Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Story: The Cloaked Sorceress

I’ve been posting paintings on my Facebook author’s page and writing what I call short-shorts – usually between 10 and 20 paragraphs– that weave a story around what the painting depicts. My author page has almost 1,100 likes, but the short-shorts typically get no more than 15 percent penetration. I’ve shared them on my regular page and linked back to my author page on several FB writer groups. Very few wander over to my page to check out the stories. Writers on FB like to post cute illustrations that say how much they love to read, but most of the ones in these groups seem to be one-way posters … Buy my book, buy my book, buy my book, they shout – and that’s about it. So while I’ll keep posting these short-shorts on my FB author page, I decided just this once to post my latest one on my blog. So here it is … I call it The Cloaked Sorceress.

She came up to me – didn’t give her name – and said in a thick accent I couldn’t place, “I hear you’re good with a sword and composite bow. I want to hire you to take me to Opet City.” She turned her scarf-covered face toward the doors leading to the Burning Coals tavern.

A perfume of jasmine escaped past her scarf and teased my nose, making me forget the smells of dead fish, kafia and turpentine. Only the rich could afford that scent. Perhaps her father owned all these wharves and warehouses along Dock Street. Curiosity piqued, I let her lead me into the tavern.

I trailed her so I could get a better look at her, but to my chagrin the hooded robe concealed her curves. She looked back at me … her eyes spit fire. Sweet goddess Larenia, I thought, her eyes are glowing! I’d never seen such blue eyes – a cat’s eyes. Kafia addiction could do that, I knew. I needed to see her fingernails; they’d glow too if she’d gotten a taste for kafia. I glanced down one of her sleeves, and swore under my breath. She wore gloves.

Directly ahead, above three sets of mage-lights, a mural famous throughout Setor City began to sparkle along its border, as if infested with lightning flies. She stopped to watch, catching me off-guard. I bumped up against her, prompting an angry retort, “You really are clumsy. Perhaps your skill with the bow and sword is exaggerated?” She deigned not to look back at me.

I gazed beyond her shoulder at the mural’s scene … a terrified boar caught in mid-stride as it strained to escape the spear of a mounted warrior woman. Suddenly, the wild boar came to life and raced along the wall. The warrior woman’s horse bounded after it, the woman flung her spear and its spearhead sliced through skin and muscle. The boar tumbled and the woman raised her fist in triumph. Then the scene melted away as if wet paint dissolved by a rainstorm – and a moment later reappeared in its earlier inanimate rendering.

Everyone in the smoke-filled common room cheered, and no one took notice of the robed woman or her glowing eyes. She turned suddenly, seized my arm, and guided me to the farthest table from the mural. Motioning me to sit, which I did, she sat adjacent to me, so close her robe brushed my knees. Perhaps she wanted to flirt. Why else sit so close? I reached out to caress a patch of skin between a glove and the end of her sleeve. She yanked her hand away from mine.

“I am not your plaything,” she growled, her voice sharp enough to cut the block of cheese the serving wench had left on the table.

 “My apologies, My Lady,” I said in my most humble voice. I attempted to shift the subject away from my gaffe. “The boar mural … the owner’s brother, a mage, created it. A magnificent display of magic, don’t you think?”

“I would have preferred to see the boar turn and gore the woman’s leg.” She drew a money-purse from insider her robe, untied the drawstrings and let dozens of gold imperials rain onto the tabletop. “These are yours if you take me to Opet City. I’ve been told the Imperial Way is no longer safe since the Emperor’s stroke. Bandits raid with impunity. My source also said you are the best guide in the empire.”

I ran my hands over the coins, felt their sweet coldness. I wondered how we could safely exit the tavern without getting our throats cut. Drunkards and their dollops sitting at nearby tables were eyeing the coins too. “You were foolish to–”

“Move your hand away from the coins,” she commanded. As if her words were magic tinged, my hand jerked against my chest.

The coins and the money-purse vanished.

A damned sorceress, I thought to myself. Nonetheless, the stack of coins amounted to more money than I had ever seen in one sitting. I would have guided Blue Eyes to Opet City had the coins been half that number. I could buy a love slave with those coins and have my every desire fulfilled. Or buy a tavern.

“You have a deal,” I said, and noticed that our neighbors had grown subdued and slid their tables and chairs away from us. No one wanted a sorceress to take notice of them.

“Just a couple of stipulations, then I will retire for the night and meet you in the morning at McPeak’s Stables.” She reached inside the robe and I heard the jangle of coins. “I will bank these in your account at the Imperial Bank. Once we are on the road you are not to try to crawl into my bedroll or find excuses to rub up against me.” Suddenly, I felt invisible hands squeeze my neck, and then the pressure vanished. “Understand?”

“Perfectly, My Lady.” I cleared my throat. “If I may ask, why would a sorceress need a guide for protection?”

She laughed, a sound that reminded me of glass shattering. “Normally I wouldn’t. But I have this with me.” She opened her robe, revealing not just inviting cleavage, but a sleeping baby dragon. “When she’s awake, she drains my magic. Human babies drink their mother’s milk. Dragon babies drink their mother’s magic.”

I glared at my hands and forced them to stop shaking. In the morning, I would be traveling with a dragon in human form – and her child.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Precious memories of my cousin Billy …

One weekend in 1980 I traveled back to my childhood and played Army. This time I dressed as a Confederate soldier and war-gamed with Union re-enactors on military land in Indiana. Truly I had a great time; even a blustery cold night in a tent on a hilltop could not dim my happiness.

Then I returned home.

Billy with his mom Emmie and dad Bill in California.
My mom telephoned me. “Billy’s gone,” she told me.

“Gone? Where did he go?” I didn’t grasp the enormity of her words.

It took a few more moments before I understood.

“He and his wife burned up,” she said.

I was so angry at her for not just telling me straight out. My frustration traveled the telephone lines and burned her ear. Life – and death – shouldn’t be a soap-opera drama.

Now, 23 years later, I feel guilt for my anger at my mom. The terrible scourge of ALS battered her body and stopped her heart forever on Nov. 14, 2003. Life can be so unfair – to a 24-year-old man with a new wife and a new a house he’s restoring, and to a 73-year-old woman who wanted but didn’t get to see her youngest granddaughter graduate from high school.

Billy was my sister Jody’s age. They both graduated from high school in 1975. My cousin married a beautiful girl, Terry, and they were restoring a house in the Akron area when the furnace exploded on an October night in 1980.

Billy sits with my sister Jody at Santa Monica beach.
Billy spent his early years in LA. His mom Emmie and dad Bill moved west from Ohio in the mid ‘50s. We followed in the summer of ’57, settling in San Bernardino in a stucco housing development between Foothill Boulevard and Base Line Road. We’d take turns traveling the San Bernardino Freeway to visit each other. I always looked forward to the visits to their home nearer the ocean. It was amazing how much colder it was. We wore sweaters – in the summer in Southern California. Emmie cooked amazingly tasty meals. Even today she laughs when she recalls how I munched down on her rolls and mashed potatoes.

Billy and I would play typical kid games during our visits. My sister wanted to join in, but we’d say “no girls allowed.” Years later, Jody told me our behavior was hurtful. Boys can be so cruel and brainless.

We moved back to Ohio in October 1965 and moved back into our Wadsworth house that had been rented out during our time living in San Bernardino and later Corona. A year later Billy’s family also
An older Billy with his family.
returned to Northeastern Ohio. We’d all gather together on Christmas Eve at Uncle Jack and Aunt Gloria’s house in Granger, and open presents under the huge Christmas tree in their recreation room. A torrent of wrapping paper always filled the pine-scented air on Christmas Eve. The get-togethers included seven rambunctious kids – me, Jody, Billy, his sister Kim, his brother Ken (later Brian would be born), and our cousins Candy, Pat. And the most important kid of all, Steven, our uncle, born mentally retarded. Steven loved Christmas. The adults – mom and dad, Emmie and Bill, Gloria and Jack; the older generation of Grandma Nan, Aunt Hortense, Aunt Avis and Jack’s mom – would dutifully wait for the kids to open their presents before unwrapping their own gifts.

There always seemed to be a half foot of snow on the ground at the Granger house on Christmas Eve. You could bank on it. Cleveland’s snow belt extends just far enough south to encompass Medina County’s Granger Township. One year in the ‘60s a splendid full moon shone down on the snowy scene, turning the twilight night into a Christmas carol: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”

Grandma Nan with the Eternal Boy, Stevie.
The last time I saw Billy was at one of the Christmas get-togethers at the Granger house. He brought his girlfriend – his future wife – to the family gathering. I thought, “Boy, Billy has great taste.”

Billy loved cars, and in his early 20s he test drove cars for Goodyear. It was while he was up in Wisconsin testing the Goodyear tires on iced-over lakes that he met his true love. Billy and Terry were married in the summer of 1980.

In California days, Billy’s dad raced stockcars. Bill gave me one of his trophies that I kept on top of my dresser. Later, back in Ohio, Billy, Kim, Ken and Brian all raced Soapbox Derby cars at Derby Down in Akron and more times than not they won.

Bill has turned the basement of their Doylestown house into a Soapbox Derby shrine. He’s built a dais where all the cars, trophies and other memorabilia are displayed prominently.

My sister Jody and me in Santa Monica wading pool.
Kim recently gave her mother a new IPad and Emmie has started hanging out on Facebook. She’s noticed some of the family photos I’ve posted and has copied them to her photo folder. They’re photos she has never seen, most snapped by my mom and dad back in California days. I’m glad I’ve been able to share these photos with her.

The ‘60s and ‘70s now live only inside our heads. So many who gathered around the tall Christmas tree each Christmas Eve are no longer with us – Aunt Hortense, Aunt Avis, Grandma Nan, Uncle Jack and his mom, my mom, Billy.

Seven holes in my heart.

Seven holes that will never heal.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Heroes, Heroines and Holy Puppeteers ...

Writers who pen historical novels have to make a decision: How realistic do they make the world view of their chief characters? If a novel is set in 13th Century England, should the hero, heroine and other characters who populate the pages of the book think like 13th Century men and women?

The Great Puppeteer God controls our hero.
That’s an important decision. If you want your character to belong to the 13th Century, then you have some closet cleaning to do. Right now your storage closet is filled with some very interesting boxes and chests. One says: Renaissance.

Take the Renaissance box and toss it into the trash bin. Your 13th Century characters won’t be alive when the Renaissance dawns. No invention of metal movable type, no flowering of Latin and vernacular literatures, no resurgence of learning based on classical sources, no paintings using linear perspective or other techniques meant to render a more natural reality, no increased reliance on observation by scientists.

Our well-dressed hero and heroine
See that chest with the plaque that reads Scientific Revolution? That flowering of knowledge lay almost 300 years in the future. Get some help so you can transport the Scientific Revolution chest to the landfill.

Without the Scientific Revolution to spur men and women to bring scientific principles to intellectual and social thinking, you can also toss out that big box with the oversized lettering that reads: The Enlightenment. That means your characters won’t be debating the merits of constitutions and democracy versus socialism and absolute monarchies. Or building steam engines and hot-air balloons.

Which means no Industrial Revolution, so you can tell the Waste Management folks to haul off the giant chest containing the machine parts for textile and paper mills.

That leaves just one more chest, the one with the lid covered with taped postcards showing moon rockets, skyscrapers, movie posters, and a DNA helix. It’s the chest with the plaque that reads: Modern Age.

Better watch out for quakes and whirlwinds
Your 13th Century characters can’t use those boxes and chests. They’re gone, buried in the landfill or burned up in the incinerator. Instead, the people of your book will see God directly manipulating their world for his own sometimes unfathomable reasons. To them, he’s the Great Puppeteer and their 13th century world is his grand stage.

If you plot out a scene where a whirlwind levels your hero’s villa, your hero knows God was behind the whirlwind and punished him for some reason he must uncover through prayer. In fact, he probably believes God was inside the whirlwind using his mighty breath to power the tornado.

13th Century book binding
How would your hero or heroine react if an earthquake damaged their castle or walled city? Their thought processes would work the same way as they did with the tornado. More prayers, perhaps more interpretations of dreams since they can be messages from God. And if your hero is a king or baron and decides that God wants him to punish a particular group of people – perhaps Jews or gypsies – then your hero knows he must fulfill God’s will and that means holy bonfires cooking ungodly flesh.

21st Century readers won’t go for such a hero who has never heard of natural law and believes God is the Great Puppeteer who provides favors for some and curses for others.

That’s why often the heroes and heroines appear to have been plucked out of the second decade of the 21st Century and deposited in another century, or in the case of the genre I write in –fantasy – another world usually governed not only by natural law but by the forces of magic as well – and that means a whole other class of creatures, creatures spawned by magic.

Realism can go only so far when writing novels that stray away from modern times.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Railroad tracks still lead us home in our dreams

Riding on the City of New Orleans,
Illinois Central Monday morning rail.
Fifteen cars and 15 restless riders,
Three conductors and 25 sacks of mail.
All along the southbound odyssey,
The train pulls out at Kankakee,
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields,
Passin' trains that have no names,
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.

Good morning America, how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.

Bud Staton
Railroading has been an integral part of America’s soul since the first steam locomotive – called the
Tom Thumb – and its open car pulled out of Baltimore one sunny day in the early 1830s and rolled west 13 miles to the village of Ellicott’s Mills. The passengers, mostly VIPs, thrilled at the then unheard-of speed of 18 mph.

This was the beginning of the Age of Railroad in the United States, and the organizers named this railroad pioneer the Baltimore & Ohio, or B&O. The railroad’s objective was to connect Baltimore and its harbor with the Ohio River and points farther west, and end the barely begun heyday of the canal system.

My fraternal grandpa was a railroad man. Maynard F. Staton started out a farmer tilling 75 acres near Seville, Ohio, but his father-in-law, Louis Iuppenlatz, convinced him to join the Akron, Canton & Youngstown Railroad (A.C. &Y.) as a telegrapher. My Grandpa Bud had only worked for the A.C. & Y. for six months when the depression hit. He was let go and it would be nine years before the A.C. & Y. would rehire him.

Nan Staton in the Restaurant
When my Great-Grandpa Louis retired as station agent and telegraph operator of the Sharon Center, Ohio train depot, Grandpa Bud took over and ran the station for 18 years until the railroad closed its doors in the 1950s. In its heyday, folks in Sharon Center and the surrounding farm country would take the train into Akron to shop or do a bit of picnicking. A newspaper article about the depot’s closing in 1952 said old-timers in Sharon Center could recall a time when the depot was “full of passengers as late as 10 o’clock.” But more and more folks were driving their cars to Akron, eventually dooming the the depot and the passenger train service started in the 1880s.

The newspaper article says Grandpa Bud bought the depot and used its lumber to build a restaurant on Ohio 94 just north of Sharon’s Center’s Gettysburg-like town square. I remember sitting on a stool in that restaurant. Grandma Nan would serve me a Coke. Sadly, Grandpa Bud only lived a few years after leaving railroading and running the restaurant. He died in August 1960 during the Democratic National Convention that nominated John F. Kennedy. I remember that bit of trivial because my mom, sister and I were at his house for a cookout and we all watched the convention on TV. I would have been about eight at the time. A day or two later we learned that Grandpa Bud had suffered a fatal heart attack. Mom took me to his viewing, and I think it was the first time I had ever seen someone in a casket. Dad had stayed behind in California to keep working while mom, my sister Jody and I visited loved ones in Ohio. He, his sister Emmy and Emmy’s husband Bill had to drive across country for the funeral.

Bodie Staton
My dad Louis, nicknamed Bodie, worked summers in his youth for the railroad, doing repair work on tracks. He said hoisting the individual rails and driving in spikes built him up and had him physically prepared for the rigors of military life when he joined the Army Air Force in 1945 shortly before the war ended.

Now 86 years old and living in Grantsville, West Virginia, my dad likes to tell the story of how he and co-workers were caught on a bridge as a train approached. They had to cling to the bridge structure beneath the rails until the train passed. So was the life of a railroad man back in the 1940s.

When I was about 10 dad bought me an H&O model railroad set. He built a simple layout on a plywood tabletop. He laid out a small village with streets. We bought houses, stores, a gas station and school for the village. Of course he bought a depot as well. Other extras included a mountain tunnel, telephone poles, trees, cars and people so I could populate the village. For a later Christmas, he bought me an older model train engine that would have been seen in late 19th century America.

During one birthday I opened up a present and discovered a toy telegraph. It’s only now as an adult that I realize he was trying to introduce me to the family’s railroad heritage. The depot duties of my Great-Grandpa Louis and Grandpa Bud included operating the telegraph. The dots and dashes coming over the telegraph line gave them the news that let them keep the depot train schedules up to date.

Wilmington's Downtown Union Station
It’s fabulous that many towns are restoring their old train depots. I live now in a place steeped in railroad history and lore. On the northern waterfront of downtown Wilmington, North Carolina, the local community college has just finished constructing what it calls Union Station. The educational building sits on the site of the original Union Railroad Station, the pride and joy of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad (ACL), which had its corporate headquarters in downtown Wilmington until it left for Jacksonville, Florida, in 1960.

The ACL, now known as CSX, is the descendant of one of America’s most famous railroad companies – the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad. At the time of its completion, the line was the longest railroad in the world with 161.5 miles of track. Two of the depots along the track, one in Burgaw and one in Wallace, have been restored and are being used by each town’s chamber of commerce. They are the downtown focal points of two festivals, Burgaw’s North Carolina Blueberry Festival and Wallace’s Carolina Strawberry Festival.
Many families like mine can trace their roots back to railroading. While farming was important in 19th and 20th century America, the railroads were what linked us together and made it possible for us to be one country, not like balkanized Europe. I’m proud of my railroad forbearers.