Light is the First Thing to Go: My Advent Stories

Last year I wrote a piece of flash fiction for Loren Eaton’s Shared Storytelling – Advent Ghosts project, and it was difficult. Writing exactly 100 words is not especially hard, but purposefully dredging up fear and loss at Christmas time feels ugly; I wondered last year and I wonder again this year — especially this year — how people will react to this kind of writing.

Then I reread Loren’s words:

Light is the first thing to go as we near the year’s nadir, the days dimming earlier and breaking later. The dark is truly rising. So as Advent approaches, flip every switch in the house, break out the blankets and steel yourself to outlast the gloom. But in all your preparations, pause for a moment, just long enough to peer up into a firmament black and cold as flint. See the frosty flecks of stars? See how the borealis coils its frigid fire around them, eldritch and writhing? What speech do they pour forth to us, and what unearthly knowledge do they show night after endless night?

I have 2 pieces for the Advent Ghost project this year. Following Loren’s example, I am writing one secular story and one sacred story.

Unwanted explores the terror we feel when an unexplained and damaged presence penetrates the safety of our families and our homes; I wrote it before Newtown, but I think like every parent I wrote it from a place of fear of the idea that this presence has designs on our children.

For Later is my take on what I’ve always seen as a poetic and disturbing element in the gifts of the three kings to the baby Jesus.

Advent is about waiting for the light of the world. It is about waiting for God with faith, even on the darkest days. I hope you will read these pieces of flash fiction with a heart and mind willing to look into the dark, so that the brilliance of Christmas day is truly a day of love, gratitude, and salvation for you and yours.

The stories will post later today.

Peace be with you.

I Saw Lightning Fall: Shared Storytelling – Advent Ghosts 2012

Light is the first thing to go as we near the year’s nadir, the days dimming earlier and breaking later. The dark is truly rising. So as Advent approaches, flip every switch in the house, break out the blankets and steel yourself to outlast the gloom. But in all your preparations, pause for a moment, just long enough to peer up into a firmament black and cold as flint. See the frosty flecks of stars? See how the borealis coils its frigid fire around them, eldritch and writhing? What speech do they pour forth to us, and what unearthly knowledge do they show night after endless night?

Come, come. Don’t be shy. Tell us: What did they say to you?

Visit I Saw Lightning Fall: Shared Storytelling: Advent Ghosts 2012. (You can read my submission last year here: https://essediemblog.com/2011/12/24/the-escape-advent-ghosts-2011/. And yes, I’m good for it again this year.)

My Story Deconstruction: Or, How Can I Blame the Lilac Bush?

I just spent about a week posting my very own West Virginia ghost tale. You can read the genesis of the story and start with part one on this post if you like. I did this for several reasons:

  • For fun.
  • To get the story out of my own head.
  • Because I think certain elements of the story make a decent contribution to West Virginia folklore/ghost tales beyond the “old” stories.
  • Because it is a great chance to blog about the joys and pitfalls of writing a story.

Let’s start with the obvious: jealous husbands, fatal attractions, good cops/bad cops, and stereotyped church people don’t exactly scream originality, they scream CLICHE! And this is something I saw right away in this story and yet couldn’t help myself from sticking with it. I first thought I might draw this out into a much longer piece of writing that would allow greater exploration and nuance that helps clichés “be OK” in a story, but I decided to cut it down to 3,000 words as a personal challenge in brevity and getting right to the point. One example is that all of the law enforcement people in the original conception of this story had names and personalities. A friend advised me that these characters appear too late in the story to warrant detailed identities, and I agree. The consequence is, though, that they become stereotypes in a shorter story.

(I just realized I kept the sheriff’s name in there. That should come out I suppose.)

Speaking of the sheriff, let’s talk about three of this story’s worst offenses:

  • Head-hopping;
  • Yanking the reader out of the story; and,
  • Refusing to “kill your darlings.”

Head-hopping is a writer’s term for shifting point of view (POV). One example is this line I became attached to, “For a moment, the cop lost his bravado and had to shake off the feeling of ice and mud in his chest.”  The vast majority of this story is told from the Webb Thomas POV. If he isn’t thinking, saying, or seeing it himself, it really technically shouldn’t be expressed. This goes to the “kill your darlings” requirement (read more here), that if you want to turn out the best product you can’t fall in love with your own one liners and paragraphs unto themselves. If they aren’t working, they have to go. Not get moved around. GO.

Finally, what do we as writers do that works against keeping our reader in the world we want them to know, the world of our making and our characters? A classic tendency is to pull back ourselves and start explaining things from the 10,000-foot level. One example (of many) from my story:

“A female detective crossed the yard to approach the young detective.  They were longtime friends . . .”

Ideally, as a writer I would not TELL you they are longtime friends. I would craft their interaction and dialogue, body-language, etc. to SHOW you that they are longtime friends. In a short story, I could cop-out and say I had to tell you because I didn’t have enough words to show you. Sometimes this may be true, but in that case is it relevant? Here is a great case in point about how you can “know” plenty without the writer telling you much at all. From “A Ball of Fire” in The Telltale Lilac Bush:

No one noticed when the old peddler rode toward the residence of his bachelor friend. This was his third month in Glenville, and the neighbors were used to seeing him go one day and return a week later. This evening he was tired, nervous, and wanted a shave, so he asked his friend to shave him. The bachelor agreed, . . . .

There is a fair amount of “telling” here in some respects, but there is also an obvious back story that sets the reader’s nerves on alert and suggests many underlying dynamics. Aside: This is one of my favorite ghost tales in TTTLB. It is in a section of the book called “Murdered Peddlers.”

The Sixth Sense

And this leads me to a final word about telling ghost stories, a cautionary word if you will. I am not sure that before or since The Sixth Sense has anyone really cooked up a completely unexpected ghost story. In folktales like those in the TTTLB, the craft is more storytelling than writing. That tradition had a significant influence on how I chose to relay my story. When I think of sharing ghost stories, I think of sitting around a fire in the dark. I think of ramping up suspense vs. mystery. And frankly, I think of TELLING. We don’t say, “Let’s SHOW ghost stories!” after all.

We tell them.

Thanks for letting me tell you my story!

Image credit: Google search for original TTLB illustrations and Touchstone Pictures for The Sixth Sense. A huge shout out to Ruth Ann Musick and the University Press of Kentucky for TTLB. This was without a doubt the most-checked-out book in the 1970s at Overbrook Elementary School. There was a waiting list. I hope there still is.

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (the conclusion)

The young officer squinted with painful eyes into the unrelenting sunlight.  His partner hospitalized in critical condition, he felt strangely alone on the Thomas property, even though other officers and a team of forensic specialists were with him.

A drug addict had been arrested a mile from Ella’s shed. The dead woman’s blood was on his clothes, but given the episode’s violent nature he seemed oddly whole; no scratches, bites, or injuries were documented.

A female detective crossed the yard to approach the young detective.  They were longtime friends, and her speech was slow and careful when she spoke about the Sera Thomas case.  “So she never said goodbye to anyone in North Carolina?”

“That’s what all the interviews indicate,” sighed her colleague.  “Most say they just accepted it because it was so soon after everyone found out about her affair.  They thought she was ashamed, skipped town to save face.  The church people bought the shame thing, hook line and sinker.”

“I guess I can see that,” she said.  “But the boy….that seems hard to explain.”

“In hindsight, sure,” said the young officer.  “At the time, the community thought it made sense.  Even his parents believed he killed himself.”

“What do you think?”

“I think he was forced off the bridge, I don’t think he jumped.  We may never know, though.  Sera is a different story, if we can just find her.”  He looked into the sun, even though it hurt.

The woman forced herself to ask the obvious but forbidding question.  “Do you have any idea where she is?  Any gut instinct?  I mean,” she drew a deep breath, “There is a lot of territory in question.  Thomas was good.  Everyone believed him about everything.  God.  Was she ever even in Mason County?”

His gaze fell on the Thomas flower garden.  Heavy rose blooms weighed down even the strongest stems as if they were marble spheres.  A honey bee lifted itself from a flower, its legs coated in nearly invisible pollen.   Carrying its fertile payload to another farm, the bee lifted itself out of sight.

“Yeah, she was.  She is.  Life never disappears.”

Pulling his long-neglected sunglasses from his breast pocket, he gestured to another officer holding a shovel to go ahead and stepped into his car, careful to knock the soil off his soles.

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (6)

(This is part 6 of a 7 part ghost story.)

I see Sera.  Her face is so pale and pinched.  Is it worry or fear?  I can’t read her. 

Webb exhaled an enormous breath of relief at the sight of his wife, but then immediately spun around to the gaze of two strangers in his house. Webb glanced away from Sera’s face to see the uninvited men standing in his kitchen, each wearing a handgun holstered at the hip and strapped over the chest.

“Who are you?  What the hell is going on here?  Why are you here?  You need to go.   You need to go right now to my neighbor’s house, to Ella Williams’ place.”

“Mr. Thomas, we already have a car headed over there.  Someone called in a disturbance.” The younger of the two cops was gentle but direct as he said, “What you need to do is sit down.”

Webb suddenly felt exhausted, and he welcomed the chance to sit.  He was still completely confused, but he was too tired to do anything but go along with the request.  He sat down at the kitchen table where he saw Sera and reached for her hand.  “It’s OK, baby,” he told her. The officers exchanged glances.  Then the younger one continued.

“Mr. Thomas, we’re here at the request of Ella Williams.  She’s made several calls to the Sheriff about your frequent trespassing, but she doesn’t want to press charges.  She just wants you to stay off her property uninvited.  Do you understand?” The first officer’s voice remained even but stern.  The older of the two men took it to another level.

“She says she told you to stop coming over in the morning and then she found you digging in her yard at night.  What is wrong with you?”

Webb rubbed his palms against his damp forehead.

Ella never told me to stop coming over. 

Image: Courtney White

The digging at night felt familiar. He used to do that at their old place in North Carolina when he couldn’t sleep, get up and do soil amendments or plant tender perennials by moonlight.  He knew it was a little eccentric, but it helped him get back to sleep.  No mosquitoes, no hot sun, just him and the earth.  Nitrogen and calcium plus lots of organic matter and compost had built one of the prettiest gardens in Forsyth County.

I wish I could have just picked it up and put it down in West Virginia when I moved.

“Thomas, do you hear me talking to you?” The older cop was getting agitated.

“Yes,” said Webb.  He looked into the other man’s eyes and held them.  For a moment, the cop lost his bravado and had to shake off the feeling of ice and mud in his chest.

“I’ll be right back,” said the younger man, “I have to take a call from Don.”  Don was the Mason County Sheriff and officers used his first name in front of people they interviewed to keep anxiety low.  The sheriff knew where they were and what they were doing, that it was pretty small potatoes, and it was unusual to get a call during an outing like this.  The officer stepped quickly into the dining room, and spoke in a low tone into his mobile phone.

Back in the kitchen, Webb held the older man’s gaze.  “You know, you don’t have to speak to me like that,” he said.  “Shut up,” retorted the cop.  “I could care less.  You’re an idiot who bothers women who are too nice to tell you to get lost.”

Webb felt his heart rate was increasing but there was no outer sign.  Webb’s perspiration had disappeared, too.

The young officer returned to the kitchen.   His right hand was free and hovered near a now unsnapped holster.  He looked at his partner who instantly released his own gun with a movement so fluid and rehearsed it was like slipping off a watch worn for decades.  They never spoke, but the two men were in complete communication.

“Mr. Thomas, we need to know why you moved here.”  The young man’s face was a stony veneer, but his throat muscles were convulsing violently.  He had never tried harder to exude control. He’d never had to try like this before.

“For my wife’s health,” Webb said slowly.

“Where is your wife?” asked the older man.

Webb’s eyes sped to every corner of the room.  “She was just here.  You saw her.”

The young cop’s voice was controlled when he said, “No one has seen Sera Thomas for over a year.”

I see her.  I see her every day.

“She’s a private person,” Webb said.  “We don’t socialize much.  We broke ties when we moved.”

“Mr. Thomas, you need to come with us.  Nothing fancy, let’s just do this easy.  Some people back in North Carolina say Sera disappeared.  Her family is very worried.  We just need to ask you some questions.”

Life never disappears.  Idiots.  Don’t they know?

Webb dropped his shoulders and rose quiet and defeated to his feet.  Davis reached for his handcuffs.  He never saw the weapon behind the door.

Like a snake strike, Webb seized a newly sharpened shovel as he passed the open door.  He spun towards the older and slower cop, the shovel’s long wooden handle held at the far end with both hands.   The man staggered back but not before the shovel blade sliced his chest.  His partner’s bullet entered the back of Webb’s skull and exited his eye socket.

In the microcosm of time before the steel left his brain, Webb saw his wife.  She was in the garden, her arms outstretched, reaching for him as he fell into the loamy soil.

What was left of his face crushed against the hard stone floor.

 

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (5)

(The Mason County ghost story continues . . . go back to read parts 1-4 if this is your first time here!)

Ella was their closest neighbor, just a short hike by foot to the west.  She had blonde hair and big hips and a loud laugh.   She was up on current events, funny, and independent.

She’s everything my wife isn’t. 

Sera was spending more and more time in bed alone and disconnected from the world, from his world.

I need company.  No crossed lines, no harm.

Webb crossed onto Ella’s property.  They had a regular coffee date Saturdays to talk about soil amendments, horticulture, politics, and county gossip.  There was a woman missing from Point Pleasant, she’d last been seen buying limestone pellets and a seed spreader at Southern States two days prior.  Her husband reported her missing when she never came home as expected, and now everyone was a-buzz with what could have happened.  Her abandoned car was found on the side of the road, but there was no trace of the woman.   Oddly, the receipt from her purchase was on the front seat, but the items on the receipt were not in the car, nor were any personal affects.

I’m not the only one who feels a rush thinking about what might have happened to her.  I know I’m not.  Everyone thinks mysteries and missing people are exciting.  They do.  If they say they don’t, they lie.

He called to his neighbor through the screen but there was no answer.  He opened the door and called again, but still no answer.  Cautiously he went to the top of the stairs to the second floor and loudly said her name.  No one was in the house.

Webb walked around to the back of the house and that is when he heard the sounds.

What he heard was unmistakable.  It was where he heard it and its ferocity that stopped him in his tracks, his spine suddenly rigid with a hard cold that seemed like an instant paralysis.  He wanted to move.  He wanted to move fast, to turn and run back to his farm as fast as he could, but his mind was so confused it wouldn’t allow any decision or action.  He pictured Sera at home.

She must be awake by now, making eggs and waiting for her roses.  What am I doing here?

A woman’s screams vibrated in his ears.  There was a pattern to her voice, and it paralleled the pattern of the crashing sound against an interior wall of the shed.  Webb saw a side wall shudder violently as something or someone slammed against it again and again.   He heard other sounds too, like heavy tools hitting the floor and large pieces of gardening equipment rolling around and knocking against each other and the doors of the shed.  He wanted to open the door of the shed, to save her, to make it stop, but he was frightened and not even entirely sure it was her or what was happening inside the building. Whatever it was, it was bad.

He heard a few more tools fall over, and that’s when he found his legs.

He was across Ella’s acres and back on his own in a third of the time it had taken him to get to her house.  He ran up the stairs to the porch and straight into the house.  Sera must be up, the door was wide open.  He tried to stop his heart from beating through the walls of his chest, but he couldn’t calm down.  He heard Ella’s voice screaming in his head, the pick axe and shovels falling off their hooks, the creak of the shed itself as it groaned against the weight of whatever assaulted its walls.

Sera, Sera, Sera………….where is my wife?  Why did I ever leave her, ever, for one minute?  I said never again.  I lost the roses.  Should I call Ella, the police?

He had no idea what to do next.  He walked through the dining room to the kitchen where he hoped Sera would be.

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (4)

(Part 4 – go back to read Parts 1-3 to catch up with the story.)

The darkness ate people alive, all the while numbing them to the consumption.  Children starved to death while their parents got so high and disconnected that they forgot to feed their offspring.  Sometimes Webb thought the dead children were the lucky ones.

You just make it yourself with stuff from around town.  It’s so cheap it’s crazy.  I feel like a god.  I’m never stopping.  You have to try it.

The county couldn’t keep enough social workers on the job to respond to all of the calls about burnings and beatings and assaults of kids by their own parents torn out of their skulls, an evil coursing through their veins.  In one news item, a band of children managed to escape the hell of their own home, only to run to the neighbor’s house for protection and find all of the adults there dead.  The corpses were thin with mouths full of black teeth and fingers charred from fire damage.  The children were all in the county’s custody now, eligible and waiting for adoptions that would never come.  In their hollow eyes one could see they would live forever in a house they could never flee.

I can’t tell Sera these stories.

He felt the stabbing pain of fear as he thought of what might happen if his wife were aware of the deadly plague that seemed to circle ever closer to the center of their world on the farm.  He was sure she knew something about what was going on, but she chose not to engage it.  He chose not to tell her everything he knew.  It just seemed unkind and unnecessary.

The kitchen clock said 9:00 a.m.  He left Sera a note at the foot of the stairs.   He pocketed a pair of sharp anvil pruners and slipped back out the screen door, careful to lock the latch on the wooden door behind him.

It’s unlikely out here.  Still, who wants uninvited guests with your wife home alone?