Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Never Get Distracted When There Are SNAKES on the Line!

So my oldest daughter has been a little stressed lately. And in a moment of stress she, kinda, sorta, maybe, you know, left the lid off the snake tank.

Now snakes are pretty much mindless hunting machines, but they're smart enough to know freedom when they see it.

Who'da thunk? They just lie there on the sand all day long. We only know they've moved because we come in a couple hours later and they're curled up in a different part of the tank than they were before. But leave the lid off the tank and they suddenly become all full of energy.

We discovered this because someone--my son, I think--saw something moving on the floor where something should NOT have been moving on the floor. I mean, things move on our floor a lot. We have parakeets that are semi-free to fall to the ground and waddle around on the carpet. We have a dog who is sometimes moving (about as often as the snakes) and lies on the floor a WHOLE lot. We have children who are ALWAYS moving, but not often on the floor.

As a family, on our family fun night, we spent a good hour scouring under beds, dressers, in closets, behind bookcases, for snakes.

That's just the littlest bit harrowing. Spying and reaching into dark corners looking for something that might consider your warm wiggly finger prey?

But find them we did.

Oh, and the twice bitten/regurgitated goldfish died. Poor little fella, again.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Goldfish's Demise

Snakes eat.

Not a lot, but they do eat, and they tend to prefer food that is "raw and wiggling" rather than not.

Since it's still too cool yet for a great selection of insects to be roaming the garden, we decided we'd better pick up something. Feeder goldfish are cheap--about 12 cents each for small ones--and garters, being snakes who spend much of their life near water, hunt, among other things, small fish.

So the goldfish games began.

We put a shallow dish into the snake tank, filled it with water and put the cute little goldfish in. The snakes came, they saw, they pretty much ignored the fish, while the fish spent their time repeatedly jumping out of the water onto the sand of the cage floor. So we'd pick them up and put them back while the snakes looked on.

Eventually, after one fish (we called him "Popcorn") had been put back into the dish for the dozenth time, one snake took the big leap and snatched a fish. We waited, fascinated, for him to start the 'big swallow,' but he acted as if he didn't exactly know what to do with the thing. He took it out onto the sand and dropped it, then slithered off to a faraway corner.

After a while we got bored waiting, the snakes seemed bored with us watching them, and we went on with our day. Bedtime came, still three fish in the dish. In the morning, "Popcorn" had committed suicide by, once again, leaping to his death onto the sand, and the other two fish were nowhere to be seen, unless you looked very carefully for the small bulge in the middriff of the largest of the three snakes.

Fish dinner.

This week we bought fresh fish--a week's supply of six--and put three in the dish. Big snake (their names are Porthos, Athos, and Aramis), Athos, promptly consumed his share AND Porthos'. Aramis took a fish down. Poor Porthos had none!

Attempt two--isolate Porthos and show him a fish. He performed beautifully, but the fish was too big for him. Did you know snakes can vomit? Twice?

The fish, slightly confused and covered with snake saliva, survived the ordeal. But Porthos was still hungry.

Attempt three--the old standby, hamburger. But, like I said, snakes tend to like to eat living things--especially snakes that are caught wild. So my daughter did a very good puppet-burger impression by wiggling the meat in front of Porthos' nose.

Snake FED!!! Goldfish still lives! For now.

Monday, April 21, 2008


Today I took my kids up into the mountains for an outdoor art lesson--drawing from nature, you know?

Well, kids being kids, they spent a short amount of time actually creating art, and a lot of time looking under every rock and clump of grass within a half-mile.

Jackpot! We hit snakes.

The garter snakes are coming out of hybernation right now and we found a good sized clump of them--eight or ten. They were probably getting it on, as garters tend to do at this time of year. Nevertheless, my son took it upon himself to pick up a few, then the inevitable begging and pleading began, and we came home with three of them--one for each kid.

They are now happily housed in a tank with all the snakey necessities.

I must admit, I find snakes fascinating, and don't mind having them around. I love having them in my garden, actually, and used to pay a neighbor kid $5 a snake for every good sized gopher snake (pictured above) he could catch and relocate there. That's been some time ago now, and my home snake supply is dwindling somewhat--the neighbors don't share my enthusiasm for natural pest control, you see.

What they're finding now, if they're smart, is that snakes are very good at keeping rodent populations under control. We've had a rodent invasion in the neighborhood the past couple of years. I need more snakes out there. Heck, I need one in my house! A nice five-foot long gopher snake would be ideal.

So, for now, we have three pet snakes, and if things don't work out as beautifully as the kids are hoping, we'll have three future mousers to add to the garden.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Neverking, Part The Last

We all held our breaths as he turned the knob, every one of us, me most of all. It turned with a faint scrape and screech that we all heard as if it was a roll of thunder, and with a push from Juarez the door swung open.

Over the hammering of my heart, I heard a voice intone a Muslim prayer. Juarez shouted something in Pashto before the first burst of automatic weapons fire cracked the air wide open. Shielding ourselves with the thin walls and the doorframe, Juarez and I strafed the room, almost blind, until the shrill screams of wounded men cried out for us to pour into the room, scattering, firing, eyes wide open and darting, the adrenaline surging so fast through our veins we could feel it pulsing in our foreheads and throats and arms.

I was yelling, screaming, in English I think, for the wounded to throw their weapons down. Then I felt a hand grab me by the elbow and heard the soft voice of Juarez in my ear and for the first time smelled the sharp tang of gunpowder and the sweet brine of blood and then, only then, I began to feel the sting of the wounds in my shoulder and side.


I remember falling to my knees in that third-floor apartment. Beyond that I heard and felt and saw nothing until I woke, I didn’t know how long after. But Arthur was with me when I did. Or I was with him, in a dark room, on a lumpy bed, furs piled over my body, a single dim and smoky candle making a shadowy orange sphere that held out the darkness all around us.

“Am I dead?” I asked him.

He grinned. “Nay. I said you’d live. What good would I be if you didn’t?”

“Then, where am I?”

He looked around him, seemingly able to see beyond the circle of light that encased us. I could not.

“This is where I wait, where I live when I’m not in the world of the living. It’s in the land of my birth-—not far from the place where I died. We called it Invalayn.

“Inva..?” I struggled with the guttural tongue.

He laughed. "Invalayn. Isle of the Allan."

"The Allan? You mean the river? But that's in Scotland."

"Aye." He reached into the darkness, his hand passing through our circle of light as if it were a curtain. Then, nodding to someone he pulled his hand back into the space we shared and offered me a cup.


I moved for the first time, trying to sit up, bracing myself for the ache of a healing wound, and realized as I did that I was naked beneath the furs. Naked and without pain, and when I looked, found myself to be without a wound.

“I thought you said I wasn’t dead,” I whispered.

“Not dead. Just waiting.”

“Waiting for what?”

“Drink,” he said again, and pressed the cup into my hand.

It trembled there.

“Waiting for what?” I asked again, choking on the words as I searched his face and found nothing to reassure me.

“I imagine you must have a thousand questions for me,” he said. “Your grandfather told me you might. About Merlin, Guenevere, Lancelot. You must want to know if I ever really found the Holy Grail. Or how I managed to pull the sword from the stone. . .”

Of course I had a thousand questions. A thousand of my own and a thousand for Gramps. Apparently he had already had his opportunity. But I needed answers of another kind just now.

"Why am I here?" I asked.

He ignored me and looked away, and his voice rose in rapidity and volume. "My father's name is Aidan, you know. Aidan MacGabran. Not Uther. And my mother was a Briton--the daughter of a Roman garrison officer. I met Myrddin once, but never sought advice from him. My wife..."


Louder. "My wife, she was a daughter of Urien. She'd have been my queen had I lived long enough to..."


At last he fell silent, and those proud golden eyes stared balefully into mine.

"I just want to know why I'm here," I said.

Arthur sighed, took the cup from me and drank it himself. One long draw that left him wincing and wiping his sleeve slowly across his mouth. He sighed again.

"You're the last," he said. "And bringing you here...it's the only way I can keep my oath."

"The last?"

"Last of the sons of Medraut."

"But...that can't be. There must be hundreds... my brothers... and there must be..."

"And some of them are here with me. But the rest, I can't touch them," he said. "Not until their lives are in danger. And none of them will be until the end. But I won't be needed then, will I? My oath will be fulfilled and..."

"The end?"

"Your grandfather told you. I'm bound until the Chr—"

"The Christ—-" I choked on the words, sobbed out what few I could. "Soon?"

"Only the Christ knows the hour of His coming," he said, his voice solemn, reverent. "But soon."


"She'll see it, Josh. She'll watch it on that lightbox contraption with the rest of the world. She's a good woman. She'll be lifted up with the Saints."

"My men. I should be with them—-"

But he was shaking his head. "You can't," he whispered. "You can't. If you leave this place you'll die before it happens. Die in the fighting. And my oath—"

"Damn your oath! I release you from your oath! Let me leave!"

"Don't say that!"

"My men! You'll keep me here, in this wh-wherever it is while my men die without me? Do you take me for a coward? Do you take me for a child who needs your protection? Let me go!"

"The oath!"

"Let me go!"

Arthur stood, towering over me, the great muscles of his warrior's arms twitching. "There's nothing you can do for them, boy! They'll die in what's to come. With or without you."

I did not shrink from him, from his golden eyes, from his kingly power. But I knew him. I had always known him. I knew where his weakness lay.

"And if it were you? If it were your men? Your brothers? Could anything keep you from dying with them?"

He hung his head and sank to my bed. "No," he said.

"Let me go."

"I can't."

"Then I'll find my own way."

Grasping a handful of furs to wrap around me, I scrambled to my feet. I was going back even if it meant walking out the door into sixth century Scotland and flying across the millennia to my own time. I didn't know what I would find once I stepped through that bubble of light, but nothing would stop me from doing it.

With a grinding jaw, I took one reaching step into the blackness and fell, not into Scotland, not onto the stone floor of Camelot, but into myself, into an aching and wounded body and Juarez looking down on me, his fingers pressed to my jugular. Back into that room in Afghanistan. Into the last days of the world.


There it is.

It was an adventure to write it, but I've learned so much since then and my writing has become so much cleaner, crisper, more economical. I'm certainly proud of this story, but prouder of some of my more recent works--some of which are out in the market looking for a home as we speak.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Neverking, Part II

That night I had dinner with my parents. They must have thought I was nervous, heading off to the war with my first command. I was quiet enough, but it was my conversation with Gramps that kept running through my mind. I never told them about it. Gramps had made me promise. I'd keep his secret.

"What'll you have, Sargeant?" Dad asked with a proud grin.

I ordered a steak, I think.

I remember them talking to me, but not much of what was said. Mom kept having to call my name: "Josh? Are you listening?" And I kept having to ask her to repeat her question: "Sorry, Mom. What was that?"

She said she understood. She just kept on talking. That was Mom's way of easing her own fears--the fears she would never express in the open. But I knew they were there.

Mom was a devout woman. She read the Bible and searched it for answers to the puzzles in her life. Many times she had turned to those tissuey pages in her quest to figure out how to raise four boys in a turbulent world. She would often comment on the events in the news, relating them to the difficult to decipher clues in Revelation or Isaiah or Zechariah concerning the 'Last Days'.

And when the towers fell and our country went to war, our troops gathering so near to the Holy Land and the Mountain of Meggido, Mom knew I'd be in the middle of it.

Just two weeks after my visit with Gramps I was, stationed in a village a hundred miles or so from Kabul, sent there to root out any al-Qa'ida cells or Taliban hostiles still clinging to the old ways. Our platoon camped just on the outskirts, just as we had done at a half-dozen other such villages.

After the first few days I was convinced the place was clean. Our C.O. was ready to move on to another town, too, but we had our orders. We weren’t going anywhere for a while. I knew the men would become restless, rowdy even if we didn’t keep a tight rein on them. But the delay brought a bonus--mail from home caught up with us; stacks of letters and packages, something for almost everyone.

For me there were the usual letters from my folks, even one from my little sister, and a small box. It was addressed in my mother’s neat hand. I was hoping it was the digital camera she promised to send after mine got lost somewhere between Atlanta and Ramstein and I opened it eagerly.

But it wasn’t a camera. It was a book---The Once and Future King. A pocket copy, just the right size for a man at war. The pages were yellowed and brittle, the binding cracked, the cover stained. On the inside of the cover, in tall capital letters, was Gramps’ name: PFC DONALD S. MORGAN, 1944. There was a note too, written in dad’s all-caps hand. But I didn’t need to read it to know my grandfather was gone.

I sat there with the book between my hands. I must have been crying because I felt a dozen hands pat me on the back. But all I could see was that book.

It was Gramps.

It was Gramps and me and countless hours poring over books and maps and pictures trying to make sense out of the myth of Arthur. It was him when he was sound of mind, telling me stories of the war with that odd mix of solemnity and pride and avidness in his voice and eyes and tears. It was the reassuring strength of his hand holding mine when we crossed the street to the library. It was the smell of the things that he always kept around him--the books and scrapbooks and pictures and memories kept in cardboard boxes so worn out they were held intact more by duct tape than by their own binding--all those things that would likely be sorted through and stored away and doled out to my aunts and uncles and the fourteen other grandchildren while I was away.

And they had sent me this book. This book that Gramps hated because, as he said: "This ain't Arthur."

That night I got my men to mess then headed back to my own tent. I couldn't eat and wanted to be alone. I stayed on my cot and leafed through the book instead. It was filled with underlined passages and notations written in the margins--questions he and I had tried to answer together. Questions he had been asking himself for more years than I ever realized. I fell asleep reading those notations, staring at the loops and whorls of his pen.

In the morning I stuffed the book in a cargo pocket and led my squad into the village.

We gave the proverbial Hershey bars to the kids, though in the desert it had to be hard candy. We lugged groceries and laundry for little old ladies who rewarded us with desert-creased smiles and rapid-fire expressions of gratitude that sounded like the chatter of magpies to those still unaccustomed to the language. We looked in windows and opened doors and swept the empty buildings first down one side of the street then up the other.

I was starting to feel the weight of that book on my hip. Late afternoon and it was blazing hot. We had our trouser legs bloused out in a vain effort to keep cool, and were sucking water out of our camelbacks almost constantly. I decided we would check one more building then head back to base. It was a three-story building with empty shops at ground level and apartments above.

I led my men down a narrow hallway to the back where stairs led up to the apartments. We fanned out, splitting into pairs to search the rooms. There were people living there, but not many. Most of the apartments were empty, with doors wide open.

Juarez and I had just finished our last apartment on the second floor and were heading for the third. I could hear the movements of the others below us--rapping on doors, trying locks, searching rooms. Everything was going well.

But there was a man at the top of the stairs. A man with white skin.

“You can’t go up there,” he said. He had a thick accent, but not one I was familiar with. Certainly not like the locals.

“Why?” I asked warily.

“I can’t let you.”

“Sargeant?” Juarez was two steps below me. “Did you say something?”

“He can’t hear me, Joshua. Nor can he see me. He’ll think you’ve gone mad if you keep talking to me.”

“Who are you?” I demanded, raising my rifle. I could hear Juarez tense behind me, a faint whisper of movement as he slipped his finger into the trigger guard.

“Sargeant?” Juarez was whispering now.

“He can’t hear me,” the man insisted. “Listen to me, don’t answer. Tell him it’s all right.”

Instead I backed down one step, shoving my body against the wall to give Juarez a clear view up the stairs. “Juarez,” I hissed. “Do you see anything up there?”

Slowly Juarez leaned to see around me. He was holding his breath and sweating. His answer came as a relief to him, a terror to me. “No, Sir. I don’t see anything.”

I could feel the color drain from my face. Juarez still waited behind me, but I couldn’t lift my feet to take another step. Instead I held my breath and looked at the feet of the man at the top of the stairs. They were just as Gramps had described--almost floating, not quite touching the floorboards.

Arthur! I guess I said it out loud, because I heard Juarez shift his grip on his weapon again. He must have been spooked standing there on the stairs with me talking into empty air.

“You’d better do something to soothe your friend,” Arthur said. “He’s likely to kill someone with that thing-—the wrong someone anyway.”

He waited while I did nothing, just staring at him, my body rigid.

“Say somethin’ to him," Arthur said as he waved a hand commandingly. "Tell him you thought you heard somethin'. Then listen to me.”

My mind reeled back to Gramps, to the things he told me in the nursing home. Now I knew. I knew it was true. And with a cold weight in my gut I also realized why Arthur was here. I put a hand on Juarez’s shoulder and told him to keep silent, told him I’d heard something.

“You can’t go up there,” Arthur said again. “There are seven men in a room waiting for you. They’ll kill you and your friend before the others can come to your rescue. Wait for them. That’s all it’ll take. Wait for them and all your lives’ll be spared.”

I nodded slowly. “I think we should wait for the others,” I whispered to Juarez.

Arthur grinned. “Your grandfather said you’d believe,” he said, stooping to settle himself on the top step. He was exactly as Gramps had described: a face, though not exactly how I imagined it, possessed of the proud grace of nobility; the golden eagle eyes; the skin of his scalp showing ruddy through strings of dark oily hair that hung to his shoulders. He was like a museum piece, but sloppily authentic, right down to the rough homespun cloak and a stitched-up tear in his breeches.

He caught my gaze lingering on the hilt of his sword.

“You like it?” he said. He drew it from a scabbard made from some kind of softened hide. The long blade glinted in the light of a bare bulb hanging from the wall above us. He laid it across his palms and let me stare.

“I had it made when I was in my sixteenth year. I thought myself the greatest warrior the land had ever seen, and such a man needed to have a weapon to match his prowess.” He laughed. “It took me a good year to build the strength to use the damned thing.”

I used every ounce of restraint to keep myself from reaching out to touch it. It wasn’t beautiful--at least not within the fantastical standards to which Excalibur is generally held. There were no jewels or gold. The hilt could have been silver, but most of it was wrapped in hide and entwined with twisted wire. The blade was finely made with the sheen of oil to protect it from air and water and blood.

He held it as if it were a natural part of his hand and arm, as if it belonged there as surely as his thumb.

“There’s no magic in it,” he said, smiling. “But my enemies took pause when I came onto the field.”

He admired it himself for several moments more before slipping it back in its sheath.

“But, ach! Those days are past for me. Just beginning for you.”

The thump of boots on the landing below told me the others had caught up with us. Juarez signaled them to be silent and waited for my command. I looked to Arthur.

“You’ll find them in the room just there.” He pointed to a blank wall above my head, toward the apartment at the rear corner of the floor. “They know you’re coming. They’re willing to die and more than happy to take you with ‘em.”

“Sarge heard something.” Juarez said.

“Just a funny feeling,” I said.

No one scoffed. In war you learn to take funny feelings seriously.

Arthur smiled and winked at me and signaled for me to follow. I found myself echoing his signal to my men and, with weapons ready, they followed me right to that door in the rear corner of the building where Arthur, more like the B-movie ghost my grandfather said he was not, passed through the wood without a pause or a backward glance.

I took a deep breath and looked back at my men before knocking on the door. I knew what lay beyond the thin waferboard; they did not. For the blink of an instant I thought about telling them, but the sight of them told me I didn’t have to. I had been telling them with my tensed-up hands and pallid face and my ‘funny feeling’. They were ready.

I knocked. It sounded like the rattle of bones as the door vibrated on cheap hinges.

No one answered.

I reached for the knob, but Juarez pushed past me and stared at me with a look that told me he was worried about me. He had good reason, I suppose. Every one of us knew of at least one guy who had known, somewhere deep in his soul, that he would die. He always acted much the way I had been that day.

I stepped aside and let Juarez do it.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Story: Neverking

I've decided to put up one of my early stories. I'll serialize it so I don't take up huge amounts of space for a single post.

This is the story that earned me a spot in Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp--at least the first page of it did. As far as stories go it's not bad. As far as historically accurate, well, you'll see...


by Suzanne Vincent

My Grandfather had two obsessions: World War II and King Arthur. The War because he served in it.

Arthur because he met him.

The day he told me, I had a half-day leave and wanted to see Gramps once more before shipping out to Afghanistan for eighteen months.

“Morning, Gramps,” I said, like I did every time I visited him at the care center. I didn’t expect an answer. He hadn’t recognized me in more than a year. But that day he looked right at me--not through me--and smiled.

He smiled!

His eyes were amazingly focused, the expression behind them lucid. Some circuit in his brain must have connected, because he reached out a frail hand and spoke to me.

“Ain't that a hoot?” he said with a quavering laugh, carrying on in the middle of a conversation that could have begun thirty minutes or thirty years ago. “All them stories and legends got it wrong!”

I must have looked like I’d been hit in the head, gaping at him like an idiot, so astonished to hear his voice and his laugh again that my mind malfunctioned just at the moment his reconnected.

“Didn’t you hear me, Josh? They’re all wrong! Malory, Geoffrey, Nennius…”

I knew those names. Hearing them brought me around. But hearing him utter mine--that was pure gold.

I smiled at him.

“Arthur," I said, pulling my chair up to sit close to him.

“That’s the one. The fabled High King of Britain. He wasn’t ever even a King! And all those centuries later old William the Norman bastard claimed right to the English throne by Arthur’s birthright.” He laughed again, loud and long. “It’s like the President of the United States begging for votes because he’s the great-great-grandson of Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill!”

Gramps' must have read me everything published on King Arthur, from the time I was old enough to sit on his lap with enough restraint to keep from grabbing at the pages. I know Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave. I know White, Pyle, Bulla, Bradley, Sutcliff. He read me the originals that spawned them all, too—--the fable-laden histories, the tales of the Mabinogion, ancient poems with nothing more than a mere mention of Arthur’s name. As I grew, we studied maps and histories and archaeology. We sifted through them looking for treasures of truth.

He uncovered for me an Arthur most never understood.

An Arthur of discarded Roman helmets and wooden shields instead of shining armor; one of longbows and short swords and iron-tipped spears instead of lances and maces; one of shaggy highland ponies instead of heavy chargers.

He taught me of the devastating incursions of Angles, Jutes, and Saxons; of the culture-swallowing sweep of Christianity across Britain.

The more Gramps and I learned, the more we yearned for truth. I even remember him saying he looked forward to dying. He had a few questions he wanted to ask Arthur when he saw him.
Together we'd decided that Lancelot and Merlin were figments of the imagination, the Round Table too, that the famed knights were most likely literary incarnations of Celtic demi-gods. The Arthur we came to know was an extraordinary man living in extraordinary times who became such by doing what any ordinary man would have done--he defended his home and his family.

I joined the Army inspired by this notion.

But in all those years of sharing the wonder of history's most famous king, Gramps never once asserted that Arthur wasn't one. But then he always called him 'Arthur'. Just 'Arthur'. And I'd always felt like he was leading me to something I couldn’t quite grasp.

“What do you mean, ‘never a king?’” I said. “How do you know?”

“I shouldn’t be telling you this. He made me promise. But, damn! I have to tell someone.” He took me by the elbow, his frail fingers closing tightly, pinching me harder than I thought him capable, his eyes wide with excitement. “You have to swear--swear on your life you won’t tell. Not anyone. Ever!”

“Swear I won’t tell what?”

“Don’t you pull none of your bullshit on me. You think I’m stupid enough to tell you without you giving me your word first?”

“Now wait a minute, Gramps,” I said. “You expect me to keep a promise you couldn’t?”
I don’t know why I said it. It was one of those moments of epiphany when I realized the irony of what he was asking. Gramps . . . he would never break a promise. Never. But my outburst broke the spell.

He went quiet, let go of my arm, looked at the floor. He was suddenly old again, his gaze drifting away. He was leaving me.

“Gramps? Don?” I said a little too loud, calling him by name, desperate to bring him back. “I swear. I won’t tell anyone.”

His eyes turned to me again. But the excitement was gone and in its place, a solemn frown. “God forgive me for breaking my word,” he said. “But I can’t keep it inside me. I gotta tell someone. Say it again, Marty. Swear it again.”

Marty? I didn’t know a Marty.

"Swear, Marty."

Gramps wasn't with me anymore. That much was clear. But I couldn’t bring myself to care. He was speaking again, and he was telling me another story.

I took his hand. “I swear,” I said.

He settled some, letting out a deep breath, a reluctant smile deepening the wrinkles in his face. He leaned in close, looked around to be sure no one was listening and whispered in my ear.

“You’re gonna think I’m loopy. And if you tell anyone they’re gonna think the same of you.”

“Tell them what?”

“Marty, I saw King Arthur. He was standing over me, right over there.” He jabbed with his thumb over his shoulder. “It was when you and Ikers went for rations. Marty, he saved my life. He told me to get the hell out of that foxhole. If he hadn’t come . . .”

He lapsed into silence for a few moments, studying his thumbs and trembling with more than the usual aging palsy. I searched my memory for a scrap of the story he was telling me. There had been dozens of stories of the war told to me over ice cream cones or garden gloves. He wanted me to know, to never forget the value of liberty. But this one was unfamiliar. It must have been one of the many he had begged off, telling me there were some things he would carry to his grave, things that shouldn’t be told.

“What happened, Don?”

“He told me to get out. I told him to go to hell. He said if I didn’t I was gonna die, and then I looked at his feet and he held out his hand and I didn’t know what else to do. I mean, when someone like that tells you to get out of a foxhole, you just do it.”

“Like what? Someone like what?”

He shrugged and twisted his hands together. “He was standing there on the edge of the hole, but he wasn’t standing there. It was like he was floating just a little, you know?”

“Like a ghost?”

“I suppose he’d have to be, wouldn’t he?” he said with a frown. “But he wasn’t like any ghost I ever heard of. If he was a ghost they got it all wrong in the movies and books. I could touch him, Marty. He helped me up outta that hole. But . . . I don’t know. It’s like...like he ain’t part of the world and the world won’t let him on it.”

“And you’re sure it was Arthur?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. He was dressed funny--soft shoes and a cloak and all that. And he told me who he was. He said, plain as you like in an accent something like them Scottish soldiers, ‘My name is Arthur.’ And I said, ‘You mean King Arthur?’ And he starts laughing, all the time leading me away from that foxhole like I'm a stray pup following a kid home from school. And he says, ‘I am he. But I was never a king.’ Well, you’ve seen me reading that book I picked up in London . . .”

“Which one?”

“The Once and Future King. It’s by an English fellow named White. It's all about King Arthur and his knights and such. Well, that book don't say nothing about him not being king. So I asks him, ‘What do you mean?’ And he says, ‘I was a prince, a warrior. Nothing more.’ He says all that about him was made up by men who were more interested in making a name for themselves than for finding the truth. Well, of course I wanted to know what he was doing here. Why wasn’t he on Avalon? What did he need to come save a scared American kid for? And he says it’s cause I’m a son of Medraut . . .”


“Yeah, can you believe it? Me, a son of Mordred! ‘I never knew,’ I told him. And he says, ‘It doesn’t matter. I know.’ Only I always thought him and Mordred hated each other, and I told him so. He got mad. Real mad. He said them guys that wrote about him really got it twisted up. He said Mordred was his best friend, as close as a brother. He said Mordred died saving his life. He said he made a promise to him that he’d keep watch over his family forever. Only Arthur died that same day and he never thought God’d hold him to it. Not like this anyway. Not bringing him back every time one of Mordred’s children is in danger. But he said he keeps coming back. He says he made an oath and he’ll keep it till the Christ comes again--that’s what he said.”

A creep-up-the-neck feeling crawled into the hairs of my head. I think it struck me just then that Gramps was reliving a memory rather than weaving a tale. But a real memory? I couldn’t bring myself to go that far. Not yet.

“What did he look like?” I asked, my voice barely above a whisper.

Gramps clucked his tongue. “Nothing like I would’ve imagined. He wasn’t quite as tall as you might think--but then people were shorter back then, weren’t they? And his hair was real thin on top. That’s something you never see in pictures,” he said with a tense chuckle. “King Arthur with a bald head? But I never seen real eyes like that. They were kinda gold and fierce. Like an eagle’s, like the guys in them war bond posters back home. And his hands were strong. He kept one on my shoulder the whole time and it was so strong I never even thought of trying to pry myself away, but it was gentle too, and he just led me on and then . . .” He paused, looking into my eyes, seeing Marty’s face. And I saw a tear trembling at the corner of his eye.

“Then all hell broke loose. I tell you, Marty. The second I heard them shells coming I hit the ground. And when I looked up after the dirt stopped hitting me in the head our foxhole was twice as deep as we dug it and he was gone and . . .” He broke down in sobs, his palms pressed over his eyes.

I did what I thought Marty might have. I rubbed his back, offered him a handkerchief, told him those consoling words every combat soldier learns to say when a buddy gets shot up, or finds the bloody remains of a little kid that reminds him of a kid who lives around the corner back home, or when he finds a gash in his helmet where a slug should have taken off half his head.

“He saved my life,” he whispered. “He saved my life.”

Thursday, April 10, 2008

My Body of Work

I did some organizing today and surprised myself.

I have two published stories.

I have two stories I want to develop into novels.

I found I have 21 completed stories that have yet to find homes. Three of those are currently in slush piles. Several of them are early work or very specific work that I'm not sure I'll ever try to find homes for. For now they're fodder for future revisions or there just for my own enjoyment. Maybe I'll self publish a couple of them here. But not today.

I have 9 stories that are started and in various stages of completion.

I have another 12 or 14 story ideas waiting for some level of excitement on my part in order to get moving on them.

Remember me saying that my brain tends to compartmentalize information? It's in my first post, here: http://nightingalescage.blogspot.com/2008/02/where-do-i-begin.html

Well, I had forgotten about many of those story ideas until I started organizing my files. A couple of them had an "I wrote that?" moment to go with them. Funny how the mind works.

I think I'll try selling some of my less 'great' stories to some of the more entry-level markets. Get some sales! Even if they're not "paid."

Chocolate for Writers--a Book Recommendation

Three stories in slush piles--Hummingbird received a rejection today.

But on to better things:

As promised, Chocolate for writers.

The book is The Writer's Mentor by Cathleen Rountree.

This was one of the first books on writing that I picked up when I started into this writing business. That and a new Thesaurus. We were desperately poor at the time. If I remember correctly, I used some birthday money given to me by my mother-in-law to buy it.

The thing that makes it chocolate for writers is that it is filled with good advice, excellent author quotes, and writing exercises in a very gentle and encouraging format. Read a chapter--any chapter--and you'll get to the end feeling empowered and ready to face the writing demons that beset you. And all with no calories! How cool is THAT!?!

Ms. Rountree is comforting while realistic. Instead of just writing a book about writing, she takes time to let you get to know her, so it feels like you're sitting at the kitchen table with a friend, a huge tub of (insert favorit flavor) ice cream, laughing and talking and learning from each other. I very much enjoyed this book the first time through, and refer back to it often--especially when I need a writerly pick-me-up--like right after receiving another rejection.


Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Waiting Game

Correction, FOUR stories in slush piles:

"Jack of Stones" at Weird Tales,
"Lover's Knot" at Aberrant Dreams,
"Strange Love" at The Town Drunk,
"Hummingbird" at FlashFictionOnline.

I think that's the most stories I've had out in the cold cruel world, EVER! That's pretty good for me. It's been a long, slow struggle back from a seemingly bottomless pit. I feel in some ways as if I'm starting over again, and in other ways that I'm a stronger person and writer because of the experiences I've had over the past five years.

It feels good to be writing again, and I'm finding I'm not nearly as sensitive to the rejections. I've grown a thicker skin, maybe. Or perhaps I've grown a deeper understanding of the editorial world together with a deeper confidence in my work.

The hardest part is the waiting, checking email every day with that little heart-flutter of hope.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Where to Submit!

So Nightingale is searching for a new market, but won't tell me which one it wants.

I'm looking at three potential markets:

Andromeda Spaceways
Abyss & Apex

All three are good markets with good reputations. None of them are pro-rate, SFWA qualifying. I've pretty much exhausted those markets, except Strange Horizons. But I'm highly doubtful Nightingale is something Strange Horizons might want. I have several stories that might do all right at SH. Nightingale isn't one of them.

Currently only Adromeda Spaceways is open to submissions. Both Abyss & Apex and Interzone have 'reading periods'--May is the next one for both of them. If I send Nightingale to Andromeda, it's unlikely I'll receive a reply before the reading period for A&A and IZ are closed. IZ has only two open reading periods per year for fiction. So, I guess what I'll do is wait until May, submit at Interzone, then if they reject, I'll try A&A during their next reading period--which is in August. If it still doesn't sell, I'll try Andromeda.

Until then, I have a couple of stories in the works (one a twist of Red Riding Hood, the other a story based on a strange sight my daughter and I saw at the grocery store a while ago--a little old man and woman getting into a vehicle with the license plate DEVL666), and still plenty of work to do schooling and reading slush.

I still have two stories in slush piles--"Jack of Stones" at Weird Tales, and "Hummingbird" at Flashfictiononline.

Wish me luck!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Teaching Someone to Write

[Addendum--1/17/09] Since this particular post receives quite a few hits, I'll direct those who are searching for information on writing fiction to the bottom of my blog where I list a few excellent books on writing. Beyond that, most of the Writer's Digest series of books are pretty good, and there are a number of excellent online workshop sites listed in 'links for writers' on the left side of the blog. Good Writing![end]

I teach my kids at home.

With a few exceptions, my older kids are free to study what they want.

My son has decided he wants to learn how to write fiction.

I can teach him that because I've studied it.

I can't teach him trignonometry, or chemistry, or advanced physics. But I can teach him the principles of fiction writing.

We started with a few basic elements of the story--character, setting, basic plot--which all quickly progressed into a thousand-ideas session, a free association session in which we batted story ideas back and forth. By the end of it he had a pretty good story idea going, then went off to start writing it.

But we hadn't discussed how to start a story yet.

He brought me what he had done and I read it. It was OK, but he knew I would have 'buts.' He knows me well enough and knows very well that picking apart stories for the purpose of making them better is what I do--and do well. So we then had a discussion on conflict and resolution and where to start a story based upon what the story's main conflict is and what he might want to do to resolve it.

He took it all in nobly--but I didn't get much done teaching anyone else that day.

That is both the beauty and the challenge of homeschooling--to be flexible enough to concentrate on an area of keen interest while still accomplishing what needs to be accomplished. I tell you, I wouldn't give it up for the world. It has been an amazing experience for us all. But in order to do it, sacrifices must be made. The greatest sacrifice for me is that my progress as a writer is tremendously slower than it might be. But that's OK. I can wait because my kids are worth it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Well Written? and Bad News

As a writer, I read. It's part of the job, really.

It used to be that I would read anything--good or bad. These days, I'm considerably more discriminating because I simply don't have the time to waste on reading tripe. I just don't. There are too many excellent stories and books out there that can teach me, by example, how to write well, and not NEARLY enough time to read them all.

So when someone recommends a book to me as "well written," I don't necessarily believe them. And I NEVER buy a book based solely on a recommendation. Never. And just because a book is a monetary success does NOT mean it is "well written."

These days I know of a few reader friends whose book recommendations I would accept and act upon without batting an eye, and there are a few writer friends whose book recommendations would garner the same reaction. And there are a whole lot of other friends whose recommendations would require a test on my part.

That test is usually as simple as reading the first chapter of said book. You can tell a lot about a writer and his ability to tell a good story by reading the first few pages or even paragraphs.

And in the publishing world, that's what counts. Most book publishers--at least those few who still accept unagented work--want to see the first three chapters. Most short story publishers give the writer the first few paragraphs to prove themselves worthy of publication. An editor will only read the entire story if it's good--very good. And he'll only publish it if it's better than the other thirty stories he's received that month that are also very good.

Sad day.

I received a rejection letter from Realms of Fantasy on "Nightingale." Ah, well. I'm off to shop for another market. Submit, submit, submit.