Their Eyes Watch Childhood Blossom

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Spring has a way of resurrecting memories.

I found the fox on the far side of the river. At first, I took it for a kitten—it was young, too young and slight to mistake it for a dog. With all the leaves about it, colored to its shade by the passing touch of winter, I probably never should have seen it, but some motion caught my eye. A twitch of the ears or a flexing of the bushy tail.

Either way, it was already dying by the time I got across.

A child’s thought: someone hit it, someone left it to die. My first dog, a chocolate lab named Rufus, had been not long in the ground by then—a passing memory of love that ran until his hips gave out, disease rattled his bones, and it would have been crueler to let him live than to let him die. I had not come to terms with that yet, and there, then, another animal lay before me on its side, curled into its haggard self.

Leaving it was not an option. Though the words of others rattled my head like wind in the trees—“If it’s wild, don’t go near it; it might have rabies, it might be angry, it might…”—they were about as effective, and I hunched over it and pressed my hands into its fur. What I realized then was that there was no blood, no open wound—just a child in the grass. It stirred at my touch. A little thing—its paws moved, like my dog’s used to; like it was dreaming of a hunt time denied. Nightmares maybe, dampened with earthen sweat.

High noon beat down on us, teased the frost away from the rot. The fox’s eyes looked at me, little gold slits leaking liquid light. I started, sat back on my heels. There were many things I might have done. I had my backpack, and he was small enough to fit inside. Still, I hesitated—my mother, I thought, would know.

Instead, I gathered a pile of leaves and sticks, made a bundled pillow of the earth that I could balance between my outstretched arms. I do not know what I thought to do with it. Mother loved animals—by that logic, she could help him. She would know what to do, by needle and thread or a doctor’s hand. Wildness mattered nothing. Its body still held the warmth that endears life to a child.

Lethargy benefited no one. I slipped both arms under it, careful to come between its sagging claws as I lifted the fox off the ground. Our world thrummed with the passing thunder of a car on the roadway, maybe a few dozen feet over and away—worlds separated by a hill and some trees. It was enough to waken me to the coolness that slicked from the lipless breaths. Water, I said. Frost and dew and whatever else condensation wrought.

Blood, by the stain, leaking from the pointed, open teeth—teeth as small as mine had been, for the tooth fairy’s gifts.

It took a moment to sink deeper than my skin. The head could not remain risen into the crook of me—it flopped against the side of my arm, drooping down as if to reclaim the lost soil.

A haze of freedom carried us forward, past one tree and another. Another car brought the wind through the trees and I realized for the first time that afternoon, truly realized, that I was alone. Shade clung to the leaves still drooping from the canopies above our heads, silent as statues and every bit as cold. Even this close, the cars were muted, lessened for what stalked the trees. One might have believed themselves in a different world, with their toes in this heady soil.

It was dead in my arms. Slowly, I came into that reality. I think the shadows had moved by the time I set it down again, laid it at the foot of an ancient oak overlooking the river, where time and erosion might one day wash both into the rest of something else. Something bigger. I had nothing with me. Nothing that meant anything. So I buried it in leaves that crumbled in my hands, weighted them down with sticks someone might use for a bonfire.

Yet I dared not touch its eyes. Instead, I closed my own as I sat beside the river and began to wash my arms. It took a long time.

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Writing in Spite of the End of the World

Right now, my country stands at a crossroads.

I do not write this lightly—every nation, it seems, is destined to face such trials.

As a writer, that puts me in a curious position. There are a hundred things I could write about the important concerns of today: the election, racism, fascism, climate change. Yet I also empathize with a question many fiction writers are asking in the wake of such events: why?

Right now, our country has had the last remnants of journalistic capability broken apart and shredded for good measure. Their ability to act remains, for the moment, unfettered, but their ability to act successfully has been eviscerated. We find ourselves in a culture that has actually embraced the stance that truth is whatever we want it to be.

I have friends—strong, fierce, creative friends—who have been unable to cope. Events have left their pens dry and their word documents blank. How can we feel inspired by a world that has voted for fear and rage? A world where hate trumped love? They look at fiction as a luxury that can be ill-afforded in a world facing such dire straits as ours.

Around me, the streets are filled with division. Enmity at best becomes apathy, at worst becomes violent. Hate crimes are on the rise, lives and livelihoods are threatened, and no one knows how to react.

Americans are curious creatures. We like to have things set in clear cut text. Everything comes down to the notion of Axis and Allies—Evil and Good, War and Peace. We are righteous, or at least, desperate to believe we are on the side of righteousness. We don’t pass laws on drugs; we fight a war on drugs. Communism isn’t a different social structure, it’s the great atheistic evil. We don’t even support education: we fight wars against illiteracy. The world over, the running joke is that we are and have always been a bunch of cowboys running around. I can’t say they’re wrong. We face the world on strict terms: our terms, with all others to be defeated.

Ours is a rather aggressive culture, truth be told. The current villains on the stage have tapped rather effectively into that aggression.

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V for Vendetta

But even now, stories matter, the same as activism matters, and community service, and everything else that needs doing. Good people need to make themselves heard at every level of the spectrum. We need people to wield the power invested in them by the people, but we also need people there to inspire people to reach for that power and wield it for good. If you can help by hitting the streets with Black Lives Matter or providing water to the protesters at Standing Rock, by all means do so. But at the heart of all these things is the spark of an idea, for while they can be corrupted, ideas are, in the end, as V from V for Vendetta declares: “Bulletproof.”

As both a journalist and a fiction writer I have been told by both sides I am for and sides I am against that my opinion does not matter. That my perceived inaction in the battle between light and dark means I am unable to have voice. Aggressors will always posit such means to discredit opposition or to build themselves up, and truth be told, they are right in a way. Writers are not fighting battles. Their writings are a refusal to meet violence with violence, but instead to channel their opposition or their ideas to positive means. They are not fighting, but to say they are not engaging the issue, or that their opinion is somehow lessened by a lack of blood on their hands? Absurdist.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”

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Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every story is a seed. Writers water them. Readers reap the fruits of that labor. Hopefully, the seeds will spread, and with them, the fruits…

Writers can entertain, they can charm and judge and analyze, but at their hearts, all writers have a story to tell, a story made up of ideas and ideals. Whether they believe it or not—whether it means anything to us or not—they are committed to the struggle which is making something heard.

For my part? That includes defending the progress we as a civilization have made and beating back with vast verbosity those forces which would tear that work down for their own benefit. We have forgotten so much over the centuries, even as we have learned so much more. I will never allow people to forget what zealotry, greed and bigotry look like, nor the damage they wreak.

My message is not everyone else’s. For some, abolishing poverty is all. For others, defending the freedom of speech. Still more might have the ability to capture the essence of agony which resonates through society with every hate crime against the LGBTQ, immigrants, Muslims…

But if that’s the case, why fiction? Nonfiction is necessary. It might lack flavor or texture, but it is to the point. Fiction, on the other hand, works through subtler means. It may not always have the ability to enlighten, but it teaches through metaphor and simile, allows us to  spawn our “what-ifs” into whole other realities so that we might never have to live such terrors in ours—or, alternatively, so we have something hopeful to reach for. You will never find yourself inside a book of nonfiction the way you do in fiction. The seed buries deeper. Its roots come at problems sidewise, exploring paths we otherwise might not have considered.

In all honesty, I don’t know what peace looks like. I’ve seen the shape of it, caught its silhouette in the back of crowds cheering certain moments and decisions, but I’ve never looked at it head on. This country, as I’ve said, has a real thing for violence—and a lot of problems inside. But just because I have not held peace in my hand does not mean I do not want it, or will do what I can to help others attain it.

Yes, it hurts to write when the world around us is burning.

It hurts to think you’re just escaping into a story when the walls are caving in.

But even the lightest of escapism is necessary, at the least, for sanity—no one under attack at all times, unable to catch a breather, will last long. Life is cruel. Life is hard. Life is a struggle. Stories give us hope for change and the ability to step outside our own heads.

Don’t discount or discredit that.

There is a reason I write fiction in addition to journalistic prattle. Good old Gandalf probably sums it up:

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”