Resurrection

“I better get busy, then. Thanks for calling, Bro. Poor Ed: I’ll phone him and sure, I’ll be there for the funeral.  . . . Thanks for the offer, but I’ll get a hotel. You’ll have enough going on. Love to Heather and the kids, the grandkids, and, wow, great-grandkids, too.” Kevin pressed the little red phone symbol, feeling his tie to his brothers, so far away, become even thinner.

I have to go all the way across the country . . . oh, lord. I haven’t traveled in such a long time. Planes, airport lines, public restrooms, dirty handrails: I don’t want that scene.

COVID had validated Kevin’s self-imposed isolation. The strange, pared-down year of the pandemic was easy for people who were inclined and able to be aging hermits. He reduced his few excursions to a minimum, wore a mask, got the shots, and stayed at home, writing, watching TV, taking a daily walk. He felt guilty to be doing so well while the world suffered around him, but he’d pretty much lived that way ever since Judy died, five years before.

Marty’s call reminded him that his once restless, passionate, so-called Pepsi Generation wouldn’t last much longer. Judy had died, and now Ed’s wife Lizzie was gone. Who’ll be next? I need to see my family. I should make the trip.

That same day he made reservations, decided what to pack and obsessed about the TSA and his cane. He added a heating pad, wipes, and a second little bottle of hand sanitizer to his bag. He spent the following day worrying how he’d get around in airports with his bad back and trying to decide whether or not he was actually disabled. Everyone has aches and pains.

Early the next day, he started his journey.

When his flight landed in Sacramento Kevin pushed himself up from his cramped seat, his back protesting. Lifting his bag from the overhead was embarrassingly hard. Holding seat backs to get his balance, then leaning on his cane, he walked into the airport, pulling his wheeled bag, masked, nodding his thanks to the attendants along the way.

Overall, the trip had gone smoothly. The planes weren’t too bad and Tylenol and his cane got him through airports, the rental car line and to the hotel he’d chosen in lieu of sleeping on Marty’s ancient futon. Kevin wished he was home, but he was all right.

The funeral was fine too; not long, not sobby. Lizzie had been a good woman with a happy life and a fine family and Ed seemed tired but OK. After the guests left, Kevin sat with Marty and Ed on the patio and Heather joined them in a while. They drank wine, talked about memories and discussed how little they all liked change.

That night, in his eerily impersonal hotel bed, he dreamed about Judy. Stoned, she danced barefoot and beautiful in the rain at Woodstock, long hair dripping, her thin dress plastered to her breasts, her hips, her calves, forming a small divot at her navel. She grinned, knotting her muddy hem above her knees. “C’mon an’ dance, Kev. Don’t miss out.”

He woke with the dream trailing in his mind. Was I ever that young? He found his glasses, made some coffee, dressed and went to breakfast.

Kevin left Sacramento the next day. Saying farewell to his brothers and their families, he agreed, “Yes–let’s all four try to get together next year.”

Will there still be four of us next year? Will I be able to travel then?

This time he felt less anxious at the airport, so he looked around. The bright advertisements looked different than he remembered. Of course they’re different, dummy. This is your first trip in eight years. An image promoting an Alaska cruise caught his eye. A blue-gray bay flawlessly mirrored a white, green, and granite mountain touched golden by the sun; the paired images separated by an opal band of mist and dark evergreens. The caption read, “Resurrection Bay, Seward, Alaska.” That’s just beautiful.

Not long after he was safely home, Kevin surprised himself by deciding to research Alaska tours. I can travel. Maybe I’ll go.

Image from

https://www.vikingcruises.com/oceans/cruise-destinations/caribbean-americas/alaska-inside-passage/

The Most Precious Treasure

“Platitudes ‘n Aphorisms. Can I help you?” – loud snap – “No, Mr. Kahn: this is April. Missus Johnson” – loud snap – “is on another line. Can I help you with someth’n?”

In her drab little office by the reception area, Director Cora Johnson was only half-listening while a much-too-frequent caller reeled off an abrasive string of complaints about the Love designs on stamps. 

What’s wrong with love? I believe in love.

The Department of Platitudes and Aphorisms had been created to reduce voter discontent by easing their frustration with life’s little irritations. Cora liked parts of her job very much, but not all of it.

Beneath the unhappy woman’s tide of complaints, Cora could hear April’s gum snapping. “Excuse me, Ms. Patel: can I put you on hold for half a minute?”  She scribbled Get rid of the gum!!! on a sticky note and slapped it on her intern’s desk. April shrugged, fished a nasty green wad of chewing gum from her mouth and went back to Mr. Khan’s call.

Cora placated Ms. Patel, then returned to April’s desk. “What did Mr. Kahn want?”

“I didn’t quite understand it.” Gum, this time electric pink, churned again in April’s mouth as she looked at her notes. “OK. So, there’s this opera at the Met, about some girl and some outlaw in the old west. Kahn said he didn’t care that the tickets cost a lot, but the ending’s just too tacky. He said something about a balloon . . . ?”

“Oh, Mr. Kahn loves opera and theatre. When he complains, he’s usually right. Yes – I heard that in the new production of Fanciulla del West, they actually have a hot air balloon rescue the lovers at the end of the opera. It does sound tacky. It’s a shame: that opera has such beautiful music, and they brought in an especially wonderful tenor to sing it.”

When the intern merely shrugged, Cora didn’t respond. She’s young. She hasn’t learned much yet. Be patient with her. 

“OK – please send me an email about Mr. Kahn’s call with all the details, including his phone number. I’ll dress it up and forward the comment to Fred in the Kitsch Department.  Fred handles complaints about overly elaborate stuff, and you’ll learn he’s our go-to guy for Deus ex Machina problems.”

When the girl didn’t even ask what that meant, Cora sighed. “April: no more chewing gum at work except on breaks: and clean up your desktop—it’s a mess. If you hope to succeed in City administration, you need to look more professional.”

April good-naturedly complied and handled a few more calls reasonably well. She left for school at noon.

Finally alone, Cora forwarded the phones and tackled the large to-do pile on her desk. She selected Fanciulla del West on her tablet, plugged in her earbuds, and started writing letters, soothed by Puccini’s rich melodies.

She was starting to feel pretty good about her day when the outer office door burst open. A fifty-ish woman sailed into the waiting room, waving a tiny slip of paper in one hand and towing a child of maybe six years with the other. “I gotta talk to someone right now!”

“Please, come in.” Cora removed her earbuds. “I’m Mrs. Johnson. How can I help you, Mrs. ______?”

The woman sat heavily by the desk, the boy standing beside her. She smoothed the piece of paper between work-hardened fingers and held it out. “I’m Evelyn Brown, and this is my Tommy. Take a look at this and tell me what I’m supposed to do about it.”

The paper was a cookie fortune, which Cora read it out loud.  “Hope is the most precious treasure to a person.” On the back under “Learn Chinese,” was: “qing – please.”

“What the hel-” the woman glanced at the boy, “I mean what the heck is that? My Tommy got it in his fortune cookie. He asked me what it means, and I don’t know what to say. Why do you people still let fortune cookies be so weird?”

“Well, I’d say the grammar’s a bit strange, but it just means that there’s nothing as valuable as hope.”

The woman’s face tightened as she scoffed, “How’m I s’posed to explain hope to a little kid? How would you explain it? Here, tell him.”

“Um, hi Tommy. Hope’s the feeling inside each of us that life can get better. Some very wise people say, ‘No matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger…’  and ‘Hope is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul.’

Mrs. Brown snorted. “I ask you a good question, and you give me poetry – hunh. Poetry’s just old-fashioned stuff, like religion. Hope doesn’t matter anymore – not to me.” She stood. “C’mon Tommy. We just wasted a bus ride.”

She hauled the boy away by his arm, but at the doorway, he turned back toward Cora and smiled shyly. The woman jerked harder, and he said, “Ow, Gran’ma! Stop that!”  Cora could hear her fuss her way down the stairs.

That poor kid. I bet he’ll be a frequent caller here someday.

The clock indicated it was five p.m., closing time. Well, that was appropriate: an imperfect ending to a rather imperfect workday. Cora locked the office doors, sat at her desk smiling just a bit, and lit a joint. Finally, she could feel the knots of the day’s complaints slipping from her back into the chair, and she started quietly singing along with the opera, “Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano, Sopra una nuova via di redenzione.”

I wish I’d had a chance to talk with Mr. Kahn. He’s right about that balloon.

Sources:
In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love.
In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile.
In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm.
I realized, through it all, that…
In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.     (from a letter by Albert Camus)
https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/1230206-my-dear-in-the-midst-of-hate-i-found-there
“Hope” is the thing with feathers - # 314   by Emily Dickinson
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42889/hope-is-the-thing-with-feathers-314

Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano, Sopra una nuova via di redenzione (Let her believe I’m free and far away, on a new road to redemption) is from Act 3 of  La Fanciulla del West (1910) by Giacomo Puccini. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch’ella_mi_creda

Angel the Imp

A story about training

Sure, late life marriages are easier than first marriages, but they’ve got their issues, too. Emmy and I were lucky. When we married, we were able to pull our lives and households together pretty easily. It even was fun—except for one thing. She had a little white and brown Jack Russell terrier she’d gotten from the SPCA. I think that’s the same as what we called the “Pound” when I was a kid. She’d named the dog Angel, of all things. Emmy doted on that silly mutt, but I’d never had a dog and wasn’t much interested in them.

The pup was misnamed. She should have been called Imp. She was like a two-year old kid: overloaded with energy and always up to something. After I moved in, little Angel got me in her sights and focused that crazy energy on me. She was always sneaking around me looking for a trick to play. When I was sitting, she’d steal the handkerchief—yes, I still use a handkerchief—out of my pocket, or when I was undressing she’d grab one of my socks and run around sort of waving it at me. Emmy said the dog was trying to be my friend, but I wasn’t sure about that. I ran after her but finally figured that was exactly what she wanted. Then I ignored her instead, and in time she gave the game up. I’m still missing some socks. Just the other day I found one way back under the couch.

Angel was noisy, too—barking and yipping for any reason or for no reason I could tell. Everything was a big deal to her. I’d swear if a dinosaur had walked across our yard, she’d carry on just the same way she does when she sees a butterfly. It was her whining that really bugged me, though. I wished the dog had a “Mute” or “Off” button. What a pain in the neck!

I felt like swatting her when she played her tricks on me, but Emmy said that wasn’t good. We don’t swat dogs anymore, I guess. Emmy said it could make her afraid and maybe even mean. Angel was her dog, not mine, so I just left her alone. I don’t like swatting anyway and never did. I don’t like hurting things, you know. My wife said the imp and I would work it out in time. I wasn’t sure about that happening, either.

Putting up with her dog was little enough price to pay for sharing life with Emmy. We were happy. We lived quietly, doing what we wanted and enjoyed our senior years together.

Then one day Emmy just keeled over in the kitchen. The medics thought it was a heart attack and went to work on her, but she was pronounced dead at the Emergency Room, and I was alone again. I’d been widowed before and understood I could be left alone and I knew the drill. Emmy was an organized woman, so it wasn’t that much work to make the calls and arrangements and do the filings, but I’ll tell you, it’s hard to do. I hated it all. I just wanted my sweet wife back.

For her sake, I took good care of Angel while deciding what to do about her. It wasn’t easy. The feeding and walks and all weren’t hard, but the pup whined and looked around for Emmy all the time, and that was almost more than I could take. On the third day of my new solitary life, I made my decision and added “Take dog to SPCA” to my long Things to Do list. I told myself she’d be OK there. After all, it was where she came from.

The dog’s bed was in one of those metal crates, and Emmy used to tuck her in every night. She’d give the pup a little treat and sing a song about good dogs to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” while she shut the crate door. I didn’t know the words, but of course I knew the tune, so when I put the dog to bed, I’d give her a treat and then hum it while I closed the crate. It seemed like a kind thing to do. On the fifth night after, well, after Emmy was gone, I was humming to the dog when suddenly the memory of my wife’s voice came back strong to me and I broke down. It’s the little things that get to you. Sometime they’ll hit me like tidal waves.

That was the worst wave of grief I’d had so far. I went right to the bed hurting, missing Emmy, feeling alone. In a while I heard whining and looked around. Right at the edge of the bed I could see the tops of a pair of folded brown ears, and I looked over the mattress edge. I’d forgotten to close the crate door. The dog was on her hind legs, stretching hard to get to me. Looking down into hopeful doggie eyes, I couldn’t help myself. I lifted her onto the bed, lay back and watched.

She walked around and around the covers, sniffing. When she got to Emmy’s pillow, she sniffed it a long time, then curled up on it and sighed. I didn’t know dogs could sigh but I knew just how she felt. I said, “I miss your mom too, girl,” petted her where she was for a while then fell asleep. Around two a.m. I woke up and there Angel was, off of the pillow and snuggled warm against me. When I went to the bathroom she jumped down and followed me and she sat politely by the door, then followed me back. I lifted her onto the bed again, then went back to sleep. It was pretty good sleep, the best I’d had since Emmy died, and I didn’t wake up again ’til after sunrise.

I spent that day working on the dreaded Things to Do list. When I got down to the note to take the dog to the SPCA, I crossed it off and instead sent them some money in Emmy’s memory. Then I went on-line and ordered a set of dog steps. Now Angel can get herself on the bed and I don’t have to pick the darn dog up all the time. Emmy would have liked that. Angel sure does. I guess I do, too.

photo from dogtime.com

Country Life: Accidental Peaches, Prolific Bears, and a Delusional Dog

A Formula for Trouble

Last night we had a little chemical interaction explode up here. It’s an outcome that’s been brewing for a long time and turned dangerous. We’re lucky no one was hurt.

Element One: Ripe Peaches

Twelve or so years ago a peach pit must have been tossed down the wooded hill from our parking peachesarea, maybe 25 feet from our house. Jump ahead about five years and in mid-August, my sharp-eyed daughter-in-law spotted the resulting tree and picked two dozen juicy, very tasty, tree-ripened, completely unexpected peaches. That tree reproduced through its fallen fruit and soon new peach trees appeared on the hillside. Fascinated by the idea of an all-volunteer orchard, we thinned them to four and let them grow in the rough with minimal care. About three years ago, we picked five bushels of pretty nice peaches (some wormy: most not). That was many more than I could handle. I did what I could, decided ruefully I’m not the country mama I’d like to think I am, sighed, and went back to my writing.

Element Two: Bears

https://www.nyhistory.org/exhibit/bear-dance

Though not as many nor as fanciful as in this 1870 William Beard painting, there’ve always been bears on our forested little mountain. When we moved here long ago, many of our neighbors kept hounds for hunting, and every year bear hunting season was highly anticipated. Our nearest neighbors told me that they tried to can or freeze the meat of at least one steer, two hogs, one bear, and several deer annually. That plus garden produce could feed them for a full twelve monthsPD BlackBear Hhding in the tree

Occasionally, but not often, we’d see a bear passing through our yard or in the woods. It was a rare event— kind of exciting, but not threatening. We and the bears just carefully left each other alone.

Time has passed quickly. Our neighbors’ traditional way of life is pretty much gone now, and I’ve mourned at many funerals for our old, dear friends who made us feel so welcome here. Now, it’s unusual for hounds to run baying through the woods. At least, the place is more pleasantly quiet.

With less hunting going on, eastern black bears are flourishing in this area. I kind of like bears and I feel we’ve coexisted with them pretty well since we learned, long ago, to keep our trash inside until “Dump and Recycling” day. Other than a raid on the chicken coop, we’ve had little bear trouble until last night.

Element Three: The Dog

guilty LexieOur cockapoo Lexie is a small one, only 15 pounds. She’s my shadow and a great companion. She’s friendly, sweet, cuddly, mostly well-behaved and cute as a button. She looks frolicsome and joyous romping through summer grass trying to catch butterflies. But her cute puppy-ness hides a dark side. Though she’s the product of two over-refined miniaturized pet breeds, Lexie is an oddly fierce, dedicated hunter. When something catches her attention—be it dragonfly, frog, or skink, fortunately not snakes—she’s implacable in the chase. Like many pet dogs, when her Whitefang spirit’s in control she loses what little common sense she has and completely forgets her size. This delusional over-confidence is at its worst when I’m there with her.

The Catalyst: Good Mothering by a BearPD Image Mother Bear

The Outcome: Boom! Trouble

These volatile elements mixed and blew up when we went outside last evening. Lexie ran away from me toward the fruit-laden trees. She was barking loudly and wouldn’t come back to my calls. Suddenly, she did come back to me, her short legs scrambling for speed and about 130 lbs of angry bear on her heels. The bear hesitated a second at the edge of our concrete walkway then charged ahead on it, toward us.

20190815_065107
This is the door – insert bear here.

I’d been calling from the kitchen doorstep and had just enough time to hustle myself and Lexie, who was brave again in my presence, into the house. Madame Bear followed her right up to our door, which I shut as quickly as I could, almost literally in her face. The bear watched us intently as I pushed the madly barking dog out of the mudroom and into the kitchen and closed that door, too. Madame Bear stood up on the doorstep and took a tentative swipe at the glass with her paw as if to see if she could go further, then dropped down and walked away.

It turned out we were encountering the proverbial mama bear with cubs who quite reasonably decided that Lexie was a real threat. I can’t blame her.

This morning, the bear and two cubs were back in the peach trees, and I was able to get this I’m-sorry-it’s-not-better photo from safely indoors through a window-screen. By my side, Lexie had changed into Whitefang at the bears’ scent and startedmama bear coming toward house barking. Immediately, the cubs climbed trees on the slope and mama bear left them, the peaches, and the woods behind her again and walked up our lawn in a determined way, toward Lexie’s barking. I pounded the windowsill and shouted at her, and she slowly turned and went away, her two cubs following. They’re gone for now, but I’m sure they’ll be back soon for more peaches.

This is a serious problem. It kept me awake last night until I formulated: The Plan.

Plan Part One Miss Lexie will henceforth go out only on a leash, and only when there are no bears evident. This’ll continue until the fruit is all gone and well past that time.

Plan Part Two  The peach trees are bear attractants and need to go. We’ll cut them down this fall and maybe also our cherry trees, which draw bears in the early summer. I’d rather have safe dogs than fruit trees.

Plan Part Three  I have to stay very aware that Lexie Whitefang the Hunter just isn’t as smart as Lexie the Sweet Cockapoo is. She doesn’t make good decisions when she’s excited. This is all my bad–I sort of knew it could happen but didn’t think about how to handle it in practice. Lexie could’ve been killed or could have injured one of the cubs and then be killed.

Plan Part Four  Our Miss Lexie needs to understand that she’s an overbred,  sheltered little dog, not Whitefang the mighty hunter. I’m not confident she’ll ever believe that. We’ll have to see.

Are you having bear adventures this summer?

The images on this post are public domain from Google Images, except for the Beard painting, which came from the New York Historical Society https://www.nyhistory.org/exhibit/bear-dance, and my one good photo (of Lexie) and terrible through-the-screen photo and the glass door photo.

 

New Story

I’ve just added a new story, “To Be Green,” to my Wrandom Writings–you’ll find that section on my menu. It’s a sort of an interesting view  of love and death. Check it out!

Unlike dreary old February, which dragged on forever, March has galloped, and now April is just around the corner. Funny how time perceptions shift, isn’t it?  Happy Springtime!

Westward Expansion Can Be Bumpy

BookCoverPreview front onlyThe basic structure of my book Promise, which will come out next year (2020) follows four families in America from the 1700s into the Twentieth Century. From their arrival in colonial Pennsylvania and Virginia these families expanded southward and then west, along with the nation’s growth.

Their stories are of covered wagons, rattlesnakes, wars and peace, circuit riding ministers, cotton plantations, outlaws, prospectors, log cabins, slavery, raids and battles, social activism, one-room schools, the Sierras, horses, oxen, scalpings, plagues, the Transcontinental Railroad, turkeys, osteopathy and home remedies, floods and blizzards and many adventures of life pushing across the beautiful wilderness of the United States.

These were just average people living their lives in the time of expansion and facing the problems and opportunities that came with a new nation’s growth. They were descendants of the Davies family—whose adventures are in my books, A Perfect Plan and Rule!—and the Atkinson family—descended from the Powells and Praters of A Good Place, the Still family of North Carolina, which included the founder of osteopathy, and the Yeargins of Cherokee County, Alabama.

Promise is the final volume of Helena’s Stories. It’s a big project with lot of research and will bring to life times, places, and events we learned of in school, movies, and books (and TV!). As in the other books of the series, Promise will be end-noted, as accurate to time and place as possible, and offer supportive historical information in notes at the books’ end.

The bits ‘n pieces of nifty information that arise in the research but don’t make it per se into the book are the triggers for my quarterly newsletter, Thoughts on History. I send it out via email and also have linked the issues to this site (see the Menu above). So, this project has become a whole, big package of history on a personal level.

Though I’m still not halfway through my first draft of Promise, the other day, going over what I had so far, I realized that much of the story that develops over the about 150 years takes place in wagons or other vehicles. It just happened that way, but it sure feels American to be on wheels.

I hope you’ll join me through the newsletter or my (much too infrequent) blogs as my book makes the journey westward. The vehicle might be bumpy, but the scenery’s terrific and the folks are, well, real genuine folks.

If you’d like to be sent the newsletter or have questions, email me at carolynowrites@gmail.com.

A Good Place Is in Place!

Studies of a Dog Adrian van de Velde (2)

I’m so excited! I’ve finally finished my book A Good Place after a year of research and writing and then months of telling people I was “almost done.” In one form or another, A Good Place has been up on my computer almost every day of the past eighteen months and each time I sat at my desk I found that I couldn’t stay away from it.

I guess you’d call the book a saga. It’s based on a documented tiny piece of history: that in 1622 Thomas Prater, who was eighteen years old, came to Jamestown as an indentured servant. His contract was sold to a man named John Powell, a newly established planter in the area now called Hampton Roads. Prater came from an old and apparently well-off Catholic English family. Catholicism, though, was not tolerated in the Virginia colony.  So, why would the son of a well-off family leave England, travel for fourteen months, endure five years of enforced servitude and face the many risks of living in a colony where he must hide his faith?

The book has many colorful characters. Besides Thomas Prater, we get to know a war-weary veteran of battles against Spain in the Netherlands and his young wife–the very conventional daughter of an English baker–as well as his daughter, who was raised for most of her life at the edge of a wilderness. We also get to know Thomas’s fellow-servants:  a Puritan forced against this will into indentured service in the wrong colony, a terrified eight-year-old Welsh orphan, and a Mannahoac Indian slave who can’t remember who he was before he taken from his family as a small child. The book includes a love story, a quest, adventures, and “on the ground” views of life in England, the Virginia colonies,  and among the native tribes of  Virginia.

This has been a wonderful book to research and write. It even has a family of mastiffs in it — my first book with dogs, but definitely not my last.

A Good Place is Volume III of Helena’s Stories: books based on true family stories that personalize documented historic events. Volume I is A Perfect PlanVolume II is Rule!, and Volume IV will be Promise, which should be out by 2020. The menu in my blog’s heading will take you more information about Helena’s Stories and the projects those stories started, as well as to my newsletter, Thoughts on History.

Dog sketches by Adriaen van de Velde, undated (ca 1665). Sourced from                     https//www.the-athenaeum.org

Nursery Rhymes and History

babablacksheep    Writing reasonably good historical narrative requires doing a lot of research. These days, information is so readily available on the internet that research can be wider as well as deeper without time and resources lost traveling to physical libraries around the country or the world. This is a great boost, and also takes me to interesting topics I might not think to pursue otherwise.

A good example: nursery rhymes. We all know them, we grow up with them and we recite them to our kids. But… what do they mean? The site

http://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/

contains some wonderful articles about the origin of English nursery rhymes.  Below is a clip: their write up about a favorite.

“Baa Baa Black Sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
One for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.

Not surprisingly this rhyme is all about sheep, and the importance of sheep to the English economy. Until the late 16th century the final lines of the rhyme read “And none for the little boy who cries down the lane.” It was changed to the current version in order to cheer it up and make it into a song more suitable for children.

In medieval England, the wool trade was big business. There was enormous demand for it, mainly to produce cloth and everyone who had land, from peasants to major landowners, raised sheep. The great English landowners including lords, abbots and bishops began to count their wealth in terms of sheep, with some flocks totalling over 8,000 animals, all tended by dozens of full-time shepherds.

After returning from the crusades in 1272, Edward I imposed new taxes on the wool trade in order to pay for his military ventures. It is believed that this wool tax forms the background to the rhyme. One-third of the price of each bag, or sack sold, was for the king (the master); one-third to the monasteries, or church (the dame); and none to the poor shepherd (the little boy who cries down the lane) who had tirelessly tended and protected the flock.”

This text, and that wonderful old-fashioned graphic, were excerpted from

http://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/More-Nursery-Rhymes/

It’s an informative, fun resource – very much worth visiting!

Well, yes, but…

In August, I sent my first story for Promise to my wonderful beta readers. It’s about Thomas Prater, an indentured servant who went to the Jamestown settlement in 1622. I had been messing with the story all spring and summer, adding auxiliary characters and researching like mad. I wasn’t very comfortable with the result, though and needed an outside perspective.

My beta readers, bless their hearts, separately came back with the same message: this is the start of a book, a good book. It’s not a story… these characters need to play out their drama or no-one’s going to be happy.

I had sort of thought that, too, but I tend to fall in love with my characters and didn’t want to overestimate them.  I am so grateful to the fine, patient, hard-thinking folks who offer me this good feedback.

So, here I was writing one book – Promise – a set of stories similar to Rule! but set in America.  Suddenly, I veered off into another direction. Now, my story will be its own book, which will be called  –  at least, for now – A Good Place.  For inspiration, I found an image that matches the story: this 1663 painting called River Landscape in the Late Afternoon by Adriaen Van de Velde.

Afternoon River Landscape better resA Good Place will explore how and why a younger son from a well-established (but  Catholic, in an uneasy time) family ends up as an indentured servant in the notoriously dangerous Virginia colony.  Thomas Prater arrived from England only a few months after devastating Powhatan raids had killed about 25% of the existing settlers. It’s a real story, with lots of content: getting by in a remote colony; religious strain caused by real or perceived threat to the new (about 50 years old) Church of England; religious intermarriage (yep!); slavery and enforced labor; privileged class vs working class; and tribal conflicts between the Powhatans and Monacans; the displacement of native tribes by European settlers. All this is set against a wild, natural background of the James River and the deeply forested wilderness that covered Virginia and, frankly, terrified many of the English.

I have among the characters a teenaged girl, her father – a seasoned veteran of the English wars against Spain, a displaced Puritan who was indentured against his will, a Monacan Indian slave who wants to go home but doesn’t even know where that is any longer, an eight-year-old Welsh orphan who had been sold into indenture and on and on.  Oh, and it has dogs – wonderful mastiffs. I’m up to my ears in research and having a great time writing this book.

Then, when A Good Place is done, I’ll go back to Promise – I promise.