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I’m working on a piece for a publisher who has a particular liking for something I wrote in the past. He asked me specifically to try and recapture what I did in that first piece…not the story itself, or the characters, but the style – and it set me on a short quest.
The older piece was my novella, written for Cemetery Dance years ago, titled “Roll Them Bones.” In that work I was asked to emulate the styles of several authors popular at the time, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Ray Bradbury. One problem with this is that none of the three of them has a similar style to the other two. What I gathered from this fact was that I needed to find a point of similarity – something glaring that I was missing in focusing too tightly on the authors. I think I found it.
What I determined that the publisher was after was more of a “formula”. He wanted a group of friends coming back together after long absence to some place from their past to fight or finish some evil they’d faced before. In essence, that was what I did in “Roll Them Bones.” As it turns out, that was only one thing I did.
My new quest is different. This time it’s myself I’m seeking – something I did in my writing that worked very well for someone. I read the story again. Then I made a short list of other stories similar in style, and found a shocking truth (to me). Those are my most critically acclaimed stories. Those are the ones the largest number and diversity of readers found memorable. One was “The Call of Farther Shores,” which was picked up for 2005: Year’s Best Horror.
The quality that I found in the stories in question is the topic of today’s essay. The topic? My past. All of these stories have at least one setting, or one incident, that is drawn directly from the important memories of my past. The Call of Farther Shores takes place in a barber shop created from that of my step father and the one my grandfather took me to as a child. In that same story, the description of the parent’s bedroom is a description of my own parents bedroom. In Roll Them Bones I brought to life a combination of my childhood home at Charleston Lake, in Illinois and my grandfather’s home town of Flora, Illinois.
The thing is, there are serious depths to the memories, details, and impressions I have saved over the years and when I took off the dusty sheets and dug in deeper, I was able to transfer some of that to the words. In other words I wrote in a place I’d been before, albeit modified, and it lent the prose a strength and conviction it might not have had otherwise.
So now I’m writing “Hickory Nuts and Bones.” I remember very clearly walking down the railroad tracks with my grandfather when I was a child. It was hard to walk – you either walked on the railroad ties, spaced just far enough apart to risk a sprained ankle at ever step, or you worked your ass off trying to slog through gravel made of giant broken bits of cinder. There were the skeletal remnants of creatures the train had struck over the years. There were odd, sometimes very old bits of debris.
We used to go down the tracks to the persimmon trees – it was the one time anywhere in my life I got persimmons, warm and pulpy – sometimes bitter. We also went back to groves of hickory nut and walnut trees my grandfather knew. They were magical times, usually followed by a stop at the East End Cafe, where they had an old Minah bird that talked, ice cream sundaes, and cream in those little glass creamers – I used to drink it straight.
Those are the times I’m after in this story, and there’s a very different feel to such writing…a sense of dropping back into another world. I hope I find it again…it feels like I’m close. I think it’s important, and I suggest it to anyone as a starting place. Find a memory a place, or a time, that you remember, but when you think about it it feels surreal – as if the memory detaches you from the world. Build around it and see what comes to you…if it works, let me know.
I’m off down the tracks in search of Hickory Nuts and Bones…I’ll let you know what I find.
— A memory – first published in a very limited circulation book titled “Personal Demons” I found this doing some file cleanup, read it, and got lost in the memory all over again. Hope my buddy Randy forgives me…hope you find it of interest.
—David Niall Wilson
Some memories never leave you. Some things you can shrug off, walk away from, squash into the back recesses of your mind, and some others have a will of their own. In other places, on other pages, I have put a name to the moments that lend themselves to such memories. I call them defining moments. Some of them haunt me still.
The hill I lived on as a child overlooked Charleston Lake in Illinois. We lived at the very top of the hill, where a single road wound around and up and one end and down the other. In the winter, this road was a menace because you had to ride the Illinois snow and ice down from the top and make a very sharp turn at the bottom to avoid going over the edge of the road and into a large field. In the summer, that same hill was a place for the release of insanity – two hands gripping the handlebars of a green “Hiawatha” stingray bicycle from Western Auto, no way to hit brakes on a hill that steep, not on the old bikes. There were no hand-grip brakes on those machines. You reared up, kicked back, and sent the rear tire into a skid. On that hill, you didn’t use the brakes at all.
I lived on that hill for over a decade. I survived that stingray bicycle and two others, graduating through five and ten speeds. I survived my mother’s driving, despite the ice and snow. I survived things, in short, that should have scared me, creating those memories you can’t ignore.
What I remember most, though, is the lake – and the river below.
I lived by the water. Not in the sense that our home was near it, but in the sense that I fished nearly 365 days a year, threw stones to skip across the surface, swam in the small ring of cable-tied barrels each summer where the city posted a lifeguard, flew down the river with my step-dad in his air-boat, and generally made the water a part of me. I took it for granted, ignoring most dangers – poisonous snakes, steep cliffs, deep pools – combinations of the above.
Then there were other times.
On the day in question, I had a friend visiting, and we started out as days on Charleston lake usually started out. We went fishing. The fishing hole of choice was the pool that gathered at the bottom of a concrete spillway. Giant carp would leap at the base of that slanted surface, vainly attempting to move from the bottom, which flowed off into the Embarrass River to the more placid lake waters above. Catfish gathered at the base, as well, and even a few Crappie and Largemouth bass sweetened the pot.
Old and middle-aged men would drive down to that small stretch, following a gravel road that brought them to the shoreline. Each had huge coolers, tackle-boxes that opened to three-tiers, and station-wagons with wood paneling, or large trucks filled with minnow buckets, fancy spin-casting gear, fly-rods – the works. Each of them tried to outsmart my lake, and, for the most part, they failed. They didn’t know the secrets.
I would slip up with my Zebco 202 rod and reel combination, crab-walk across the slanted concrete slab angling away from the very base of the spillway, toss a line in with a single weight and a hook, baited with whatever form of insect or worm was handy at the time – or even a bit of kernel corn bread dough, and drop it in the corner nearest the spillway. I knew the secrets, you see. I’d watched, and I’d learned. I didn’t have much money for fishing equipment, or fancy bait, but it never mattered. I always caught fish – mostly given away after the thrill of the hunt to the men and women in the big trucks. For me it wasn’t the fish themselves, but the secrets.
That was how the day started. If it had ended as most other days at Charleston Lake ended, all might have been different, and my dreams might be troubled by hair-rasing rides down the side of that hill beside my house. That isn’t the story.
There were others who came to that spillway besides the fishermen. Eastern Illinois University wasn’t far away, nestled in the center of Charleston itself, and the students would come to the lake in droves, mostly drunk on beer, or whiskey, or life and the reckless, never-going-to-die attitude that permeates the world of those who have yet to suffer enough defining moments.
A favorite pass-time at the lake, despite the threat of arrest, or fines, was to swim across the top of the spillway, then slip over the top and slide down. It was like a big, concrete water-slide, coated in green, smooth algea, and water flowing over concrete about a half a foot deep. The current, on most days, wasn’t so strong you couldn’t hit the bottom and pop free, swimming past the angry middle-aged fishermen and the two kids squatting at the bottom, actually catching fish. You could come over that top, bounce free, and swim to the side before the water poured over the next small, man-made structure – a wall of concrete – and two feet down to the river itself. Then you climbed back up the slanted concrete side to the top, hopped into the water, swam out to the middle and did it again.
I was only about ten at the time, and though I could see the merits of such insanity from the side of fun, I was also afraid enough to remain where I was, watching, fishing, and dreaming about the day I’d be in college and brave enough for such foolishness. That was most days. This day, Randy Overton was visiting – my best friend – and there is something about the proximity of friends that lessens the intellect and raises the courage.
So there we were. The sky was relatively clear, the sun was shining, it was warm out, and there were idiots galore slipping over and down the spillway, ruining the fishing for those below and screaming at the top of their lungs. Somehow, with so many bodies lined up along the top of the spillway, it didn’t seem big. The other side seemed very close – you could see the people clearly on both sides of the concrete, and you could even make out the winding road that led from the main highway into the park on the far side of the river. It was the kind of day that made everything seem safe and possible all at once.
I’m not sure where my younger brother Bill was, but if he’d been there, he might have prevented the whole thing by his presence. No way would I have risked his safety. For some reason, though, he was absent. Randy and I slipped into cut-off blue-jean shorts and t-shirts and waded into the lake at the top of the spillway.
I had feared it would be deep, that we would be fighting current with only our ability to swim protecting us from slipping over the top, but this turned out not to be the case. There was a concrete ledge, just along-side the curved top of the spillway, where you could get your footing and brace against the side just enough to keep your balance. Laughing at how easy it was, we set off across the lake. Somehow, as we progressed, we failed to note how the others were disappearing. The fishermen were packing up their things and driving off up the road. The college students were growing fewer, quieter. The sky – in fact – was darkening, and it was far too early in the day for sunset.
I mentioned the river earlier. I see that river in my dreams, some times, dreams where I wake up every bit as wet as I was that day, crossing that lake – coated in sweat with the whirling, out-of control waters of the Embarrass river swirling through my mind. When the rains came, and the lake rose, the river was not my friend. Most times I could camp along those banks, swim and fish, toss stones at the snakes and turtles, and go home with a smile. When the water was up – and the Earth had shed her veneer of calm for a more honest glimpse at the raw power beneath, the Embarrass was a huge, roiling monster.
I remember clearly watching that river slash trees from the banks, rolling the logs up and under and crashing them through rapids. I remember watching boats overturn, slide beneath the water, and not come up again until they were nearly out of site.
I looking back and seeing that the water was pouring over the spillway, twice as deep and twice as fast as it had been when we started across.. There was a large branch that had not been there when we first crossed, caught halfway with branches reaching down the spillway, trailing tendrils of moss and algae.
In Illinois, when it storms, the sky goes greenish yellow – hints of brown around the edges – and you can feel the crackle of the lightning in the air. Things break, in those storms. From wind, lightning, the force of the water. Colors change and you can almost believe you have shifted partially through some sort of veil into another existence to a darker place. Things that were safe are not, and that veil is never quite the same once you’ve seen past it.
All blustering and courage were gone. We were cold, stranded on the wrong side of the lake / river – the park we stood in was within site of home, but the only way to reach home by foot was to trek a mile or so up the dirt / gravel road, find the main road, and another two miles down that to turn back into the drive leading up and around my hill. Too far in bare feet, thunderstorm, alone and hungry. Too far, too dark.
The next few minutes, which seemed to drag into hours, are not completely straight in my head. I believe I’ve relived those minutes in dreams, but they are no more clear when I wake than they are now as I try to sort them out. I know that we went down to the river, tried to find a narrow / shallow place to cross. The storm had raised the level everywhere, and the water was whipping along with unbelievable force. I remember stepping out into it – the sensation of my feet being snatched away, the force as I gripped the roots of a tree on the bank and pulled and prayed and pulled some more until my body dragged free, back to the muddy bank. Colder still than I’d been, and shivering with fear.
And that is when the real nightmare began.
There are times when you come up against a test you could never have expected – times when your heart hammers so hard against the inside of your chest you feel like it might explode, and you shiver until your bones rattle. Those sound like cliches until you live them.
Randy and I stood at the top of that embankment overlooking the spillway. It was nearly dark, though it couldn’t have been more than four in the afternoon. No one was in sight. No one. Our parents didn’t know where we were, though by then I know they were starting to worry that we were out in the storm. We were alone, and we had one choice – a bad choice. We took it.
At first I thought the battle would end before it had begun. The water pressed me against the wall of concrete so hard it nearly took the breath from my lungs and dragged me over and down. Somehow, I hung on. I clung to the top of that spillway, that tiny ledge, only my head above the water, and I started across. It wasn’t as cold in the water as it was out, with the wind, and by some miracle, the rain hadn’t hit yet. There was lightning. You could catch the scent of ozone, and I was never more acutely aware of being immersed in water around electricity. I knew if the lightning hit nearby, it was over.
Randy was very close. I know he wanted to cling to me as we went, I felt the same, but we had to hold on to things that were solid. Things that were not likely to go plunging over the spillway and down, churning off along the length of the Embarrass. I would love to describe what he said, what I said – how we shared the moment. We didn’t. My memories are a very selfish, self-preserving wash of fear.
Not long after we left the far side of the lake, that log-sized branch in the center of the spillway gave way and slipped over the side. I remember stopping. I vaguely remember Randy pressing up behind and slapping at my back, desperate for me to move on. I watched that log slide to the bottom, twisting as it went in a sort of slow-motion dive. It hit the churning, white-crested waves at the bottom, and it dove. One moment it was there, the next, it was gone, and then it burst from the surface of the lake, nearly clearing the water, and shot toward the river, rolling to one side and smashing into the rocks that lined the shore, only to whirl off and away.
I think it was about that time I heard thunder, and I started to move again. It took forever. Mechanical motion, one hand in front of the other. No swimming involved, the current a lot stronger near the center. We dragged ourselves across that lake, and onto the bank on the other side – at last, and part of me never left the lake.
I know it is there, still. I know it slipped over that edge, and down, because when I dream of that river, I can feel the churning, the vertigo brought on by being held, helpless, in the grasp of something that is part of nature – -uncaring, powerful, and deadly.
Some memories never leave you, nor do you really leave them.
I still fear rivers when the water runs high, but I love thunderstorms, and maybe . . . just maybe . . . that river saved me from endless nights gripping my sheets like handlebars as I plummeted down the hill from my house. One day, I’ll have a beer with Randy, and I’ll ask.
Do you remember?
I have been making the same drive back and forth from Hertford, NC to Chesapeake, VA for over five years now. It’s a long, solitary stretch – and over time, things have added up in my mind until it’s like navigating some other dimension. On the drive home last Sunday, a final pin dropped in the silence, and I heard the echo. I wrote this specially for my extra Halloween Storytellers gift to you all…
Since we have no poster for the 30th, or the 31st this month, I’m sharing today with Sarah and will let this ride through Halloween, when … well … when I’ll be due to post again on the 1st. Hope you don’t get tired of me.
Without further ado…
by David Niall Wilson
The moon peeked out from behind early evening clouds, a half-crescent of white against shades of violet draining through purple to black. To the right of it, a sequence of clouds resembled a cross, or a man, arms outstretched.
Nickleback rolled from the scratchy speakers in the old Saturn, and Dave sang along.
“This is how you remind me of what I really am…”
A silver Toyota pulled up too close behind. The car hung at his bumper for a few moments, until he averted his eyes and ducked to avoid having to shift the rear-view to night-vision. Then the other driver shifted left to pass. The guy flipped on his brights as he changed lanes, causing a flash of light. Dave cursed, and waited for his vision to clear. He glanced up.
The moon hung a little higher in the sky, almost directly ahead. Half bright, half dark, it gleamed with a back-light glow of luminous promise. Farther to the right, the cloud had shifted to an equal armed cross with a circle at the top and bent at an angle. Beside it, another formation was an elongated, feline eye. The iris and pupil were perfectly formed, and it glared down over the tree line as he took the gentle curve where highway 17 swerved out and around the swamp. Something itched at his mind, but Nickleback had shifted to Uncle Cracker, and he was singing again, the jerk in the Toyota forgotten, and the giant eye in the sky only a minor distraction.
“Give me the beat boys; to free my soul…I want to get lost.”
It felt a little like being lost. The shadows were taller than usual, and storms had painted a different world over the backdrops of sky and road. A sign proclaimed bear crossing, and, as always, he glanced out into the fields and scanned the passing trees, hoping to catch sight of one. One morning, heading the other direction, he’d seen a huge, furred mound lying beside the road that he’d been certain was a bear run afoul of a car, but on the return trip – it was gone. One of many moments where that road had seemed to shift dimensions over a relatively short period of time.
A dead bear would be heavy, and the North Carolina authorities were never quick to remove road kill. It was possible the animal had only been stunned, or that some red neck had stopped with his eight cousins to lift the thing into the bed of a pickup truck and haul it back to the farm, but it didn’t feel that way. The more he thought about it, the less he remembered the exact shape of the lump beside the road. The less certain his memory became, the more possibilities opened up in his imagination – impossibilities, more accurately, but he couldn’t push them aside.
He glanced up. His hand shook on the wheel as he noted the half-moon hanging overhead. Far to his right, the clouds had stretched and elongated and the cross was more a sharp, driving spike hammed into the sky. The eye had disappeared completely but it didn’t ease his mind. It only seemed that whatever had watched the road was now hunkered behind the trees and out of sight. All the colors had shifted again, deep dark greens washing out the purples. He knew the rain would hit once he made it to the bypass. Another forty minutes to home. He gave the tree line a last glance, but saw nothing moving.
The road curved to the right slightly as it rejoined the old highway. On countless previous trips he’d driven that older road, running parallel to the Inter-Coastal Waterway, which stretched all the way to Florida and had its roots firmly in the nation’s historical registers. George Washington had played a hand in its creation. When the last hurricane had ripped through and smashed trees like weak toothpicks, he’d had to follow that road to work. State workers went through with huge chainsaws on trucks. They couldn’t really clear the trees, but they cut them all off even with the edge of the row. It was like driving through some sort of primordial phalanx, gigantic lances turned toward the road.
One morning, shortly after the storm, he’d found deep ruts dug into the side of the asphalt. They must have been caused by some heavy equipment – that’s what he’d told himself. It didn’t ring true. He’d actually stopped the car and gone back to photograph those ruts. When he followed the direction they seemed to point, he saw a line of trees smashed flat. At first, this seemed natural, with the damage from the storm. Then he looked harder. Looking harder on that road was always a mistake.
The trees he’d noticed were broken off pointing away from the waterway, and away from the swamp beyond. All of the damage from the hurricane leaned the same direction. The opposite direction. His skin had prickled and though he kept himself from breaking into a run as he returned to his car, he averted his eyes from the claw marks on the asphalt until the state repaired them, and he never glanced into the broken trees.
He hit the last of the widely spaced stoplights and halted. There was no other traffic. Only the dim glow of lights from nearby towns broke the misty gloom. Before he could think better of it, Dave turned his gaze up to the three quarter moon. His mouth went dry. The road ahead stretched into shadows. The light shifted to green. He pulled slowly away from the stoplight and rolled at a steady fifty-five miles an hour toward the bypass and home.
He rounded the curve and shot under the overpass that dipped off to Elizabeth City. The speed limit was 65 on the bypass, and he breathed a little easier – until he glanced ahead and saw the wall of shadow he knew was the storm. He sped into its mouth and felt the Saturn shudder. He slowed and the car shimmied. He thought he saw dim glowing eyes ahead, then thought they were taillights, then saw nothing. He slowed further, imagined another vehicle roaring up from behind and clutched the wheel too tightly.
Rain pounded the car, and the overworked wipers could barely give him a foot of visibility. The dashed centerline was the only guide he could find, and it made his eyes water staring at it. Something large loomed, and his heart slammed in his chest until he realized it was the second overpass. He slowed and rolled to the side of the road beneath it, pulling as far to the side as he could. The rain cut off like a switch.
The silence was eerie. Even with the hammering rain echoing all around him, it felt like a hole in the universe. There was a roar of sound, and a flash of light. He closed his eyes as a tractor trailer roared past, barely slowing for the storm. His memory flashed on the ruts in the road near the swamp, and he thought of dragons. He opened his eyes and watched as the rain slowed again to a drizzle. Looking carefully behind, he pulled back onto the road. A mile later he spun onto Highway 17 and headed for home.
He concentrated on the road. It seemed like hours, days, maybe years since he’d climbed into the Saturn. Ahead, at last, the road to home opened up on the right. He slowed, turned, and glanced up again. The full moon winked down at him as he passed beneath a canopy of trees and tried not to watch the shadows. Tried to remember which was real and which the dream. Shifted down through layers to life.
He stepped from his car and mounted the steps to home in shadow, deepened by the moonless sky.
—- David Niall Wilson
(This is a post from our past, a golden oldie to fill a gap. Starting next month we have three new Storyteller Members to introduce, and we’re excited about it. I hope you enjoy this, and accept our apology for the weekend…Wayne and I had some technical back-and-forth glitches and the holiday ate his post. Tomorrow you’ll get the marvelous Dick Hill…today you have to settle for me…)
David Niall Wilson
My current project, which started out as a biography, has gotten me thinking about history again. The recent hoopla over a million little half-truths and made up facts pushed me deeper into the same thoughts. Any of you who have known me for a long time will remember my going off on this subject a time or two. I won’t call it a pet peeve, because that phrase is a pet peeve of mine…but what is history, really?
I don’t remember how old I was when it first occurred to me that a thing being written in a history book did not make it so; that the news didn’t necessarily happen just as it was reported, and that baseball radio announcers might not even be calling games the way they actually saw them. That’s an eye-opening factoid for a young man, let me tell you, and formative in ways that other life-lessons can never be.
Maybe it was the year in high school I accidentally signed up for both Ancient History and Western Civilization. Ancient History was the college preparatory class, and Western Civilization, as it turned out, was for those with less aptitude and concentration to spare. They covered the same period in history, as it turns out, and they covered them differently. One class taught that Babylon was the first great civilization, while the other talked about ancient Sumer, the Zoroastrians, and drilled down into the deeper facts. Fool that I was, I pointed this out to the Western Civilization teacher, thinking that maybe he was just ill-educated, and didn’t know about ancient Sumer. Maybe he really thought the Babylonians were first, and it was my duty to set him straight.
I was removed from the class and enrolled in “Individual Research in Social Studies,” where I had to write a fifty page research paper, and history continued down its two separate roads without a hitch in its giddy-up over my concerns. In any case, that was the start of it. I don’t think I gave it much more thought back then because I had a week to catch up on researching my paper “The Opium Trade Between China and Great Britain in the 1840s,” and I didn’t have much time on my hands.
It hit me again standing in a news stand one day and reading headlines about what appeared to be the same events, but with entirely skewed “facts”. I started wondering which attitude was written into the history books, and where one could find a true accounting of anything if everything ever recorded was subject to bias. The annals of history crumbled in my mind, and I began to think more for myself. It was a good thing, I’m convinced, but one that had to be kept in check and watched constantly. If you worry over it too much you start to think that if enough people say it long enough the textbooks will report the second gunman on the grassy knoll as fact, and that H. G. Wells was the first reporter with a bird’s eye view of the Martian invasion. It’s funny, and it’s not, because repeated over and over enough times, words become history.
Words that are not repeated enough times slip through the cracks, as well, leaving people with the impression that some things never happened, when they did. It’s an impossible conundrum. You don’t know who or what to trust, so you become a historian, of sorts, in your own right, hoping to patch together a sequence of historical events that is comfortable to you, and that you can live with. It’s best if you can find a good, solid support group of like-minded pseudo-historians to back up your theories.
How does this apply to writing? In the case of the biography I’m writing, which is the story of a psychedelic band from the 1960s, it’s crucial. Running through the stories and memories of the band members, I find threads of things they all remember, and believe. I find stories only one of them remembers, or that some fan told them about, but that none of them remember. Dates are jumbled, names and places run together, then apart, and my determination, after long thought, is that it doesn’t matter. If I capture the spirit of the days when the band was working its way to fame, then I’ve done my job. If the events, dates, relationships, and hair-colors don’t match up to exact history, what difference does it make? If the four guys involved don’t’ remember the details, who does? Do they even exist, at this point in time? I’m not sure. I am sure that there is an amazing story waiting to be told, and that if I get mired in the detailed history of it, it will bog down and never get written, but if I go with the flow and apply myself to getting “in character,” I can produce something that will give the reader the “feel” of that time, and that band. The experience is what is important, and what remains of those now are the strongest parts – the parts that time couldn’t kill. Those are what matter most. What happened in the 60s – for all intents and purposes – appears to have stayed there in large degree, but we can visit it, recreate it, and find the magic that gave four college boys with dreams, an RCA recording contract and a chance to stand on stage with Iron Butterfly and Dick Clark. And we can experience what it was like to have that, and just walk away.
Years from now readers may study this book, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To Woodstock,” and spread it as gospel. It may become a definitive history of the band, or it may sink into oblivion as so many other books have done, unnoticed. If any of you run across such a reader, and they start babbling to you about the exact events of a night in 1967, or a concert in 1969, just smile and nod, and say, “Yeah, that Dave Wilson sure knew his stuff.” History is full of little secrets like that.
I have a lot of vivid memories of Hurricane Isabel. Isabel was a Category 2 hurricane when it hit my home town of Hertford, NC in September of 2003. There were trees uprooted, roofs sheared off, and roads cut off completely to traffic. I was caught in the middle of it with my family. The widow’s walk tore off the roof of my house and fell in the pool while I stood on the porch and watched. Trees older than my great grandparents would be, if any of them were alive, ripped up and fell. My street was without power for a week; living through that storm, and the power-outage that followed was an eye-opening experience.
Many of you already know that I wrote my memories of that storm, and a lot of other things, into my novel “The Mote in Andrea’s eye.” There are other stories, though. Things like hurricanes leave big marks and the memories they carve are deep and lasting. I was reminded of one just the other day when I saw an odd mark in the asphalt in a parking lot. It looked (and looks still) exactly like a giant footprint made by a rubber wading boot, complete with the distinctive tread and the shape of the foot. It is such a startling likeness that my imagination kicked immediately into overdrive. It also made me remember something else about Hurricane Isabel that I thought I’d share. File this on the shelf with all the other places we get our ideas.
When they finally cleared route 17 back through the Great Dismal Swamp, which runs for about 12 miles directly along the long coastal waterway that stretches all the way to Florida, I returned to work, and life. I had an hour commute one way, and every day I drove through that swamp. All long that road crews had come through with chainsaws and just sawed the fallen trees off even with the road – there were too many for them to carry away, and the best they could manage was to cut a swatch through where the road ran to get traffic moving.
I took it all in, driving a little more slowly than usual. It’s a dangerous, narrow road in the best of times – has a sign at either end proclaiming the number of those who have died on the road to be 26 since some year in the 1980s – hasn’t been updated in a long time, but the message is clear enough. Since then they’ve installed a bypass with four fast lanes and fewer dangling trees, but that’s not important to this little tale.
So – there I was, driving along, when suddenly, I saw something, did a double-take, and I had to stop. I pulled to the side of the road, crossed over and stared at the pavement. The edge of the asphalt was scored. Deeply. It wasn’t like something crushed it, but more like huge claws had dug into it – about six of them, a huge saurian back foot ripping the pavement in passing. I’m not particularly superstitious, but that sight chilled me. I was the only car on the road, most businesses were still without power, and people were home.
I looked into that swamp, and I wondered. I knew the marks were probably the mark of the roots of some old tree that was picked up and bodily dragged across the road by the storm, except that I couldn’t see it that way. I couldn’t see how a tree could make the marks, and I couldn’t think of anything else that could make those marks — so my mind built a dragon. It even put the smashed trees into a different perspective, because on one side of the road, the trees had fallen one direction, but on the side with scored ruts, they were smashed in the opposite direction. That means they fell against the wind of the storm.
I never pass that spot without looking at the gouges in the asphalt, and wondering. I see the giant rubber boot print every day on my way to work. One day the words will come…
This has been David Niall Wilson, standing in for the lovely and talented Justine Musk…
(Since we had no extra essay left this month for the 31st, I split the extra day with Mr. Steinberg – We’ll resume our normal schedule on the 1st.)
By David Niall Wilson
Life is full of situations that make us consider and reconsider the decisions we’ve made. What if I’d gone to college straight out of high school? What if I’d gone to the Naval Academy instead of boot camp? What if I’d settled into writing in the eighties instead of talking about it on through until the nineties and had not missed that big horror boom? These are decisions and behaviors I can look back on and say I could have done things differently. We all have points like that in our lives…you can’t avoid them. Most of us who write incorporate them into the lives of our characters and the plots of our towns and worlds so we can work back through them, examine them, dissect and improve on them.
But that’s not what this essay is about. The fact is that not every turn on the road from here to there has a choice associated with it. Not a real choice. Lately I’ve given this some serious thought. In June I lost a job that was supporting my family pretty well. I was not happy with the job, but it paid the bills…there was no future in it, but it was something I’d come to depend on. Then I lost it. I lost it for a number of abstract and concrete reasons, but at the root of it all I lost it because it just wasn’t a viable choice. Not for me.
You can’t make yourself do something you are miserable doing forever. You can try, but in some way it will all break down – either YOU will crumble and become a shell of what you were, or the situation will break down and spit you out. There really isn’t a good, happy medium in a situation like that. People have integral needs, desires, goals and emotional anchors. These things can’t be ignored forever. They can be glossed over, pushed aside, nailed into coffins (they almost always rot or crumble, these coffins, but if not that’s where you’ll end your days) but they will not go away.
What I’m getting at is the intangibles that make life worth living. I have some beliefs that I know don’t work for everyone in the universe. What I don’t know is how any OTHER outlook could allow someone to survive. For instance, I was in a bad marriage a few years back. I had withdrawn into a junk-cluttered room by myself, had withdrawn into the Internet to live, drank myself silly and very nearly lost my career as a writer in the jumble. My friends wouldn’t visit because they hated the situation…my kids walked on eggshells not to send their mother off on a tirade…in other words…it wasn’t good. My philosophy on situations like that is that you leave. Others have told me in varying degrees, you work it out, you get counseling, you compromise, and I am here to tell you that these are stopgaps on the drain-flush highway – you are headed to the door and you are better off stepping through it on your own power. You get yourself into a situation you CAN live with and you get through. You clean up your act and you move on. Hopefully in the process you become someone that is of use to those around you once again. That’s what I did (I was fortunate enough to gain the support of the woman I love along the way, but with or without that I had to get out, or die – internally first, and probably physically much sooner than I believe is now likely).
I believe you do what you have to do to keep yourself sane. Writing is like that for me. I could turn off my computer, go to work and focus on contracts and computers and bringing home the paycheck every week – spend the rest of my hours working on the house and barbecuing steaks on the grill. I could have hobbies, take on a second job, learn to paint – start the band I never quite started – all of that seems logical. Logic, of course, has nothing to do with it. I could do any and all of those things, but while I did them I’d be thinking about writing. I’d be plotting and sub-plotting, wondering what might happen if I started putting words in front of one another again and worried about what will happen if I stop. The situation would break down and spit me out – or I would crumble and become something else – someone else – someone less than I am without the potential I feel whirling inside me every day of my life…
I don’t know if writing is a gift. If it is a gift, I don’t know that my own slice of that pie is large enough to be considered particularly special. All indications are that I’m going to make a very small ripple in the world of literature, but the voices in my head tell me otherwise, and I’ve come to trust them implicitly with my sanity. They may be full of crap, but they keep me going. It doesn’t really matter, in the end. Writing is an essential part of me…something I can’t deny, and would not survive well without. When a couple lives together for most of their lives, and one of them passes on…it’s a statistical fact that the other usually follows very close behind. When military men who have spent a lifetime at war are turned back into the civilian world, their life expectancy is short.
I’m fortunate that writing is not like a military career. Even if no one ever pays me for it I can keep writing. Even if I become one of those crotchety old guys who tell all the young folks what it was like in the day and go on and on about my sad, past successes without selling anything new, I can write. I can keep putting the words in order because I see how they should fit. I can do it whether it matters to anyone else or not…
But writing is like a love affair, and if the writing was to die? If I had to just live like someone who has no ability, or desire, to create? Well, I’d follow pretty close on the tail of the words…as they petered out and died, that would mirror in my life until there was no life left to mirror it in…and I would fade like old ink on low grade, acidic paper.
The answer to the riddle then — what does the title have to do with this essay? Simply this.
Why do I write the words, the stories, the novels, and the dreams?
Because they’re there, of course…because they’re there…