Fiction: What the stones know.

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Last winter, I submitted this lil’ bit of flash fiction to a contest. The winner would get a scholarship to attend the 2016 Iceland Writers Retreat. I didn’t win. (But I was a finalist, so that’s something.) I’ve never published the piece—it just languished on my computer and I kept meaning to add to it but never did.

I’ve decided to publish it here. Enjoy!

What the stones know. 

Stones are the best storytellers. Few people know this, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Stones, with their ancient hearts and silent breath, speak the beauty of the world more eloquently than any bard, more honestly than any reporter. Even when they’re sleeping, even in the years where they lay dormant, waiting, even now, they still know.

But on the shores of Iceland, some stones still speak. In low rumbles, they reveal their stories. The newer stones, the ones that were forged by fire spit up from the earth (that angry infant still hasn’t cooled at her core), are positively chatty compared to their elder counterparts. And in the center of the country, where stones are split and torn apart, ripped by forces they understand all too well, there the stones speak with rage, telling stories that fall like shards from their mouths, knife-sharp and intended to hurt.

But don’t listen to those stones. Listen to the stones that curl against each other, smooth and round as merry wives. They roll shoulder to shoulder as the waves pull them up and down the shore, and they go with the ocean, happily. These are the stones that tell the best tales.

They tell of fish that are larger than cruise ships, with dull eyes and gleaming scales. They tell of pearl-white seawolves, creatures with large teeth that run through the waves, disguised by the surf and safe in their speed. They tell of men as large as mountains with faces only half as sharp. They tell of cloud women who wrap the air around them in diaphanous cloaks, their feet bare as they step down from the sky and onto the black sand shore, where they gather treasures to bring home to the moon. And sometimes, if you ask nicely, they will tell you of the drowned girl.

She was a child, a black-haired little one who belonged to a fisherman. She lived on a cliff over the sea, near a big stone bridge that attracted tourists with cameras and busses filled with foreign faces. But the little girl ignored them all. She wanted to learn to fly and at night she dreamed of airplanes and engines. One day, as she ran over the stone bridge, arms outstretched like wings, her mouth humming a quiet tune, one foot slipped. It was followed by the other. The bridge had tricked her. The jagged stones had shifted, and so she fell.

The girl was never found, and her father never knew what happened to her. But the stones knew. They curled around her body, one by one, as the waves granted them motion. Salt turned her skin white and the tide washed away the blood. The stones continued their slow crawl over her body, hiding her from sight, protecting her from any more harm. Or perhaps they wanted to keep her on earth, never to fly. Either way, she is gone, and only the stones know where to find her bones.

Related: Image-based fiction, inspired by Finland. 

Above image: Detail from a painting by Rebecca Chaperon

Growing pains.

hugh turvey xrayIt has been a long winter. A hard winter. It was warm, so warm that even Confederate-flag waving rednecks began to grumble about climate change. It was muddy and gray and dark, but balmy in a way that felt disgusting. In German, there is a word, warmduscher, which translates to “warm-showers.” It refers to someone who prefers their water neither ice-cold nor scalding hot, but lukewarm. It means someone who is weak, milquetoast, unremarkable, smarmy, mild. (Or as one online translation puts it, a “candy-ass.”)

This winter left me feeling like that—impotent. Lacking in potency. Lacking in strength, character, intensity.

I have never been so glad to see the signs of spring. And it’s finally a true spring, where greenery begins poking out of the earth, making its way back up through the muck. I feel myself coming back, too. It’s a physical thing, this new awareness of my body, this reawakening of my energies. I stretch and every joint in my limbs cracks and pops, a little aching chorus of movement.

I’m the kind of person who needs my showers hot or cold. I would rather cry until my eyes are raw than stare silently at a wall, quiet resentment settling like yeast in a glass of beer.

Goodbye, warm-winter. Good riddance.

[Image above by” x-ray artist” Hugh Turvey of hyacinths in bloom, taken from The Telegraph]

Why I read, why I write: Erica Jong edition.

Aleksandra Waliszewska

Beware of books. They are more than innocent assemblages of paper and ink and string and glue. If they are any good, they have the spirit of the author within. Authors are rogues and ruffians and easy lays. They are gluttons for sweets and savories. They devour life and always want more. They have sap, spirit, sex. Books are panderers. The Jews are not wrong to worship books. A real book has pheromones and sprouts grass through its cover.  – Erica Jong

A very close friend recently told me that she finds my writing to be extremely tactile and sensory. That made my day. I have been told that my writing can be very physical before, that it oozes a little. Once, a copyeditor pointed out that my description of white water rafting sounded a bit too much like a description of rough sex. While I was mildly embarrassed (and pretty amused), I have to admit I was also a little proud. It wasn’t the effect I was going for (I was aiming for adrenaline and I guess I overshot!) but I think the slightly-sexual-ness comes from an interesting place. When I read for pleasure, I am drawn to writers who make everything feel sexy and alive and real. I admire prose that makes my stomach churn and my spine tingle.

Here’s something I’ve come to realize about myself: I want to viscerally connect with everything. People, places, animals, buildings. You name it, and I probably want to touch/taste/feel/smell it. I want this impulse to translate into something more than just a desire for experience, and sometimes I think it does (other times I think I’m just a glutton for novelty). I think, with a little more rigor, I can shape that into something worth reading. I want to pull out my guts and assemble them on paper, blood staining white to red, hands messy with the effort. And to be totally honest, I’m just practicing right now, on this blog. This is where I play around with words. It’s where I hone my skills and sharpen my knives. (So thank you for reading, because every page view makes my effort feel WORTH IT in a very real way.)

Today, I feel inspired by the work of Erica Jong, who makes me want to be a better writer and person. I’m inspired by my friend, Sophie, who gave me that lovely compliment mentioned above. (If I write from the gut, Sophie writes from the heart, and her heart is a compassionate, fierce, and beautiful place.) Finally, I’m inspired by Aleksandra Waliszewska. She makes art that is outlandish, pagan, brutal, and just a little bit pretty. For me, she strikes all the right notes in perfect order. Check out her stuff, and see if you agree.

A small and lovely thing for which I am grateful.

Roberta_ZetaI love the way people move around a sleeper. The exaggeratedly slow motions, the subtle attempts to be quiet, the way they step lightly. Have you ever seen a child tiptoe around their dreaming parent? It is the sweetest thing—they invariably seem to make more noise as a result of their awkward little steps, overcareful and unnatural, burdened with an excess of intent.

I confess: I sometimes pretend to have fallen asleep because I love to listen to how others move around me. When I stay at my mom’s apartment, I feign rest for longer than I’ve been awake. I lie there, listening to her quietly put on the kettle for her morning tea. She shuts the refrigerator with elaborate slowness as I stay still, silent, with closed eyes and slowed breath. Of course, I most often experience this sensation around Garrett (my roommate and love). Sometimes, when I am close to sleep or very relaxed, I will feel him begin to pull his arm from out from under me, gradually inching it from under my neck. I could just tell him I’m still awake, and if he wants to go play video games, I don’t mind one bit. But instead I let him extract his arms from my tangles of hair and move out of the room with calculated lightness. The door shuts without a creak, no puff of air to mark the insignificant transition from one state to the next.

I’m not sorry for this little white lie, because it is such a happy thing, to be taken care of as you sleep.

Image: Picture by the very talented illustrator Roberta Zeta. See more here.

Your wild is tame compared to these reindeer-riders.

05-mongolian-reindeerOne of my many 2016 goals is to get in touch with my wild side. I don’t mean my party-girl-stay-up-all-night self (no, I know that bitch well enough already, thanks) but my moss-sniffing, leaf-eating, earth-worshipping wild side. The side of me that revels in storms and licks the rainwater off my face. The side that dreams of bears and sleeps under the stars.

This part of myself is also loud and a little unruly. She feels everything and she reacts quickly. She knows her place in the world and loves it (she’s joyful, that wild girl). She’s dirty and willful and perhaps even sometimes a little obnoxious. But she doesn’t give a fuck. Because that’s what being wild is… to me, right now.

But as I write this, I am reminded of the actual wild folk on this planet, the people who live off the land for twelve months of the year. Compared to many people in this big world, I’m the tamest little shrew that ever lived, typing away on my laptop, safe in my bed, miles from any the real wilderness. In many ways, I have an easy life, a cushy one that allows me to grow fat on my butt and fingernails too long for manual labor.reindeerriders1

I know “easy” is relative. I know one way of living is not superior to another. I know I am romanticizing the nomadic, of-the-land lifestyle that many people lead by necessity. But I do think there’s something I can learn from listening to my wilder side. I think there’s a lot the earth can teach me; so many things the world has yet to reveal.

Today, I am gazing at pictures by Hamid Sardar-Afkhami, a Harvard-educated photojournalist and scholar with a Phd in Mongolian and Tibetan languages. He spent over a decade living in Tibet and the Himalayas, documenting the lives of nomadic tribes and herders. He captured women riding reindeer and men communing with bears. He documented a girl and her fawn and a boy gazing proudly at his trained eagle. He lived amongst these people, learned their habits, and depicts their wild lives with compassion, honesty, and just a little romance.

Mongolia_Reindeer_PhotographyThere’s nothing wild about looking at pictures on your computer screen, but it is very inspiring. Check out more of his work at MessyNessy or on his official website. 

“When I follow the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth.”

Friend_A-03Sometimes, I think the stars come out at night because that is when we are tired and worn, when we feel threadbare from the demands of the day. Stars ask for nothing (and most pleasures do ask for something; even flowers beg to be smelled). They are the stalwart companions of the insomniac, steadfast enough to guide a ship. The night sky is the largest, most expansive thing I will ever see with my own eyes. I can look out across an ocean, but as the world curves, it turns and hides itself, coyly holding back a glimpse of my final destination. The night is a gift in that way, a brief time when hidden things become visible, a suitcase turned inside-out and upside-down. Those stars, bone-white and unfathomable, are infinite in a way that nothing in my life will ever be infinite. They are beyond me always; beyond the grasp of my mind, beyond the reach of my arms. And yet, all I need to do is walk outside and I can take part in that silent symphony. Always, I’ll have the stars. And never will I ever have the stars. I find this comforting. I find this to be true.

Image by photographer Amy Friend. More here.

“For heaven I’m a failure, for earth I’m as good as anyone else.”

TakagiHaruyamaTwo things today:

1. My Bubba is a fan-freaking-tastic musical duo composed of two girls—one Swedish, one Icelandic—who make the kind of dreamy yet down-to-earth music that my heart is currently craving. Do you like smart, poetic lyrics with haunting vocals? Well, then you’ll dig these ladies. Start here. Fall down the NPR rabbit hole. Enjoy.

2. I’ve been reading a lot of mythology lately and one of my favorite stories comes from Japanese folklore. It’s about the moon-rabbit, a mythological creature that lives in the sky. There are so many different stories about the moon, but this one has stuck with me. Wild rabbits (like bears) show up in my dreams fairly often, and I feel a weird kinship with those scattered, scared creatures. Anyway, if you’re not familiar with the story, here it is….

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Hair as straight as sticks, dreams as frail as bog cotton, and eyes as big as plates.

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On the internet, this series of photographs has gotten a lot of attention under the headlines “Old Finnish People with Things on Their Heads,” which, while funny, really obscures the purpose of these strange pictures. The series is actually called “Eyes as Big as Plates,” a rather beautiful name, if you ask me. Originally inspired by Scandinavian folklore, the series has grown to cover people living in New York, Japan, and Iceland. It’s the creative work of photographers Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen and while I do think it’s peculiar and humorous, I also think it’s a wonderful depiction of human dignity, just people being people in their natural environments. Sure, we don’t typically adorn ourselves with windswept sticks and stand atop a cliff… but why not? It’s not like I do anything better with my days.

I might just be in sleepy fiction mode, but each piece feels like a writing prompt to me.

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Ilisia, the goddess of nightmares and daydreams, wonders whether she should claim credit for her most beautiful creation, the nightmare that incubated in an Englishman’s head until it was ready to spring forth, fully formed on Ilisia’s gracious loom, from his tingling fingers. Oh how she loathed the need for a human conduit! “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks,” she whispers into the air, a fine mist of spit spraying from her cracked lips. “You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout, till you have drenched our teeples, drowned the cocks!” Her voice lowers to a rumble in her throat, barely audible, but the birds listen still: “Nothing will come of nothing.”

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Marvin lay down for a little rest in the wood behind his house. He thought he could find his way back easily—if not by sight, then by scent, for his wife Nona had been making Borscht when he left and the savory red smell lingered in the air. Sadly, when he awoke, he could smell no stew and see no house. All had aged, for faeries trick time and men who stray from the hearth are seldom mourned.

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“Who are you looking for?” the man asked. “Oh no, Lars is not here. I am Otso and I am a bear.” He took a piece of dried rabbit out of the pocket of his trousers and began to gnaw at it, making the most disgusting noises as he ground and gnashed his old man teeth. For a moment, his headdress slipped, and I’ll tell you this, my friends: He really did look just like Lars.

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