Long Live Print!

You know the lament: print is dead, and nobody reads anymore, anyway.

I think that’s wrong. And it’s not just because I’m a writer. And, I don’t think it’s as simple a matter as “print is dead;” I think it always comes down to the content.

Take my old hometown’s newspaper, for example. It would be easy to jump on the lamentation bandwagon, beating my chest and crying out that subscriptions have all gone down because the people just won’t support hometown journalism … but, quite frankly, it’s a terrible newspaper that has always been terrible. They consistently print wrong news (not sayin’ it’s fake. No Trumpisms here. It’s just … not correct.) and they can’t seem to find an editor worth her semicolons. They’re a rag. Pure and simple. So I don’t much care whether that particular publication survives the Great Print Purge of the 21st Century.

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But there’ve been some truly great papers starting up lately and, yes, they’re in print. They’re online, too. Take a look at this little beauty: The Knoxville Mercury. It’s one of my favorites, consistently printing stories running the gamut of the Knoxville lifestyle, from a day in the life of a junkie (which spurred an actual lawsuit against Big Pharma for misrepresentation of opioid use. Now that’s good journalism!) to musing on the human detritus that washes up (or away) in the Appalachian wilderness.

I’m a fan of print. I like that I can hold a paper, or book, in my hand. I like that these things aren’t firing photons at my retinas at a rate of one thousand strain-decibels per second. (I made that measurement up. Pretty sure decibels measure sound, anyway. You get the point.) I like that I can pass a print publication to my friend, in person, without a password (unless I just feel like using the old treehouse password for old-time’s sake.)

But, more than being a fan of print, I’m a fan of good content. Not something recycled, not something meme-ed, although I like a good otter pun as much as the next gal. I think that’s what the traditional papers should be pursuing, if they’re interested in staying alive: hire good writers. You’ll probably have to pay them a decent wage. It’s a trade-off that’s worth it.

And if you like the Knoxville Mercury, give ’em five bucks. Their writers probably need a raise.

 

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Poor Valley Witch XI: Walk Into the Fray

Welcome to the eleventh installment of Poor Valley Witch! If you are just tuning in, go here for the first story post.

***

I have to sacrifice myself. It’s what his mother had said. Landon sat on the front stoop of his grandmother’s house, staring out at the tops of the tall pines that marked the highway, way out beyond Cherry Street. And, beyond the highway: Poor Valley. Fireflies were starting to come out, blinking their codes for all to see, if only they could understand it.

Landon felt like he was stuck in that firefly language. He was here, with his family, but he didn’t recognize anything about his life. Everything he’d thought he understood about his family, his history, was upside down. It was sideways. Hell, it wasn’t anything that resembled sense.

He’d thought all the bustle, all the business with the vultures in the attic, and his grandmother’s hoarding the nubbins for the ring, his mother flying up so suddenly from Florida … he’d thought all that had been to save his life, because the witch had put her eye on him. But no, he was supposed to fall on the sword. You’re going to have to sacrifice yourself. It’s what his mother had said. And where the hell was his father? Landon had no idea, hadn’t heard back from the man after texting him earlier.

His mom was asleep in the house, now. Mamaw had made fried bologna sandwiches for them all and tucked his mother into bed in the small guest room, before going to bed herself. Landon had camped out on the couch, but he couldn’t seem to settle his mind, so he came out into the humid night. The summer air humming with cicadas always seemed to soothe him. It made him think of nights, so long ago the memories seemed made-up, he and his family had gone camping.

Landon was afraid. He didn’t know what the witch wanted with him, and his mother hadn’t given him any clarity at all. Did she want a slave? Did she want to marry him as a proxy to his father, who’d left her behind? Did she want to kill him? The tall, black pines swayed against the starry sky. Landon shivered in the warmth.

***

“It’s time to go,” Mom said. Mamaw stood at the kitchen sink, washing the breakfast dishes. Once, when Landon was a kid, the family had gotten together for a great-uncle’s funeral. They had stayed together at Mamaw’s house, had breakfast together. They’d gotten dressed up in their Sunday best and it had felt almost like a vacation, like a reunion, except that between jokes and conversation came waves of tears from Mamaw and even Landon’s dad. He felt like that today, like the warmth and comfort of being with family in the familiar kitchen was a blanket that only hid the sadness that came through like a sharp knife, ripping holes in the illusion.

Landon and his mother stood and walked out of the kitchen. He looked back at Mamaw, once, wondering if she’d come with them. She stood resolutely at the sink, gazing out the window, tears coursing down her cheeks. Silent. Landon turned away and went out, walking to the car, opening the driver’s door. He looked around for his mother and saw that she had already made it to the end of the small gravel drive on foot. He closed the door again and hurried after her. CDs twinkled on their strings in the morning light, tied to the patio chairs and low branches. No vultures were in sight, though. Not this morning.

“We’re going on foot?” Landon caught up to Mom. She nodded and reached out her hand to take his. They set off on Cherry Street, headed toward the highway. To cross it. To get to Poor Valley.

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“When you were born,” said Mom, startling Landon into missing a beat and almost stumbling, “We thought it would be alright, your father and I. Cecilia seemed to forgive us, seemed to wish us well. She even gave you a present!” She shook the mint tin gently in her free hand.

“The ring,” said Landon. He wore it today, on his right pinkie finger.

“The ring.” Mom nodded. “But you got sick the day she gave it to you. You almost died.” She sighed, like telling the story made her tired. “And we knew she’d done something. She’d cast a spell on the ring. So, I took it to a professor. I was still in college when you were born, you know.” He nodded. They walked quietly for a few steps. They were almost to the highway, now. Almost ready to cross over.

“My professor, she thought I was doing research for old Appalachian lore and customs,” his mother continued. “And she found me some books to research, full of stories like what people used to do with placentas, or how the old herb doctors would treat pain. Stuff like that.” She barked a short laugh. “Made me glad I’d had you in the hospital, where they dispose of placentas like they are a biohazard. Probably put it in the incinerator, for all I know.” Landon had no idea what she meant by that, but he decided to let it lie. She seemed to need to talk, so he let her.

“Anyway, I found the information I needed, and I put our blood in a new ring. I remade it in the shop at the community college. I had to carve a mold out of wax, and put it in this clutch of clay, and fire it so the wax dripped out.” They stopped at the edge of the highway, now. A semi truck went by, blowing hot air and tiny bits of road debris into their faces. They turned away, squinting to keep grit out of their eyes. When the coast was clear, mother and son crossed the highway and started up the gentle swell of road on the other side. They passed the little cemetery on the right hand side.

They were going to Poor Valley.

“After the wax dripped out, and the clay cooled, I used the centrifuge to spin the metal, and our blood, into the mold,” his mother continued. She sounded a little strained. He looked at her face, now below his. It gave him a pang to realize that; he was taller than his mother. He’d been taller than her for years, now, but she’d been so distant that he tried not to remember when she had been the one towering over him, bending down to hand him a cookie with a kiss in the soft light of their kitchen. Now, she seemed to be walking against a stiff wind, though Landon could not feel it. She saw him noticing and shook her head, warding off questions. They walked on. Under the boughs of a huge oak tree, now, its roots so old and powerful they pushed up the side of the asphalt road.

“I gave you the ring and kept the nubbins,” she rattled the tin again, “Until Cecilia realized she couldn’t just outright kill us all, anymore. The ring is a powerful charm. But she could hurt us, and she did.”

“She made you leave,” said Landon, his heart pounding. He swallowed down a sob. Walking, and sweating, and dredging up sad memories almost undid him. Mom put an arm out in front of him, like she’d done when she’d taken him places in the car as a kid. She’d called it the Mom-belt. She put her hand holding the mint tin, nubbins inside, out in front like a talisman, then walked forward, pulling him along. They passed through something invisible, and Landon felt a weight he’d only barely been aware of lift away. He could breathe better, and as they kept going, he saw that his mother no longer fought an invisible gale.

“She’s putting up barriers,” said his mother, when he looked at her questioningly. They held hands again. The old trailer house was next, the one where he’d run over the dead dog.

The witch was putting up barriers, and Landon wished with all his heart they weren’t pushing through them. He wanted to turn around with his mother and fly back to Florida with her. He wanted to leave this podunk town and never return.

Landon did not want to see the witch.

***

 

 

 

Poor Valley Witch X: Beginning of the End

Welcome to part X of Poor Valley Witch, my little Appalachian gothic yarn. I’m experimenting with writing this short story as I go, leaving (mostly) warts and all, installing it on my blog on the fly. To start at the beginning, go here. I hope you enjoy!

***

Landon stood looking at his mother through his grandmother’s screen door. It was very late in the day, and the gloom plus the screen made his mother’s face shrouded. Like a bride. Like a widow. He shivered.

“You going to let me in?” she asked. She reached for the door handle with the hand not holding her overnight bag. He stepped back. It had been months since he’d last seen her, and with all that had happened, he felt like he’d never even met her.

They stood in the kitchen together, regarding each other like strange cats.

“You have the ring? The nubbins?” she reached out her hand. Landon put his hand in his pocket, curling his fingers around the mint tin. Something in her face made him hesitate; he didn’t want to hand it over. There was a hardness to his mother’s eyes he’d never seen before. Usually, when he visited her at her condo in Florida, she looked vapid, spacey. Not anywhere near this aware. She curled her fingers in a “come on” motion. He sighed, pulled out the mint tin and put it in her hand.

Opening the rusty lid, she greedily looked inside, counting under her breath before letting out a sigh of relief.

“They’re all there,” she said. “All the nubbins accounted for.”

“Why are they so important?” Landon asked. He followed her to the kitchen table, where they both sat in Mamaw’s old chairs.

“I was still in college when I was pregnant with you,” she said, tapping the metal lid. “I made this ring in class one day. Cecilia had tricked us, your father and I, made us think we’d found a way to protect our little family from her. So, I put some of my blood into the metal before I spun it into the mold. It was the blood we shared, you and I.” She reached out to cover Landon’s hand with her own, caressing the tiny ring on his pinkie finger.

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“Cecilia? That’s her name? The Poor Valley Witch,” he said. His mother nodded. She opened the tin on the table and took out one of the little metal chunks inside.

“If she had the ring, or any part of the metal, she owned us,” she said, softly. “That’s what the spell really did. I got the nubbins back, after I realized how we’d been tricked, but there was a price.” She looked into Landon’s eyes and all her careful barriers dropped. There was no spacey look, no hardness. Only his mother, the way he remembered her from when he was a boy.

“You had to leave,” Landon said. She nodded. “But, she had the ring,” he said, remembering the vultures’ nest up in the attic. “She had all kinds of things of mine.”

“Tell me about it,” his mother said. “Did she give it to you? Or did the vultures have it?” Landon told her everything, about visiting the Valley, about the Baptists singing in the front yard–she laughed aloud at the thought of them being bombarded by streams of vulture crap–and about the quiet, hulking vultures ushering him in to see the nest.

“They gave you back the things?” she said. “Usually the witch keeps … collections, I guess you’d call them, to herself. Sentimental things give her power. But where was the ring?”

“It must have been in the pocket of my old sweatshirt,” he said.

She nodded. “Yes, your father told me you’d lost it years ago,” she said. “You used to wear it, for protection.”

“I used to wear the ring that connected me to the witch?” he asked, incredulous. “That doesn’t make sense!”

She shrugged. “Catch a tiger by its toe.”

“What does that even mean?”

“If you hold your enemy close, they can’t strike against you,” she said. “I’ve spent years researching how to beat her. Your father has too, though we couldn’t be in contact often; she would have known.” Landon’s mother stood and walked to the kitchen sink, gazing out the window into the darkening twilight. “I think I have found a way to stop her,” she said. “Finally.”

“You have to be willing to go to her,” she said, turning to face him.

“What?”

“You have to sacrifice yourself.” A single tear spilled out of her eye, but her face was stony.

“You’re here! I wondered when you’d show up.” Mamaw bustled into the kitchen, startling Landon and looking much better after her nap. She shocked him further when she wrapped her arms around his mother, squeezing her tight.

“Welcome home, dear,” she said.

***

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Procrastination as a Strategy

I don’t know why it is, but I sometimes find myself the most inspired to write if it’s avoiding the story I’m SUPPOSED to be writing. I keep peeking around the tree right in front of me to admire the one just a little ways beyond. Why do I feel so compelled to ignore this tree that’s so immediate? The one that requires attention because, if I keep ignoring it, I will bash into it. See, you can’t actually move past the tree if you keep pretending it’s not there. Maybe a some bark-rash would be well deserved.

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As it is, I’m currently working on an Appalachian fantasy novel I’ve been chipping away at for a few years, now. I’m supposed to be finishing the last of my Mermaid Underground series–which I’m not ignoring, exactly, just … well, it’s right in front of me, so how can I possibly see it?

Luckily I’m putting off another blog I’m supposed to be working on, otherwise I’d never have written this one!

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Maybe it’s not procrastination, after all. Instead of ignoring trees, I’m following the old rule about confronting wild animals: Don’t look them in the eye; they’ll think you’re being aggressive. If I sidle up to the story quiet-like, gazing all the while at the further, less threatening project, then maybe the beast will let me reach my hand out like … this … and stroke its fur. It’s pretty soft, if you can overlook the burs. I’ll get those out with a bit of editing. Ok, maybe a lot of editing. Burs are tricky.

If you Google “Procrastination as Strategy,” you’ll get a whole list of articles about how to beat procrastination, how to beat your own self into submission and get shit done. But, really, when it comes to creatives … isn’t a little procrastination good? I mean, I’m taming beasts over here. You can’t do that quickly.

I heard a TED Talk, once, about how procrastination can actually be a good thing. I’ll give you the link to that. In a minute. I’ve got some other stuff to do first.

Aaaaand, here we go: it’s buried in this TED Talks blog. Second entry. Pretty interesting stuff. If you’re looking to procrastinate, check out some of the other TED Talks listed here. They’re always good for food for thought. Who knows? Maybe they’ll help you tame some beasts.

International Women’s Day

Happy Wednesday, March 8: International Women’s Day. And, if you’re participating in the day’s events, it’s also a Day Without a Woman.

I’ve heard much poo-pooing of the protests going on this day, but I agree with them. In fact, I support my son’s teachers, who are taking the day off in honor of this Day Without a Woman.

Women are not appreciated in this country. We objectify and insult our female Marines. Our president’s multiple assaults on women pass with a few head-shakings and tongue-cluckings, but there he is. Our country’s mast-head, notoriously disrespectful of women.

I myself have transformed many times in my lifetime, professionally and personally, as a result of the most feminine thing a woman can do: birthing children. I felt apologetic about that, even using my motherhood as an excuse to explain my patchwork resume to future employers. I thought my story was unique, and maybe a touch shameful, that my personal (regrettable) choices to put my family and my sanity first, in not wanting to spend 90% of my waking time in an office and miss all my kids’ childhood, that all this was something to apologize for.

I’m discovering that my story is not at all unusual, that many women go through a version of personal, professional and financial penalization as a result of having to choose between motherhood and working in the big, wide world. To put it delicately: fuck that.

Is it getting better? Yes it is. The internet has revolutionized the workforce. Remote employers don’t care if there’s a spot of baby puke on my shoulder while I pound out my articles. But women are still discriminated against: called drama queens or bitches if they get upset at work, whereas a man throwing a fit is considered a power play. And, yes, women are still paid less than their male counterparts for the same jobs.

In other parts of the world, women are devalued even further: shot for voicing opinions, burned or stoned for going against male rules, raped as punishment.

The protesters today have been criticized for being privileged: they are the “safe” demographic, able to walk out of their jobs without fear of being terminated. But I applaud the use of that privilege to draw attention to the plight of women who can’t afford to make their stance known. Appreciate the women in your life, today and every day. We’re valuable.

Poor Valley Witch IX: Jilted

Good Tuesday, readers! I hope this last day of February is treating you well. Here’s the next installment of my short, serial story: Poor Valley Witch. To start from the beginning, click here. Thanks for reading!

***

Landon went back into Mamaw’s house. I need answers, he thought. His grandmother knew what was happening. It was time she let him in on whatever this family secret was.

She sat at the battered kitchen table, staring at the jam jars he’d gotten out for their tea, before he’d seen the vultures in the attic. Before they’d been the subject of a, what? A Baptist protest? Landon shook his head. Sweet tea with his grandmother seemed like something that had happened about a million years ago.

“Tell me,” he said, sliding into the chair across from her. She shook her head, like a petulant child.

“Tell me what the hell is happening, Mamaw! What is this? Why is some witch,” he stabbed his finger toward the window, and Poor Valley, beyond the tall pines. “Some witch sending her vultures to get my things? What does that mean?” Mamaw stared at him with wide, wet eyes. Her mouth quivered. He’d never seen her so vulnerable as she was today. It made him feel bad, like he was staring at her naked.

“I … made a mistake,” she whispered. She sat, clutching the jam jar with its skim of tea at the bottom, her wrinkled hands white with effort. Landon opened his mouth, then shut it again. He let the silence lay heavy. Finally, she took a deep breath and looked up at him.

“When your father brought your mother home and said they’d gotten married, I tried. I tried to find a way to make it ok.”

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Landon sat back in the chair. “Mamaw, are you seriously losing it? What the hell does my mother marrying Dad have to do with any of this?” He’d always had the impression that his grandmother didn’t like his mother, that her constant disapproval had driven a wedge between his parents. And his parents’ commitment hadn’t been strong enough for them to stay together. His mother’s love for him hadn’t been strong enough to make her stay.

“Your father was promised to the Poor Valley Witch.” Mamaw let out a shaky breath, releasing the jam jar where it sat on the table, her hands small and quiet in her lap.

“He was promised to her? Like in Rumplestiltskin, he was supposed to belong to her, or something? I’m not getting this, Mamaw.” Landon rubbed at his face. He was tired.

She laughed, some of her old spunk in the sound. He looked up at her, surprised by that.

“No, he was promised to her as in he proposed marriage to her. He told her he would marry her, would have babies with her, would live up in Poor Valley for the rest of their … well, the rest of his life.” Bitterness crept into her voice.

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“And then, what? He ran off and met Mom on spring break in … in, Florida? And they got married?” It was a reach, the most ludicrous thing he could think of, but as soon as the words were out his grandmother was nodding.

“That’s pretty much what happened, babe. Your father was faithless, as we used to say. And you just don’t jilt a witch.” Mamaw stood up and took the jam jars over to the sink, pouring the sugary brown tea down the drain. She looked frail, silhouetted against the window.

“So Mom left. Is that why? She finally couldn’t take the pressure? Did the witch curse her, or something?”

“Not exactly,” said Mamaw. “The witch tried to kill your father, first. She was unsuccessful. And then–” Landon’s cell phone chimed. His mother had texted; her plane was about to take off in Tampa.

“Mom’s on her way here,” he said. “She said she’ll rent a car in Knoxville.” Mamaw nodded.

“I’m so tired, babe,” she said. “Let me lay down a bit.” Landon got up to put his arm around her, help her to her bedroom. Something in her manner made him think she needed help, needed to lean on someone else. Put down her burdens for a while.

***

 

Fail-Proof Test: Are You the Good Guy?

I made a significant self-discovery over the past week.

You know how, when you’re really into the pivotal part of your hero’s story: the battle scene when the bad guy just keeps coming no matter what the hero throws at ‘im, and all the tenuously laid plans crumble apart until one epic, split-second decision wins the day for the hero …?

Basically, the good guys always win while they’re winging it. Check it out.

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Narnia: Peter and the good-guy army are fighting the good fight. Sure, they’ve got a plan involving luring the enemy into a land chute, trapping them, blah blah, but of course the White Witch ain’t having it, and she’s winning anyway. But then Aslan shows up! So they all just hold out until the end. And they win. I know, I know, it’s Deus Ex Machina, but still. Winging it.

Lord of the Rings: So many battles to choose from, here. They fight until all hope is lost, and then elves show up/plucky hobbit finally makes it to Mount Doom/Gandalf comes around/ents join the fight. Boom, for the win. Winging it.

It’s a formula: hero comes up with a plan. Hero messes up said plan, or her buddy messes it up, or it was never going to work in the first place. Ack! All hope is lost! Oh, wait, we’re ok, ’cause we just started winging it and now we won.

Ok, you can pick this apart and point to all the lessons authors are trying to impart: that good things happen if you just work hard, that faith and bravery are more important than winning so to prove it we’ll just have the heroes win when they display above-mentioned faith and bravery.

But at the heart of it all: winging it.

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So I turn to my partner-in-misspent energies/husband and say, “I just figured it out. We’re always winging it. Do you know what that means?”

“What?” says my intrepid life-partner.

“We’re the good guys.”

He gets it.