NATIONAL READING MONTH & A MONUMENT IN MY MIND

“A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, enbalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”  Milton

“Get caught reading.” Marco Eggslintz

Ah, 31 days of reading bliss–but why should March be any more right for reading than the other months? Anyone?

The books know.

By seeming coincidence with this month of glorifying the magic of reading, boxes and armloads of books found their way from our old home (our garage), into our new home.  They rejoined their cousins, the skeleton library, that moved in when we did several years ago.  They must have been tired of collecting dust out there, feeling neglected.  Once they got started, they kept coming, as if they’d made a pact that none should go unless all did.

In they marched, directing the building of shelves, colluding with the existing library to squeeze in by some logic: books by Presidents next to books about Presidents, Atlantis next to UFO next to Wicca, Walden Two next to Brave New World Revisited, Anaïs next to Henry next to the Marquis, old and rare books all up where grandkids can’t . . . and so on.

It was a real treat to get reacquainted with these books.  Each was wiped down, inspected for needed repairs, and reassessed for its value to the collection, and to the collectors. (Rejects were less than 1%).

How many books in all? Slightly more than 500, on slightly less than 20 meters of shelving. That’s not counting e-books, because I have so few. And not counting stacks of magazines, of course (40 years of Mother Earth News, 60 years of National Geographic, and many others from Ode to Yes to Omni, from Analog to Asimov’s, from Time to Farmstead to Earthlight, from Sierra to The International History Magazine to The Utne Reader, and more.)

I know that the new e-readers can gather up and squirrel away that many books in less time than it takes to rack up late charges at the library on just one. Yes, I deemed it important to publish RESET electronically, alongside print, still, I’ve yet to read even one e-book.

Is there any feeling quite like bringing home a new book, caressing its cover, holding it up to admire its look, front side, backside? The anticipation in reading is heightened by the size and heft of it compared to its maker’s promises, and by the very act of laying the book open, slowly, gently at first, easing into it, hoping to be transported for awhile away from our own lives.

The sensuality of books is an evolved effect, an agreement between reader, writer, designer, and time. Centuries in the making, the modern book is best when its design is invisible, when the goal of perfection comes so close to the mark that it seems like a gift handed down from God.  Maybe that’s going too far, but I wouldn’t trade all or any of the books I’ve collected for the same thing on a Nook or Kindle, though I wouldn’t mind having it both ways.

Another long-overdue project, that took four days, was clipping and filing articles from 200 or so old magazines to reduce the space taken to store the few nuggets in each issue.  10% was the average amount of useful content, timeless info, screened gleaned and cleaned. The 90% left over went recycling. This whole process was much like the books moving in: the sorting, the making space in one place while filling in another. This whole process should pay off in the future as I write more, and in life as Karen and I grow older. This whole process has nearly driven me crazy!!!

Ever play that memory game with cards, where you turn over a card, then another and it matches, and you keep the pair?  I like that game.  Now imagine using 13 decks of cards and different tables in different rooms. When I came across two or three articles that matched, I’d file them.  Some went into three-ring binders (56 in all). Others went into folders, hundreds of folders.

See Brian’s brain spin round and round.

Of course, a job like this requires the standard office equipment.  Also a flexible plan, spousal patience, persistence, speed, and room in your mind to construct a towering monument to the power of the pen.

“Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” Bacon

“Bacon maketh a full man too, with hotcakes and honey.” Mel Efluous

Closing the Lid on the Coffin of Human Intellect–quick note. The Encyclopedia Britannica is going down. I see angels weeping in their wine. I am reminded of an old friend, Chuck Tessman, he read the whole set cover to cover. Now, who will do that with Wikipedia? No one. Better hang onto your old sets.

Happy Reading to you all year long. Brian

P.S. With my usual shotgun ambition, I considered adding a list of the books I’m currently reading.  I took pad and paper around the house, as I pondered the pointlessness of adding to so much so-called information on the Internet. I was surprised to find that I had markers in a dozen books.  That’s too many! I would’ve guessed six or seven. Maybe I have Attention Deficit? Why not?!  Might as well face it stoically. I’m already cursed with Uncombable Hair Syndrome and a bad case of perfectionism. Life is meant to be suffered. The universe is here to heap curses upon us.  

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WRITER – STOP LOOKING FOR AN AGENT

The early working title of this article was, Editing Workshop in Wexford and What I Think I Actually Learned There. Sometime between then and what you see up there now, it was titled Self-Produced—Doing It (Almost) All. Such are the sensibilities of editing. 

I’ve come to think of editing in b – r – o – a – d terms, more so now with blogging, and such things as tags, and links, and ping-backs and whatnot.  I tend to come at every piece of writing from many angles, viewing it again and again, knowing even so that it may never be enough.  Therefore, when someone offers a free workshop on the subject locally, I’m all in, especially when that someone is the group WRITE TO PUBLISH. I went, and came away with more than I hoped for.

I learned of the editing workshop in an e-mail from Randy Johnston. She knows me through an article she did when Steve Mann and I shared the Artist of the Month honors at ENTITY. She writes for the newspapers—not all of them, only three. The writers’ workshop, sponsored by her group, was Saturday, February 11, in the Cadillac Library conference room.

The featured speaker was book-doctor Heather Shaw, a professional editor/writer from Traverse City. It sounded interesting. I thanked Randy and started thinking up a list of questions. The first one I had was, “How could they do this for free!?!” But I supposed that Heather Shaw was marketing herself somehow. That’s fine. That’s good. [Scroll to bottom for a link to her services]

WRITE TO PUBLISH, by the way, is a progressive group of writers gathering to learn from each other.  They’ve been bringing in guest speakers twice a year to better their own writing and that of the community. The core group meets every other week at Horizon Books in Cadillac. It’s open to anyone with an interest in writing: contact Becky Herring for the schedule at 231-775-2425. Yes, they have coffee.

So I started out for the big event early, stopping along the way at three local libraries with signed copies of RESET as donations. They were graciously accepted, and I was feeling like a writer proper when I showed up to the presentation. To see more than 50 other writers there was exciting. 

When all was said and done, several things stood out for me about this workshop. As is usual with these events, there was the unanswered question, unanswered in some cases because it is unasked, whether forgotten or elsewise—I’ll get to that later.  There was also the revelation; another standard at such events (more about that later too, trust me).  And then there was the hoped-for reassurance, that I already knew much of what was being presented. Oh, and there was the one minor disagreement, I had with what one of the presenters stated as fact, given with qualifiers and with no exceptions, and relating to the previously mentioned unanswered question. Got that?

I found Randy to say “Hi.” She’s making progress on her European travel book, and still at the papers, much to their credit. She said she was also giving a presentation as part of the program.  A multilingual retired professor, literary critic and woman of the world, Randy’s list of credentials was nearly as long as Heather’s. Her presentation was Newspaper Writing and Editing.

She gave 10 reasons why people might want to write for a newspaper. Having written for the paper myself some years ago, I could relate, though I was never as good as she. For me, the job was the much-needed training for a lot of what I do now.

She led us through a mini-lesson on how to write and edit a newspaper story. She talked about the importance, to All writers, of using a style manual. She concluded by handing out the following addresses to online resources for writers.

http://www.tameri.com/   http://owl.english.purdue.edu/  and,  www.newsroom101.com

(Appreciative applause. Ten minute break. Sweets and coffee and small talk.)

Heather’s presentation was Manuscript Editing for Today’s Writer. She stepped forward, trailing credentials long and varied—several ongoing editing jobs, several awards, and she teaches at (NMC) my old school. She was engaging, smart, pretty in black, author-itative, a brave speaker and . . . I could go on, and then I could use her advice ‘to get naked’, to strip it all back out.

Her talk was steered toward the widening self-published path, away from the traditional.

She advised us to write the book we wanted to read, and then to read it aloud. Ask, “how does it sound?” This she calls ‘cooking your book’.

She suggested using more verbs, less adjectives and adverbs. Write what you mean.  Eliminate qualifiers.  Leave room for the reader to create their own picture.

She stressed the importance of beta-readers, an often neglected resource. Beta-readers are easy to find. Use their advice to get ready for your final round of edits. Maybe consider a professional beta-reader for a paid ‘critique’.

Then . . . then, she said, “you must, MUST hire an editor.” A grand command at a thousand dollars a book.

Being herself an editor, also the author of the book Write, Memory, she may have been tempted to break her own rule. Thus formed my unasked question; “did she hire an editor?” She did say that a writer is apt to read right over their own mistakes, whereas they would probably catch the same mistakes if made by another. I’ll give that a nod, but I wonder if it must always be so. 

She and Randy ended the workshop with a long question and answer period. Quite informative.  I wondered about literary agents. I noted the table near Heather, and the fifteen books there that she had edited, all but two self-published, and one she had written. “If this is the way of the future, where does an agent fit into all of this self-publishing?”

My own mainstream dreams have long included the unquestioned search for an agent to help sell my next books. To that end, which would really be a new beginning, I had already committed many hours of preparation. I had already resigned myself to the long grueling search ahead. By most accounts, a writer bent on going through an agent should expect to spend years looking, then prepare to spend years more finding a publisher.

Couldn’t we just self-publish, and get on with it? There may be only a few self-published authors making millions, but they don’t owe 15% of it to their agents.

She went over the standard short-list of the pros and cons of having an agent. She explained that the reasons for using an agent (or are they using us?) are fast disappearing, along with the publishing houses. The fact that the remaining publishers aren’t giving as many big advances these days is no small consideration.

Many of us hung around after the closing remarks, anxious to make new acquaintances of our own kind. A pair of the WRITE TO PUBLISH members got me together with another self-published author there to ask us if we would consider ‘sitting on a panel’ at an upcoming workshop they are planning. “We certainly would,” we said.

At home later, online, I went looking for information to support this great strange idea that there was no use in chasing the old tale. Most of what I found corresponded to the same info I already had about placing one’s faith in an agent, how and why to find one, and all the variables that contribute to the experience. [Some new stuff of interest is linked beneath article.]

We all know that the vast majority of new writers will never become old authors.  Bless us for trying right?  Bless us for loosing the serpents in our minds upon the world.  For making people cry.  For torturing our protagonists.  For insisting that life be lived.  For exposing the beating heart of humanity.

We do what we can. But we can do more.

“More than an agent?” Maybe.

“How? Agents have all these odd connections with people that a writer never will.”  Bull!  We are writers.  Knowing people and odd things and making connections is what we do.

“But, agents have a way with people. They’ve got the personalities suited to selling.” That’s a nice way of putting it. Nevertheless, it’s mostly to make up for the fact that people would usually, if they could,  rather talk directly to the author. Be your own agent. Do your own marketing.

“Well, agents save the author time, time to write.”  Wrong wrong wrong.  We make our own time to write, usually out of the merest scraps of the day.  Besides, everything a writer does, everything he sees, hears, feels, thinks and dreams, feeds his mind and moves his pencil.  Doing for oneself what an agent does for 20 or 30, can’t take that much time.  And if the experience can be counted on to enrich one’s work, where’s the downside?

As for hiring an editor, or paying for a critique, I do still believe that a writer should be able to do it all. That is my aim. However, since I’m probably wrong, I may seek to trade service for service when the next time comes around, just to be on the safe side—pair up with another writer with some skill at editing, and his own book ready to be looked at.

More and more good books will continue to be self-published, self-agented, and even self-edited. Maybe an author should embrace this new model. For those who can do it profitably, “way to go!” It’s all in our hands now. Writers are able to do things never before possible. 

The old publishing houses are having the same cash flow problem as the rest of the world, and predictions of their apocalypse fill the search engines.  Well, everything fills the search engines these days.

It’s probable that the traditional publishing model will hang around awhile, morphing as it has to, to maintain appearances.  Workers and words and money will flow. Job descriptions will change. The holey Trinity of author/agent/publisher won’t just break up and melt away in the light of a new day. It might take a couple new days, but new days seem to be coming quicker and quicker.

Writers and readers will win in the end.

Brian Cool

RELATED LINKS

Whether it’s a book on spirituality, a cookbook, or fiction, if you are fairly sure of the potential for moderate book sales on a ‘completed’ MS, take it to Heather to hedge your bets.  Check out her services and upcoming classes at:  http://heatherleeshaw.blogspot.com/

For ingredients to a recipe for a delicious writer-reality-check soup, start here: http://ninabadzin.com/2011/07/05/are-you-addicted-to-finding-a-literary-agent/

Oh boy is this hot stuff! There is actual steam rolling off this next page.  This will have the agents looking both ways: http://lmmartin.hubpages.com/hub/Are-you-looking-for-a-literary-agent-Want-to-vent-a-little

Wow, this woman has let a nest of bald-faced hornets loose in the kitchen.  EVERYBODY RUN!   “WHERE?!!”  EVERYWHERE!:  http://maryww.wordpress.com/2009/04/14/the-talent-killers-how-literary-agents-are-destroying-literature-and-what-publishers-can-do-to-stop-them/

Merry National Library Day

“I had to crawl to get to the toilet, but I wouldn’t have traded it. ”

For library freaks like me, I’m going to include a spot over on the side of my blog, as a guide to where readers can find a copy of my book RESET by Marian Evans. The list will begin with MY local libraries where I have already donated copies; Cadillac, Leroy, Tustin and Luther — soon to include two or three more.  If your library doesn’t have it, try requesting it. The more the merrier.

Need I say, I’m a junkie for the written word? I’ve a special penchant for words written about writing. I also like  genre fiction: classics of sci-fi and horror, but I’ll read almost anything.  One year I read 72 books (not counting a hundred or so books on tape).  I was laid up for six weeks that winter and averaged two books every three days.  That was great.  I had to crawl to get to the toilet, but I wouldn’t have traded it.  Call it readedication or bookaddiction, it has driven me on from an early age to pursue the writing life.  Now it’s gone beyond the stage of someday-soon with some small income.

For those who will consider buying the book, I’m trying to provide as many options as possible. You might want to support your local independent bookstore. Good! They can get it for you in a few days if you ask. 

Also I want to have RESET stocked in all of my local bookstores (I’ll go for anything within 100 miles).  As that happens I will include a guide on the side to promote those places.  I’m also going to include a link on the side to the website IndieBound. They will help you order the book and direct you to your nearest local independent, where you can purchase it.
http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781463599560

“The mission of the IndieBound Community is to help people across the United States share and find independently owned businesses. By connecting indie-conscious people with local businesses, we’re working to strengthen the health of Main Street ecosystems across the United States.” 

Yes my book was made possible by the beautiful monster Amazon.com, since it was produced (but not published — a guy named Self is the proud publisher) using tools from two of their divisions, Createspace and Kindle.  But hey, they offer the best services to get the quality results I was hoping for, and that’s just business. 

Yes, Amazon does compete with independent bookstores, but then they also make it easy and quick for any bookstore to order these POD (print-on-demand) self-published books.  Or, as an option, the author can profit by personally peddling his work on consignment to his local bookstores  — and why not? Everything ‘big’ started out small and local.

As a farmers market manager in my other guise, I am in love with BUY LOCAL — well-versed in its many merits, as well as its shortcomings.  RESET was a collaborative project that came out of local talents, but it is available worldwide. I’ve made the effort to allow as many channels of distribution as possible, on speculation that it might eventually pay. I especially like the fact that my books that are bought in the US are also printed here.

Will it make sense (as in dollars and cents), to chase these local sales?  Ask me in 10 years, when I’m bringing down 10 grand a week.

I have a hunch that most writer’s first books are giveaways, whether or not the author is headed for future success.  Those who stay in it — see it through to the fourth or fifth book — should be making a living off it by then if they have turned out some decent work. 

I’ve given away as many copies of RESET as I’ve sold, or more.  Given them for various reasons.  I’m happy to do it.  I should’ve given away more in fact, printed some ARCs (advance review copies).  Next time I’ll add that all-important step of lining up some advance reviews.  Get some blurbs. 

We learn. Where? Visit your library.   Brian

Why shop Indie?
When you shop at an independently owned business, your entire community benefits:

The Economy
■Spend $100 at a local and $68 of that stays in your community. Spend the same $100 at a national chain, and your community only sees $43.
■Local businesses create higher-paying jobs for our neighbors.
■More of your taxes are reinvested in your community–where they belong.

The Environment
■Buying local means less packaging, less transportation, and a smaller carbon footprint.
■Shopping in a local business district means less infrastructure, less maintenance, and more money to beautify your community.

The Community
■Local retailers are your friends and neighbors—support them and they’ll support you.
■Local businesses donate to charities at more than twice the rate of national chains.
■More independents means more choice, more diversity, and a truly unique community.

http://www.indiebound.org/indie-bookstore-finder

OLD NEWS IS AN OXYMORON

 But here’s some old news anyway, for posterity’s sake if nothing else.

The following article about RESET appeared Dec. 16, 2011 in the Cadillac Newspaper, prior to our second Saturday at ENTITY. It included a graphic of the front cover, and directions to the place in a sidebar.

It was an honor to be interviewed and written about by Jeff Broddle. He has a talent for getting the story.  Brian

“Mann did the book’s illustrations, drawing the rich landscapes Cool envisioned in his escapist story of an archetypal journey on a parallel Earth.”

 LeRoy sci-fi author hosts book-signing in Marion

BY JEFF BRODDLE   CADILLAC NEWS 

MARION — Art, writing, publishing, the end of the world — any topic will be up for discussion as some of the creators of the fantasy science-fiction novel “Reset by Marian Evans” welcome the public to the ENTITY art gallery in Marion Saturday.

Although the book is titled “Reset by Marian Evans,” it was authored by LeRoy resident Brian Cool, who has been selected as ENTITY’s Artist of the Month for December. This self-published novel is subtitled “a post-apocalyptic dream where prophecy meets legend.”

Meet Cool and one of the book’s contributing artists, Steve Mann, at ENTITY, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

Explaining the title, Cool said, Marian Evans is a creation of his own mind, based on an author who lived 150 years ago. Hint: Marian Evans is the real name of the 19th century English novelist George Eliot. The mystery of Marian Evans’ identity is one of the threads of the novel’s plot.

Mann did the book’s illustrations, drawing the rich landscapes Cool envisioned in his escapist story of an archetypal journey on a parallel Earth. Cool also gives Linda Smith credit as part of the “Reset Crew” for creating the painting that became the book’s cover.

The book begins with a woman being drafted into the Army in a civil war set in the modern-day United States.

She is nearly killed, and after going AWOL, finds work in a mining camp. A passing comet causes a nuclear winter, leaving the woman as the sole survivor.

As the story progresses, readers discover a mythical island, a hidden race of human beings and the unfolding of a prophecy.

“This book is, in a way, an introduction to my world,” Cool said.

The novel also is available on Amazon.com in both print and e-editions.

REFLECTIONS ON MY MONTH AS AN ARTIST . . . OF THE MONTH

But That Was December. One might think that I should have posted this a month ago, but that would mean I had reflected in advance. And while I often do write on the spur of the moment, I prefer to let things steep like tea. If an idea brews for some time, it usually transfers quicker to paper; richer, clearer, with more objectivity and truth.

Still, it’s been a while between posts here, after a flush of several posts each week for awhile. How much time can it take to brew?

Well . . . till it’s done. Annnnd, there’s more’n enough content on the web already.

I really enjoyed the two days in Marion at Susan Hall’s ENTITY with Steve Mann. The place doesn’t get a lot of business though. It’s in a small town, and times are tough, so mostly we just talked to each other, or to Sue when she was in. We sold a few books and prints of the artwork each time we were there. And that covered the gas to get there, but probably not to heat the place.

Steve says, if I get us another gig, he is in. So I will try. It’s not about the money right now anyway. It’s about establishing a coherent body of work.

Original Photo by Susan Hall

I wish I had grand news about RESET’S sweeping success in the meantime. Got my first royalty check. 26 bucks, direct deposit. Truth is, I just haven’t had the necessary time to properly market the book–the unavoidable stuff of life (see list below) demands its due. She is young yet though, so we shall see, we shall see. The biggest thing for me all along has been the things I have learned, and am still learning, about the Art of Expression, and the expression of art.

And so, the writing of such a novel is more important than the selling of it. My goal was that I should like it, that I should be moved by it, without having to try, and I do like it. And I’ll continue to write with that as my objective. I didn’t set out in this business thinking to please an audience. If I ever do happen to do that, by some happy accident, all the better. If I wanted to try to write for a ready-made audience, I’d be advised to go with vampires or werewolves, a seemingly inexhaustible trough, or alien sex maybe (hey, don’t laugh. I have a friend whose cousin’s mother does it. Writes about it, that is. With over 30 books, she must be making some money.).

RESET did get a favorable reader review, which I was able to put on Amazon.com. Maybe I will create an audience all my own, over time.

Time . . . So much of it wasted.

My chances are thin I know, Time being what it is, and people so mortal, by all accounts.

That all said, I do plan to create some buzz over the next few months. So, among other things, I will look for some bigger places to meet more readers who just might like to give me a try. I’ve some experience now with such opportunities, thanks to Susan Hall. I hope that ENTITY continues to develop and grow for her, and for the enrichment of the community.

Unavoidable Stuff of Life: A much-abbreviated story of the last couple months Coming down with??? ‘crud’… sick with crud… December meetings for both the planning commission and the farmers market… Managing and vending at pre-holiday market with Christmas in LeRoy event… Selling 14 log trees off front property… Converting hundreds of old e-document files on my computing machine, from one format to another (so much fun)… holidays and half a dozen birthdays (grandkids are now; one, two, six, and seven years old. Chrissy, 26. Jesus, ancient.)… Recovering from crud…… Writing short story Olive Brown’s Christmas Cold… Ordering garden seeds… Shoveling snow… Getting life all in order (so glad that’s done)… Kidding myself once again… Doing taxes… Learning to juggle (and why not?)… Spring-cleaning early (even our weather has been oddly Spring-like)… Prepping for upcoming meetings (LeRoy Farmers’ Market Committee and LeRoy Township Planning Commission)… Canceling and rescheduling upcoming meetings… Slinging firewood… and oh so much more in addition to carrying the honor of Artist of the Month at ENTITY.

RESET RECOGNIZED BY STATE REP.

I came home from the December 17th book signing in Marion to a strange surprise.

I deposited the box of remaining unsold books on the kitchen table, and Karen handed me a folded white card. I saw that it was from one of our state representatives. I waved it toward the bag for paper trash, and stepped in that direction. 

She put her hands on her narrow hips and said, “You might want to read it.”

Steve Mann and I had been venting earlier in the day about the government getting itself almost to the point of shutting down, yet again. What a confused bunch. I was mad at the whole big batch of politicians. Let ’em shut ‘er down, let us watch ’em go, then let us lock the doors behind them. Watch us replace the lot with a whole new crew that can get the f**k along.

What did I want with a card from one of them?

I was mad because, as far as I could tell, WOW, they had given themselves leave to go home for the holidays, but they hadn’t been the sort of good old boys and girls who deserved a merry anything–Hadn’t been for some years now. Two more months to live, say the doctors. But there was all probability that they would be back to their arguing and posing as soon as they were back in position.

Although, I guess we could just limp along two months at a time until the world ends next December?????????

I opened the card, noting that it was from Phil Potvin. I remembered him from when he came to one of the Leroy Township Planning Commission meetings to introduce himself to the commission members. His family owned the big concrete business up in Cadillac.

It said . . .

“Dear Brian,

Congratulations on your new book, RESET by Marian Evans.  Using illustrations by local artist Steve Mann only adds to your book.  Nice job.                                                                                       Merry Christmas, Rep Phil Potvin”

Well I sure never expected that.

I paperclipped the card into my RESET notebook.

I do appreciate the card, and I do hope he actually gets the book and reads it. And what the heck, Season’s Greetings and best wishes in the New Year to Phil and all the other representatives, Senators, Congressmen, Republicans, Democrats and all.  Okay, now get in there and fix it, thank you very much. Brian

Do I Believe In Ghosts! Part Four

A story for the season—Please share this

Olive Brown’s Christmas Cold by Brian Cool

Behind him, beyond the poplars, beyond the ditch where his bicycle lay hidden, distant traffic rolled implacably along. He lurched a bit clumsily down the brushy bank, but kept his balance at the bottom where it leveled off—having judged the descent right, hadn’t slipped again—and it brought a crooked grin to his crooked face.

The smile was short-lived though, overshadowed by the pain burning up the right side of his neck and jaw, and in the sad excuse for a right hand he’d been born with. He paused amongst the reeds for a moment, and looked at the two-and-a-quarter fingers and stub of a palm, to see that the skin was a deep pink, turning red—was scuffed, but wouldn’t bleed. The cheek though, he wasn’t so sure about.

He brought his foreshortened paw up to feel the side of his face, and thought he might be safe from scabbing there as well, but only because of the scattered black whiskers he’d managed to coax from scarred, but otherwise boyish features. He’d have to look in a mirror to be sure. For the moment it was flame on frostbite, ice on fire, as he pressed the cheek harder. He looked out over the half frozen-pond for a moment as he brought his ‘good’ hand up to cup the other, which served to soothe both wounds as much as he could hope for.

With the pain subdued, he pulled his jacket sleeves down a bit and squared his shoulders with a shake. He wasn’t the type to talk aloud to himself, and he thought so, even as he said, “wear smarter shoes next time you g’looking for ghosts, dumbass.”

He looked around. There was no one to hear him. He pulled the sleeves down further as he muttered, “and gloves’ud be nice.”

The place really wasn’t much of a lake after all. The mill pond in town was bigger. It was nice though, in a neglected and disconnected sort of way.

‘Old Nigger Brown’ had lived close by—he and his family. The shallow pond was named for him, Nigger Brown Lake. This was where the old man had settled when he’d come north after the great emancipation, where he’d built a hearth and homestead. Olive Brown was the last of his descendents on record around these parts. Where she ever disappeared to, more than a century ago, remained a mystery.

As for the actual house, his reason for being here, there were two likely looking spots on opposite sides of the pond, where they might have built. From where he stood, it was hard to tell. All physical trace would be reduced to little more than a disturbed bit of ground. Still, he was hopeful that he wouldn’t leave here empty-handed.

He’d developed the odd hobby of collecting curious relics from abandoned old places around the outskirts of town. On a high shelf in his bedroom at home were displayed the treasures he’d prospected over the years, such things as might survive the decades, and somehow lay hidden in a corner until he came along with a particular talent for finding them.

A part of him knew this would be the last time . . . or at least the last in this manner. He’d soon be an adult, and he sensed that traipsing around other people’s land became trespassing on that day. That acquiring cast-off curios, became stealing. That following the faded whisper of ghosts, became the stuff psychiatrists hear for a living. Maybe he’d pursue a career in archaeology, or take up professional treasure hunting.

Did he really believe that the old ghosts, left behind at such places as these, led him to find the things he took away? It was only a notion, and it always occurred after the fact of the finding. Until this time. Here he had come with the express purpose of keeping it foremost in his mind, to consciously channel whatever wisps of energy might still inhabit the place.

He had no hope of finding such things as mason jars full of old coins. Mr. Brown would have been lucky to have two spare fifty-cent pieces to rub together.

He took a few more steps toward the water, noting the soggier ground ahead. Here he had to part the bushes, and there he had to hoist his lame leg over what the locals everywhere called nigger-heads, affectionately of course, for their singular use to mankind as mini-islands—barely big enough to fit one’s two feet upon, above the surrounding mire. They were usually scattered around the water’s edge in dense enough population to enable easy leaping from one to another.

He just wanted to get a look at his cheek in the spot of open water paces away, but not badly enough to warrant wet feet for the duration of this adventure. He was heading for the fallen remains of a giant pine tree from older days, that had grown up along the higher bank that marked the original shoreline. It had been there since before the days when these lands saw the first whites, stood there during the days of ‘history’ that started when the whites came. Stood through the cutting of his fellows, and the turning of the land to the plow, and the sale of this piece to a man of brown.

A brown man, a tik a tak, a man of black, named Brown. Ol’ Nigga Brown.

The question flashed through the young man’s mind, “how had they treated him—a black amongst all these nice white folks?” (Folks who, up until 50 or 60 years ago, kept even their own kind segregated, “Sveeds stay over here, Yermins over dare.”) The question was close to the core of his being, a place developed in semi-darkness, where only other people were born normal, or close enough to fake it.

He stepped up onto the old log, left foot first, and hoisted the other leg up 

He looked forward with mixed feelings to the upcoming series of operations, which promised to help him walk easier. The others had been done with the same hope, hope for balance. Some had worked—some not so much. He often thought that people looked on him as a lop-sided retard—he hung out with the crazies didn’t he, and looked like one, must be one too.

The log extended out into the water, where it was lost beneath the silvered surface, as if disappearing into the December-gray sky reflected there.

He advanced out to where he could kneel over the vast mirror, to inspect the place on his face that had slid down the bark of the oak tree. He’d slipped on one of the patches of snow from two nights prior. The problem was, that he’d instinctively reached out to grab the tree to keep himself from falling, but it was with his phantom arm and hand, that appeared sometimes to fool him, usually when he needed it most.

He inched outward to where he could kneel.

On his knees on the cold damp log, over the murky water, he looked down into the eyes and face of another.

He jerked his head up in alarm—might have pushed himself up to stand, had he been on sturdy ground. He quickly put his mind in order enough to realize that he couldn’t have seen what he thought he’d seen—a woman staring up from under the water. A young black woman.

He knelt forward again, turning his sore cheek down, but again was inclined to jerk his head away—this time at a muffled snapping sound in the brush behind him.

But there was nothing there. No one lurking. None of the nearby trees were big enough to hide behind, none even half the size of the monster on which he still knelt. Maybe a deer had broke from cover into the pines up the bank to the southeast. He’d just missed seeing it.

He bent forward a third time, slowly though, ready for anything, remembering the auspices under which he’d planned to conduct this whole affair. The woman’s head came into view again, as if coming out from under the log. Her dark brow furrowed with indecision, her thick lips pursed with apprehension, as she stared into his eyes with determination and expectancy. 

Her hair peeked impertinently out from under an old red rag, which she reached up to peel off her head. Dark ringlets fell and sprang away with a life of their own as she lightly tossed her head forth and back. The hand with the bandana dropped back below the log.

He thought she was pretty, which was his usual cue to lower his gaze, as if he thought that she might think he wasn’t good enough to look upon her, from a body so wrought with . . . physical anomalies. But they stared into each other’s eyes, and he forgot himself as he began to remember his true self. He absorbed her, as she absorbed him, in a mutual gaze of understanding that cut through time, and across space. 

He leaned closer, as did she. He put out his right arm to the water, where he encountered a hard glass-like surface that separated them. He saw his phantom hand splayed across a cold wet window. He pushed slightly, knowing it couldn’t be ice—he’d just seen a brown leaf boating the surface, driven by the lightest of breezes, leaving a tiny wake behind. 

She held his gaze as a caged animal might. She brought her right hand up to his, and pushed back. She smiled when she felt the warmth of his hand, a mix of emotions filling her eyes.

Her touch was cold, and it tingled, but he kept his hand pressed to hers.

She’d been raped. She’d had a baby. She’d been murdered. He pulled his hand away when the images became too horrifying to watch. She held her hand fast though, reassuring him, but also commanding him, with her eyes. 

He soon slapped his hand back down. But he tried to ask her, without speaking, to be easy on him. After all, he’d never hurt anyone—a fact she already knew. 

Her painful story was over though, and it wasn’t that she wanted to ask him for a favor from the grave—some sort of bloodline vengeance, five generations removed. She said that she was giving him a gift, that she’d lain too long beneath the waters of this pool, feeding on her anger, that had fed in turn, on her.

She said she’d followed him last Halloween, towards dusk as he conducted one of his dreary forays. That was the day he remembered finding the rusty old ‘eight lever’ lock, just as the day’s last light was fading. 

He didn’t normally work with a flashlight, but having found the lock, he was inspired to look for a key. He dug through the debris in each dusty corner of the attic, careful not to fall through the rotted floorboards, careful to keep the beam of his penlight down, away from the cracks in the walls of the old shack, but the search was in vain.

She’d watched him, pondered over him, not seeing his deformities, being herself a phantom. She saw only his spirit. But she could feel his wounds, every operation. And in him, she felt the heart of a kindred soul, kindred in their minority, and in being looked down on from a higher place, by a higher society. 

A hundred years, even though sustained on the ectoplasm of anger and frustration, had given her a sort of wisdom that comes from the long perspective. 

It had taken but a light touch on the boy’s shoulder for her to call him to her father’s pond. And eventually he came. 

She’d been making ready.

She came to realize that it was ultimately her own choice now to stay, or to go, but it must be soon. She’d come to see her lonely existence as a bitter curse, and it had begun to eat away at her in the way an apple is eaten by the worm. By the time you know, the core is gone and the fruit collapses in on itself and dissolves into the earth.

She was slowly fading away from the force of life, but she thought she could do just one more thing, if she would. So, she bundled up the bits and scraps of good still within her; motes of joy and abandon, wisps of curiosity, pebbles of discipline, gems of understanding—a surprisingly large collection when she’d balled it all together.

When he came, she would be ready, but would he?

She’d come to the pond one day late in the year, to get water for the mule, pail at the end of one strong arm, baby cradled in the other. She followed the trail around, humming as she went, until she came to the old mound, which her father had always said “wuz de grave of a ol’ injin chief.” 

She sat the child down at the top of the weedy bank, where he would bawl for her, as usual, till she came back with the sloshing pail to scoop him up again. 

The wind cut at her cheeks, and she pulled the ragged quilt closer about her. Her feet were wet where there were holes in her boots. She passed close by the giant old pine, but not close enough to see the fiend hidden there behind. She stepped out onto the stones at the water’s edge. 

The fiend peered out from his cover and saw the swaddled child first—a beautiful boy, almost the color of his father, paler than his mother, but not white enough. He took a fresh hold on the rock in his hand as he stepped swiftly around the tree. The wind and the sound of crying would serve him well. 

Olive thought that she heard the sound of something approaching from behind, but decided that it was just the boy, fussing overmuch—-

Distant memories such as these would haunt him now, would become a living legacy to the dead, and would give him something to carry home from this spot that, though they couldn’t set on a shelf, would fit nicely in the palm of his phantom right hand.

These few flashes were byproducts of the gift she had given him. He would eventually come to live with the memories, just as he would come to treasure the gift. 

She Olive, as an entity, would finally exist no more. She welcomed the thought of losing one identity, in exchange for a place in the great Spirit’s mighty consciousness. Shimmering bits of her energies expanded forth to join the heavens, like normal good folk do. 

He saw her sinking away from him even as he felt her presence settling into him in the form of something strange, and wonderful, and as impossible as it was tempting. Her image became a distant spark, obscured by clouds reflected in the water. He blinked, and shook his head. Where was she? In him. And gone. At last. 

With his good hand, he pushed himself up. He knew that he wouldn’t be bothering to look for the site of the homestead. Besides, it was getting dark unexpectedly early. He remembered that it was the one day of the year with the least hours of daylight, the Winter solstice. Christmas was just days away. 

His legs were cramping a bit, so he bent forward to touch the log, to stretch his ‘hams’, before trusting his tingling muscles to work right. He did this twice, and was startled when something that had been pinched in the folds of his jacket fell forth. The red cloth had made him think first of blood, but before it landed at his feet, he saw that it was Olive’s bandana. 

Filled with wonder, he squatted to retrieve the item, and stuffed it into his pocket for the moment. It was warm. As he turned to inch his way off the log, he heard again the noise behind him. He whirled around faster than was safe, but too slow to save himself. 

A man was rushing toward him, swinging a rock at his skull! He threw his little arm up in a futile effort to protect himself from the descending blow. 

He lost his balance, which caused him to jerk forward just in time to duck the rock—- 

I hit my cheek on the post by the bed as I woke in a state of panic.

I nearly jumped out of bed. It was still dark. I turned to the clock—4:48 a.m. . . . All was well, seemingly. 

Except that I had to pee before I could think about getting back to sleep. As I felt my way to the bathroom, I rubbed the side of my face where I’d just scraped it on the post. Merely a scratch.

I began to replay the strange dream in my head as I sat to relieve myself. I’d mulled over many a dream in such manner. What was the gift she’d given the young man?

I covered my piss with a light scoop of sawdust, closed the lid, and felt my way back to bed. Who had attacked him? And why? And where had I met the young man before? They say that we have already seen every face in our dreams. 

I must’ve nodded off again as soon as my head settled into the pillow, because the next thing I knew it was three hours later, and Karen was nudging me with a kiss and a cup of coffee. 

I saw through the window the snowflakes gently falling. Several icicles had formed on the eaves overnight. Karen was sitting on the bench at the end of the bed, dressing, and wondering aloud how many people were buying a copy of my new book to give away for Christmas. I shrugged. 

“I guess it would be appropriate,” I said, remembering that I’d mentioned Christmas on a couple pages, after all. 

“I’m going to do the chores,” she said. “You can make eggs.”

“I’ll do hash-browns too.” 

She was about to stand, when she glanced at the clothesbasket. She bent forth to scoop up whatever it was that had caught her eye. “What’s this?” She held up a threadbare cloth of red cotton, puzzling over it as she shook it lightly. 

“Let me see it,” I said. 

“Your girlfriend’s got to quit leaving her stuff behind.” She tossed me the bandana. 

I studied it closely for a moment. I reached into the folds of the knot, and slowly pulled forth a long black hair that coiled back up like a spring, when it came free. “My girlfriend’s a blonde. Must be your girlfriend,” I said, as I held out the dark strand for her to see. 

The dream came rushing back to me. I had dreamed it through to its end, continued it from where I had awakened.

The young man on the log had rocked too far backwards, and had lurched forward to compensate. He was going in this time, he knew for sure. And if for no other reason than to pretend he had some control over the situation, he pushed off like a giant frog, launching himself forward out over the water. 

For a split-second, he felt as if he could do anything—soar away, a bird on the breezes, or dive under the ice like a fish—until he landed like a stone in the piercingly cold water. 

But there was no one else there, no murderer! He had imagined it, out of the stuff of her memory, her last memory. He spat out the pond-water and pushed himself up from the cold muck with some trouble. 

His left hand sank deeper as he pushed himself to his knees. Something below his fingers gave a little resistance. He pushed once more and heaved himself to his feet, but as he pulled his hand loose from the muck, he felt pain in his index fingers, as if something were biting him. 

He pulled harder and the pain increased, which is when instinct made him pull harder yet. Whatever it was, part of it came free, and was clinging painfully to his hand. He was glad to see that it wasn’t a snapping turtle.

He rinsed the mud off it quickly, to see how he might best get the thing off his fingers. He soon recognized the grayish bone in his hand for the front part of a human skull. He’d pushed his fingers through the thin bone at the back of the eye sockets. There had been just enough spring in the old bone to entrap his fingertips. 

He stumbled to the shore, carefully twisting and pulling at what he dimly realized, must have been the front of Olive’s face. The dwarfed digits of his right hand were weak, and worked only so well. He had to cradle the bone to his chest just to reach it. Loose teeth filled his palm by the time he pried it free.

He cast the bone down next to the log, and began to run as best he could.

The overwhelming nature of what Olive had given him, took several days to sink in. He had to get used to the responsibility that she had bestowed on him. Did he have the right to destroy all we had built? He had to come to terms with the awesome responsibility he held in his hands. He was becoming aware of how things would change. What gave him the right to do it? 

He thought about how the world had treated him, and he felt that he had all the reason he needed. “Christmas,” he thought! “Be my present to the world.” 

It was Christmas Eve, and there was a party that he was going to at the hall. It was a party for all the crazies, so of course he was invited. He could think of no better place or time to begin it. And he could think of no better group of people to spread it to, and through. How fitting it would be. 

The gift gave back to him, whenever he gave it away. It went from person to person, like the common cold, a glorious epidemic, spreading through neighborhoods and communities, crossing over boundaries of ethnicity and education, through the rich and poor alike. 

Within the year, the world had sloughed off its dictatorships by changing their leaders hearts. Between one Christmas and the next, all war ceased. Cruelty, and cheating one another, became a thing of the past, as pride and prejudice succumbed to brotherly love. All of mankind—all of our ills—began to be healed from within, when Olive Brown’s gift was allowed to flourish there. The whole world was healing itself—millions of acres of wasteland were being reforested, rivers and lakes were quickly becoming clean and pure again, storms calmed, the warming climate even began to cool.

But the strangest thing of all, everyone agreed without exception, when all was said and done, was that the gift had dwelt there within us all, all along, just waiting for us to use it . . . and it was called, compassion.