Coals

(This is a tribute to Dostoevky’s novel Crime and Punishment. For those who have not read the work, this man Raskolnikov is a murderer who has killed an old moneylender, and is suffering from guilt. He is being investigated by Porfiry, the astute and worringly intelligent police detective. Raskolnikov has a tendency to talk to himself, and frequently drifts off into philosophy. His whole goal was to transcend the laws of ordinary men by getting away with murder, and thus become extraordinary, but he has failed, for his conscience will give him no peace. We enter the story several nights after the murder.)

Raskolnikov was walking during the night. He was wearing a yellow coat, not the one from that night. This one he had borrowed from Razumikhin. The night was cold against his feverous forehead. He was talking to himself. The memory of the money which he had given away to that poor family for the funeral grated on him. Didn’t he have need for that money just as much as them? How would a truly extraordinary man do anything without the power, not even power, the basic necessity, of money? The cobblestone under his thin boots was cold and hard. He reflected on his own conscience. His heart was not like this cobblestone, was it? Or rather, was it not becoming like a cobblestone? He had murdered two women in cold blood, and that cold blood flowed through his heart this very moment. Could all the remorse in the world warm that cold-hearted moment again? “But what am I saying?” he exclaimed to himself. “What happened to my resolve? Am I truly planning on turning myself in? If anything could take away my cold heart it would be that. But that is the one thing I cannot do. No, I must stick to my resolve. But this misery…it is not to be borne. There must be an escape… a release for the man who thought himself extraordinary and broke himself over the laws of the ordinary man. For that is it! I am an ordinary man.” And he despised himself. But his thoughts fell around his mind like a cold twilight.

Suddenly Raskolnikov became aware that he was lost. Where had his thoughts led him so blindly? It was no part of the town that he frequented, but his stomach tightened and bile burned in his throat when he realized that he was only a short way from her house…what devil had drawn him so blindly towards the open grave of his guilt?…His guilt should have died with the old woman, but instead it rose again with blood on its head, and stalked behind him in the empty streets. He looked around himself and found that although it must have been past midnight at this point, there was a glow on the horizon. “Could it be the sun?” he asked in confusion. But that would be impossible: it must rather be some large fire that was giving off this light. The cold of the night and the shapelessness of his own musings pushed him towards the fire, like a moth to a candle flame that is sure to scorch it in the end. As he drew nearer, he could hear a hubbub rising over the rooftops and winding its way down the streets towards him. There were cries, and shouts of directions: plainly the fire had struck a house, and men were attempting to put it out. As he rounded a final corner, he saw that his deductions were correct. A large and rich-looking house was flaming like a star in the night. Its beams were blazing with a fierce flame, withering in the tumultuous destruction. The surrounding houses were in danger of catching fire, and men were dashing buckets of water over their walls, attempting to shield them from the destructive lashes of flame that burst out from the house frequently, as some wall or other collapsed inside. The wind was blowing the flames away from the rest of the house, so that it burned quite slowly. Continue reading

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Dear Caleb: Letter One

(Here are the links to two letters that a friend of mine wrote: the first to someone else and the second to me. http://iholdtheline.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/1-monday-epistle-morgan/
http://iholdtheline.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/1-tuesday-epistle-carson/

I commented on his FB link to the first letter: “Do you always post your private life?” He responded with the second letter, and this is my response to a portion of his second letter.)

Dear Caleb, and whoever else happens to read this letter:
First of all, thank you for the invitation to exchange letters. I love an opportunity to have good dialogue and discussion. I hope that our readers and friends find this beneficial, or illuminating, or at least amusing. If not, oh well. At least I practiced letter-writing.

The first thing I noticed about your letter to Morgan (and the one to me) was that they both started by being addressed to a singular person. And yet, oddly, they were on a blog and on Facebook, open to the world. So, either you addressed your letter wrongly, and accidentally forgot to include your public, or you intended for the public to read a personal letter. Your approach was one of a writer who wants to let his audience in on his inner thoughts, to make them a fly on the wall of your relationships and a microbe inside your brain. Nothing exactly wrong with bringing your readers into your mind, but it does seem a little odd to pretend that you aren’t, by addressing your letters in the singular.

My main response to your dictum that there should be no divide between your personal and public life, that the private and public person should be one and the same, is that you are fudging terms and categories badly. A person can avoid being a hypocrite without making their whole lives public. There are certain things that are not for the public eye, and have a naturally limited audience. Example A, marriage. Marriage is a private endeavor, particularly marital relations, because they are sacred. Have you noticed this anywhere else? The sacred is the holy, the separate. You may return with the answer that the veil on the temple was torn down. True, but all that does is open the master bedroom door. We can enter into the presence of our Father and our Lord, but it’s still a private affair. The unbelievers are left outside, wondering what’s going on. Private and public are natural and good boundaries. Crossing them leaves your readers confused, and also possibly the recipient of the letter.

Now, do things those boundaries not matter to things as small as your letters? Perhaps: they are nothing near so glorious as a marriage. But you will recall that you were making rather extended analogies to marriage, and using rather personal language in the letter to Morgan. No doubt you showed her the letter before you posted it, and she gave you permission: my point is not that you betrayed a trust. My point is that you subverted the format of the letter itself by its public presentation. If your point was communication with Morgan, then why air it publicly? If your point was public communication, then why address it to Morgan? It simply comes off as you trying to posture. Speaking of theatrics…

So, check your desires. Why do you want to be seen saying these sorts of things? For the good of the community? Perhaps.

As a matter of style, it usually doesn’t help to undercut your ethos at the beginning of a letter. “Dear Morgan, I’ve known you for a very short time. Here’s an analogy as to how our friendship is like marriage.” Funny, kinda. Weird, definitely. Effective? No.
As a second point of style, pontification, particularly from a freshman, doesn’t wear well. It tires quickly. I’ve been there too, brother.

I guess this response can be summed up in the colloquial understanding of the single word: overshare.

As to the rest, brevity is the soul of wit. I will respond to one thing at a time.

Yours,
Carson

P.S. – A quote by yourself, ironically, becomes relevant at this point. “If you are a teenager and you really want to be a writer, shut up and write only for yourself. At least you’ll have an interested audience. What I’m trying to say is this; you will not, cannot, should not, get published as a teenager. You have no insights for the world.” Harsh, but perhaps partially applicable, don’t you think?

A Time for Growing

(This is a revised version of the previous story “Potato.”)

The funeral was tomorrow, and Brendan wasn’t working on his eulogy. He was digging for potatoes in the garden.

The work-polished handle of the spade comforted his hands. The smell of damp and freshly turned soil comforted his nose. The steady, rhythmic “chink, chink” of the spade biting into the earth rubbed away the roughness of his thoughts. Everything always became clear if he worked in the garden long enough. It had to. He had been there since morning, and the late fall afternoon tree-shadows were starting to stretch their way across the lawn. For all his work, he had only a single crate-full of potatoes. They were brown potatoes, simple and rough. Like Brendan. Stab ground, foot down, turn over earth. It was an easy motion, and it was hard to keep his thoughts on it. He desperately wanted to avoid letting his thoughts think about anything else. Because if he thought about anything else, he would think about Lynn.

His sister’s daughter Lynn had been staying with him and Mary for two weeks. Her mother Janice had left after a few hurried greetings that bumped into the back of the goodbyes. She had stood on the doorstep, a pale, nervous-looking teenager, bangs down over her eyes. She was wearing a hoodie, hands curled up inside the sleeves as if she was cold. “We’re so glad you could come for a visit!” Mary exclaimed, wrapping her in a warm, full hug while Lynn just stood there. Later that night in the living room, he and Mary had talked about her.

“She’s so cold,” Mary said. “And quiet. And skinny too, for all that. At least we can feed her properly while she’s here.” She looked over at Brendan, waiting for him to speak. It usually took a few sentences of conversational priming before he would say anything. “I don’t know why Janice wanted her to visit so suddenly. How many letters have we had at Christmases over the years? Two? Three? Not even signed. Of course, I didn’t really expect her to write us after she married that welder and ran off to Seattle.” She glanced over at Brendan again, still rocking back and forth in his chair while the clicking of her knitting needles marked the seconds. Finally, he spoke. “Something’s not right. Janice wouldn’t just drop her off like that if everything was alright. It wouldn’t be right to pry into the girl’s life, though. Not when she’s all alone like this. She barely knows us. We’ll just leave her be. Not ignore her, just be there to talk if she wants to.” Mary nodded over the nearly complete baby blanket: it was the only thing to do. Keep on as normal and hope Lynn opened up.

She didn’t open up. She walked around the house the first day, looking for the TV, and went outside, stalking bars with her iPhone. Apart from a few sentences over meals, she was silent. She spent most of her time away from Mary and Brendan, either hunched over her phone in a chair, or staring listlessly out the window at the golden grain-rich hills. Brendan was worried. Most children her age would have been more friendly, even if only from loneliness. At church on Sunday, her lips barely moved over the words of the hymns, as she glanced around to make sure no one was looking at her. She was confused over the communion, and Brendan had to show her what to do: apparently her church at home had given up the practice.

The thoughts came closer. Yesterday. He was at the kitchen window, peeling carrots into a stainless-steel sink. She was going home tomorrow, and Brendan was making a last big farmhouse dinner to see her off. He glanced through the window towards the small pond and the grey dock. Lynn was sitting on the end of the dock, hunched over faced away from the house. She was probably listening to her iPod. He went back to peeling carrots.

He looked out the window again. Why was Lynn swimming in the pond? With all her clothes? She was thrashing around, splashing, too uncontrolled for swimming, it was more like… His legs flooded with adrenaline, and he picked up speed through the kitchen, through the back door, no shoes, deck and dry grass, and the thrashing was weaker already, not as much water splashing, but then he charged into the water moving full speed, and then a lunging, wading rush that churned the water into eddying, spinning whirlpools as he surged and strained forward and then he grabbed one flailing arm. There was no control: she couldn’t grab onto him. Her eyes were rolling back under her wide-open eyelids. He half-carried, half-towed the jerking girl to the bank. Then she stopped jerking.

“Lynn? Lynn!” He slapped her face, rolled her onto her side. The foam from her lips dripped onto the dark, clayey soil. She wasn’t breathing. He saw her arm where the sleeve had come back, and saw a row of needle-marks. He decided to risk it, and turned her onto her back. He grabbed her jaw, pinched her nose, and put his lips to her cold, slimy mouth. There was a sour taste of bile and vomit. He blew hard, then released the pinch and placed his rough hands on her skinny, water-logged chest. He could feel her ribs flex as he pumped one, two, three, four, five, six, plunging like a potato spade, down, down, down. Back to the cold mouth with another lungful of air. He forced his breath into her, harder this time, trying to force his life into her. One, two, three, four, five, six. Breath, and now his tears were falling with the chest compressions. He felt her ribs crack under his weight. One, two, three, snap, five, six. Choke in another breath, give it to her, gasp for life again, this time for sure, one, two, three, four, five, six. She wasn’t dead, of course, because she was young, she had only been in the pond a minute, she was a good kid. One, two, three, four, five, six. One, two. One.

And then death had him with all of its wrongness. He closed her eyes gently with those rough fingers of his, so that she wouldn’t see him cry.

Mary found him that way in the dark, long after the bruised sun had set behind the rolling wheat-fields, rocking back and forth. He was thinking about his sister.

*****

The funeral was tomorrow, and Brendan was digging potatoes up out of the ground, stealing life from the earth. Today he took a potato from the ground, and tomorrow they gave the ground a body. His mind revolted at the comparison, and he snorted with anger at himself. He stabbed at the ground with his spade. His thoughts swirled around him like ash over a burnt field. Janice blamed him. She had arrived the day before, her face grey with grief and anger. Condolences were said, full of phrases, meaning nothing. His feeble words floated over his own grief like water-striders, unable to break the surface. He had endured her silence, and then fled to his garden again. The potato crate was full, and he picked it up, eyes on his own thoughts. He walked and found himself with sudden confusion standing over the pond on the dock. He set the box down slowly, and then straightened. He held a potato in his hand. He stared at its brown solidness, felt its rough, leathery skin. His anger struck, a slow storm over a prairie. He threw the potato at the water. The still mirror shattered into droplets and waves, splashing onto his boots. Ripples echoed over the surface. He threw another, then another, and another, again, one, two, three, four, five, six. They sank to the mud on the bottom, burying themselves under the thick silt, invisible. He stopped just as suddenly as he started. He was breathing hard and his eyebrows were knotted over his grey, wet eyes. He heard a footstep beside him on the dock and turned to meet the sound.

It was Janice. She was crying. Her mascara had run, and her jacket sleeves were pulled up over her hands, her stiff arms folded tightly over her stomach. Dry spasmodic sobs shook her as she fought for control. “It wasn’t you,” she said. “I knew Lynn had a drug problem. I’ve known it for a while now. And I thought, I thought if I could get her away from Seattle, away from those people for a while, it would just go away. I didn’t think…I didn’t mean…” She broke, and Brendan stepped to her, and her arms were suddenly around him. He held her, quiet and still, like someone who won’t let go for a long time. He rocked her back and forth while her tears soaked through his shirt onto his shoulder. Then after a while they went in the house, and the house lights stayed on like a little sun in the night while they talked together. The funeral came, as funerals always do. The grave was dug, and Lynn was sown in the earth, sown like a farmer’s seed. Janice went home the next day, with promises to return. Brendan and Mary watched her grey car pull out of the gravel driveway, and waved as she disappeared around the first curve of the hill. The autumn drifted away into a winter, a good winter, one with reunions and gifts and family, and then the snows ran away with the grey skies and spring came and the pond finally melted. The farm stirred to life, while the tractors turned the cold earth into good fields. Brendan waited patiently for the potatoes to sprout in the garden. There was other work to do. Their time would come.