Today I realized I had been blogging for more than ten years, first on Furious Spinner and then here (and at the Old Mermaids Journal). I’ve put up more than 2,300 posts during that time. It averages out to about 5 posts a week for ten years. And these were often very long essays. (This figure doesn’t include my Facebook posts.)
Anyway, today I saw that I hadn’t posted anything here for a long time. I barely wrote any nonfiction while in Arizona for our writing retreat this year. I didn’t write about our last month at the sanctuary. I didn’t write about my grief at leaving behind the sanctuary. Maybe after Under the Tucson Moon came out, I unconsciously figured I had said all there was to say about my time in Arizona.
And since I’ve been home I haven’t written much nonfiction. I lost my voice for a while after I got home (literally). It’s back now, but I still don’t feel like writing about my life or my opinions. (That might be a relief for many people.)
When I write nonfiction, it’s almost always deeply personal. It’s always a great leap of faith on my part when I post my essays. Faith or a leap of something. I’m not sure what to call it. One of my sisters once suggested it was narcissism. I told her, “No, it’s what writers do. We’re interested in the world, including our own world and our own lives.” But her criticism stung—probably because I’ve always felt vulnerable writing about my own life. It's natural to question whether one's opinions count. It's natural to wonder if what you've said is coherent. I did it because that’s what I do, and I believed my experiences might be helpful to others. (Judging from the letters I get, that’s exactly what has happened.)
But...for many reasons, I’m ready for a break. I need to be quiet for a bit and find my voice again. I’ve got lots going on this year. Several books are coming out, and I’m in the middle of editing and writing several books. So I’m not going anywhere. I’m just going to be a bit quieter here as I plot a revolution or my next novel. Maybe both. This might be a day or a week or a month. Who knows? I may still post on Facebook, and I will definitely post announcements about upcoming publications here.
And probably when I’m finished with this break, when I’m finished recreating, retreating, relaxing, revolutionizing, rejoicing—whatever it is I’ll be doing—I’ll write about it.
Nothing like the Sonoran Desert at dusk. Everything becomes so sharp and clear. So three-dimensional...or more. Feels like home with the hard red earth under my feet and the glow of sunset in the big, big sky.
Tonight the moon rose like a huge piece of butterscotch, just above that dip where the Rincons and Catalinas seem to come together to shake hands and say howdy. So delicious looking. The full moon, I mean. The mountains, too, I suppose. Later, clouds moved beneath the moon like a shaman's misty dress and the light rayed out of the moon, upward, on the dark sky, like one of those rayed pictographs and petroglyphs I've seen on rock paintings all over the NW and SW.
D.H. Lawrence said New Mexico was women's country. I'm not sure whose country this is: The desert is all, even when you can't see it. It thrums beneath the concrete and you know that one day it will out. I find reassurance in this fact when the sky is ruddy with pollution or the traffic goes on forever. When I know all that is wrong is temporary, too, suddenly I feel as if we are in this together, looking for adventure in all the wrong places, finding encouragement—isn't that what enlightenment is, essentially?—in all the right places.
No dream has come to me. No flash of insight or story yet. Just cleaning. Fixing. Nesting.
Things have already started shapeshifting. I looked over by the huge palo verde near the front of the house earlier today, and I saw a coyote watching me.
It was nearly the same spot where I had seen the bobcat seven(?) winters ago. When she turned toward me back then, I didn't know what she was, and in the setting sun, I remember seeing her ears and thinking she must be a fairy. Until she looked at me, with the sun as her pupils, and I knew what she was. She was the wild in a bobcat. When she got up to leave, I followed her into the wash to see what I could see.
Today I saw a coyote in that spot watching me. But then I realized it was too big for a coyote. It was a wolf. I blinked. It couldn't be a wolf. I shook my head. It wasn't a wolf or a coyote. It was the palo verde tree apparently having fun with me. Or preparing me. Maybe both.
We began as we always begin: holding hands and whispering to the earth, the sky, to all that is Visible and Invisible, and then we are away, crossing the Bridge of the Gods after a slight delay. A raven stands on the bridge railing—a raven! Rarely seen in these parts. Like a harbinger of what is to come: seeing into this world and that one?
We follow the Big River into Stumptown and beyond, hurtling down the road with the others until—boom!—we all run over a dead hawk, its feathers flipped up like some strange discarded headdress from an awful party. The first time we headed down to the Sanctuary—ten winters ago—just as we were coming up to the T-curves, we saw a car on fire. It was a conflagration, I tell ya. We watched the flames *engulf* the car. The automobile never had a chance. For a few moments, I felt like everything was going in slow motion, like a scene out of a movie. I said to Mario, “If I believed in signs…” Three hours later we were in a car accident, spinning out of control, me mewing like a frightened cat as the car spun around, as my hand went up to the window to hold myself in place, to save myself. I just wanted it to stop, to stop. Stop. To know if we would survive. Finally it stopped. We survived.
We got down to Arizona that year, eventually, sans car.
Now I watch for signs. I wonder what the raven and the dead hawk mean. I stay alert. At a rest stop, three young men throw snowballs at each other. They laugh. I wonder if they’ve ever seen snow before. A homeless man plays a flute and flies the sign near the restrooms. A modern day Kokopelli? I never hear the flute music, though Mario points the man out to me. I see the sign, I see him pull out a pack of cigarettes and sigh. I hurry away from him.
My three day (four?) day headache throbs, and I want to cry. Instead, I tell myself it is only temporary. It too shall pass. But I am tense. Grumpy.
We stop at a gas station near Ashland, just before we start up over the mountains. The sun is out, but it is cold. I look out the window, in a daze after driving for six hours, and I see a man hunched over, sitting on a stool or a milk box just beyond the gas station. He looks so miserable. What is he doing? I get out of the car, inexplicably drawn toward the man. He is older, wearing a black watch cap and a flannel jacket that doesn’t look warm enough over his t-shirt and jeans. An old green pickup with a small camper is parked directly behind him. As I get closer, I see he is surrounded by rocks: mostly crystal quartz. I grin. I put my hands in my pocket so that I don’t touch every single stone. The man looks cold and miserable.
“Are these from Arkansas?” I ask.
He nods. “Mostly.”
Some are big, some smaller. The prices are quite low. The man looks vaguely tortured.
“Did you pick them?” I ask.
“Some of them,” he says. “Others we got from people.”
“I like ‘pick’ better than ‘mine,’” I say. I don’t know why I say this. Maybe because I’m afraid he’ll think I’m ignorant: that I don’t know where crystal quartz comes from. Just one of those inane things we say.
He seems to understand because he nods. After a while, he says, “You do healing work?”
I look at him. Squint. Not something someone usually asks. Not something I usually answer.
“Yes,” I say, surprising myself by the answer. “But mostly I just love rocks. Have since I was a kid.” I pulled out the crystal I have in my coat pocket and holds it up. “I have rocks in the car, too. I just take them with me. Do you do healing work?”
He says, “She does.” He nods toward the truck, and I see a woman sleeping in the passenger seat. I don’t see her right away. I have to look and blink. Ahhh, there she is.
“I do some meditation, things like that,” he says.
Mario comes over then. The man says he can give me a price break if I buy two. His cellphone rings, and he stands up and winces. I see the cane next to his chair now, and when he walks, he limps. He’s in pain. That’s why he looks tortured. I glance at the sleeping woman. Can’t she fix him? He excuses himself and walks away, knocking on the truck first. The woman jerks awake. A moment later, she gets out. I give her money, and I take the two crystals I’ve chosen—or the two crystals who have chosen me—back to the car. I am almost giggly with glee.
And my headache is gone.
I put the rocks in the back of the car, and we start off again, heading toward the mountains. The headache comes back, just a bit. As we head toward the Siskiyou Pass, going up and up, I say, “This is where Emily and Mr. Em came. Only they were on horses.” (From The Monster’s Daughter.) I see it like a memory. Mario smiles at me. We reach the summit quickly, surprising us both, and I say, “And this is where Emily got off her horse and left an offering to the mountains.” Mario pulls over.
I get out of the car, step into the snow, and I sing as trucks roar past us. I thank the Mountains and I leave a shell and a pinch of tobacco in the snow. As I look at the rocks in front of me, I feel as though I am looking at a painting: like when I’m in New Mexico and suddenly I feel like I’m seeing the landscape as Georgia O’Keeffe saw it. I get back in the car and say, “This looks like a Bev Doolittle painting.” Mario nods.
We go up and over the pass.
My headache is gone.
I see Mount Shasta. She rises above the pollution that hangs over everything like a dirty fog. We stop, and I sing to the mountain. I sing to the dragon. I am giddy. I feel like I’ve stepped into The Monster’s Daughter again, just like last year. Emily and Mr. Em are all around me. It’s not surprising since I believe the mountain gave me the story in the first place. And I am so grateful.
Soon enough Mario and I make it to our lodgings. It is called a spa, but we stay here because it’s green: It was built sustainably, using sustainable materials, and they don’t use chemicals or pesticides. It costs the same as other hotels. The young woman at the desk greets us, takes my driver’s license and credit card, and says, “And how was your day today?” as she checks us in. I say, “Fine, and how was yours?” She keeps looking at the computer and doing something, and then she says in the same cheerful robotic voice, “And how was your day today?” I almost start to laugh. Instead I say, “Do you know you just asked me that?” This time she almost looks at me but doesn’t quite. “I’m sorry,” she says. Mario and I get our keycards and hurry away. Once we’re outside, we look at each other and laugh. Welcome to Stepford.
While Mario unpacks, I stand outside and whisper to the directions. It’s just polite to introduce oneself to a place. I leave a shell and tobacco, along with my song. We’ve been here many times, so I’m hoping we’ll be welcomed as friends. Of course last year, we got a flat tire, and I left my favorite coat here. Not exactly friendly.
Mario makes me dinner: a microwaved Amy’s frozen dinner with our veggies and rice. Yum. (While on vacation, we do occasionally use a microwave oven, it’s true.) Then we walk around the place and watch the swans. The first year we were here, Mario was so excited to see them. Then I told him, “They’ve probably clipped their wings so they *have* to stay here.” He looked crushed. “Poor things,” he said then.
So every year we watch the swans and feel a mixture of regret, pity, and awe.
When we get near the pool, I think I see a person by the fence, and then it looks like a mermaid. As I walk toward it, I start laughing. “Hah! I thought it was a mermaid, but it’s a life preserver!” Somehow, given who I am, that seems quite apropos. I snap a photo of my “mermaid” and then we head back.
This year, this journey feels different. And the same. Every year the trip is difficult, and it is wonderful. I am always exceedingly grateful, and I always—at some point—wonder what the hell I am doing. I was wondering that about three hours into the trip today. But still, I do feel different this year. More here. Or something.
To bed soon and then off to the City of Angels in the morning. First The Bridge of the Gods and then to the City of Angels. All on the road to the Old Mermaids Sanctuary.
(This post was one that people seemed to like quite a bit when I put it up on Facebook, so I’m posting it here, too. One of the neighbor children comes over fairly often, and we make fairy things or look at books or have tea parties. I enjoy her company, and we have fun in the imaginal worlds. I write about our doings quite a bit on my private Facebook, and people seem to enjoy these posts. I don’t put up any photos of her (unless she's unrecognizable in them) or use her real name—to protect her privacy and her family's privacy. Before I left for my annual writing retreat, I tried to make my departure easy for the little girl. But sometimes that road was a bit rocky. This Going Away Tea Party took place two days before we left.)
Welcome to the Old Mermaids Tea Shell. That’s what the sign read that I taped to the front door, low enough so Lissa could see it. I’d planned this tea party for weeks, and yesterday I spent the entire day preparing. I had a nasty ass headache, but I couldn’t cancel. I couldn’t do that to Lissa just before we were set to leave for a month. I decided next year if we still were friends and we still went away for the winter, I would not do this! Still, I had fun thinking about how she would react to everything as I got ready.
I set about to transform the kitchen into a fairyland. I figured we’d have our savory foods in the living room. That would be the first part of the tea party. Then we would go to fairyland for dessert. Mario hung a sheet over the entrance to the kitchen so that she’d have to make an entrance to fairyland and couldn’t see anything ahead of time.
The first layer of the fairyland was a blue and white quilt my dad had made for me. I found blue and white cloth, too. Plus Mario got tea lights. (I hope whoever invented tea lights is rich and happy. They’re so fun.) I looked around the house for anything related to Solstice/Christmas and Old Mermaids (that fit the color scheme). I put boxes under the cloth to have variety in height, like a landscape. I got big shells and blue, clear, and white marbles, along with amethyst and crystals. Then I covered the windows with more quilts.
It was getting late, so I hurriedly made a Tea Shell menu on homemade paper. I misspelled Mermaid Marble Eggs so that it was Hermaid Marble Eggs, but I never noticed it! We were serving Coyote Laughter Tea and Hummingbird Joy Tea and Fairy Cups of Magic. I’m afraid my imaginative powers were dulled by pain. Mario came took an early lunch and came home and did the dishes and helped everywhere he could.
So I was dressed and ready by 3:20, barely. Lissa should have been there by 3:30 at the latest—because she usually just runs over after she gets home, but she didn’t come. I called; no one answered. Finally I put on my winter stuff and went over to the house. The sitter said, “I told her but…” This was very odd. I went back home and Lissa soon came over. She didn’t seem particularly glad to see us. She had been coloring with the babysitter while we waited for her! This didn’t seem like her at all. She barely said a word to us as she ate and drank her “tea.” She didn’t say anything about the marble tea eggs. She ate them—well, she ate the white part. But that was eat. It was as if zombie child had come to our tea party!
Finally it was time to take her into the fairyland. I had her close her eyes, and I led her into the kitchen. Then she opened her eyes. She looked around like she was seeing blank cardboard. She had no expression of surprise or delight or anything. She looked around at the fairy cakes and said, “You said there’d be cheesecake.”
I was stunned. Lissa wasn’t usually like this. Mario had to leave, so Lissa and I sat at the fairyland table, alone, and I served her Old Mermaids tea. As I sat there, feeling like a dope for doing all this work, I thought, “Kim, you just shouldn’t do this kind of thing. Too much expectation.” Even though I was very hurt, I kept my mouth shut. I was not going to guilt her. Whatever was going on was perplexing, but I wasn’t going to guilt her.
She ate the fairy cakes, but she didn’t seem to enjoy them. She didn’t look around at anything. I tried to talk to her about what was wrong, but she kept saying all was well. (By this I mean when I asked, “Are you upset about something?” she said, “No.” “Are you mad at me?” “No.” Etc.)
Well, this was a bust for all concerned, I thought. I just wanted it over. I went and got her presents. She didn’t seem excited or anything. In fact, she opened one and said, “Is this a coloring book like you got me before?” With a tone that indicated she had not liked that book. (It was a fairy sticker book.) What????
By this time, I was ready to send the kid home and cry myself to pain-free land. She wanted to call her mom to come over for the tea party which was fine with me. Her mom came over, and she fed her mother and showed her her presents and completely ignored me. I hadn’t realized I could be so hurt by a 7-year-old—and I kept telling myself that’s what she was.
Her mom had to leave to get her hair cut. Lissa was so clingy with her mom that I suggested she go with her. I was surprised when she wanted to stay. I was ready to wrap it up. I had gotten her a magnet set of mermaids. There are 50 magnets, and you can dress the two mermaids in all kinds of tails, clothes, crowns, etc. We couldn’t see very well in the kitchen, so we took this in the living room. I sat next to her on the couch while she played with it. One mermaid was her and one was me.
At one point she got cold, so I put a quilt over her. She put her legs over mine, which was the cue for me to rub and tickle her feet, which I did. She put her head on the pillow and relaxed, and I rubbed her feet while we listened to Christmas music. We talked about some things.
Finally when she was relaxed, I said, “You know what I think? I think you’re kind of mad at me because I’m leaving.” She nodded. Finally! “Are you afraid you’ll be lonely?” She nodded. “What else is going on, darlin?”
She said, “Nana died. Mommy is always working. Daddy is always at meetings.” And my house was practically the only place she got to go. I said, “That’s just because it’s easy.”
I said, “So you feel like everyone is deserting you?” She nodded. I said, “You know I’m not leaving to get away from you. Do you know why I’m going?” She shook her head. I realized then I’d never explained why I was going. “Well, we go down and work. We just spent all day working and walking in the desert.” “But you can work here.” Ah, yes. “That’s true,” I said, “but I get a little sad in the winter, so I like being down where it’s warm and sunny. Plus I get to be with my family. I get to see my daddy. I don’t get to see him any other time. And my sisters.”
I started talking about the Christmases I remembered as a child. About going to midnight mass. Then afterward gathering at my grandma’s house, all 50(?) of us. I told her how beautiful our house looked with the lights off and the tree all lit up. We’d come down in the morning when it was still dark, and there’d be presents everywhere. As I was telling her this, I started to cry. Maybe it was the headache. Maybe it was the stress of the crash-and-burn tea party. Maybe it was because I miss those Christmases past. As I talked, tears streamed down my face.
I said, “I don’t know why I’m crying.”
“Is it because of your mom?”
I nodded. “Probably. And I miss my family. You know, when I was a kid I wanted all kinds of presents, but, darlin, I don’t remember a single present. What I remember is being with my family—and the Christmas tree lights!”
She seemed to be contemplating this. She was either thinking, “How profound, Kim,” or “Dude, that’s because you’re old and you forget everything.”
After a while, I said, “You know, sweetheart, I’ll miss you, too. Tell me how you’d like me to keep in touch with you.”
She sat up and said she wanted Facetime and cards. And presents. I just laughed when she said “presents.” I told her I would write; I’d send photos on email; I’d call, and we’d try to do Facetime or Skype.
She was her old self now, excited by the tea party, fairyland, and everything. She got the mermaid magnets out again, and we dressed the mermaids. She said excitedly, “I could play with these every day!”
It was nearly 7:00 by now, and it was time to go home. Past time. I asked her if she wanted me to show her on the calendar again when I would be gone. She did. I showed her, and then I pointed to the full moon on the calendar.
“The full moon is in a few days,” I said. “After that full moon, watch for the next one. We will be home not long after that.” Her face brightened at that prospect.
Then we looked at fairyland together one last time. I told her she could take something from it to keep until I got back. She picked a piece of amethyst and a white marble. I would take another white marble and another piece of amethyst with me, so we’d both have something to remind each other of each other. I packed up one bag for her and one bag full of presents for the other children. (She was happy that her bag was heavier!) Then I knelt next to her as she was zipping up her jacket. She had a brilliant smile on her face.
I said, “Remember, I love you.” She put her arms around me, and we held each other. I said, “I’m very glad we are friends.”
I walked her home. As we parted, I said, “See you later, gator.”
“After while, crocodile.”
Then we looked at each other and laughed. Neither one of us remembered what was next. “We’ll have to practice that,” I said.
“Bye, bye!” she said.
Then I turned around in the dark and walked back to fairyland.
I'm thrilled to be a part of A Fantastic Holiday Season, a new anthology of 18 magical, scary, and heart-warming stories for the holidays. A bunch of writers got together over several winter holidays to tell each other ghost stories. Now Kevin J. Anderson has gathered these stories together for the first time in this new anthology. And it's got a great cover by Myles Pinkney to go along with the fabulous stories. I hope you'll check it out.
Movement is my medicine. Rhythm is our universal mother tongue. It’s the language of the soul. —Gabrielle Roth
I am feeling snake energy today. Rattlesnake energy. It is very deep.
I'm remembering a time when I was a young girl running around our woods with two of my younger sisters. I heard that unmistakable sound—a sound we had been trained to recognize—that dry-grass sound of a rattler curled up and ready to strike.
I sent my sisters home. "Run!" I cried.
When they were safely gone, and I was alone in the deep dark woods except for the trees and other wild things—including this rattler—I stepped carefully toward the sound, parting the plants around me like I was opening a curtain to witness a great mystery. And there she was, wound up like a gorgeous plump spring, three coils deep at least, the end of her tail moving so fast I could barely see it, her tongue quickly flicking in and out as she watched me.
I was in awe.
I may have nodded to the snake. I may have just slowly backed away before turning and running home. I know my heart was beating in my throat from the thrill and fear of it. I can't remember if I told my father once I got home.
My father was a rattlesnake killer. He didn't like to kill, but he had five children. He felt he had to protect us from creatures who could kill us. I had seen him raise the shovel up and bring it down on a rattler more than once, severing the head from the rest of the body. He had told us to come get him if we ever saw a rattlesnake.
My mother was terrified of snakes. All snakes. She couldn’t even look at a photograph of a snake. When trucks graded our dirt road, the snakes would come up out of the ditches and into our big front yard. Many of these snakes were rattlers. We had to stay up on the porch until the snakes could find their way back to the ditches.
Everyone was glad when they finally paved the road.
I took on many of my mother’s fears and illnesses, but I’ve never been afraid of snakes. Of course I’m startled when one seems come out of nowhere and slither too close and too suddenly. But then I want to follow it, I want to emulate it, and I want to dance its Earthly dance.
Although snakes are living, breathing, amazing creatures on their own, for me, they are symbolic of the goddess or of women as divine. I remember the moment in my life when I suddenly realized that Eve had been thrown from paradise because she sought KNOWLEDGE from the serpent: the wisdom of the body. The snake was reconnecting Eve with her inherent bodily knowledge. Where was the sin in THAT? God preferred us stupid?
For a gal who was raised Catholic, this was quite a revelation.
Snakes are still near and dear to me. A few years ago, we traveled to the thousand year old Great Serpent Mound in Ohio, and I communed with the serpent and the surrounding lands. Years later, we named our publishing company Green Snake Publishing. And in The Salmon Mysteries: A guidebook to a reimagining of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Snake is an important guide to the initiates and to the goddess Demeter. In The Salmon Mysteries, Demeter calls upon Snake for help when she doesn’t know the way. Snake dances the way. She embodies it: Snake is the embodiment of the female shaman.
That summer afternoon when I walked toward the sound of the deadly rattler, I was completely in my body. I understood the possible consequences of what I was doing. But it didn’t matter. I was hearing the call to the wild. I was hearing, “Let’s start this dance, sister.” And so I gazed at the serpent. I gazed at my own mortality. Maybe I understood on some level that by stepping forward, I was asking for it: for the secret, the knowledge, the mystery.
We are reading and performing the rituals and ceremonies of The Salmon Mysteries this year. We haven’t gotten to the Day of the Snake yet, but Snake came to me this morning in the form of memories. I spent the night sick, uncomfortable in my own skin, wanting to shed this part of me that just can’t seem to...heal or be healed. I wasn’t bereft or frightened like I often am when these episodes happen, but by dawn, I was pissed. Even though this has been my life for nearly thirty years, I refuse to see this as my life. Yes, it happened. Yes, it IS happening, but THIS is not who I am.
When I went to the Great Serpent Mound in 2001, I meditated while I sat next to the grass-covered snake effigy. I was exhausted and may have fallen asleep or into a kind of trance. I heard women laughing, although I didn’t see anyone else. By this time in my life, I had been chronically ill for many years, and I just wanted to be well. As I meditated (or slept), a giant snake rose up from the ground. The snake said to me, “You have the mark of the python.”
I remember thinking, “There are no pythons in North America. Sheesh.” (I can be very literal.)
“Accept your serpent qualities,” Snake said. “Snake healing is transformative—like what’s happening with your father.”
At that time, my father was having an allergic reaction to a medication, and he was shedding his skin. (They didn’t know it was the medication, although I had urged him to go back to the doctor and find out what the hell was wrong. He ended up in the hospital after he started to go into shock.) Everywhere he went, he left behind patches of his skin...
I didn’t know what the snake meant when it said I had the mark of the python on me (or how transformative snake medicine related to me), but I hoped it meant I would soon be transformed into a healthy person.
That did not happen.
When I finally went to sleep this morning, I dreamed I was dead. I was walking around as a ghost, haunting someone or someplace.
That is what it feels like when one is chronically ill. Or at least, that is what I often feel like, although I hadn’t thought of it that way until I had the dream. I can no longer remember who I was before I got sick. Trying to hold on tight, trying to survive, takes every ounce of my energy. When I look at what I am able to do beyond that, I think, “You are a fucking Amazon, woman.”
Despite hanging on by my fingernails, I create. I love. I am. Even if I’m not certain who that I am is.
I am that I am?
Ahhh, I started this essay hours ago. The day is almost done now. What does it all mean?
I’m not sure.
I started this essay feeling like I was going to strike out today. At someone. It felt necessary.
Between that time and this, I’ve written a little. I’ve danced a little. I’ve gone outside and stood barefoot on the Earth. I took some snake skin I have, and I wrapped it around my arms as I danced. (I became the Minoan Snake Goddess!)
I no longer feel like striking out.
But I do feel like shedding this skin of suffering.
Not sure about the way to do this. Thinking I need a map. Maybe I’ll do a little snake dance, and in the end, my feet will reveal the map to me.
As I promised I am posting more here and on the Church of the Old Mermaids website. Today I've written about the shapeshifting pink dolphins—the Botos or the Encantados of the Amazon. You can read that post here. (And remember, I'm posting regularly on the Facebook page The Monster's Daughter and Company where Mario Milosevic is the company, and we are sharing posting duties.) (Artwork: "The Encante," by Ray Troll. Used with permission; all right belong to Mr. Troll.)
Stories come to me. Characters knock on my imagination and tell me their tales. Sometimes the stories are sad and horrific as well as beautiful. Sometimes I don’t want to write the stories, so I pass on them, and they disappear into the ether. But sometimes, the characters and the stories refuse to go away. This is the case with my in progress novels Maternal Instincts and Killing Beauty. These novels have at their genesis two horrific crimes perpetrated in our rural county in Washington. They are crimes I didn’t (and don’t) want to think about, and I certainly didn’t want to write about them—I most certainly didn’t want to exploit these terrible tragedies for entertainment purposes.
And yet, these crimes not only affected the families, they affected our entire community. The violence, the horror of these crimes, reverberated through our collected lives, like a kind of family secret that no one will talk about. I didn’t want to write the true life stories of these crimes. I believe fiction is often better at unraveling the real truth of an event, at finding the heart or heartlessness of the matter. It’s better at meaning and context than any true life tale.
Still, how could I write these stories? I don’t like true life crime stories. I don’t watch true life murder shows or read books about true crime. When I was a girl, a girl I knew in my high school was brutally murdered. The crime was shocking and unbelievable. I lived in a small town in Michigan where things like that did not happen. It rocked me off my foundations and changed me forever. I didn’t think that murder was “entertaining” and certainly didn’t want to write about any murders in my novels—at least not in a Murder, She Wrote kind of way.
And yet two crimes happened in the small town where I live now, and the stories were linked in my imagination as the seeds for two novels. The books wouldn’t go away no matter how much time passed or how much I didn’t want to write them.
In 1991, a young man who went to school here raped and killed a young girl who also lived here. The details were chilling, horrific, and stunning. He had an urge to rape her, seemingly out of the blue, he said, and then he decided to murder her. In 2004, a mentally ill woman took her babies into the woods near here and killed them. I remember that particular day as though it were yesterday. I can see the clear blue summer sky in my mind’s eye, can hear the news helicopters overhead. Not long after this second horror happened, I started a novel with this particular crime as part of it. It begins like this:
On Sunday the woman took her two little girls into the forest. She drove a long way from her home, heading north, toward the mountain she had only seen once, in a dream. She stopped the car at a place which reminded her of a gravel pit, only different. It was like a hole in the forest that would soon disappear. She spread a peach-colored baby blanket over the wet gravel. Then she went back to the car for her daughters. She carried her two year old and held the hand of the four year old and led them to the blanket. They were dressed in their Sunday best. The girls sat dutifully as she whispered for them to stay put. Clouds covered the summer sky. A crow flew overhead, calling out, and the girls looked up to watch the bird as their mother raised the rifle to her shoulder and took aim.
Fog sank from the clouds, shrouding the dead children until the mother led the police to them.
But I couldn’t go very far with it. I cried every time I read it or thought about it. I had to put it away. This year, the characters again came knocking. This time they came with a plot that was more fictionalized—and the characters themselves were completely fictionalized. Tougher. The main character is Katie Kelly, a retired Portland police officer who spent summers in Beauty Falls, a small town in the Columbia River Gorge where she now lives. The novel begins when a young girl runs up to Katie on a trailhead and tells her she’s been kidnapped. The next book will be Killing Beauty (or Beauty Falls) and Katie will be involved in trying to save a child who ran into the forest to escape her mother after the mother killed her other daughter. The mother was a friend of Katie’s when they were teens and they both were out as a group with Amanda and Andy (and two other boys) the night Andy raped and killed Amanda.
I hope with these novels that I can give context to these kinds of crimes, give them some kind of meaning or reason (not justification). Such events can become mythic in a community—either to horrify or to inform. I still have difficulty even writing the scenes where Katie remembers just hearing about Amanda’s death (she was not a witness to the murder). Yet I write to better understand my world. I will try to do justice to these stories and therefore to the lives that were lost.
(Here's the first draft of the first chapter of Maternal Instincts. I wrote about its conception here on my public Facebook page The Monster's Daughter and Company. Enjoy! )
I had just finished hiking the Mystic Trail and was headed back to my car which I had parked up the road a bit, away from the small parking lot. The creek to the left of me was heavy with snow melt and louder than usual. Tall, old Doug firs towered over me on all sides, making me feel as though I was still in the wild even as I walked down the paved road; straight above, the sky was clear and milky blue for the first time in weeks. I was positively giddy to be out of doors without being drenched by PNW spring rain—so giddy I wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on around me, which was odd—because you know the saying, “Once a cop always a cop.” I didn’t hear the girl until she was right behind me and only then because she whispered hoarsely, “Help me. I’ve been kidnapped.”
I quickly turned around and saw a child standing inches away from me, female, about 11 years old, white, four and half feet tall, seventy pounds, with nearly shoulder length blond hair and terrified blue eyes, wearing yellow shorts, red top, white socks, and blue running shoes. She was holding her left hand out to me.
“Please,” she said. “Before they come back.”
Later I wondered why I did what I did. It was foolish. It was dangerous. I knew my ex would say it was arrogance: I thought because I was a cop I could do anything.
It wasn’t that. For one thing, I wasn’t a cop any longer. I looked into her eyes. I was a parent. And despite what others might think—or even what I might think—I did have some maternal instincts. I knew this girl was terrified and I had to help her. I had to save her.
So I grabbed her hand and we ran to my car. I unlocked it, opened the back door, and said, “Get in.”
The girl quickly slid into the back seat.
Later when I was questioned about this—and I was questioned, again and again—I was asked, “Didn’t it occur to you that you could be charged with kidnapping?”
“No, it didn’t,” I said. Again and again.
The girl said she was in trouble. What else was I supposed to do?
“Something else,” was what my ex said.
So maybe I wasn’t thinking. I was running on instincts. Maybe I missed being a cop, missed being able to save people, help people. Missed not thinking about my own crap. Who knows? My heart was racing, my adrenaline was pumping.
“Get down,” I said. “Behind the seat.”
She did as I instructed. I put the backseat blanket over her and then shut the door. I glanced around. Didn’t see anyone. Didn’t think anyone from the parking lot could see me.
I noticed a folded sheet of paper on my windshield. I pulled it out from beneath the wiper—it was some kind of religious pamphlet—and then tossed it inside the car. I got in and started the engine.
“Are they here at the park?” I asked. “The kidnappers.”
“Yes,” she said, her voice muffled. “Two men.”
“Stay down,” I said. “I’m going to drive through the parking lot.”
“No!” she said. “We have to leave.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. I leaned over and opened the glove box. I’d left my phone at home—since it wouldn’t work out here. My camera was on top of my gun. I pulled the camera out and then turned the car around and slowly drove into the parking lot. I saw several people coming down the trail toward the lot. A man, woman, two children. They were laughing and talking. Beyond them, a young man and woman, holding hands. Beyond them were others, but they were too far away to discern any features.
I quickly and surreptitiously took photos of the license plates of the eight cars in the parking lot.
Then I drove out of the lot, down the road, and out onto I-84, heading east.
“You can get up now,” I said. “Put on your seat belt.”
In the rearview mirror, I saw the blanket rise up, then a small hand pulled it away, and I saw the girl again. She looked around—clear-eyed, attentive. I heard the seat belt click into place. At first glance, she didn’t appear to be overly traumatized. Although I knew that trauma was trauma. Some people showed it, some didn’t. But children were often less accustomed to hiding their emotions than adults.
Maybe she had gotten away before they could hurt her.
Or something else was going on.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Danella Green,” she said. “My mom said if I were ever in trouble, I should find a woman with bear in her eyes. I could tell you had bear in your whole body. Bears have maternal instincts, you know. They’ll take care of their cubs no matter what. I knew you’d help me. You’ll help me, right? You can take me to my mom.”
She said all this quickly. She was breathing up high in her chest: She was starting to panic. Now that she thought she might be safe, the shock was setting in. I had seen this reaction many times.
“Danella,” I said. “Your mom was right. You were right. I’ll take care of you. Don’t worry. Breathe. My name is Katie Kelly.”
I could see her face relax a bit.
“I used to be a cop.”
She looked panicked again.
“No police,” she said. Now she was terrified. “They said they’d kill my mother if I contacted the police. Please, just take me to our house in Beauty Falls.”
We were headed in the right direction, at least.
“Tell me what happened.”
“Three days ago, these men came to our house,” she said. “They talked to my mother. They were arguing. I don’t know what about, exactly. They wanted her to do something. She said she wouldn’t, so they took me. They just grabbed me. They said if I didn’t come quietly, they’d hurt my mother. Said it would all be over by Tuesday.”
Today was Saturday.
“What would be all over?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Danella said. “The kidnapping, I guess. They said they’d take me back to my mom Tuesday night if all went well.”
“Where’s your mom work?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Danella said. “She was at a place in Portland, but then she left. We just moved to Beauty Falls a few weeks ago.”
“Does she work in Beauty Falls?” I asked.
Danella looked like she was going to cry. Too many questions.
“I should know,” she said. “But I don’t. She hadn’t shown me yet. She usually takes me to her work place. Please, can you just go to our house?”
I had to take her to the police, whether she liked it or not. I didn’t have any choice about that. I knew the sheriff, Nate Gunderson. He was an old friend. Well, not exactly a friend, but we knew one another.
Behind us, I saw a car getting onto the expressway from the Mystic Trail exit.
“What kind of car did your kidnappers have?” I asked.
“Um, I don’t know,” Danella said.
“Sure, you do,” I said. “Get down again.”
I saw the renewed panic in her eyes.
“You’re okay,” I said. “I’m just being careful.” She disappeared from my sight. “Close your eyes and try to remember the car.”
A moment later, I heard her muffled voice. “Red car. Four doors. It’s too big. It creaks when they get into it.”
“Good, Danella. Good detail.”
The car behind me was blue.
Another car was coming up behind us, could have come from the exit. We were too far past the exit now for me to know.
It was a red car.
Had they seen us?
“Do they have weapons?” I asked.
The red car was coming up fast behind me. Couldn’t tell the make or model right away.
“One of them had a gun,” she said. “Maybe the other. I only saw it in its holster.”
The car looked like an Impala, mid-90s. Basically a cop car. Painted red. If these were the kidnappers, they apparently weren’t worried about being discreet. And the car was right on my tail.
Normally that would piss me off and I’d tap my brakes.
I was tempted to speed up, but my six cylinder Hyundai wasn’t going to outrun an eight cylinder Impala. So I maintained my speed.
Suddenly the car swerved left to pass me.
I felt my heart in my throat. That was unusual. I’d been working white collar crime for several years before I left the police force, so I hadn’t been in many physically dangerous situations for many years. Had I forgotten how to stay calm?
Naw. My heart always felt like it was in my throat when I was in danger.
The red car was beside me. I glanced over. Looked like two people inside. Could only see the man in the passenger seat. Looked to be in his mid-thirties, wore a dirty baseball cap (of course) and a flannel shirt. He looked straight ahead, and he was talking.
I guessed whoever they were they didn’t care about me and whatever was in my car.
My heart went back into my chest.
The car sped past me and was soon out of sight as the highway wound along the curves of the Columbia River.
The guy was a maniac on four wheels.
No was behind me for a while.
“You can get up, Danella,” I said.
Her head popped up again, visible in my rear view mirror.
I locked all the car doors, including the child safety lock. Danella wouldn’t be able to get out on her own now, just in case she decided she didn’t like what I was doing.
“Danella,” I said. “Does anyone ever call you Danny or Nellie?”
“Can I call you Danny?”
She nodded again. She had tears in her eyes, but she quickly blinked them away.
“Danny, I gotta take you to the police,” I said. “I know the sheriff in Beauty Falls. He’s a good guy.” OK, he was a jerk I had dated a couple times in high school—including one particular night that I didn’t want to think about right now. Maybe he wasn’t a jerk. But every time I saw him, I remembered that night. I thought of Amanda, Sylvie, Doug, and Andy. Andy who was still in prison for what he did to Amanda.
“The police are in on it,” she said. “Herman and Mitchell weren’t worried at all about keeping it a secret because they said they were friends with the police.”
“But you said they’d kill your mother if you went to the police,” I said.
That was a stupid thing to say. I realized that when I saw her eyes widen.
“Were they talking about any police in particular?” I was trying to figure out details—see if Danella was being truthful or not.
“No,” she said. She sounded exasperated.
“They told you their names?” I asked.
“Did they hurt you?” I asked. I got off the exit for Cascade Locks.
She shook her head. “No. They haven’t touched me if that’s what you mean. They fed me. They even got me my favorite snack, the Bigfoot Fruit Leathers. They said they were just keeping me until my mom did something for them.”
“Do you know what?”
Danella shook her head. “Can’t you just take me to my mother? Then you can take us both to the police.”
I drove up to the bridge toll booth and gave a ticket to the ticket taker.
“Have a nice day,” the ticket taker said, grinning. She waved to Danella. I glanced up and saw a camera on the top of the booth, pointing directly at us.
Crap, crap, crap.
Now I was on video with a kidnapped child in the back seat.
No matter. I’d be turning her over to the sheriff in about five minutes.