost in the chaos. Before that he had a lot of different jobs. Once he got it together he established a very lucrative professional career and found that he did not have what it takes to devote the time to writing a novel and also handle the demands of a stressful and responsible job. He did take some time off and self-published a novel in 1990s when print on demand was in its infancy, but after that he found poetry to be great outlet and something he could handle. He wrote some pretty decent poems and got published over the years. He has just started writing novels again after retiring early for that purpose.
What is the title of your latest book? It is titled The Shelter. It is a thriller with a bit of romance that is set in Nome, Alaska. It takes a look at what could happen if one of the many pathogens coming back into the world as a result of melting permafrost is deadly to humans. Here is the blurb from the cover: In the half-light of an Alaskan summer night Matt Tulugak pulls his truck off a gravel road and gets out to relieve himself. Looking out over the tundra, he sees a brown gash where permafrost has melted and sloughed off a low hillock. A bony claw reaches out of the mud. He shivers in the light breeze, notices the crescent moon hanging low in the sky, starts to walk. As he approaches the claw it resolves into five huge mammoth tusks arranged in a circle. Within the circle a human skull, half buried and yellow with age, looks through empty eye sockets into a world that is about to change forever.
What are the most
challenging aspects of being a writer? And the most rewarding? The most
challenging for me is the loneliness of the task, it is kind of an inherent
contradiction that we create and write pretty much in solitude but we want the
finished story to be read and find a life of its own among many. The most rewarding is when I have completed
something I can be proud of and it is read and enjoyed by others.
What is your top
tip for an aspiring writer? I have only gotten
one novel published so far that was not self-published so I am still aspiring
myself. Keep at it and work hard, write
every day. And when you write do it
because you have something you really want to say or create, not just because
you want to be “a writer” in some abstract sense. Also when the time comes to send your work out
to be judged, don’t let rejection get you down. Every rejection is just a step
closer to getting the only reply that matters.
Make sure what you do send out is professional and fits what is being
asked for, take some time to learn what formatting is expected and make sure
the work is as perfect as it can be. I
used to think that if something was written well enough it doesn’t matter how
it is presented. That was naïve.
What are you
working on at the moment? I am reworking a
novel I did some time ago and also writing a new novel that is
semi-autobiographical. I have lived an
interesting life and want to use those experiences to create a good story.
What do you like
to read? I read a lot of
good but forgettable thrillers. I also
like reading the ancient writers – Caesar, Cicero, Seutonius, Herodotus,
Tacitus, Homer etc. – and I like pretty much anything that is well written and
not too slow. I read Huckleberry Finn
every few years, I like historical fiction like Edward Rutherford and Collen
McCullough. I like horror especially from folks like Dean Koontz who always
have something positive in their stories, fantasy in the vein of Tolkien. I don’t enjoy grim and depressing. As a kid I burned through all of the Edgar
Rice Burroughs novels and still pick one of those up from time to time.
David W. Thompson is married, and the proud grandfather of twelve. He loves fishing, hiking and kayaking (well, pretty much everything outdoors). Indoors he enjoys woodcarving (and has even won an award or two) and makes his own fruit wines. He attended classes at the University of Maryland University Campus, mostly in Nuremberg, Germany, but also in Georgia US, during his stint with the US Army. He graduated shortly after his Expiration of Term of Service release. He’s been writing for some time (mostly short stories), but became more serious about it once he retired from a management position at Boeing in 2013.
What is the title of your latest book? The latest is Sons and Brothers and it’s the third book in the Legends of the Family Dyer trilogy. Although it can be read as stand-alone, readers will have an enhanced understanding of the characters if they’ve followed Moll’s family from the beginning. In Sons and Brothers, after losing past battles to the Dyer family, Laris has one last chance to complete Lilith’s demonic hit. Disguising his possession as insanity, he intends to win this war … Two cousins reunite the family at a hunting camp in the Potomac Highlands. Their three friends help oppose the ancient evil: Anna–a hesitant Native American spiritualist, Lenore–a teenager just discovering her shape-shifting abilities, and Bridget–a “regular” teenage girl with too much to lose…and plenty to gain. The “hero triumvirate”, with the help of Anna’s spirit guide, embark on a life and death challenge to save their friends from the encroaching darkness.
Along with this latest release from Solstice Publishing, I have another book that’s to be released in early September from The History Press titled Haunted Southern Maryland. It’s an eclectic blending of history and fiction… well some would argue the fiction descriptor as the tales include personal and historical hauntings and speculates on the reason and timeframe of the hauntings. What are the most challenging aspects of being a writer? And the most rewarding? The hardest part is when I’m editing and find a section that I consider some of my finest story-telling, but recognize that it doesn’t move the story along so have to cut it out. It’s almost like losing a friend. The most rewarding? Hmm, the idea of leaving a piece of yourself behind for future generations…an immortality of sorts? That’s pretty cool. Then there’s personal satisfaction of a job well done of course, and having readers’ recognize your efforts. What could bebetter? Some of my favourite responses?“I’m so glad the author wrote this book.” “This book will stay with me forever.” I thought about this book for weeks after I finished it.” “Not only a great read, but an important one.”These provide the impetus to move on, continue improving my craft…maybe I’m doing something right and improving at least a few lives…
What is your top
tip for an aspiring writer? Find a good editor who shares your vision
and write, not necessarily what you know, but what you love. That makes all the
research enjoyable. And keep writing!
What are you
working on at the moment? I’m well into an
anthology of short stories, all of which could be called dark fiction, even
though some have happy endings! I hope to have a story related to the major
holidays…with a different slant on them of course!
What do you like to read? Everything- including cereal boxes. LOL If I had to limit myself however, it would be the same as what I write: horror, magical realism in the fantasy genre, historical fiction and dark fiction in general. Dystopian fiction has also received a lot of my reading attention of late. It’s only when we’re a bit scared that we really feel alive!
And finally, here’s an extract from Sons and Brothers
Night descended on the mountains, thick as molasses and
corrupting all it touched. The full moon floated above the tree-line,bloated as roadkill
left in the sun. If he stretched, he might snatch it from its perch. It emitted
little light, a scarred pumpkin with its jack o’ lantern face mocking his
torment. Barren branches were fleshless fingers grasping to ensnare the jeep,
and rip out his soul…
County, Maryland. September, 1990
The trotline cord glided through the
johnboat’s roller system. The stains of dredged mud and deep-water slime gave
testament to many trips here. The trolling motor was locked at an angle to
maintain the boat’s course, compensating for the incoming tide’s pull.
felt the jerk on the line, gentle at first as the creature took hold, then a
stout pull as it latched on to his offering. He peered through the murky depths
and saw the creature’s mouth open and close, savoring its victim’s flesh.
if sensing danger, the sea dweller flailed one claw from side to side in
warning, prepared to defend its right to the captured prey. Its smaller claw
and saber-tipped legs skewered the exposed meat and fat, unwilling to share. As
it was pulled toward the surface, greed trumped caution, and the predator
became the prey. He readied his net as the ghostly crab floated closer to the
a flip of his wrist, he moved his net under and up. The large blue crab broke
the surface in a clacking frenzy of legs and claws. He noticed the long thin
apron and smiled, then reached out to squeeze its carapace.
no more sooks or paper shells.” He hoisted the crab over a bushel basket and
flipped the net over, dumping his latest catch in with two dozen other large
bodied ‘jimmies’—adult #1 male crabs. He pulled the chicken neck off the
trotline’s slip knot and rolled the line into a bucket for storage. It would be
his last run this year. The nip in the air signaled the changing season and the
crab run was slowing anyway—even if they were fatter. Maybe his mother would
make them some crab cakes for dinner…
stowed the rolled trotline behind his seat, pulled the trolling motor prop out
of the water and reached down for his paddle. There was time to explore before
his mother came home. He dipped the paddle, breaking the water’s surface with a
moist whisper, no more than a wet kiss. It reminded him of Uncle Jim’s visits.
His tobacco juice spit made the same sound hitting the porch floor in front of
their house trailer.
south of where he ran his trotline, a small creek dumped its waters into the
bay. It was a famous creek—at least by local standards. His best buddy, Mike
Cusic, claimed it was a haunted stretch of water, cursed by a vengeful witch
because of some atrocity committed by colonial settlers. Mike said it happened
like a thousand years ago, yet strange things still happened there and on the
surrounding property. Ghostly wisps of fog that followed unnerved hikers, boats
flipped upside down by unseen obstacles, and even a few dozen car wrecks on the
nearby state road over the years.
turned the bow of the johnboat into the creek and wondered what it must’ve been
like then—years ago when the country was still new and raw. This stretch of the
creek looked just as it must have then. Invasive phragmites reeds covered banks
once populated by wild rice and cattails, but otherwise…giant maples and
sycamores, hundreds of years old, stretched their branches toward him in a welcoming
embrace. And the people then? Were they so different? Perhaps they caught crabs
from this same stretch of water and feasted that night on food earned by the
sweat of their brow. Sustenance drawn fresh from the sea and land.
Independent—leaning on no one, a man’s value based on the strength of his back
and his husbandry of the land—not an unearned birthright.
sucked in a great draught of salty air, stretched and slid down to the floor of
the johnboat, resting his head on the abandoned seat. The push of the tide
reversed the water’s flow and pulled his small craft deeper into the creek and
its surrounding woods. His mind drifted to that other time and the mist of a
dream shrouded his eyes.
marshy banks gave way to open woods [A1] and beyond, he saw a small field or large garden. A30-ish
man and a woman his age worked the ground between the rows of what looked to be
very anemic tobacco plants. Their hoes moved up and down tending the scrawny
thin leaved plants—thwack, thwack, thwack. They worked with the tenacity and
rhythm of machines, only stopping to wipe the sweat from their eyes. On this
warm late summer day, the man was dressed in long sleeves, pants with
suspenders, and heavy work boots. The woman wore a bonnet and a dress that
bunched up at her ankles—although she worked in her bare feet.
he drift up to a Mennonite farm or was it a historical reenactment the county
sponsored for tourists? He grabbed a branch to pull his johnboat to the bank
while he observed.
in clear view, the workers (or performers) feigned ignorance of his presence.
Bent at the waist, the cadence of their hoes increased, creating a beat not
unlike tribal drums. The man stood to full height and twisted back and forth to
work a kink from his back. He shielded his eyes and stared in Brodie’s
Are you being careful down there?”
splash to his right and he turned to see a dark-haired boy, no more than five
years old, sitting at the creek’s edge. He would’ve sworn the lad wasn’t there
moments before. The child was dressed like the adults in the field and slapped
at the water beetles scurrying over the water’s surface.
careful, Uncle.” The boy raised his eyes and his mouth flapped open.
Brodie said, “I didn’t see you either. Did I scare you?”
but you’re bigger than I thought you’d be, Mister.”
What do you mean…?” but the boy’s attention was already back to the water. He
slid his hand in the creek and pulled it out with a splash. He ran toward him,
his right hand cupped in front of him.
what I caught, Brodie.” He opened his fist to display a tadpole. The immature
frog’s vestigial legs dragged it across the boy’s palm. “This is gonna be a
baby frog. You ever seen one before?”
nodded and leaned over the johnboat, holding the boy’s wrist steady to admire
the prize. “What’s your name, buddy? Do we know each other from somewhere?”
boy shook his head and jerked his hand away.
wrong, little man? You look like you’ve seen a ghost or…”
woman from the field was suddenly there and snatched the boy from the water,
stood him on the bank and pointed to the field. “Go home, now.”
okay, ma’am. He was just showing me…”
woman grabbed the bow of the johnboat and swung it around against the current
as if it was weightless. “You don’t belong here, Brodie. This isn’t your time.”
What’s that supposed to mean?”
new lands and waters are bountiful, but blood is thicker. Do you not find it
in the hell are you talking about, lady?”
eyes bored into his. “Stay out of the mountains, Brodie. Only evil waits for
you there.” With that, she gave the boat a herculean shove that propelled the
vessel sideways downstream. It slammed into a submerged widow-maker log and
woke coughing up water from his lungs. Standing in the waist-deep creek, he
wiped his eyes. The johnboat was floating away—already at the first bend and he
raced to catch up with it. Trotline cord drifted behind the boat and he
gathered it up as he reached the boat. He wasn’t as lucky retrieving the crabs.
The hard-won dinner was gone, but his paddle and crab net floated just ahead.
The expensive trolling motor battery was also gone.
God, what a crazy dream.
It had to be a dream, yet he couldn’t help looking back for reassurance. Upstream
no opening in the woods indicated a field, no one stood on the banks—and he
looked…really looked. He heard a
distant thwack, thwack, thwack… Hoes slapping the dirt? He tuned his ears
towards the sound. The awkward flight of a pileated woodpecker provided a
triumph of sanity.
Jesus, I sure need this trip to the mountains.”
Hampshire County, West Virginia
She never imagined a single knock at
the door could upend her life. The knocking indicated some urgency, and she
rushed from the shower, donning her robe as she descended the stairs.
Flashing red and blue lights filtered through
the cigarette stained curtains over the foyer windows. Oh no, Mom…? But no, her mother was sprawled out on the couch. Her
snores echoed through the small house like pigs rooting in a garden, sleeping
off whatever she’d put in her system this time.
County Sheriff. Open up or we’re coming in.”
coming.” She turned the corner towards the door and loose threads from the
well-worn carpet snagged her toe.
rap at the door “Ma’am, is everything all right in there?”
I’m coming.” She limped to the door and threw it open.
Hirsch, is it?”
is your mother at home?”
mean yes, but she’s sleeping.” She nodded toward the living room. “What’s this
Deputy Stiles, Miss. I have a warrant for the arrest of Madeline Hirsch. Please
step aside.” The deputy didn’t wait for her to comply, but pushed past her to
the living room. Clumps of red clay mud fell from his boots marking every step.
A second deputy moved past her, nodded an apology and joined his companion.
They bound her mother’s wrists together with tie wraps.
Hirsch, you are under arrest for the murder of John Clarke.” The second deputy
pulled a card from his shirt pocket and read her Miranda rights. “Do you
understand your rights as they’ve been read to you?”
No…no I don’t understand. Oh, I get it. Did my friends send you here for my birthday
next week? You are lookers, I’ll give you that.” Her mother smiled and winked
at the deputies. She offered them no resistance… until they led her from the
no wait…what’s going on? Where are you taking me?”
I repeat, you are under arrest and charged with murder.”
call your grandfather. Tell Mika we need his help.”
will. Stop, you’re hurting her. Mom, stand up and walk. We’ll get this
calls to the sheriff’s office provided little information. The following
morning, Mika’s lawyer called to fill her in.
sheriff’s office claims your mother drove into Martinsburg last evening. That
she was trying to get money for drugs and…this isn’t very pleasant, Miss
Hirsch, but your grandfather said to tell you the truth…”
apparently, she’d tried to turn a trick. The potential john ended up concussed
in an alley behind the liquor store. There was a bourbon bottle covered with
his blood beside him and your mother’s fingerprints were all over it. His
wallet was taken and it was found in your mother’s vehicle last night.”
cornucopia of emotions consumed her: concern, betrayal, the pain of desertion,
and yes—guilt. Could she have helped her somehow? Was she too wrapped up in her
own drama to see her mother’s need?
next phone call she received was from Social Services. They deposited her at
her grandfather’s cabin that night. Lovestown, West Virginia, was her new home.
* * * *
She closed her eyes and let the
spray from the shower soak her hair and wash away the remnants of tears from
her face. The water pressure was stronger than at her mother’s house. She felt
her eyes well up and she allowed herself a moment of self-pity. It was too much
to deal with, even for someone accustomed to the pains of betrayal: her mother,
Mr. Simmons, and Garren. Dear God, even Garren.
shook her head to clear her mind and bit her upper lip to brace herself against
the world. The hot water quit before she finished, but she didn’t have the
luxury of time today anyway. She rushed, not in anticipation of the new day,
but in a hurry to put it behind her. Stepping from the shower, she felt for the
forgot the towel.” Water dripped from her raven’s hair (Garren’s description)
and formed a small puddle on the tiled floor. Shivering, she hugged her arms
around her chest and dashed to the closet, snatched a towel, and vigorously
patted dry. She tossed the towel to the floor and pushed it about with her foot
to mop up the puddles. Her grandfather needed bathroom rugs.
morning marked a new beginning in a short life full of new beginnings, none
pleasant. Her existence remained in constant flux since her father walked out
of their lives two years before. It seemed to her that the dust from the moving
vans had barely settled in Martinsville, and now her mother’s adventures left
her homeless—a virtual orphan. Her grandfather welcomed her into his home with
the full sanction of the state, and of his heart. The one constant in her life,
he had the stubbornness common to a man of his years, and the wisdom that old
age is often given credit for, even if undeserved.
thought brought a smile to her lips that transformed her eyes. She wiped the
fog from the bathroom mirror, and flipped back her hair. Heavy and wet, it
swished and slapped the small of her back. Feeling as shallow as the girls she
silently mocked at her former school, she stared at her blurred reflection.
less than a quarter Native American, her skin was nearly the same tone as her
grandfather’s. It was a source of great pride to her, a tie to her past and to
ancestors she held in high regard—an admitted albeit clandestine vanity. Her
skin reflected who she was but was also a banner celebrating non-conformance. A
flag setting her apart in a world that paid token homage to what it secretly
abhorred—diversity. She blushed, stuck out her tongue at her reflection, and
smiled. At the knock on the door, she pulled the towel tightly around herself.
are you nearly done?”
Washing the sleep from my eyes.”
want to be late on your first day. Hustle up.”
another new day in another new school, but maybe it would turn out better this
time. As she dressed, she allowed her mind to wander to kayaking the South
Branch River with Garren—experiencing it in a way most people missed. The
gentle pull of their paddles drawing them around each bend to absorb every new
vista. Dragonflies used their hands and feet for landing pads as they performed
their mating dance. Majestic raptors soared toward the mountain peaks, and in
the span of a single breath were gone. Blue herons clumsily walked the banks on
stilt-like legs, but when alarmed, displayed their grace in flight. The
memories were so intense; she could smell the sweetness of the water, and even
stare into the depths of Garren’s blue eyes. She knew she’d miss those times
together…that she’d committed the ultimate blunder from the look in his eyes,
and the stiffness of his body. She’d forfeited a friendship she treasured more
than any other.
released the memory before a half-formed tear could fall, and finished brushing
her hair. As she pulled on her bra, she felt the pinch of her birthmarks, the
three raised parallel lines imprinted under her left breast. Probably need a
larger cup size, she thought, but not something she’d talk to her grandfather
about. She finished dressing in black jeans and a matching blouse. An antler
amulet completed her trademark uniform.
mind drifted off to Garren again. He said she shouldn’t let the xenophobic
fools get under her skin, her coppery colored skin. That her differences were
what made her special. He said people might see her for who she was then, and
not the caricature of her they’d created in their minds. It would be nice to
fit in somewhere, with someone. But she knew people would see what they wanted
to—no matter what she did.
her faux pas, he’d told her to put Mr. Simmons in his place, knee him where his
momma never kissed him, or even punch him in the jaw! It was all easy for him
to say. He’d never known prejudice…never seen the smirks on faces of a majority
unlike himself…never been the focus of a dozen sets of eyes from a hostile
clique. Still he was her Garren…or had been.
she was no hero. No warrior against injustice. No, she’d stalked from the room
wet eyed, and timid as a rabbit.
Hampshire County, WV
The crosshairs moved over his
intended prey, then steadied as he squeezed the hair trigger. The sharp crack
of the .243 caliber rifle shattered the stillness of the morning.
clean kill!” He smiled. The rifle’s echo bounced from valley to hilltop and
back again, heard mostly by the animals living in those hills. The blast from a
firearm was not an unusual sound here. In fact, it was a sound common on any
given weekend in the rural Appalachians. The immediate fear it might cause
among closeted city dwellers was not felt here. It was certainly of no import
to any of his neighbors, furred or otherwise. He felt the weight of the rifle
in his hands, admired the artistry of wood mated to metal and knew the
whoop of joy created an acoustical double exposure as it merged with the last
weak echoes of the rifle’s shot. It felt childish getting so excited over a
target, but when your talents are few, you celebrate what you do have. Shooting
was the one thing he excelled at.
drew in the smell of burnt gunpowder, savoring its acrid flavor. Autumn in the
mountains…how could anyone live anywhere else? The trees displayed vibrant
oranges, reds, and yellows in tones never created on any artist’s palette. The
colors danced and came alive in the breeze.
You doing okay?” his mother yelled from the back porch of their cabin.
Mom. Three targets, three bullseyes, can’t beat that.”
ran to the house, targets in hand. As he approached the back porch, his mother
placed a half-peeled apple and her paring knife on the table. She pulled her
blonde hair out of her eyes and looked at, or rather through him. He knew where
her mind went when that faraway look entered her eyes. How had he grown up so
fast? Just yesterday, Adam was killed in the car wreck. Just yesterday, she’d
endured birth pains. Just yesterday, he was potty trained, started school, had
his first crush… Now her only son would join the men in deer camp for a week.
to Mom…?” He waved his hand in front of her indigo blue eyes. Eyes matching his
father would be proud.” Diana took the targets from his outstretched hand. “It
looks like you’re a pretty fair shot.”
forget your promise.”
keep my promises, young man. Assuming your Uncle Jim promises to keep you safe,
that is. Sixteen does seem young to be up there with a barely civilized pack of
men though. Are you sure you don’t want to wait until next year?”
felt his jaw drop, then saw she was biting back a grin.
you think he would?”
who? Uncle Jim?”
Would he be proud of me, you think?”
course he would. I wish he could see you now…but then, I guess he does…”
wondered what his father would think. In fact, he wondered about the man
period. Was he glad when his mother got pregnant with him? Did he want a child?
He’d heard the gossip—whispers from people not quite in earshot. Snippets of
conversation suggesting his father’s accident maybe wasn’t an accident at all.
Maybe Adam Doyle couldn’t handle the pressures of fatherhood. Sometimes he
questioned the story himself, and then he’d feel like a traitor to his father’s
memory for allowing the thought to come to fruition.
a change, his mention of his father brought a smile to his mother’s lips. Often
he came home to find her crying for no reason, usually with a framed picture of
his father in her lap, repeating over and over, “Why Adam, why?”
was worthless to help when melancholy overtook her. Sometimes she’d remain in
the dumps for several days after her tears dried. She weathered a lot by
herself, and when she needed him most, he couldn’t help. He felt useless,
ineffectual, and immature. There was nothing worse than being unable to help
someone you love, to have to stand by while they suffered. He grabbed the
crucifix hanging at his chest. Holding it brought him comfort, a tie to a
father he never knew. His mother said Adam was never without it and she passed
it to him after one of her crying marathons.
worst part about his mother’s pain was that it was entirely his fault. He was
like a deer tick: sucking the life from her, and leaving nothing of value in
return. He was the reason she worked so hard, and why she never had any
boyfriends. After all, everyone talked about Diana’s beauty. He admitted it was
true, even if she was his mother.
to Garren, now who’s spacing out?”
just daydreaming about the hunt. Will you be all right while I’m gone?”
had to grow up too fast, didn’t you, Garren? I think this poor decrepit old
woman can look after herself for one week. I’ll be fine. I’ll never forget the
first week your father and I hunted that mountain together. I never felt more
with us then. Show us a thing or two,” he suggested.
this year. You check it out, and do your male bonding thing. If you see a lot
of deer and bring home some venison, maybe I’ll go next year and show you how
it’s really done.”
smiled and hugged her. This hunt would be the best week in the history of man.
He turned, and headed inside to clean his rifle.
hey Garren? Your Uncle Jim said he worked out a way for your cousin Brodie to
go to camp too! Aunt Lily couldn’t afford the money the men put up for the
cook, so Jim set Brodie up as cook’s helper so he can get in some hunting too.
I’m sure Mika could use the help too.”
mother’s eyes darkened as they always did when she spoke of her sister Lily, or
Lily’s son Brodie for that matter. He knew there was bad blood between them,
but it wasn’t something his mother cared to share.
Aunt Lily called last May to see if Brodie could stay with them during the last
month of school. Lily said her job required her to go on 30 days of travel.
He’d heard their phone conversation, or at least his mother’s end of it.
when are grocery store clerks required to go on travel? Um hmm…um hmm.
can be straight with me, Lily. Did you get another DWI? Um hmmm…sure,
right—whatever you say. But yeah, Brodie can stay with us. None of it’s his
fault after all.”
wondered if that side of the family were always the black sheep. He had little
in common with his cousin. They didn’t like the same video games or TV shows,
and where Brodie was, trouble was sure to follow.
said his mother trusted him for the length of his leash, so maybe he was
proving her right. Or maybe some people were just born bad…all he knew was if
Brodie was around, he was at the heart of any mischief… or was blamed for the
did find one interest in common: the outdoors. Still, he wasn’t very close with
his cousin and he wasn’t sad when Brodie went home after school ended for the
summer. But by mid-summer, they were forced to be bunkmates again.
he heard his mother and aunt arguing on the phone, his mother’s phone left on
speaker as she bounced around the kitchen fixing dinner.
the two boys hardly know each other.”
just spent the last month of the school year together.”
but they were in different schools. How much time together did they have with
homework and all? And Brodie was in Hampshire High and Garren was in that fancy
hoity-toity private school…”
you dare, Lily…”
That was uncalled for. But hey, just for the week? I know Brodie would love to
show Garren off to his friends and take him crabbing. And I’d love to see my
nephew. What do you say?”
Diana agreed that a week in the trailer park wouldn’t scar her child for life.