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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.


Thursday
Jan022014

Wolf-Ely Writing Project: Day One

January 1, 2014

Today marks the first day of my year-long quest to explore how wolves and the legalization of wolf hunting and trapping affect residents in northern Minnesota—my writing dream come true. I’m able to take on this project and dig deep into real-life source material thanks to the generous support and encouragement of the Minnesota State Arts Board.

To fulfill one of my grant proposal outcomes, I’ll be writing periodically about my experiences. I’ll focus on process. If all goes well, by the end of the year I’ll have several short stories of fiction to share with you at readings in the Twin Cities and Ely.

History Is Now

After completing a collection of linked short stories set in Two Harbors, I was hooked on the geography, history, culture and politics of northern Minnesota. Around that same time in January 2012, wolves were removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act and the first wolf hunting and trapping season began that fall. The timing was fortuitous. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write another set of northern Minnesota stories, especially surrounding a topic so fraught with stereotypes and politics. Nowhere else in the United States has the continued presence of wolves shaped a community’s identity from its past to its present. History is now in the making.

Learning to Listen

My desire to write within this framework goes back to the roots of my childhood. My father was a physicist and geologist, and my mother a naturalist and historian. I grew up finding the North Star off the lip of the Big Dipper constellation, raising monarch caterpillars on milkweed leaves, listening to raindrops pepper tent canvas,  and catching trout in Rocky Mountain streams and walleyes in Boundary Waters lakes. I was taught to "tune in" from a young age.

Between the ages of 16 and 19, I spent three summers working with the Minnesota Youth Conservation Corps (YCC)—a time when my awareness of people's connections to the land and its creatures deepened further. We cut trails, banded song birds and painted picnic tables in State Parks from Brainerd to Baudette to Two Harbors. We also learned about environmental issues—including hunting and wolves, which at that time were an endangered species. It was the first time I shot a rifle. It was the first time I met someone who lived in wolf territory.

Each of us YCCers had a different opinion of wolves because of our diverse life experiences and upbringings. Most of us, including me, had only read books like Julie of the Wolves or watched the animals traipsing across the Alaskan tundra on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. A few grew up hearing stories from their grandparents, fathers or uncles about bounty hunting. One person admitted to having stroked the fur of a live wolf, albeit caught in a trap. I’ve always marveled at how we all held such different opinions about wolves as teenagers. How might our attitudes have changed or become entrenched since then? Can we empathize and understand one another while holding fast to our own beliefs? And if so, how?

Returning North

This month, thirty-some years later, I’ll return to the northern woods, lakes and bogs.

I’ll smell the coffee while chatting with hunters and trappers at Ely’s Front Porch coffee shop on Sheridan Street. I’ll hear the crackle as the ambassador wolves trot across the white crusted snow in their enclosure at the International Wolf Center. I’ll survey the Kawishiwi Ranger District office bulletin board as a biologist does the obligatory end-of-day paperwork.

I’ll listen to the voices of the people who live with wolves.

Stay tuned

While finding a place to stay and scheduling interviews for my first trip to the Ely area, I’ve been met with generous offers: houses in which to stay, cups of coffee, dinners, and most precious of all, people’s time and trust. I can hardly wait to gas up the car, bundle up and take off to Ely later this month.

Wish me luck!

 

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.

 

Wednesday
Nov062013

Mrs. Larsen's Goats

You can listen to a live reading of "Mrs. Larsen's Goats" here.

"Mrs. Larsen's Goats," a short story from my collection The Lucky Ones, was published in the winter 2014 issue of Calliope and nomiated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize.

Calliope describes itself as "the official publication of the Writers' Special Interest Group (SIG) of American Mensa, Ltd. It is published four times a year with a circulation that spans six countries and nearly every state in the USA. Calliope on the Web is an online extension of printed Calliope."

Mrs. Larsen's Goats

Mrs. Larsen died of a mysterious sickness when I was eight years old.  The grownups wouldn’t tell me how, so I imagined being in her bedroom when she left: I stood beside her where she lay in her four-poster and looked out the second story window at Lake Superior shimmering in the afternoon sunlight. She

whispered to me, “Good bye, little angel,” and closed her eyes. Her ghost slipped out of her mouth, like a swallow from its nest. I opened the window to free her and she flitted out, up and up, higher and higher until I couldn’t tell the difference between the blue of her nightgown and the bare April sky of heaven.

When she died, Mrs. Larsen was the same age as my mother, twenty-eight-years years old. They had not only been neighbors, but good friends, too. When my mother needed to run errands into Two Harbors, Mrs. Larsen watched watch me and my little sister, Silvie. Mrs. Larsen wore a size ten like my mother and traded shoes with her for weddings and funerals. A beautiful pile of blond hair sculpted into rosettes sat on the top of her head. She looked like a fashion model. I wanted to be beautiful and childless.

 

After Mrs. Larsen died, my mother spent hours at their house every day helping Mr. Larsen with the cooking and the cleaning. He worked as a well-driller along the North Shore and my mother said he’d never washed his own underwear and that he didn’t know how to cook anything but toast and scrambled eggs.

I didn’t know Mr. Larsen very well, but I loved his wife’s goats. As a gift the year before, Mr. Larsen had built a shed with a doggy door and had given her eight miniature goats. He encircled it all with a low electric fence. They often scrambled to the top of the shed and stood on its ridgeline like Santa’s eight tiny reindeer. Since Mrs. Larsen had died, every now and then Mr. Larsen gave me and my sister each a small pail of feed and let us into the pen. It was the only time my sister and I played together without fighting. Sylvie and I imagined we were herders in Nepal or circus-animal trainers in Florida—like in the pictures I’d seen in National Geographic. 

On the days when my mother was away scrubbing Mr. Larsen’s tub, washing his sheets, or cooking tuna casserole, I pinched my little sister—unlike the angel Mrs. Larsen thought I was. I ran away from her and hid under the cellar stairs where she was too afraid to look. I crushed bloody raspberries against my cheeks and told her the bogeyman got me, but that he liked fat little girls even more, so she’d be next. Every once in a while, I tormented her until she howled like a tom cat, so loud I feared my mother would hear us from Mr. Larsen’s house and punish me.

 

My father spent weeks at a time driving an 18-wheeler. While he crossed the plains of North Dakota, my mother cooked supper for Mr. Larsen at his house. I ignored Silvie as best I could, until she wouldn’t stop begging to go see the goats.  We traipsed over to Mr. Larsen’s house, rapped on his door, and asked to feed Henrietta and the rest of Mrs. Larsen’s goats.

Silvie wanted a goat for a pet of her own, in particular the smallest one with one brown eye and one grey eye named Henrietta. She played with the goat like a doll, talking to it like a baby. She loved all those goats, and though they were bossy at times, they were sweet things who loved a tummy rub and would follow her anywhere as long as she had a few pellets of rabbit chow in her hand.

“Silvie—don’t,” I shouted as she lifted the gate’s latch with Henrietta nibbling at her fingers. “You can’t take her out.”

“Henwietta wants to go swimming,” she said in her lispy voice. Silvie had just begun summer swimming lessons for four and five-year-olds at the high school pool. She’d practiced holding her breath underwater that first day, and although she could barely do it, everything Silvie played now had to do with swimming.

 

I’d caught her in her naughtiness and she bolted away from me with Henrietta trotting behind her. She ran down Mr. Larsen’s hill toward the bay. I dropped my feed bucket, pushed the other goats back, and latched the gate. Before I caught up to her, Silvie’d made it to the end of the lawn where the grass gave way to a shelf of bedrock at the water’s edge. “Hold it right there, little missy,” I said, and escorted the two fugitives back to the pen.

To keep her from fussing, I told Silvie that George, another goat, was sick and asked her if she wanted to be the doctor. She liked that idea and played the goat-healer, pushing George onto his side and pressing her ear to his grimy chest to hear his heartbeat. I took the roll of toilet paper from Mr. Larsen’s bathroom and gave it to Silvie. As she struggled to keep him from eating it, she proceeded to wrap the goat’s injured limbs with the pretend bandages.

In no time my sister used the remains of the roll, and bits and pieces of it lay strewn along the ground and caught in the electric wire. The other goats curiously picked at it with their snail-gray tongues. I went to search for a second roll of toilet paper. When I’d gotten the first roll, my mother and Mr. Larsen had stood side-by-side at the kitchen sink peeling potatoes and laughing. They’d hardly noticed when I passed through the kitchen. This time, however, the house was dead quiet. Peels littered the sink and the countertop, and a pot of water filled with potatoes simmered on the stove.

 

Since I’d already taken the toilet paper from the bathroom, I checked the closet across the hall. Inside the closet hung chiffon church dresses of dusty rose and powder blue, a black taffeta evening gown, house dresses in cotton calico prints, and blouses and skirts and slacks and scarves and camisoles and brassieres and girdles and silky transparent nighties. I reached into the folds of the clothing, letting the smooth fabrics slip between my fingers. When my fingers touched a sachet of potpourri tied to a hanger in the middle, a thick, sweet scent of dead roses released.

My mother’s closet was nothing like this. She hid her underthings inside her dresser drawers. The beauty of it all caught in my throat and I stood, entranced—when the commotion of goats bleating outside the bathroom window reminded me why I’d opened the closet in the first place. There on a low shelf beside dozens of pumps and sandals, lay boxes of soap bars and a four-pack of toilet paper. I hesitated and listened. Still no voices in the kitchen. I grabbed the whole package and ran back outside.

 

The gate hung open and the goats clustered in and around Mr. Larsen’s flower garden, trampling the lupines and biting off the buds of the columbine. In the instant that I scanned the yard, the house, the garage, the woods to the back and the expanse of lawn fronting the lake, a child’s scream wailed from the bay. When I got to the edge of the shoreline, Silvie stood several feet out on the shelf of stone. The water splashed up to her belly.

Her face reddened in frustration. “Swim!” she cried. “Come. On. Swim!”

She pushed a goat with its lolling head under the water only to have the waves hurl the corpse back at her. I waded out into the icy lake to my sister, balancing on the slippery, pocked rock. I had hardly a moment to realize my fright—or amazement at how Silvie and the goat had gotten there in the first place. I reached for the collar of her shirt. She looked up.

“Henwietta won’t swim,” she told me through chattering teeth. “I teached her to hold her breath, but now she won’t swim.”

Her eyes set on what I still held clenched in my arm and her face transformed from a scrunched rotten apple to a golden peach. “More toilet paper!”

 

We left Henrietta to bang against the rocks and I carried my sister on my hip back past the foraging goats and into Mr. Larsen’s house as she squeezed the toilet paper to her chest. By this time, her new-found optimism had turned to crying that had turned to hiccups.

“Shush,” I told her and kicked off my soaked shoes. I set her down on the toilet seat, stripped her of her wet clothes, and wrapped a towel around her shivering body.  Mr. Larsen would be sad about Henrietta and furious about the other goats in his garden. Mother would blame me for Silvie’s naughtiness and Father would take the belt to me.

“Are you mad?” Silvie asked, as if hoping she’d mistaken the tone of my voice—that we weren’t in big trouble. “Henwietta wouldn’t swim. She was supposed to swim.” She began to cry again. “I want Mama.” 

“Shut up,” I told Silvie, but it only made her cry louder, so I put my hand over her mouth and—she bit me.

“I’m telling!” I said. “I’m telling Mom how you let the goats out and how they ruined Mr. Larsen’s flowers, and how you made

Henrietta—”

I couldn’t say it. I ran out of the bathroom and through the kitchen, the living room and the den. Empty. I ran upstairs. There were three doors.

 

I pushed the first door open and found a room with a sewing machine and filled with patterns and fabric scraps, shirts missing collars and skirts with ragged, unhemmed edges. A half-crocheted yellow, pink, and blue afghan lay unraveled on the floor. I pushed the second door open: a lacy bassinette. Piles of crisp, clean diapers, undershirts, sleepers, hats, socks, even a pair of tiny white leather shoes. A mobile made of little sheep—or maybe they were goats—dangled over a crib. I stood with my hands drawn to my chest, oblivious to the swelling bruise in the shape of teeth upon my palm.

 

I backed out of the nursery and stood at the last door. A rustling came from behind it, like when the goats pushed their heads beneath the base of their empty trough to snag stray bits of corn with their tongues.

“Mama?” I whispered, my hand hovering at the door’s knob. The rustling stopped. “Mama?”

Silvie’s sobs echoed up the staircase.

“What’s the matter?” a voice murmured from behind the door.  It sounded just like Mrs. Larsen. “Take care of your sister. Go on, be an angel.”

It was Mrs. Larsen.

My heart jerked through the ends of my fingers and I took my hand away.  I stumbled back downstairs and ran into the bathroom.

“I want Mama,” Silvie cried, pulling the corners of the towel to her chin.

“Shhh!”  I grabbed one of her hands. “Come on.”  I left Silvie’s wet clothes and our shoes behind as I pulled her through the kitchen where the potatoes had boiled over onto the stovetop. “Hurry up.” We fled out the back door.

“I want Mama. I want Mama,” Silvie chanted as I pulled her through the emptied goat yard.

“We’ll wait here for Mama,” I told her when we got to the back stoop. My knees trembled. I let go of Silvie’s hand, scrambled to the top step and sat on the cold concrete. “Come here,” I beckoned her with my arms out.

She tugged at the corners of the towel around her shoulders again, climbed one step and stopped. She frowned at me. “I. Want. Mama.”

I pushed the hair from her eyes, and kissed her forehead. “Come on. Right here,” I patted my thighs. “Be my little goat.” She climbed up, curled herself into my lap, and I smelled the lake rising from her hair. 

 

#    #    #

 

Tuesday
Oct082013

Terrifying Transformations and the Wolf Lady: An Interview With Author Shannon Scott

When I began researching wolves for my next writing project, I thought of Shannon Scott.

Years ago, she read her work to our MFA class as we crowded around a long narrow table in a fluorescent-lit dank, basement classroom. As I closed my eyes, her reedy soprano voice transformed into the heavily accented alto of a babushka warning about the dangers of black magic and making deals with the devil.

Mysterious wolf women and missing village infants soon follow, as well as a Russian mail-order bride wearing a thick fur coat in a confessional as she bartered with a priest for her salvation.

Scott clearly knew things about werewolf lore that I did not, so I asked if she would recommend some texts. She recommended reading her Terrifying Transformations: An Anthology of Victorian Werewolf Fiction filled with 359 pages of remote European villages and the wild forests of another era.

The stories’ persecuted outcasts, she-devil women, and desperate, mournful wolves enthralled me. At the closing of the last page, “…Lycanthropy, or wolf-madness was not myth, but a dread and appalling reality,” I knew I had to ask Shannon to share more about the Victorian werewolf genre and what it took to publish this seductive, lycanthropic collection…

Read the interview here on Sleetmagazine.com.

 

Thursday
May022013

Erik Einsam: A Short Story

It's coming up on that time of year. In honor of your highly anticipatedor dreadedhigh school class reunion, I've pulled this story out of the pile. Ever wonder what other people are thinking at those reuinons? More than you may want to know. Regardless, you have to admit there's a little bit of Erik Einsam in us all... I wrote this flash fiction a few years ago and it was published in Technicolor Magazine out of Denver, Colorado in 2010.

It’s the night of my twenty-fifth class reunion and where do I end up? In the john talking to a fuckin’ advertisement for beer on the stall door. Bold taste, clean finish, my ass.

Ellen’s in Vegas on business at a biomed tech convention, so I came alone. I don’t mind being here in Minnesota without her. She’s never really liked going to reunions and stuff with me. It’s always a little awkward introducing her when people ask what my wife does for a living. I mean, come on. She reps urinary and fecal incontinence products. How would you explain that one, King o’ Beers?

“I’m just an accessory you tote around alll night, Erik,” she said last night as she packed up her manufacturer’s sample kit of various injectable bulking agents. She had a point. I met her online in L.A. She doesn’t know my high school buddies. Then she had to throw in the last word, “…and you always drink too much.” She’s got that part wrong. I learned my lesson with my second wife. I’ve changed. Hey, people can change, can’t they?

The night started with a pretty darn good dinner catered by a fancy Italian outfit and after a few scotches with the guys, the dance floor really heated up. Some women didn’t look half bad for their early forties. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember most of them. Where did these lovelies come from? Where was I in high school? Skipped too many classes smoking in the boys’ can, I guess. No matter. That mirror ball flashed red and blue like a DWI pullover on what must have been hundreds of dancing bodies. And the music was right on, Top 40 from Casey Kasem, 1979.

So get this, I spot Gloria Beindorf, a gal I dated my senior year, cutting through the crowd towards me. That red, knit dress on her five-foot-eight still holds a rack worthy of admiration with an ass to match.

“Glo-ri-a,” I says to her. “My god, you look great.”

She stares at my name tag. “Erik?”

“Yours truly.”

“Erik Einsam…how are you?”

“For a temporarily single guy, I’m feeling fine. Real fine.”

“Did you say single? Me too! Just got divorced—thank god—six months ago.”

“Sorry to hear.”

“Don’t be.”

I ask her to dance. She bats her eyes and offers her hand like a regular Lady Di. Sure enough, no wedding ring, but she’s got a rock on her middle finger that could pay off the US national debt to China and then some. Barry Manilow of all people starts singing some douche-bag song, but being a slow dance I can forgive ol’ Barry for his sentimentality. We dance real close. Gloria’s breath and the scent of her perfume raise the hairs on the back of my neck. Then the deejay plays Foreigner’s Hot Blooded. It splashes me like a cold shower. I’m light-headed. Maybe it’s the scotch. Maybe it’s the dancing. Either way, my heart says, take a seat, old man, and Gloria shrinks away, disappears into the crowd of balding men and blonding women.

I sit down at the bar and order a drink. When the guitar riffs pound my ears and the drums thump my chest it comes to me how I’ve heard that same song before, twenty-five years ago. God damn! How could I forget that night when Gloria’s dad caught us on the basement couch half naked and fully drunk?

I down another scotch.

I’m about to order one more when my gut twists, a sure sign to beat it to the men’s room. On the way in some ass hole nearly knocks me over and has the nerve to tell me to watch where I’m going. Geez. People. Finally I latch the stall door and sit down and now I’m here talking to—hell, a piece of cardboard—and trying to rest my forehead in my hands but they’re so sweaty and my forehead is burning up and my hands and I can’t—where was I?

Shit! Almost lost my cell phone.

You have to have a fuckin’ magnifying glass to read these numbers.

Answer. Come on. Pick up—Ellen! Score any sales? Is the competition shit’n bricks or piss’n in their pants?

No, no I’m not—

I just had one—

Sorry, babe, I didn’t mean—

Yeah, go right ahead and—Ellen? Ellen? Don't hang—up.

Geez, I miss you.