NaNo

Today the calender turns over to November and National Novel Writing Month, a challenge for intrepid novelists determined to write 50K words in 30 days. That works out to 1667 words per day, even on weekends, holidays, elections, and when the power goes out. To all those participating in Nanowrimo, I salute you.

I completed the challenge twice, finishing one (short) novel and getting 60k words written  on the second. I signed up on October 30th for my first Nano, having only just learned about the nonprofit event that day, and secretly believed it was the quick-start kick-start I needed to launch my next brilliant career as a novelist.

Here is the summary of that first attempt:

“When vagabond musician, Lucas, is summoned to discharge his grandmother’s estate and sell her Victorian house, a battered old chest reveals an handwritten book among the antiques in the attic. The eighteenth century journal tells of an English ancestor, orphaned and shipped abroad to central Asia, as governess to the ambassador’s children. As he reads Verity Hightower’s struggles in a vastly foreign country, Lucas must confront his own desire to keep the house, pitted against his brother’s demands to sell it quickly.  With each chapter of Verity’s story, Lucas embraces the lessons of necessity, family and the true meaning of “home.”

Ugh. Hybrid bodice-ripper-romance dual narrative.

Here is the summary of my second Nano novel:

When a sheep rancher and her dog are savagely killed, suspicion falls on the neighbor’s rescue dogs. To protect her dogs from being blamed for the carnage and destroyed, seventeen year-old Sammi flees with them across the mountains to the high desert. As Sammi desperately tries to elude the state police and forensic biologist pursuing her, she crosses paths with the otherworldly beast spreading carnage, and his master. Sammi must fight for her own life, as well as the lives of her dogs, against dark immortal forces.

Better? Horror-fantasy I swear I will finish some day.

I learned a lot about myself and a lot about story. But this year, I’m struggling to keep the writing hours, rather than the word count.

If you are Nanoing, and tired of trying to form a sentence, I recommend a quick read for some perspective over at McSweeney’s. List: If Other Professionals talked about Their Jobs the Way Writers Do.

Word by word.

Hallow

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Terry comes on Wednesday mornings. He drives an old gray pickup with a cracked windshield and garden tools lashed in the bed: mower, edger, leaf blower. Terry works for neighbor Vic across the road; he backs his truck into the hammerhead atop our hill and lets down the tailgate to roll out machinery. Mercy races from the front windows downstairs to the back yard yammering and howling, hammering at the back gate until I catch up to let her out to greet Terry and his dog, Aggie.

Hard frost in a moonless night, leaves skitter to drifts, bank against stone.

When Mercy was a pup, we went over to properly introduce ourselves beyond a nod and wave. She’s shy with strangers other than children, flitting and flirting, but determined to avoid strange hands reaching out to pat her square head, fumble at her silver doeskin ears. Mercy took a shine to Terry. She’s not startled by deafening gas-powered machinery now, quite the contrary. While riding in the car, she attends to every stranger out mowing we pass, as if each one might be Terry.

Dry cold air, sparking static from doorknobs and grocery carts, tentative metallic taste, another sort of lightning. Ground. Downward into this tilting northern darkness, a sinking ship, unsounding leviathan.

I walked out after Mercy with a bag of Halloween candy for Terry and chicken jerky for Aggie. I don’t know why I buy the candy anymore and stage it on the hallway table close to the front door when no one knocks; the steep hill and dead end road are a bad bargain for costumed children.

My son is grown and on his own, well beyond trick-or-treating–those years I insisted he eat some dinner before we ventured out in various storms to canvas the neighborhood and collect sweet booty in a plastic jack-o’lantern.  He was always the Dark Knight.

Snow above high in the wind, barometer of falling. The Wasp Queen driven out from her nest under fallen timber wanders, seeks shelter before the storm. 

I throw a tennis ball for the dogs, throw a stick Mercy stole from the wood crib when the ball is lost, and talk while the wind lifts my hair like Medusa because I’ve forgotten my hat. Terry has a backstage pass for the show at MacDonald Theater tomorrow, he says and asks, what do we plan for Halloween?

Prepare a fine meal, I explain: a lamb chop, an apple cut for the star seeded inside, a glass of red wine, arranged on linen with the blessed dead invited to dine.

Do they come? He asks.

Yes.

 

 

Coyote

“The coyotes roamed the edges of the neighborhood at dawn and dusk, big eared, serene, drawn tight as bow strings. Coyotes love to trick domestic dogs, to play with them and draw them away from their yard and out into the hills, where they then set upon them as a pack, kill and eat them.”

–Cameron Mackenzie, Cutbank Weekly Flash Prose

The heat pump register bangs, laboring to filter and deliver warm air against condensing fog, heavy morning mist. It may burn off by noon, or not at all. Sometimes we don’t see the sky for days, with rain and fog and full-spectrum gray from dove to doe. Sink down in the loam like locust backing into the earth to wait. Dread, over the left shoulder and behind, yet looming ahead.

This is not the season for the hopeful. They come in the summer, go to school, fall in love, find a job, and stay. When the light drains away and freezing fog fills the valley for days, they ask how long it will last. When a far line of sight is blocked, the only view is inward down to the bone.

I once hired a brilliant network engineer named Jonathan. He moved here from the mid-west with his girlfriend after she was accepted into a graduate program. Get the best rain gear you can afford, I advised, walk outside every day; get candles if you don’t have a fireplace, grind spices for tea and bathe in the vapor. Jonathan lasted until early December. He apologized, and I argued, but he had to leave he said, else he would hang himself.

Solace of apples, perhaps the same alchemy that extracts antivenin from venom, the honeycrisp as cure. Core and chop the fruit to simmer down to chunky sauce, spike with cinnamon and nutmeg. Heat a cup of amontillado to a near-boil and soak red flame raisins to plump. Mix a muffin batter with applesauce and raisins. Give away the batch to those who politely refused the crisp imperfect apples from the tree.

Temporary measures, taken in sequence, become strategy.

 

Sunset

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“I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.”

–Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Rain rips the red leaves from the dogwood and whips waves of gold down from the birch. A frost last week, though not hard and certain, was enough warning to corral the potted citrus and thorny bougainvillea inside for the season. Crushing acorns underfoot as we walk the trails, a year in the making. The crows pick the meat from the shells and the dog charges the squirrels when we return. Shed.

Houses in the old neighborhood are decorated for Halloween. It seems it’s always been this way, this casting and passing, this litter of leaves.  Dad’s ginger dog Ben and I walk down to the park. We pass lawns decked out with styrofoam tombstones, trees dangling plastic pumpkins lit by violet eyes. These are wards, I know, talismans strung on each threshold to forestall unfriendly spirits, effective even if purchased at a box store. After the cross-quarter, such magic, no longer needed, will be assigned to the trash. But the warding is sincere. Darkness gathering in the north, we walk on.

 

 

Downtown

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Yesterday I went downtown. I checked my hair for leaves and twigs and changed out of dog clothes.

Pam and I meet up at the Thai place where I order red curry, extra spicy, with eggplant and tofu. Pam still works on the 4th floor and shares her play-by-play intrigue at the office, a one-page sheet outlining goals of the next reorganization, current buzz words like “inclusive” and “creative,” a forecast of a brilliant and final restructure ensuring everlasting productivity and prosperity. Whatever. I make my predictions and give Pam her birthday present. Our server’s name is Eternity.

A quarter block from the restaurant, in an alley behind the video arcade bar, a homeless woman’s skull was crushed when a garbage truck ran over her while she slept early one morning last month. There is no city hall here. It was torn down and paved into a parking lot. New structures fill the pits that yawned so long from the demolished Woolworth and Sears buildings, empty so long that groves sprung from the cracked concrete at the bottom. It’s still the same downtown I left three years ago.

I’ve earned $560 since then, writing words of my own.


Six months ago, I resigned from a job working in a shabby cubicle with a stunning view to the east. I rarely turned around from my dual monitors to look out the window, not unless there was a rainbow or a police take-down at the transit station.  Even then, I only turned because other staff rushed in to lean against the credenza, chattering and pointing and leaving fingerprints on the glass. I spent too many years in different cubes, in hindsight all remarkably the same. I write at home now. I spend long moments lost, gazing out windows.

–Excerpt from “Vagabond,” originally published 2017 in Thoughtful Dog


 

 

Bridges

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The dog won’t cross bridges. She prefers to swim. A bridge is a different sort of crossroad. There might be trolls.

Once we hiked down the Ridgeline Trail, descending the grade to the footbridge over Amazon Creek marking the end of the spur, and Mercy refused to cross. She braced her feet like a donkey unmoved by sticks or carrots. The draw was steep and filled with brambles. I finally unleashed her and walked across. She watched me from the other side, stutter-stepping and complaining while I waited. With much rocking back-and-forth to test her mark, she eventually sprinted across the short span and took my arm in her jaws all reproachful at my betrayal.

We don’t go up to the Ridgeline much any more, not only because of bridge logistics, but because of my persistent prickling certainty we are being watched. Mercy might be willing to tangle with a cougar, but I am not. Or perhaps more truthfully, there is no doubt the dog can outrun me.

There is one wooden bridge she crosses readily, perfectly content to parade back and forth across, tucked along the trails among oak savanna at Morse Ranch. Today she happily leapt off the bridge down into the stream and returned after plowing through the water several turns. We met a little man there once, sitting and dangling his feet over the water, with a long ginger beard and a red hood. He tickled Mercy and let her kiss his mustache. If he whispered in her ear, I did not hear. A dog knows things.

It’s autumn, that time of year when the squirrels go squirrely, darting across a road before abruptly deciding to double back, only to freeze in place. It’s a pre-winter thinning of the squirrel population, I suppose, when the most fickle finally end up smashed in the road for crow food. A cyclist was killed when a squirrel leapt into the spokes of his front tire and he was thrown over the handlebars.

Beware of squirrels and trolls who boast of  “great and unmatched wisdom.

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Outlaws

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The roads I take to cross the river are easier to travel during summer, after the late spring exodus of university students. They pack U-Haul trailers and stuff back seats, abandoning kneecapped IKEA couches akimbo on the sidewalk, and wander off with purpose to other adventures, internships, home to work in the family business. Traffic chokes over the bridges; there’s no way over but through. Fall term starts next week and 20,000 students are unpacking and playing beer pong on the lawn.

Mercy and I got off with a warning.

Down at the old boat landing, heaving branches in the river for the dog to wrestle onto the sandy beach, I am chagrined to admit, we were ambushed. Caught unaware like freshmen. Let down the guard. Dazzled by the diamonds skimming over the riffles upstream. Who knew the police had a graphite black ATV to wheel down the rutted rocky trail leading to the water line? Mercy looked at the mini-mobile-park-SWAT vehicle and looked at me. I clipped on her leash and we walked up to meet the officers.

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It won’t happen again.

I had a friendly conversation with Officers Eric and Eric (both Erics, indeed), received the required  verbal warning dogs must be leashed in the  park, and inquired about the capabilities of their impressive vehicle. I studied the tire tread while we talked, assessing its footprint and clearance, asked about traction. Mercy nosed at the long grass. We disappeared up the rise and into the trees like the outlaws we are.

chanterelles

A trough of cold air is slouching down from Canada; there are snow warnings for the Cascades this weekend. Alternating periods of rain and sun launched foraging season, with poison toadstools and penny loaf springing up, yet blooming with fluttery chanterelles and smokey morels as well.

I brush the dirt away from the gills and hood, give the mushrooms a quick rinse and pat dry. Half a yellow sweet onion, a sprig of thyme, carmelized low and slow in butter, before adding rough-chopped chanterelle, a dose of Marsala, a stir of cream, dished over pappardelle, all fog and woodsmoke, fleece and fall, jewels in the moss.