The Plight of the Pacific Northwest’s Mustangs

I wrote yesterday about the plight of so-called wild horses in the American west—how their over population has led to a movement to round them up and find them homes among people. If work could be found for them, they could possibly be saved from slaughter. Even though the federal government effectively prohibited horse slaughter in the United States in 2007, Native Americans are not bound by federal restraints. Because many of these horses are over-grazing reservation lands, tribes frequently round up mustangs and send them out of country to be slaughtered—usually to Canada.

The great irony for those of us who follow Jon’s work is that so much controversy over the New York carriage horses is driven by the human surety that a horse’s natural environment and highest ideal is to roam free on the open plains. There they can be free from work or human contact, living out their lives as part of a natural landscape. This appealing notion, compared to the image evoked by a horse “shackled” to a carriage or otherwise “imprisoned” in a tiny stall, has served as a powerful driver of some very ignorant assumptions. The first of these is that the appealing, even spiritual notion that horses are meant to roam freely and away from human contact is just, flat wrong.

What seems to be forgotten here is that horses are not native to North America. Yes, the ancestors of the modern horse roamed the continent at one time, but those smaller, proto-horses were driven to extinction about 10,000 years ago. The horses we see on the western plains today are actually feral horses, brought to the new world with the first Europeans, probably in the 1600’s. As horses escaped or were set loose, they formed herds and bred unchecked. And they became some of the largest herbivores competing with other species, both wild and domesticated, for limited graze lands. Although such lands seemed like a limitless resource even as recently as a century ago (especially after we all but eliminated the largest herbivores—the bison—from the equation), that is no longer the case. These horses’ continued existence in the wild is no more “natural” or intentional than the existence of a monkey colony in Florida (as Jennifer Bowman wrote about this week).

So now we are in a position where many of these horses are being rounded up and removed from the wild for their own survival and the survival of competing species. The highest ideal for these surplus horses? That homes can be found for them so that they can live out their lives in the company of people who will be able to care for their needs, people who will have work for them so that their relevance—and therefore their survival—can be assured.

But if that doesn’t work, animal rights activists have a vague notion that they can be sent to equine rescue farms. After all, these facilities are widely available and well-funded.

Aren’t they?

 

Photo: public domain from Pixabay

mustangs

The Tragedy of Johnny King: A Ghost Story?

On this day—October 28—in 1855, Johnny King woke up to rare autumn sunshine streaming through the cabin windows and the enticing smells of his mother cooking breakfast. He joined his little sister Olive and baby brother Percival with their mother in the kitchen as he sat down alongside their hired man Enos Cooper. Johnny’s step-father Harvey, unfortunately, lay sick in bed that morning with an attack of pleurisy.

 

By noon that day, all three adults would be dead, and Johnny would watch as his home burned to the ground; the responsibility for the lives of the two younger children would be placed solely in Johnny’s young hands—he was not yet seven years old.

 

war1The trouble began two days before when an elder of the Muckleshoot tribe known as “Nelson” had visited the family homestead. Although Johnny’s family had always known Nelson to be a reasonable man, he had remained sullen and uncommunicative as he sulked about the yard that day, finally taking his leave with a complaint about how the white men would soon have all the land in their area. As Johnny’s step-father’s symptoms worsened the next day, the family forgot all about the old Indian’s petulant behavior the day before and what, if anything, it might bode for their future.

 

That morning as they ate their breakfast Johnny’s mother Eliza became aware of activity in their dooryard. She opened the cabin door and immediately spotted an Indian at the corner of an outbuilding with a rifle trained on her. She jumped back, slamming the door, as a bullet splintered through the doorframe.

 

From that moment, Chaos erupted in the little cabin. Johnny’s step-father Harvey Jones drug himself from his sick bed only to be shot by a bullet that whizzed through the cabin wall; he was killed immediately. The hired man Cooper exited through a back window at Eliza’s urging. She herself did her best to hide her three children under a mattress in the back room before resuming her position at the front of the cabin to return fire on the attackers.

 

But quite suddenly, ominously, quiet descended on the tiny house. Johnny clutched the younger children close under the mattress as they heard footsteps enter the cabin and advance to the back room where they huddled in fear. They were soon discovered and marched into the front yard—their mother was nowhere to be seen.

 

Nelson was there, however. He indicated that the children would not be killed, but that Johnny should take his little brother and sister—and go.

 

Johnny knew that the Brannans’ cabin was about a mile away on the adjoining homestead. He took the hands of the little children and started a slow march toward their neighbors’ home. Little Percival was not quite two years old; Olive not quite four. Their progress was painfully slow. Johnny finally hid two children in some bushes to complete the final leg of this journey on his own.

 

Arriving at the Brannan homestead, Johnny saw that the cabin there had been trashed and looted. The windows were shattered and the door stood open revealing broken furniture and ripped up bedding. If Johnny had found the courage to investigate further, he might have discovered the bodies. The Brannans too had been attacked by the natives. Mr. Brannan’s corpse would later be found in the cabin. The slaughtered bodies of Mrs. Brannan, along with her newborn baby, were eventually found stuffed down their well.

 

Johnny had no choice but to take the children and retrace their steps in order to reach the neighbors on the other side of their homestead. Approaching the now-smoldering remains of their own home, they saw no sign of the Indians; however, about a hundred feet from the cabin, the children found their mother in a crumpled heap on the ground, shot, but still miraculously alive. Johnny didn’t want to leave her, but with great effort she was able to insist that he continue with the smaller children on to the Thomas homestead where they might find safety. It was her dying wish that they leave her for the sake of their own safety. They bid their mother their final, agonizing farewells and continued their journey northward.

 

Unfortunately, there was no sanctuary to be found at the Thomases. After marching the little ones another two miles to that homestead, they found the cabin deserted. Next Johnny walked his exhausted siblings to the Kirkland farm—again, there were no people to be found.

 

By this time, the afternoon was rapidly fading into evening and darkness. In desperation, Johnny put little Percival on his back and instructed Olive to follow him up the narrow trail that embroidered the edge of the Green River. He had no idea where it would lead as it traced past the neighboring homesteads, but at least it would be a route that would put greater distance between them and the horrors to the south—and the cruel men who committed them.

 

war4Almost immediately, however, he spotted a Muckleshoot man walking toward him along the trail. Johnny tried to hide the children in the thick scrub growth at the side of the river, but it was too late—they’d been spotted. As the man approached, Johnny recognized him as the man the Thomas family occasionally hired for odd jobs. Tom Wiletchtid, although a member of the same tribe as Nelson, turned out to be the children’s salvation. Understanding immediately what had happened to their family, Tom brought the children to his own campsite and, with his sisters, fed and cared for them before conveying them safely to military authorities in Seattle. If there is a hero in this sad story, it’s Tom Wiletchtid.

 

Of course the horrors inflicted on the King-Jones children or the Brannans or any of the other white settlers in the valley aren’t any worse than the on-going and casual cruelties inflicted on the native Americans over years by the white people. Certainly there is blood-soaked horror on both sides of the equation, and there is no way to balance or perhaps even measure the many tragedies that each side inflicted on the other. That said, I hold Johnny and his story close in my heart, and remember it especially as the big leaf maples erupt into their fall colors and the wind picks up a chill in the night. Part of the reason is because this is the anniversary of the massacre, and another part is because, as Halloween approaches, I think about ghost stories and the events that might plant the seeds of a haunting. I wonder about such mysteries as I put a crudely carved jack-o-lantern on my front porch and hang the black cat ornaments my sister sent to me years ago.

 

But mostly I contemplate them when I go out to my backyard to gather some of the maple leaves that have fallen there from the trees that grow in the park on the other side of my back fence. I open the gate in the chain link and lean into windblown Brannan Park, dark under a gloomy autumn sky. My fence, you see, marks the boundary between what was once the King-Jones homestead and the Brannan property. Somewhere along this fence line, as near as I can figure, young Johnny King once hid his little brother and sister, pleading with them to stay quiet and not reveal their hiding place as he went on ahead to try to find help—and instead finding horror. On my side of the fence, the Jones family was massacred on this day in 1855; on the other side, the Brannan family met the same fate. If their ghosts are here, they’re lost in amid the carports and soccer fields, the paved streets and neglected landscaping. They would see nothing here that would have been recognizable in their time.

 

But on October nights when the wind kicks up and the coyotes travel down the same path that still embroiders the edge of the river, it might sound very much the same to them: unearthly, desolate, and even now isolated. It might be enough to summon a spirit back—just barely enough.

 

Do they ever return? I don’t know. And I never want to know.

Hey, if you can’t abuse an animal abuser, who can you abuse?

pitbullThe story first came to my attention on Facebook, delivered with a heaping side order of vilification and outrage. Justifiably so, or at least it seemed. After all, there was no misinterpreting the event: a woman had taken four pitbull puppies and drowned them in a toilet tank. She’d been charged with four counts of animal cruelty and was being held in lieu of $20,000 bail. “This makes me sick,” declared the person who shared the news story. “If you can’t afford dogs, you shouldn’t have them,” chimed in another. “If she can do this to puppies, what’s to stop her from deciding to kill a person next?” It seemed there was no room for nuance or even the possibility of mitigating circumstances. The internet was eager to assume her guilt (according to the story she admitted the act but pled not guilty to the cruelty charges) and use it as de facto evidence, not just of crime, but of evil.

The remainder of this story has been moved. You can view it here.

 

Wednesday’s Child’s Father

Listen E. Baldwin, despite having a given name that was both unique and good advice, was instead known by his middle name from his earliest days: Earl. He was a typical New York farm boy, born in the village of Jackson in 1878, the first child in a large family that relocated to nearby White Creek while the boys were still small. As they grew up, Earl and his three much younger brothers—Arty, Charlie, and George—became their father Hiram’s crew, working tirelessly to care for the animals and the crops as soon as they were old enough to hold a hoe. Their mother Lucinda gave birth to her first little girls only after fulfilling her husband’s requirement for enough sons to run the farm—or so it seemed to the boys. A new world of petticoats and pin curls, hair ribbons and high button shoes arrived with the two tiny girls, mystifying but amusing the contingent of older brothers who made it their business to protect their little sisters from the difficult realities of farming in upstate New York.

Earl assumed his own life would follow the same blueprint as his parents’ when he married a local girl with a unique name of her own. Danna was only 18 when they wed; Earl was 25. He had waited, wisely, until his father was ready to carve acreage off of the family farm so that he could start his own farm and his own family at the same time—a new life coincidentally set to begin in the earliest days of a brand new century. He was thrilled when on one fine May morning Danna confided in him that their first child was one its way. Earl whooped in the dooryard, spinning Danna in a circle that scattered the chickens and sent their collie dog barking in delighted confusion. By Earl’s calculations, his son would be old enough to start learning to help with the farm work just as his younger brothers would leave their dad’s place to start families of their own. It was so easy for Earl to visualize what was to come; he had only to remember his own childhood to see the past repeating itself happily into the future.

That fall (1904), Earl had an earnest conversation with his three teenaged brothers about their usual Halloween hijinks. He pleaded with them to show some compassion to Danna if not to him. She was due to give birth at any time and could not possibly be expected to cope with pranks like overturned outhouses or soaped up windows. As Earl spoke, Charlie dragged the toe of his boot through the scattered straw on the barn floor in a guilty way. Arty promised they would behave while staring fixedly at the ground. And George gave Earl his personal assurance that he’d beat anyone who violated Danna’s peace into a bloody pulp. The new baby, who still existed only in theory as far has his brothers were concerned, was already changing Earl in unanticipated ways.

Two days after that uneventful Halloween, Danna finally gave birth to a little girl just as the sun peeked over the horizon on a grey Wednesday morning. Of course Earl knew that such an arcane eventuality as a girl child was possible, but it really hadn’t occurred to him to plan beyond his own experience of sons arriving first. But he wasn’t concerned. There’d be more babies, and still plenty of time for the sons he knew he would eventually need to keep the farm going. Danna suggested that they name the delicate, grey-eyed infant Theresa, and Earl readily agreed as he stared into the baby’s drowsy, pink face for the very first time. No, Theresa wasn’t a son, but she was beautiful, and she was his, and he was smitten.

But the future continued to unfold in an unrelenting departure from Earl’s plans. His wife Danna, despite all odds, did not become pregnant again. And little Theresa turned out to be a delicate child, frequently ill and capturing Danna’s time and attention more fully than Earl had even dreamed possible. As his brothers drifted away to lives of their own, oldest son Earl was left to shoulder the burden of not only his own farm, but his aging father’s as well. It wasn’t in Earl’s nature to ask for help, but he found himself frequently still at his chores as the moon rose, repairing fences or hauling water to the milk cows with only his collie dog for silent company. When he thought of the future, he could only see his work mounting without cease. A niggling worm of desperation had taken hold of his heart. He couldn’t help but make a repeated wish that something would break the log jam of work and worry; something eventually had to give.

And change did come, but not in a form Earl would ever have wished for or anticipated. It happened just after Halloween when Theresa was six years old. She was sick again, probably exposed to some bug or another by one of her schoolmates. There always seemed to be some sickness passed from child to sniffling child at the school, and Theresa could never dodge any of it. Danna even kept her at home in her bed over Halloween, although she was too sick to protest the decision. Her parents hoped she would recover in time for the small birthday party they’d planned for her on November 2, but despite the doctor’s best efforts, Theresa did not rally. Instead, she declined steadily, her breathing worsening until it became an alarming wheeze that kept even the dog agitated while anchored firmly to her beside. Finally, on November 2—her seventh birthday—Theresa passed away at home, her desperate parents pacing at her bedside. Earl didn’t think Danna would ever stop crying. And he didn’t think he’d ever be able to look at himself in the mirror, knowing the secret wish he’d made but never even voiced out loud. He scraped together enough money for a marble tombstone for Theresa’s grave topped with a small lamb, still feeling like her death was probably in some way his fault.

The-Border-Collie-And-The-LambTheresa died in 1911, well before the discovery of antibiotics or the arrival of childhood vaccinations. In those days, the death of a child was a tragically common occurrence, and parents were expected to soldier on. That’s what Earl and Danna did, attending Christmas services and 4th-of-July picnics, and tending their house and farm. They even continued to try to have more children through increasingly joyless couplings that never again resulted in conception. By 1920 Earl had largely given up on his childhood dreams of a family farm. He took a job as a laborer with the railroad, leaving Danna at home to care for the chickens and the lethargic hound that replaced their collie dog not long after Theresa’s death. The Great War had finally ended, but prohibition had arrived with a joyless finality. The days of frivolous, lighthearted happiness seemed to have passed by before they had even fully arrived for the Baldwins. Certainly this was true for Danna; she was a mother without a child, and (in those days) a woman without a role. She died in 1926 at age 41, an age at which she had probably lost all hope of ever being a mother again.

And Earl? He didn’t stay with the railroad for long. By 1930 his was back on a Washington County farm with a new wife. Hannah was a couple of years older than he and had probably been widowed, leaving her to attempt to tend a farm entirely on her own—on her own, that is, except for the company of her only daughter Charlotte. In Earl, Hannah found a replacement for the husband she had lost on the farm. In Hannah and Charlotte, Earl found replacements for the family he’d lost when first Theresa died and then Danna passed away. For Earl, it was a time of returning to the farm, with new expectations borne of difficult experiences.

Listen Earl BaldwinDid Earl live happily ever after? I wish there was a simple answer to that question. I can tell you only that there is evidence (or lack of evidence) for either that conclusion or its opposite. Listen Earl Baldwin is buried beside Danna Baker Baldwin in the same cemetery where they buried their daughter Theresa in 1911. He lived the remainder of his life in Washington County, although there is no trace of Hannah (or Charlotte) beyond their brief enumeration in the 1930 census. Did Earl and Hannah divorce? Or live joyfully together for decades to come? That, I cannot say. I know only that Earl died in 1962, having reached his 84th birthday. He lived and died attached to the farmland, community, and family connections of Washington County, New York. He may or may not have lived the life he planned; we can only hope he eventually embraced the life he lived.

The Myth of Inner Beauty

Imagine you have a friend—a good, good friend who means the world to you. He’s devoted to his family and holds down an important job. He works for the betterment of his community, but he always has time for you and has always been there when you needed him. Maybe he’s even your best friend.

Imagine he comes to you one day, discouraged and depressed, and he says something like this to you:

“Some days I wish I had just been born white. My life would have been so much easier. People would give me a chance before they decided against me. They would judge me by my character instead of my appearance. I know I should be proud of who I am, and, usually, I am proud. But I just get so damn tired of the people judging me by the color of my skin over and over again. If I were white, things would be different.”

This man is your friend. He is in pain, and you are in pain for him. What do you say to comfort him? How do you try to make it better for him? Can you picture yourself saying something like this in response?

“Don’t say that, friend. You are such a good person! You are so important to so many people, including me—especially me. You’re always there to lend a helping hand. You’d give the shirt of your back to anyone in need. You, in fact, have inner whiteness. Your whiteness comes shining through to anyone who knows you, even if strangers can’t see it from the outside. In fact, honestly, you are one of the whitest people I’ve ever known. And I’m so proud that you are my friend!”

Wow, right? You were maybe right there with me until that “inner whiteness” phrase cropped up. Suddenly the whole response was tainted with the unmistakable stink of racism, more or less confirming your friend’s fear that skin color is, in fact, always going to be how he will be judged by others—exactly the opposite of what you had intended.

But wait—what if people who offer those “comforting” comments explain that they aren’t using the word “white” in the racial sense? What if they explain that “white” is merely a metaphor for “good.” That they are using the word “white” kind of the way we do in weddings or literature—as a symbol for purity and innocence and goodness and wholesomeness, and that race has nothing at all to do with it (even though the friend had clearly meant “white” in a racial sense in his original complaint).

We do use the word “white” in that way, after all, at least some of the time.

Do you feel better about those comments now? Do you?

Me? Not so much. And even though I could concede that the comments might have sprung from the best possible intentions, I suspect that they would be more likely to end the friendship than provide any comfort.

Now imagine this scene:

Let’s say you have a friend—a good, good friend who means the world to you. She’s devoted to her family and holds down an important job. She works for the betterment of her community, but she always has time for you and has always been there when you needed her. Maybe she’s even your best friend.

Imagine she comes to you one day, discouraged and depressed, and she says something like this to you:

“Some days I wish I had just been born pretty. My life would have been so much easier. People would give me a chance before they decided against me. They would judge me by my character instead of my appearance. I know I should be proud of who I am, and, usually, I am proud. But I just get so damn tired of the people judging me by the way my body looks over and over again. If I were one of those beautiful women, things would be different.”

This woman is your friend. She is in pain, and you are in pain for her. What do you say to comfort her? How do you try to make it better for her? Can you picture yourself saying something like this in response?

“Don’t say that, friend. You are such a good person! You are so important to so many people, including me—especially me. You’re always there to lend a helping hand. You’d give the shirt of your back to anyone in need. You, in fact, have inner beauty. Your beauty comes shining through to anyone who knows you, even if strangers can’t see it from the outside. In fact, honestly, you are one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever known. And I’m so proud that you are my friend!”

Hmmm. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? In fact, it sounds pretty darn familiar. Because, after all, you’re not using the word “beauty” in the physical-appearance sense. You’re just using “beauty” poetically, as a metaphor for “good.” It’s a symbol for purity and innocence and goodness and wholesomeness, and physical appearance has nothing at all to do with it (even though the friend had clearly meant “pretty” in a physical-appearance sense in her original complaint).

We do use the word “beauty” in that symbolic way, after all, at least some of the time.

Do you feel good about those comments now? Should you?

So, as I’ve been pondering these two scenarios, I’ve been wondering why it’s so radically inappropriate to assure victims of racial discrimination that they are just as white as anyone else, only in a different way, but at the same time it’s okay—encouraged even—to assure women who have been unfairly judged on the basis of their appearance that they are as beautiful as anyone else, only in different ways.

This is part of what I’ve noticed:

When people stand up and say, “I’ve been a victim of racial discrimination,” certain things might happen. We might impose legal penalties on organizations that engage in discrimination. We might put social pressure on people who exhibit racially bigoted tendencies. Some of us, regrettably, might even say, “So what? Deal with it—everyone is some sort of victim, so get over it.” But I’ve never seen anyone rush to assure a person who says they have experienced racial discrimination that they shouldn’t talk about themselves that way—that they have an inner whiteness that makes them just as valuable as any Caucasian person. Never.

Never.

It would be disrespectful. It would be a way of denying that the problem exists at all—at least outside of the victim’s misguided imaginings of their own self-worth.

Yet this is exactly what we women do to each other—and even to ourselves—when we notice that we’ve been judged based entirely our appearance. We are so attached to the notion that a woman’s worth derives from her appearance that we can’t say, “You’re right. It’s not fair. Let’s try to do something about it.” Because that would mean that we accept her premise that her appearance is less than “beautiful.” And we have bought into the idea that by denying she has beauty, we are cruelly denying that she has worth. So instead of addressing the problem head on, we repackage her best qualities as “inner beauty” as if they’re a substitute for physical beauty—with the good intention of not hurting her. Order restored; problem solved.

Whatever progress we’ve made toward racial equality has not been built on the premise that no one is actually black (or Asian, or Indian, or Latina)—that every member of every race is actually white in some way. And I can’t help but feel that no progress will be made in judging women on their true merits while we play silly semantic games, recasting our best strengths and finest qualities, to insist that every woman is “beautiful.”

negative-self-talk-picture

Short Story: White Bronze

White Bronze
by K.A.L.

1

Before we get into this, you’re going to have to endure a little background. It’s important that we be on the same page before we start. In this case, that means I need to clue you in on the story’s setting.

So, to remind you of some of the pearls of wisdom that your pitiful junior high English teacher wasted on you and her other undeserving students, the formula goes something like this:  Setting = Time + Place.

Let’s start with time:

The time is indeterminate. Sorry, it just is. That same hopeless English teacher probably led you to believe something about the omniscience of narrators, and I hate to disabuse you of that sacred wisdom, but, no. No. Omniscient I am not. Give yourself a moment to decide if we’re going to be able to soldier on now that you know that small, bitter truth about yours truly.

We good? Awesome. Then let’s talk about place.

You may end up thinking that I got confused because it will sound as if I’m talking about a thing rather than a place, but I assure you that this is not the case; it’s not the case because the thing is hollow and its interior is the place. Got that? Okay, I’ll say it one more time, just because you look a little confused. The thing is hollow and the place is its interior. That’s our setting. Capiche?

The thing that encompasses the place is a statue; a life-sized, hollow statue of a little girl. It could be a memorial statue, but we don’t get to know that for sure. All we know is that she—the statue—is the central feature of a circular garden bed that used to be lovingly tended at some point in the abandoned estate’s history. Now that the garden has gone feral, the girl—the statue—stands knee-high in weeds and brambles, growing ever more discolored in the shifting elements. She has one knee slightly bent as if she’s about to step forward; her right arm is raised, maybe to wave, maybe to hold an item aloft, kind of like the Statue of Liberty holding up her torch. We will never know if she was holding anything because that right hand was broken off at the wrist at some long-ago point in the statue’s past.

The statue was cast from a soft, gray metal that was marketed as “white bronze,” a substance made possible by some sort of patent-protected alchemy in the early part of the last century. We know now that White Bronze is really just zinc coated with a thick layer of marketing bullshit. Zinc has properties that allow it to fight off some of the effects of outdoor weathering, so the statue’s details are remarkably well-preserved. Tears of black algae track down her checks and the elaborate folds of her knee-length skirt; it speckles the tops of her ballet slippers and the ends of her braids, but, otherwise, the statue has endured splendidly despite the encroaching decay of the sad landscape over which it presides.

And, really, this is all you need to know about the statue’s exterior, which is good, because that’s basically all I got.

 

Okay, this next part always reminds me of one of those self-indulgent scenes shot by Hollywood movie directors with bloated special effects budgets. Calling it an overhead shot would be embarrassingly understated. We find ourselves in space, people—in the profoundly deep, proto-darkness of Genesis before creation. We’re immersed in blackness, but there’s a throbbing soundtrack to conjure an undeniable sense of speed and motion, enough to suggest we’re hurtling blindfolded down God’s steepest roller coaster. Finally, in the deep distance, the Earth rotates into view, anchoring our attention on the horizon.

You know what happens next: We start hurtling toward our home planet as stars trace comet tails in our peripheral vision. We pass into our atmosphere like a falling satellite. The continents assume their familiar shapes on the globe spinning below, and still we fall, rocketing toward a layer of clouds that briefly obscures our imminent landing place. Closer and closer, roads take shape and then buildings and then vehicles. We fall through the damp atmosphere directly above the abandoned estate and finally see the bulls-eye of the garden plot, the statue piercing its center like a dart. We speed toward it, plunging back into ineffable blackness as we fall through the chimney of the statue’s upraised, hollow arm. And then? Impact. Sudden silence.

Survival? Unknown.

 

Light sifts down the statue’s arm into its interior—a light so weak that it flutters in flakes that you could almost catch on your tongue. As our eyes adjust to the uneven darkness, we begin to detect a shape through that soft, grey vesper-light. We see that it’s a body slumped on its side, its head pillowed on one extended arm. Tendrils of dark, damp hair curtain its face.

For a very long time there is no motion.

Finally a ragged intake of breath signals that life is present. The figure pulls itself, moaning, to a seated position. We see plainly now that this is a girl; she pushes her hair from a stained check, hugs her knees, and reclines her forehead against them as she rocks slowly, moaning quietly as she rides out some unknown pain.

Presently she looks up, scans the inscrutable “sky” overhead, rubbing her forehead beneath her bangs. Finding little to focus on in the vacuous darkness above, she instead looks around, surveying her more immediate surroundings. She can see a pool of darkness marking some sort of chasm in front of her. Another, similar shaft exists just beyond its far shore. She runs her hand over the gritty, cold surface on which she sits. She turns her hand and raps her knuckles against it, producing the sort of metallic gonging that might be used in Buddhist temples to summon the dead. There is no way for her to deduce what we already know: that she has landed on a flat shelf of metal that bridges the span between bottom of the statue’s skirt and the top of its knees. The chasms she has sensed in front of her are the wells formed by its two hollow legs. She landed on this somewhat precarious ledge with no memory whatsoever of how she got there.

 

Okay, you should be having a small but still satisfying eureka moment about now. At this point you’ve realized that one of two things has to be true: either the girl is a perfect and miniaturized human, no bigger than, say, a squirrel—or—what we’re seeing is instead a regular sized human being who has unaccountably found herself in the interior of a “life-sized” statue in a land of giants. Could I help you figure out which is true? I could not. See aforementioned disclaimer vis-à-vis omniscience, lack thereof. Do please, however, believe me when I tell you that some things just don’t matter. Including the resolution of this particular issue.

 

The girl continues to sit while she takes in her surroundings through narrowed eyes. The flakes of light falling from above gradually lessen and wink out piece by piece, one by one. The enveloping darkness becomes as smooth and even as the black velvet lining a jewel box.

Our girl slips back onto her side and falls into a troubled sleep.

 

I’m sorry to interrupt yet again, truly, but something has got to be said before we go any further. Namely, I know what you’re thinking. I know what you’re thinking, and that fact has far less to do with my omniscience than with your predictability. You’ve probably struck upon the theory that our story is some sort of allegory illustrating the inevitable conflict between our protagonist’s exterior façade and her private, internal life. People! Do you see your former English teacher anywhere? Do you think you’re getting an “A” by invoking words like conflict and protagonist and allegory? You are not. Trust me, deep down, we all had that same English teacher and SHE’S NOT HERE. There is no symbolism. You are looking at the literary equivalent of a Rorschach test, confabulating meaning where none actually exists. Trust me on this. You’re headed down the wrong track.

Just humor me—humor me by remembering what Freud said when it came to symbolism. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

 

The girl wakes, lying on her back, gazing up at a tarnished coin of grey sky framed at the end of the tube-like passage that extends upward from the irregular ceiling. It reminds her of something (the moon?) that she can’t seem to name. She can’t seem to name herself either. Whatever has happened to the girl has left her with an imperfect amnesia. It’s left her without a history or identity. It has left her with only a rudimentary language, but one that she can’t name or completely recall. Common words elude her grasp as if they’ve been greased—she can’t get a grip on them, no matter how strenuously she knits her brow and holds her breath. She hopes they will return to her without realizing that “hope” is the word for what she’s experiencing. She knows, however, that the round piece of sky overhead seems to be taunting her, so she turns onto her side to evade its presence.

The maneuver puts her face to face with a creature that has appeared within an arm’s length of her head. She props herself up on her elbow to get a better view of this visitor. The creature squats on a set of legs resembling bent fireplace pokers that extend like protective, metal wickets around a spherical thorax. Another ovoid shape is attached to this central section like the caboose on a short train. Its head hovers over the gritty floor in sinister silence, two fearsome mandibles reflexively scissoring the empty air in front of its morose, metallic face.

“Hey!” the girl says to this monstrosity, prompting it to crab-walk across the floor toward the first chasm. “Hey!,” she says again. “Don’t go!” She stands, and we see that the creature’s back is about knee-high to the girl. Perhaps because of its size, she responds to it as if it were a dog or a cat, reaching out to pet the coarse, brown hairs that upholster most of its sectioned back.

But before she can actually make contact with those enticing, brown bristles, the creature slips over the side of the chasm, rappelling down its vertical face on a glossy rope that appears magically, as if out of nowhere, allowing the creature to quickly lower itself into the camouflage of total darkness.

“Kie vi estas?” she shouts into the dark hole, instinctively returning to a language she learned during her un-remembered past. Just as some adults will speak baby-talk to a puppy or a kitten, it seems perfectly natural to her to use this primitive, long-ago language when addressing the creature. “Kien vi iris?” she asks mournfully into the blackness. Where did you go?

The loss of this potential companion—coming so soon on the heels of its appearance—is devastating to the girl. She crawls carefully backwards from the abyss until her heels bump the wall. She curls into the crease where the cold floor of her new world meets its stark, upright boundary. Again, she falls asleep.

 

The days and nights chase and run and pile onto each other. The girl is aware of their passage only because of the changing view through the coin of sky suspended in the ceiling so far above. Some days that small piece of sky is as gray as dishwater; others it’s as tranquil and blue as Mary’s robe in a stained glass window. Occasionally, globules of water shoot through the opening as if to punish her, and she crawls around the margins of the twin chasms to what she now thinks of as The Dark Side. She lies there on her back, drumming her heels against the metal wall to answer the drumming of the water falling both without and within the statue. The percussive concert usually lulls her to sleep and, when she awakens, she negotiates the narrow path back around the chasms, pausing to peer into the murky depths where her one-time companion disappeared. “Se vi revenas, mi nomos vin Ludvichon…” she whispers into the blackness. If you come back, I’ll name you Ludwig. There is never a reply—not even the distant tapping of the creature’s many legs.

The small view of sky invariably darkens and disappears, and our girl again sleeps.

 

She is suddenly awakened by a sound so overpowering that it vibrates the very hollows of her bones, a sound so loud that it precludes comprehension. Overhead, beating wings ignite the air with thrumming vibration. Ludwig, invisible to the girl, waits in hungry anticipation for the owner of those wings; he lurks at the edges of a gossamer web he’s woven across the interior of the statue’s neck.

The girl screams and covers her ears against the loud assault, panic overtaking her.

2

A young couple walks arm in arm, surveying the grounds and imaging their future in the neglected home. They left the estate agent back in the kitchen to smoke her cigarettes alone, smug in the knowledge that if the couple needed time to speak privately, it could only bode well for her commission.

“Can you see it? Can you imagine?” the man asks his companion, pointing excitedly across the treetops that border the fields behind the house, lost in the possibilities of their future in this place.

“Of course!” she agrees as she squints at the horizon, happily joining his fantasy of some imagined scene from their life ahead. He squeezes her arm and steers her around the trees. They arrive at a small, round garden plot, complete with a white bronze statue presiding at its center. He stops short, taking in the statue’s broken hand, its discolorations, its nicks and flaws. “She’s beautiful,” he whispers to the woman. “Look at her.”

The woman’s eyes are already locked on the statue, but her head is cocked slightly as if she hears it speak. “What’s that sound?” she asks the man, unconsciously wiping a smudge of dirt from her cheek as she speaks. “Do you hear that?”

The man steps forward and lays his hands on the statue’s torso, both front and back. “It’s some sort of tapping. I can hear it—and feel it. It’s coming from inside.”

“Is there something trapped in there?” the woman asks with growing alarm. “We can’t leave it there, whatever it is. It’s frightened—we have to get it out.”

The man looks at his companion, and back at the statue, gripped by the same sudden need to liberate whatever life lies within. “We will,” he promises the woman. “We will.”

And finally, eventually, they do.

New for the website (the other website)

Okay, getting a little fancy with the slideshows. Let’s see if this actually works…

http://www.auburnpioneercemetery.net

Moving On

Most of the country is, of course, preoccupied with election returns, but I’m far too distracted to pay any sort of attention. I got a call on Friday from my realtor. We had made an offer on a house literally weeks ago. I mentally moved in and completely redecorated the place, but since the seller seemed intent on playing some sort of sick cat-and-mouse game, pitting us against another bidder, I wrote the place off, mentally packed up my imaginary boxes, and proceeded to torture myself by pretending to live in at least two other houses I’ve seen since then.

But about this call on Friday: Evidently the other buyer on that long-ago house also got tired of the seller’s gamesmanship and pulled out of negotiations. Suddenly we could have it—at our original price—if we still wanted it.

That was Friday. I had both an inspector and a contractor at the place on Saturday morning—and accomplishing that small miracle of scheduling serves, I feel, as an affirming omen about my future at this place. Furthermore, these professionals didn’t find anything catastrophic, only the problems which my realtor and I had already spotted on our previous visits. Those problems are too many to list, but none of them appear to be beyond the repair budget that we had figured into the deal. Long story short? We close a week from Thursday. I’ll be moving in as soon as the place is minimally habitable—probably soon after Thanksgiving.

This is a bittersweet development and stage of life. After 25 years, my husband and I will be living apart. I don’t wish him ill, but I can’t continue in the circumstances that I’ve been enduring for too many years. Ironically, the only hope that things will ever change is if I move out and force him to decide if we are to pull together or pull apart. Otherwise, it will just be the status quo until death us to part, and I just can’t face that possibility.

I am, however, terribly excited about the new possibilities of this place, be they temporary or permanent. Unfortunately, I’m unable to share that excitement around any of my family at the risk of hurting someone important. But I’ll tell you all here. I am. Excited. I hope some of you can be excited for me.

I’m Taking a Survey

Each of the photos in the attached PDF represents a biography that I either have written, am in the process of writing, or intend to write (sometime before I die, but that’s as precise as I intend to get regarding the timeline). Here is the question. Looking at the photos and knowing nothing about these people, which story would you be the most interested in reading?  (Yes, this is all an elaborate way to help me end procrastination. Thank you for your assistance!).

Choices

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