June 13, 2010

The Whole Extended Shebang

The Prompt:

Take Me To the River

For your final assignment of the year, I'd like to give you a chance to play some more with language and here, fiction. Like Twain, you'll create a picaresque/episodic short story that includes at least two (more if you like) shorter stories, based in some way on your freewrites over the past weeks, woven together by geographical motif and by some theme. If none of these will work, you're welcome to create new episodes.

To assemble this, then you might consider all of your freewrites, or a tleast their spirit, and how they might work together. Let your brain go loose, and thread through your thinking your geographical place- or another just as familiar and evocative. You might attemplt a classic, satiric, picaresque anti-hero; the most true picaro ranks low in social class and grapples with a corrupt society. Then again, you might now. Up to you.

You'll have noticed that Twain doesn't make a huge attempt to transition gently into his episodes; that's characteristic of picaresque fiction that you'll find in novels like Moll Flanders and Tom Jones and Candide. You also should feel free to shift somewhat abruptly, so long as your geographical location smooths the way and your overarching theme is present. Notice I didn't say obvious. We don't want to hit with a two-by-four!

Your tone can swing; consider how Twain's tone moves from the lyrical description of nights on the river to his rolloicking narration of Huck's attempt at disguising himself as a girl. In the same way your piece might move from clearly autobiographical, non-fictional pieces to those that are just as clearly fictional- or at least hyperbolized or altered significantly.

Tina and I sat at the counter in her living room, a counter that looked rather like a bar, and could have been convincingly said to be one, if shot from the right angle, provided that Tina and I were not spinning the seats around and around, kicking each other with each rotation, laughing from the sheer joy of being seven years old and happy.

After a few more spins I was clutching the counter. "I'm dizzy," I said.

"I'm," she said, turning once more before kicking her feet out and stopping against my chair. "Not. But I can stop."


"You always get dizzy first."

"I don't get as much practice."

"No, you're a dizzy monster."

"A what?"

"A dizzy monster!" Tina hopped from the stool, picked up a discarded dress-up scarf, and began to twirl in circles again. "Blerrrgh." She attempted to grumble the sound in the back of her throat. She twirled over to me and pulled at my arms; unlike her, my feet were only inches from the ground, so I easily joined her motion.

"I'm a dizzy monster," I said.

"Oh no! Don't make me dizzy."

"I will too!"

"No you won't! I don't get dizzy. I'm magic."

"I'm magic. I'm a monster."

"Monsters can't talk."

As always, I went with her rules. "Blergonna eat youarghh."

"That's talking."

I stopped spinning. "I don't like not talking."

She stopped too. "Fine. Let's make a song."

"Do we have to?"


"What kind of song?"

Tina started to sing. "We are on a boat."

"Sailing on the sea," I said, repeating her melody.

"Lots of waves."

"I'm getting dizzy."

She gave me a dirty look before continuing. "I'm on a boat."

"We did this part already."



"Fine. Let's play a game."

"What game?"

"You can pick."

"I can?"


"Let's play orphans."

"But we always play orphans."

"We can play escaping orphans."

"Only if we actually get to escape."

"We'll see."

"We have to escape!"

"You can't decide in the beginning!"

"Why not?"


"Fine. Outside?"


We went through the door behind the bar and lay down on the patio.

"Guess what," said Tina.


"My butt hurts."

"That's 'cause you're an orphan."

"No, it's cause I need to fart."

"Tina, you're ruining it!"

She blew raspberries, then, in an attempt to create louder noise, she brought her forearm to her mouth.

"Tina, The Giant will hear!"

"I'm not Tina, I'm Annie."

"You're always Annie."

"That's cause it's the best name."

"I want to be Annie."

"Annie isn't tall. You're Mary."

"How come Mary is tall?"

"Stop arguing, The Giant will hear."

I decided it was time for us to wake up. I reached over and poked her.


"The Giant isn't here, we should escape."

"Okay, let's go."

She crawled to the edge of the patio and then began to roll down the grass. I sat at the edge, indecisive. She stopped, sat up. "Come on!"

"I don't think I'm supposed to roll."

"Why not?"

"I'm just not."

"But you're too big. He'll see you."


"Yes, really. Now, come here!"

I stretched out on the grass and began to push myself along, over over over, until I bumped into her. She rolled more, and I followed, rolling and rolling. She stopped a few feet before a tree, and I slammed into her. She went forward, then yelled.

"Oh no! The Giant!" I said.

"You broke it!"


"You made me break my fairy houses!"

"Did not."

"Did too! Look." She sat up, and I followed. There were shattered remains of houses in the imprint of her body. The leaf roofs had fallen to the ground, and were lying about the houses, slightly crumpled, very browned. Half the twigs were snapped, littered about. Some had merely fallen from where they had been pushed carefully into the ground, and the rest had merely been pushed somewhat further in. I felt sorry for the houses, but it still was not my fault.

"You made me roll."

"You didn't stop."

"That's why I'm not supposed to roll."

"That's stupid."

"Is not."

"You broke my fairy houses!"

"No, I didn't!"

"Yes, you did!"

"I don't care."

"I care."

"They're stupid. Fairies don't actually live in them."

At that, Tina stood up. "I quit."


"There are fairies."


"I say there are."

"But how do you know?"

"I can feel it."

"What do you mean?"

"I can feel them at night. I look out the window, and I feel them."

"You see them?"

"I feel them. They plant little flowers outside of their houses, and every night they grow and grow until they touch the sky."

"The houses?"

"No, the flowers."

I looked up. The sky seemed very far away. "That's tall."


"Do they really get that big?" I was still staring up above me, trying to figure out just how far away the sky was. I couldn't seem to describe it using any words I knew.

"They grow forever."

"Wow." I was quiet.

"Now they won't grow."


"You crushed them and they won't grow."

"We can build them again."

"Later," she said, and got up off the ground. Standing, she managed to be taller than my seated form. I stood up, towering above her again, and she tugged my hand. "Come on. Let's go play."

Vignette 2

I stood at the corner of Tina's yard, armed with a towel that had a piece of fabric sewn onto the side that could be used to actually hold the towel itself, creating a bag that was just large enough to hold my bathing suit, her birthday present, and, of course, the swimsuit itself.

I was there for Tina's eighth birthday. I'd spent so much time trying to find the towel, which she'd given me for my own birthday two months previously, that I was running late. The yard was full of girls, her friends, all of them small and blonde, mysterious and unknown and entirely unreachable. There were many of them, and I couldn't see Tina in the flood of unfamiliar faces, so hugged my own mother goodbye and went inside to find Tina's. She was in the kitchen, unloading bags of groceries.

"Hello Mrs. Bloom."

"Hi Shelby. Why aren't you outside?"

"I have to put on my bathing suit."

"Tina's upstairs changing, if you want to go there."

"Okay." I turned to leave. "Here's my present."

"I'll make sure she gets it."

"Good." I turned, left the kitchen, and went upstairs. I pushed open Tina's door while simultaneously greeting her. I didn't see her for a moment, then spotted her standing just inside her closet, wearing only the bottom half of her swimsuit with her hands on her hips. "Hi, Tina," I said again.

This time she responded. "I can't find it."

"Find what?"

"The other half."

"Wasn't that the one your brother used for the Happy Half-Birthday Halloween thing he went to?"

"Oh! Yes! I'll go get it." She turned, walked around me, and went out into the hall. "I forgot how you're smart."

I began turning my towel-bag inside out to get my suit.

"See you later," she said, shutting the door behind her.

"Yeah, I'll have to..." I trailed off. She was already gone.

I walked over to the window after I'd changed. Tina was rolling down the hill again, and three other girls were following her down, laughing and smiling. There was a group of girls in the tree, another with their legs in the pool, and another kicking their legs in the hot sun where Tina and I had been sleeping mere weeks before. They were happy, all of them, no playing of orphans, no getting sick from twirling. Perhaps if I was there, with the girls, it would be fun for me, too.

I went downstairs, outside. When I was closer, I was still taller than them, but they somehow felt bigger. I didn't know them, and Tina was busy, so they all continued their games as I walked towards the tree where Tina kept her fairy houses. I sat down to look at them, but the ground was empty. I looked for the bits of leaves and scraps of wood, and I finally found them in a small knot in the tree, stacked up neatly. I pulled them out and carefully, precisely, constructed a tiny house. It had three wooden walls, one with a tiny peephole, just big enough for a miniscule eye. I placed a leaf in the middle, the first floor, then another on top, to mark the roof. I was glad that faeries were light, because even the breeze was almost enough to knock it over. I watched the house for a time, hoping that, just this once, the faeries would forget that I was here and come during the day, that they could plant their flowers, and that the stems could rise up and up until they covered me up and I would stand still, perfectly still, a part of the tree, and Tina would come over and visit me because she loved the faeries' plants, but the people were too loud for us to truly disappear.

A pair of girls came up behind me, looking over my shoulder. "What's that?"

"A faerie house."

"Why would you build that?"

"Tina likes them," was all I said.

"That's stupid, faeries aren't real," said one of the girls, and the other nodded her assent.

"But if people think that they are," I said, "maybe..."

They laughed, and ran to Tina, and I couldn't quite hear them, but I saw Tina laugh too, and then she looked at me in a way that said that I'd done something wrong, only I didn't know what it was. I stayed with the house for a time, trying to adjust it so that with each rush of children, it still stayed upright. Then Tina's mother came out, carrying an armful of shaving cream cans, one for each child. I tried to stay by my house, but she called me over, and I accepted my very own can. It was light green, and it said on the front that the insides would smell like mint. When she blew a whistle and the girls began to scream, I sprayed a bit into my hand. It sat there for a moment, a dark gel, then began to grow. It grew and grew, spreading and stretching, turning while and filling with air until it towered above me hand. I put another drop on top, which sunk in that began to grow as well. I thought that the faeries would have liked to see it, the sticky stuff that could match their flowers.

Vignette 4

We were ten, and still at different schools, but Tina still came over every so often. On this day, we sat together under a tree in my backyard.

"What do you want to do?" I asked.

"I dunno, what do you want to do?"

"I dunno, what do you want to do?"

"I dunno, what do you want do do?"

I laughed. "Remember back when we would build faerie houses every time we visited?"

"Yeah, you said they were for babies."

"I was just saying that, though. I still liked building them."

"I know! You started building one when I had all my friends over, and they were like, wow, that girl is so weird."


"They said it, not me."

"Fine, I won't get angry then. At least, not this time."

"You never get angry."

"Maybe someday I will."

She shrugged, doubtful. "So, what do you want to do?"

"I dunno."

"We could build faerie houses, like we used to."

"Do you want to?"

"Sure. You want to try to get some sticks?"

"Okay, you go for the flower petals. We'll regroup in seven minutes."


"Ten is too many, and five isn't enough."

She thought about it for a moment, then nodded. "Sounds good."

I went to some bushes in the neighbor's yard, forsythia that had long ago stopped blooming, and broke off a leafless bottom branch. I scavenged around a birch in the front and a dogwood in the back, looking for branches that felt right. When we regrouped, Tina was holding a pile of petals as well as a few interesting leaves. We sat in some dirt near the wall of the house where we couldn't be seen from the windows. She passed me bits of daisies and I handed her discarded daffodil stalks.

Her constructions were tiny but complicated. She put twigs in a criss-cross and placed a single flower into each and every one, crafting rainbow walls more fragile than glass. I built one like a tiny wigwam, with sticks in a round circle, ferns woven in and out, and a maple leaf on the top. I built my next out of shreds of bark pushed against each other like playing cards, trying to match her fragility, while she followed my Native American idea and constructed a teepee. We soon had a small village constructed of barely there houses, of trees without trunks and tiny platters of inedible food. We divided our halves with a small indent, a river that would bring water to the whole village. When we were done, our supplies exhausted, I sat back. She continued to trace her finger along the tiny, waterless river.

"Do you think any will come?" I said.

She was silent.

"I mean, I know they don't exist, but a girl can always dream."

She still didn't speak, and as her finger reached the base of the river, right next to her knee, she let it stop and looked up at me. "I'm moving."

"Do you want to swap spots? It's pretty comfortable here."

"No, I mean, I'm moving to a new house."

Now it was my turn to look at her.

"It's in California. The trees are funny there, all big, and you can't reach the branches even if you try."

"California is far away."


"When are you leaving."


"Oh." Tomorrow was very, very soon. "You hadn't mentioned it."

"I don't like thinking about it."

We sat in silence. I began to trace the path of the river, as she had before, then stopped and began to create a second river surrounding my half of the village. Tina was unmoving.

"Do you think," she said "that these will grow?"

"The rivers?"

"No, the faerie houses. Will they put down roots and grow flowers that touch the sky?"


"You have to look."

"I'll look at night, when they grow."

"It'll grow big enough for you to visit me."

"In California?"


We were silent again, and I looked over to where the sun was, since I knew that was west, and looked for California. The farthest I saw was Long Island. "Tina?"


"Did the ones in your yard ever truly grow?"


"This one won't either, will it."

She looked at me, and she said the same hopeless word as before.

Vignette 5

Tina had been gone for two years when we finally, finally got to visit her. We arrived first to a restaurant in San Francisco, where she now lived. San Francisco was big. Everything was bigger than it was at home, where there was nothing but empty space, big green yards, and the occasional house. But there was a beach near the restaurant, a little sliver of the outdoors, and after we ate, our parents let us leave, and we began to walk.

We were in middle school by then, and we were old and all grown up, so we tried to talk instead of play. We walked from one jetty to the next and back, sharing words of growing up, of her friends back home whose names I've finally learned, of the hopelessness of middle school boys. We tried to talk of who we were becoming, but we were soon back to where we once were. We recounted a thousand childhood games in precise detail, the name of every pirate ship, the each daydream of a lonely orphan. I thought about suggesting play-acting again, but it somehow felt as if here was not the place.

After many lengths, we returned to our families. Her brother, who still only toddled, had surrounded herself with tiny piles of sticks, and my sister, Ella, who was already in elementary school had placed leaves on them, trying to make them beautiful. We sat with them for a time, adding layers, shifting piles, until we'd created another miniature world, this one decorated with shells in place of petals.

This time, I did not bother to ask Tina if she thought our plants would grow.

Vignette 6

In high school, one develops these annoying chores, one of which is babysitting one's younger sister. I usually did this by ignoring her, and this evening was no different. I was on the computer in the living room, using an instant messenger to pretend that I wasn't stuck at home. For once, Tina was online. I said "Hello."

She responded. "hi wats up"

I said, "Oh, not much, and you?"

"sum stuf. nm. g2g."

I had to look up her abbreviations online. I didn't talk like her anymore, didn't think like her. I'd tried to talk with her before, and it was always the same; I'd try to reminisce, and she'd use such cryptic terminology that I soon became utterly lost.

I stood up from the computer and went looking for Ella. She wasn't in her room, wasn't in the basement, or watching TV, or even in my room. I went into the kitchen to use the phone to call Mom, certain that I'd lost my sister, when I finally spotter her outside.

She was sitting beneath the tree in the backyard, staring at a house of sticks that she built yesterday, filled with with flowers and little pieces of popsicle. It began to rain, but she still sat there, so I went outside to bring her in. As I got closer, I heard her talking.

"Priscilla, how are you today? And your son? Did he like the cold sugar? It's my favorite. Are you happy here? Would you prefer to be by the shed?"

"Ella?" I said.

She looked up at me, smiling. "They talk to me."

I stopped, and the rains began to pool on the tops of my ears and slide slowly, slowly down.

"They talk to me, Shelby. I can hear them."

"They don't exist."

"Yes, they do! They're here. I can feel them."

"You can?"

"Come here. You can feel them, too."

I walked closer, and she tugged my hand, pulling me down. Her tiny palms were damp with rainwater.

"Look, Shelby. See them?"

The house was small, smaller than small. She'd worked on it carefully, each twig elegant, each leaf precise. She'd even crafted furnisher, a feat that Tina and I had never managed.

The faeries weren't there at that moment, she said to me, but when they did, the house would be alive, and the twigs would stand, and tiny little flowers would grow around it. The flowers would grow until they touched her knees, her waist, her shoulders and her brow, until they wrapped up around and stretched up and over the tree, over the house, up and up until they circled the very stars.

She said it would grow soon, because it was raining, but that we needed to be very still.

We sat together and watched until it was too dark to see, and the twigs and branches and flowers had sunk deep into the all-consuming mud.