Category Archives: Writing

Blogging for the Future

Here is how I find my most productive place to write, during a chaotic day.

First, I shut my eyes, and then I try to take a few deep breaths. That’s right folks: I type with my eyes closed. Then I focus on what the sounds are that are running through my head.There are so many other sounds here in the living room. Alex grunting on the couch; the cat yowling at my feet (apparently we starve the poor guy); and Judi watching the Outlander program she loves so much. Outlander is loud, with people speaking in English/Scottish accents. It’s so compelling. It’s hard to type when Scottish people are compelling.

And then I feel the pressure of the keys against my fingers. They just feel right somehow, the way right things should feel: the pad of my fingertips know the way to go, to produce the messages I want to say, when there is one. sometimes there is just no message though. Sometimes there is just nonsense.

Today, I am thinking about my family history.

I have been thinking of my past; specifically of the old folks I knew, but I didn’t really bother to learn from. Uncle Stanley and Aunt Elizabeth. Wilma Walker. Uncle Bob and Auntie Millie. Enid Hurst. Elma Ismert. My grandma Myrt’s sisters, Elanor and Wanda. These folks were all uncles and aunts and distant cousins. But almost never did I take the time to sit down and have a really good chat with them. Not to discover basic family facts, like birth dates, nor even deeper facts like what their schoolhouses looked like. But what I lament is that I never got to learn if they were sarcastic, or loving (I’m not entirely convinced these two are opposites), or angry, or prideful, or covered in some secret emotion nobody has discovered yet. My list is long. I knew so many of these people ,but I didn’t really know them. I mowed their lawns and did odd chores around their houses: (my great grandmother’s sisters Aunt Gladys & Aunt Mabel, for example) but I let all those opportunities slip past.

It’s too late to complain now. I’m doing what I can to gather up information about them. But how do you really know a person?

Here’s an example of something. My Grandpa’s grandfather was shot and killed by his son. He died in the hospital in Auburn, California. I just found this “Admitted to Placer County Hospital March 12, 1905, Age: 45. Resident of Lincoln. Gunshot Wound – shot by son Claus, age 14. (Doesn’t mention if it was a accident.)” Was my great great grandfather a kind man? the one picture I saw of him and his wife, they seemed happy. She was touching his arm a bit more intimately than you usually see in pictures of that era. But who knows if this is really what he was like? Was he a violent drunk? Was he abusive one moment, and charming the next? Maybe it really was an accident and my Uncle Claus was totally innocent.

And there was another great grandfather, who died around the turn of the century. He joined the Union army in Iowa, marched with his company down to a swamp in Arkansas, got sick, and was shipped home a couple months later. He was given a tombstone by the government for his service. But what service?

This is, partly, why I write blogs today. I don’t want my grand-descendants to say “Who was that guy?” I’d be a series of dates and nothing else. There is a bit of pride involved, but more than this, I feel like I have something to say sometimes. Or do I? I mean, look at today’s blog. It is pretty inconsequential, and I’m typing with my eyes closed, for goodness sake. What kind of information can I push to forward generations with my eyes closed? So that’s my fixation with Genealogy. Maybe one or two people will even remember my name in 2115. Even if I am a footnote, as long as I can leave some kind of imprint on the earth, I guess I can live what that.


Four Book Reviews

When I opened up this page, I had no idea if I’d written anything this morning. I think I tackled my Zahnie story and managed about 50 words before I went to look up the birth date of a relative, and that got my focus out of hand. I did genealogy for the next 3 1/2 hours. I’m nothing if not distractable.

So now its 10:45 PM, a full 15 hours since I sat down to write, and I discovered I had very little to say. To get my 750 words captured, I decided to write down a few thoughts about the books I’d read recently.

Cassandra Clare. City of Bones. Mortal Instruments; Book 1. A teenage girl becomes embroiled with a group of Shadow Hunters, monster fighters. A truly uninspired plot. Predictable at every moment. The protagonist was uninspiring and bland. The protagonist’s love interest: well, let’s just say that the relationship turned very Luke-and-Leia at the end. How horrible was the plot? There was even a “Leia, I am your father. Search yourself–you know it to be true” moment between the main character and the antagonist. She was betrayed by her mentor/teacher. I saw all Clare’s plot twists several chapters before they happened. There was tons of humor about bad cooking and bad poetry and teenage angst. It all fell flat. She does manage to write LGBT couples with without batting an eye. She treats romantic relationships with an extremely heavy hand. I won’t be reading the second, or fifth, or even the 6th book in the series. I know this cast of characters have become extremely popular. I know of a person who actually changed their name (the protagonist is called Clary, short for Clarissa) because she loved the Mortal Instruments books so much. Maybe I’m being too harsh. But this book seems to be a creepy excited fangirl overreaction. Kick me if I ever change my name because I loved a book too much. 1 star of 5.

Susanna Clarke. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This book is all about English magic, which has disappeared and two magicians who are bringing the magic back. It reads like a period piece written by Jane Austen, but with extra snark. The book had a fun sardonic tone throughout. The primary characters are cool. Even the minor characters are interesting. She injects anecdotes and stories about magic users that are comical throughout the novel. There are also characters pulled through real history: Duke Wellington. Napoleon. Lord (prime minister) Liverpool. Crazy King George III. The system of magic is interesting. Faeries are not the fun, fluttery kind. They are mysterious and scary as hell. Clarke’s book is part alternate history, part drawing-room novel, and part faerie tale. Brilliant, funny, readable from beginning to end. You never know what the plot will bring from one moment to the next. Entirely original. 5 Stars of 5.

Victoria Aveyard. Red Queen. In this book’s world, there are two kinds of people: Reds and Silvers. The Reds live in perpetual slave status to the socially superior Silvers. Silvers have magic powers (and silver blood; thus their name). The story is about one Red girl who is thrust into the middle of Silver Court society. The book is very good. The climax was fantastic. I blasted through the final 2 hours. I was taken along for the ride, hating the bad guys, just like the author hoped. There was a betrayal at the end, which propelled us into the final third of the book. I saw it coming from early on, even though there was no mention of it. This made me simultaneously upset, because she should have given the reader an indication this would happen , or possibly because I saw it coming so far in advance. The characters are compelling, and Red Queen has possibly cleared the way for a romance in a sequel. I don’t know; maybe a sequel has been written already. 4 Stars of 5.

V.E. Schwab. A darker Shade of Magic. Schwab imagines a world where four versions of London are overlaid onto one another, in different realities. Only the protagonist, a magician called Kell, can travel between the four. This book is unexpectedly well done. The author is not afraid of beating up her characters; particularly Kell. It was refreshing to get a heroine out of Delilah who isn’t just a love interest. In my opinion, this should happen more often in both film and written fiction. Delilah holds her own throughout; and is quite frequently the more interesting of the two protagonists. And there are deaths in the book. Schwab is unafraid to kill people off. I had a few quibbles about her tendency jumping between narrative points of view. The Antagonists (the King and Queen of White London) are sufficiently evil to satisfy even the most evil of the evil-seeking folks. In fact, they may have been a bit too flat. If they had been given a bit more motivation than “I love power,” it may have Strengthened the story. Schwab has a beautiful narrative voice. In fact within 10 pages of starting the novel, I thought “It’s a book I’d like to say I’d written.” Apart from one or two quibbles about anachronisms (Gray London OUR 1816 London) and a truly evil Lord of the Rings-style ring of power artifact, I was very happy with the overall effect. I look forward to reading something else by her in the future. 4 Stars of 5.

Why Read a Bad Story?

I’m listening to an audio book I don’t like. I’ve listened for about 5 hours, but I’m not giving up. It bothers me that I can’t figure out why I don’t like it.  A writer I admire said, “Find the books that gives you feels, and then figure out why it is giving you feels. Then write books with scenes like that.”I just finished Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It was a fantastic book. And before that, I enjoyed the Raven King series by Maggie Stiefvater. I felt that, as a writer, I took away a lot from both titles. So now I’m reading a book that isn’t dreadful, so much as completely unremarkable. And that, to me, is probably a worse crime at this stage in my writing career.

So the opposite holds true. Find the books with “feels”? Find the ones that make your eyebrows arch. The ones that make you exclaim “No no no!” because every time I read a passage, it’s like the shaggy dialog gave my eyeballs carpet burn. Or when I see a scene is so clogged with crap, I want to call a septic tank guy.

I understand that it’s not because I’m necessarily a better writer than this author. At least I don’t think so. I don’t know how well I can sustain a scene, because I’ve never written more than 20 pages of the same thing, before I grow tired of what I am writing, and feel the urge to move on. It’s because, for me, at least, the cardinal sin of a writer is this: don’t write stuff that pulls the reader out of the world you’re trying to create.

But think of it this way. You want to immerse yourself in a story you can’t put down. Every time you binge-watch a series on Netflix, you are basically doing the same thing: you’re jumping into into a world. And you watch that second episode, that third episode, and the fourth, even though it’s after midnight, and the fifth (my lord, I have to be up at 6AM): every episode is all about putting your heart into the characters, or the plot; simply said, you’re in the “world” of that story.

That’s all easy to admit, but hard to define. What interests me to day is the things that rip your eyes away from a story? What makes a bad story bad? What makes you want to check your watch or think, halfway through a story, “I should really call my car insurance broker. It’s been awhile since we’ve had a really good chat”?

For this book1 the first thing I noticed were its cliche phrases. I am annoyed by characters who constantly “peer owlishly” or who “mutter peevishly.” People who “sit ramrod straight” or have a “furious scowl”.

There is a wonderful quote from the movie Dead Poet’s Society:

Avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys–to woo women–and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do.

The character was teaching boys  in a 1950s preparatory academy, so the slight sexism can be forgiven, maybe? The point I’ve always taken away from this scene was this: language is powerful. And lazy language is the opposite. Choosing exactly the right word (if I can conjure it): that is one luxury I will always have as a writer. So why waste it with “sparkling eyes” and people who “flounce in?”

Another thing that bothers me about this book: characters are dressed like paper dolls. The goth, the jock, the nerd, the heroine, the cheerleader. You don’t know a person by how they dress, even though you can describe a pleated cotton miniskirt, or pom poms, or whatever. These characters move around mechanically, reacting exactly the same to whatever situation, whether they’re being attacked by monsters, or confronted by teachers, or greeting one another. They are, in a word, dull.

A few years ago, I played The Sims. Maybe you remember the game. The player would create a character, and then you would build them a house. The Sim would announce its basic needs, for example, its urge to pee, and as the creator, you would need to supply them with a bathroom. They could tell you about being hungry, but they wouldn’t cook or eat, without you. The sims were like little cornhusk dolls, and you created the story around them. They had form and substance, but you provided their soul. You could make them flirt with neighbors, or buy a pet, or remodel a house. You could choose their job. Each choice made your character who they were.

Without soul, we are ugly little cornhusks. And so, like them, are any flat characters writers create. It isn’t enough for a character to have a goal. You need a reason behind that goal, or else the character’s life isn’t really worth reading about.

With that thought, a final quote from the Dead Poets Society:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. So medicine, law, business, engineering… these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love… these are what we stay alive for.

I can only hope that the characters I write are never monotonous. I hope I can always learn when I read a story, even if it’s just a counterexample from a badly-written book.

1I’ll refrain from mentioning the author or the title of the book I’m not enjoying, because I don’t want anybody to rush out and buy it on my account.

Mrs. Johnstone and The Cupboard of Lost Things

When she was still young, Mrs. Johnstone had a cupboard, which, when opened, revealed All The Lost Things belonging to her neighbours. She kept The Things upon rows and rows of neat little shelves, which lined her pantry.  Not everyone was the equal to the task of hoarding them, but she was no slouch, and over the years Mrs. Johnstone had become an expert at labeling, and assembling, and finding a home for Lost Things.

Continue reading Mrs. Johnstone and The Cupboard of Lost Things

Telling Lies for a Living

I’ve been writing every day for almost a hundred days now, and for the vast majority of those days (ninety, I think), I’ve put something on my blog for folks to read. During these three months, I have written every day, even if I haven’t posted anything.

Continue reading Telling Lies for a Living

Zahnie (Part 4)

Asa Crook was a real person. I am trying my best to give utmost respect to historical persons in my writing. If I failed, please understand that I mean no ill will toward any readers who might be related to him.


People want land for different reason. For some folks, land is subsistence. We live on a piece of land, and we can’t ask much in return. It tolerates us, as we take what we need. It would just as soon open up a hole into nowhere, and  bury us all inside it. It is strong, and inexorable. The land belongs to itself unequivocally.

And then, for some folks, land is power. Land grows things despite itself. If you convert the product of that land into something that people want; lumber, or butter from the cattle you have raised, or gold you have sluiced off a riffle, you can exchange the fruits of the land for something you want. Something more, something better. If you own more land, you own more power. Power brings you riches and fame, which allows you to buy more power.

I’m not sure where I land on this (the pun was intended). Maybe someplace there is a middle ground (Ground. Get it? Never mind. Alpharetta is the only one who ever liked my jokes). I’m no railroad baron or mining company boss. But I’m also not going to roll over the moment my homestead is four feet underwater when Pistol River overflows its banks.

And if land was power, certainly my friend Asa Crook had lots of both. Recently the county had elected him as their representative up in Salem. He was a small, rounding man, dressed in a black wool suit. What was left of his mousy hair was parted just-so to the side, and an anemone mustache that curled over his mouth. I don’t know how he wasn’t sweating through that black suit of his. Maybe you don’t feel the need to sweat when you own more land than the Walkers, and the Lawrences, and the Ismerts, and the Prestons all put together. Not that he was a stranger to hard work. He was quite a stout fellow in his heyday.

We had been clearing brush all morning with Coalman Gillespie and a bunch of hired Indians, when Ace rode over schoolhouse ridge looking all sensible and organized. A huge smile was under that mustache. “Friend William,” he said, holding out his hand. “Your place is looking fine. Fine indeed!” He was a human magnet. Everybody outside his circle wanted to be inside. And those inside his circle generally wanted to be even closer.

I smiled back, and shook his hand. “How is your wife?”

“Oh, Ellen, you know her. Working hard, working hard.”

Coalman sidled up next to me and squinted. “How you doin’, Mister Crook?” he said, removing his floppy felt hat to wipe his brow, his bared forearms all coiled and sweaty.

“Mister Gillespie,” Ace nodded.

“Won’t you come inside?” I asked politely. “Alpharetta’s just pressed a fresh batch of apple juice.”

“Do you know, I believe I will.” He exclaimed, and he dismounted, tossing the reins to Coalman without looking at the boy.

“Coalman, could please you take care of Mr. Crook’s horse?” He glared at nobody in particular and led the horse to the hitching rail. I went inside, beckoning Ace to follow me into the house.

The kitchen was whitewashed, with a plank table occupying most of its center. We walked inside and with a jerk of my head, I motioned for Asa to sit on one of the long benches. Our home smelled of smoked meats and baked bread and of the onions hanging out of the way in the dark. To our left, an eternal pot of red beans was simmering on the stove, next to another pot, kept at a low boil so we had hot water. The room had been gloriously well lit ever since I had put in a window on the eastern side of the room. Alpharetta loved watching the sun rise while she kneaded dough in the morning. I pulled out two large pewter mugs from the cupboard and drew golden liquid out of the oak barrel in the corner, setting one in front of Asa. I threw a leg over the bench, and sat across from him.

“Now, what can I do for you, Mister Crook?”

“Come now, Zahnie. How many years have we known one another?”

“I came to Pistol River twenty years ago, I suppose, give or take a few years.”

“That’s right. So you’ve more than earned the right to call me Ace. What’s with all this Mister Crook business?”

“Well, look at you!” I gestured to the somber black suit he was wearing. “It’s like you’re headed to a funeral, or posing for picture. You might be a politician or something.”

“Damn right I might be.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Well, I didn’t vote for you.”

“Zahnie!” He acted shocked, but his eyes sparkled with a story. “Remember that time we were up in the mountains on the Preston place, catching the wild cattle?”

“I sure do. You hired two men just to haul Ellen’s stove up into the woods, piece by piece, so she could cook for us. And I remember who had to haul it back, too.”

“Wasn’t it glorious?” He looked up into the rafters, letting his arms drop to his sides.

“I couldn’t get out of bed for two days.”

“They say you should lift with your legs and not your back, Zahnie.”

“Shut up, your honor.” I smiled at the memory. Remember how we were just young and crazy enough to build that cattle chute in a breezeway between the two cabins, and connect the whole thing to a corral? They were so wild they wouldn’t come near the cabins and so smart they wouldn’t come near our cattle chute.”

“And then that one bull came running through at full speed when I was standing in the chute. Something spooked it out of the woods.”

“Yellow jackets can be pretty angry certain times of the year.”

“I’m pretty sure your jacket was brown, Zahnie.”

I grinned. “I’d never seen anything move as fast as you. You just leapt up both sides of the chute, grabbed the rafters, and straddled the bull while it ran straight underneath you.”

“Almost lost my nuggets that day,” the short man laughed.

I snorted. “You probably deserved it.”

“I supposed I did,” he said with another chuckle. “Ah. Those were days. Times were hard. Hard but good.”

We were both silent as we took a few sips from our mugs. Then we set them down simultaneously, pewter rapping the planks. This brought him out of reverie.

“Well, Zahnie, I’m a politician now.”

I nodded, once, to my old friend. “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”

He blew out a puff of air.

“What do you need, Ace? Just come out and say it.”

“I’m that transparent, eh? Well, all right then.” He thought about his words for a minute. “Zahnie, do you have everything you need?”

“Of course I do. I have this place. I have Alphie, and I’m happy.”

“What about that day? What if you had more?”

I went stiff. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes you do. What if, on that day, you’d had the right supplies?”

I said nothing, so he continued. “They wouldn’t have died you know. At least not all of them. What if you had a sluice to bring water down from the hills? Or maybe a house built from brick instead of this, this…” He gestured around himself. “Hewn timber. What if you had linens and medicines? What if you had coal oil instead of wood fires? What if you had ammunition? Can you say, honestly, in your heart of hearts, that they would have all died?”

“I don’t want to think about it,” I told him quietly.

“I know you don’t, Zahnie, but you have to listen to me. I’m simply saying, having the right tools could have made all the difference. You’re smart. You had people who love you.”

“I still have Alphie,” I interrupted.

“Yes you do, and she’s as fine a woman as can be found in this county. But I’m saying, what if Hiram had lived? What if Mary Lee or Sarah or Elias had made it? This country is a harsh one and it does not give itself willingly to us.”

“What are you getting at?” I demanded.

“What I’m getting at is this. If you’d had medicine, if you’d had bandages, if you had neighbors who could be here in ten minutes instead of six hours, your children would have lived. You wouldn’t be homesteading. You’d be a land owner.” He took a huge swallow from his mug and slammed it onto the table. He wiped his mustache on a sleeve. He was getting loud.

“That’s all I’ve got to say. If your friends had a way in, if you had supplies… If you could even get supplies. What we needed is roads through here. Not just a ship that docks at Arch Rock every six months, trades our butter and wool for …” He grasped for words. “For the things we actually need. Flour. Sugar. Pins. Cast iron stoves. For God’s sake, man. For medicine.”

I was furious. I spat out, “You brought my children up because the county needs roads? “Damn you, Ace.” Tears began to run from you eyes. “Just… Damn you…”

“No. You misunderstand me. We need what the roads can bring. We all need…”

At that moment Alpharetta came in, wiping her hands on the canvas apron she wore. Her graying hair was tied back in a bun and she shook her head, sweat flying off.

“Whoo!” She exclaimed. “It’s hot as August out there. Of course, now that I give it some thought, it is August, ain’t it?” She smiled. “The new boy just told me some news. I was cutting brush out there with the Indians, and he just come up and tells me that the honorable representative Asa H. Crook was here, in my very own kitchen?”

We both stood. I blinked away tears and just as quickly replaced it with a smile. Ace might have knocked over a bench. He recovered quickly and clasped hands with my wife. “Missus Zahniser! What a pleasure to see you! My compliments on the fine crop of apples this year!”

“Why thank you. They are Gravensteins. From Denmark. Sweetest apples in the country. But this year the apples was all my doing, and only me. Mother Nature, God bless her, had nothing to do with them. I’m just sweet enough.” she winked. “And just the right amount of tart, I might add.”

Ace smiled broadly. “Indeed you are! And, Madam, if you ever tire of this big lanky drink of water… I’m sure I know a man who would fall head over heels for such a beautiful woman as yourself.”

She blushed slightly, but rejoined with “And if I ever needed a tree stump with a sea lion mustache, I’m sure I know right where to find him.”

We all laughed. Alphie winked at me, and I felt better somehow.

“Now what’s this about roads, Ace?”

“Oh. You heard that?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes. “Hard not to, what with two grown men shouting in my kitchen,” she added. “If you make my bread dough collapse and there will be hell to pay.”

He began again. “About that dough. What if you had all the flour you needed? What if you didn’t have to store it up, and pick out the weevils? What if…”

“Cut the crap, Ace. Nobody likes a politician around here.”

His face went stiff, but he nodded. “All right. The county needs your bit of property adjoining the river. We need to build a road through, and then put a bridge on that land.”

“Is that all? Now that wasn’t so hard to say, was it?” asked Alphie in a sugar-sweet tone. “You just needed to ask.”

“I suppose you’re right,” he admitted.

“And if you ever bring up the children around Zahnie within my hearing: I swear, Asa H. Crook, you will catch my own personal version of hell for you.”

“I suppose you’re right,” he said again.

“Now finish your apple juice and get out of my kitchen.” We had been dismissed. We both tipped back our mugs, nodded to my wife, and left through the back door, meek as schoolchildren.

“You boys rinse out those mugs and bring them back, you hear?” she shouted.

Asa cocked an eyebrow at me. “That’s one formidable woman.”

I nodded, the thin patch of once-blonde hair falling into my eye. “Why do you think I married her? She *made* me.”

We rinsed out our mugs and brought them right back to the Missus.

Zahnie (part 3)

Early that August, Coalman Gillespie and I walked side by side on the old Indian trail from Ellensburg. I like to think that I, at least, was enjoying the hike through the woods. Like most sixteen year old boys, he was a skinny coil of wire inside, all ready to spring. We both carried full packs, and my hand carried the old gun, in case we ran into something with teeth and claws.It was hot, and the trail was dusty.

The lad’s head was covered in bristly dark hair, which in turn was covered by an old, dying felt hat with a floppy brim. His nose was almost flat, like someone had clubbed him hard, and it just happened to stick that way. He squinted a lot, like he’d stared into the sun too long. Maybe he was nearsighted.

Grandma Gillespie was very sick, almost eighty years old, and she was the only one who could control her grandson. When Coalman’s daddy died, well, it turns out he was too much even for Grandma. He tore around the country with his friends got up to all sorts of trouble. So, since she was one of the first people in the country we had known when we started proving up the homestead, Alphie and I told her we would take the lad out to the place.

I’m simply dreadful at making light conversation. I am a person who does things, rather than says things. “I think you’ll like it on the ranch. Mrs. Z is a great cook. Do you like chicken?”

“Sure,” he replied. Coalman had a long, green whippy stick that he’d picked up, and was using it like a switch, lashing out at huckleberry bushes, and the tiny dark green leaves all over the dusty path in front of us.

“Maybe she will fry up a hen tonight. Also, there’s kids your age. Ismerts live just on the other side of the river. Crooks and Walkers just downstream. Lawrences live upstream from us. Maybe you’ve seen them in town.”

“Mmm.” Whip whip whip.

“Yep. Lots of girls and boys. Schoolhouse is right up on the ridge about the homeplace. Say, do you like fishing?”

“Yes I like fishing. Listen, Mister Zahnizer, meaning no disrespect here, why are you asking me all this?” His voice sounded rough, a shovel digging through course gravel.

“Well, you’re going to be with us awhile. Figured I should get to know you, son.”

He stopped switching. “Not your son,” he said, with a heavy emphasis on the word not.

“No offense.” I muttered. This kid was prickly.

“After all, I’m kind of busy here,” he said. He went back to flashing his switch like a saber. A low hanging spruce branch was his target now. Sharp, itchy needles rained everywhere.

My eyebrows raised involuntarily. “Well, all right, then.”

We walked in silence for a few miles before I said another word.

That word was lunch. It seemed to get his attention.

I unwrapped a thick slice of smoked salmon that I’d bought at Edson’s store. Coalman grabbed at the fish, stick dropped by the wayside, and began breaking off chunks big enough to choke a less careful person.

I turned my head so he wouldn’t see me smiling. Boys are always like starving forest creatures, and this one was no different.

“Can I have another?”

I nodded and removed the paper around the next salmon steak, handing it his direction. He ate the second one just as quickly as the first and asked for water. I had a tin canteen slung over my shoulder, and handed it his direction. He took a few swigs, and wiping his mouth with his sleeve, handed it back.

“Feeling better?” I asked.

“I suppose,” he said. He looked vaguely dissatisfied now that his stick was missing, but we kept our pace in the August dust.

“Hey,” he asked suddenly. “What’s the biggest thing you ever killed?”

I nearly broke our pace.

“Well, I don’t know. A bull ox, most likely. It broke its leg and we couldn’t do anything for it.”

“I killed a sea lion once. Big one. Right out on the rocks by Hume’s cannery. Shot it right between the eyes.”

I grunted because I wasn’t really sure what a person should say.

He continued his story. “There were sea lions hanging around, looking for rubbish from the cannery. I sighted up and bang!” He pantomimed the act of firing a rifle.. “He dropped like a log, right into the river. Then the rest of them, they jumped into the surf and started honking like a bunch of geese. I laughed and laughed.” As if to demonstrate, he laughed again, long as a rasp. It went on well after the tears began running out of his squinty eyes.

I was so surprised I could only say “Why?”

He misunderstood my question. What I meant was “Why did the family start barking?” I supposed it was because the creature was near his family, but I don’t know much about sea lions. Or maybe I meant “Why in the name of the Creator did you laugh?”

So when he answered, he was on the defensive. “It’s not like I need a reason to shoot one. It’s just a stupid sea lion. There’s thousands of them, biting the stomachs out of the fish and just leaving them to float around dead. It says in the Word to have Dominion over the beasts in the sea. The earth is for the taking, so I take.”

“That’s true enough, I suppose,” I said. And now that I thought about it, what I probably meant  was “How come you asked me about the all things I’d ever killed?”And I guess he answered that question, and more. So we continued the journey with two different kinds of silence. My silence was awkward, like I’d just sniffed a piece of meat that may, or not, have gone bad. And Coalman, well, his silence was an aggressive, coiled thing, a silent echo of his laugh. We didn’t really have much else to talk about until we reached the ranch.