Saturday, December 30, 2017

Buried Under a Bookslide

We don't usually get much seriously cold weather here. In keeping with conventions of the age, however, the upcoming cold snap is being covered as if we were about to suffer a blizzard. As I'm familiar with during hurricane season, weather prep coverage tends to send me into an organizational frenzy.

Today, it was documenting a TBR pile that might actually, if left to itself, collapse into the core of a library. Because linguistic physics.

I'm actually horrified by the books I've been squirreling away--I've been reading plenty, but I've been dealing with...stress? making an enormous pile of books bought at library sales and discount stores and Just Not Reading Them. Not to mention the occasional Christmas book request that returns a text that seemed like a good idea but just didn't cut through the static in my head.

2018 is going to be the year of the Everest of TBRs. I'm probably going to conk out in base camp, but I'm going to commit to actually reading and officially DNF'ing books that aren't for me rather than shuffling them further back on the shelf. Also, no more impulse buys at Half Price.

Part of the shock of the TBR is the realization that I really don't want to read most of these books. That I managed to acquire them without any real interest in them. That's fine--there are great discoveries to be made in the random intersection of reader and book. However, I don't think there was any hope of discovery behind them, just a kind of "yeah, I'm a reader, right? and this is a book." Generic, joyless consumption.

Despite that, January's reading list should be interesting. Here is the list and some of the background about why I want to read each book:
  1. The January Dancer -- Whenever I dip into this, the writing intrigues me and the story promises a good mystery but I haven't slowed down to follow it, yet.
  2. The Time of the Transference -- This was a gift from my dad and is the kind of adventure story that first appealed to me in fantasy. Interesting magic system.
  3. Jhereg -- I saw the author at a convention years ago and realized that the covers that had been putting me off shouldn't have. This has been in the stack ever since (guilt, guilt, guilt).
  4. The Lesser Kindred -- The blurb sounded interesting.
  5. Make Way for Dragons -- Um...yeah. Cover nostalgia buy.
  6. Rosalind Franklin - This was a gift (guilt, guilt, guilt) and I wanted to read about Rosalind Franklin.
  7. Moonwise -- I LOVE the writing in this book. So I keep swooning and shoving it back on the shelf because I'll only get the one time to discover the story.
  8. Parzival -- Isn't January the perfect time for a cozy read about the search for the Holy Grail? Yes, yes it is.
  9. The Rediscovery of Meaning -- January is also the perfect time for contemplation.
  10. Transformations -- Because why have I never read Anne Sexton?
  11. The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night -- Because it's beautiful and it's on my desk for continuous inspiration.
  12. The Little Book of Hidden People -- This was a gift from my brother and, again, it was put on the stack for a time when it could be savored. Freeze-mergency, anyone? (it is not an emergency because it might be below freezing for a few days, except, well, coastal Texas)
  13. The Silver Bough -- Cover buy. Will the story live up to the lovely cover? We'll see.
  14. Little, Big -- I should love this. I don't. But I will finish it. Perhaps a transformation along the way?
  15. The Practice of Writing --  This is the shortest writing book in the stack but, again, it seemed like it might be a good January companion.
Just a day to go until January starts. Think I'll indulge in another story from The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night and look forward to January reading.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Janus and the Coming Freeze

It is that middle stretch, the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, the lame duck period of 2017, last-minute week of goal setting or goal rushing-to-completion, week of laundry and cleaning preparatory to the new year (if you're into that), week of staring at the sky and glancing backwards and forwards.

For me, it began with a scramble and then an obsession with mini Christmas scrapbooks, as I realized that I'd begun several and just not finished them. These aren't massive projects, just 4x6 brag books stuffed with pictures and a minimum of text, but it takes time to arrange and print and cut the pages to size and explain why all of a sudden our ink surplus has turned into a severe shortage. Also, memory albums are sticky--you look at one picture, then you've looked at eighty, then you're sinking into those snows of yesteryear, the ones that are supposedly vanished but are piling up over you nonetheless. It takes time to dig out of the past.

That project was kicked off in anticipation of a visit by our in-laws that, thanks to a random hard freeze over the New Year's holiday, won't be happening right now. So I've had the chance to dive into the other memory books that I've started and not completed, all the birthday albums, Diva Night reminiscences, The Year The Yard Was All Morning Glories, 4th of July celebrations followed by bubbles and fireworks...wherever the images happen to accumulate. A project that was a single book catching up with photos that I didn't want to lose has become a potential year-long nostalgia fest. If I actually finish these, there will be pics of The Year That Was All Memory Books.

Perhaps you have projects that get out of hand, too.

Which brings me to the other projects. The writing ones that also found themselves well begun but abandoned. Here is the backward glance:  the 2016 election was a sharp shock to me. But it wasn't the first. There have been the difficulty of finding a job and assorted concerns that finally coalesced into a single decision:  I'm not writing for anyone else. I've been a member of writing groups for years and I used to be better about submissions. Now, though, I realize that I want to make art that speaks to the people closest to me--to my family, to a few friends--and the memory books speak to that, as does the few writing projects that I'm keeping for this year. Here is the glance forward:  2018 is the year that I want to be able to return gifts I received with interest, novellas for reaching out, flash collections for the peace that I received from the parks before Harvey washed them away.

This year, I want to work through from the beginning to the end and I want to be able to reach this in-between, lame duck week of 2018 with memories of connection rather than endless, mouse-wheel project anxiety. I am thankful, grateful, every day for the people who gave my writing their time and attention and it may be that this is a slow turn back toward a more familiar track. For now, I am thinking about blankets and hot cocoa and a hard freeze that breaks one year from another. About looking forward and glancing back. And about whether or not any of this can be captured in a photo, embellished with stickers, and placed in a memory book for 2018.

Good wishes and tamable projects,

Thursday, November 30, 2017


(The following is a poem inspired by the picture that follows, which was provided as part of our weekly WordCrafters meeting and may inspire a further development of what happens. Next. Maybe. Perhaps. *sneaks off to make notes for a new draft*)
Me—half of me, or a twin, or that last shocked reflection—

I’m still in the bedroom, still tugging the chenille with my toes

Or…the changeling? The one who hit the glass with her fist.

I pull my punches, I know what mirrors cost.

She hit with all our strength but what she broke was us.

We shattered apart like glass paper dolls.

Who really cares for more than one of a set?


Thorns scratch, grass itches, legs brush my forearms.

At least I’m dressed, not naked—pillow sham shirt,

Billowed curtain skirt—she ripped and wove, sheared and stitched

Whatever I left or was part of my room.

My room!

My house!

My parents!

Who don’t dance, don’t fly, don’t sting—don’t bite.

Whose poison my body tolerates.

Whose dead grass scores my brand-new skin.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Whiskey and Thunder (A Companion Piece for Late Night Pie)

Tell me a story—this story—in a sigh, a slump against my knee, a velvet rise and fall of breath that resolves into a low growl and a long stare into an empty night. Wake up and race me into the night on dream-kicked paws.

I would have been happy to let the damp yard soak all the way up my jeans. Years of counting days to vacation pools have made any blue water magic—whether it’s a puddle beneath a suddenly stormless sky or a rectangle of water out the back window of a motel. I have a left-over belief that water preserves the dead perfectly as they float, faces upward, into eternity. Now, all the fur I hadn’t been able to banish via the washing machine could wick memories and rain into the dark denim so that they remained part of the jeans, part of the household, a steady heartbeat and clear-eyed stroke pulling us forward rather than backwards.

Floating in a pool and staring into the summer sky was almost the obverse of looming over the blue puddles around the yard. While I stared, Brandon slid past me like a shadow. A bark jerked my attention to the fence. A small black butt was scooting backward, tail rotating, from one of the larger holes rotted along the bottom of the wood. I yelled and he glanced away and then ran toward me, squishing through the grass. He was the only dog to venture out, the only one to wade into the puddles, the others having been trained to dislike the rain years ago, under a different roof. I wasn’t yet used to the smallness of the French bulldog, nor the way he could slip into the shadows.

At first, I’d wished some of the old white fur or even the pale brown fur of the other dogs would stick to his sleek coat. After the storms, however, I was just glad that short hair was easy to hose down. Brandon sloshed by my ankles, staring back at the two pairs of dog paws waiting just inside the back door. I could hear the tick of their nails as they watched to see which of us sank further into the backyard.

Some years are dry, like the shock that comes at the first sign of bad news—how bad? How much do I have to hear? That year was the gasp and the sob that follows after—a year full of water. We were finally past the worst of the last storm; the street was wet but not flooded and the yard was streaming with the last of a cold rain that had followed the second cold front almost to the Texas coast, far enough south to bring us the remnants of a gently-used but still identifiable autumn and push the edges of the last great hurricane of the year further up the coast.

The ground squelched on its own and I glanced to my left when I heard the gate creak open, the latch having slipped over its own metal shoulder. The neighborhood seemed to groan along the narrow yard between house and gate. Wind shoved the wood against the water and damp grass. I ordered Brandon into the house as I hurried to pull the gate back against the fence. He flopped down, watching me as he rolled his bulldog body against the leg of a plant stand. A fat, cold breeze pushed against me and the thin wood.

The creaking felt like part of my movement. Sway and pop, like an old structure in the wind. The gusts pressed mist into the folds of my sweater and strung it along my hair. A low rumble, a growl or a plane engine, shimmered past. I looked back at the warm light and saw Brandon creep between the stiff forelegs still guarding the back door. A low woofle signaled the two older dogs to duck inside. They whined as I rounded the corner.

I’d chased loose dogs down the street before, so I heaved against the gate and latch, yanking the handle to verify it caught and shaking at the possibility of sad signs posted on streetlights and stop signs. This narrow strip of backyard was full of mist and smelled, or so I imagined, like salt. I had all of us back in before I let myself breathe.

Damp cold made me think of blankets and turning on all the lights, something I didn’t like to do in the evenings when it was just me and the dogs, before my husband came home. The houses are too close together. Usually, we sat in the dimness, me with a book blazing from a screen and the dogs piled up around me, drifting toward the front door and waiting.

The creaking followed me inside. When the backdoor shuddered, I decided that a sip of whiskey would settle me back into a book. An artificial storm, an imaginary fording of the floodwaters would wash away the news, help me let go the urge to start packing Only Necessary Things. Maybe I could turn off at least one of the kitchen lights.

I opened the pantry and took the bottle off the top shelf. Since it was whiskey, I was thinking about my dad, a red spoonful of sugar, a cough that wouldn’t go away, and a night when I was restless and wandering, the first night I was given to understand artificial peace.

Our pantry’s just a tiny closet. A blaze of light from an odd corner of the kitchen and then blindness, until my pupils soaked up the darkness, and I could see the dogs curled on the couches in the living room. They seemed even cozier in the mix of light and shadow that came from the streetlamps and lights of other houses. Turning out the lights was a good idea.

Especially since I could now see the flicker in the window by the back door. It’d been a month since the last time we lost power, but the small twist and bob of light felt more normal than the pantry bulb.

How long have I lived with our small backyard packed tightly against our neighbor’s yards, fences slotted in the easements, fake lock preventing even legitimate access from the neighbors? I was opening the door before I thought flashlight. And Not ours.

A ball of light flickered like a lantern by the window. Warmth brushed my calf. I held the whisky bottle by the neck. The light gleamed, picking out the dark glass of the bottle and then the label. A chill pressed past me, over the warmth from the house, into the kitchen. As it passed, a voice warned, “You’ll catch your death out here. Or at least catch the dead.”

Inside, a short shadow of a man tangled with the mist. A gust pushed rain and shadow into the kitchen. He seemed to deflate and reform, waving at a shadow that stiffened in the mists. Bells jangled softly and I jumped.

“Close the door! Don’t want to hear them dead men’s bells on that harness until I have to.” A low whicker bubbled up from the darkness just behind me. I shut the door. An old story popped and faded like a flashbulb in my head.

The haze fled as the door thumped. A soaked man stood in my kitchen, shaking out his dark hair like one of the dogs.

I twisted the bottle in my hand, thinking club. Whiskey sloshed down my wrist. His face…I looked down at the bottle glass, hoping for a reflection. It was covered with a sheen of condensation.

The dogs were restless and Brandon, the little bulldog, moaned in his sleep. None of them sat up to investigate the new voice in the kitchen. There was a single growl, but it wasn’t from the dogs on the couch.

“No harm intended, just a drink. Only blood I want is my own, warmed.” He ran a hand over his head and walked out into the living room, moving through the house like front, knocking out the pantry light and causing an interior door to pop shut. A cool gust swirled around, but I couldn’t tell if it was from the a/c or the door or the imperfectly preserved figure examining the pile of dogs snoozing on the couch. Brandon whoofled and then shoved himself closer to the Labrador mix, hiding under his thick fur. “What kind of hound is that?” the man asked, leaning over the and dripping fog on the oblivious dogs. “Looks like you got a bat on your couch.” He looked up.

Hefting the bottle against my hip, I wondered if I’d opened it earlier, if this was the first drink I’d had all day. Had I had lunch? Breakfast? Anything other than coffee as I tried to do laundry and sort through pictures and remember to be thankful for what I hadn’t lost? I stared for a second at the black lump on the couch and veered from hospitality into explanation. “He’s a dog. Brandon. He’s my dog Brandon. French bulldog.” There’s a ghost puzzling over my dog. My house, my stupid suburban house, is suffering a haunting. I should call the plumber. I took a swallow of the whiskey. The man looked back up at me. I both wished my brain would stop filtering those shadows and that it would stop whispering to me to stop looking.

“I’ll take a glass of that, ma’am, if you’d be so kind. Been looking for my own for years, but ain’t found it. My wife had a good arm.” There’s a chuckle. “I heard it hit the ground, even in the sheet, ya’know? So mad, it drove me to the elves.”

“Sure.” Mr. Bailey. The mention of elves no less than his request for whiskey punched through shock into that layer of ever-present hostess guilt. Our highball glasses were on the lowest shelf in the cabinet. Two of them thunked against the counter, and I sloshed whisky into each of them. Some trailed down the sides and onto the cabinet. I apologized for the mess as I handed him the glass.

“Smells like a good visit,” he said and took the whiskey. “I had a dog. And I know they mean good people.” The glass caught the lights from a lightning flash and the liquid seemed to shatter. “They don’t keep ‘em down in the eternal fields, even for their herds. Something turned ‘em against the idea of ‘faithful,’ I guess. Pretty sure it was us, banging on a book and telling ‘em eternity ain’t supposed to be work.” He laughed and took a sip, and I watched the whiskey curl in the smoke, billows of liquid and soot mingling. “We, my dog and I, that is, used to chase rabbits through brambles that would rip your flesh right off. No brambles where he runs, now. Hope they’re taking good care of him.”

I was leaning against the wall near the dog toys. “Brandon likes the laser pointer.” I flicked it on and found that it diffused in his shadowy feet. We both watched it for a second, and I shut it off. The whisky hit my throat and my brain switched into damage control. I coughed, but he just poured the liquid down into the flickers and darkened, as if he were topping up the lanterns that cast his shadow.

“It’s like starlight,” he said as he poured it down. A tiny flame kindled. “Better than cobbler.” Then his insides flared and he sighed. “Can’t ever get it all the way down.”

I kept the liquid flowing, and he moved to the marble coffee table, a blue flame flickering all the way up to his mouth. Around the tongues of flame, he told me that he’d been riding the river, herding the thirsty drowned cattle. The bluebell harness, the dead men’s bells, tinkled from the neck of his mount, a great grey seahorse that was soaking its way into the house even as we spoke. It had been bred down in the fields of the deathless elves, the ones who’d been condemned by the church in the same manner his wife had decided whisky was a heathen thing to put in your grave. It was that small fire, that anger, that had snapped whatever cord he’d first caught hold of, rising. Staring into the night, free and terrified, he’d run all the way to the sea looking for that bottle and found a kind of pirate eternity. A just-beyond-the-waves eternal isle. What he called elves—hard-eyed, gleaming-skinned creatures who seemed to walk in a constant ballet of current and float--offered him a mount and asked him to watch their cattle, who liked to flee ashore during floods. He looked for the bottle when the storms drove the sea and the cattle inland.

His whiskey burning voice lit up great empty caverns beneath my own skin, and I felt myself following that wisp further into the darkness. What would I chase beyond either salvation or damnation? I glanced over at the old leashes and collars hanging by the back door, a jumble of dog gear we’d been accumulating since marriage. What gates would I fear to shut?

As he spoke, his mount seeped through the wall. A stain that I wouldn’t be able to explain darkened the plaster by the door while I poured more whiskey, stared deeper into that flame. I leaned closer, wondering what whiskey topped with a burning soul would taste like.

A sharp bark at my knee was followed by a gout of water drenching my shirt and the seahorse leaning over me to nip his shoulder. It whispered to him, extinguished his reminiscences. I saw his form twist to Brandon and then to me, or the space around me, before he grabbed that weed-soaked bridle. My throat burned. “Follow the collar and not the bottle,” he murmured as a flash of lightning made a horror show and Western out of my kitchen.

Rain and hail stampeded against the house. Bailey mounted as the door blew open, spurring the horse back into the downpour. I threw the bottle into the night and slammed the door, waking all the dogs into a chorus of barks that only stopped when I stumbled back to the couch, flipping myself over the back and pulling Brandon up to my neck, letting the others pile themselves on me in the dark. A warm breath settled against my neck, opposite from where Brandon snorted.

I listened to the wind and the herd as a slow fire worked from my throat to my eyelids and my fingers curled in the fur of the dogs. I exhaled a slow flicker, lighting up all the eyes gathered around me in the night.

Story by C. Sandlin, Art by Kevin Cromwell

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Herein Thisplace

Dedicated to those who like to wander through suburban supermarkets just to see what's on their shelves and what you can conjecture about those who regularly visit them. There's nothing like a dim, well-air-conditioned grocery store to thrust you back upon the memories of childhood errands or to send a chill down your spine as items that should be absolutely, mundanely familiar just aren't in that expected aisle or spot.

It takes navigation to make it to the concrete across the warm black lot, bright lights and random cars sliding down the lanes. Can’t watch the sunset and the drowsy grackles fruiting from super-model-sized oak trees that could fit on a porch or the vestibule of one of those suburban houses just beyond the city proper. Maybe some are left deep in the byways of the city itself, old neighborhoods whose names are bywords and conjurations. But this is Houston, and the thing you should really think of is a spacecraft lying on its side or pointing a needle tip toward that blue sky.

You’d need a needle tip to pierce this air, even now, in the season of pumpkin walls making an autumnal fortification at the airlock doors that open onto a vestibule that could hold a dozen of those parking lot trees and then opens again into crammed aisles of produce and one set of double doors that releases you into the main body of the grocery store, away from vegetable flesh and leaf.

Follow the rows around, past candles and jams and pasta, along the wall of freezer cabinets, to the egress to the bakery section, the cheeses, and the deli, all the way back toward the front and another set of doors and the little jog of a hallway that gives onto the concrete stairs up to the demonstration kitchen and the upstairs balcony and the upstairs patio. Time enough for a glass of iced mocha while a family straps their baby into a grey vinyl capsule, all straps and Velcro and sturdy plastic latches. By the bright light of industrial lights and sunlight from the high row of warehouse windows (almost pre-shattered in their humid jewelry), they secure the baby tight against the dad, tiny body curled face to chest, just like the illustrations of every baby voyaging to life. Dad module shivers, shifts and begins his progress to the stairs while his wife handles the remnants of their brief visit.

Voyagers away, it’s just the concrete and the evening light, still almost afternoon-brilliant, gleaming from the concrete floors below.

Gleaming from the wafers and wine.

Lanky striders lean into the stop and start gait of wire baskets, dazed by the dark shelves barely taller than head-height, tall enough, and by the bright freezer doors. Dark jackets wander among them, as much the precise arbiters of price and space and serving as they might be the votaries of the food. And, perhaps, the only ones for whom the confessions of abundance and place and class and a numinous sense of doing the thing that must be done have been heard to the edge of sense. For what can you find at their side, who know the back of the house, the front of the house, the warehouse proper? They can parse the bottles and cans.

Fairies could bend in the light outside of those clerestory windows above, refracted angels whose hover is made of gnat and humidity, barefoot at the ledge of the windows. They laugh to themselves, a rumble of pipe and airplane, vibrating overhead. They remember likewise, bent, so the light strikes a memory and it breaks into a story of thread upon color upon emotion swerving into their fellows, the stories we tell of them, of their mounds and castles and feasts. And they continue to laugh.

In the insect glimmer of the swarming evening, they tell each other of plastic glitter heat-pressed onto t-shirts, of something wondrous that calls to our toes as they stretch beyond the plastic and rubber of our sandals, of children swimming through the errands, knees kicking in the front of the carts, flung in the swing of what they see above and around.

Tar pebbles and leaves press against the soles of their feet, still here, still at home, even with nothing royal to exalt them except the vision of this store, gleaming and moving like a filmstrip below them. A smell is enough, a bird curving over the parking lot, all the things that are at home in the whole in the where-nothing-is-seen that we breathe every second of every day, in the place we consign to dreams and draughts.

Glass breaks on a note you hear like a new connection between the neurons in your brain, nerves racing your ear and skin as a window shears into drops, melts in sound, falls and freezes into rainy chandeliers around the rim of one of those industrial lights. Something has shorted or leaked. Everyone pauses for the dimming of the lights. Everyone misses the creatures who land barefoot on the dusty tops of the freezer cabinets, who jump over the canvas bags printed with the store’s name, and land beneath the light full of shards of their passage.

None of the lights dim.

They stand there barefoot, holding hands. A voice rises along the rainbow dust coiling like smoke above them. “We can walk it. Even here, in this place, there is the path to wisdom.” You glance around the maze of shelves and wonder.

Eventually, evening evaporates and the windows become night-blind. The store is sealed, light reflecting itself, reflecting everyone back into the glimmering concrete, back onto the shoulders of the wine bottles, into the aluminum counters and the edges of the freezer doors. A labyrinth in a fun house.

Beneath the upper balcony, a couple approaches the checkout. Their cart is sparse, eyes blank, shuffling forward. There is wildness evaporating from them in the lights, like a bright plastic label peeling from them. Organic. Sustainably harvested. Fair trade. Words bubble up like hot plastic, sealing the tar dust and the gnat glitter.

It’s time to grab whatever remains and leave the great supermarket that gleams up at you, lights brilliant as teeth shimmering in the concrete. There are straps to wrap about waists and shoulders, there are things to seal against the outside.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Ghost Stories!!

Living Houston-adjacent, October is one of my favorite months. We don't really get a solid winter, but this is the time when the year begins to cool and suddenly you can go outside:  whatever oven has been left open for the past four months is finally firmly shut and someone has cracked the fridge door open. :)

Or maybe it's a different door, because it's also the beginning of ghost story season (which pretty much runs through the beginning of the year for me). Ghost stories are one of my favorite genres and I'm looking forward to lighting the candles and listening to stories with the windows open in the evening.

Ghost stories work just as well as other holiday stories to link me to past celebrations and I think they have a unique potential to demonstrate the ways that the past soaks up through us and affects behavior and expectations--also, I'm not into blood & gore, so ghost stories are a good way for me to edge into scary reads.

While I enjoy ghost stories (particularly listening to them), I find that the very characteristics that I enjoy are obliterated by the way that "ghost hunter" tv shows tend to handle them. Watching people infect each other with nerves, try to convince themselves that they are seeing and hearing things, and then treat ghosts as just another form of extreme hunting...really, any time you have to pull out an instrument with blinky lights and wave it around you might as well as be discussing the latest model of fishing rod for that giant fish you are JUST ABOUT TO CATCH...frustrates me.

I can't imagine how, particularly if you need a translator to talk to the locals about their experiences, you would expect to pick up English phrases from the local spooks after asking inane or irritating questions. I imagine ghostly hotel stewards floating around "Welcome, Bienvenue, Wilkommen..." trying to make sure that the ghost hunters who have graciously barged in are properly greeted and then pinched or flitted at with the appropriate gusto.

Ghost stories, and how we manage to keep remnants of yesterday and Great Aunt Betty Ann Helmswood close but not so close that become dangerous, are part--for me--of navigating a world where the present pushes forward just as graciously at the average ghost hunter rather than another trophy to snag for the shelf and the dust. Welcome, Wilkommen, Bienvenue. Happy Autumn.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

I Would Prefer Not To

Over the weekend, my husband had a summer cold and was in a comfort movie mood. We ended up watching The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and I ended up singing wahwahwah for the rest of the weekend. As you probably are, if you remember the score. I'd never seen the entire movie; bloody combat and grotesquerie are not my particular narrative preferences. I sat down to ask a question, stayed for a plot summary and then for the shocked fascination of Clint Eastwood being led through a desert (cringing in sympathy--my childhood could be organized in terms of sunburns and false tanning hopes).

The thing about coming to the movie now is that it refracts through all of the rest of the media I've consumed, a perspective I'd never have had at eight or whenever it was on the regular Saturday afternoon movie rotation. As a small example, I've been playing Elder Scrolls lately, a fantasy RPG that encourages resource allocation through looting. This is just a practical matter:  I have every gore slider in the game turned to "antiseptic" and I loot whatever glows, post-combat. So encountering a scene that demonstrates what that might actually look like (when The Ugly loots a CSA stagecoach full of bodies) both turned my stomach and made me think:  this is just a convention in the game with zero narrative weight. Vanquished enemies are your WalMart. 

Slowly, the grimness of the battle scenes in TGTB&TU, which were portrayed without any of the CGI hero light (or fake dimness), in gorgeous sunlight, in terrain that fought against the characters as impersonally as they fought amongst themselves, began to get to me. I started to think about the battle scenes that I've seen recently, in fantasy movies full of dimness and hero-light, and I suddenly understood the desire for a story like Game of Thrones. This movie, as dull as I found the pacing, refused (generally...everyone had great teeth, The Good had his cool gunslinger look back by the end of the movie) to give me polished, one-size-fits-Hollywood people in every scene.

Pain had weight and was never far off.

Because of this, perhaps, the movie felt...not necessarily real, but as if the characters and their actions were actually happening, affecting the story and me at the same time. I couldn't "escape" the gut-level impact of scenes under the rubric of 'entertainment.' Perhaps this is part of the reason there is an argument for why "unrealistic" fantasy is reductive and too conservative of the status quo. Maybe some of the stories that I like let me off the hook to easily, providing a weightless alternative space where actions aren't painful and therefore characters have an escape into perfection, immortality, a glimmering fay-reality.

Or maybe not. I don't want to see another example of the very real misogyny of our current political system and then pick up The Handmaid's Tale, for example, and tumble right into a pit. Stories don't have to do one thing, don't have to be one thing. I need to know just how much weight I can add before I am immobile and to understand that weightlessness is also a form of immobility.

This slow interrogation of what I see, what I read, and what I write has, so far, resulted in a creative inertia--I'm afraid to put something on the page, worried I haven't thought about each aspect of each word, character or scene enough, and that I am running right toward some kind of existential complicity with a genre of which I'm no longer completely sure. It has led to the exact immobility referenced in the title to this piece, one that I hope will eventually give way, either to silence or speech.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Creature Feature

Hold Your Breath

Breezes in the house carry the scent of candles of water into the stillness caged by the creaking of the papasan chair frame, you remain on a perch of blankets, listening. Frogs are singing in what remains of the afternoon's rain, still creeping through the grass in the backyard. Earlier, between a heartbeat and a power surge, the compressor failed. When the a/c stopped, the entire house quit breathing. If you close your eyes, you can feel the other houses, lights on and breathing to themselves, stretched along the block. You're afraid that if the a/c restarts, you will vanish, the house's fever dream.

You get up and open all the windows so the evening can reach in, can sigh across your elbows as you kneel in the kitchen, closer to the frogs. Everything is bright and drowned, the sun already dissolved. Water smells like grass smells like rain. It's a night you could cast off, catch up with the storms sweeping inland from the Gulf of Mexico.

The wind rises and you glance outside to see the tomato bed floating on a grassy puddle, pots with pumpkins and mouse melons lashed by their vines to the corners and tomato cages, wasps buzzing sleepily as everything rocks.

There's a lurch and you look up, over the edge of the fence. Just beyond the edge of the neighborhood, elephants wade in long grass and floodwaters. A trunk curls up and you hear the trumpet. There are no elephants in Texas. You clutch the doorframe as the breeze rushes over the fence, between the slats, sloshing through the kitchen.

Strength catches the house from its concrete pad, shears it and shapes it, like hands passing underneath. It was broken in the first surge, the power flooding the lines. You slip over, catch the window frame, sink to the floor. Another trumpet, like a siren, at the edge of the woods beyond the houses. You can hear a creek rising, but you can't name it.

The tomato bed bumps the house. You lean out the window, grab the edge of a pot, tangle vines around the window frame. A line of toads lean against the sides of the garden boat, among the mint and vines. One salutes you.

You gasp when the house slides down the yard, the shallow keel scraping the sidewalk. Now you can see the other houses, tight to the weather, lights gleaming. There's a soft bump, the edge of the house bouncing off the oak tree in the front, and then the house skims down the street, coasting on the breeze.

You know you're heading to the elephants.

The house settles into a channel that might have once been a drainage ditch. Dark water or thick breezes, the night holds and breathes for the house. You realize the frogs are still singing, a chanty about snakes in the drowned grass, from mouths just poking out from the edges of the plasterboard lining the back of the house. You hope it isn't that kind of flood. Where are you going?

None of the neighborhood lights reflect in the rush the house rides. Shadows and scents chill your wrists, splash against your elbows. Flickers appear, strings of lights that form tents--but only in the water.

The elephants in the moonlight are half wireframe, up to their shoulders in water and grass, moving slow in the weeds and winds. Beyond them, carnival lights drip upward in the clear cut area where the new houses will go.

The house slides past them. You hear a shout as the tall grass catches the house. "Tomatoes!" The toads are tossing tomatoes to a floating swirl of discards, lit by the old lights in the water. You lean against the wall of the house and take a deep breath, let the wind breathe for you, too.

Not Always the Heart

They’ve built out the seating area upstairs by the cooking school, concrete floor and tables like a promenade deck floating above the deli, above the wine racks, above shelves of staples, tea to pasta to crackers. It’s the kind of grocery that wants you to see each specialty space. And she’s early, so there’s an empty table in the middle. Away from the railing. She sits.

Rain, conversation below, rain. A grey light shifts in the upper row of practical windows piercing the upper edge of the wall. Rows of cables and industrial lights push light into the racks below. It takes heartbeats and shifting light and the feel of solidity vibrating against the soles of her feet before her breathing relaxes into the space and she realizes that there is no one else in the balcony.
And then one of those practical, square windows pops like a bubble and the vibration shivers from the sky into the pipes, along the railing and into this thin floor. Her palms hit the table and then she pushes the chair back, bends to run to the edge and then he’s standing there:  blank space, generic shadow, hollow mean of what a human form could be. No skin, no features, only shivering space and the suggestion of someone.

She lets it convince her.

“Thren.” The floor trembles, the railings hums. The voice, that name, echoes down her forearms. The figure’s hands lift, apologetic. “Sorry, it takes…space…takes waves…to get me. Let me...let me be still.”

And so she waits, hips leaning against the edge of the table, knees tight, skin colder than the air conditioning.
One of the pipes is loose and she realizes music is leaking from it, pop songs dripping and pooling on the concrete, staining the figure with sundogs that branch and flicker along its legs. “We have to play it." He steps sideways, away from the puddle of canned music. "You remember?…strings from the body. Music that comes from sunlight on a rock you’ve never seen in air you couldn’t breathe. It takes a body. You understand.”
But she doesn’t. Of course not. She knows only the words to the songs that are bleeding and fading on him, words leaving bruises. Melody simple as the d├ęcor. Still, she can feel it, in her stomach. The vibration that is both his form and the space through which he’s come. Maybe it's the thump of blood that makes her nod. Railing that reminds her of staves and bars.
The floor heaves and cracks and the lights jump. The rain and thunder sluice through the upper balcony. She screams, terror pulsing through her. Certainties break, concrete snaps—his name swells into Threnody—and he makes the fall, her fall, buckle, heave her upward. A single note high and strong enough to last as long as it needs to.
She falls into her chair, shaking and silent. Her stomach aches, vibrates. Music falls against her shoulders, rain from a foreign sky. Her gut plays the fall over and over. Somewhere else, a chord plays, strong and sad.

Friday, May 19, 2017

2.5, Suburban Standard

"This was the week we planned on..." A gauntlet to the chances and fates, no? This was not the week we anticipated having our compressor fail, nor was it the week we looked forward to camping in the kitchen and den, the two rooms that the portable a/c unit we'd purchased after the last a/c failure is able to keep cool.

Take a deep breath. Crappy, discursive sentences aside, it has been a week that reminded me of all the ways that houses are built to function singly--for one particular type of family (two adults, no more than four children), for one physicality (healthy), for continuous provision of electricity. Half of the house is already humid and silent, two days of disuse rendering it odd and unnecessary. The television has been mostly left silent and one of us has made a dent in his reading list. The other of us has spent several afternoons with the dogs in the backyard, watching the tomatoes and mouse melons change colors and following the spiders and crickets and whatever those nasty orange bugs are creep through the jungle that is the vegetable bed. The zombie pumpkins are billowing out of the sides of one bed. This morning, a female cardinal landed on the fence, watched us sitting on the hammock, and then dove into the garden for a snack run.

If I go into the back, intending to work on a project, I'm caught by the stuffiness and the smell of the house reminds me of relatives' houses on summer vacations. Those houses had thinner walls and I remember the curtains moving. You kept the windows open to let the air flow. You served hot coffee on summer afternoons and the adults sat in the kitchen, close to the coffee and the cool tile. If possible, you turned the kids outside.

I was a reader--it was hard to get me outside but it wasn't hard to install me in a quiet room with a book. For a little while. Eventually, the stillness would get to me and I would go outside just to move around and chase the breezes.

Some of that restlessness returns with the stuffiness. I want to open the windows, but I'm asked to shut doors and close curtains and to be careful if I want to go sit in the back of the house, where the coolness is not but the silence behind the fans is thick and damp and happier when undisturbed. The house wasn't built for this. It would prefer us to go outside.

Friday, May 12, 2017


It's been almost five months since I last posted and it seems right that this is the lead post away from that silence. There were several personal goals and deadlines that I'd set for myself during the beginning of the year:
  • Stop blaming the negative drag on my mood as remnants from the election
  • Finish a story I'd begun for my husband
  • Finish the poetry book I'd been inspired to start last year
    • Before the recent local author book festival
    • Before the beginning of May
    • Before the first half of the year was gone
    • Before this meeting and then that meeting
  • Outline the duology about suburban magic
  • Outline a vampire novel about a vampire who decides to give up the faith
  • Actually decorate for my husband's birthday
  • Finish the short stories that would serve as the introduction to the book of poetry
  • Finish just the one short story featuring a monkey
  • REALLY. Sit down and work on the monkey story.
  • There is a story. About a monkey who wrecks a woman's ability to enjoy stories once upon a time. FINISH IT.
  • Forget about the monkey story.
  • No, you're not going to work on that story.
  • Crap. Okay, one page hinting at the theme of the monkey story. In this tiny notebook. And then stop.
And then I picked up a book by an author whom I've met and looked at it. Looked at the back, where the blurbs sparkles like bubbles down to the edge of the dust jacket. Looked at the cover, looked at the table of contents, weighed the entire book in one hand, thumbed through the pages. Thought about all the work that had gone into that book. Asked myself whether goals deferred and goals unmet meant goals that I no longer believed in or cared about.

Seriously considered that what I really wanted to be and do was something else and that writing was always a second choice.

Once upon a time there was a monkey who could see that some things--stories, dreams--were alive in a way that animals are not. It wanted to know what they were made of. All it needed was a room and two little kids who would believe in the buttons and dials and Jacob's ladders of a lab long enough for the monkey to see through to the bones of the stories and a few tame stories.

Thursday, January 26, 2017


I am going to eat it. Everything sparkles around the edges of my vision and yet the golden bug floating just beyond Minerva’s shoulder gleams as if each scale on its wing is lit separately by a thousand suns. It looks delicious.
I hold still. There is eternity and there is this pose. Minerva has the profundity of a goddess, exact in herself, exact in her consideration of the point the artist has given her, beyond the butterfly, beyond this second, through the portrait itself. She has an icon’s immobility, holding a pose for the painter standing on a scaffold. The butterfly has come into the impossible second Minerva has derived for the painter, too deep or wide for Chronus and his stuttering insistence on wax rounds, ticks, atomic decay. Everything is chopped fine in his salad universe.
Minerva has promised this painter immortality for a painting and she has granted it—this second in which time does not move, although the painter breathes and mixes his paints and slides that brush across the canvas. And now a gilded butterfly has come into eternity, which she is welcome to spend in my belly.
Can I allow a butterfly to shine brighter than Minerva? Wisdom overshadowed by gold? I cannot.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Not a Review of C.J. Cherryh's Angel With the Sword

I finally finished C. J. Cherryh's Angel With the Sword yesterday, barreling toward the end as various boats and bridges caught fire or were swamped beneath the prow of larger vessels. This is my first venture into the world of Merovingen and although it wasn't necessarily the right book at the right time for me, it did eventually pull me in and stay floating in my thoughts for several hours afterward. I wanted to know what happened next and I was curious enough about the world to go through the appendix material and various maps at the end. Altair Jones' constant consideration of her situation (which had led to a general recommendation to read the book at a writers' group) made her a character that you could still feel lurking, considering her next move, after the book was over. Although, truthfully, she wasn't much of a lurker in the book--that mental conversation doubled her character slightly, so she was both active and heroic and shadowy and reckless at the same time.

It also led to the question--what if I had discovered it at the right time? If I had read this around the time I read The Hobbit or The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper...if I had encountered Altair rather than Frodo. In the middle of making notes for a draft, the question of why fantasy and whither narrative strikes more forcefully than usual.

I think about coming to a book like Pilgrim's Progress and loving it for the cracked spine, the line drawings in the chapters, the feel of the dry pages against my skin, knowing I had to take care of the physical book itself as I read it. Later, coming to Tolkien's books and having to be judged old enough to read them with care. In my current household, the same consideration would go to my husband's comics, of which I am very careful without particularly loving. Care is its own kind of veneration, I suppose.

This leads to the question of what fantasy does, what kind of escape or care it provides to the vanished and the magical and the forgotten. Am I reaching backward toward something that feels lot, trying to gild something that was never worth it? Did I discover books in accord with a preservationist, nostalgic character or did I become so because these are the ideas that I encountered that swallowed all others?