Friday, October 2, 2009

Life as Fiction

When my daughter was born, I knew I didn’t want another child. When you receive perfection, where else is there to go? Also, I didn’t know if I could ever love another baby as much as I loved this little creature that had completely captivated my heart. If you’re a parent, you probably know this sentiment. We’re not supposed to have “favorites” among our children, though I suspect people do.

As I writer, I admit, I have favorites. Paddle, whom I referred to in an earlier blog, is a version of my young Iowa self launching herself from adolescence into adulthood via a long, strange journey. As a fiction writer, I’m able to take all sorts of literary license adding a dab of truth here and there embellished by plenty of creative detail.

In the following excerpt from my collection of short stories, Returning, Paddle has met and is fairly infatuated with Lucas Plum, a new age hippie goddess type who arrives in her battered VW bus at Ginny Hawk’s Blue Hawk Diner in the bayous where Paddle works. Lucas is the embodiment of the world beyond Paddle’s sheltered life. For those of you who have experienced shamanic journeying, especially if you’ve been with me at the time, you’ll recognize snippets of the experience through Paddle’s eyes.

“You staying at the Dew Drop Inn?” I asked, knowing that it was the only place in town to rent a room except for old Miz Hatcher’s place, and that’s haunted.

“Stayin’ in my bus, right out back of the diner. Ginny said I could use the facilities since I’m taking all my meals here,” she grinned. “Yes sir, nothing like rain on the roof when you’re living in a bus.”

At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to be vagabonding around the country in an old beat-up bus, pulling in to strange burgs, checking out the locals, sleeping with the sound of rain pelting overhead. Happy as an ant on a cupcake, I’d be.

“I’ve been thinking of journeying tonight, Paddle. Care to join me?” She leaned against the back of her stool and stretched out legs that seemed to go forever. Occurred to me, I didn’t know how tall she was since I left first and never saw her upright all the way.

Before I could answer, Ginny returned with the milk, set it down with a splash. A white puddle smirked up from the counter. “Leavin’ already? You just got here,” she said with a whine in her voice.

My own heart took a brief time-out.

“Not that kind of journey, Ms. Hawk. I’m talking about a shamanic journey, where you look for your spirit guide. You know, drums and all,” she said, as if we had any idea of what on earth she was talking about. “Maybe you’d like to join us?”

Lordy, I thought, and shook my head.

“Only drums we got around here are the set Pepper Frank plays over at the Moose Club for the annual Winter Wonderland Ball,” Ginny chuckled.

“Oh, I travel with my circle drum, made by a shaman down in Santa Cruz, California...special elk skin since Elk is my power animal,” Lucas said.

I was reminded of one of those tent meetings that come to town every couple of years where the Holy Spirit fills the preacher who starts talking in tongues, babbling away so you can’t understand a word he’s saying. Shamans, spirit guides, power animals...what the? I had to admit, I was more than little curious.

At ten o’clock, Ginny hung the Closed sign on the door. I straightened the chairs and swept up while she did the deposit. We turned off the lights and followed Daemon out the back door.

There was an eerie glow coming from Lucas’ old bus, and a funny smell, kind of like burning mattress. We looked at each other, then back at the bus door.

“Well, go on,” Ginny whispered and gave me a little shove, “knock or somethin’.”

“Hey, Lucas,” my voice cut through the quiet of the dark alley. “It’s Paddle and Ginny, come to journey,” I said, as if I knew what that meant. I could feel a knot in my stomach, and my armpits were starting to odor-up on me.

Lucas’ face appeared in the window, and she slid the side door open and stepped out into the night surrounded by that pungent odor.

I covered my mouth and coughed through my nose as quietly as I could. I knew Ginny was uneasy. She had a mean grip on my elbow.

“Welcome,” Lucas said, all serious. She was holding something that looked like a smoldering bunch of weeds bound with string. “First we’ll smudge, then we’ll enter,” she said, as she fanned the smoking bundle up and down, head to toe, and all around first my body then Ginny’s.

“This is sage,” she said, “to purify you, to open your consciousness up to receive the gifts of Spirit. May you be blessed.”

Ginny sneezed, and then giggled. “Bless me, indeed,” she said. I tried to look solemn for the occasion so Lucas wouldn’t think we were making fun of her.

“Come on in and find a place to stretch yourself out. There are some pillows to rest your head on,” she said.

Was this like a slumber party, I wondered? There was one candle sitting on a wooden box that cast enough light to see all the seats, except for the driver’s, had been removed. It was like a little room on wheels.

“Well, isn’t this just cute,” Ginny babbled.

A big mattress covered most of the floor. Toward the back, there was a collection of feathers, rocks, dried flowers, more candles and some pouches arranged on top of a silky scarf. Long, orange colored curtains were drawn over all the windows, and when she slid the door shut, the rest of the world just disappeared. Must be what being inside a mother’s belly was like--quiet, and soft, and warm.

Lucas was sitting propped up by several big pillows leaning against the back of the driver’s seat, a circular drum as wide as her body resting on her lap. A light colored animal skin stretched real tight covered the drum and reflected the candlelight.

“You both comfy?” Lucas tamped out the smudge bundle in a big mother-of-pearl seashell next to her, and picked up a stick with a thick padded end covered in soft leather. The candle flickered shadows that danced quietly along the curtains.

Lucas told us that she was going to keep a steady beat on her drum for a while, and we were to close our eyes and imagine finding a place in nature where we could enter the earth.

“Like a rabbit hole, or a tree stump, or maybe a pond,” she said, her voice soft and far away. And we were to imagine ourselves just letting go and falling down, down, down, farther and farther into the earth until we landed somewhere.

“What if we wind up in Hell?” Ginny said with a nervous giggle.

“You’re perfectly safe,” Lucas assured her, with what I thought was a great deal of patience. “Just listen to the drum and let it guide you.”

She finished her instructions about looking around and asking whatever we saw if it was our power animal, and when the drum beat quickened up, to bring that being back with us in the palm of our hand.

“They put people in the funny farm for things like this, don’t they,” Ginny joked.

“Ginny!” I hissed at her. Honestly, sometimes she acts so dumb, she embarrasses me.

Lucas didn’t seem to mind though. She picked up her drum and began a regular beat with her padded stick. I closed my eyes, shutting out the warm glow of the bus, and looked around behind my eyeballs for that place where I could go down into the earth. The drumbeat made my whole body feel heavy, like it was sinking.

A picture came to my mind of a tree stump I found while hiking in the timbers outside of town. Good a place as any, I figured, and I imagined myself throwing a leg over and easing down into the burned out hole. I could hear the drum, soft and regular, like an anchor so I wouldn’t get lost. I worked my way down past old roots, climbing down farther into a tunnel that just seemed to go forever. Funny, I thought, it’s light enough to see down here under the earth.

When the soles of my feet landed on soft ground, I looked around for a clue as to where I might be. Sand, warm, soft and creamy colored, spread as far as I could see. In the distance, the dunes swept up to meet a robin’s egg blue sky. Not a cloud in sight, or anything else. So quiet, all I could hear was a faint drumbeat from another land.

I squinted my eyes and scanned as far as I could for any sign of life, let alone a power animal. Getting kind of discouraged, I drug my toe through the sand leaving a lazy trail next to my foot. I looked around behind me wondering how I was going to get back, feeling kind of lonely and edgy. Turned back around to see grains of sand starting to shift and scatter, like something was trying to come up from under. I stared at that spot, watching the sand rearrange itself, not sure I wanted to see what it was...the only other living thing in this strange place.

Then the head of a snake, the size of my foot, came poking through the sand, followed by a long sleek body that just kept coming. It was about as long as two brooms handles. This was no normal snake, no indeed. It was the color of sunset, all coral and pink with slices of gold and purple wound through it. It glowed in a way that made the sand shine all round it. Two dark beady eyes turned themselves on me and a golden tongue flicked in and out, tasting for my fear.

We just stared at each other. I tried to blink, but couldn’t. Then I remembered Lucas’ words, and though I couldn’t even move my little toe, I managed to croak out, “Are you my power animal?” And please don’t kill me if you’re not, I added to myself. My throat felt as dry as the sand I was standing on.

Without breaking eye contact, the snake began a slow slither my direction and just before reaching my feet began to coil around and around on itself, making a swirling sunset in the sand. Long beams of color shot out in all directions, splashing me, and the dunes, shooting rays up into the sky.

From the center of the coil came the words, “Step into your Dessssssssstiny.” I swear that snake smiled at me.

My jaw hung open like a broken screen door. Then I heard it, the drumbeat, quickening, louder, insistent. Come back, come back, it called. How was I going to bring the sunset snake back with me in the palm of my hand? Surely, I’d die trying.

I bent my knees slowly, quietly as I could, and leaned forward, bracing myself with my left hand in the fine grainy sand, and reached real careful-like toward the snake. Swirls of color splashed over my hand and arm and up my body making me tingle.

Just as my hand touched the coiled body, there was a pouf and bright sparks of color shot every which way. Then there were only glistening embers of color, a glowing coil of ash where the snake had been.

The drumbeat was louder and more insistent now, demanding my return. I reached out and grabbed a handful of cool, colorful ash mixed with grains of fine sand.

When I turned around, the tunnel that had deposited me here reappeared. I followed it through the dim light, forward and up, finding footing on roots and rocks and dark, rich earth. Sky laced with overhanging tree branches and leaves came into view as I poked my head back up through the stump.

Just then the drumbeat stopped. I blinked and looked around me. The candlewick flickered and sputtered quietly. The smell of sage lingered in the orange glow. I heard a long, low snore coming from Ginny, stretched out, mouth open, just to my left. Lucas sat still as a goddess, a beautiful smile on her face, drum resting in her lap.

“Welcome back,” she beamed at me. “What do you have in your hand there?” she asked, nodding at my right hand, all balled up and resting on my chest.

I rolled over on my left side and pulled up to a sitting position, my right hand still curled, guarding my treasure.

“Sunset snake ash,” I said, not knowing what else to call it.

“Well, Paddle, if Snake came to you, that’s powerful medicine, all right,” she said in just above a whisper, nodding her head. Her coppery curls bobbled and dangled, and reflected the candlelight.

Then she said, “And if she left her skin, that’s a sure sign that a new beginning is on its way.” A tingle shook my body like a draft of cold air on the back of my neck.

Just then, Ginny snored, sputtered, coughed and woke herself up. She rubbed her eyes with her knuckles and rolled over on her side. Through a huge yawn, she said, “D’I miss the party?”

I swear, some people are just hopeless.

“Nope, you’re just in time,” Lucas grinned at her, as she pulled out a round chocolate cake from next to the driver’s seat, and a bottle of red wine with the cap already unscrewed.

“To the ancestors,” she said as she tossed some cake crumbs on the floor of the bus. “To the Mother of us all,” she said as she added a drizzle of wine to the crumbs on the floor. Then she passed the cake and bottle around. We each took a big hunk of cake followed by a swig of port.

“If this don’t beat all,” Ginny said, through a mouthful of chocolate.

The rain tapped out a steady rhythm on the metal roof of the bus as the bottle of port made another round, and then another. I don’t know when I’d ever felt so pleased with myself.

To read the complete story in the context of the collection, please hold a good thought that the agent in Ohio sees the value in this story and offers to find a publisher.

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