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Wolf-Ely Writing Project: Day 243

(This is the eighth in a series of posts that chronicle my year-long writing project. I'm writing fiction to explore how wolves and the legalization of wolf hunting and trapping affect residents in northern Minnesota. This post includes commentary and the beginning of an early draft of a story in progress. For more information about this project, please scroll down to Wolf-Ely Writing Project: Day 1, or click here.)

The other day I was talking with a friend of mine who’d received a Minnesota State Arts Board grant last year. She knew I was going through a tough time in my personal life and offered some reassurance. “Don’t worry, Wendy, you’ve got a whole year,” she said. “And when life happens, you just have to take time out to deal with it.”

I spent my birthday with my tribe, grateful for their presence. L to R my siblings: Burgess, Diane, Janey, (me) and Miriam.This explains why I’ve delayed until the last day of month for my Wolf-Ely Writing Project post. Life is happening. August, a month I usually relish marked by my birthday and the last cicada-buzz-filled days of summer is challenging me in ways I never anticipated. The good news is that friends and family have enveloped me with their love and support. And, at the end of July, I received tons of feedback on how to strengthen my stories from my mentor, the fabulous children’s book author and Hamline University professor, Sheila O’Connor.

Now, if I could only get to that revision process…when life settles down. After all, I have four more months to write and share my work with you. Oh, and mark your calendars for Nov. 7 at Open Book in Minneapolis for my first public reading. The second reading will follow in Ely, date and time yet to be determined. More about that in next month's post.

And speaking of dealing with life, this next excerpt from the story, Reality Show, features Daisy, described by a writer-friend of mine as “a gun-totin' gal and a volatile person.” She struggles to accept how her choices have resulted in unintended consequences.

Ah, but doesn’t that describe us all—not the gun bit—but the unintended consequences?

Reality Show

Daisy Johnson put the pistol in the holster. Every day since she’d found Thelma’s remains, she carried a gun when she went into the woods. It made her shiver just recalling how the dog might as well have fallen into the Amazon River and been nibbled to death by a thousand piranhas. In a pink, blood-soaked patch of snow, the wolves had left behind a full pearly-white skeleton with the head and tail intact but for one gnawed-off ear.

Daisy hadn’t actually fired the gun since then—but if she needed to, she’d have no qualms about following the old adage: shoot, shovel and shut up. Since the Endangered Species Act no longer protected wolves, technically she could use lethal force to defend her dogs without it being a Federal offense. But goddammit, if she ever saw one of those monsters trespassing on her property again, she’d blow it away. She still had to be careful, make sure it was legal. If not, she could face $2,000 in restitution and up to a $3,000 fine—plus a year’s free rent in the county jail. Earlier in November, she’d missed out on the lottery for this year’s license, but she was successful after standing in line for two hours—first come first serve—at the hardware store at getting one of the unclaimed licenses. It would cover her ass just in case, at least through January when hunting season ended.

Strapped on like a commando’s, the holster clung to her leg as she trekked from the house down the snow-packed drive in her black snowmobile suit. She hoofed it up the hill, around the corner and out to the row of mailboxes along Highway 121. A pickup truck roared past kicking up a white dust devil from last night’s snowfall. She opened her box and pulled out a Greenstone utility bill, the December issue of Guns & Ammo and a red Netflix’s envelope. Good. She could finally watch Liam Neeson kick some ass in The Grey.  A shiny black SUV pulled up and the window rolled down.

“Howdy, neighbor!” It was Becker, a man with unnaturally dark hair for his late forties and teeth so perfect and white it hurt to look at them.

“Hi, Ted,” Daisy said. “You all have a nice Thanksgiving?”

“You betcha,” he said. “Heading back home to the Cities.”

“Hi, Daisy.” His wife waved from the passenger side. A teenage boy and girl with earbuds poked into their heads sat in the back already tapping away on their smartphones.

“Hey, I got that live webcam up and running,” Becker said. “It’s gonna be great. When the motion detector goes off, it’ll trigger an alarm that sends me an email to my phone—and with infrared light, it sees just like those night vision goggles they used when they killed Osama Bin Laden.”

“Theo,” his wife whined. “It’s cold. We need to get going.”

Becker’s eyes fell to the holster on Daisy’s leg and he grimaced.

“Theo,” his wife repeated.

“Well, you have a good one,” Becker said. "See you next spring." They flashed Ken-and-Barbie smiles, the window rolled up and the SUV accelerated down the highway.

Daisy shook her head. Thank God Becker was going to Jamaica for Christmas this year and she didn’t have to deal with him—or his wife—for another six months. It wasn’t that they weren’t nice people. It’s just whenever Becker crossed her path, he could not shut up about his latest home improvement or techno gadget or how grand it was to live in Greenstone. Yeah, it was special for him to spend time Up North here communing with nature, but that kind of talk got real old real fast for someone who lived here. Full time. All the time. 365 days all-through-the-fucking-winter-time.

Daisy walked back down the driveway to the house. When she rounded the corner, she smiled at the custom-made street sign she’d recently mounted on the trunk of a tall red pine. It read: Psycho Path. She called her place other names, too, The Happy Halfway House for Orphaned Animals and Shangri-La. Hell, people in town thought she was crazy the way she kept collecting wayward dogs over the years, as many as six at once—all rescues from one kind of abuse or another. But she wouldn’t have had it any other way. She loved them all. They were her family. And no better place to have her family than here in heaven, 10 acres of forest situated on the border between Greenstone and the Boundary Waters. Except in her case, heaven came with a little hell. Shangri-La sat smack dab in the middle of wolf territory. …


Wendy Skinner is a fiscal year 2014 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.


Caesar and Cleopatra: A Short Story

(I wrote this short story published in Rock, Paper, Scissors. West Egg Literati, St. Paul, MN, 2009. You can also listen to the audio here.)

Kirk Henderson’s dogs had been a problem going on four months and I’d just about had it up to here with them mongrels. They weren’t really Kirk Henderson’s dogs. They were a pack of homeless, rib-thin, wild animals that Kirk Henderson had taken a perverted pity on. Rumor was that he came out of that shack of a house only once a day and that was to feed them. The only reason they stuck around was for his handouts. He’s our closest neighbor, a half mile away, and if it weren’t for them dogs, we’d never know if that hermit was alive or dead.

“Have you called the Sheriff, hon?” my husband, John asked me as I drank my second cup of coffee the morning after those dogs got into the bantams for the hundredth time. This time they dug a hole under the chicken wire beside a rotten post. They’d got Chester, my 2006 State Fair Grand Champion, and all that was left was a fist full of feathers and some guts strewn about from some other unfortunate hens.  I should’ve replaced that post, set it in concrete the day before when I leaned on it and heard it crack down below my feet.

“Didn’t I tell you?” I said. “Sheriff says he can’t do nothing about it. Nothing. Says animal control’s not in his job description. Says even if Kirk Henderson owned those dogs he couldn’t just go over there and arrest him without proof of property damage or personal injury.” But he don’t own those dogs. Nobody owns those dogs. No body would want to own those dogs.

We own two pure bred goldens, Cleo and Caesar. After my little kids, those dogs are my babies. John’s trained them to be outdoor dogs: up in the truck, out of the truck, stay, fetch, give ‘er up. Good dog. I’ve trained them to be indoor dogs: sit, lie down, roll over, shake, kiss, stay, come. Good dog. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t rub their silky fur, kiss their wet noses, and talk to them when everybody else is gone off to work or school. And the kids love the dogs and the dogs love the kids.

The night after Chester went missing, the kids came screaming in from playing outside. “Those dogs! They’re out there again,” they cried. “Seven of ‘em.” Sure enough, they were out there in the twilight trotting around the edge of the yard, sniff’n and piss’n, marking out their territory. One was limping real bad, another’s skin was so raw it was missing half its fur. It was the first time I’d seen all of them at once, that close to the house, and during daylight still.

So John and I got to talking and decided we’d take the matter into our own hands, take care of them mongrels once and for all.

Yesterday John took off a little earlier than usual from planting and drove into town to pick up twenty pounds of fresh fat, gristle, and bone from Jerry’s Butcher Shop before it closed. He stopped by the hardware store on the way back for a tub of that paste kind of d-Con Kwik Kill rat poison. I said I didn’t want nothing hanging around the yard; it had to be strong and fast.

That night, after I tucked the kids in bed and locked up Cleo and Caesar in their kennels, John and I put on rubber gloves and set out to fix those meat trimmings up real good. We spread that d-Con on thick like mustard, worked it in like we were rubbing a roast for the grill. We left the bait in the bed of the truck so it would be easier to clean up afterwards. John parked the truck on the side of the house, down the hill on the edge of the lawn. We didn’t want none of those nosy folks passing by on the county road to wonder what we were up to.

It took me a long time to fall asleep. I was getting second thoughts. Dogs will be dogs. It wasn’t their fault, it was Kirk Henderson’s fault. When a dog goes wrong it’s the master’s gone wrong. If you don’t master them yourself, they’ll go out and kill whatever dinner they can sniff up for themselves and if a pack is hungry enough it don’t matter if it’s bantams or little children.

My teeth grinding woke me up early, 5:10. I couldn’t fall back asleep and John was still buried under the sheets. I peeked out the bedroom window looking to see if anything had changed overnight. With the sun just thinking about making a show of itself along the edge of the bare, black fields, I couldn’t see much. I put on my robe and slippers. Cleo must have heard me cause she started whining from her kennel. “Hush!” I told her, “I’ll be back, baby.”

I went out the kitchen door and stepped real high across the grass so as to keep the dew from getting the tips of my slippers wet. I looked down towards the truck. The bed was empty. Where were those dogs? A soft clucking drew my attention to the chicken house. A couple of bantams stretched their iridescent wings and pecked at the stubby grass at the edge of the pen. This was a good sign, clucking and pecking. It seemed that peace had settled over our little farm over night. Then I saw something. There, in the shadow of the chicken house laid a bunch of dogs sleeping, noses all tucked into each other’s fur like a giant puppy pile. I stepped closer. Those dogs weren’t puppies and those noses weren’t breathing and those bodies weren’t sleeping with their legs set stiff in unnatural positions. I got close enough to see half their eyes wide open, the other half closed shut, their lips drooping red and sticky, crusty, pink foam spilled out. My toes felt cold. As much as I had tried to avoid the dew, my slippers got soaked clear through.


Before the kids woke up and as I started to fix this morning’s Sunday breakfast, John wrapped those dogs up in a tarp and took them to the dump. I tried to avoid looking at the red and white strips of muscle and fat in the fry pan as the bacon sizzled and popped. As sad as it was sad, those dogs were gone, dead, out of their misery. But the price was worth paying, I thought, because now the bantams and most of all, the kids are safe again. Cleo nudged me on the back of my calf. I turned. She sat down real quiet with her dark, marble-eyes begging up at me. “You want a treat, baby?” I asked. I pinched off a piece of half-cooked bacon and tossed it to her. Caesar wouldn’t be left out of it so I tossed him a piece too.

When John came back in the kitchen door, Caesar and Cleo finally went out. John had that worn-out-glad-that’s-over-with-look on his face. Once we all sat down to eat our bacon, scrambled eggs, and pancakes with the kids not knowing what we knew and us knowing what we knew, John and I started to laugh and joke like we used to before those dogs started coming around.

After breakfast, as I wiped a dish with a soapy sponge, John came up from behind and put his arms around me. “I’ll help with the washing,” he whispered in my ear as he gave my breasts a light squeeze. “How ‘bout if I help with these dishes here, and then with the other dishes later?”

I leaned back into his warm chest as I gazed out the window. Caesar was chasing Cleo for what looked like a bone as they raced around the truck. Then Cleo caught a scent, stopped dead, and dropped the bone. Her nose followed the edge of the pickup’s open tailgate. She licked it and then leaped up. Caesar followed her and the two of them began licking the tailgate, the wheel wells, and the bed of the truck like it were liver-treat candy.

“John, did you get ‘round to washing that truck of yours?”

“No, hon, I was waiting until after breakfast.”

“John,” I cried, “the dogs!” I dropped the sponge, tore myself from his arms, and ran out the kitchen door. “Cleo! Caesar! Come!” I yelled.

The dogs stopped licking and their heads turned towards me, saliva drooling from the corners of their mouths. I dropped down in the wet grass onto my knees. “Come here, babies. Please, come.”

A fly buzzed around Cleo’s face, she snapped at it, then she and Caesar began to lick with a fever at the bloodied truck bed once again—it was like nothing they’d ever tasted before—and as dogs will be dogs, they didn’t stop.