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Wednesday
Dec312014

Ely-Wolf Project: Day 365

(This is the tenth and last in a series of posts that chronicles my year-long Minnesota State Arts Board writing project. I'm writing fiction to explore how wolves and wolf hunting affect residents in northern Minnesota. Previous posts have included excerpts from works in progress. For more information about this project, please scroll down to Wolf-Ely Writing Project: Day 1, or click here. Quick links included in this post are: Driving on the ice-covered highwayPowerPoint project overview from the Ely Public Presentation, Facebook post about a most embarrassing moment,  and story excerpts from "Mortality Mode" and "A Million Stars).

A Final Interview

My Minnesota State Arts Board grant period ends today, December 31, 2014. After conducting over two dozen interviews throughout the year, it's time for you to ask me the questions...

How do you feel about this being the end of the grant period?

My stories are based in the fictitious town of Greenstone, which is based on Ely, MinnesotThe grant supported experiences I would never have done on my own—traveling to Northern Minnesota to spend weeks researching and interviewing dozens of interesting people. It's a rush to delve deeply into a community in a concentrated amount of time, but a major let down when it all comes to an end.

It's like the closing night for a play.

Exactly! You’ve built sets, endlessly tweaked lights and sound and spent weeks memorizing lines and rehearsing scenes—only to have it all end after the final curtain call.

What exactly did you accomplish over the grant year? (Tweet your answer in 140 characters max!)

I interviewed 27 people. Submitted 5 stories to 50+ literary magazines. 500 people visited 10 monthly blog posts. 100+ came to my Mpls reading & 50+ to the Ely program.

But what about wolves? Did you see any?

Luna, my muse for the black wolf that weaves in and out of the stories.Yes, I saw many wolves—in captivity at the International Wolf Center in Ely. I had the privilege of meeting three elder retired wolves: Grizzer and two Arctic wolves named Malik and Shadow. I was lucky to meet Malik and Shadow before they died from natural causes in March and July, respectively. I also met the four active ambassador wolves: Aidan and Denali (Rocky Mountain gray wolves), and Boltz and Luna (Great Lakes gray wolves).

But no wild wolves?

Sorry. No wild wolves. Even if you live in the Northwoods every day, it’s still a rare experience to spot a wild wolf. Maybe next time I visit I’ll get lucky.

What was the scariest thing that happened?

Driving my Honda Accord on the ice-covered highway from Ely to Orr. It was very early on a Saturday morning on my way to interview a woman who raised miniature Nigerian dwarf goats on Pelican Lake. Not a soul passed me in either direction, my arms and shoulders ached from clenching the steering wheel, and it was 16 below zero. I had visions of careening off the iced-over road only to freeze like a walleye stuck in a snowbank outside an ice fishing house.

What was the most unexpected?

Hidden Valley Ski Club Trails in ElyMaking so many new friends—and at times under the most unexpected circumstances. For example, after a week of back-to-back interviews, I finally had a 4-hour break when the temperature rose to a balmy 10 below zero. I decided to squeeze in a round of nordic skiing at Hidden Valley between my morning and late afternoon interviews. After an hour and a half, I was on the home stretch back to the parking lot when I realized I’d dropped my camera.   When I began to backtrack, I bumped into a local skier. It was a little embarrassing—I’m notorious for losing things—and had to explain why I was going the wrong way on a one-way trail. He insisted on skiing with me to help me look for my camera.

And…Did you find your camera?

After three exhausting hours skiing the entire back loop for a second time, I never did find it! But I did make a new, dear friend. This is just one example of how people I met were so welcoming and accepting of me, a stranger to the community.

What did you find most challenging in your writing process?A glimpse of my writing desk.

That has to be what always challenges me most: getting into the regular routine of writing. Drafting stories is work. Just like a job, I have to show up on a regular basis, be present and start scribbling or typing. Writing takes long, dedicated amounts of time for me. I can write from nine in the morning to six in the evening without so much as a bathroom break to get a story down. That’s a good day.

What about revision?

The revision process that takes much longer for me, but it’s easier to do in smaller pieces.

How did you deal with distractions?

Simply showing up, being present—and closing the door—took care of a lot of distractions. But there were some distractions that I couldn’t and didn’t want to close the door on. When personal crises arose and put a stop the writing process all together, I just let it be. Writing will always be there, family or friends might not. So, it’s important to let the writing go and take care of life and the ones you love most, especially yourself.

What are three things you learned?

1. If I listen well, I will hear the most intriguing stories.

2. Real life truly is stranger than fiction.

3. My best stories are inspired by my truest human connections.

If you could do one thing over, what would that be?

I would never interview anyone in a restaurant or coffee shop.

Why not?

I found that most people say only what they’re willing to let the whole world know when they tell you something in a public place. I’m not interested in that. I want to listen to what they’re not willing to tell the whole world, those secrets or those reflections that they only express when in a quiet, safe, private place. I want to hear the stories they would only tell me, a trusted confidant.

How did the two public readings go?

Fantastic! Because of great publicity efforts—stories in the paper, posters, emails, Facebook, blog posts and word of mouth—over 150 people heard about my project and listened to me read from two stories, "Mortality Mode" and "A Million Stars."

How many people came to the Minneapolis reading?

Five 2014 MSAB Artist Initiative grantees read at the Loft.Over 100 people attended the Minnesota State Arts Board Loft reading at Open Book on Nov. 7.  Five of us 2014 grantees read from our work.

And how was the turnout for the Ely reading?Q & A at Grand Ely Lodge presentation

People packed the house at the Ely Grand Lodge. Over 50 people came on Nov. 18 for the full program: 20-minute PowerPower project overview, 20-minute reading of “A Million Stars,” and a half hour of Q & A. Audience members had lots of great energy and asked insightful questions about wolves and fiction.

Where are your stories now?

I polished five of the seven stories I wrote to final drafts and submitted them to over 50 literary magazines. The rejections began pouring in immediately. Then, just before Christmas the editor of Midwest Gothic notified me that they accepted my story, “Trespassing,” for publication in 2015!

Congratulations! What about the other stories?

I’m hopeful that over the next few months one or two more—and if I’m really lucky, three—stories will be accepted for publication. I’ll let you know when “Trespassing” or any other stories are published and available to the public. It’s a long process. It could be up to a year before you see these in print.

What’s next?

First and foremost will be to write the second half of the story collection. I’m aiming for 9-10+ stories total. I have dozens of interviews and notes I’ve yet to tap for material. I might retreat to a cabin Up North where I can dedicate focused writing time. Then, more revision and submissions to literary magazines. Ultimately, I’ll seek to publish the entire collection as a novel in stories. I’ll keep you posted!

Any last words?

Following the radio signal beep from a collared wolf on the far shore of Birch Lake.I’m grateful for all the people whose words and actions supported me during the year. Besides tax payers who supported me through the Minnesota State Arts Board grant, I had offers from strangers for a bed, a cup of coffee, time to talk or take a walk. I was most grateful when my plans fell through and people stepped in to help--twice.

Once in January when the cabin I planned to stay in was not fit for winter occupancy and via a chain of communication through Sheila O’Connor and Polly Carlson-Voiles, I landed a gig house sitting for Alanna Dore right in Ely! Another time was in November when my plans to present my program fell through with my first venue. Within 24 hours and another chain of communication through Jordyn Nyquist, Steve Piragis and Steve Schon, I landed a one-hour speaking engagement with the Tuesday Group at the Grand Ely Lodge.

Then of course there are all the Minnesota tax payers who supported me through the Minnesota State Arts Board grant and the countless offers of support, such as a home to stay in, a cup of coffee at the Front Porch, a meal at the Chocolate Moose, a walk in the Superior National Forest, snowshoeing on Birch Lake, canoeing across the Hegman lakes to see pictographs…

And the dozens of people who agreed to be interviewed?

Of course I have to thank them! They taught me about wolves, wolf management issues, and what it’s like to live in Northeastern Minnesota in the heart of wolf territory.

Did the interview process play a significant role in your creative process?

Absolutely!

Then one last question: Can you leave us with a sense of what it was like to listen to so many people over your months of research?

Sure. Here’s an excerpt from my journal after my first week of interviews that gets to the heart of my writing:

January 27, 2014

Oh, my. What a trip. What a wealth of information, experiences, and emotion. From doubt to encouragement to fear, dread, frustration, distain, anticipation, surprise, thrill, relief, exhaustion, compassion, and as they say, the greatest to all, love.

I’ve discovered some people who have the biggest, most tender hearts, others whose hearts have been beaten and broken, only to form a tough outer shell for protection. And, still others whom I never care to see again personally, but challenge me to see the deeper meaning of their human experience.

This whole week has been an exercise in human compassion. Is this what it feels like to be missionary? Always turned on, speaking face to face and searching for the needs of each soul I encounter? No matter who they are or how poorly or well they treat me, my job is to find their motivation—what makes them who they are—and discover that spark that leads to a flaming success of a story.

My working map of fictitious Greenstone, Minnesota where all my stories take place.

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.


 

Sunday
Aug312014

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.


Monday
Jul072014

Wolf-Ely Writing Project: Day 189

(This is the seventh 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 a 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.)

Medicine Man

Henry’s shoulders itched. Sweat soaked his T-shirt. If the snow weren’t so deep he and his niece, Sundog, could have skied instead of snowshoed to their cabin on Turtle Back Lake. He hadn’t been back since they put Grandpa to rest ten years ago. They buried him where the loggers left the white pines standing for fear of upsetting the living if they trespassed over the roots that curled around the dead Indians buried there.

At the age of twelve, Sundog was a real trooper. Hardly a complaint out of her since they’d left the truck in the parking lot at the end of Broadax Trail, the entrance to the Boundary Waters. It’d been three hours since Henry led her across the snow-crusted plain of Broadax Lake, then the long hilly portage through forests and over bogs to Turtle Back Lake. Henry and Sundog would weather the storm for a day or two in the shelter where he’d spent his summers as a child before enlisting with the United States Marine Corps. If Child Protection Services had the guts and the gall to stick it out waiting for them at his mother’s house, they’d have to fight all six-four, 250 pounds of him. Court order or not, they weren’t taking Sundog away from her family and putting her back in that foster home in Duluth.

Henry stopped and readjusted the harness to the sled that held their sleeping bags, blankets, stove, fishing gear, cook kit and enough nuts, dried fruit and jerky to last if the trout weren’t biting. A raven flew up to the top of a nearby red pine and bobbed as it cawed in a throated rhythm. Raven, bearer of magic, messenger of the cosmos. It had followed them ever since the parking lot, appearing and disappearing.

If child protection services brought the sheriff with them, that would be another story. Henry would have no choice.

“How much farther?” Sundog asked. Her eyes squinted into two black slits as she blocked the sun with her mittened hand. Two crystal rainbows framed the sun on each side as it crawled along the southern edge of the January sky. Sundog looked and acted just like her grandma, with warm brown skin and questioning, always questioning. “I’m tired.” So much for no complaints. Her jacket was tied around her waist and a red scarf hung off her neck like an elder’s shawl, loose and free. She squatted and sat back on the ends of her snowshoes.

“See that cliff up ahead?” Henry pointed to a rusty-colored rock wall rising from the edge of the lake snow. “That’s where Medicine Man is. We’ll rest there.” Henry traipsed ahead, breaking a trail of waffle-like prints in the snow followed by four parallel lines streaking behind the sled. He didn’t look back.

When he reached the cliffs, he unhitched the sled, removed his snowshoes and leaned against the stone wall. Snow frosted the ledges and falls of ice cascaded down one end between two black-stained faces of granite. He waited. Sundog methodically followed his tracks across the brilliant, sun-dazzled snow. Her brown cheeks had turned red with exertion. Her scarf had joined the jacket at her hips. After she pulled off her stocking cap, shocks of black hair stuck out every which way like a wet muskrat. It was a shame the foster mother had cut her hair. It would take another year before it grew to fall past her shoulders again. On the cusp of womanhood, and she looked like a boy.

“Water?” Henry passed his bottle to Sundog. She pulled the stopper with her teeth and sucked greedily at the bottle like a newborn fawn. She wiped the drips off her mouth with her sleeve and passed the bottle back to him. “You’re not much for words today,” he said.

Sundog smiled and shrugged her shoulders. With all the screwed up events in her short life so far, she was surprisingly easy going. Maybe a little too much so. Or maybe she was just shy around him. He could intimidate people with his stature and the military stoicism he just couldn’t shake after 20 years—that and his slate-blue eyes that could see into a person’s soul. Or so he’d been told. Like his mother and his grandfather and his fathers before him, Henry was raised 100 percent Indian. It was his father’s Norwegian blood that startled people when they met him for the first time expecting to see what they imagined an Indian should look like. And even then, when they knew he was Indian, white people treated him like he were one of them. But Sundog? She didn’t have his complexion of protection, and after three court appeals all ruling in favor of his mother to care for Sundog, Child Protection Services was still determined to strip Sundog of her Native family and make her a white girl. It’s no different, his mother had said, than when they put me in the boarding school.

Henry passed the water bottle with Sundog until they emptied its icy contents. He climbed to a ledge on the cliff, sat down in the snow and leaned up against the rock. Sundog removed the snowshoes from her hot-pink boots and followed. She sat beside him, copying the way he dangled his legs over the ledge. The sun hit his face full on. It felt good. No wind, just stillness. Blue sky from horizon to horizon with a zipper line of snowshoe tracks bisecting the white plain of snow on the lake. Sundog put her scarf back on. Henry shivered and put on his jacket. He closed his eyes and the sun made a blood orange of his eyelids. A shadow flickered across. The raven flew over and lit in the spruce boughs above them. It clacked its beak, ruffled its feathers and walked about like a big-footed clown poking its nose into the branches flicking chunks of snow down upon Henry’s head.

“So where is Medicine Man?” Sundog said with her face to the sun and her eyes closed.

Henry brushed the snow from his hair and stood. The raven hopped deeper into the tree boughs and disappeared. “Right here.” He pointed a few feet above her head. “You walked right past him.”

She stood. Eye-to-eye with a cluster of iron-red figures taking up no more space on the stone than half a snowshoe, she pulled off her mitten. “Hello, Medicine Man,” she said, and traced his uplifted arms and five-fingered hands. Her finger fell to the perfect silhouette of a bull moose, antlers, beard and all then behind it, a wolf with a long bushy tail. She underlined the scene as her finger tracked a horizon line streaking below the three beings.

“Cool, huh?” Henry smiled.

“Yeah, cool.” Sundog smiled back, her crooked teeth gleaming. “One, two, three,” she counted the canoes hovering over the beings. “One, two, three, four, five, six,” she counted the hash marks beside the canoes. Then she reached up over her head and pressed her hand to a red, wind-blown cross high above the scene. “What’s the story?”

“Nobody knows.”

“Who painted these?”

“Nobody knows, but whoever did was here before our people.”

“The Anishanabee. First People. That’s what Grandma calls us.”

“Remember, someone always walks the path before us, before you and me, Grandma, great grandpa, before the Indian villages on Sucker Bay, Balsam Island and Pillow Rock Portage. Before the miners, the loggers, the Voyageurs and the French fur traders. Before Columbus, the Vikings…”

“Before Medicine Man?”

“And before Medicine Man, yes,” Henry said. “There were others.” ...

 

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.

 

Saturday
May312014

Wolf-Ely Writing Project: Day 152

(This is the sixth 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 a short essay 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.)

Last night, I read through one of my stories, "Black Sheep." I’d set it aside for a while because I’d been on the fence about it. I wasn’t sure where I stood with my characters. Had I:

  • Given them enough details to be believable?
  • Spent enough time listening to their troubles, fears and hopes to give them enough cause to act?
  • Been fair to them?
  • Taken good care of them as human beings with all their flaws?

When I finished reading the story, I took a deep breath and said, “I just love this guy!” Even with all his quirks, faults and politics, by the end of the story, I felt an overwhelming sense of affection for the protagonist in the story. Now I knew where I stood with the story, and in that same moment, I realized that I'd grown so fond of so many characters in my stories. With all the danger, sorrow and despair that might visit them, I want so much for them to make it to the end of the story—and beyond.

I never thought I'd feel or dare to think this way when I started writing fiction. When I heard other writers talk about such things it sounded corny...but it's not. It's what living in another person's proverbial shoes does to you. If you dig deep enough, listen hard and long enough, you begin to understand them as a person, and with that comes love.

Here's the beginning of the story...

Black Sheep

Richard recognized his granddaughter when she stepped off the bus and onto the icy parking lot of The Pancake House. At 17, Rose still had those over-sized eyes and black curly hair of the little girl he remembered. Covered in a thin pair of tights, her legs poked out from a baggy matching cardigan like a black, stick-legged sheep. No hat, no gloves, no boots, just leather sandals on her feet and hanging from her shoulder, an over-stuffed woven bag. The rainbow colors had faded, but it was the same one her mother had carried the last time he saw them, 12 years ago in L.A. Rose hugged herself and buried her chin into the sweater’s collar.

As much as he hated to do it, canceling this morning’s meeting with supporters of the proposed copper-nickel mine was necessary to drive the hour from Greenstone to Iron Mountain and meet Rose’s bus. It was a shame Greenstone hadn’t seen a Greyhound bus in town since the end of its mining days, but it only made sense. Greenstone wasn’t on the way to anywhere else except Canada—and even then, you’d have to paddle a canoe through the Boundary Waters to get there. At least he arrived in Iron Mountain on time according to the Miner’s Bank clock flashing 1:15 p.m. and -2°F. What were social services thinking? A few days before New Year’s, below zero temperatures and his granddaughter is dressed for a walk in the park?

Rose looked everywhere but at him. She looked at the other disembarking passengers, the restaurant where orange paint peeled from the siding, and the cigarette butts scattered on the asphalt around her feet.

“Rose?” he called over the noise of the idling bus. The smell of diesel exhaust filled the air. His chest squeezed. He thumped his fist against his sternum. This damn heartburn chose the most inopportune times to act up. He unwrapped the last of a Tums and popped it into his mouth, swallowing it dry. “Rose!” he shouted.

She shot a wide-eyed glance his way. It was hard to tell if it was an expression of surprise or fright, or just the zombie look people got from three days without a good night’s sleep. It was probably a combination of all three. Riding on a one-way ticket more than forty-eight hours on a bus from the West Coast to meet a grandfather you couldn't remember could do that to a person. He waved her over and tugged at the bill of his Marine Corps cap, squeezing his bald scalp as he pulled it down over his forehead. A nervous habit. Though he wore a down parka, heavy gloves and boots, he had to admit the cap was a practical mistake—his ears burned in the biting wind—but without it he felt invisible.

“Grandpa?” Her voice rose with a crackle of hope. Rose looked nothing like her mother, Suzanne, a blond, pale-skinned woman of sturdy German stock. And though he’d never met her father, it was clear that Rose looked everything like him, a black-eyed, oily-skinned Mexican—or Honduran or El Salvadoran—or whatever. Something illegal from across the border.

He wanted to give Rose a hug—not wanted really, just thought he should. It was the right thing to do for a child whose mother just passed away.

“Good to see you,” he said, and bent forward. Her body stiffened when he pressed his hand to her back. She felt as brittle as a dry birch twig. He feared he might snap her in two if he squeezed too tight. She smelled of damp wool.

“How was the trip? Can I get your bags?”

“I don’t have any,” she said. Rose looked away across the valley. She pointed toward the tiers of snow-covered waste rock piled hundreds of feet high and leveled flat along the northwest edge of town. “What is wrong with those mountains?”

“That’s an iron ore mine.”

“You mean,” she began. She scrunched her face with disgust. “Open pit?”

 It sounded like she said, open shit.

“No, an open pit. You don’t have a suitcase? A duffle bag?”

She shook her head.

When Mendocino County social services called three days ago, the heartburn stabbed all day. He went through half a role of Tums. The news was incomprehensible: His estranged daughter had died by carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a blocked woodstove flue—and he was the designated legal guardian for a granddaughter he barely knew. He couldn’t sleep that night. He had his own life. Granted, he had the house to himself. Donna wasn’t interested in spending her golden years fishing for walleyes like he was. She’d refused to follow him to Greenstone for retirement. The nearest medical clinic being an hour’s drive away might also have had something to do with it, that and the fact that his second marriage hadn’t been going much better than his first. But taking a stranger into his home—a teenage girl at that? Well, let’s just say it could only mean complications.

On the drive to meet the bus, he resolved that if it was right thing to do, then he’d better get at it. And now it was clear what the first step would be. Those nitwits at social services should’ve given Rose more than a bus ticket to Minnesota. If they’d had any common sense, they’d have given her a decent coat and a pair of mittens knowing she was coming to the land of 10,000 frozen lakes. At least some real shoes for God’s sake.

“Here.” He took off his parka and draped it around Rose’s bird-boned shoulders. “Wear this. We’ll stop at Walmart first thing before heading home.”

Rose eyed the man-made mountains along the horizon with suspicion.

“Rose.” She turned her attention to him. Her eyes narrowed. “This isn’t California.” …

 

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.

   

 

Thursday
May012014

Wolf-Ely Writing Project: Day 121

(This is the fifth 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 is the beginning of my fourth story in progress, an early draft. For more information about this project, please scroll down to Wolf-Ely Writing Project: Day 1, or click here.)

Trespassing

The call came early one November morning, just like any other. Routine trespassing. Or so it began.

“My property’s posted,” Dan Jacobson, a small-potatoes logger said over the phone, his deep voice indignant. “But somebody’s got a trap line on it.”

“Where can I meet you?” John Reid asked.

“The end of my driveway. It’s south of town on 27. Right-hand side just before the Indian reservation.” He paused and added gruffly, “I gotta wolf, too. Live. In a snare...”

Not so routine.

“…and I’m not having nobody point a finger at me for snaring a wolf between seasons,” he insisted. “They’re not my traps.”

“I’ll be right out.” John rubbed the knuckled stump on his left hand where he’d lost three fingers years ago in a domestic violence call. He looked at his watch. 9:12. He sopped up the last of his eggs with a corner of toast and grabbed his jacket with Conservation Officer printed in gold letters on the back.

On the way out, he locked the front door. No one else locked their doors around here, but it was a habit from the city which he could not let go. What if on his return he surprised a drug addict who had taken advantage of the open door, looking for cash and guns? A crime of convenience. A preventable confrontation. Ten years on the Minneapolis police force did that to a person, etched into his brain the violent possibilities of what if?

Outside, the sky shone an intoxicating clear blue, but the frigid air sobered John up and he pulled his black toque over his balding head. Armed with his .223 rifle on the rack, a 12-gauge under the seat, and a laptop computer mounted on the console, he drove his pickup south through Superior National Forest, past Greenstone to the Jacobson place.

John left Minneapolis after losing his best friend, his fiancé and his hope that he’d never have to kill anyone. He gladly accepted the position of Game Warden in this remote corner of northern Minnesota, a dozen miles south of the Canadian Border. The small, isolated mining towns, smatterings of glacial-scraped lakes and forested wilderness gave him spaces in which he could breathe. After more than a decade as a conservation officer—that’s what they called game wardens nowadays—he still welcomed the daily tedium of his 24/7 routine enforcing game laws. It was more like public relations compared to the life and death situations that came with armed robberies, road rage and gang shootings—and domestic violence calls, his least favorite of them all. Not that he liked confronting any desperate person, but when it came to affairs of the heart, well, no one could predict what a man was capable of until love or jealousy tested him.

Five miles later, John found the end of the Jacobson’s driveway deserted.

He turned in and drove a quarter mile through the pines past a black spruce-filled bog. On a rise above the bog sat a  log house with a squat roof surrounded by a thick stand of pines. The sun peaked over the tree tops, casting long purple shadows on the snow. As he got out of the truck, the smell of wood smoke filled the air. A lazy wisp of smoke rose from a stove pipe poking out the cabin roof beside a TV satellite dish. John’s what-if radar sharpened.

It was quiet. Too quiet. He imagined the same stillness in the air when Johns’ best friend Keith, a fellow officer, found the slumper sleeping in a car in the church parking lot. A routine call. The slumper had a warrant for his arrest, but before Keith could reach the squad car to look up the man’s record, he took three bullets in the back.

“Hello?” John knocked on the front door. The busted-out screen rattled. “Hello!” He rubbed his knuckles and counted to ten before following a worn trail through snow and trees to the backside of the cabin.

“Inside my heart there's an empty room,” a mournful voice sang from inside a small pole barn. Young and feminine, the voice cut through the winter stillness like a siren over a frozen sea. “It's waiting for lightning. It's waiting for you…”

“Hello?” He raised his voice as he knocked on the barn door and stepped into the darkness. Before his eyes could adjust, the smell of warm hay and summer pastures filled his senses.

A young woman popped up from behind an interior pen. “Oh!” she cried, a startled expression on her face. Under a blue knit cap, a long blond braid snaked out over her shoulder. Her pale blue eyes were red and swollen. 

“Someone called about trespassing and a wolf? A Dan Jacobson?”

“Jesus,” she said and looked away, down toward her hands where she held clumps of hay. “Didn’t Danny meet you at the road?” Two goats no taller than her knees milled about beside her snatching mouthfuls of fresh hay from the floor. Rays of sunlight streamed in through a small window igniting dust particles in an aura around her.

“No, he wasn’t there.” He held out his hand. “I’m John Reid.”

She dropped the hay, wiped at her face and shook his hand. “Bijou.”

When his eyes met hers, it took only a moment for his heart to quicken. Yes, he was sure. He recognized her kind...

 

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.