Wishing you all a happy healthy and prosperous 2018, from here on earth in Victoria BC Canada.
Category Archives: Books and Short Stories
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL.
A Christmas tale with a Pacific Northwest theme…
There was a chill in the air, and the pathway around the lake had patches of ice wherever a small rivulet ran out of the field on its way down to the water to eventually join with the sea, a few miles away. If you watched closely on some patches you could see water drops moving under the ice soundlessly as if they were sneaking downhill for a secret reason.
In the bushes a small fluffy furred vole scurried across a blanket of decaying brown leaves and jumped up onto a dead branch that crossed over a pile of more deadwood. There it sat, with its tiny pointed nose that resembled nothing more than a small raisin, flanked by two tiny dark dots that were its eyes. Then the vole turned and slowly, deliberately shuffled off to do whatever business it was doing before it was observed. Like a puff of air two tiny wrens flitted out from the bush on the left and disappeared into the bush on the right, making no sound. No matter how hard one looked in the bushes, nothing could be seen, so blended into the sticks and dead leaves were the wrens.
In the sky several gulls meandered, unmistakable with their light coloured feathers and pointed wingtips. Then came a noise like a voice, but not words – a raven moved slowly overhead, circled and landed in a tall tree, then gave another cackle. Across the fields in the far distance were low hills, covered in a dusting of snow, not yet entirely white but soon to be, as foggy clouds moved over the land just waiting for seeds of what would soon be snowflakes.
On the edges of the lake and in the flooded fields on either side of the shore, or whatever fluctuation of brush, bush and swamp you might call it, swam ducks three by three, brothers and sisters, father and mother and son, or perhaps complete strangers who preferred the company of other ducks. Whatever the reason it seemed that one duck was always following another one, until such time as they switched places and the leader began to follow another.
A man with a red and white trimmed Santa hat strode along the path and muttered hello to others who passed by. Merry Christmas said one. A child with a stick poked at some thin ice, breaking it into small, sharp, clean, clear pieces. Nothing was happening in any sort of hurry, and yet it seemed that the world was waiting as if there was some sort of agreement that everything would soon be resolved in its own time, at its own pace.
Before the path ended at the pavement, where one left the woods and clomped up the hard grey road, high on the top of a tall fir tree, gazing over the scene below like a sentry sat the eagle, holding the world in its merciless glare, just as it held its prey in its razor sharp talons. But this day there would be no death from above for voles or hapless gulls that ventured too close to the white head with yellow eyes and a pirate hooked beak. No, this night the eagle was on duty.
The eagle watched for signs of danger, ever ready to take to wing and patrol its territory as it did every Christmas Eve, ensuring that the sky was safe for flying reindeer. After it had surveyed the land from its treetop perch the eagle spread its wings and leapt from the branch into the air, dipping slightly then with one flapping motion of its mighty wings it went soaring aloft and sailed away over the water into the distance.
The eagle with its unerring vision saw a tasty fish swimming just beneath the water, but even the promise of a fresh meal did not deter the eagle from its mission. One mile it soared and then turned and soared back in a wide arc over the lake. Then, when it determined that all was well, the eagle gave a powerful flap of its wings and gained speed until it was whistling through the cold air, flying due north as fast as an eagle could fly.
It wasn’t long before the eagle saw another of its kind in the distance coming to meet it. At top speed the pair of eagles closed quickly and then spun around each other for one brief turn before they parted, each to their own home territory. This eagle flight was soon repeated, again and again until the eagle from the lake had passed the signal of all-clear, eagle to eagle to eagle, all the way to the North Pole, where Santa Claus was ready to board his sleigh.
The last of Santa’s eagles came swooping down from the clouds as if Santa was a tasty fish, but at the final moment before the eagle had to pull up or land with a crash, it spread its wings out full six feet wide and with a whoosh it settled on the front rail of the big red sleigh. The eagle looked Santa Claus in the eye, and by that look Santa knew all he needed to know about the part of the world where eagles reigned in tall trees.
The eagle dallied but a few moments before it jumped into the air and climbed back to the sky. Ho, said Santa Claus, raising his long leather whip. The whip flew back and forth like a fly on the end of a fisherman’s line and gave a shot like a firecracker. The reindeer began to pull and within seconds were racing across the snowy field, throwing up a storm of snowflakes in their wake as if the wind itself was made of snow. Then with another crack of the whip, the lead reindeer took to the air and the team made one upward tilt and were off before the snow settled back onto the moonlit ground that sparkled under the clear, black, starry sky.
One by one, the eagles slowly made their way back to their homes, where they all settled down in tall trees, firmly grasped their perches with razor sharp talons, and stood guard until morning, when they knew Santa’s mission was done. Then, like eagles do, they all took to the skies, to find Christmas dinner.
How many words should there be in a children’s novel? A scientific survey of one novel gave me the answer – 35,000. That was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl. If that is a good number of words for Mr. Dahl then it works for me. I confirmed this number twice by different methods. Being an estimator for 10 years, I have a pretty good idea how to count, so the first test was this: I counted how many lines it took to get to 100 words on a typical page. I extrapolated the count for the whole page, and then went to the last page and subtracted that number from the number of the first page to get the number of pages from the beginning to the end. Then I multiplied that by the number of words on my sample page. From this I subtracted the pages with illustrations and blank areas by quickly flipping through the book. I arrived at 35,000 words. To check this, I scanned another random but typical looking page and sent it to OCR. I exported that to my word processor and got the word count. I then counted every page with text, leaving out illustrations and blanks, to arrive at a net total of pages with text. Not surprisingly that gave me 35,000 words. Enough already!
My novel-in-progress stands at 25,000 words, plus the 1000 or so I just finished typing this morning. I have been reducing the gross word count by judicious editing, if not ruthless, so the 25,000 words are all keepers. The question now is, how to wrap up the story in 9000 words? Easier said than done. The writing continues apace, but it is clear that I will not hit 50,000, so there will be no “winning” Nanowrimo. Shouldn’t there be a category for children’s books? Oh well, you can’t win them all.
While setting out various events in the book I realized that my choice of a 1939 Royal KMM typewriter didn’t fit the timeline, so I have revised the machine to a 1914 Royal 10 instead. This has worked out better than expected for numerous reasons. I prefer the look of the older machine, which in my opinion would be more attractive to kids of all ages. Here is a picture I downloaded of a 1914 Royal 10 (thanks to sevenels). Now if I can be so lucky as to find one in a thrift shop for $25….
Here is the last page written to date:
Did I mention there is a pony in the story? It’s a kid’s book! There has to be a pony. Or magic, or both!
We visited the garden last week to look again at the plot and think about what would have to be done to get it ready for planting. Margie said we needed a pitchfork. Then we got to talking about the patron saint of gardeners, St. Fiacre. He’s also the patron saint of taxi drivers from an odd twist of fate having to do with where taxis used to come from in Paris, near the Church of St. Fiacre. Fiacre was born in Ireland in the 9th century, and his brother and he both became saints. So we began joking about St. Fiacre, as if he might be listening.
Jokingly about divine intervention we hit a few thrifts but didn’t see one pitchfork, although I did see an alpine ice axe. As we left I noticed a man buying it. No serious mountaineer would trust his life to a used ice axe; that I am certain of, as I am also certain the man was therefore no serious mountaineer. That made me wonder what he was going to do with it. Maybe he had a garden and planned to use the cutting end to hoe at the earth? Was he too seeking a pitchfork?
We checked out two stores where they sold new pitchforks. The first was $25, but M thought it was very heavy. I held it in my hands and had a look at it. On the fork part was stamped the word ‘Austria’. The handle was oak, and very thick. It was heavy duty, for sure. Next door a garden shop had one for $60. The handle was oak, but stained. I looked at the fork and there was the word ‘Austria’ stamped into the steel. This is the same tool with some more varnish, I said, hanging it back on the wall. They’re both too heavy, Margie said. I want one that’s lighter, the sort I remember from long ago. We came home with a bag of seed potatoes and a garden gnome. Later, Margie went to another garden supplier that had another heavy pitchfork for $100.
She went off to sing with friends and I went out to do errands. I decided to go down to the big thrift shop that’s always open. I hadn’t been there in a week due to the snow we had here, so it was time for a look see anyhow. I walked down to the back and saw a large cardboard barrel in which there were some shovels. Then I saw a cultivator. Thinking that might do for turning up dirt I lifted it out of the barrel, and saw that it was $5. Not bad, I had one useful gardening tool. There were several shovels too, nice ones, but we didn’t need any, so I resisted purchasing a cheap shovel.
Then I had one last look, and saw a red D handle of something that I assumed was probably an edger. I grabbed that and lifted it up when to my delight I recognized the prongs of a pitchfork, just like the one that stood in the corner of my parents’ garage 50 years ago. True Temper was stamped on the shaft, which was oak, but much thinner than those we’d already seen and rejected. The fork itself was lighter, too, with tines chamfered to reduce weight and make it easier to plunge into soil. The whole thing was half the weight of the modern ones we’d seen. It was $6. I decided to look where the others had been stamped, and there I saw the word ‘Eire’. Ireland, birthplace of St. Fiacre. In honour of our good fortune we named the new gnome Fiacre.
By the way, it’s not really a pitchfork, it’s a garden fork. The devil carries a pitchfork. It’s probably stamped ‘Austria’.
True detective brings you a tale of mistaken identity…
The Community Garden Plot
We live in a town house with a tiny yard, if you can call it a yard, with a grand total of twelve square feet of garden, in which we have three hosta plants. Other gardening happens in a few pots of herbs and annuals that Margie takes care of every summer. Seeing as how Margie is thinking ahead to the day when she’ll have more time for gardening, in other words – the day she retires from her job – she’s been thinking about getting a plot at a community garden. Terry has had one of these for five years, and every summer we go over a few times to have a look and a picnic on occasion. It’s close by, a five minute drive at most, and is one of hundreds of plots that form a large farm like garden nestled in a lovely vale through which the creek that flows out of our lake here runs on its way to the ocean.
Thinking it would be a good idea to get her name on the waiting list, which she knew to be long enough that it usually took some years to get a plot, Margie called them two years ago and put her name down. She expected it might be up to five years before a plot came up, so she was surprised when a friend told her that they got a plot not long after they signed up. Then several days ago she got a call that there were two plots available. She contacted the man who takes care of new members, and arranged to go select a plot after work. He told her his address and added that he lived across from the gardens.
I picked Margie up at 3 pm and we set off for the gardens. When we got to the corner of the street where we always turned to visit Terry’s plot, Margie said this wasn’t the name of the street on which the man lived. Thinking it must be the next street over we drove down to the parking lot and took out our map, hoping to find said street close by. The name of the street was familiar but we couldn’t remember where it was exactly. Then we saw that it was not close by at all. Yet the man had said he lived across from the gardens, hadn’t he? Yes, he said that, Margie reiterated. Off we went up the main road about a half mile to the street. We were looking at numbers now, watching for his house when we noticed that on the right side of this street there was what looked to be a community garden, judging by a multitude of small plots.
Thinking this was a satellite segment of the gardens Terry’s plot belonged to, we parked and went to the door. We were expected, and the man got his coat on as we made small talk. Margie said that she had no idea this section of the garden existed, recounting how we thought the plot was to have been back at the site where we’d just been. He looked at us quizzically and informed us they were unrelated, distinct organizations. I looked at Margie, who looked at me, and we both laughed, but not too loud. Her name had been on the wrong list for two years. That explained how it was the person she knew had got a plot at the other garden before Margie, but now it was too late to do anything about that.
We inspected the two plots and selected one further from the road. It had a water spigot close by, and the plot gets full sun all day long in summer, good for a vegetable garden. Back at the house Margie duly signed forms, and then it was time to pay. The cost turned out to be less than one third of the other, and the plot to be only half as large; both facts to our advantage. Terry’s plot, at 1200 square feet, has always been too large to fully utilize, and this one will be more than enough at 500. The setting is not quite as idyllic as expected, but the purpose is more about growing vegetables, less about admiring scenery.
There is a compost bin and a worn out storage box on site. Vestiges of Swiss chard are here and there, waiting to be pulled out come spring, along with a variety of other green things left over from last summer. On the parking lot is a large pile of leaves left by the city for use as mulch and future compost. Off to one side are several small sheds, inside of which are lawnmowers and various tools. Beside one shed a number of wheelbarrows are stacked up and wrapped in a chain. The chain has no lock, but serves to deter casual theft of wheelbarrows by pranksters. The entire hillside is deserted now in winter, a patchwork of rectangles covered with dirt, tarps, box frames and dead plants.
Membership in the garden cost $10, and is for life. This entitles members to discounts at local garden supply houses. In a few months we will be selecting seeds and preparing the ground. Margie has already declared her intention to have peas, for which I will be required to build a trellis or two. However, we will not be able to transplant any of the grape vines that Terry has. He transferred his plot to a friend, since he will no longer be using it. We gave him some grape plants a few years ago, and they are just now beginning to spread and establish themselves. Perhaps cuttings from those will root and we will have our own grapevines one day. The good thing is the garden is no further from home than the one we were expecting, so we can drop in and give the plants water in a matter of minutes. Amazingly, we were informed that this garden hasn’t got a deer problem. Like us, the deer had no idea there was a garden here, which is why they all go to the other community garden, where for two years Margie mistakenly thought her name was on the waiting list.
Today’s post is a short story by Margaret Reilly, who still misses the rink…
Margaret E. Reilly
The blue-gray light of a winter afternoon came in through the windows that lined one wall of the 4th grade classroom: windows that started waist high and went up to the ceiling in rectangular panes; windows for displaying the children’s art on; windows to gaze out of with endless longing. Martha looked out at the snow and then at the clock at the front of the room, up high beside the poster of John XXIII. She read the words beside John Kennedy’s portrait again, for the thousandth time, “Ask not what your school can do for you, but what you can do for your school.” Ten minutes to go. Three-thirty. Three-thirty-one. She watched the seconds tick by and filled in the blanks in a grammar sheet handed out by the teacher.
The windows were hung with Valentine hearts and cupids made in last Friday’s art period. Art was not treated as a subject like all the others. It was a reward given grudgingly and sporadically. Martha loved art class and would be filled with a hopeless rage when it was swept aside for extra math or some other more “important” subject. Father O’Whalen came in one Friday afternoon when they were painting life-size figures on huge sheets of craft paper, almost the best art project they’d ever done. The children had to stand up beside their desks, abandon their paints, and say, “Good afternoon, Father.” They had to pretend to be glad to see him when they were all thinking, “How could he come now when we’re having so much fun? Why didn’t he come during math class?” Father O’Whalen had a poor sense of timing. He didn’t understand children. When Martha heard the scriptural text “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” she knew it must refer to Father O’Whalen.
Finally the bell rang. Miss Beamish told them to put away their books and get their homework ready. Martha thought this was completely unfair. Once the bell rang she thought they should be dressed and ready to fly out the door. Now the torture really began. They went one row at a time to put on their coats and boots, with the teacher choosing the quietest row to go first. Martha sat so still she barely breathed. Malcolm Edwards, the worst boy in the class, sat at the end of her row. Every day he would fidget and drop things or start some kind of trouble and hers would be the last row to get dressed and leave. It wasn’t fair. How could Miss Beamish judge the whole row by the behaviour of the worst boy in the class? If a kid made up rules like that she wouldn’t have any friends to play with, but adults got away with this stuff all the time.
Martha’s skates were hanging on the peg underneath her coat. She hung them over her shoulder by the laces and hurried out with her book bag tucked under her arm and her coat half done, up. She headed for the skating rink in the park beside the public library. The shadows on the snow had already turned from blue to deep grey and it would soon be too dark for her to be out alone. She put on her skates in the hut and hid her book bag under the seat. Sometimes the big girls would come along and throw her bag in a snowbank, scattering her books and papers all over the field beside the rink. They only did this if they were bored, when there were no boys around to flirt with. It wasn’t anything personal.
Martha glided onto the ice and started her methodical circling. A light snow fell and gathered on her white toque and green plaid coat. She kept her hands in her pockets as she skated round and round, picking up speed on the straight stretches and losing it on each corner. A few boys played hockey, shooting the puck from one end to the other and calling out in the still coldness, but they didn’t interfere with Martha’s steady rounds. With each turn her mind became freer, nothing existed but the circle of ice in front of her and her gliding skates. Her thoughts grew still and came to a stop until there was no Martha – only a sensation of movement and cold and the grey-white ice. This is what Martha came for, although she never could have put it into words. If asked, she would have said, “I skate because it’s fun.” This freedom from self-consciousness was too important to talk about with just anyone. It was pleasurable enough to be a sin. If it was a sin she didn’t want to hear about it. Martha called this secret state the “funny feeling”. She wished she had a best friend to discuss this with, someone she could really trust, someone who wouldn’t laugh or talk behind her back. When spring came and the ice melted Martha could get this feeling on the swings at the park, but it wasn’t as good as skating because swinging made her dizzy after a few minutes. Skating was something Martha could do endlessly, tirelessly.
The street lights came on, Martha’s signal that she had to head for home. The sidewalks were covered with snow so she walked the four blocks on the tops of the snow banks, falling through now and then and filling her boots with crusty snow. From the porch she could smell supper cooking. One of her older sisters, likely Rose, would be getting supper ready since their mother wouldn’t be home from work until at least five-thirty. Every room in the house was lit up. Martha slowly hung her coat on the hall tree and stowed her boots in the cupboard. She savoured the last few moments of anonymity before becoming Martha again: cheerful Martha; good-natured Martha; bookish Martha. She went into the kitchen where Rose was standing at the sink, peeling potatoes.
“Could you grab that pot for me, Martha?” No one ever said hello or good-bye in her family. One just came in and rejoined life in progress.