Writing challenge: Braided narrative


It’s a simple enough idea–want to try?

A braided narrative weaves three story lines together into one. A brilliant example is the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

Chapters alternate between three stories–a blind girl in occupied France, a teenage German radioman, and a Sergeant Major relentlessly seeking a diamond called the Sea of Flames. As the story strands move toward each other, the reader sees parallels and echoes and hints of their relatedness, each story reflecting on and adding nuance to the other two.

Gradually, relentlessly, they braid together–and we keep reading in anticipation of their inevitable meeting and joining into one tale.

A braided narrative does not have to be book-length. It could be an essay, or even a poem. You might want to try your hand at weaving one together.

~ Poobah Pat

Your demons


John Irving has another book out, and–no surprise–it includes orphans, a circus, and transgender characters. It’s no surprise because these subjects turn up again and again in his work. Stephen King’s stories often include powerful children and evil depicted in the abuse of women, children, or animals. Other authors have their own motifs that crop up repeatedly in their writing.

So how about you? Have you noticed recurring themes, events, or situations in your own writing?

Have you chosen them or did they choose you?

~ Poobah Pat

Writing tip: Oh…duh.

pen and paper

I had an oh…duh moment that I hesitate to share because it’s so obvious that you are likely already doing it. But (taking a deep breath and forging on), here it is: write it down as you brainstorm.

I’ll explain.

I’d tended toward two patterns: I’d brainstorm (often in bed or while taking a walk or in the shower) and when I landed on a good idea or two or three, I held them in my mind until I got to a pad of paper. Or I might clear a space of time, fix a nice cuppa tea, tell myself it is time to write, open my Work In Progress, and sit and stare blankly at the screen waiting for inspiration to strike. Which sometimes did. And oftentimes didn’t.

The oh-so-obvious thing I hadn’t been doing is writing thoughts down as I brainstormed them. There are, after all, only so many a-ha! moments you can hold in your mind until you get to a piece of paper or computer screen. And by scurrying to write them down, I’d actually stopped brainstorming and started reiterating instead.

But of course it is the writing down of ideas that takes us places. Instead of mulling over in your big brain what might happen next in your story or considering a character’s background or personality traits and watching for those nuggets of pure gold insight to rise to the surface, address that same question with pen and paper. Write it ALL down, all the ideas, as you go hopping from thought to thought, without much concern whether what you’re writing is real gold, fool’s gold, or sand. You can stop holding on to the nuggets–they are already held safely on the page–and let your mind continue scooping up more ideas. It’s freeing. It’s fun.

I like using good ol’ paper and pen/pencil for this. It seems less permanent, I suppose it gives me permission to be sloppy or inexact–and later, a chance for ideas to be refined or eliminated when I transfer them from paper to electronic notes.

The next time you need to figure out what in your character’s background would cause her to do what she’s doing, or how to get to the next plot point, or what next bit of conflict you can throw in your characters’ way, try asking yourself that question (any question) with pen and paper in hand.

It’s so obvious, it might just work.

~ Poobah Pat

Writing prompt: Blood moon

blood moon

Now there’s a couple of evocative words for you: blood and moon. Put them together and you’re sure to spark something. And, quite nicely, you could write a nonfiction piece about the recent viewing of the blood moon eclipse, or you could go off on some fictitious story line that tickles your imagination.

Blood + moon = what?

Feel free to add your piece below, if you’d like to, by clicking “Comments.”

~ Poobah Pat

Tips and Techniques: Beginning at the end

magician-25490_640 (1)

A sleight of hand option in a writer’s mighty bag-o-tricks is to start a story at its end. Does it sound counterintuitive to reveal the ending at the beginning? It works because we as readers are a curious lotgive us a glimpse of something intriguing to come, and we’ll read to see how it happens, rather what that ending is.

Here’s the first line from Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner: “In the fleeting seconds of final memory, the image that will become Burma is the sun and a woman’s parasol.” Final memory? Someone’s gonna die. And sure enough, in the final paragraphs of the novel: “In the afternoon, he saw a woman in the distance. She carried a parasol.” We know what’s coming next. We’ve been anticipating it from page one.

Here’s the trick to beginning at the end: reveal a death or divorce or disaster to come. After all, if the beginning sentence revealed that everything will be resolved happily, your readers would be unlikely to continue. But divulge a difficult journey, a torturous decision, or an untimely end—and they’ll want to know how it happens.

Also note a variation of this trick: begin with something disastrous that happens in the middle of the story. Consider the first sentence in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” The firing squad will wait for later; we’re going to discover ice first. But we know, even as we go along with the child and his father, that the firing squad is waiting.

If you haven’t yet tried this sleight of hand for yourself, you might challenge yourself to write a story or poem beginning at the end. Or tuck this tip into your writer’s bag-o-tricks, to have available as needed to amaze yourself and your audience.

~ Poobah Pat

Writing Prompt: The only way out…

milli vanilli

I was recently listening to (of all things) a radio story told by one member of the disgraced singing duo Milli Vanilli, when he said, “The only way to get out was to get deeper in.” And that struck me as a sentence that could launch a thousand stories.

In the 1990s, Fab Morvan was half of the pop group Milli Vanilli, who would famously–and shamefully–be revealed as lip synching their songs. In his story, which you can hear here, Fab explains that he and his partner had spent the advance they were given before they knew their own voices would not be used. Yes, they could refuse to lip synch, but they would have to repay all that cash. Which they didn’t have. So… “The only way to get out was to get deeper in.”

As writers, our job is to put hurdles in front of  our characters; to make their lives difficult. There are any number of ways to do this, but Fab nicely pointed out a good one. Can you imagine a situation where your character, perhaps through a stupid initial misstep, or perhaps through no fault of their own, has to move forward on a course of action they don’t want to do. Would they understand from the beginning that this was a bad idea, or would it gradually become obvious to them? How would they get out?

The only way of getting out is by going deeper in. That’s a writing prompt that could lead you in a thousand directions. Try one.

~ Poopah Pat

Writing prompt: MORE

more 2

I was taking a walk last week when a writing prompt showed up from out of the blue–literally. A skywriter left this one-word message: MORE.

Why More? What More? More what?

Stretch your imagination and your writing muscles with this writing prompt. If you’d like to, include your piece below, by clicking Comments.

~ Poobah Pat

Tips and Techniques: Therefore, therefore, however


I’ve seen the following helpful writing tip in a few different places, so I’m not claiming it as my own insight. But a writer friend and I discussed its usefulness recently, and I wanted to bring it to you. Here it is:

Don’t write a scene, another scene, another scene—and then try to figure out how to string them together. The equivalent of “This happens, and then this happens, and then this happens.”

Instead, write a scene that influences/determines what happens in the next scene, and so on. In other words: “This happens, therefore this happens, therefore this happens.” Once in a while something unexpected happens—you might consider this a “however.” So, “This happens, therefore this happens, however this happens, therefore this happens…”

If you find yourself stuck in the world of and then, jet over to therefore, therefore, however and see what you discover.

Writing prompt: I left it here for you to find


I originally pictured this as a note or a poem that was left to be found…perhaps by a specific person, or maybe left for any stranger who happened upon it. But now I’m thinking it could be anything, really, that was left behind to be found. What do you think it was?

If you’d like to share your writing response, feel free to leave it in Comments below.

Song Lyric Challenge

rubber soul

I have an idea I’m calling “song lyric challenge.” Let’s see if it works. Take any one of the following selected lines below, from the Beatles’ “I’m Looking Through You,” and use it to write something new:

I thought I knew you, what did I know?

You don’t look different, but you have changed…

Your lips are moving, I cannot hear…

Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight…

You’re thinking of me, the same old way…

I’m looking through you, where did you go?

I’m looking through you, you’re not the same…


30 minutes for 30 days–you in?

typewriter blue

Maybe your writing practice has fallen off a little…or a lot…or maybe you just like the idea of checking in with a group of folks who are seeking a similar goal. Whatever your reason for accepting this challenge, the idea is that you’ll commit to writing 30 minutes for 30 days…or thereabouts… because in this challenge you’ve got wiggle room.

Maybe you prefer to commit to 30 minutes for 5 days each week or maybe all you can spare is 5 minutes, and you’ll commit to 25 days.

Decide what works for you and declare it to the group…and when Wednesday, July 1, rolls around a week from today, start writing.

Here’s how to get started: sign in here. (Not a member yet? No problem–you can join for a month for free, participate for July and then step away at any time.)

Whaddya say? Are you in?
If so, take the first step and sign in here, then meet me on “Your Community Page” under “Members Only.”

Hoping to see you there!
~  Poobah Pat

An editing tip: Recognizing “filter words”

ilfterHave you heard of “filter words”? They’re those that weaken the reader’s response by filtering the experience through one of your characters. For example, you might write:

George heard the door slam. He felt his skin pucker into goosebumps when he saw a ghost hovering by his knee.

The reader is experiencing the scene through George’s senses of hearing, feeling, and seeing. Now let’s try it unfiltered:

The door slammed. George’s skin puckered into goosebumps as a ghost hovered by his knee.

The idea is to make the writing more immediate to the reader. Filter words include variations on “to see,” “to feel,” “to think,” “to touch,” “to decide,” and more. Take a look at this article by Suzannah Windsor… and let us know what you think by commenting, below.

–Poobah Pat

Quick Critique: “Carriage House” excerpt by Alice Lynn

This week’s piece is an excerpt from Carriage House by Alice Lynn. To read it, scroll down below the video. To see the Quick Critique, click on the video below:

Here’s Carriage House, written by our guest author, Alice Lynn (Alice’s Blog and Amazon Author page):

Carriage House by Alice Lynn

(Katherine is the 11-year-old protagonist)


Place: a room built as a barn addition on a small farm in Oregon

Chapter 15

Mixing a little desperation with courage, Katherine stepped inside, leaning flat against the door, both hands behind her.  The air was strong with the odor of tobacco, urine, sweat, and dirty linen.  Wood chips and flakes of dry mud covered the floor.  The fat, pot-bellied wood stove was dusty, unused in the summer heat.  A bed occupied one wall, consisting of an ancient brass frame, a lumpy mattress and a discolored quilt.  A pair of work boots stood by the wood box, oddly neat, the toes pointed precisely.  A clothing rack to one side of the stove pipe held overalls and an old jacket. 

The only color in the room was a calendar. Katherine surveyed it with interest—a girl simpering over one shoulder, pale hair tumbling down her back, her bare satiny bottom coyly turned toward the camera.

Well, if that was all he was hiding, it wasn’t much! Tip-toeing around the room, she paused at the lone dresser, noticing how the top drawer stuck out a little.  She hesitated, battling her conscience.

It wasn’t right to go through anyone else’s things but—it wasn’t like stealing.  She was just going to look.  The possibility of being caught and hauled off to justice stilled her hand.  But since she was this far she might as well go through with it.  TV detectives were always looking through people’s cars and apartments.  Heartened, she opened the drawer.  An uninteresting assortment of socks and underwear met her disappointed gaze.  The next drawer held nothing of interest except for a flashlight.  She tried it and found it actually worked.  Replacing it, she continued her search.

It was in the last drawer that she found pay dirt.  Instead of raggedy flannel or denim, she saw a light, delicate material. Drawing it out, she fingered the crêpey silk, and sniffing, imagined she could smell a faint, flowery perfume.  Holding it up, she marveled at the satin embroidery around lace insets shaped like butterfly wings.  Beneath this, she uncovered a dress  sheer, once white cotton.  An inset of lace filled most of the bodice.  The sleeves were soft and full. Pulling this garment completely out, Katherine noticed the long rip in the gathers of the skirt, and where a stiff, black stain blotted its beauty.

Too confused to think clearly, her first impulse was to run to the house and tell everyone what she had found so it would be out in the open and she could be reassured.  But the moment passed.  Quickly she shoved the clothes back into the bureau and, in doing so, made another discovery.  Something hard and square.  A box.

Several rings jumbled among brooches, earrings, necklaces, one of which was a plain gold band.  “A wedding ring?” she whispered. 

She was trying to jiggle the drawer shut, when she heard footsteps approaching the door. Walter’s voice was calling from somewhere, “Home kinda early, ain’t ya?”

Jed’s voice answered.  “Early ‘nuff, I reckon.”

It took only an instant to see there was only one place to hide.  Then she was on her stomach, frantically scrambling under the sagging bedstead.  The wire springs snagged her hair, but she ducked lower, drawing her legs in after her like a hunted young animal seeking the security of its burrow.  One hand worked under her, pulling the hard box of her camera out from under her chest.  Unable to pull the cord from around her neck, she lay with it awkwardly twisted into the curve of her shoulder.

The door opened, then closed, scraping against the floor. Jed’s brown dress-up shoes with their new rubber heels walked toward the dresser.  They passed out of sight but she could hear him setting something down that crackled like a paper bag.  Her nose tickled.  What if she sneezed? Clamping her teeth together, she stifled the impulse.

The shoes turned and came toward her. Then, as he sat on the bed, the springs swooped down almost hitting her.  His shoes tumbled down, one at a time, replaced with red-stockinged feet.

Then, once again the springs shifted, forcing her into new thinness, flattening her against the floor, almost cutting off her breath.  Jed settled himself, the bulging mattress and springs lengthening sausage-like, a scant inch above her.

She lay motionless, but her eyes were busy.  A can stood under the bed near her and looking at it, she shuddered.  The only other things visible were the shoes, iron stove legs, and above, the hateful mattress bulging into the bed springs.  A spider with thin, transparent legs sidled across the floor, stopping under the edge of the overhanging quilt, staring at her.

She stared back, wanting to squash it but not daring to.  Puffing her cheeks, she blew instead, sending a lint whorl toward it, making it back up on all eight legs.  But the stirred dust threatened to bring on a sneeze so she had to close her eyes, do the teeth clenching thing again, and refuse to give in.

Jed tossed restlessly. Katherine’s face was hot, sweat, like tears, trickling down her cheeks.  It seems hours before she finally straightened herself out beneath the bed. Above her, Jed snored.

For a moment she thought of crawling across to the door, but though she planned it in her mind, she knew she’d never dare risk it.  She’d have to out wait him, but what if he slept all night?  Would they send a search party?

Her eyes closed.  Surely he’d have to go to the house for dinner.  Otherwise, she knew she would die, horribly trapped, lying with dead eyes staring up at those ghastly circles of mattress.


To have your work (2,000-words or fewer!) considered for a critique by the team, send it to PoobahPat1@gmail.com, with the subject “Critique Elite.” (Only Community Members’ work is considered.) If your work is chosen, you’ll receive an email notification requesting additional info.

48-hour contest winner: Marcy Andersen!

Many thanks to all who entered our 48-hour contest. Using the prompts “bus driver” and “uncharted territory,” submissions traveled back to childhood, onto one of Panama’s Diablo Rojos, into a comparison of priests and bus drivers, on a run with explosive cargo, and zoomed into considerations of first trips on buses. Such fun!

Without further ado: our winning piece is titled The Pig, and its author is Marcy Andersen. Find her at marigoldsparkleflower.

(Pig icon by icons8.com)
The Pig
by Marcy Andersen


     It was cold for only December. Alec had met me at the Goodwill, and now we were waiting for the bus. Christmas was coming, but I couldn’t care too much. I breathed into my hands for heat, my bag swinging from my arm. I had been shopping. I found this red ceramic pig – shiny, candy apple red, the size of a nearly grown kitten – sparkling on the shelf between piles of mismatched china and figurines.
     I grabbed it, knowing I would buy it no matter what it cost. Ten dollars. Not terrible, but I’d already picked up a hand mixer for my neighbor Kate which cost five, and bought myself a pair of boots for six. The boots were worn and had the indentations of someone else’s foot in them, but the sole of one of mine had fallen off yesterday, and my only other shoes were sandals. The edge of the foot indentations rubbed against the soft curve of my arch, but not too bad. So that was one dollar over my twenty dollar budget. Alec was mad.
     The bus pulled up and the door shushed open. Alec boarded, pulling me on by the hand. We sat facing the front of the bus and he spoke to me. Over four months of falling in love and moving in together, he hadn’t been mad once until today.
      “I can’t believe you spent that on a stupid ceramic pig.”
     “But it’s so perfect for Abigail.”
     I stared at the bag in my lap. My sister had been hit hardest when our mother passed, and I knew the pig would make her so happy. One exactly like it had sat on a shelf in our mothers kitchen. But when her husband moved her to the home, it had disappeared, along with a lot of things I wish us sisters could have kept.
     “You really think Abigail wants to be reminded of your mom?”
     Every day, I thought. I glanced up at Alec, his handsome face, his full lips and dark eyes. I felt flushed when I looked at him, and felt chemical reactions deep inside me. I put my hand on his arm, but he didn’t move. He always touched me back. This was uncharted territory.
     “It was stupid. We’re broke. You’re so selfish.”
     His voice rose slightly, and thinned to an edge, sharp like a sliver of ice that could cut your tongue. The bus driver glanced up into the rear view mirror and caught my eye. I looked away, embarrassed tears welling up in my lashes. One dropped onto the Goodwill bag, and I brushed it away. I sniffed loudly, and the bus driver looked again. There were a few other people on the bus, but they all stayed close inside their own world.
     “Please, Alec, it’s not that big a deal. You’re making me cry.” He glanced sidelong at me, and turned to look out the window. A few minutes later, he reached up and rang the bell as our stop approached. We slid from our seat and Alec led the way to the door of the bus. As I passed, the bus driver put his hand on my arm.
     “You’re going to be OK.” He smiled a bit and nodded at me. I smiled a bit back, but I knew that he was wrong.



Quick Critique: “Mexico” by Karen Champ

This week’s piece is Mexico by Karen Champ. To read it, scroll down below the video. To see the Quick Critique, click on the video below:

Mexico by Karen Champ

A week after I broke up with my girlfriend, Greg and I merged onto Southbound I-5.  Our destination: Mexico.  The mission: to find a chicken enchilada so perfect it would knit the shredded pieces of my life back together.

The idea started with a smell coming from one of the Mexican restaurants in my neighborhood.  My used-to-be neighborhood.  Her still-now neighborhood.  In addition to the things you lose when you’re the one to end a relationship, like the comfortable couch and the silverware with just the right weight in your hand, you also lose your address.  I was carrying the final box as I walked past the open doors of “Julio’s,” and the aroma of slow-cooked, well-spiced chicken floated out on a wave of mariachi music.  It smelled like the first step on a journey I wanted to take.

The next sign came when I walked into a bookshop and a display of travel books begged me to try Mexico.  My life was in boxes in my friend Greg’s garage, but instead of dragging my newly single self around town apartment hunting, I was picturing myself drunk on a beach somewhere 500 miles south.  I bought three books.

“Greg, want to go find delicious food to put in our mouths?”

He didn’t even pause before agreeing.  If it was my heart needing mending, I would’ve wanted to be alone.  I’m not a pretty crier.  But my heart felt solid, it was my head that needed work.  I felt exactly how I did post-joint – as bright as a bag of paperweights.  Greg was going to be my driver, my money holder, and my travel guide.  The fact he was six and a half feet tall and had the stature of a professional wrestler also made him my bodyguard.  All I had to do was search through my mountain of boxes and find clothes to take.  I think he had the easier of the jobs.

Greg was a skilled driver, and navigated through the traffic on Southern California’s roads like he had a special map no one else had.  I shucked off my shoes and propped my feet on the dashboard, assuming the official pose of the front passenger on any road trip.  The music on Greg’s specially made “Mexico Road Trip” CD’s created enough white noise to let me pass the miles staring out the window. 

The border crossing went easily, Greg spinning the tale of a traveling couple like we’d done this a thousand times.  I didn’t know what being a bored, medicated straight woman whose boyfriend drug her to Mexico every month looked like, but I gave it a shot.  Apparently I got close enough, and we were waved through.  I went back to staring out the window, popping pear flavored Jelly Belly’s into my mouth.

We got to the first stop on our trip in mid-afternoon.  Earlier, Greg had asked if I wanted to know the plan, and I told him I’d go anywhere as long as there was good food.  We checked into a hotel in a town I didn’t know the name of and then took a walk on the beach.  As the sky started to change colors we made our way into a restaurant.  Our waiter was nice, the food was okay, the drinks a little on the weak side.

On the way out Greg placed an arm around my shoulders and said, with a hint of apology in his voice, “Don’t worry, I’ll find better places.”  Breakfast on the beach was along the same lines, decent food, but nothing spectacular.  Greg decided it was time to try another town.

The next three days followed the same routine as we headed south – eating, drinking, walking on the beach, and sleeping.  Gradually, I realized the food was getting better.  The restaurants were smaller, the road signs for tourists were starting to disappear, and there was less traffic on the roads.  Greg had retired the English music we’d brought, and we listened to a radio station that flooded the car with words we couldn’t understand.  There were a couple of songs we came to recognize and sang along with during the choruses.  That is, as long as what we did could be considered singing.  And not butchering.

In the late morning of our fifth day in Mexico, Greg said he’d heard of a restaurant nearby that had amazing tortillas.  It wasn’t in any of the guidebooks, but that was okay, as Greg had given up on them, and instead navigated by word of mouth.  The results were better.  The tip on the “killer tortillas” had come from a tanned and shaggy-haired surfer.  Another bit of wisdom Greg had learned along the way was to ask a local, or as close to as you could get.  Sunburned tourists would inevitably direct you to a restaurant with happy hour specials on nachos and best bikini contests.

Following the surfer’s directions, we found the small place.  We were lead to an empty table by a short woman in her sixties.  After we’d taken our seats she looked at me hard, studying me for answers to some question she had in her mind.  Then she smiled, patted my arm twice, and was off.

Greg and I looked at each other and shrugged.  A young man in shorts approached our table with a basket of steaming tortilla chips, a bowl of fresh salsa, and two bottles of beer with names I couldn’t pronounce.  He set them down and said, “My grandma said she already chooses, and makes food for you to eat.”  Then he too, was off.

Greg and I again looked at each other and laughed. 

“I like her already,” I said, as I reached for a bottle.

We made quick work of the chips.  They were sturdy in weight, but delicate in taste, a Mexican puff pastry.  And the salsa was so fresh and chunky I felt I was in a garden eating tomatoes and jalapenos still on the vine.  And then the plates of food began arriving at our table.  Dishes of tortillas, vegetables, meats, sauces, and cheeses.  More cold beer showed up.  And just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, a final plate came out with a single beautiful enchilada on it.  It was placed in front of me and I carefully cut into it with the side of my fork.  The corn tortilla was firm but light, and the meat inside so tender it barely put up any resistance to being cut.  I put the first bite in my mouth, and let it lay on my tongue like an offering to the gods of taste.  I lost all sense of anything beyond the enchilada.  I savored each bite, chewing slowly, giving my mouth time to coax every bit of healing from it.

After the last bite was gone, I sighed, and sank back in my chair.  The woman was at the side of our table and she was smiling.  She talked for a good minute in a voice that sounded like the inside of a wish.  I didn’t understand a single word.  But from the smile on her face and her expressions, I could tell she was pleased.  She reached inside her shirt and pulled out a chain with a small gold pendant on it.  It was a Saint Christopher’s Medal.  Still talking, she drew it over her head, and put it on me.  It settled around my neck, still warm from her skin.  She placed her hand gently on the medal on my chest.  It was the softest thing I’d felt in years.

We stayed in that town for two days, and ate each meal at the small restaurant with the sign so faded it was illegible.  And each time we arrived, that grandma from a line of proud people reaching back to the Mayan pyramids, hugged me like I was a long-lost relative.  And with her gift of the necklace, she guaranteed Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, would help me find my way back to her.  And her food that tasted like a blessing.


To have your work (2,000-words or fewer!) considered for a critique by the team, send it to PoobahPat1@gmail.com, with the subject “Quick Critique.” (Only Community Members’ work is considered.) If your work is chosen, you’ll receive an email notification requesting additional info.

Quick Critique: “Bird of Passage” by Roxanna Matthews

This week’s piece is Bird of Passage by Roxanna Matthews. To read it, scroll down below the video. To see the Quick Critique, click on the video below:


Here’s Bird of Passage, written by our guest author, Roxanna Matthews (Roxanna Matthews and Amazon Author page):

Bird of Passage by Roxanna Matthews

She showed up on his fire escape one evening in late December.  When he glanced out the kitchen window, he saw a glimmer of pale light reflecting off her gray and white down vest.

“Whoah,” he said, quite taken aback, “Who are you?”

She shifted from one foot to the other and glared at him. He realized that if he rushed to the window to stare, inquire, pry for answers, he would only frighten her off.  Instead, he pretended to ignore her, and moved around the kitchen slowly, not coming too close to the glass as he finished his dinner and cleaned up.

At last he stood in the kitchen door with his hand on the light switch.  “Will you be okay out there?” he asked.  She gave no answer.  Turning out the light, he could see her silhouette outlined against the city’s glow.

The next day it was below freezing when he took the bus to work.  He was wearing more layers than a torte; wearing hand-knit wool gloves with silver in the fingertips,  wearing wool socks and sweaters and a hat with earflaps.   “She’s outside in this cold all day.” He thought.  “How can she survive?”

She was on the fire escape again that night.  Could he feed her?  Should he feed her?

He baked bread, and the aroma filled his whole apartment with warmth like candlelight.  His cats twined between his ankles, demanding strokes and treats. She sat outside on the fire escape, her back hunched against the wind and the dark, and never took her eyes off him.

During the whole of the snow event, she sheltered on his fire escape at night, then disappeared into the city during the day. At last, the back of the winter broke, and the snow melted. He came home one night to find the fire-escape empty, her wild, disturbing mystery gone. He had shared space with something outside his understanding, and he felt honored. He felt her absence as a curious ache. At odd moments he would wonder, “Why did she come here?  What did I have to offer her?”

More than a week later, with a rush and a rustle, she was back, clinging to the metal railings, peering through the glass. It was a day of broken clouds and gusty breezes.  Sap was rising, buds were beginning to swell. She rested in the thin sunshine, cleaning her nails, sheltering from the wind.  He took her picture through the glass.

“Red-tailed hawk,” a friend told him.  “Successful city-dwelling raptor.  It’s pretty cool that she’s comfortable being so close to you.”

She came and went.  One day he opened the living room window and leaned out with his camera.  She gazed tolerantly at him from only five feet away.  The shading on her back was fascinating.  Her hard gold eyes glittered in the light.

He worried that perhaps she had been attracted by the cats, but she ignored them as they slept on the windowsills or scampered through the kitchen.  Always, always, her eyes were fastened on him.

Since his partner had left, he had talked to the cats.  He began talking to her as well.  “Boy, that wind was really something today, wasn’t it? Eat any nice rats lately?  We’re having lasagna in here today.  And tomorrow. And probably the next day, too.  Want some?  Oh, yeah, hawks don’t eat Italian.”

Of course he talked about her.  People where he worked would ask, “Was she there last night?”  His friends who were birdwatchers would call and ask how she was doing. 

“The females are bigger than the males.  You could name her Guinevere,” one suggested.

He hadn’t even considered naming her.  Giving a name implies a certain ownership; the right to identify and claim. Where she was concerned, he had no rights.  She came and went on her own schedule, according to her own needs and wants. Her presence was a gift, an act of grace, undeserved, uncontrollable. Anyway, she knew who she was.  He knew who she was.  What more did they need?

He watched her soar in and land one evening, then groom her feathers, stretch and neatly fold her wings, and settle for the night, head tucked beneath one wing.

“What is it like,” he asked her, “to live with the whole city beneath you?  All the secrets and hidden things exposed and not mattering.  How does it feel to ride thermals?  The hot air over some office building lifting your feathers and hollow bones?  Is it a pleasure to ride on the wind when your belly is full of raw rat?  When you shed a feather, does it itch itself loose, or is there a ping of parting like the last root of a loose tooth?  And why here?  What is it about this fire escape on this floor that appeals to you?”

He learned about feathers in all their various complexities:  The miracle of down, the wonder of flight feathers, the glory of camouflage and mottling.  He sketched individual feathers and the way her body feathers layered to form wind and waterproofing.  She hovered on the edges of his imagination and shaped his creativity. He began to notice all the images of wings and claws that had always been there around him.  The feet on his bathtub were bird claws gripping balls.  The art-deco designs on the old buildings downtown suddenly looked like wings to him.  The graceful curve of the eyebrow on that model for the Gap, was just the curve of a hawk’s wing as she took flight.  He felt she had opened his eyes to a new world, and everywhere he looked, he saw her.

One Sunday, as he was walking to the store, she landed in a bare tree, high above him. She had caught a pigeon and began to eat.  People looked at him oddly as he stood, staring into the tree, while blood-stained feathers twirled down around him. It didn’t bother him, and he wondered why.

On a lazy Sunday morning, he was lying in bed, looking out the window, admiring the play of light as fleecy clouds drifted through the sky.  A shadow swept across the glass, and there she was on the fire escape again, with a stick in her beak.  Another shadow – and a second, smaller hawk joined her, bearing his own stick.  She dropped her burden onto the metal mesh floor of the escape, and fluffed her feathers.  The other hawk crouched, eyes darting around, surveying the whole location with quick jerks of his head.  Then he launched himself and flew away.  She looked after the second hawk, seemed to make eye contact with the human inside, then hopped down, retrieved her stick, and followed her mate.

The man in the bed watched the two hawks soar over the nearby park, and drop down into the trees.  His heart felt warm and light – like a handful of feathers, like a flying hawk’s hollow bones.


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