torches nâ€™ pitchforks hunting for voices that rise above the angry mob
teacher edition WINTER 2015
VOL. 7 NO. 1
Featuring photography by Elizabeth Thorpe
Contents September by Jordan Hartt When Water Meets Herself by Rebecca Little Etymons by Philip Shaw How We Are Born by Sonya J. Dunning
6 11 18 24
Correspondence Course by Nancy Knowles Escape Risk by Jenny La Duca Craving the Silence by Dawn Roberts Fading by Adrienne Fullmer
30 32 36 38
Giving Them Up by Heather Wiles NationTalk Plan by Tonya Ward Singer Plains by Stacia St. Owens Cento: An Essay For My Students by Jessamyn Smyth
40 44 46 48
ABOUT ELIZABETH THO from Maine. I have an MFA Philadelphia and travel to th services are available at http
ORPE: I am a writer, photographer, teacher, and editor A in Fiction from Goddard College. I currently live in he West Coast and Maine every summer. My editing
September By Jordan Hartt
t was during that decade in America in which we, okay, maybe protected our kids’ self-esteems too much and so we loved it when British people came over and yelled at us, and told us we were the weakest link, and that we couldn’t sing, and that we had no talent, mate, or they came over as television supernannies and told us we were terrible parents and we laughed because it was all true and honestly? we were terrible parents. We were afraid of everything, in those years: everything from terrorism to cancer from cell phones to letting our kids play in the dirt. It was a good time but it was a careful time. We ran our kids from preschool to “playdates” to private school to soccer practice to volleyball camp. And when our college kids got tired of our lifestyle and told us how much they hated our affluenza—their term—they could go build houses or hug orphans through safe, careful programs we selected with them. 6 //torches n’ pitchforks
torches nâ€™ pitchforks // 7
Anyway, best of times, worst of times. My husband was a vice-president at United Guarantee and I was in real estate and life was good. Then at Christmas, 2007, I found out he was cheating on me with my best friend Marcella. (Quick story before I move on: you want to know how I found out? I found her underwear in our unmade bed. And not like sexy mistress panties but big woman-with-curves old gray cotton underpants. In our bed. Still smelling of her. I couldn’t tell what was worse: the betraying or how lame they were in hiding it. If I’m going to be cheated on, I want to be cheated on by people who aren’t idiots. Makes me look bad :) But before I found out about it—when she was still living in the house with us while going through her divorce—Marcella had only one annoying habit. She would say, “Well, that’s your perogative,” and not mean it as a joke. Which doesn’t make sense to me, that someone with as good of a sense of humor as she had would use a phrase like that and not mean it as a joke. But I guess I should have known that the kind of woman who would say “Well, that’s your perogative” would also be the kind of woman who would have sex with your husband and then leave her underwear in your bed like a big gray mouse announcing the end of your marriage. But anyway, so it’s before all that Christmas drama. It’s late September of that year and I’ve been out grocery shopping. I get home and lift the back of the SUV. Kyle and Damien—our youngest son and Marcella’s son—are throwing a football in the front yard, enjoying living together, being brothers. Our youngest daughter Nicole sits on the front steps texting. She’s all thumbs and blond hair. The maple leaves are still green but a few of them have started to tan and there’s a new soft September bite to the air. “Help me with the groceries?” I ask the boys. There’s some complaining, but they’re good boys. We carry the plastic bags inside the house. Kyle and Damien get into an unspoken competition to see which of them can carry the most at one time—eight each—and so we 8 //torches n’ pitchforks
make it all in one trip, and all I have to do is carry my purse and my mocha. My then-husband Rob is sitting at the kitchen table, reading the sports page. The 52-inch television in the room just below the kitchen is turned to ESPN. He looks up and smiles at me. Then he sees the boys and sees the football, and says, “You guys wanna go throw in the park?” He puts the television on mute for me and they all leave. Nicole comes in and sits on the counter. I unpack the groceries and Nicole sits there, actually not texting, for once. She’s actually put her phone away. I almost don’t recognize her, seeing her face and not the top of her head. And we somehow just start talking. For the first time in what feels like a long time, we talk. We talk about school, about her friends, about everything. Her phone keeps buzzing but she doesn’t take it out of her pocket and for some reason I remember that and how good it felt. The curtains move in the light breeze coming through the open kitchen window and we chat. And at one point I hand Nicole a juice box and pour myself a glass of chardonnay; and the sharp coolness of the wine, and the softness of the air, in that kitchen, at that time, tasted better than anything I can remember, before or since.
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When Water Meets Herself By Rebecca Little He asked me if I’d like to see how a storm is planted. I said sure. I met Earl on karaoke night. I was living out in Utah on a seasonal gig, counting spotted owls for the Forest Service. I’m in the business of counting things. I started out counting plants, pulling seasonal gigs as a botanist but with the help of some fudged credentials, security clearance, and field experience, I made the shift over to wildlife surveys. Now I’m in owls. Now I’m in central Utah where everyone’s got a theory and a plan B, and every night is karaoke night. He sat in the seat next to me at the bar. I had just polished off my third whiskey sour in hopes of mustering the courage to sing but instead I spent the night talking to Earl. He asked me what I had against my own voice that I wouldn’t get up and go sing and I said I’d rather use it to talk to him. So we talked and he asked
torches n’ pitchforks // 11
me if I’d like to see how a storm is planted. I told him I didn’t get many days off since I worked a seasonal job, so why should I spend one of them watching storms get planted and he told me the reason. “Water don’t lie,” said Earl. “Doesn’t know how, it’s not in its nature. Buddha knew it and now you do too. You want to know the truth, go look at some water.” So I agreed. The night before my next day off, I called Earl on the number he’d written on the receipt for the beer I’d bought for him and he said he’d come pick me up in the morning which he did. We drove his rig south along the western edge of the San Rafael Swell, an expanse of high desert uplift with landforms fit for some other planet. He asked me why I trusted him enough to get in his pick-up. Me, a young lady with a degree and some nice legs if he did say so himself. Him, scraggly and stuck in Central Utah. I told him his eyes were blue like the water that didn’t know how to lie. I told him I was packing a knife just in case. My eyes have never been blue. We drove along a highway carved through time, layers of rock formations rising up in sheets of millions of years. I asked him if he was talking about cloud seeding. My neighbor said they seeded clouds in the
San Rafael Swell to research its uses in weather warfare, climate control and ski resorts. My neighbor said shit’s going to hit the fan in a big way because of it. Her eyes got really big and serious behind her thick glasses and she told me you can’t tell Mother Nature what to do. You can’t make her snow when she wanted to save her water for later. You can’t make a cloud bleed with silver iodide or dry ice or some shit just because your fucking ski resort needs some powder on it. She told me this because she knew I worked for the government. I told her I just counted owls. I told Earl this and he chuckled. “It’s true, they’ve been seeding clouds out here since the seventies,” said Earl. “But that’s not really planting a storm, that’s just slipping a cloud a roofie.” We pulled off the highway and onto an unnamed, unpaved, and unremarkable road that intersected with many others just like it along the way. We drove straight into the orange sand of the desert. The farther we drove out into the desert, the thicker the tension seemed to grow between us. Mile after mile we drove, him grinning against the desert grit ahead of us, me, wishing I knew how to drive manual. I was usually a fairly good judge of character but if he did try to pull anything on me I’d be shit out of luck for stabbing the only one of us who knew how to drive us the hell out of the desert. Earl told me that about this time last year he learned he
could sew the seeds of a storm. He told me he could do this because he watched the water. Over there, he said pointing out the driver’s side window into a clear patch of sky. He said just keep looking. I fixed my eyes intensely to the spot, well aware that he now lay fully outside of my peripheral vision. My pocketknife felt bulky and awkward against my leg through the fabric of my jeans. Maybe I’d survive, I thought. Maybe a Forest Service surveyor like me would drive by and pick me up before I died of thirst, starvation, or exposure. Earl pretended not to notice the gears turning in my head. Instead he told me to keep watching and soon I’d start seeing. He eased the pick-up to a stop alongside a stretch of boulders that looked like cannon balls. I could tell they were from a younger rock formation because they sat gray and cracked against the orange sand and just above them stood a ridge their own color. They’d shaken loose and fallen a couple thousand years into the past in just a matter of meters. Earl turned off the engine and slid out of the cab. I followed suit, eyes fixed on the sky, dry hot wind biting at them. Oddly enough, a soft coating of clouds had gathered across it, lightly dusting the stratosphere. Being out in the open I relaxed. Earl didn’t feel as imminent standing a respectable distance from me as I continued to watch the sky. The desert didn’t feel so deadly. “That up there,” said Earl, “that’s water meeting herself. Keep on watching.”
16 //torches n’ pitchforks
He climbed atop a cannon ball-shaped boulder, dislodged from time and heaped upon its predecessor. He cracked a beer and offered it to me. I hardly noticed. A spotted owl swooped overhead, between the sky and me and eased herself down into the brush sprouting up on the ridge overhead. Graceful and perfect. I wondered if I’d have even noticed had I not spent the last three months training my eyes to see her. How many owls had I missed in my whole life? Desert life is subtle; desert life takes little and leaves even less behind. Desert life hides from each other. Yet, there she was. My heart lurched from its seat and dropped a foot into my stomach. I felt the boulders before me roll through my bones and crush my heart. “What the fuck is going on?” I demanded. “You’ve become the desert, you’re dropping a seed.” He nudged my arm with the warm beer can and I accepted. I broke gaze with that special spot of sky where water met herself and decided to stick around. By that time, a full cloud had formed. I sat down on the boulder beside Earl. His blue eyes twinkled in the sunlight. Salty water droplets beaded at his brow, sliding down the creases that marked his years in the expressions that had passed across his face. That night it poured.
torches n’ pitchforks // 17
fourteen of December, two zero zero twelve
Dearest James, Were the etymons : Etymons? Proper, as in : a Race? : Those who evolved as (or were chosen, depending, on whatever you want to depend on)
to be : the earliest known forms of life to define to be : the earliest known forms to become : our later known forms Language forming on this page? Silence : Silence? Silence and a well-constructed sentence can be a grand mixture to contemplate. Wouldnâ€™t you agree? Of course You : would. Which is why I ask You : this. When I read in my city, I have come to : consume : to : finish; to : prepare; to : accomplish; to : fill; to : store for a later use that may never present itself; (and if it does I will have consumed too quickly)
for : absorption?
James, how do you read : in your town : these days? I should say : in another place; other than : home; (other than my city)
because : home; home : brings up another complex; (definitions that also depend).
So please, just : retract : redact : you know? in that way we do : finding the words; to be : right as we write them; how we will : leave behind evidence for one another; because : it is done; because : I know you’ll want to consider it; because : I want you to badger me about it at a later date. For now let’s say : My City. In another place, other than My City : silence and a well-constructed sentence can produce : more. to expand on : More; (more : an ideal redundancy)
a definition : I want you to depend on wouldn’t you : ‘say’? Of course you would but there is no : need : between us. For you : it is silent where you are : silent enough to get more from this. Despite : poorly constructed sentences : since I have become reliant on machines to : construct : them and because I believe that : in hand-written form : like imperfect performances of music there is something : more. There is that idea of more, again : for you : please see above
where mistakes or simply : perceived incorrectness : will allow a joy : for us : to interpret. Not : a joy to interpret : interpreting the interpreter : of the Etymons. But I want you : to have enough silence; where you are : enough willingness; where you are : enough compassion; where you are : enough time. Then, I hope for you dearest James, you : will find : something in here. I trust you : of all people will : It is my intention : enough. Enough is : more. An opposite : to incorrectly correct. An original intention : a contradiction. Which brings me to my intention : whether an original intention : at least, which is worth stating, even if it removes the joys of (mis)interpretation. Even if I have to risk that : through my last ditch : effort to be : obvious; specific; bland : perhaps. Because if not we may never be able to speak of this : you : and I. My point : which I assure you I have one : may be very necessary, for while you : and I : we are alike : our interpretations : can be so far apart as to not be on the same page. Remember, James : we can disagree : and it’s okay for you to admit that you are still not certain of us and our friendship. And perhaps now I am giving you too many definitions to consider, so I won’t put it on you. I can trust some things. And didn’t we once decide it doesn’t really matter?
This page : the origin; This original : the intention; The Etymons : who were they? Were they of : choice? Or were they of : chance? And did they deliver : those two words? Concepts defining : parallells? And if so : did they intend those parallels? And if so : did they intend those parallels to be polar? Polar : Rules. As in : distinctions that govern. Did they intentionally choose the middle two : characters; As forms : folcrums to plug in and out of their bookends; with such monumental consequence : ch (oi) ce? with such monumental consequence : ch (an) ce? Enough of more, James. I wrote, as I always will write you, for your help. Can you help me expand on the contradiction of intention? Will you? You could help me : Characterize these forms. Tell me of : choice and of chance. I trust you to tell me : how did these Etymons : qualify for the roles they are playing in us? It’s something I feel we need be concerned with. It’s something we could have been put here to do. Be well. – yours, p.shaw
How We Are Born Sonya J. Dunning We arrive on planes of strangers—from what terminal of chaos only God knows, or no one does. One can hope it is love piloting a father’s flesh, twisting hips of a mother into him, that we are wanted on that runway more than wine or cocaine, that we are truer than messages on cards exchanged: I’m Yours, Be Mine, Forever. The blast toward genesis is one-way, no matter, and we don’t know any better than to burrow into that seat. We don’t know what we are. So we eat the fare we’re fed, and our nubby wings become blades of bone, eventually, and our heart (however stupidly) starts to beat. One can hope it is love inflecting the kingdom we’re approaching, that a father isn’t scowling as he chops the wood, that a mother’s jaw isn’t clenched as she shuts socks into drawers, the feet that will fill them kicking against her tenement. Descent is inevitable, either way. Gravity pities no passenger, no plane. Without even a toothbrush in our pocket, without any pockets or teeth, we redden among the strangers who made us. Swaddled in a blanket we’ll keep for years (or lose), a mother’s breasts leaking life, a father’s fingers binding us to his (or mourning that he once sank from), we scream the first scream about this tragedy, and it might be the greatest one of all: how we are born empty-handed (at first, without hands), and though liable we are to die just the same, there is so much we hold onto once we get here. There is so much we must let go.
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Correspondence Course Nancy Knowles 1. Stockade shadow, brace of traps clean, tobacco pouch full, the Huguenot awaits the advent of the widow his bride. To the letter he paid the priest to pen, she responded, Je pars le 12 avril. Soon, he worries, she will compare the priest’s cultured script to his own wind-chapped face and retreat east. 2. In the French quarter of Shanghai, the American socialite writes home in the lush language of place cards and salad forks, even as Hitler closes on Austria. Soon the Japanese will scatter armoires across the landscape and bomb the power plant her husband brought piece by piece from Seattle. 3. Typing to her son and his wife, “Took kids to Nordstrom’s for lunch,” neatly decapitating her first person in Protestant self-abnegation, the grandmother uses a plastic lid to impose her vision of ideal flat bacon onto actual bacon. Soon she will shame the visiting grandchildren from behind their books.
4. The convicted murderer sees serving time as an opportunity to resurrect himself, learning to play the flute, corresponding with a coed in letters censored of his crime. Soon to be released, the convict writes, “I want to meet you.” The coed feels the sea of words dry up. The polite paper-doll pen-selves dance away in the wind. 5. The teen hitchhikes through a desert littered with twisted black lava, finding discarded by the roadside a zebra-print diary with a broken lock. Soon, from the desiccated pages, a former pen-pal’s handwriting, the little circle over the “i,” whispers the old story: Boys. Stepfather. Drugs. 6. From the manila envelope, the mother removes a packet of letters, acting the ventriloquist for cousins’ voices, sharing photographs covered in fingerprints, replacing the letter in her own handwriting with a new one. Soon, the family letter will wither, the younger generation forsaking the US Postal Service in the drought of night.
32 //torches nâ€™ pitchforks
Jenny La Duca
My body awkwardly thumped down the sixteen stairs to our main floor, one step at a time. “Robe, slippers, purse,” was my mantra. Sam woke the kids up and got them in the car. The well-lit signs guided our way to St. Charles Medical Center and the red Emergency Room neon. With my husband’s support the breeze from the automatic door caught my hair as he supported my hobbling body into the building. I was barely able to find my insurance card in my wallet and answer a few brief questions about my condition before they whisked me away in a wheelchair to a room. The last words I remember hearing from Sam were, “What time should I call your parents.” I mumbled something about 7 am. My family was informed of my diagnosis bacterial meningitis, which is extremely rare considering my age. The medical staff had no idea if I would live, be paralyzed, deaf, or suffer any additional array of complications this illness has to offer. “Time will tell” was a statement used repeatedly. No one really knew what my outcome would be.
I spent three days in the ICU. During those first few hours as I faded in and out of consciousness, I remember looking at the young blond man on the other side of the glass who was my nurse. He seemed to always be monitoring me. “How strange?” I thought, I am a grown woman of 34 and I have to be watched every moment. The next memories are foggy, vague, and concise all at the same time. I could not talk and I remember family and close friends looking at me, and myself staring back, seeing them in an odd dream-like way. My father winced as my face was the color of cold concrete, not the vibrant color my cheeks held New Year’s Eve only a few weeks before. There was no pain, just feelings unlike anything I had ever experienced. No energy, little spirit, and out of control. The limbs I could control felt untethered and disconnected, like watching astronauts move without gravity or a baby in utero. There was nothing to ground me, and I stared at my left arm and hand in wonder as to how they got there. My right side was incapable of movement. I had suffered a series of strokes as a side effect. My brother, who lived in Montana, dropped everything and rushed to my side. A fleeting thought of, “This must really be serious,” crossed my mind. The clock ticked on the wall. Somehow deep in my soul I knew there were other places I needed to be, things I needed to do. I truly thought, “I am a very busy working mother, and I have no time for this!” But had no idea what I should have been doing instead. This experience transcended time, and for the moment, those important people, places and things had to wait. My first memory of transitioning from that dark, strange place was one morning when my mom came to visit. I was laying on my side and she came over and put her face parallel with mine. I looked right into her eyes and said, “I thought you were 34 //torches n’ pitchforks
watching my kids.” “HA!” thought my mother. She speaks, and she listens! This was the first communication I had offered in a few days and my mom was thrilled. She asked me when I started talking again. I informed her, “It just came to me. I have been practicing all night!” At that time she also reminded me of my diagnosis, which they had been reporting to me all along but meant nothing. I knew I was desperately sick but my will was so strong I refused to believe any illness would get the better of me. My husband felt the same way, as he would come and sit by my side and tell me he couldn’t wait for me to come home so we could all be together again as a family. In the next day or so, I still faded in and out. A family friend brushed and braided my hair, my children came to visit. I couldn’t remember a four digit phone extension to call for lunch, had my kids’ ages reversed, but at least I could communicate. My brother came to visit me on Superbowl Sunday. He was going to watch the game at nearby Kayo’s. Very shortly after he left, I got out of bed and tried to get out of my room. He was not about to have all that fun without me. In the process, I set off an alarm, he returned and much to my surprise I was escorted back to bed by hospital staff. No cold beer and chicken wings for me! Over the next few days I was able to perform tasks again. I was admitted into rehab and was surprised I recognized the nurse. I was instantly at ease, and began asking her questions as to why I had all of the colored bracelets on my wrists. She explained that one was the hospital id and another indicated my rare blood type. Only knowing me from the professionalism I demonstrated in the school office, she chuckled as she informed me that my third and final bracelet identified me as an escape risk. “Cool!” I thought. When I relayed that information to my brother he said, “Jenny, when you tried to follow me out that night, that is when I knew you were going to be ok.” torches n’ pitchforks // 35
Craving the Silence
The silent struggle that everyone fears, The whispering of death is all they can hear. But to some that sound is a welcome relief For others that sounds is so filled with grief. The silent struggle that they hold within, Feeling only loss and no chance to win. This life that they are living is no longer theirs, But surrounded by silence and sympathy stares. Wishing for all of their pain to subside, They feel as though their soul and self too has died. The silence of this life is all that they crave, They no longer have hope and their path has been paved. Their decision is made to answer the call, The decision has been made there is not time to stall. A wave of relief is all that they feel, Their lost soul can finally heal. The silence begins with a rope or a gun, It is obvious that the whispering has won.
Adrienne Fullmer I hate thinking that I’m getting old, but it confronts me every day. It has been ten years since the last time I stepped onto the field and the memories seem to be getting hazier. Sometimes when I am searching my house I stumble across relics from what seems to be a stranger’s past. A scuffed batting helmet balances on a shelf, a pair of holey batting gloves inside, Cleats worn down to nubbins lie spider-webbed in the garage. My trusty mitts rest under a layer of dust in a closet. Artifacts that must have belonged to someone else. Once in awhile I drag the heavy plastic tub out of my closet to remind myself of that past. I dig through the stacks of newspaper clippings and plaques and find my high school letter--an “F” pierced with pins from three different sports. Digging deeper, I find a tiny piece of nylon rope and remember standing on top of a ladder and sawing through the net after a district tournament win. A newspaper clipping falls to the floor and I glance at it as I pick it up. In the picture is a teenager with scraped elbows and a fly-away ponytail. Her face is screwed into a grimace of concentration and her arm is cocked, ready to throw out a runner. I can hardly believe that the face is mine. Muscle memory sometimes deposits me back into my athletic past. I crouch down to be at eye level with a student and feel like I’m back behind the plate waiting to call a pitch. It’s a changeup and the batter is thrown completely off-kilter. She swings too fast for the slow pitch and looks like a clown. The subtle movement of framing a pitch, the slight push or pull that turns a ball into a strike. A keen pride in knowing that I was the reason for that call. But I’m not really there--I’m in my classroom pointing out a passage in the textbook to a dead-eyed teenager. 38 //torches n’ pitchforks
I push the tub back into the closet but I am constantly surrounded by the memories that have faded. A glimpse at a table in a corner reveals framed photographs of teammates and friends I haven’t spoken to in ten years. In one picture Jayne-Leigh, the girl with the wicked changeup, smiles beside me. We’re wearing ridiculous hats and look a little drunk. A team picture occupies the space below. All of us are crammed into a booth at our favorite Arby’s in Troutdale, arms draped around each other’s shoulders, grinning like fools. I can almost hear the raucous laughter emanating from around us and visualize the annoyed looks of other diners as we disturb their consumption of Beef n’ Cheddars. But then I’m jerked back into reality. Silence replaces the mirage of laughter that filled the room moments ago. The faces from the past bleed into the edges of my memory to be recalled at random. I’m in my house alone and am no longer that boisterous athlete surrounded by friends. The memories of a different person seem to line the walls. It’s hard to believe I was that girl at all.
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by Randi Shol There was a freedom with you 40 //torches nâ€™ pitchforks
Giving Them Up
I soared I believed Heather Snyder Wiles I loved Being with you was always enough. She sat on the cold hotel bed with her two children, tears, like waterfalls running over her cheekbones, in her hands which she held on her lap, face up, as if askImmigration separateddropping us ing above. had checked the drawers for a Bible, wishing for some But for youhelp werefrom always in myShe heart comfort in boarders her time of need, but instead Countries, were between us of the gift of the Gideons she found a pack of cigarettes. Someso other You were always closedesperate person must have traded a bad habit for the Bible seeking, was,enough. answers. So instead of the comfort of words she sat weeping, watching Lovelike wasshe always the two boys asleep on the bed next to her, knowing what her next step would be. My passport Her life had turned so suddenly. She was so young when she made those decisions, those decisions from which a life doesn’t easily recover. First it was the call of Your passport boys, boys who loved the way she looked, her tall slender frame, long blonde hair, bright The stamps tell our historyblue eyes and the smile that made others smile. Next it was the alcohol. She knew she Our arrivals shouldn’t even try it. She grew up in one of those families, the ones where the drink matOur departures tered more than thecircled food to feed the children or the money to pay the rent. She knew, but The calendar date she firstor sipwaning. and as it is said, the first sip at a young age makes a drinker for life. The took days that waxing Why else would the advertisers romanticize all the things she would do that would later cut herover so deeply? drugs camepolice, easilylawyers, after thedeportation alcohol, but they were short-lived. Visas extended,The immigration The alcohol and men were what she was addicted to most. Men but really they were still boys, just like she was still just a girl. Her Mom had warned her, but she was the rebellious type. She didn’t want to hear that she could be just like her Dad, besides she didn’t believe that would happen. After all, she hated growing up without the security of a protective Dad. That was supposed to be his job. He was supposed to care. Each time she paraded a new boy past him she hoped there would be some signal that inside she mattered to him but he was too far gone in the drink. The alcohol had changed his personality. So she forged on along her destructive path not knowing the tears her Mom was secretly shedding in the back bedroom each day and night. She knew not the countless prayers said on her behalf hoping for a miracle. She wouldn’t have cared because now the only thing that mattered was the alcohol and the boys and the alcohol and the boys. It was a vicious cycle. School was a lost cause. Either she couldn’t wake up in the morning or she was still awake and still drunk. And then one month it happened, she skipped, but she wasn’t willing to believe it so she continued to drink. After all, she was thin and perhaps underweight. Then the next month came. She had been growing more hungry, but the addiction would not leave her. By the third month she couldn’t deny what was happening and her Mom knew too. She was 13 and she was about to have a baby. Her Mom helped her through, keeping the drink away from her as much as possible, but she had to work and Dad’s booze was never torches n’ pitchforks // 41
in short-supply. The baby was born and she was too young. She was still rebellious and so one day she walked off and left the baby girl with her Mother. Now the streets would be her home. She spent nights in hotel rooms much like the one she was in now but without the two boys beside her. Instead she spent her nights with men, many of them. She was no longer addicted to them. Being with them was just another routine, but one that was necessary to survive. When she met him things were different and better. He had an apartment and he invited her to stay. They both drank, sometimes heavily. The apartment was unfurnished because furniture would mean giving up a drink now and then to save money. A box spring on the floor served as their bed. She was now 16 and again she was in denial. Skipping one and then two months with a numbed sense of reality she finally went to the doctor. She came home and told him and he slapped her face, just once but the sting would last forever. Again she tried to give up drinking but she was pulled by its power over her. She would go weeks without and then need a sip but a sip led to a drink and so on and so on. She couldn’t break the pattern. This time when the baby was born she did not return to her Mother’s. He seemed to accept that there was one more mouth to feed and so they continued on together in the dark, dank apartment. Two more years went by before she felt that familiar feeling. She had been better about the drinking since becoming a mother. She was still drinking but not as often and not as much. This time he wasn’t as angry but frustrated. The second boy came along and they continued to stay together but the stress of the larger family weighed on them. She began drinking heavily again. The oldest boy now just 2 ½ was left to take care of his baby brother. Day after day they would go to work and come home and drink, that is when they both came home. Sometimes one came home and other times none. By now they had a roommate who was equally as addicted but helped pay the bills. Between the three of them the boys were supervised but not often. When he hit her again her mothering instincts finally kicked in. She picked up the boys and walked away in the night. They owned no car and the streets were dangerous but home was hell too. She walked and cried with her two babies in tow. She made it to a hotel and the owner took pity on her. He let her into a room which she would have to pay for later. For now she had her last night with her boys. She gave them a bath gently washing each of them and put them to bed. The next day she walked the two miles to the hospital and sat the oldest boy down on a bench inside. She hugged and kissed him, gave him his brother and told him to take care of him. Only when he agreed did she leave never to return. And as she walked, once again waterfalls poured over her cheek bones and she wondered if she had done the right thing. She would never know the gift she had bestowed upon the boys.
54 //torches n’ pitchforks
torches nâ€™ pitchforks // 43
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NationTalk Plan Tonya Ward Singer
Inspired by a cell phone advertisement now add more lines for only $9.99 per month lines for every member of your family more bars in more places more city slouched bodies waiting for soup shopping carts butt to butt on isle three bumper to bumper break lights a fine line tow the headline white lines on black asphalt beside the swings ring the bell and kids fall into line of defense cut on the dotted draw the lines defining you who are not what you say you are because we say you are terrorist donâ€™t get out of tow the frontline families duck under barbed wire posts divid desert into us and them donâ€™t cross the learn your fall in more lines in more places bars for every member of your family only $9.99 per month torches nâ€™ pitchforks // 45
46 //torches nâ€™ pitchforks
The Meadow is accepting
novella manuscripts from October 15th to February 1st. Upload manuscripts between 18,000 to 35,000 words through Submittable. Judged by Brandon Hobson. Entry fee: $15 paid through Submittable. Winner receives $500, 50 copies, and publication in the 2015 issue. View submission guidelines: www.tmcc.edu/meadow.
Editor in Chief Lindsay Wilson
PLAINS A Play in One Act
by Stacia Saint Owens
Contact: Stacia Saint Owens 8 Holly Hill, Flat 5 London NW3 6SE United Kingdom +44 (0) 77 1800 2145 mobile StaciaSaintOwens@gmail.com
48 //torches nâ€™ pitchforks
A German immigrant. 20’s. Intelligent. Ambitious. Never gives up. A good American.
Her American born husband. 30’s. Coarse. Knows he isn’t quick enough or strong enough for his native country.
A dark little girl who is either a cow or a bull. Starvation in a fancy hat. SETTING
The plains of Montana Territory, 1876 - 77. The American Centennial. The same generation who fought the Civil War. In 1862, the Homestead Act offered 160 acres of land in the Western territories free of charge to any American citizen who would agree to build on it a 12 x 12-foot (3.7 meters) cabin with one window and farm it for at least five years. The railroad companies had a great interest in enticing people to take advantage of this offer because populating the West would create a need for trains there. The railroads also used their financial power and political connections to seize the best land for themselves, often after a private citizen had already begun homesteading there. Many people went West to homestead, especially immigrants eager to get ahead in their adopted country. Not many people lasted the requisite five years. The land as they found it was completely inconducive to survival, let alone farming. The plot of land often had no access to water. The weather was equally brutal in summer and winter. On the Great Plains, another problem was that there were no trees whatsoever for great stretches of distance. This meant no wood for burning or building. Enterprising homesteaders invented the “soddy”, a cabin made from bricks of trampleddown grass growth. The soddy was a miserable dwelling, providing only the most rudimentary shelter from the elements, constantly leaking, and often collapsing altogether. For fire, homesteaders burned dried-up cow and buffalo manure, enduring a terrible stench and exposure to germs. The isolation of the Plains homesteads was especially hard on women. They often lacked the camaraderie developed among men, who would help each other farm. The women were left at home day after day in the soddy to keep house without any conveniences, companionship, or distractions from their work. The relentless howling of the wind across the Plains drove some women insane. The homesteader women sacrificed life’s basic comforts in order to feed, clothe, and populate America’s Westward Expansion. If they survived the five years, the deed to the land was almost always in their husband’s name and was his sole property.
torches n’ pitchforks //49
NOTE REGARDING DIALECT
Lud’s lines are written in rural Missouri dialect. Lud grew up in Missouri. He joined the Union Army in the Civil War and wound up in Pennsylvania when the war ended, so he stayed there and got a job delivering ice. He then married Milla, and at the suggestion of her father (who also paid for the trip), Lud and Milla went to the Montana Territory to homestead. Unfortunately, nearly every dramatic production I have seen involving American rural characters treats them as generic Southerners, or at best, Texans. Lud’s manner of expressing himself is essential to who he is: a boy from Missouri who realizes he is neither intelligent nor hardworking, but is hoping to fool everyone so he can get a piece of American Opportunity (which later evolved into the American Dream). Rural people in Missouri have a highly specific speech pattern and colloquial vocabulary with which most actors and directors are unlikely to be familiar. It would be worthwhile to research this accent, which is categorized as “Southern Missouri” or “Ozarks”. I have done period research to try to set this dialect in the 1870’s. I realize that the dialect makes the play harder to read. I promise you it will also make the play easier to hear, and to bring to life with power and dignity.
This play is dedicated to my mother Sandra Ayers Owens.
“But, persons afraid of coyotes and work and loneliness had better let ranching alone.” ------- Elinore Stewart Homesteader
SUMMER BLACK. A COW MOOS. THE AGONY OF A SAINT. SUDDEN HOT LIGHTS.
A SOD CABIN ON THE PLAINS OF MONTANA. 1876. BLAZING HEAT. FLIES AND LOCUSTS BUZZING. OUT IN FRONT OF THE CABIN. A HEAVY, CRUDE DINNER BELL. A WORK TABLE WITH A ROW OF TOMATOES. MILLA SLICES THEM AND PUTS THEM IN GLASS CANNING JARS. SHE SWATS AT BUGS. SHE WEARS A PLAIN COTTON DRESS WITH A HIGH, TATTERED LACE COLLAR AND WOODEN BUTTONS DOWN THE FRONT. HER LONG SLEEVES ARE ROLLED UP. THE DRESS IS SWEATED THROUGH. ON HER HEAD IS A MAN’S BEAT-UP 10 GALLON HAT. ON HER FEET ARE MEN’S LEATHER COWBOY BOOTS. LUD ENTERS FROM THE FIELDS, CARRYING A BUCKSHOT RIFLE OVER HIS SHOULDER LIKE A SOLDIER. HE WEARS LEVIS WITH AN OPEN LONG SLEEVED SHIRT AND A BIG, SWEATY HAT. ALSO LEATHER COWBOY BOOTS. LUD IS WHISTLING “THE UNION FOREVER, HURRAH, BOYS, HURRAH.” LUD Dinner ready? I’m starvin. HE GRABS A WHOLE TOMATO AND SQUEEZES IT IN HIS FIST UNTIL IT POPS. HE NOISILY SLURPS UP TOMATO GUTS AS THEY RUN DOWN HIS ARM. MILLA WATCHES HIM, STILL AND STOIC.
ALREADY COLD. THE WIND HOWLS RELENTLESSLY. A GREEK GODDESS BEING RAPED. INSIDE THE SOD CABIN. ONE ROOM. NOT AT ALL HOMEY. A WOOD-BURNING STOVE. TWO UNION ARMY COTS. TWO WOODEN CHAIRS. A TABLE. A TINY WINDOW WITH A SHEET OF TIN NAILED OVER IT. ONE DOOR. ON THE WALL, A COLORFUL RAILROAD PROMOTIONAL FLIER ENCOURAGING HOMESTEADING: “FREE LAND FOR THE HOMELESS.” MILLA IS CHURNING BUTTER. SHE WEARS THE SAME DRESS WITH A KNITTED SHAWL OVER HER SHOULDERS. THE WIND IS DRIVING MILLA OUT OF HER MIND. SHE TWITCHES HER HEAD AND BATS AT HER EARS WITH HER HANDS, BUT IS DETERMINED TO KEEP WORKING FAST. THE WIND KEEPS HOWLING. OFFSTAGE, THE COW STARTS MOOING PLAINTIVELY. A HEAVY BELL BEGINS CLANGING CRAZILY IN THE WIND. FAR OFF, A TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWS. MILLA SUDDENLY STANDS UP, THROWS BACK HER HEAD AND HOWLS, TRYING TO DROWN OUT THE WIND. SHE SUSTAINS A CRESCENDO-ING “AHHHHHHHHHHHH” WITHOUT TAKING A BREATH. AN OPERA SINGER ON THE GALLOWS. LUD WALKS IN THE DOOR, FROM THE FIELD, WITH HIS RIFLE. HE WEARS THE SAME CLOTHES WITH AN OLD DENIM JACKET. WHEN LUD APPEARS, MILLA, THE COW, AND THE BELL ABRUPTLY STOP. THE TRAIN WHISTLE DIES OUT. THE WIND KEEPS HOWLING. LUD Dinnit I hear that dinner bell?
3 WINTER 1
INSIDE THE SOD CABIN. THE BUCKSHOT RIFLE HANGS ON THE WALL. DEAD OF WINTER. FROZEN. DEEP SNOW OUTSIDE. RAZOR BLADE SLEET SHOOTING OUT OF THE SKY. THE WIND HOWLS RELENTLESSLY. LUD WEARS LEVIS AND LONG UNDERWEAR. MILLA WEARS THE SAME DRESS WITH THE SHAWL AND LONG UNDERWEAR BOTTOMS. THEY ARE WEARING THEIR BOOTS. BOTH ARE HAGGARD AND DISHEVELED. WHEN MILLA SPEAKS, SHE HAS A THICK GERMAN ACCENT. LUD IS KNEELING IN FRONT OF MILLA. SHE IS STOIC. HE BITES ONE OF THE WOODEN BUTTONS OFF HER DRESS AND CHEWS IT LOUDLY. LUD This one is lickrish. Yer mad. Milla, yer mad. Miner metal. They’d choke ya. Yers’re wood. Wood you can chew up. Got pulp in it. Seeds of fruit it ain’t ever growed. HE BITES OFF ANOTHER BUTTON AND CHEWS IT UP. LUD This one is apcot. MILLA The cow. LUD I dinnit hear it. MILLA I hear the cow.
4 LUD It’s that wind. The cow sploded. When it got to be a hunnert seventeen. You seen its guts. Black with flies. You kin eat a fly. I dinnent know it then. Ants. We shoulda saved up them peach pits. They was sticky. We’d put em in a pile and we’d have ants. They could live in here by the fire. Breed. MILLA Planted. LUD The ground turned to metal. Slick as the buttons down my Levis. That land won’t feed us. It’s out there screamin like a banshee bitch. MILLA I got one pepper. I save. LUD I et it yesterday. When you was out fer the wood. I had to. I was seein red. HE BITES OFF ANOTHER ONE OF HER BUTTONS AND CHEWS IT UP. LUD This one’s cherry pie. With a slice a cheese thick as my mammy’s Bible. A LOUD PAINFUL SOUND AS HIS TEETH BREAK. MILLA Your teeth, I think. LUD What? SHE SEES THAT HIS FRONT TEETH ARE BROKEN.
Broked. LUD CONTINUES TO CHEW. HE FIXATES ON HIS BOOTS. LUD I’m just lookin at these boots here now. I’m just lookin at these boots. Leather’s part of a cow. It’s got to be sumpin somebody could et. The injuns lived here years, no roof over their head. They survived the winters. Musta been eting sumpin r other. MILLA Summer. They live summer only. Nobody live here winter. LUD Don accuse. Don you dare accuse. I own this house. This land. That’s what it is to be. You cain’t juss go walkin off ever time it gets hot r cold. What you doin? MILLA SITS WITH A SMALL BOOK. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA CITIZENSHIP HANDBOOK. MILLA I read. LUD You can’t read. MILLA In Deutsch I read. Maybe English too. Some. LUD READS THE TITLE OF THE BOOK TO HIMSELF WITH DIFFICULTY BEFORE HE ATTEMPTS TO SAY IT OUT LOUD. LUD “United States a America Cit-zenship Hand Book”? You brung that thing all the way from Harrisburg?
I learn the Thirteen Original Colonies. Now the polite greeting. Hi-gee-i-een [hygiene]. Powder on the teeth. Wash the arm. Sleep in one other shirt. LUD You think anybody out here’s gonna stop n give ya the cit-zenship test? Sides, ain’t that what ya married me fer? MILLA You use to bring ice. En Kleindeutschland [“little Germany”]. The block of ice. Up the stairs. Telling the joke. Always you was laughing, Lud. LUD Wall, now I got a hunnert sixy acres a ice. Leastaways I’m expandin. Take off yer boots. MILLA GRABS HER LACE COLLAR, OFFERING IT TO HIM. MILLA Here. The--- I boil it. Soft. LUD Cloth upsets me. I already et my good shirt. Boots’re leather. Give em here. MILLA No. LUD Give em, Milla. MILLA No boot. I cannot--- the snow--LUD You don’t hafta go out in the snow. I’ll fetch the wood from here on in.
7 MILLA The cow--- sometime I hear the cow. I go get her. (calling) Helga! LUD Cow’s dead. MILLA I go look for her in the night. You are asleeping. I see. She run away. Black run to white. LUD Why you out sneakin round when I’m sleepin? Hah? You thinkin on runnin off? MILLA No. Lud. I look for the cow. I see. I am calling, “Helga!” She run away--LUD When times get tough you think you kin juss pick up n leave? Lemme tell ya, Milla. It’s God. It’s God says Montana Terrtory should blong to the United States a America. It’s God brought us out here where they was givin folks chances with the farmland. It’s God makes it cold and it’s God makes you my wife. If you gotta go out in the snow for some good nuff reason, you kin wear my boots. MILLA Give me now. LUD One. I’ll give you one. THEY TRADE ONE BOOT. MILLA HUGS LUD’S BOOT TIGHTLY. LUD STARTS CHEWING UP MILLA’S BOOT. HE EATS IT WHILE HE SPEAKS.
Where is it you think youâ€™re gonna go to, Milla? You seen that rail train howlin through here? You seen them people with their hats color yella n green and their Phillydelphia eye spectacles settin down to their white cake? You ever wonder why they goin by here at a hunnert mile a hour? Cuz they ainâ€™t us.
WINTER 2 INSIDE THE SOD CABIN.
MILLA STANDS WITH HER CITZENSHIP HANDBOOK PRESSED UP AGAINST HER HEART, RECITING THE THIRTEEN COLONIES. SHE WEARS ONE OF HER OWN BOOTS AND ONE OF LUD’S. LUD HAS EATEN ALL OF MILLA’S BOOT. ONE OF HIS FEET IS IN AN OLD SOCK. MILLA Connecticut. Delaware. Georgia. Maryland. Massachusetts. New Hampshire. New Jersey. New York. North Carolina. Pennsylvania. Rhode Island. South Carolina. Virginia. (repeat) AS MILLA RECITES THE COLONIES, LUD BEGINS LICKING HIS PALMS, GETTING MORE AND MORE AGGRESSIVE. HE INTERRUPTS HER. LUD They’s salt on my hand! MILLA Lud, no. LUD Salt! Buckwheat flapjacks! Pinky white salted pork! HE BEGINS BITING HIS OWN HAND. HE STOPS AND LOOKS AT MILLA. LUD What do yours taste like? HE COMES SLOWLY TOWARD HER. MILLA FRANTICALLY TAKES OFF HER REMAINING BOOT AND THROWS IT TO HIM.
10 HE TAKES IT TO A CORNER AND GNAWS ON IT LIKE A DOG. MILLA PICKS UP HER HANDBOOK AND READS FROM THE “POLITE GREETING” SECTION. MILLA (reading) “Good afternoon, Mr. Smith. I am pleased to meet you.” “It is mutual, Mrs. Lutzsky. Please have a fine afternoon.”
LUD SLEEPS FEVERISHLY IN A CHAIR. HE TOSSES, SNORES A LITTLE, AND MUMBLES. MILLA SLOWLY TRIES TO EASE HIS BOOT OFF HIS FOOT. SHE GETS THE BOOT OFF. SHE PUTS IT ON. NOW SHE HAS A MATCHING PAIR. SHE CAREFULLY TAKES THE RIFLE OFF THE WALL. SHE HOLDS THE RIFLE AND LOOKS AT LUD. SHE THINKS ABOUT POINTING THE RIFLE AT HIM. SHE AIMS THE RIFLE AT LUD AND HOLDS HIM IN HER SIGHT. SHE LOWERS THE RIFLE. SHE OPENS THE DOOR. SOUND OF THE CARNIVOROUS WINTER STORM MUCH LOUDER. MILLA PUTS HER SHAWL OVER HER HEAD AND GOES OUT THE DOOR.
WINTER 4 INSIDE THE SOD CABIN. THE FIRE HAS ALMOST COMPLETELY DIED OUT. DARKER.
LUD ALONE. NO BOOTS. VERY WEAK. STILL IN THE CHAIR. HE HAS A PAPER CYLINDER OF BUCKSHOT. HE SHAKES IT UP AND SWALLOWS IT BIT BY BIT AS HE SPEAKS. LIKE DRINKING A STIFF DRINK. LUD ’Ss the reason the Rebs lost the War. Vittles. They’s allus gotta be sumpin ta put in yer mouth n chew. Ever day. Sumpin ta chew. Hard tack tastes bout like cow chips, but you kin stay on yer feet. Plow a field. Shoot a rifle. Sing sumpin ta stay wake. Starvin is a cattle brand right up on yer belly. Red hot urn [iron] pressin into yer flesh real real slow like. It hurts so bad but it lasts so long it don’t seem like fightin’ll do one lick a good. ’Ss the owny fight I know makes ya feel like goin on ta sleep. Feels like God’s makin ya wear a grey hat knitted outta barb wire. They’s sumpin He’s got fenced up inside yer skull, but he don wuncha [want you] ta git a good look at it. But I seen mine so HA! Mine looks like a three ton bull in a red seer sucker suit just won him a thirteen year ol girl in a poker game. Owny he ain’t smilin. Not one bit. MILLA COMES IN THE DOOR, DRAGGING A HATCHET. THE RIFLE IS SLUNG OVER HER SHOULDER. SHE IS PANTING AND DISORIENTED, IN A STATE OF SHOCK. TWO OF HER FINGERS ARE FROSTBITTEN. MILLA Lud. Boil the water. My finger. LUD Why’re you wearin both a my boots? MILLA Lud. Please. Boil. It is... My finger. It is frostbited. I must... sit. LUD Tryin ta run off? How far’d ya git?
13 MILLA POINTS THE RIFLE AT LUD. SHE CAN BARELY HOLD IT UP. IT SHAKES. MILLA BOIL DAS WASSER [the water]! IT’S THE FIRST TIME SHE HAS LOST HER COMPOSURE. LUD I don know who you think yer pointin that rifle at. It wadn’t loaded when ya tuck [took] it n I juss been sittin right here eatin up what’s lef of the buckshot. MILLA How we will hunt? LUD Shoulda thunk on that fore ya went runnin off with my rifle. I don’t aim ta be played on fer a fool, Milla. That rifle had buckshot in it, my haid’d [head would] be layin on this floor right now in big ole punkin pieces. I’m right, ain’t I? MILLA I go for the wood. LUD Wood don need ta be shot outta the pile, Milla. I know ya pine-ned [pointed] that thing straight at my heart fore ya run off. I seen ya through one eye that weren’t truly asleepin. I hoped it was juss a bad sleep, but when I waked up that gun was nowheres ta be foun. Thas when I knowed I ain’t been watchin ya close nuff. No sir, not nearly. MILLA SADLY PUTS THE GUN BACK ON THE WALL. SHE SETS ABOUT BOILING THE WATER HERSELF, STILL UNSTEADY.
The wind. Blowing away all the wood. Gone. I try to find the cow chips. Buffalo chips. Nothing. Nothing to burn. The snow is very deep. I dig. With this hand I dig. Then I am thinking--- I will go to the forest. More wood I will get. LUD Woods’re more n fordy miles away. You’d best get to choppin these chair n table. MILLA With no chair and no table, this will not be a house. It will be only… die Hohle [a cave]. LUD Hole? You mean such as a rabbit hole? MILLA Not for rabbit… (gesturing) die Hohle. LUD A cave, you mean to say? MILLA SHAKES HER PAN OF WATER, UPSET THAT IT WILL NOT BOIL. MILLA Boil! SHE CURSES IN GERMAN. LUD Fur’s [fire’s] dyin. MILLA Lud. Lud, we must--- If I am having a baby, I will have milk.
Too tard [tired], Milla. Too tuckered out. Sides, babies don zactly seems ta take ta you. Ya ain’t had a one yit. MILLA CLUTCHES HER FROSTBITTEN FINGERS, TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT TO DO TO SAVE THEM. MILLA One day, Lud. One day I will have many happy childrens. Running all over the farm. LUD Milla. Sometimes I think no matter how hard I try, I weren’t cut out ta be Merican. Sometimes, when it got so hot like it done, I laid right down in that field n took a nap. God forgive me. Slep hard n woked up hungry. Shoulda been saltin more pork. Savin up all them peach pits. MILLA We two are American. You are owning one hundred and sixty acres. LUD TRIES TO KNOCK OVER THE TABLE, BUT HE IS TOO WEAK. HE COLLAPSES BACK INTO HIS CHAIR. LUD Get here and hep me tip this table. Then pile the chair and get to choppin. Milla! Do like I say. MILLA My finger--LUD Tip this table! Now! AS HE SPEAKS, LUD TRIES AGAIN TO KNOCK OVER THE TABLE. A STAGGERING THUDDING ON THE ROOF. BITS AND PIECES OF SOD RAIN DOWN ON THE INSIDE.
What the blazes? MILLA The cow. The cow comes back. LUD Bandits. Injuns. Goddam railroad men! Git offa my place! I’ll blaze a new trail down center a yer city slicker haircut so help n aid me Jesus! MILLA The cow walk off the hill onto the roof. Remember, Lud? In the summer? LUD That roof’s gonna cave. A DARK LITTLE GIRL, HELGA, COMES CRASHING THROUGH THE ROOF. SHE IS DRESSED LIKE A MINIATURE ADULT WITH A LONG, FULL SKIRT AND LONG SLEEVES. SHE HAS A LARGE ORNATE CITY HAT WITH A GAUDY RED PLUME. THE PLUME IS THE ONLY COLOR. THE REST OF THE CLOTHES ARE BLACK. THERE IS A BELL AROUND HER NECK. HELGA STANDS SILENT, COMPLACENT. SHE CHEWS SLOWLY AND THOROUGHLY. LUD You the cow? MILLA CURTSIES TO HELGA. MILLA Guten tag, Helga. I am pleased to meet you this afternoon. LUD GETS OUT OF HIS CHAIR WITH HURCLEAN EFFORT.
If that there’s the cow, let’s eat ’er. HE TACKLES HELGA TO THE GROUND. HELGA BEGINS MOOING, DISTRESSED. MILLA Lud, no! LUD Gimme that hatchet! MILLA Lud. Think. The milk. The cow chips. We need. LUD I need meat is what! MILLA RAISES THE HATCHET ABOVE LUD. HE BACKS AWAY FROM HELGA. LUD Fer the love of God, Milla. This here cow’s a gift outta Heaven. From God ta us. Two seconds ago, she was chewin up honeysuckle up in Paradise. Now she’s here. She come on down ta save us. Save our farm. She come here to die. It’s God’s Plan. He done it ta other folks. Now He’s doin it ta her. MILLA I will get you meat, Lud. MILLA PUTS HER OWN HAND ON THE TABLE. SHE SPREADS HER TWO FROSTBITTEN FINGERS AND TUCKS THE OTHER FINGERS UNDER. SHE RAISES THE HATCHET ABOVE HER HEAD AND BRINGS IT DOWN.
SOUND OF THE HATCHET HITTING THE TABLE AS MILLA CUTS OFF HER TWO FINGERS. HELGA MOOS SADLY.
WINTER 5 INSIDE THE SOD CABIN. LUD IS SUCKING ON MILLA’S FINGER BONES.
MILLA’S HAND IS BANDAGED WITH CLOTH TORN FROM HER DRESS. MILLA BRUSHES HELGA’S HAIR AND BRAIDS IT WHILE SINGING A GERMAN FOLK SONG. MILLA LIFTS HELGA’S HAT A LITTLE TO GET TO HER HAIR. SHE SEES SOMETHING SHOCKING UNDERNEATH THE HAT. SHE FREEZES. HELGA HAS NO REACTION. SHE JUST GOES ON CHEWING. LUD I’m hungry. MILLA QUICKLY PUTS HELGA’S HAT BACK ON HER HEAD. SHE LOOKS TO SEE IF LUD SAW UNDERNEATH THE HAT. HE DIDN’T. MILLA Helga. Meinen kleinen schnitzel. The cow chip. We need. For the fire. SHE GETS A BUCKET AND PUTS IT UNDER HELGA. HELGA MOOS. LUD That cow ain’t had nuthin ta et since God knows when. She ain’t gonna give us no manure. No milk. Nuthin. She come here ta give us meat. That’s what live folks live offa, Milla. Meat n gravy. MILLA Helga. Bitte [please]. The cow chip.
HELGA MOOS WITH GREAT STRAIN AND CONCENTRATION.
WALNUTS IN THE SHELL COME RAINING OUT OF HER SKIRT ONTO THE FLOOR. A LARGE PILE. LUD What in the devil’s hell r them? MILLA PICKS A NUT UP OFF THE FLOOR AND STARES AT IT. A SCIENTIFIC SPECIMEN. MILLA Walnut. SHE CAREFULLY PLACES THE NUT ON THE FLOOR. SHE RAISES HER BIG BOOT AND STOMPS ON THE WALNUT, CRACKING ITS SHELL.
WINTER 6 INSIDE THE SOD CABIN.
LUD AND MILLA DEVOUR A BIG BOWL OF CRACKED WALNUTS AND TAKE TURNS DRINKING FROM A PITCHER OF MILK. THEY BOTH GET MILK MUSTACHES. HELGA STANDS STILL, HER EYES CLOSED, SWAYING SLIGHTLY, NOT CHEWING. LUD (re: Helga) What’s she got up ta over there? MILLA Ssshhh. She goes to sleep. THEY EAT SOME MORE. SUDDENLY, LUD CONVULSES. HE CLUTCHES HIS STOMACH AND FALLS OUT OF HIS CHAIR. LUD Jesus Christ Almighty! MILLA Lud, Lud, what is this? LUD My stummick! Oh Sweet Jesus. She’s tryin ta pisin [poison] me. MILLA The buckshot you eat. LUD Them nuts’re pisin! Yer gonna be down here in a minnit too! Aaahhh.
Here. I get snow. MILLA TAKES A TIN CUP AND OPENS THE DOOR. SOUND OF THE WINTER STORM LOUDER. MILLA SCOOPS UP SOME SNOW FROM RIGHT OUTSIDE THE DOOR THEN SLAMS IT SHUT. SHE RUBS THE SNOW ON LUD’S FOREHEAD. HE IS STILL IN PAIN. LUD Oh, God. Yer gonna hafta flag down that train, Milla. Flag down the train n see do they got a docter. MILLA IS SUSPICIOUS. MILLA Lud, you say never to go near to the train. LUD Cain’t ya see this is siryous [serious], Milla?! MILLA When we have no food, no fire, that was a joke only? Why I could not flag down the train then? LUD Milla, you know we cain’t let them railroad men know we’re homesteadin this land. They think they own this piece. Affer all the sweat n toil I put into them fields. All the work you do round the place. You want em ta juss snatch it out from unner us n throw you n me out there in that snow? (an attack of pain) Aaahhhh! Flag down that train, Milla. I beg ya. I’m beggin ya. My stummick’s fixin ta splode. Juss like that cow done in summer. Please. MILLA Okay. I go.
23 MILLA PAUSES, LOOKING AT HELGA. SHE DOESN’T WANT TO LEAVE HER WITH LUD. LUD For God’s sakes, woman, go! Hightail it now! MILLA OPENS THE DOOR. THE SOUND OF THE WINTER STORM LOUDER. SHE RUNS OUT. LUD IMMEDIATELY GETS UP WITH NO SIGN OF PAIN. HE CIRCLES AROUND HELGA, ADMIRING HER. HE GENTLY SHOVES HER. A MISCHIEVOUS BOY OUT ON A PRANK. HELGA FALLS OVER HARD AND MOOS IN DISTRESS.
WINTER 7 INSIDE THE SOD CABIN.
MILLA COMES BACK FROM THE TRAIN, ALONE. SHE IS BEATEN UP BY THE STORM. LUD HAS HELGA LAID OUT ON THE TABLE, FULLY CLOTHED. SHE IS DEAD. HE DIPS A LITTLE SPONGE INTO A CUP OF MILK AND SQUEEZES IT OUT. HE RUBS HELGA’S SKIN WITH THE MILKY SPONGE, BASTING HER, PREPARING HER FOR BAKING. MILLA TAKES THIS IN FOR A BEAT. MILLA The train would not stop. LUD I’m feelin better now. Got m’self a decent meal ta look forard ta. MILLA POINTS TO THE SPONGE HE IS USING. MILLA That. That is the little sponge I buy in Philadelphia. Herr Docktor Schmidt. The friend of mein Papa. I put vinegar on. I put on my inside. So I will not have the baby of you. LUD LOOKS AT THE SPONGE, ENRAGED. HE DECIDES NOT TO ATTACK HER. INSTEAD, HE EATS THE SPONGE, SMILING AT HER. FINGER FOOD AT A FANCY EVENT. LUD Don be so mean spurted [spirited], Milla. You’ll feel better once you’ve et. It’s my place, Milla. I gotta look out fer ya. Wimmin ben knowed ta lose their head. You ain’t the first. The Weaker Sex we calls it in Merica. Now nobody gotta tell me ya kin chop up wood like a ox. But yer head. It gets ta bein soft from time ta time. ’Ss okay, though, Milla. It is. Babies like soft things. (CONT’D)
I gotta save ya from yerself. Find ya meat. What was wona them jokes I use ta tell ya? Huh? Back when I was deliverin that ice down in Germantown? MILLA I don’t know if you tell the joke. Maybe you only laugh at me. LUD No, they wuz defnitly jokes. Farmin beats the funny bone clean outta a man. Let’s see here.... I use ta know a hunnert of em. Where’d they all git to I wunner [wonder]? You set yerself right on down, Milla. Today’s Sadie Hawkins. I’m gonna do the servin. MILLA GETS HER CITIZENSHIP HANDBOOK. SHE GOES FOR THE DOOR. LUD Ya know if ya leave me, ya won’t be Merican no more. You’ll juss be lost. Out there in the snow. MILLA I will stop the train. I will get on. To San Francisco I go. LUD To do what? Huh? Sell yer body on them city streets? You fixin ta become a fancy woman, Milla? MILLA I am ten times American than you, Lud. Always I will find something to eat. Always. LUD (re: Helga) More ribs fer me, I reckon. Leave my boots by the door there. THIS STOPS MILLA COLD. SHE LOOKS AT HIM, WONDERING IF SHE CAN MAKE A RUN FOR IT.
HE CASUALLY PICKS UP THE HATCHET.
MILLA Under the hat, Lud. Look. LUD YANKS OFF HELGA’S BIG HAT. SHE HAS LARGE BULL’S HORNS GROWING OUT OF HER HEAD. LUD How do a cow got bull’s horns? HE TAKES OFF HELGA’S SHIRT AND SKIRT. SHE IS WEARING A RED SEER SUCKER SUIT. HELGA SITS UP ON THE TABLE. SHE TAKES A DECK OF POKER CARDS OUT OF HER POCKET AND STARTS DOING LOUD, TRICKY SHUFFLES. SHE LOOKS AT LUD AND WINKS. SHE GOES ON SHUFFLING. LUD STANDS THERE, SICK AND TERRIFIED. MILLA I have one baby, Lud. Meinen kleinen Helga. Her papa go back to Prussia. Sick of America. The mans here was too weak for him. A man who every morning would read the newspaper. Every night he reads the other newspaper. He beg to me: come, come, Milla. We will have a family. A farm. You want to live in the Black Forest, Milla? I will conquer der Schwarzwald [Black Forest]. For you. Pretty, this man. With one hat for working and the other hat for the Mass. Already I learn the Thirteen Original Colonies. So. I cannot go back. I stay. In shame I stay. “Disgrace” say the priest. Mein mutter say nothing. To her I am the body. Dead. The priest take mein Helga. Mein papa sell me to the ice man. A man with one pairs of pants only and no books. A man with a stupid laugh. I swallow. Like so. (she swallows hard) I make it so I can like the laughing sometime and not think of a swine eating the apples. I laugh then with this man. For the reason that even a swine will get lonesome I think. Mein papa make for certain this laughing man will take me away somewhere far. Where is very hot and very cold. Where we run out of the food and the fire and the cow die. (CONT’D)
Where this man stop laughing but he buy no books. Still. I think I will be--- very big. Big and fat and happy always. Is far where you take me, but is America still. Is very big out there. Ja? One piece is for me. LUD You knew she wadn’t no cow. MILLA She is what came to us, Lud. LUD Why why why goddammit! I’m hardworkin. Godfearin. I treated ya good, Milla. Better n most. I coulda been shot dead in the War but I wadn’t. Tramped all over creation. Mizzourah, Pennslyvanie, Montana. Seemed like there must be sumpin waitin fer me. Why’s it gotta be this? Starvation in a fancy hat. MILLA TAKES HELGA’S GAUDY HAT AND PUTS IT ON. MILLA I go to the train now, Lud. LUD I swear ta high Heaven I’ll track ya in my stockin feet. I’ll track ya till I got nothin but bloody stumps down blow. Now. You take them boots off. They’s mine. MILLA PAUSES. SHE RUNS OUT THE DOOR WITH A WAR CRY, BLENDING IN WITH THE VICIOUS WIND. LUD CUSSES AND FOLLOWS HER. HELGA DEALS LUD A HAND. READY TO START THE GAME.
INSIDE THE SOD CABIN. BRIGHTER. NO WIND. WATER DRIPS FROM MANY LEAKS IN THE CEILING. PANS CATCH THE DRIPPING. SPRING THAW. LUD SITS PLAYING POKER WITH HELGA. HELGA STILL HAS HORNS AND WEARS THE SEER SUCKER SUIT. LUD I think I membered wona them jokes I use ta tell. Back in Germantown. They’s this kraut farmer out in Pennslyvanie. Got hisself three dotters. This ole Johnny Reb lost from his batallion comes up knockin on the farmhouse door. “Ya?” says the old kraut farmer. “Sir,” says Johnny Reb, “my Commander send me out here n tells me ta bring back some supplies. What ya got what us Rebs kin eat?” Old kraut farmer scratches at his beard. “Ya,” he says, “I got myself three big ole kraut dotters in there n I kin tell ya on good thority that they all of em taste purdy good.” HE TRIES TO LAUGH, BUT CAN’T. IT’S PAINFUL TO WATCH, LIKE SOMEONE GAGGING ON THEIR OWN TONGUE. LUD, (CONT’D) Milla use ta laugh n laugh at that one. I wonder now iffen she even unnerstut what I was tryin ta say. HE LEANS IN CLOSE TO HELGA. LUD (CONT’D) Lissen. Kin ya put me on unner the ground leastaways? Snow’s meltin mighty quick like. Cain’t stand ta think a wona them railroad men findin me out there. Nothin but stockins on my feet, hatchet handle froze stiff to my hand, eyelids frosted over onto my fool face. Layin out there on them plains like some dumb cow wandered too far afield. Got me shamed. Surely do. That woman jumped up like a I-don-know-what to grab holt a that movin rail train. Boots draggin cross them tracks, barely holtin on. Train roarin right on its way no more concernt bout her n the man in the moon. Train juss headin West headin West don matter what poor dog’s grabbin at its coattails. I walked up n down them rails up n down. ’Ss what frozed me up. How come I dinnit never fine hide nor hair a her? Huh? I felt bad fer er in the end. Swear it true. Gittin so far above erself like that. Grabbin at trains. I juss wanted ta find er so I could bring er on home. This right here’s where she shoulda ended up. Where you let her git to? Huh?
29 HELGA DOESN’T RESPOND. LUD, (CONT’D) How much longer I gotta go on bein hungry? Huh? HELGA GOES ON PLAYING HER HAND, UNMOVED.
SPRING 2 SAN FRANCISCO DOCKS. SUNNY BUT COLD.
MILLA IS TROLLING FOR SAILORS TO PICK UP. HER FACE IS GARISHLY PAINTED AND SHE WEARS HELGA’S GAUDY PLUMED HAT. SHE SPEAKS TO AN UNSEEN CHINESE SAILOR. MILLA Sir, you are cold? Lonesome? Is a big city, San Francisco. I am also lonesome. What is wrong, meinen kleinen man? You do not speak English? Nein? China-man? You want to be American, ja? American. Ja ja. Five dollars. I will teach you.
31 PRODUCTION HISTORY PLAINS was developed at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club’s Experimenta Reading Series. It premiered on October 18, 2007 at La MaMa ETC, New York, NY. Director:
Sally Lesser CAST
MILLA . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Juliet O’Brien LUD . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Nick Denning HELGA . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Julie Rosier
PUBLICATION HISTORY PLAINS was originally published in NuMuse Anthology, Issue 7. Aishah Rahman, Editor.
CENTO an essay for my students
t the commencement of this class, what final ignition can I give to send you forth with some lasting and burning curiosity? Commencement, which means beginning—at the
kitchen table, my lover says, while I’m thinking about your writing: “the semester’s over soon,” and though I know this, of course I know this—the final fall to the end is pulling at all of us, wind whipping our hair and clothes, more to do than seems possible to do, and too fast, even as there’s exhaustion only the end can relieve and for the last weeks I’ve watched you weather your own impossible engagements with thanatos and athanatos, fate and what constitutes the good life, even as I weather mine—there is a long, abject moment of silence and I suddenly say, quietly, urgently: “But—there’s still so much to say!”
Always, the idea is to create a journey from one idea to another, each building upon the last, leading inexorably toward a finer and firmer understanding of how nothing true is black and white, or easy, but in the nuanced intersections of intellect and empathy, in the interdisciplinary study of philosophy, history, Classics, art, and story, and in the refinement of skill in critical examination of ideas and culture, there is an ethical center that holds. One that holds all the ambiguity and layering of experience and fact and accumulated knowledge of millennia in some kind of useful container from which you can draw. In something like an embrace that makes you safer, wiser, stronger—and in the end, more comfortable, not less.
So I want to talk to you about witness. About looking. Seeing. Listening. About how this is an active principle, not a passive one: an action which effects change in the world.
Isaac Luria—founder of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) in the 1500’s—believed that the purpose of human life is to gather the scattered body of G-D; sparks of light which we witness and bear up, restoring them to their divinity; by doing this, we are quite literally participating in the creation and restoration of a broken world and a scattered divine body.
This image of the scattered sparks has always appealed to me. The task of gathering them by the process of active, engaged witness, active engaged building of family and community, active, involved engagement with each other and with ideas—and with belief that in doing so we are effecting a necessary creation and completion—serves, for me, as a powerful and useful metaphor for not only critical thought and the life of the mind, but for ethics: and it illustrates my own widely-shared belief that these things are inextricably linked.
It is also how poets live. And how social change activists keep going. And how scientists discover, and build upon discovery. And it is what animates the philosopher’s ongoing conversation with reality.
When we came to Gilgamesh, I told you that the template of this beautiful story is the template for the animating question of all art: how do we go on, open-hearted, when mortality and loss and pain waits at every breath, tearing us away from everything, again and again, until finally, we ourselves are torn?
84 //torches n’ pitchforks
Gilgamesh said, to his dying “beloved brother-friend:”
“… May the Roads of Enkidu to the Cedar Forest mourn you and not fall silent night or day. May the men of the mountains and hills mourn you. ... May the pasture land shriek in mourning as if it were your mother. … May the bear, hyena, panther, tiger, water buffalo, jackal, lion, wild bull, stag, ibex, all the creatures of the plains mourn you. …
Enkidu… I mourn you ...
“Hear me, O Elders of Uruk, hear me, O men! I mourn for Enkidu, my friend, I shriek in anguish like a mourner.
But… (Enkidu’s) eyes do not move, (Gilgamesh) touched his heart, but it beat no longer.
He covered his friend’s face like a bride, swooping down over him like an eagle, and like a lioness deprived of her cubs he keeps pacing to and fro.
torches n’ pitchforks//85
He shears off his curls and heaps them onto the ground, ripping off his finery and casting it away as an abomination.
Just as day began to dawn, Gilgamesh ... issued a call to the land: “You, blacksmith! You, lapidary! You, coppersmith! You, goldsmith! You, jeweler! Create ‘My Friend,’ fashion a statue of him. …your chest will be of lapis lazuli, your skin will be of gold.”
I had the people of Uruk mourn and moan for you, I filled happy people with woe over you,
and after you (died) I let a filthy mat of hair grow over my body, and donned the skin of a lion and roamed the wilderness.”
I want to tell you about wilderness. About exile, wandering, loss—and the beginnings, and transformations, always found in the wild.
I want to tell you to go outside. To stand beneath a tree full of chickadees, that humble bird so lacking in the romance of raptors, and so representative, to me, of Home. Imitate their calls: they will come and peer into your face, right into your eyes. They will talk back to you, and correct your pronunciation. They might decide you are very stupid, in the end, and give up; or you
might get tired of the conversation eventually, but you will have engaged something larger than you: the interstices between human and animal, wild and domesticated.
You don’t need a moose or a bear or a mountain lion—though they are waiting, too, to bless you in the forest, if you’re lucky enough to find somewhere wild, and patient and sturdy enough to welcome it.
Many of you have shared your experience of loss and struggle, so like that of those in our texts, this semester. You’ve shown immense courage, and worked consciously and actively to develop community even when that is not comfortable or easy. You’ve taken risks both intellectual and emotional. Many have had huge surges of growth—intellectual and social, emotional and of the spirit, in your writing, in your capacity for sitting with nuance, in developing praxis that reflects what you value. Some of you have had so many crashing epiphanies you feared your head might explode. Some of you have fallen in love, or out of it. Some of you have come to class and put in your time, maybe wondering why, maybe just moving forward as you think you should, only occasionally moved by some shock of light or brush against an idea that changed your world in some small, almost unnoticed way, shifting things so slightly you didn’t even quite realize it until later, when something else fell into place with a small but audible click and the whole picture changed, just slightly. All of you wrote, and stood up, and reached for each other and these ideas, and in that reaching, were reached in turn by voices from thousands of years ago and voices of right now, all saying variations on the same things, which led, inexorably, to the central and underlying question of this seminar, and the question of all art—which is not “what is true?” or even “what is right?” but is, instead, “what is the way forward?” How do we go on, open-hearted and open-minded, when pain, loss, confusion is inevitable? How are we
to be useful with all this information, all this complexity creating chaos where the ignorance of Platoâ€™s Cave at least made us comfortable?
Because you are here, you are privileged.
I do not say this to make you feel guilty, I say this to make you feel hungry.
You have an opportunity many people never get: to care, for a while, for this beautiful life of the mind. To put it first. To step back from your world to look at it with wonder and fury and curiosity and loveâ€”and with deep commitment to figuring out how to contribute toward your communityâ€™s well-being and the sustenance of beauty and truth in this life.
You have chosen to come to a place where the expectation is that you will take responsibility for your work, and work hard, and earn the reward of working harder, and you will be continually asked, while you are here, to give more and better and more deeply toward intellectual achievement that has real meaning in the real world. You will be asked to be leaders. And you will be.
You may even do it well, if you listen. A lot. And bear witness. And never shy away from the terrible and beautiful reality that more than one thing is simultaneously true, and that while that fact is sometimes hard, it is always the key to the way forward.
And: I want to tell you about someone I know who has never been asked to lead anyone any-
where, and who has never had the opportunities you have here: someone wholly lacking in privilege who has, in fundamental ways, done something more courageous and enormous than you or I ever will. I want to tell you about her because I want you to remember her when you feel you are more deserving of opportunity than someone else, and because she asked me to give her story to people. I want you to carry her as surely as you carry Plato, Euripides, Homer, Aristotle, Thucydides, or the tsunami of art and applied ethics and experiences hurled on your shores in the last weeks.
Her name is Charlie. She was born in New York City, in a slum, to a crack-addicted mother who worked as a prostitute. Sometimes there was food, sometimes there wasn’t. Sometimes there was rape, sometimes there wasn’t. Always there was violence. There was no school. There was no safety, or reliability, or ritual, or family, or money, or ballet lessons, or security, or crayons, or snacks, or grandmothers. And when Charlie was ten years old, her mother sold her to her pimp for crack.
The pimp turned Charlie out on the street to work, which was where she stayed for the next many years. That pimp almost killed her, “seasoning” her: seasoning is the process by which a pimp breaks a woman, or a child, by raping and beating them, or bringing in groups of people to rape and beat her, and stringing her out on crack or heroin so she becomes more easily controllable. Being on the street at ten almost killed Charlie. But she lived. In terror, but she lived. After a couple of years of torture, she took the risk of turning her pimp in: he went to jail.
She thought she was free.
She was illiterate. She could not write, or read. She’d never lived in a house. There was no high school, no first lover’s kiss, no test prep for college examinations, no investment in her future: there was the street. All she knew, all she could do. There was staying alive when beaten and burned and raped and thrown out of moving cars. When attacked by stray dogs trained to fight for their lives before they were discarded. When arrested by cops full of loathing for this subhuman creature, skinny and hungry and dirty and torn, a receptacle into which everything worst in our species is thrown, a human garbage can.
One day, her pimp got out of jail, and came for her, to kill her for turning him in. He had a knife. She had a gun someone had given her when they heard he was getting out.
She shot him. He didn’t die, but she went to jail for ten years.
When they tried to release her early for good behavior, she stabbed someone with a pencil to force them to keep her in jail where she was safe, and had food, and didn’t have to turn tricks, and where that pimp couldn’t get to her. They added two years to her sentence.
Eventually, they made her leave jail. She went back to the street. She ducked the pimp for several months. She went back to crack, unable to function without it: PTSD ruled everything, the flashbacks and terrors paralyzing her.
Then, she walked out onto a porch off the abandoned building where she was staying: the porch collapsed, she fell two stories, she landed on a bicycle someone had left tipped over in the trash, and her spine snapped. Best thing that ever happened to me, she says. Got me off the street, away from that pimp, out of the city.
She uses a wheelchair now, mostly, to get around. She can walk a little, carefully, holding onto a walker, but the chair is better. She has a colostomy bag: often, the port gets infected because she can’t always get healthcare, even when the shelters try to help her.
To this day she signs her name with an X. She doesn’t have time to go to the Literacy Project, because she’s moving from shelter to shelter, from psychiatric respite unit to psychiatric respite unit—sometimes because she’s suicidal, but most often because the homeless shelters are full of people just like her and the psych respites are safer.
I am telling you this story—this story that is so terrible it should be impossible that it’s true, but instead, it is a redundancy in arenas of this world I hope you will not ever see unless you are there to make a pot of soup and listen and give respect and courtesy to some of the most courageous people on this planet—because she asked me to, and because I want to tell you about Charlie’s achievement. The one I never want any of you to have to understand from personal experience, but the one I want all of you to remember:
She has a huge laugh that devolves, when she finds something especially wonderful, into uncontrollable giggles, which then erupt back into the huge laugh, resonant and rich. Ay Dios mio, she’ll say at a certain point of breathlessness, and wipe away some giggle-tears, then start hooting and chortling again. And no one, no one I have ever seen, is able to not laugh with her, when Charlie laughs.
This woman, this woman with this life I have just told you about, has retained, renewed, maintained, rebuilt her capacity for joy over and over again. She is many things simultaneously, and I do not romanticize her, or want you to do that. There is no romance in this story. There is no hyperbole, either, unfortunately. It’s not fiction. It’s not a movie. It’s not in Oprah’s Book Club. She is not a caricature; she is a three dimensional, flawed, amazing woman, that’s all, and that’s everything. Her struggles are infinite, and beyond solution as our world presently exists.
She is a casualty of our social and human failures, in important ways we must not forget. But she is also a victor, and generous to a problematic fault, and unfailingly kind to people even sicker or more wounded than she is (who do exist, I am sorry to say), and she has one of the best, most important laughs I have ever heard. It’s infectious, her joy in life. It’s soul-appalling and necessary and beautiful and what really matters: it’s what courage, an iron will, an unstoppable commitment to life is actually made of.
I want to tell you that there are many kinds of soldiers in this world, many kinds of veterans, many kinds of warriors, and many kinds of victors.
I brought Gilgamesh, my dog, to the shelter where Charlie was staying: I was offering a writing-therapy group. Though she can’t write or read, it was something to do on a winter evening, so she joined us, and I asked her to tell stories instead of putting them on paper.
Charlie, whose entire experience of dogs had been strays who attacked her, dangerous fighting dogs who were cast-off and dying in doorways like her peers, was extremely nervous about the seventy-pound pooch at my feet. I asked Gilly to lie down and make himself small—which he did as he always did, ever-sensitive to the concerns and needs of others as all well-balanced dogs are—and went about my business. About halfway through, while others were writing and Charlie was telling me her stories, I reached down and tickled Gilly’s foot unconsciously, the way I often used to do. He squealed softly and crinkled his ears, and squirmed and yanked his foot away, then dropped his foot back in my hand with the ‘do it again! do it again!’ common to all tickled dogs and children. Charlie stopped dead in the middle of a sentence, and said: “Did he just—is he—are you tickling him?” “Yeah,” I said. “He thinks it’s really funny.” “Do that again,” she insisted, disbelieving. I said: “Hey Gilly, I’ma gonna get yer toes. The tickle monster is coming for to getcher toes!” and tickled his foot, and he squealed and wriggled and crinkled his ears and twitched his feet and hurled himself around on his back, kicking his paws into the air, to get me to do it again.
And Charlie started to laugh: a single laugh at first, rumbling, then a series of chortles erupting into a massive, whole-body laughter that got me going, and Gilly hammed it up, and Charlie laughed more, beside herself with delight at this discovery that canines, too, have capacity for
joy, trust, love, happiness, fits of giggles, and soon everyone who’d been writing was laughing too, though they didn’t even know why.
Eventually, she said: “I had no idea a dog could do that,” and we went on with the stories.
And I loved her then. And love her now. Because that: that is what matters. That is the answer. That is what’s left. That is enough—and not enough at all, not even in the neighborhood of enough, but for all that there is nothing enough to answer this woman’s life, that is a thing of unutterable courage—and proof, if we forget for a moment, that we do keep going, we do stay open, we do thrive, we do engage our world with wonder and love and fury and curiosity: even when every last joy should have been incinerated in us, we do.
Not just “can.” Do.
People of goodwill, with good intentions and a lot of privilege, talk of “resilience” when they meet someone like Charlie.
What I recognize in Charlie is sheer, stubborn stamina of a kind I wouldn’t wish to be necessary for even a worst enemy, and bravery of a kind I hope becomes necessary for no one. I see a warrior, when I see her.
It’s not magic, or passive, or innate in some mysterious way she doesn’t get credit for, that
94 //torches n’ pitchforks
laughter. It’s a choice. It’s hard won, each time.
It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen; as beautiful as the thrust of Poseidon’s trident in the National Museum of Greece or the tiger shark who swam with me in ten feet of emeraldgreen water off the shore of Thassos when I was able to go there to do research as a university student. It’s as beautiful as Plato’s cave or his ball-people in Symposium. Medea’s hero-monster complexity. Achilles’ rage, Hector’s kleos, Nestor’s wisdom, the brief and beautiful bonds of the thousands dead in The Iliad. As beautiful as the reaching of Aristotle and philosophers and social justice leaders determined to find the way to do better, be better, be more what we say we are; as beautiful as their belief that real leadership is as much sprung from being humane as it is from being human. As beautiful as Gilgamesh’s journey, both the epic king and that brief and glorious dog who showed me every day for twelve years that we all can be humbled into empathy, that we are all Enkidu, that we are too-brief so every moment matters, that each day’s choice is what we are left with when darkness veils the beloved’s eyes and down we go into the sleep of bronze. As beautiful as creation and destruction and re-creation, stubborn and gorgeous as laughter. As beautiful as the quartz extrusion I found once when I was hiking, thirty feet long and shaped like a dragon; or the albino white-tail deer I saw on that same day, as shining white as a myth of unicorns.
It is an art, the nurturance of joy, and the generous sharing of it, in spite of all losses—losses which are far, far more inevitable than joy ever is.
It is a high art. Maybe the highest.
torches n’ pitchforks//95
I said to Charlie, and will say to you: we are not made to be fighting and bleeding for scraps under the table. There is a place set for each of us. We are meant to take it. There is an abundance waiting for each of us there.
Mary Oliver says: “Joy is not made to be a crumb.”
The thing I want to tell you is: you will have this glorious opportunity to immerse here in the life of the mind, and it will become easy to forget that there is a world in which what you figure out is urgently, desperately needed.
And I want to tell you that what you figure out may well prove to be totally useless most of the time when you actually bring it into the world.
You will have to listen more, witness more, see more, hear more, and bring what is needed instead of what you thought up in your classroom—that nifty, shiny idea that seemed so good when you were on campus but which fails the real-world test utterly.
You will have the opportunity to immerse in theory of all kinds, all of it potentially interesting and illuminating, all of it contributing toward useful solutions to real problems, even as little of it is directly applicable. It will all—every bit of it, even the parts that suck—go toward creating a leader out of you, a person who is as useful as they are smart, as ethical and hard-working as
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they are gifted and cool.
I am not minimizing the import, or the gift of the opportunity, to immerse in these things. You will come out stronger, wiser, better and more useful in all that you do.
I am saying that you will hear people insult academia, and intellectualism, as “ivory tower” stuff that has no bearing on real world life or actual hard work, and I want to tell you: there is only truth in that if you forget Charlie, or turn your back on her because her story is painful or inconvenient, or if think you know so much that when she laughs you aren’t listening so you don’t laugh with her.
Do I need to tell you to volunteer for The Literacy Project, or to offer a short story workshop in a jail for free, or to cook a mess of good food once a month for a soup kitchen? I hope I don’t need to tell you that.
Do I need to tell you that it’s all the more important to do those things after you are already a big important deal in whatever it is you do—and that you shouldn’t even tell people you’re doing it, because it’s not about getting credit for it, it’s about giving something back, about gathering sparks and holding them up, about making whole something that has been shattered and needs your help to be re-created? Maybe.
Do I need to tell you to make time, no matter what, for art in your life—to let it come in and in-
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form everything else, reflect you back to you, make you uncomfortable and make you transform and make you happy? I’m definitely telling you that.
Do I need to tell you to notice the way the light hits a stranger’s hair on the subway and turns it into a Joseph’s coat of colors, so many colors the beauty of it is almost painful—or to notice the tension in your mother’s face or the hope in your lover’s or the pain at the edges of your friend’s mouth, and to respond to it with empathy and kindness?
Do I need to tell you that in doing these things, you will be doing what matters most?
And that self-awareness and five bucks will get you a cappuccino? And that a genius IQ combined with common sense, life experience, a balanced diet and eight hours of sleep a night may or may not make you a decent person who can find their car keys?
There’s still so much to say, but it’s going to come from elsewhere now, and from you.
I can’t wait to witness what you gather.
Here’s what Lucille Clifton said, at the commencement of a journey:
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blessing the boats (at St. Maryâ€™s) may the tide that is entering even now the lip of our understanding carry you out beyond the face of fear may you kiss the wind then turn from it certain that it will love your back may you open your eyes to water water waving forever and may you in your innocence sail through this to that
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Keep an eye out for our next issue, which will feature writing and artwork from the budding Creative Writing and Arts program at Sisters High School. Estimated Date of Publication: April 2015
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About torches n’ pitchforks: EST. 2008, Founded and Edited by Jim Churchill-Dicks CONTACT: firstname.lastname@example.org ‘hunting for voices that rise above the angry mob.’ torches n’ pitchforks online literary journal is dedicated to exploring the evolving relationship between form and content in creative writing, while also unleashing promising teen and educator voices to the public. Funded in part by a generous grant from Facebook, with additional support provided by the Oregon Writing Project.
Published on Jan 11, 2015
Prose, Poetry, Essays, Flash Fiction, Flash Nonfiction, Contests, Online Literary Journal, Creative Writing, Central Oregon, Teen, Teacher