WHERE A SHORT STORY COMES FROM
FICThis is a teaching double-blog from prairiemary.blogspot.com.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
“You got any hooks?” asked Tad Pinfeathers.
“I think I got three. You got any line?” said Elmer Arrow Hits.
“Lotsa line. And I saved a really good fishing pole I cut last time. Let’s go down to Willow Creek.”
The creek meandered through the town, wandering under a bridge and into a culvert before coming out on the other side of the east boundary. It was a wet year with lots of late snow and the grass and brush were thick and tall. July poured down on the boys’ ball caps and t-shirts as they crashed along, heading for the part of the creek beyond where people had dumped in old tires and bedsprings. They caught grasshoppers as they went, giving their heads a good squeeze to make them behave and stuffing them into a plastic bag that had been waving from a bush.
“What you gotta do,” the boys always claimed, “Is think like a fish!” Look for the deep water, the shelter, the eddies that would keep things like bugs moving past their noses. Pass up the shallow wide water warmed by sun. Though that was very good for wading. The blue heron who lived along there rose up out of the water, lazily flapping on big wings towards the mountains, legs trailing, easily getting way ahead of them.
“Where you lookin’?”
“Somebody’s legs in the grass.”
“Must be a drunk.”
They became very silent and slipped around to where they could see the rest of the person. It was a man. With braids.
“It’s my uncle,” said Elmer. “He’s a wino.” Sure enough, there was a bottle of Thunderbird, almost empty. “Must be passed out.” Elmer liked to point out both the obvious and the more subtle aspects of life. “Don’t wake him up. Sometimes he wakes up really mad.”
“What if he’s dead?” Tad liked dramatic possibilities. Elmer cut a long strand of grass and held it under his uncle’s nose where it pulsed with breath.
“He ain’t dead.”
“Yet!” added Tad. The uncle was certainly deeply passed out.
“Aw, forget him. Let’s go fishin’ — that’s what we came for.” The boys went on along the bank, testing the water now and then but not catching anything. Pretty soon they felt sweaty and settled under some willow brush. Out this far there were few trees. It was the gravel flood-plain of Willow Creek, mostly grass if you got away from the water. Their minds kept wandering back to the uncle.
“My dad threw him out the last time he came over drunk,” reported Elmer. “He was yellin’ and cussin’ and throwin’ stuff around. My mother tried to calm him down because he’s her baby brother, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“What was he so mad about?”
“Flunked the fire fighting exam. Can’t go make money this summer.”
“He might’ve gone fire fighting and hurt his back or something. Like that guy last summer that the tree fell on. They say he’ll never walk again.”
“Yeah, but now he’s got disability. He’s got it made!”
“Can’t fancy-dance no more, though.” They weren’t really old enough boys to consider what the injury might do the unfortunate man’s love life. “Wonder if he could still ride a horse.”
The boys would love to ride horses, or so they thought, though the only time they’d even been on a horse was when that guy was trying to start a program for keeping boys out of trouble by teaching them to break wild mustang horses. They got to sit on some of the tamer ones. The horse’d put its nose around and blow snot on them, which made them laugh hysterically. They were at an age when all body fluids struck them as funny. They sat remembering the smell of horses. It was really strong.
That’s because there was a real horse on the other side of the willow brush. In fact, it was one of those mustang horses. They were really good at escaping and going wherever they wanted to. This one was mouse-colored, kinda speckled, with a very long black tail and mane. The front of the mane fell over its face and it gazed at them with big eyes like a girl looking through her bangs.
“Should we catch it?” asked Elmer. He liked a consensus opinion. His grandfather always said that if the tribal council could just reach a consensus once in a while instead of pulling in every direction, they might get somewhere.
“Might get kicked or run over. Besides, no rope.” The horse looked at them mildly and chewed a big bract of yellow sweet clover, letting it hang out of her mouth where she hadn’t sucked it up yet. The honey scent of sweet clover mixed with the incense of sun-warmed horse hide. The boys were content to watch and smell. Pretty soon the horse went off and the heron came back along the creek, now heading east.
“Better start home,” said Tad. “Don’t want to miss supper.”
“You know, Tad, we’re gonna remember today all our lives but we won’t remember what we had for supper.” His grandpa often said that. They laughed as they ambled back along the crushed trail they’d made.
Pretty soon they came to the uncle, still passed out and now in full sun because the shade had moved away from him. He was still breathing. “How long does he usually stay passed out?”
“I don’t think he’ll make it to supper.”
“He’s gonna be reeeeeallly sunburned.” Tad looked at the uncle consideringly. “I think we should help him out. We could cover him with branches. I saw elephants doing that on the nature channel. They rip down leafy branches and cover up an elephant on the ground.”
“That was a DEAD elephant! My uncle is not dead!” Elmer suddenly felt panic rise within him. But Tad was already breaking off branches and laying them gently over the uncle in a kind of bower. He was sort of leaning them so there was space under them. Elmer got to work, too. The uncle muttered a little but didn’t wake up. “We should get rid of that bottle, too.” He poured out the last dregs of Thunderbird and threw the empty in the creek.
“Won’t he be mad?” worried Tad.
“He won’t remember.” There was rustling in the paper sacks where their bait bugs were jumping around.
“I’m gonna set the last of these grasshoppers loose.”
“They won’t live now that you’ve squeezed their heads.”
“I think they should be free, no matter what.” His hands had “tobacco juice” on them, but he didn’t care.
Monday, July 20, 2009
So, the English teacher says, let’s look at “Willow Creek” the story, in terms of method and content.
Content: Very simple. Two pre-pubertal Indian boys go fishing along Willow Creek, which is a real stream that really runs through Browning, Montana. On any summer day you’re likely to find kids fishing and wading, though it’s too shallow for swimming. They come across the alcoholic, passed-out uncle. They walk on, see a horse and a heron, and return the way they came. They try to protect the uncle from sunburn by putting branches over him. One boy releases their bait.
This is reality based: things I have smelled, tasted, touched and so on. No fancy games. No abstractions.
Writing method: summoning up memories.
Incident: In one of the Blackfeet videos that float around here, Darren Kipp and his camera crew stop at the bridge over Willow Creek and hail some boys who are fishing. They’re out of hooks and Darren promises to bring some.
Incident: When I was living in Don Schmidt’s little mother-in-law house, a bunch of drunks had been used to drinking in the yard when the house was empty. One of them passed out in the shade of the caragana hedge. When the sun moved, I went out and made him move into the shade.
I started with the first incident, remembered the second one, and in the combination the story happened. I used to walk out along this creek all the time and drunks were always a worry since a person didn’t know what attitude they would take. I often scared up that heron. The horse was one that hung around next to the highway for a while when I was driving back and forth to teach a class at BCC. The third incident I needed was a little fishing expedition I took with Bob Scriver on the same creek but farther towards the mountains, at Skunkcaps, where the beavers work in the water all the time. Bob’s method was “hook, stick and line” from his boyhood and he’s the one who subdued the bait grasshoppers by squeezing their heads.
The fourth concept came from the mustangs on Laurel Scriver’s former ranch which are supposed to “save” the local kids. We spent an afternoon with them a few years ago.
Point of view: I’m not Indian and everyone will have a hizzy fit if I pretend to be one, so this has to be omniscient or from inside the boys, though I suppose I could fool around with being “inside” the horse or heron. I’m an Indian sympathizer and have a long history with these people. I’ve heard grandfathers say what I put in the mouth of the boy and I consider it wisdom. But my real tie to the Indians is NOT political, NOT genetic, NOT romantic or grieving, NOT generic (I care much less for city Indians or Indians of other tribes), and NOT missionary but personal and locational. I care about THESE people in THIS place as I’ve known them for fifty years.
Method: So this method is simple narrative about three specific people and two creatures in one specific place. It is the place that controls the story, which was the point of undertaking it. My goal is a set of stories, each written about specific people on the Blackfeet reservation, something like what I did with “Twelve Blackfeet Stories,” though they were controlled by time rather than place.
Theme: It often happens that I don’t know what the theme might be until I get to the end and feel around for a “snapper.” It pops up from my subconscious. In this case I didn’t know until the boy says “things ought to go free, no matter how damaged they are.” Suddenly the alcoholic uncle becomes clear: damaged but free. Or is he enslaved by alcoholism? Some people would actually imprison him to “cure” him. It’s not that the boys don’t care, obviously. They do what they can. So are the boys free? This is what makes the story worth thinking about. Are they free like the mustang (she liberates herself) or the heron (free as a bird)? They can wander up and down the creek at will, but are they captives of their circumstances, Indian kids on the rez? The reader, like the author, shouldn’t be thinking about it until they get to the snapper.
The “two boys” genre is an endlessly fascinating one. As a kid I began with “Two Little Savages,” went on to “Penrod and Sam,” and finally Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. These are all rural stories, or at least small town, but for me they were always counterpoint to the tales of unhappy little girls who try to save adults. (“Anne of Green Gables,” “Girl of the Limberlost,” “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”) I get the impression that modern kid or “YA” stories are far more grim and urban.
This is fun. Why don’t you write a story?