Portrait of a Missionary

40616397_1866449356723854_3601803404566855680_n

As a writer, I am fascinated by people.

No two people carry the same stories. Their life experiences, their worldview, and their hopes and dreams are uniquely their own. No work of fiction can compare to the beauty and complexity of the world around us, but, caught in our jobs, our routines, and our day-to-day tasks, it’s easy to lose sight of the richness of life amidst the mundane.

In this series, I would like to reawaken your awareness of the extraordinary.

A.R. Geiger

Not everyone has the privilege of a returning missionary sitting at their dinner table.

As I was setting out our plates and sitting down opposite my visitor, I was very aware of this. Even in my unique position as this particular missionary’s sister, I only get the chance to have dinner with him once every other year or so. Armin Geiger is a youth pastor in Vanuatu, a collection of islands in the South Pacific, and he returns to the United States very rarely.

When he does, I like to make sure I have at least one evening with him.

He didn’t hesitate when I told him I wanted a story. His life in Vanuatu is a strange mix of the mundane and the fantastical, of office work, a regular job, and schedules, and, scattered throughout, adventures worthy of a far longer post than this one. He always has a story ready when I ask.

“We were in west coast Santo on the medical ship last year,” he told me, already forgetting his dinner. “Giving care to the local communities. But their clinic location was set up in one village, and all the other people had to travel to get there. We knew a lot of elderly and disabled people needed medical care. So a local, one other girl, and I took a tender—a small speedboat—and drove forty minutes up the coast from where the ship was anchored.”

He sat back in his chair, pausing to remember. “We arrived and the waves were stronger than we anticipated. So I hopped off with this other girl, and we go off with the local to find these two old ladies. In this small woven hut, we find this one lady who was practically deaf, hunched over, frail as a bone, with this stick that she used to walk. She was in her seventies, I think, dressed in a classic, flowery gown that they wear in the islands. My friend began to walk her toward the shore, while I went to get the other patient, who ended up being an old lady who had no legs. Not as old, probably in her forties or fifties, but she had no legs and some sort of odd, wheelchair type thing that didn’t work so well.”

“So we half-carried, half-wheeled her to the shore, which was probably 200-300 meters away, and when we arrived, the waves had gotten even bigger.” He ran his hand through his hair, looking out the window. “And so the challenge was to get these two old ladies into the boat with waves that were up to my chest and not kill them or drown them. Cause at that age, you’re very frail. The guy on the boat had it running because you had to keep it running continually. So he’s running it with prow pointed out to sea, hitting every wave and riding it out. We’re timing it with the waves. So I scooped up the old grandma with the walking stick, and when a wave comes and it runs down, I run in and chuck her on board.”

I laughed, and he grinned, continuing, “She’s sitting there, freaking out,” he lets out a yell that sounds as much like an older woman as a twenty-something man can sound. “Then we go back for the next lady. I’m carrying her in front of my chest and the boat comes down—‘cause when it’s on a wave it’s up high, like above my head—the boat comes down, and I go for it to put her in. Then the wave comes a little sooner than we anticipated, so I lift the lady up high above my head, and the wave hits me in the chest, drenching me, ruining my phone.”

He lifts his arms above his head, demonstrating for me, totally caught up in his story now. “So I’m holding her as high as I can, and the waves are still coming, and then the boat comes down again and I chucked her onto the side and the guy on top grabbed her and pulled her up.”

“Pretty intense couple of moments,” he tells me, pausing again as he remembers the boat trip and the struggle to get the women aboard and back down the coast, “because if she fell in, that would not have been good. But we got them safely to the location, where they got medical care and glasses.”

I got up to refill his plate, marveling that, to him, his story is a fairly normal part of his life in Vanuatu. To me, it sounds as outlandish as one of the history books I grew up on, and the realization serves as a reminder that the extraordinary still remains hidden among the mundane.

But, as I said, not everyone has the pleasure of a returning missionary sitting at their dinner table.

Go To Sleep

pexels-photo-1301585.jpeg

I come when the library closes.

The lights are out, except for the lamp Mrs. Wilfe leaves on just for me. The doors are locked, and the windows have been shuttered. Even most of the reading desks are cleared. No one is left.

Only me. Because I have to put the stories to sleep.

I start in the children’s section. I like it back there best, because I can still hear the murmur of little voices reading aloud, and the rustle of turning pages. It’s not so silent, not so lonely.

I switch on a desk lamp as I step inside, and pick up a book lying on the floor. The Biggest Bear. An old, old favorite. The pages are stained with fingerprints, and the cover is a little torn, but it’s happy. Its story has been told today, many times, actually. It’s a little out of breath, a little tired, and I set it back on the shelf where it belongs.

The books in this section are the rowdiest, but they go to sleep fairly easily. Their stories were told, and they’re worn out from being dragged from shelf to table, table to floor, and back again. I stroke their spines, set them back in order on the shelves, and they fall asleep when I turn the lights out and leave them. They don’t have trouble sleeping, not like some do. I’m never sorry to see them awake when I come.

The adult books are harder. I can hear them murmuring when I flick on the light, their voices rustling like burning paper. They sound angry tonight, and I wonder who has been woken this time. It’s hard to tell. The stories are being whispered from shelf to shelf, passed on, overlapping each other, desperate to be heard. Old forgotten voices, caught in the dust between the pages. I can’t tell one from the other, not when they’re all talking at once. Grief and love, war and hate, treachery, betrayal, reunions, mystery, and horror. They all have a story to tell, but for some of them, it’s been a long time since anyone bothered to listen.

I walk through the shelves, running my fingers along the weighty spines. Quite a few are awake today. Awake, stifled, and frustrated. Who woke them up, I wonder? Who yanked them off their shelves, pulling them so unceremoniously from whatever dreams they were having, to page through their chapters and silence them again?

I pick up a heavy volume from a reading desk. Nearly a thousand pages, and whoever woke it up read less than three of them. I pass my hand over the cover, blow some of the dust from the pages, and set it back on the shelf. Another day, I tell it, although I’m not sure if I’m lying. Some of them have only been woken like this, for a page or two and nothing else, for a long time.

Some of them have been silent for so long that I’ve forgotten what they sound like.

I switch the reading lamps off as I go, stroking spine after spine. Go to sleep, I tell them. Forget the stories you tried to tell, the people who woke you up. Rest.

For some of them, it isn’t so easy. They’re angry, and angry books are hard to settle. I spend a long time among these shelves, soothing them, quieting the arguments. I can’t listen to them all at once, and I certainly can’t be the one to read every book, although I try to give the loneliest a chance. They know when I’m humoring them, of course, but most are grateful anyway.

But I can’t read all night. They have to sleep, and so do I. They listen to me at last, and their whispers fade into silence. I flick off the last light and listen to them breathing. Someone will come to read them eventually. Every book has a story that someone needs to hear. Every book has a heart it needs to heal, a mind it needs to open. Someone will come.

Until then, I’ll do my best to coax them back to sleep.

Heartsmith

pexels-photo-210017.jpeg

They say the best shops are the easiest to find.

I don’t agree with that. I’ve known many good shops in my time, shops that were hidden away, that took me all day to find. Sometimes the hunt is half the fun. But these days, people prefer main streets and wide roads, and convenience is more important than quality.

To some people. Not to everyone.

My workshop is an example. It’s not so easy to find me. I work where I’ve always worked: a little corner shop in a back alley, with a sign on the door that says, quite simply, Heartsmith. Inquire within.

Really, unless you know just where to look, I’m very difficult to find. I like it better that way. Heartsmithing is a complicated kind of work, and it’s harder to have done than most people think. If someone is determined enough to find me, they’re usually patient enough to last through the process.

Most of the time, anyway.

The shop is empty when I come down in the morning, and the workbench is cluttered with the tools I was using last night. I don’t close my shop after six o’clock. I’m always open, even in the middle of the night. Actually, I get a good portion of my work after midnight. People get a little desperate when the world is at its quietest. Sometimes they’re braver then too, brave enough to bring their troubles to me.

I let them in, of course. I live upstairs, over my shop, and I always hear the bell. Sometimes I’m up late anyway, working on a tough project. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I never turn anyone away.

No one is here now. I sweep the floor, tossing wood shavings and coal dust into the stove, then open the shutters and let the morning in. The village is waking up now, and I can hear the sounds of shops opening, roosters crowing in back gardens, and the milkman making his rounds. It’s a lazy, peaceful kind of morning, and I leave the door open and set out a plate of scraps for the cats that like to wander through.

I’m upstairs when the bell rings. A woman is waiting in the workshop, crouched down and petting one of the cats. She stands up when I come in, trying to smile at me, and I know what the trouble is before she says a word. But I don’t tell her so. People need to talk about these things themselves.

So I sit her down on one of my stools and ask her what the trouble is. She’s nervous and fidgety, and I can tell she’d like to leave, but she doesn’t. She takes a small, battered heart from her bag and puts it on my workbench.

Can you fix it?

It’s the question they always ask. Every time, as if they really expect me to say no. They’ve tried to fix it themselves, that’s the trouble, and when they can’t—well. Too many people give up hope.

I look the heart over while she talks. Most of the hearts come to me with a single crack, a sharp blow that nearly broke them in half. A few have a half a dozen cracks, blows that have happened over a series of months or years. Those are harder to fix, but not impossible.

This one is different. It isn’t cracked, not the way hearts that have been broken usually are. It’s been worn down, dented several times in several places. The exterior is brittle, as if she’d tried to harden it herself to keep it from cracking under the strain, and it’s light in my hands. As if it were nearly hollow.

I listen while she tells me about herself, about everything the heart’s been through. About the husband who doesn’t meet her eyes, and the son who hasn’t called. About the empty life and the dreams she set aside and the hope she’s forgotten how to feel. She can’t remember a single blow or a moment that started the damage, but I can see that already. For a heart to dent and wear like this, it needs a subtle kind of pain, one that rubs and chafes but doesn’t crack. That kind of damage is harder to repair.

Unfortunately, it’s also easier to miss. I see it often enough when I go out walking or meet someone new on the beach, but it isn’t one I see in my shop very much. People ignore it. It’s not cracked, they say, not broken. So why fix it?

They don’t realize just how much damage has been done.

She’s waiting for me to tell her that it can’t be fixed. I can see that. Instead, I set the heart down on the table and ask her if she’s brought a case with her. Any clothes? She tells me she has a few things. I nod and tell her about a house that I own a few streets away. Next to the sea. It’s got a garden, and flowers growing in the windowsills, and a kitchen. The job will take a while, I tell her, and she’ll have to stay nearby. Is she willing?

Her yes is all the answer I need, and I set to work immediately.

She’ll like my house. I bought it for people like her, who need a bit of time to let me work. Heartsmithing is a complicated kind of business, and hearts aren’t fixed in a day.

For The Writer Who Isn’t Ready For Another Year

The beginning of a new year is an exciting thing. 365 days filled with promise, unsullied by mistakes, unspoiled by bad attitudes or hurtful remarks. A year is a powerful thing, and it’s exciting to have a new one ahead to conquer.

Except when it’s not.

Sometimes the thought of a new year, combined with the disappointments of the year (or years) past, can be intimidating instead of exciting. As much as we would like to leave the burdens, disillusionment, and frustrations of the previous year behind us, that’s a difficult thing to do. Sometimes, it really is impossible. Maybe resolutions failed, writing goals weren’t met, or projects that we were so enchanted with at the beginning of the previous year have fallen flat and lost their magic. Writing is a tough business, and more than that, it’s a slow one. Contracts aren’t signed overnight, books take years to be written and revised, and ideas that were hatched two, even three years previously still haven’t been given the attention and love they deserve.

In short, it can be very easy to reach the beginning of a new year and, instead of resolving to put all the effort and love you can manage into your stories, decide instead to let that dream die.

After all, dreams die all the time, don’t they? Writers quit, they find new pursuits, and books molder in drawers instead of being published and passed to the world.

But it doesn’t have to end like that. Writing can be discouraging, but it doesn’t have to be. The beginning of a new year SHOULD be exciting, no matter what is behind you.

Here are five tips for entering the new year as a conqueror, instead of feeling defeated before you even start.

1) Look back at the year past—and choose to see the good in it.

As a writer, nothing you do is wasted. Pages that have been trashed, agents that have turned you down, blogs that have failed, all of them have taught you valuable lessons. Every word you write, whether it’s been deleted or not, has brought you closer to where you want to be.

2) Be comfortable with baby steps.

Writing is slow. Publishing is slow. Getting a book into the world is slow. An impatient writer is a frustrated writer and a discouraged one. Enjoy the moments, allow them to pass as slowly as they need to, and be content with the knowledge that however slow you are going, you’re still so, so far ahead of those who have never dared try.

3) Don’t base your success on someone else’s decisions.

I see so many resolutions from writers that talk about getting an agent or landing a contract. I am all for reaching for the stars, and especially for setting big goals. But landing an agent or a publishing contract is not a goal that you can reach on your own. Ultimately, it comes down to their decisions. Whether your book is right for them and their business at the moment, and whether they have room for another client.

And if you are discouraged and struggling to continue, the last thing you need is a resolution that you have no power over.

Still, we don’t want to throw those resolutions out the window, right? So, instead, consider changing the wording.

Instead of resolving to land an agent, resolve to perfect and polish your query letter and proposal. Have a certain number of agents that you want to send it to by the end of the year. Focus on your effort, your enthusiasm, and your dedication, instead of their decision.

Then, when the end of the year rolls around, whether you have a contract or not, you can be proud of yourself for doing everything possible to make your dream happen.

4) Realize that there is really only one way to fail as a writer.

A bad review is not a failure. A dead blog is not a failure. An idea that surged and died is not a failure.

The only way to fail is to quit.

Everything else is learning, everything else is a step forward, or redirection, or a bit of experience. If you continue, you will find your niche and you will find your story. So don’t quit. Don’t give up. Keep writing, even when it looks hopeless from the outside.

5) Do what you love.

Before you resolve to hit this milestone or that one, pause. Resolve to rekindle your love for the writing. The stories. The characters that once caught your attention and persuaded you to take on their journeys and their passions.

The only way to write well is to write with passion. Readers know when you’re only going through the motions of being an author. You loved this craft once, and maybe you still love it now.

So pause.

Take a moment.

Remember what it is about writing that you love. Journal with your characters. Renew your friendships with them. Explore the cities, the forests, the places that you write about, and linger in them. Smell the deep mould beneath the trees, the fresh brewed coffee at the coffee bar, or the wet pavement in the rainy streets.

Forget the logistics of followers, agents, queries, platforms, and contracts. Forget how many likes that last post received. Pause all of that.

Enjoy the journey. Love the writing. When your passion returns, then return to the rest.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.

I Knew

pexels-photo-916026.jpeg

The house had a basketball hoop in the driveway.

I remember that most of all. That day, the day we had a house, is too fragmented to remember perfectly. But I remember a few things. The real estate agent’s dusty car. The cracked pavement. The weeds. The peeling paint on the front door. And the basketball hoop.

I’ll get you a ball, you promised us, and I knew you would. You’d promised us a house too, and we had that now, although grandpa said we’d never keep it. You’ll be back begging at our doorstep in a week, he told you before we left, and I didn’t tell him goodbye.

I don’t think you did either.

The real estate agent had you sign some papers before he left. I remember how your hands were shaking. I was too small to read what they said, but whatever it was, it made you cry when he left. We all cried together, on the floor in that empty house. I think it was a happy kind of crying.

You made me a nest that night. I had a whole room to myself in that big, empty house, and I felt like a princess in my palace. You tucked my blanket and my sheet together on the floor and told me stories about the mice who made nests just like mine. I’ll get you a bed soon, you told me, and I knew you would. You tucked me in tight, and I used my teddy as a pillow.

We had a picnics in the kitchen. I remember that too. You spread out a sheet on the floor, and we had breakfast and lunch and dinner there. We used to pretend that we were eating breakfast at the beach, and lunch in the mountains. Cade used to complain that there were ants in his food, so we’d think the picnic was real. You always laughed when he said it.

The first thing you bought us was a basketball. I remember when you brought it home. We didn’t have a table, or beds in our rooms, or pictures for the walls, or even a couch to sit on, but we had a basketball. I remember you sitting on the front steps after dinner, watching Cade teach me how to play. I couldn’t reach the hoop, even when he lowered it all the way down, and he’d lift me up so I could score. You clapped for us. I don’t remember who won, but we played until the fireflies came out and the moon was peeping in to watch through that old oak in the front yard.

Don’t worry, you told me when we inside that night. You’ll grow into it.

I knew I would.

We didn’t go back to grandpa’s that week. Or the next one. You said we never would, and I knew you were right. We had a house now, and a picnic blanket, and a basketball.

We didn’t need anything else.

When school started, you made Cade and I go. You’d walk us to the bus stop every morning, and when we left, you’d walk to work. You said you didn’t need a car, that walking made you happy. I knew it did.

You were never home when school was over, but we played basketball every night until you came. You were right. I did grow into that hoop, and so did Cade. He grew into it so much that he could raise it right to the top and still score, and I had to learn to jump high enough to block him. I still don’t remember who won those games, just that we played them.

We all used to do our homework together. Cade and I used to laugh about Mama having homework too, and you’d just laugh with us and keep right on working. I think you got better grades than we did. I know you stayed up later than we did. I remember you shooing us to bed, but the light never switched off before I went to sleep in my nest.

You graduated the same day Cade did. You bought us a table, and Cade came home wearing a uniform that made him look ten feet tall. You cried, but it was a happy kind of cry, and you sat on the steps to watch us play basketball before he left.

I played basketball by myself after that, and rode the school bus alone. You brought work home with you, and we sat at our table while I did my homework and you graded papers. I didn’t tell you I was proud of you, but I thought it every night. I was proud of you for your new job, and for the homework you did after I fell asleep, and for the house you didn’t lose. I was proud you didn’t have to go begging to grandpa anymore, and that you had a car, even if you still liked walking.

You never told me how scared you were, but I remember that too. You never told me you were brave, but I knew you were.

Knitting Prayers

crocheting-yarn-diy-knitting-162499.jpeg

My grandmother kept prayers in her knitting basket.

To me, it seemed an odd place to keep them. Prayers are meant to be kept in a Bible on the parlor shelf, or stuffed away in a church, gathering dust with the rest of the relics. At the very least, they’re supposed to be kept somewhere that’s just a little reverent. Somewhere solemn and quiet, like a graveyard or a room you don’t visit every day.

But my grandmother keeps them with her knitting, and sometimes they get tangled up in her yarn.

She knits in her sitting room, in her rocking chair beside the fire. It’s bright and sunny, with a rag rug on the wood floor and flowers on the windowsill. I come to sit with her sometimes when my mother is working and the house is empty. She’ll send me after fresh daisies from the field outside and a pitcher of well water for the two of us, and I’ll lie on the floor and color while she talks to me and to God.

I don’t think the preacher would like the way she prays much. He uses fancy words when he prays, thees and thous, and he always spreads his hands out wide as if he’s trying to push the prayers right into heaven.

When she prays, I have to glance up to make sure God isn’t sitting right there next to her. Some days, I don’t think she’s praying at all. At least, not the sort of praying that I know. She talks to Him the way she talks to just about anybody. She tells Him about my new haircut, or the families who’ve been coming to live with us from the cities, or about mama’s new job in the factory. If I don’t look up every now and then, I’ll forget that He isn’t sitting in the rocking chair across from her and maybe whittling or something.

She’s knitting socks today. The sky is gray, and it’s snowing hard enough that I should have started for home an hour ago. But she used up a whole tea ration for just the two of us, and I’d rather not wait in a cold house until six o’clock. So I watch the fire crackling and the cardinal pecking at the snow outside the window and listen to her talking to God about the snow in Russia and the man who’s going to be wearing the socks she’s making. Her prayers get caught up in her needles, and by the time she’s finished the gray wool is just a little silver too.

I’ve lost count of how many socks she’s sent out. She keeps them in a basket, and when she’s got ten or twelve pairs she sends them off. We never find out what happens to them, or to the prayers she’s knitted in with the wool, but she always tells me that God keeps track of those things.

I hope he does. I haven’t heard that knitted prayers keep a man’s feet warm, but I’d bet they’re good for something.

Where Peace Abounds

pexels-photo-459129.jpeg

He throws me out after the fifth beer. My mother will follow me in an hour or so. She offends him less, I think, because she doesn’t answer back when he swears at her. She’s everything I’m not and wish I could have been. Soft and gentle, kinder than one of God’s angels, with mouse-brown hair and blue eyes that have the patience of the heavens in them.

I was born with his slate-gray eyes and his wild temper. One more thing I intend to hold against him until the skies burn.

Dusk is falling in the orchard when I leave the house and follow the lane toward the wheat fields. The wind is up, and I can see clouds rolling in from the west, dark as soot and building into a summer storm. Lightning cracks in the distance, followed by a rumble of thunder, and I leave the lane and wade into the waist-high wheat.

This early in the year, it’s still green, and the wind ripples through it. I went to the seaside once, when I was so young that the wheat towered over my head and my father still called me his son. I still remember how the waves looked, tossed about by the wind and capped with white foam. The wheat fields remind me of it on days like this. They sway and ruffle, catching the last of the light and throwing silver glints at the sky.

I’m never at peace on this farm, except when I’m here.

The clouds are overhead and the wind smells of rain before I reach the far edge of the field. The gypsy tents are pitched beneath the trees there, as far from the house as they can get and still be on our land. Their men help with the harvest in the fall, and if they pass through before then, my father always has work for them. But he doesn’t want them nearby. If he can see their tents or wagons, or if he can smell the smoke from their fires, he’ll kick them out. This is the only place that he never comes.

So, of course, this is always where I end up when he kicks me out.

Their fires are burning, and the smell of the stew bubble over the flames reminds me that he threw me out before I could eat. Two of their children, bare-footed and black-eyed, see me coming, and they run to greet me, babbling incoherently in that lilting, graceful tongue that never seems to need space for a breath. I swing one of them onto my shoulders, and he grabs handfuls of my hair and tugs, still shouting. Mama Kazia comes out of the tent, scolding, and kisses my cheeks, pushing me down on one of the cushions scattered around the fire. She’s got poppies braided into her black hair, and bare feet like her children. They’ve been here six weeks already, a long time for people who love the horizon, and we’ve managed to get past the language barrier. They chatter at me, and I talk to them, and if neither of us quite understands the words, we catch the meaning.

She’s clucking over my bruised face now, and one of her children brings me a puppy from underneath the wagon while I tell her about our latest fight, about my mother’s silence, the baseball games in town, the money I have stashed under my mattress from the odd jobs I’ve been working, and the train headed west next spring. She listens sympathetically, clicking her tongue every once in a while and dishing out stew to the children that come crowding around. She pushes a bowl into my hands too, and I eat with one of her toddlers in my lap.

The rain is pattering against the canvas awning when their papa returns. The older children hear him whistling, and they run to meet him and come back splattered in mud and laughing. He’s carrying them, two on his back and one on each hand, swinging like pendulums. The first few times I came here, I slipped off when I heard him coming. He caught me the third time, and we spent three hours talking about fishing and what bait is the best for trout.

He likes practicing his broken English, I think. I explain baseball to him, and he tells me where to find the best holes for brook trout in the spring or how to hunt down a blackbird’s nest.

A fool waste of time. That’s what my father would call it. But I’m never at peace on this farm, except when I’m here.

Soul Colors

pexels-photo-612977.jpeg

I have a secret. I see colors.

I don’t mean that I see the leaves turning red and orange and yellow in the fall or the glitzy flashing neon signs blinking over the supermarkets and restaurants after dark. Everyone sees those colors, and frankly, they’re not very impressive, as far as colors go. They’re faded. Washed out, like paint in dishwater. I barely notice them anymore.

No, I see people. Their soul colors. The ones they hide from everyone else.

I don’t think they’d like it if they knew I could see. Colors are private things. People hide them underneath bulky jackets and floppy hats, behind newspapers and smartphones. They like to believe their disguises are enough to mask their colors from the world, and they are, mostly.

Just . . . not from me.

The colors are the first thing I see when I wake up on my park bench, or behind whatever dumpster happened to be handy when I finished hawking my wares. People are everywhere in the city, in every alley, packed into every street and every building. It’s why I came here in the first place. I came for the colors.

Mostly, I came to see if I could change them.

If I was a better businessman, I would find one place to sell, maybe right outside the subway station or in the park, where people are more likely to browse through my wares instead of hurrying by.

I can’t do it. I’ve tried. But I like to move around. To see different places. People who live uptown have different colors from the ones that live in the slums across the canal. Different, and yet, strangely, very much the same too. It’s all the same, no matter what city I’m sleeping in. It’s only rarely that I catch a glimpse of a color that startles me.

In the springtime, I sell lilacs and lilies on my corner, or paper tigers and cranes and frogs, or kites painted with stars and snakes and dancing women. I’ve sold perfume a few times, in the fall, and when Christmas rolls around, I sell holly and snowflakes.

Today, I’ve got balloons.

Balloons are really my favorite to sell. People don’t know, but I always try to give them a color that matches their own. It’s usually the one they ask for anyway, and I like to see them walking away, tracking green or blue or lemon-yellow on the sidewalks and carrying a balloon of the same color.

That’s really the funny thing about colors. They mean different things for different people. Blue might mean contentment for one person and sadness for another. Red can mean a thousand different things. I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the colors over the years, and I can usually guess. But sometimes, even now, I’m dead wrong.

The first sale I make is to a couple. They’re holding hands, and he’s getting his red all over her. Bright, cheerful, infatuated red. It’s dusted on her hands like pollen, on her cheek where he’s kissed her, in her hair. I try not to laugh.

She’s happy too. Powder blue. A little less passionate, a little softer, but very, very much in love. I sell them the right colored balloons and watch them wander off.

The next is an old woman with a walker and white hair. She smells like cinnamon, and everything about her glows coral pink, with a few gold flecks here and there and some silver in her eyes. I sit and talk with her for an hour or so, listening to her stories and admiring the colors. When she leaves, at last, I send a pink balloon with her and refuse the dollar she tries to press on me. I should be paying her.

Three rich colors in one morning means a good day, but the next customer is flat gray. A man with a suit. I think his tie might have been red when he bought it. He buys the balloon without looking at me, mumbling something about his daughter, and walks away. I give him a green one because it’s my strongest color, but before he’s gone ten steps it’s as gray as he is. He won’t notice, of course, but I do.

It takes me an hour to get over that one. I’m hoping for a better color next, but the woman who appears is gray too. Soft, ashen gray, with a little knot of painful black beneath her left shoulder. She’s got a toddler with her, a little boy who is clinging to her hand and sucking his thumb.

I love seeing children’s colors. They’re confused, because children aren’t one thing or another quite yet. He’s got orange and yellow and silver and green and a grumpy, tantrum red blotched all over him, like he got into the paint box and made a mess.

I’d laugh, but he’s holding her hand. His little fingers and his wrist—all the way down to his shoulder, really—is as gray as she is. And I don’t feel like laughing.

She seems to know, somehow, what her color is doing to his. She won’t meet my eyes, and she fumbles in her purse looking for a coin to buy his balloon with. I let the man with the fading tie go, but this time I’m more prepared, and she isn’t in a hurry. I get her talking, first about her son, about preschool and peanut butter in his hair and sleepless nights. Then about herself. About the man who abused her and the leaky faucet that her landlord won’t fix and the job that hasn’t paid her bills in two months. Her son plays with his balloon while we talk. He gets purple on his fingers.

When she’s finally run out of words, I give her a balloon too, a sea green one, and the money I made selling roasted chestnuts the week before Christmas. I’ve been saving it since. I wasn’t sure for what until just now.

When she cries, her tears leave splotches of color on her hands and cheeks. Sea green. She tries to protest, but there’s a reason I sleep on park benches and behind dumpsters. The money is definitely for her.

She’s still gray when she walks away, and that black knot doesn’t disappear. It’ll take more than a little extra cash and some kindness to dig that out. But the balloon doesn’t lose its color, and there’s a little sea green nestled around the black where her heart should be.

I’ve always liked sea green. Everyone is different, of course, but I’ve found that sea green usually has a bit of hope about it. If I look hard enough.

Of Bullfrogs and Snapdragons: Coming Fall 2019

pexels-photo-134061.jpeg

Hedgehogs, O most faithful of readers, make excellent writing companions.

I would not admit this to anyone but you, for some of my friends would be terribly jealous if they thought that I was choosing favorites. Belinda Munkindot, who I am sure that you remember from my previous letters, would fly into the most ridiculous passion if she so much as suspected that I preferred a hedgehog’s company to her own. But there it is, dearest reader, and I do hope that you will keep my secret.

Since I have taken on the task of chronicles these small adventures for you, I have had many little visitors to my cottage. Lumpkin has come several times. He roams about beneath my desk, tapping on the walls, and occasionally will clamber up to sit on my shoulder, reading the page that I have so carefully inscribed for you and uttering a few complaints if the story happens to be about anyone but himself. Once, I caught him digging through my flour barrel, as if he really did think he would find treasure buried inside. I am afraid that I dusted him off rather roughly and ordered him to go home at once.

He is still sulking.

Belinda, too, has come to see me many times. She flits in and out of my window as she pleases, sometimes resting on my writing hand to get a closer look at what I am saying about her, sometimes tinkling in my ear, and sometimes admiring herself in the mirror I keep on my desk to distract her. Her tinkling is very bothersome, and as she seldom does anything but scold about the stories I’ve chosen to tell—or not tell—about her, I find it very trying to have her with me for long.

Wignilian would be a fine companion, I think, if he wasn’t so easily distracted. He scuttles about, sniffing this and nibbling that, and drives me quite frantic. I have been forced to banish him several times.

In the end, I have found that the only little creature I can stand to have rooting about on my writing desk is a hedgehog.

Actually, if I am to be most entirely honest, it is one hedgehog in particular that has snuffled his way into my good graces.

His name, dear reader, is Lester Winklestep.

Of Bullfrogs and Snapdragons, the sequel to Of Mice and Fairies, is set for release in the fall of 2019. Mark your calendars!

How I Will Probably Die

pexels-photo-694740.jpeg

I find the bookshop on 47th and Willow, sandwiched between a pawn shop with a broken lamp in the window and a jewelry store selling fake pearls. The windows are shuttered, and a black cat is lying on the doorstep. She arches against my hand when I reach down and pet her, and when I step over her and go inside, I half expect her to follow me.

She doesn’t, even when I hold the door for her. I guess she likes it outside better.

A silver bell rings when I come inside, but there’s no one at the counter. A dusty book is lying open beside the register, and there’s a kitten asleep in a basket under one of the tables, but no people. No customers, no employees.

But there are books. The walls are lined with shelves that reach right up to the cracked ceiling, and the books that don’t fit on the shelves are stacked neatly in the corners, or arranged in rows on the creaky reading desks in the center of the room. I browse through, finding a few titles I know and some I’ve been looking for. I can’t find any price tags, but since some of the books are pretty battered, I figure they’re mostly second-hand, and the owner has a standard price that she—or he—keeps by the cash register.

The kitten is following me. I clump down a few steps into another room, this a little more messy, a little more scattered than the last. Big, sprawling plants are growing in pots in the corners, and the books are double-lining the shelves. Some of them have real leather covers, their pages so old that they crack when I open them. The writing is nearly illegible, faded by dust and years, and I’m tempted to buy a few to keep in my library, maybe on display. I’ve always liked old books.

Another cat is sleeping on the books, a big orange tabby. He yawns as I pass by, and I scratch him on the ears and under the chin. The kitten is rubbing against my ankles, purring as loud as if he hasn’t had any kind of attention for years. I pick him up, letting him rub his face against my cheek and chin as I venture into the next room.

It’s bigger than the last. I didn’t think the shop was so big. From the street, it looks like a one-room corner store, with maybe an upstairs room for extra stock. But I can’t find any stairs, and the rooms keep getting bigger as I go along. Several ferns and a few leafy vines are growing on the tables, and one of the shelves has Venus Flytraps growing next to the books. They’re bigger than I thought they would be, although I’ve never really grown any. Maybe they feed on book moths, or something.

The books are all leather now. I pull one off the shelves, and it’s so heavy that I have to set it down on a table before I can open it.

I can’t read the writing inside. It’s hand-lettered and smeared, and definitely not written in English. I put it back on the shelf, feeling a little funny, and go back through the door to the room with the orange tabby.

At least, that’s what I meant to do. The door was the same, or looked the same, but the orange tabby is gone, and this room has a bare wall with hand-drawn maps pinned to it and an old writing desk, with quill pens and an ink bottle with dust on it in the corner. The kitten is gone, and the books are chained to the shelves, like they were in the Middle Ages. I pull one off and open it up, and the pages are lined by painted illustrations that make my stomach turn.

I go back through the door I just left, thinking I’ll find the kitten and the right door, and go home without buying anything, at least today.

But the Venus Flytraps aren’t there, and the room isn’t the one I left. Three or four more doors, and I begin to realize that I’m very, very lost.

Either that, or this bookshop is playing games with me. A few hours, and the way it toys with me starts to feel very alive. As if it’s confusing me on purpose. The kitten appears a few more times, but I always lose it again.

It’s weeks before I give up. The bookshop seems intent on keeping me alive, whatever else it has in mind, like one of its cats. I find plates of stale cookies and lemonade set out for me, or sometimes a sandwich and a cup of milk. At night we have tea in the room with the squashy armchairs and the fireplace, and the kitten finds me.

It’s not so bad, once the panic wears off. Who knows? Maybe the last owner got eaten by the Venus Flytraps or made it outside, and the shop got lonely without them. I don’t think it likes to be alone, and someone has to take care of the books and give the cats the attention they need.

So why not me?