Clowder

Clowder

clowder-finished

The sound woke her from a nap. She lay curled on back of the living room couch where a pillow had been placed so she could look out the window while basking in the sun. But there was rarely sun in this new place, and the view now was of the soggy, leaf-strewn backyard bounded by a high, wood fence: beyond that, the edge of a mist-shrouded woods festooned with damp, gray moss.

She listened, one ear cocked forward, one sideways, trying to locate the source of the sound. There it was again: definitely not in the house, or from one of the neighbors on either side. It nudged the hairs inside her ears: thin, stretched over distance so that only the teasing edges of it reached her. It seemed a little like crying, or music.

She was still getting used to the scents and sounds of their new home. No more rumbling trains at regular intervals, no tires whining on asphalt, no constant hum of spiderwebbed power lines overhead. No roaches scuffling under the stove or rats softly gnawing inside the walls at night. It had used to drive her crazy, looking out the high apartment window from the carpet-covered tower. From that perch, she’d kept watch on everything happening in the street below- the small, bug-like movements, begging to be stalked. But she was not allowed out. They had bought her toys: cloth and paper made to look like mice or spiders. She tried, for their sake: batting them around, purposefully losing them in shadowy places beneath the entertainment system where they could not easily be retrieved. Then, a few weeks ago, a shift. Anxiety and excitement. Boxes were filled with crumpled newspaper. She had hidden inside them, leaping out at unsuspecting arms and legs. They had laughed and stroked her, making  sounds that meant amusement mixed with annoyance. Then there had been a long ride in a car: she had lounged in the back window above the speakers, watching a grey road unwind behind them like a snake carrying them away from the jagged skyline.

She stretched and leapt down to the rug, angling through the kitchen. She held her breath and shoved quickly through the swinging flap in the door, accelerating in time to keep it from pinching her tail as she exited. The cool, humid air, expanding around her in every direction made her shiver. Outside. She padded across the soft, damp leaves, the air so rich it made her lose track of why she had come out. The sound reached her a third time, closer now… not crying… not music… voices? Clenching her muscles, she sprung to the top of the wood fence, balanced as it leaned a little with her weight, then down again onto the yielding moss. The sound grew thicker, more distinct: not humans, not dogs. Her skin pulled tight against her skull and between her shoulders, fur spiked, whiskers vibrating. These were the voices of no animal she knew.

As she reached a clearing in the woods, the sound stopped. She paused, tail lashing back and forth. She sniffed the foot of a tree, the gravel, some clumps of wet grass. Something watched her from a house at the center of the clearing. She took her time, letting it see her move, her strong muscles, her sleek fur. She rubbed her jaw and face on a rock, then on a fallen log, leaving her scent, taking with her a tangled odor that made her lower jaw shudder. A living thing had left this scent, a strong, powerful thing. Was it the thing watching her now? She meandered closer until she stood outside a door. Rotted wood. Mouse nests. The click and crunch of beetles. There were no people inside, had been none for a long time. The sound came again, rising and falling like water tumbling from a faucet, but warm, like blood. The lower part of the door was eaten away. She slid through.

On the other side, silence. A silence full of listening. Every part of her aimed into the dim space ahead, listening back. The room was large and high. A stairway rose on one side to the second floor. Directly across from her the vertical lines of a tall, square piece of furniture, and above it a line of severed animal heads hung on the wall. The smell of their fur was thick with dust. Their eyes shone in the gray light, but with a false life. Things that resembled tree branches spread from the tops of their heads. They stared down at her, unbreathing, bloodless. Something white appeared across the room, low to the floor, gliding slowly toward her. She was about to break and dart back  through the hole in the door when she heard the welcoming sound: low, warm, alive. The animal came closer, touched its nose to hers, sat and began washing itself. All around the room, pieces of the shadows began to move, came toward her, making small sounds. The powerful scent surrounded her. She flopped on her side and scraped her body against the floorboards, rolling with ecstasy.

***

She woke when the moon appeared through a hole in the roof. She hunted in the dark with the others. She had grown thinner, her fur dirty. A scar crossed her nose and one eye where her prey had wounded her before the killing bite. Once, she had heard them looking for her, their voices carrying through the trees. They called over and over, the sound they had made for her, a sound that had never been her name. Soon after, they had come to the house, calling, calling. She hunkered under the floorboards as they crossed overhead, shining their flashlights into closets and cupboards. She heard the distress in their noises, with it came memories: the soft couch, their warm, caressing hands, their love. Near her, in the dark, the others crouched, the heat of their bodies, their green, flaming eyes. When the people had gone, they emerged together, stretching, washing, getting ready for the night.

Exodus

Exodus

Exodus

He was late for work. He made the right-hand turn while looking left and drove directly into the bison. In the fractional moment before his deploying airbag filled his field of vision, he made eye contact with the animal.

The animal slowly wheeled and faced oncoming traffic on Lincoln. With a sound like cinderblocks clattering on asphalt, the other eight members of the herd trotted up the small slope from Chain of Lakes and joined him, aligned themselves in a kind of phalanx pointed east. Together, they began to jog, and then eased into a gentle canter.

At Sunset, they encountered their first traffic. The first sedan did not slow or even stop, but slipped narrowly between two of the massive animals like a silvery fish. The next clump of cars was not so lucky. They swerved and skidded. Two collided and drove off the road into a pole. The third spun in a slow, graceful curve to the shoulder where it teetered on two wheels and then rolled over like a stunned tortoise among the trees on the edge of the park.

It went like this for just over a mile. The animals were eloquent in their movements, sure in their purpose. Their massive bodies rippled with the impact of hooves. Their nostrils stretched and expanded. They snorted as they ran, blowing mucus behind them into the wind.

Around 21st Avenue the first dog appeared. It was a black Laborador retriever. It stood on the sidewalk outside an apartment building with its body in the shape of an arrow. The hair along its spine stood up. It quivered. When the bison passed, the dog stepped into the road, staring after them. A human voice called out a name… the dog recognized it. It looked toward the voice, then back at the retreating animals, and tore off after them.

The light was with them at 19th Avenue, though a packed 71 bus, which had just pulled into the stop, was forced to brake hard, and several people fell into other people’s laps. Most of the rest were looking at cell phones. The bus driver swore under her breath, staring in her side mirror at the retreating animals.

By the time the herd reached Stanyan, it had swelled to nine bison, thirty dogs, and a man on a bike.  #bison was trending, a silent, exhilarated hysteria began its tsunami crash, felling websites and servers. Raccoons, possums, and rats poured from the storm drains along Oak Street, joining the swelling ranks of animals. Traffic quickly snarled. People in the panhandle froze, or ran, or climbed trees. Some, after a few moments of deliberation, ran after the animals, tossing their backpacks and purses down on the grass.

The news helicopter caught up with them at Octavia. The bison swung right at the light and crossed Market onto the 80 East toward the Bay Bridge. The broadcast showed a line of large, brown animals at the front, galloping now. Behind them was a mélange of colors: dogs in sweaters dragging leashes, cats scurrying beneath tires and leaving pawprints across windshields. A massive grey cloud, like the herd’s shadow, trailed just behind: thousands upon thousands of pigeons.

Between molecules of air, the waves that carried the news #coyotes-downtown #Los Angeles, #whitetigers-loose-MGMGrand #Las Vegas, #ostriches-nimitzfwy #SanDiego, grew denser and steeper and slower until they stood motionless, high and invisible.

an author’s dream come true: a generous, thoughtful review of small, fierce things

an author’s dream come true: a generous, thoughtful review of small, fierce things

A review of small, fierce things by Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org
A review of small, fierce things by Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org

This morning, my colleague, publisher, and fellow scribbler Jason Buchholz emailed me to ask if I had seen the review of my recent book of flash fiction, small, fierce things in Mary: a Journal of New Writing.

I had not.

As the writers out there know, and most readers probably don’t, the publishing world is not what the shelves at Barnes and Noble might imply. If you are not a Stephen King or a JK Rowling, (which 99.9999999999999% of us are not) finding a publisher for your book is not the domino that sets the rest in motion: it is only the first step. The next is a lonely, shameless, and grueling campaign of self-promotion and self-marketing through any and all means, such as selling your book out of your backpack, bringing your book to local shops to see if they are willing to sell on commission, posting relentlessly into the general cacophony of social media, begging your former teachers to consider teaching the book, inviting yourself to open mics and readings, and hoping your family, friends, and people from your writer’s group are not the only people who read it. In my case, I had the help of Achiote Press and my colleague Jason, who showed up at my readings, blasted his own social media to promote my work, and as this post shows, was out there looking for reviews of my book in his spare time (when he isn’t working full time, raising a child, co-running his small press, and writing his own novels.)

How does one get reviewed if you are a small, fierce mouse and not a large, visible elephant? You beg. You send out email queries and never hear back. You mail out free review copies to anyone who will take one, and then pass out after holding your breath for a few months waiting to hear back (while sheepishly googling your book title to confirm that no one has reviewed it.)

Then you give up.

And then, if you are really really lucky, a kind soul not only reads it, but reads it closely, and writes their observations down, and publishes it. In my case, that kind, generous, thoughtful reviewer is Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org.

I don’t know Andrew, but I would like to say this: writing book reviews for small presses is the literary equivalent of volunteering to get up and sing your heart out to an invisible crowd who may or may not be there, and who may or may not be paying attention. Most reviewers of fiction are not paid for what they do… except in review copies, a very small per-review stipend ($25-$50 if you write for say, Publisher’s Weekly) and the author’s undying gratitude (even negative reviews sell books). Book reviewers, in my opinion, work harder than the authors themselves… putting their craft and art into a piece of writing about someone else’s piece of writing. They are the (mostly) unsung heroes of the publishing world. Those who do have high visibility, like NPR’s Maureen Corrigan, give solid but eventually predictable and repetitively-styled reviews as bookends (yup) to Terry Gross’ show Fresh Air. If you are everyone else, you are competing to be read by an audience terminally distracted by the sheer white noise of the net. And don’t get me started on the reviewers who treat reviewing as an exercise in cynical showboating.

So, if you’ve read this far, please doff your hat to those book reviewers out there who do this work as a labor of love, a masochistic reflex, an unspeakable kindness, or whatever it is that makes them kind enough and crazy enough to donate their precious mental resources in this act of service. Andrew Hamilton, and maryjournal.org, thank you. 

The Final Strand

The Final Strand

sleep until the starlings come

She learned to weave a nest by watching her parents. It was a skill and a language, a music she could not describe except by building it around herself from strands of hair and fluff and old strips of cloth.

Her parents assured her there was nothing she couldn’t achieve if she worked hard enough. That is why we are here, they told her. That is why we live in this place, where anyone can have a nest as long as they are willing to work hard, and to keep weaving. But be careful not to weave too well, they warned. When the nest is perfect, go back and pull out the final strand: keep it and it will keep you safe.

Truthfully, the nests she saw around her neighborhood tended to be scruffy and unkempt, certainly not in any danger of being perfect. Some were chewed in places by rats, and became mildewy from the fog. This was not so much the fault of the weavers, but of the low piece of ground they lived on. Her mother and father would never have said so, but like most children, she learned the hard things by overhearing them. Watching a well-dressed couple moving quickly down her street, she caught their conversation: Who would want to live here?  one said. The poor don’t choose, the other answered.

Though she understood the truth of this, she was also unconvinced it was the end of the matter. It seemed to her, watching the mud flow down the gutters carrying gum wrappers and plastic bags, that all of this state of collapse needed was a bit of care, and a weaver that did not leave strands out.

Over time, she came to understand that things were more complicated than she had observed as a child. Life was not simple, like a TV show where everything ties up neatly in the end. People had to eat and pay parking tickets: some went hungry or went to jail, and some, despite working as hard as they could, never got ahead. Some wove the most beautiful nests she had ever seen, then took them apart again for the sheer satisfaction of having some ounce of control.

Like her parents had taught her, she worked hard, and became no more special than the next person. But she did not want to be special: all that really mattered to her was the weaving. And so she built nests. At first, they were overwrought snarls that leaned at odd angles and made people feel awkward.  Later, she experimented with slick nests made of folded junk mail. Then she spent her days building sturdy, functional nests to make a living, and her nights spinning gothic castles and flying buttresses into nests as high as the ceiling. When it no longer mattered if she failed or succeeded, she made the best nests of all: of cigarette butts and cotton candy that turned to mush in the rain; of live spiders and dust bunnies; of leaves and kelp washed up in storms.

When her parents died, she took over their nest, and began giving those she built away: warm nests for those who were old and infirm. Treehouse nests for the kids in the park. Nests that connected distant buildings so no one would have to wait for the bus. She kept on and on, and by the time she was nearly an old woman she had filled her once dirty, once poor neighborhood with objects of beauty: a nest made of sea glass and damselfly wings. A nest of steel cable and hemp rope in the shape of a ship. Nests that chimed and played music in the wind. Nests filled with books that gave off the scent of cedar and cinnamon. She did not pull strands. She did not keep anything. She trusted the work to hold.

One morning, she watched a well-dressed couple stroll slowly down her street, writing down house numbers and taking pictures with their cell phones. They stopped in front of her building and gazed up at her nest, though they could not see her looking back. This is such a charming neighborhood, one said. How much do you think these places are worth? said the other.

small, fierce things are here!

small, fierce things are here!

I am so proud and grateful to Achiote Press for making this book something I could hold in my hand. It began in 2013 when I sailed the arctic circle with a group of artists and came back empty… or I thought I was empty. For months I couldn’t write. Then osmall, fierce thingsne day I saw an image in my head. I hadn’t done any drawing for years, but I felt compelled to do something, anything, since the words weren’t coming. And then something happened: once the image was on the page, it began to tell me a story. I wrote the story down. Another image came… and so on until there were twelve drawings and twelve stories. As many of you know, I then created a hand-made book, bound with fishing line I found snarled on the arctic beaches. That version sold out, but the small, fierce things weren’t done with me. In the following months, the images continued to present themselves to me on my long walks, on the bus, in meetings, in my sleep, and I kept getting them onto paper, and each image had its story. Eventually, there were twice as many small, fierce things, and with the help of a wonderful publisher, they are now here in book form for everyone. I hope they burrow, claw, sneak, or steal into your heart and head the way they did into mine. I hope they remind you of what it is to be restless and curious and hopeful.