“I Spy,” With My Little Ears…

This past week, I’ve thought a lot about the issue of  voice. The ways in which we speak: the accents and volume and pitch, the timbre and lilt  of our voices, what we choose to say, the expressions we use…all tell people a lot about us.

I “buy” a lot of free books for my Kindle, many of them written by new authors. Sometimes one of these writers creates natural and distinct voices for his or her characters. But the characters created by a majority of the authors have practically interchangeable voices. Creating unique voices is a skill that I am struggling to learn, myself.

For me, Barbara Kingsolver is a master of character and voice. I don’t need to see the attribution to know who is speaking in one of her novels. Whether characters are in dialogue or narrating, their voices are distinctive. Some examples, from The Poisonwood Bible:

“Before the great adventure is all over, Father expects  his children to eat rhinoceros, I suppose. Antelope is more or less our daily bread. They started bringing us that the very first week. Even, once, a monkey. Mama Tataba would haggle with the women at the door, and finally turn to us with her scrawny arms raised up like a boxing champ, holding up  our dinner. Jeez oh man, tell me when it’s over! Then she’d stomp out to the kitchen hut and build such a huge fire in the iron stove you’d think she was Cape Carniveral launching a rocket ship. She is handy at cooking anything living or dead, but heaven be praised, Mother rejected the monkey, with its little dead grin. She told Mama Tataba we could get by on things that looked less like kinfolk.”

*****

“The children are named  Tumba, Bangwa, Mazuzi, Nsimba, and those things. One of them comes in our yard the most and I don’t know his name at all. He’s near about big, like my sisters, but doesn’t wear a thing on God’s green earth but an old gray shirt without any buttons and baggy gray underpants. He has a big old round belly with his belly button sticking out like a black marble. I can tell it’s him because of the shirt and underpants, not because of the belly button. They all have those. I thought they were all fat, but Father said no. They’re hungry as can  be, and don’t get their vitamins. And still God makes them look fat. I reckon that’s what they get for being the Tribes of Ham.”

*****

“Late in the fall, the milky green bushes surrounding every house and path suddenly revealed themselves as poinsettias. They bloomed their heads off and Christmas rang out in the sticky heat, as surprising as if “Hark the Herald Angels” were to come on your radio in July. Oh, it’s a heavenly paradise in the Congo and  sometimes I want to live here forever. I  could climb up trees just like the boys to hunt guavas and eat them till the juice runs  down and stains my shirt, forever.”

*****

“Oh, that river of wishes, the slippery crocodile dream of it, how it might have carried my body down through all the glittering sandbars to the sea. The hardest work of every day was deciding, once again, to stay with my family. They never even knew. When I pried open the lock meant to keep the beasts and curious children out of our kitchen hut, I nearly had to  lock it again behind me, to keep myself in. The gloom, the humidity, the permanent sour breath of the rainy season all bore down on me like a bothersome lover. The fresh stench of night soil in the bushes. And our own latrine, which was only one step removed.”

*****

“In following Methuselah on his slow forays through the forest, I discovered the boys and men practicing drills. This was not the Belgian Army, official conscripted protectors of white people, but a group of young men who held secret meetings in the woods behind our house. I learned that Anatole is more than a teacher of schoolboys and translator of sermons. Ah Anatole, the lot an aha!”

*****

“Brother Anatole, I fail to see how the church can mean anything but joy, for the few here who choose Christi-an-ity over ignorance and darkness!”

*****

The speakers here are, in turn, Rachel, Ruth May, Leah, Orleanna (the mother), Adah, and Nathan (the father/pastor).

Rachel is distinctive in her preoccupation with appearances and her shallow mindset, particular expressions like “jeez oh man” and “charmed, I’m sure,” as well as in her amusing twists of vocabulary  (malapropisms such as “Cape Carniveral”). Though there’s much to dislike  in her character, she is observant of conversations and details, as well as being colorful and entertaining.

Ruth May is also a sharp observer with a child’s-eye description of what she is seeing, based partly on her innocent and sometime comical understanding of what’s been explained to her; she is open to all that she experiences, and tells it as she sees it, with no judgement or agenda.

Leah is enthusiastic, often taken by the beauty of the world around her; she is also open to experience and learning about the place she resides – a young woman who truly blooms where she is planted. Her growth in Africa begins as she loses her innocence and begins to question her father’s judgement. She often reminds me of the Greek/Roman goddesses, Artemis and Diana.

Orleanna often speaks poetically in narrative, and with a more mature version of local southern color when she is in dialogue. She walks a thin line in speaking with or in front of her husband – she reads, she’s intelligent and is concerned for her family’s situation, which often puts her in disagreement with her husband; yet, she lives in a world in which she’s supposed to cleave to her husband, and her situation is especially restrained since she’s married to an a narrow-minded Baptist preacher who tends toward angry, sometimes violent outbursts when anyone disagrees with him.

Adah, Leah’s twin, is intellectual, somewhat bitter and frequently mocking – especially of herself and her handicap, hemiplegia; for much of the book she does not speak out loud, but watches and listens and narrates her thoughts. She refers to Nathan as “Our Father.” Her most telling “verbal” characteristic is her habit of “saying” words and phrases backwards. As she matures in the latter part of the book, her tone is no longer bitter or mocking, though she retains her intellectualism, honesty, and some degree of cynicism.

Nathan speaks in terms of moralistic pronouncements, and does not believe that he has anything to learn; he is in Africa to teach from his point of view, and his refusal to adjust his ideas despite their clear inability to jive with the world in which he’s now enmeshed, leads to his slow unraveling.

True, guilt-ridden confession: when my youngest daughter was in grade school and wanted a bedtime story to help her fall asleep, I often read to her from The Poisonwood Bible, because I loved the language, and especially enjoyed “doing” the voices of the various characters. Being a grown-up book and not necessarily her choice, it did the trick of putting her to sleep quickly so that I could get on with my  own agenda for the night (and to my relief, despite my lazy habit of reading what I enjoyed and knew would get Gena to sleep, she has in adulthood become a Barbara Kingsolver fan herself).

**************

Since I want to learn to create character voice with something approaching Kingsolver’s skill, I’m setting myself an exercise for this week, and you’re invited to join me in the game. As you go through your week, listen closely to people. You might take yourself to a park or a coffee shop, and just sit, sip your drink, and listen. Play spy. Jot down what one or two specific people are saying, note their accents and inflections, their peculiar turns of phrases, the laughs they intersperse between sentences. Choose one of these people (if you listened to more than one). What can you tell about this person from just listening to the way he/she talks?

Create a character based on your  observations of his/her voice. What tale does this character, with this unique voice, have to tell? Use your character in a story, or as narrator for a poem.

Post your piece of writing to your blog or in a Facebook note, and share your link in a comment here by Saturday evening. I look forward to “hearing” from the unique voices we all find, and characters we create this week!

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Inspired By This Week’s Prompt: “Curfew”

Have you raised a teenager? Been one? Try to smother passion of any kind…just try.

Curfew*

Put a lid on it.

Suffocate the flame,

stopper the heat  coursing through tender

loins. It’s a slow burn, now,

a low growl,

tiny howl seeping through cracks,

twisting and bending

away from the hearth

you guard.

It won’t set fire to your straw house

tonight. But approached too soon, the lid blisters your fingers back.

It chills your touch come morning. And night after night,

the scent of curled ache whimpers,

lingers and

darkens your walls,

cumulative.

 

*originally, a fire-cover, covering of fires, time for putting out fires (Skeat, Rev. Walter W., Litt.D;, LL.D., D.C.L., Ph.D., A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Capricorn Books, 1963.)

 

Now, where’s YOUR response to this week’s prompt? Post a link in the comment section to connect us with your creation…

Fire! Inspired by Wine and Words…

After spending three exhilarating days laughing , shopping and wine-“tasting” with my sister and her children during their recent visit (note to Ray: your pre-schoolers did NOT participate in the wine-imbibing activity), I am slowly getting back to business. I also managed to sprain my ankle at some point just before or shortly after their arrival – not sure how. I think that it was while housecleaning, but I could be making that up since a natural preventive measure would be…don’t clean the house. And because I know what you’re all thinking, I’m positive that it happened PRE-wine consumption.

Anyhow, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few days with my foot propped up and iced down (at least, when I haven’t been hobbling around on crutches during a shopping excursion, or headed to the kitchen for another glass of vino). It’s given me an excuse to do a lot of reading – not that I’ve ever needed an excuse. I’ve just finished  reading BEA Buzz Books: Excerpts from over 30 Top Fall 2012 Titles, and so my “to read” list has grown to a length that will make my husband cover his eyes and moan if he ever sees it. I’ll review some of those books as I read them, but for now suffice it to say that I’m especially excited about reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (which was already on my to-read list, as is every Kingsolver book the moment I hear of it); Dennis Lehane’s Live By Night, Bill Roorbach’s Life Among Giants and Hanna Pylvainen’s We Sinners.  Note that these are all planned as FALL releases, so don’t expect to read any of these books in its entirety just yet…but you might check out the BEA Buzz Books title noted above (free as an e-book – link is for the Amazon Kindle), and get those first sweet nibbles, as I did. And you CAN pre-order them through Amazon.

Speaking of nibbling…a non-fiction fall release that served up a lengthy excerpt among the Buzz Books was Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. The excerpt details the history of “Fire” – how we’ve used heat to cook our food. Given my addiction to etymology, I was especially taken by Wilson’s explanation of the origins of the words “fireplace,” (from the Latin word “focus”) and “curfew” (originally “a large metal cover placed over the embers at night to contain the fire while people slept.”) I compared those word histories to the ways in which we use those terms today and wondered how I might incorporate the comparisons in poems or stories.

I find myself playing these sorts of games a lot: looking a word up in an etymological dictionary, and perhaps some words that sound as though they might be related, and playing with those relationships in my head.

So if you’d like to play along with me this week, try this: pick a few of your favorite words, and look them up in an etymological dictionary. Here’s an on-line source: http://www.etymonline.com/ .  You DO have a few favorite words, don’t you? If not, just pick a letter, and a number between 1 and 100; go to that letter in your dictionary, and count words until you get to your number. If it’s a dud (sometimes the origin is obvious and not very interesting), try again until  you find a word origin that causes your mind to begin sparking. Use this to ignite a story, poem or non-fiction piece.

If you start wondering about relationships with other words, look those up, too. Even if they don’t seem to have common origins, consider using a comparison to spark a piece of writing, anyhow.

Post your writing to your blog or as a note on your FB page and provide the link in a comment here. And participate further by reading AT LEAST the piece BEFORE and AFTER yours (the first if there’s no one after you…the last if there’s no one before you), and comment. If you don’t have anything useful to say, move on  to the next response to the prompt and comment on that. Remember the rules as outlined in my previous post…be kind in your comments. Let’s plan to post and link our responses to the prompt by Sunday morning, and to make our comments by Tuesday morning.

Right in Front of Your Nose

When my oldest daughter was in 6th grade, I taught creative writing to her class. This was my volunteer project for the school year. One day, I asked the students to spend some time outdoors over the next couple of days choosing objects they could compare to something else, creating metaphors or similes, and then use one of these in a writing project. I fully intended to do the exercise along with them…but somehow, it didn’t happen. With half an hour to go before the class was to start, I found myself in a school study room staring back and forth between a blank, white wall, and a blank, white sheet of paper, trying to come up with a metaphor-laden poem.

And I did – by just looking at what was right in front of my nose. The poem was later published in Cicada for Teens (under my then-pen name, B. Jeppersen Neff), and they paid me real money for it. Here it is:

 

Genesis
 
My paper was
       a field
of trackless snow.
It told no story
       of fox chasing rabbits
       or of birds
          pecking desolately
for scant winter food.
       but I wrote and
          spring burst through and
             my field is a cornucopia
              filled with color
                  and wild intrigue.

*****************

For all you writers out there, and anyone else who would like to play: each Tuesday from here on, in addition to anything else I might post for that day, I’ll provide a writing prompt. I’ve spent many years reading books on writing, and have a mini-library of them. Some of  those are prompt books. And, my writer friends have exposed me to some of the prompts they use to trick their brains into creativity. Some of the blogs out there in the blogosphere have exposed me to still more. And I have a few of my own ideas….

You can use the prompts to write in any form you prefer – fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction –  and any genre. Post the products of your efforts to your blog, or if you don’t have a blog, to a note on your Facebook page. Then provide the link in a comment here. I’d like to see everyone commit to reading AT LEAST the link in the comment before theirs – and if you’re the first, read the link in the LAST comment posted. At least. If you don’t have a comment to make on that piece of writing, read on until you’ve read one that “resonates” with you, and on which you can write a comment. This way, everyone at least gets a reading, and many people get written comments.

A modified form of the golden rule applies here: MOST of us aren’t masochistic, and would not want others to be cruel to us, so be kind. And this is not a “you’ve gotta be cruel to be kind” situation, believe me. Sweet and sour together works (if the sour is mixed in gently), but writers’ hearts are broken very easily, so if you can’t say NOTHIN’ nice, don’t say anything at all. Please. And yes, I realize that this paragraph contains an incredible mix of pop-culture references.

Further, since this is a “kindness rules” sort of game, you don’t have to be a “Writer,” capital W, to play. Even if you normally just consider yourself a “reader,” please contribute your own writing as you see fit, read responses to the prompts, and comment on  those.

I’ll post my response to the prompt by Friday, also. And if there are a lot of responses to this prompt, I’ll read at least a random sample and like you, comment on any that resonate with me.

***************

You’ve already had some foreshadowing of your prompt for today:

Close your eyes. Spin around so that you’re facing the opposite direction from your computer. Open your eyes. What’s right in front of your nose?

Create a metaphor/simile based on what you see. Create a poem or piece of prose around this.

Because this is a very busy week for me – my sister and her little ones are coming to visit tomorrow through Saturday, and I want to spend my time with them, not on the  computer – the poem above is my “response” for this week. I know, I’m cheating. I’ll start being original with my responses next week!

Removing the Rust

This is the second of the stories I wrote for the “story-a-day” challenge last month. I didn’t keep up with the challenge; however, it did start the process of unlocking my rusty imagination.

“Flawless” is too long to be classified as “flash fiction.” But this time, it IS entirely fictional.

Flawless

She’s still flawless. Even in the dark, sneaking a sideways glance as his hands clutch the steering wheel, even though her hair is stuffed up under a hat, he can see that. A silky golden stream trails down her neck, overflowing its hive. She even smells like honey. Her dark eyes are huge and unmoving.

“So where’s your husband?” Simon asks.

“He’s sleeping,” she answers. “At my Grandpa’s old cabin. Remember that place?”

“I didn’t think anyone was using it anymore,” he says. “Except for maybe some teenage partiers.”

“Someone bought it after Grandpa died, used it as a fishing cabin I guess,” she says, “and then they just let it fall apart. But Keith and I hiked out there today so that I could show him the lake, and he had a lot to drink. He’s sleeping it off in the cabin, or what’s left of it. So I trekked back to my car and called you from the visitor’s center pay phone. My cell wouldn’t work by the lake.”

Simon had been shocked to get her call tonight. After all these years. “Do you have children?” he asks.

“A daughter,” Kristy tells him. “Tara. She’s eight. She’s staying with my mother in Nashville while Keith and I take our own trip. He’s lived his whole life on the west coast, he’s never seen the south before.”

They reach the site at midnight. A breeze shudders the meadow grasses. There’s the speckled boulder stark in the full moonlight, and then the trees begin. A vine hangs tangled in a dying cypress, and there he pulls over and stops the car.

“I didn’t remember the way anymore,” Kristina says. He’s surprised by that, but then he isn’t. She’d always had an unerring sense of direction back then, but they’d been to this spot together only once, 25 years ago, and she’d been traumatized when they fled. “Thanks for bringing me.” Simon nods.

He remembers the meadow from the summer they were twelve, how she’d taught him to suck the nectar from clover flowers, their picnic on the boulder under the moonlight, the pale down on her tanned arms, her honey-hued braids and sweet lips and shy breath as they lay hidden behind the giant rock. He remembers her rapid pulse when the motorcycle swooped into the meadow and the men argued, his own fear nearly stopping his heart. He wonders about her memories.

Kristina waits in the car while he removes a collapsible shovel and flashlights from the trunk, then she gets out and follows him. There’s no trail, but he’s memorized the pattern of trees and shrubs that grow along the route. In ten minutes they’ve found the cemetery. “God’s Garden,” it was once called.

“Did you ever tell your parents?” he asks.

“No,” she says. “And they were off in their own world, anyhow. California-bound that week and nothing was going to stop them. Not my little problems, that’s for sure.”

“It was more than just a ‘little problem,’ Kristy,” he says.

“Compared to becoming a Hollywood star?” she says. “Everything else was minute, believe me.”

“And how did that work out for your Mom?” he asks, knowing that he’d never seen Elaine in a film.

“A few commercials,” Kristy says. “Dad painted houses. Then Mom decided to give Nashville a try. She didn’t make out too well there, either.”

The stone wall surrounding the old cemetery has crumbled further. But rosebushes are in late bloom around the perimeter, their petals falling and drifting in the breeze. Mounds of coneflower shadow the graves. He can see that Kristy is startled. And in the corner of the graveyard where they’ve halted, there’s an intact headstone that hadn’t been there when they were twelve.

“It was just me,” Simon tells her. “I fixed things up…I don’t know…to honor Geoffrey, I guess. The victim.  It was a hate crime, you know.”

“What?” she asks. Confusion swarms her eyes.

“It was in the newspapers when the smaller guy, Geoffrey Thompson, went missing. He was just twenty. He and some friends were on an adventure trip, white-water rafting, and they went to a bar afterward. He was flirting with some big guy with a beard, his friends said, and took off on a motorcycle with the bearded man and never came back. You were off to California by the time it hit the papers.

“When that…that bastard pushed me down, he said that finally he’d found some real tail,” Kristina tells Simon. “That the fucking homos didn’t know what they were missing.”

“Yeah, you told me afterward,” says Simon. It was the only thing she’d said to him. She hadn’t needed to tell him anymore, because after the bearded man had shot Geoffrey and carried him into the woods, after Kristina and Simon had argued about what they should do, after Kristy had crept into the woods to see how the murderer would hide the body, Simon had decided that he couldn’t just ride off to the police on his bike and leave her there. It would take too long. He was seething – he’d seen the excitement on her face and was shocked by it – but he’d finally followed her.

She breaks into his thoughts. The ferocity of her scowl makes him take a step back. “So it’s because it was a hate crime that we can call him evil? That’s what absolves us? Hell Simon, I’ve always known that he deserved to die.”

Simon nods. He’d followed her that night, seen the gaping grave holding Geoffrey’s body, seen Kristy naked and the big man on top of her. Simon hadn’t hesitated. He’d wrenched a stone from the fence and swung, hard, the weight of terror and rage behind his pounding.

He’d rolled the body off of her, then turned his head while she rose, gathered her clothes and dressed. She’d vomited when she saw the man’s head, but then helped Simon drag the body to the hole, roll it over the edge and on top of the smaller man, fill the hole and cover it with stones and fallen branches, making it look much like the rest of the cemetery.

“The headstone,” Kristy says now. “Where did that come from?”

“I carved it, about ten years ago,” Simon tells her. “It’s what I do. I’m a sculptor. I work in stone. I thought that Geoffrey needed a marker, finally. Those are his initials.” That’s all the smooth marker says,  “G.T.”, just under the carving of a sun rising over mountain peaks. No dates.

“And the flowers?” she asks. “They’re not only on…on his grave.”

Simon shrugs, embarrassed. “I kept thinking about all of these forgotten people,” he says. “No one was visiting them anymore. Or Geoffrey. If his people had buried him, they would have kept up his grave, brought flowers.” He tries to sound noncommittal, non-blaming. He’d tried to convince her that night to tell the police, that people would be looking for the men, that the victim must have folks who loved him. But she’d just kept shaking her head and crying. He’d rationalized that if he were a young girl, he might have felt the same way.

And he’d been afraid. He’d killed a man. What might happen if they went to the police? So they’d buried the bodies, walked the motorcycle a mile up the road to the nearest precipice, and pushed it over. After that they were in it too deep.

Tonight they cross the cemetery, catty-corner from the bodies they’d covered with earth 25 years before, to the fence corner where a much smaller hole conceals the murderer’s wallet. Simon hadn’t been able to summon the nerve to climb into the grave and search the pockets of the man he later learned was Geoffrey. But he’d needed to know who his own victim was, so found the man’s wallet before shoving him into the hole. The big guy’s name was Carl Stinson. Simon had been shocked at the amount of money in the billfold. Neither he nor Kristy had wanted it then. It had been on his body; it was tainted. And how could they spend it? They’d be caught.

But she apparently wants it now.

Simon unfolds the shovel and pushes the blade into the ground. It takes only a moment to reach the wallet. They’d both been hesitant to let that much money rot, so had hiked back to their picnic spot, found the jar she’d brought tea in, rinsed it out and buried the wallet in that. It’s still well-preserved.

As Kristy bends to fill the hole, her shirt rises and he sees ugly bruises across her back, welts striping her golden skin. She sees him looking and pulls the shirt down, shakes her head in warning. He doesn’t ask.

Kristina offers him half of the cash. He shakes his head. She pockets the wallet and they clamber over stones and downed branches, back to the car. He begins heading toward the picnic grounds.

“Can you take me by the cabin first?” she asks. Of course. She’ll need to retrieve her drunken husband.

He drives up the twisting roads, focusing on the switchbacks until the road straightens for a moment. When he glances to his right, her face is smooth as pale marble in the darkness, her profile regal.

“I caught hell that night, for coming in at 4:00 in the morning,” Simon tells her. “I didn’t tell them anything, not even that I’d been with you.” Kristy doesn’t respond, and he knows that no one had noticed her absence.

They arrive at the cabin and she takes a flashlight, makes her way down a short trail. She’s back in the car fifteen minutes later.

“Is he still sleeping?” Simon asks.

“Yeah, out cold. He’s not going to wake up. Drive me to my car, please?” Her car is parked at the picnic area where he’d met her that night. It’s a relatively short distance away as the crow flies.  Kristy’s sense of direction would have led her and Keith on an easy enough jaunt to the cabin. But by road the journey will take a while. She rolls down her window and stares out at the stars.

They wind their way down the mountain. Simon is focused on the sharp curves and ruts in the dirt road, and it isn’t until they’re on smooth pavement 25 minutes later that he looks into the rear-view mirror and sees flames lighting the sky far behind them, hears sirens beginning. It’s only then, when he gasps and draws in a deep breath, that he catches her new scent. Lighter fluid. His brain begins to buzz.

Simon’s voice is soft. “Keith might have gotten out of the cabin alive,” he tells Kristina.

“No,” she says. “He’s really knocked out. Had some sleeping pills in his whiskey. And he’s drenched in the stuff.”

They drive in silence for a moment, but then Simon needs to ask. “Why didn’t you just leave him? Get a restraining order?”

She laughs and shakes her head. “Restraining orders are a joke. Last week,” she says, “he held a gun on me when I tried to call the police. He said he’d hunt me down if I left. That he’d kill our daughter, too. And he would have.”

“When you get back to your daughter, your family,” Simon asks, “what will you say happened to him?”

“That we were in Florida and he left me,” she says. “That I waited for days, but he never came back.”

“And if they find his bones?” Simon wants to know. “And lighter fluid? They can detect that stuff. They can test DNA. They’ll suspect you.”

“Why?” she says. “Keith and I are in Florida. He’s nowhere near this place. We stopped off here today and took our hike, he went fishing and got drunk like he always does, but we never checked into a hotel. There’s no paper trail placing us here. That’s a fierce fire and the trucks won’t reach it anytime soon. There won’t be any bones. Besides, there’s a wallet down the path from the cabin’s back door, at the lake. It’s by his fishing pole and whiskey bottle – I washed them – no fingerprints, no saliva. The place was torched by an old vagrant no one’s seen for 25 years: the old drunk tried to grill some fish for dinner and grilled himself instead.”

“Where will you go now?” Simon asks.

“Not California,” Kristina tells him.

“You didn’t see me,” she says when she opens the passenger door at the picnic area. “Okay?”

Simon agrees. “I never saw you. Never.”

A Stab at Flash Fiction…Sort Of

This story is based on a real-life escapade of my beloved Aunt, who passed on a few years ago – just after her new house was built. I loved the old farmhouse, and was saddened that it was beyond repair and had to be dismantled. “Skin” is fictionalized only in the sense that I don’t remember all of the details of my Aunt’s life (did she work at Sears or Montgomery Ward or was it another department store? Was the computer at Harris Bank? I didn’t record the stories, and so my mind is fuzzy about much of what she told me), and can’t really know what her thoughts were. And names have been changed. But I certainly remember her scowl as she told me, “I should have been born a boy!”

Skin

Bonnie Jepperson Vesely

It was time for the walls to come down.

Martha had moved the blue hydrangeas, the day lilies and every other bulb or shrub that could be smothered by falling debris, moved them from the farmhouse over to her Hopewell house, where she could care for them properly while the new house was being built here. When the yardwork was finished, she’d reluctantly gone indoors and begun moving out furniture, salvaging fixtures, woodwork, countertops, everything that could be pried loose. She’d made quick work of it, because she never could stand being indoors. Should have been born a boy. Her muscles were strong and wiry, hips narrow, skin in the summer as tan as any cowboy.

Long ago, she’d had a couple of indoor jobs – a bookkeeping position at Sears, then she’d worked for Harris Bank using one of the first computers, just after the war, after Max had come home and married her. Now there was a story for these youngsters, with their talk of laptops and gigabytes. That early computer had filled half the room.

But after her son was born, she’d become a stay at home mother, like all the other Moms, except not. She couldn’t abide a life of tasks done within four walls, sweeping rugs and arranging furnishings, following the fashion of throwing out and buying new every few years. Old was perfectly good, generally better. She worked in the garden, planted flowers, hounded flea markets and filled the house with piles of bargains: you never knew what might come in handy someday.

She’d raised her boy, who was labeled “slow,” though exactly what was slow about him she couldn’t tell you. Jack’s speech was a little different, like someone who was deaf, maybe, and he couldn’t keep track of his spending – she still had to watch him at the flea markets – but he could read and write well enough. Kept up with the sports scores – he especially loved Dallas, mostly because of those cheerleaders. He understood politics as well as anyone, took to driving like a moonshiner takes to whiskey. Hardest worker they had in maintenance down at the post office, everyone liked him. Mowed the grass and helped out on the farm. He was fiercely affectionate, had a gift for kindness and generosity.

“So where’s the ‘slow’ in all that?” she’d asked Max, when he complained about the boy’s shortcomings.

Now Max had died and she could only keep up with so much; she’d worn herself out caring for him in that last year. Even replaced her old wringer washer with an automatic, because washing all the bedding had got to be too hard. She couldn’t keep up with farming anymore, so now just rented out the fields. It was worth a good amount – she’d leave Jack in fine shape one of these days, had already found an honest lawyer to help him manage it. But she still had her gardens at both homes. For Saturday night dinners with her sister-in-law’s crowd, she could contribute cucumbers and tomatoes, apples and rhubarb and blackberries.

Who needed two houses, though? Like needing two bodies. One was enough to keep up with, and she liked being out here, in the quiet of the country without neighbors to worm their way into her home and goggle at the stacks of flea market bargains. The cost of bringing the farmhouse up to code and making it livable was outrageous, and there was no point in spending a big bite of Jack’s inheritance, so the Hopewell house was going on the market. She’d build a nice, new place for them here. Had hoped to do the building herself, as well as the demolition, but regulations were a maze these days; she’d need to eat her disgust and hire a contractor to do the construction come spring.

But the plants were moved and crops were in, winter was coming and it was time to begin the deconstruction. She took one last walk through the house, the root cellar and huge, sunny kitchen, the parlor and tiny bathroom and six bedrooms. She could almost picture the lives that had been lived in these rooms, the love and birthing, dinners and squabbles and sorrows and holidays and hard work – more than a hundred years’ worth – imagine that! She could feel their spirits, still here. But the spirits dwelt in the spaces, inside and out of the house, not in the walls themselves; they weren’t going anywhere. The walls were the skin, getting as crumbly and sagging as the skin she saw when she looked into a mirror. Well, her skin had housed a history too – the love and birthing, dinners and squabbles and sorrows and holidays and hard work – over almost as long a life as the house, now that she thought about it. Eighty-three this year.

And as for the bones of this house – she’d salvage as much as she could, use what was usable.

She stepped out through the splintery doorframe. “Jack,” she called. “Come on, it’s time.”

They hitched tractor to walls, and began.

Sparks Fly