Thinkin’ It Through

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Thinkin’ It Through, Anthropomorphic Characters Are a Small Logical Leap Series

Just a dumb animal.” For how often humanity expresses this sentiment it is often more of a reflection of our ego, our need to be placed on a pedestal above the “beasts of the earth, sea, and sky”. How remarkably sad it is to see the brilliance exhibited in other creatures that is buried by such baseless remarks.

From the intuitive nature of man’s best friend to the keen perception that fuels the steel-trap mind of the crow we are surrounded by creatures of profound abilities. Abilities human often claim to be solely their own. Surprise humanity! You are special, but not that special.

PhoenixDemonDog

“In everything there is the potential for complexity. You only see it if you open your eyes wide enough.”

That Deep Down Feeling

Animals don’t have feelings.” That is a turd the size an elephant dumps. Anyone who has a multi-pet household that has suffered a loss will have witnessed the surviving pets mourn. Yes—they know what death is. I have witnessed my own dogs after sniffing the body of their previous housemate react. They grieve in just as varied a degree as humans. And it seems if they have witnessed more than one passing, they recognize it from a distance.

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Ashenpaw, Ion, and Presto

The first loss in our household Presto experienced he approached several times, close and circling. He sniffed as if trying to wake up his playmate. It took him time to figure out that it wouldn’t happen. This December when our oldest, Ashenpaw, passed on just shy of fourteen years-old from a long struggle with congestive heart failure, Presto lay across the room on his bed. He moped as our typically bright-eyed border collie never had before. Without sniffing Ash, he knew this time.

We also had Phoenix, our youngest border collie and aussie mix. She’s been training to become a therapy dog. With a mixture of confusion and caution she approached Ash’s body. Every key in her body language from ears to tail told me she was concerned about what she experienced. I have no doubt that my perceptive little girl was also reading me. She had heard me tell Ash that I would be alright if he let go just moments before. She curled up next to me and stared at Ash’s motionless body. Her canine mentor was gone.

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One of the last photos taken of our beloved silver-muzzle Ash.

Phoenix has demonstrated extraordinary perception of human emotion. As a therapy-dog-in-training she ventures into a senior community and spends time as an emotional distraction to the residents and staff. She loves her job, it’s obvious because she wakes me up eagerly every Tuesday morning without fail. Yes—my dog knows what day of the week it is without a calendar. Roaming those halls she tells me through body language which residents need more time with her. Contrary to popular belief, dogs do talk. Most people don’t take the time to learn how to listen (aka read their body language).

PhoenixTherapyDog

Phoenix, the big girl, waiting for a skills assessment.

Now, my little girl wasn’t my first therapy dog. Before her came Ion.

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Ion entering the hospice therapy program.

This collie was a vibrant star earning his status into the program at one year old. For those who don’t know, that is very rare. Most one year old dogs are not mature enough to be reliable. Ion just was. His tiny eyes and long snooter worked magic. Sadly, my empathic boy proved to be a bright star burning out in four years. He succumbed to complications of an unknown disease that claimed him before the vets could figure it out. He is missed as he knew just who needed his warmth. It’s been years now and people still remember how he would wander up to them: excited if they were happy that day, or more somber if they needed a dog hug. He sensed. He knew.

He is not alone. Many dogs who are not even trained for such supportive things are known to develop them. Whether it is simply lying close to a loved one with the flu or a migraine, or standing next to them ready to bear weight for stability for someone who had a surgery—this last is a recent case a friend shared with me. The dog has not been trained in this, he simply did it for her after she got home. Don’t just take my word for it, there are countless cases out there.

Problem Solving Perception

Learning is such an amazing process to watch. Funny thing is it works the same across species. I always loved watching my border collie Ashenpaw work with a brain teaser toy. He learned quickly that there were treats inside.

Check out Ashenpaw’s demonstration of impulse control.

Animals, including humans, learn via association. If they do this, this happens. If it’s good results, keep doing the behavior. If it’s bad, generally they try to avoid it. But that only works if the consequence is cleanly correlated. There are great examples of complex chain behavior building. The sport of agility is a great example. And also includes running dogs in an excited state. This state of mind is largely run on adrenaline which overrides a lot of cognition. Ever had a dog chasing a rabbit that completely blows their recall? Yup. This is what happened. Too much excitement, thinking side of brains shuts off. The trick is to work with the dog and over time alter where the threshold lies. In time you get a dog that can think in that excited stage.

The same is true for the human animal. Jobs involving high stress release adrenaline. This can short circuit problem solving. To be able to behave reliably we also need to train up the performance level. Think of ETMs, police, soldiers—all of these involve moments of extreme tension. Average minds freeze up, or knee-jerk react. But with training the mind learns to control. Most of us are not born able to do this. And I promise you, working with border collies you learn to see real fast that border collies are not born to control that shit either. Which is why a good lot of them are surrendered at seven months old for behavior issues. 90% of the time it’s because their owners failed to work impulse control.

Work that impulse control and you can unlock some seriously kick-ass potential. From dogs that can work hillsides of sheep on their own, dogs who can run an agility course on verbal command while the handler remains behind the start line, to dogs who have enormous vocabs.

Chaser is an amazing border collie who knows over 1,000 words. Put a huge circle of toys on the floor, ask for one, and you get it! What’s more fascinating is that she can exhibit the ability to process eliminate. If she knows two of three toys and you ask for the one she doesn’t know, you get the new toy. That is not a “dumb animal” behavior. That’s fairly advanced learning. This border collie has appeared on many talk shows as well as scientific programs demonstrating how animals are not that far behind if we acknowledge them. So many of the things deemed to make us human are exhibited in the animal world. We have our own instincts too.

The Murder of Crows

An astonishingly advanced bird is the crow. Experiments have been done by researchers uncovering complex social behaviors.

Crows have funerals. Yes. You read that right. And what’s wilder, not just for members of their own flock. Researchers placed the body of a dead crow near a gathering of crows. They came, checked out the body, and immediately began to mourn the deceased brother. Vocalizations, behaviors like dancing, and circling.

Signs 009

Behold the mystical crow. I tell yah, if a crow doesn’t trust a person, I’ll steer clear!

Using masks, scientists conducted further experiments on facial recognition. Using a face mask they fed the flock and gained a reputation with them. Then, being careful to use different masks, the same individuals performed a mock crow murder. When they came back wearing the murder mask on another day to feed the crows—warning cries filled the glade. Same person with the different mask later approached with food and no problem. The crows had distance facial recognition and were acting as a major form of security. The ultimate “eye in the sky”.

Scientists already knew that crows had incredible problem solving skills. And that they would even choose to share with another bird rather than hog resources for themselves. They exhibited a sense of fairness. Something we often see in children that is displayed to a lesser extent in adults. Interesting how that is. As we age, we tend to forget how to share.

DonQuilypsosLastStandMixedFinished

As we further explore the animals around us it becomes interesting to see how often they demonstrate the ideal human. Maybe this is why adults choose to confine them to a puerile state, because it further lifts the pedestal. After all, can’t have anything threatening that fragile human ego.

Next up: Egg-istential Crisis

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Getting Lippy

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Getting Lippy, Anthropomorphic Characters Are a Small Logical Leap Series

The power of speech. Something many take for granted. So much so that the basics of the creation of sound often escape common knowledge. Write anthropomorphic works and I promise you this is a remark you will see, “But they can’t speak without lips!”

epicfail

“They said what? … no, no!”

Alright, for the purposes of the second entry in my series we will ignore the other forms of communication: body cues, sign language, writing. Today we’re talking about the ability of audible speech. I hope you have come with a sound mind, pun very much intended.

Inside the Voice Box

Most of us talk without thinking about how it is actually done. We developed the ability so long ago it’s subconscious. Inside our necks we have an organ called the larynx. This structure controls several things, including closing off your lungs from food when you swallow. But it also suspends the vocal chords. Controlling the air flow through these flaps of tissue is a large part of speech and pitch. What you hear is the vibrations of air. We’re basically wind instruments.

Most mammals have a version of this organ. Dogs have one very similar to our own, note the two diagrams provided. The parts correspond.

 

Birds have an organ called a syrinx. A bit more on that later. Reptiles, amphibians and even some fish have a simplified version, some utilize bone ridges to produce vocalizations. However some animals have opted to be voiceless and have evolved beyond the basic organ in favor of other adaptations. Yes, this does make it trickier to support the concept of the latter obtaining speech. The case is the strongest in mammals and birds. Remember, with anthropomorps we are talking about a fictional world with either a fantasy suspension of disbelief or a sci-fi explanation of genetic alterations or alien life.

Lip Locked

Dogs can’t talk, they don’t have lips.”

Well, there’s two things wrong with that statement. One, dogs most certainly have lips. I know, I have painted enough smiling dog lips as a pet portrait artist. Phoenix shows off her sweet smile, that fur-less flesh looking a bit like an earthworm along her teeth is her lower lip.

PhoenixLips

“You like my smile, no?”

Ashenpaw, my late border collie, disproves another aspect I have heard. That they can’t from shapes enough to effect sound. Oh yeah? Howling allows a lot of phonetic differences. And this old bad boy would grumble “momma” if I was late getting his dinner ready. There are quite a few videos online of dogs mimicking human speech, albeit limited by their real world physicality.

Ash111812

“I want my dinner now!”

Thing number two that’s wrong with the statement:Ventriloquism is proof that you don’t have to move your lips to speak, it’s merely easier to do so. Speech is largely the placement of the tongue in the mouth, where the tongue strikes the teeth (if at all), and internal mouth cavity shape with air flow. I am not a ventriloquist, but I love watching skilled performers like Jeff Dunham. Watching shows like this prove that even though the average person uses lip shape to form words, it is possible to produce speech without them.

Moot point though in animals that have lips anyway.

Stiff Lipped!

Of course birds don’t have any form of lip. Ever heard a parrot speak? That torpedoes any notion of lips being a requirement for speech.

Parrot

“Did you hear the one about the saltine?”

Parrots mimic human speech and other sounds through using the syrinx, an organ similar to the mammalian larynx, however the avian version is located at the fork between the lungs. This means they can actually produce two different sounds simultaneously by controlling the flow individually. Pretty neat. Parrots are capable of mimicking complete vocal patterns and are capable of forming associations if the context is strong enough, such as saying “Hello” when the phone rings. Some can form quite the vocabulary … including a colorful one if someone likes to cuss in their earshot.

As to why they copy so many different sounds including power tools, car horns, etc, the current theory is that in wild parrots could use the different vocalizations to determine where a potential mate was from and use that information for selection. It’s also recently been discovered that parrots have individual names for one another. There are unique sound combos used by parents to address individual chicks that they keep throughout their lives. Yes—this is in wild parrots.

Next time you hear a parrot screeching, it might be the avian equivalent of, “Johnny! Get your tail back here right now!”

Next in the series, Thinkin’ It Through

The Bone Connection

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The Bone Connection, Anthropomorphic Characters Are a Small Logical Leap Series

The metacarpals are connected to the proximal phalanges. The proximal phalanges are connected to the intermediate phalanges. The inter—what? What do you mean what I am talking about?

Ok. Let me clue in those I have lost with layman terms. I’m talking about front paws. Do those bones maybe also sound familiar? If you’ve busted a finger I bet you’ve heard phalange before. It’s funny how most people commonly refer to the digits on a dog’s front paw as their toes, when technically the bones are fingers.

gorachlute

You should know Ealaidh by now. Would be pretty tough for her to play instruments sans thumbs.

Which brings us to anthropomorphism in writing: animal characters with human traits. This is a series exploring how fine a line writers are treading when they create anthropomorphic characters and worlds, why suspension of disbelief is nowhere near as difficult as it seems if you think about it logically, and why this really isn’t just kids stuff. Most of my works involve canines. The reason behind that is I have been a lifelong dog owner, or at least my family owned dogs when I was a kid. I am familiar with their form, their traits, their habits, their social mannerisms… and I love them. This is also the reason why most of my breakdowns in the series are canine-centric. I have examples right at my feet.

Hand and Paw Degree

Ok, now you won’t see me arguing that a real world dog possesses a full grasping hand. Scientifically they do not. They do, however, possess the same bones right down to the corresponding phalanges for a thumb. These can be found on dogs where the dewclaw has not been removed. The dewclaw is not a highly mobile digit for dogs, it serves as traction control for tight turning, as is seen in this photo of my agility dog, Ash.

DewClawTurn

Ashenpaw, my border collie, demonstrating a wrist layout as he turns. That joint is actually his wrist. The dewclaw grips the ground allowing a tighter turn.

The tendons attached to the digit are not lined up properly for motor control. But if you look at a paw next to a human hand, there is the basis for the ‘what if they were’ that good fiction is hung on.

PawHandCompare

Phoenix, my border collie/ausse mix’s left front paw and my left hand in a similar position. Think about it, dogs actually walk on their fingers and toes.

Anthropomorphism already implies there is a fusion, an evolution of the animal’s original structure to resemble a human. If you are reading a story with anthros this should be expected, rather like a ghost story has at least one ghost. Dogs already have on their forelimbs: the entire set of hand bones, the wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints. The catch is that in the basic dog the finger bones are shorter, the ‘thumb’ lacks the muscles and tendon connections, the wrist is longer (what some call a ‘front knee’ is actually the wrist), and the upper arm bone is shorter by human comparison and with limited ability to rotate. We’re talking the alteration of a few features to create the ability to grasp something.

It’s funny, but spend time with enough dogs and you are certain to see them manipulate things with their paws, almost to the point of grabbing. I have watched my own curling their dexterous paws around objects and lifting them. Not enough to be considered fine motor skills, but DAMN impressive, none-the-less.

So why is the common adult reaction “How can they grab things without a thumb?” A reaction that happens even when writers have illustrated activities that couldn’t be done easily by a society without opposable digits: wearing clothing, lighting a cigarette, using a weapon, riding a mount, drinking from a tankard.

One issue might stem from the fact that anthropomorphic writers often use the terms paw in place of hand and footpaw in place of foot. This is part of world building, and is often used in a world built in absence of humanity. Consider an animalistic society, half of the world building is having it reflect their reality, not explicitly our own. Would they use hand or paw? I mean, I have asked my dogs and they stare at me before plopping their paw in my hand. We don’t know for certain what such a cast might use, but paw feels right to many of us and in an anthropomorphic world is intended to apply to a grasping, manipulating structure at the end of an arm. That is of course unless the degree is lesser and it is a real world animal narration like “Charlotte’s Web” or “The Art of Racing in the Rain”. It is usually clear in the setting which version is happening.

PawToHadEvolution_000017

From dog paw to half-anthro all the way to full-anthro paw.

Another fun fact, the general structure of the arm can be seen in a number of animals from reptiles and amphibians, to birds and fish. The bones are all modified versions, but the basic layout is preserved.

Posturing

EalaidhCampfire

“On the other paw … “

An anthropomorphic character will often be said to walk around on their footpaws. This posture is so commonly seen and accepted in children books and even classic fable artwork. Yet once we approach adulthood suddenly this is beyond the scoop of imagination. It is rejected, or categorized as a juvenile interest with few exceptions… say a certain foul-mouthed genetically modified space raccoon like creature? Apparently Rocket passes into the realm of acceptable for adult entertainment. As well as his anthropomorphic companion, Groot. Surprise, plants can be anthro too.

human dog comparison

Diagram of human and dog in relative positions. *

Animals and humans largely have corresponding bones throughout the bodies, including ‘tail bones’. Yes, humans have tails internally. The structure is a left over trait. In this above illustration showing a humans and dogs skeletons in similar poses it can be seen how many structures we truly have in common.

And yes, dogs and many other mammals can walk on their hind legs. It’s not hard to teach via positive reinforcement. I actually captured this behavior that Phoenix did naturally, now she can walk a few steps on her hind legs unsupported.

WalkingPhoenix

Phoenix walking bipedal

Among many examples, there are two border collies on Youtube who demonstrate a tremendous amount of tricks including going from a beg to a full stand on rear legs, bipedal walking forward and backward, carrying things balanced between their front limbs … seriously, Holly and Ace are AWESOME!

Now I can hear the rebuttals! “But they have been taught that! Animals don’t do it naturally.” Hrm, are we born capable of walking upright? Seems to me we crawl for a bit until we strengthen our core enough to be able to support and balance the bipedal posture. Walking upright is a learned behavior in humans, and one that can be taught to some quadrupeds. Bears and porcupines are wild animals who are occasionally seen walking upright from time to time.

Dog skeleton

Vintage anatomy diagram of dog skeleton *

Of course for bipedal posture to be a comfortable one there are a couple of changes. One is the neck attachment needs to be shifted to the base of the skull, most mammal spines attach at the back of the skull so the neck flows level. The other primary difference is the pelvic bone. Quadro’s have a narrow girdle, while a bipedal is typically wider/front facing. Again, since we’re talking alternate universe, or genetic manipulation, it’s within a stones throw. Writers are not creating anything that isn’t already there, just modifying it.

The Bare Bones of It

What does this all mean? That the bones are there, we’re just talking about altering connections, and developing support systems to create the form of a stable, bipedal animal … a humorous statement considering that humans are animals. Unless you think we are vegetables or minerals. Humans are in fact bipedal animals, pure and simple. Are we specialized? Absolutely. But we are still animals that followed an evolutionary course to obtain our form, abilities, behaviors, etc. There is nothing that says given enough time other animals might not follow a similar course. We already have seen animals using tools, solving complex puzzles, displaying empathy. But exploration of these will be part of this series.

Bottom line is structurally anthropomorphic characters are easily obtained from real world sources without much change. The leap is far narrower than what is required to believe in fire-breathing dragons, elves, dwarves, and sorcerers creating walking ice corpses … but who am I to speak? Just a humble anthro-writer of role models severely inappropriate for children. Til next time …

RoleModelEnfuego

Enfuego the chihuahua, a NOT safe for children creation of mine. She has been published in an adult humor anthro-anthology.

*Images marked with this symbol are not my artwork, used in Fair Use for information purposes.

Next topic: Getting Lippy!

The Anthropomorphic Stigma

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“This wouldn’t quite fit in our Fantasy department, and though we have a section for young people, I think this story would work better in a dedicated children’s magazine.”

“I would read the shit out of this, but I wouldn’t tell my friends I’m reading it.”

“Aww, this story has an animal in the lead. What a cute children’s story!”

EalaidhCampfire

What do all of the above have in common? They are actual feedback I have received on various pieces of my writing throughout the years. They are also proof of the bane of my existence as a writer. That bane is a blanket stigma that any work that includes animals (either a real one narrating through thoughts, or anthropomorphs that walk and talk like humans) is automatically relegated to the children’s story category. Yes–there are some that have managed to get listed outside of the young readers age group, but by and large the industry and public reaction is only young readers can possibly be interested in animal MCs.

Don’t believe me? Just try searching for Anthropomorphic Adult works. Or better yet, try submitting your own attempts and see what you get.

So, let me illustrate this for those who might not see the problem. It’s like having an epic Tolkien level world building in your mind all in high tech, 3D animation software so realistic you can see the hairs on your MC’s head move! You pitch it to a movie exec and they say, “Nice work. Here’s your box of 16 crayons and some construction paper. This should be enough to make it happen. Run along and play.”

Ididntdoit

Pheonix doesn’t understand why she isn’t allowed to mature.

Ok, yes, the children’s entertainment industry is loaded with many wonderful works that adults enjoy. I am a huge fan of many of them. So why aren’t we just happy playing with our box of crayons?

Because there are limits to what you can do with younger audience pieces.

There is a material maturity cap. Sure you can push the envelope, but at the end of the day there is a line you cannot cross, and a box you are not permitted to go outside of … all because your character is not human.

DonQuilypsosLastStandMixedFinished

“What do you mean I can’t say @#%?”

Alien? No problem! Get as adult as you like.

Werewolf? Well … that was human, so no biggie! Go for it!

DarknessAndLight

“Piss off, armor puppy! I’m a werewolf, I can say whatever the fuck I want!”

The spirit of a beloved dog becoming a sentient angel … (that was the story behind the opening remark). The unpublished short story that included a graphic description of animal abuse in the beginning–that’s just fine for a dedicated children’s lit, apparently. <facepalm>

CollieMemorial

“Sure, I get it. No adult would possibly admit to falling to shit about the loss of their pet. Ok, instead of my purpose of comforting them, I’ll go pander to the little kiddies. Just let me get my butterflies and rainbows.”

So yes, this topic seriously gets my goat as I go about creating the stories that I, as a fully mature adult, want to read.

HawthornandFlint

“They said don’t go that way, it’s only for the experienced, you know, mature, warriors only. We got fur, so we need not apply. Good thing I don’t give a shit what they say! ONWARDS!”

What it basically tells me is that my preference of character is not worthy of mature material. That Animal=Immature. What’s amazingly sad is that the fantasy genre is where this seems the most firmly rooted. An odd thing when one considers that fantasy readers are pre-set to toss reality out the window. Yet the industry only rarely allows an animal-centric book to enter above the children ranks. There are a few recent ones, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” comes to mind. But these are rare gems. I have to chuckle at “Watership Down” being considered a kid’s book–which some do consider it. That is a tome of a book with a glossary with unique rabbit lingo and an entire rabbit-centric mythology going on there. I don’t buy that Adam’s wrote it for children. Nor his “Plague Dogs”, a dark exploration of the danger of pathogens. How many young readers are going to be able dissect the core of “Animal Farm”? Yes, there are some advanced reading kids, but to get the sociological core of it is not a general grade school concept.

So why is human MC good, animal MC bad? Sorry, couldn’t help the reference.

PhoenixDemonDog

“Annnd how may I make you cringe today?”

I can assure you that there are actually plenty of adults out there that love anthropomorphic works. They flock to the children’s stuff that makes it out there because that is all we can find! “My Little Ponies” has an astonishing adult following including aiding in bringing some adults out of the gender closet. Serious mad props there! When the “Lion King” came out there was, and still is, a massive community of adults who create art, fanfiction, and role-play stories in that realm. Many of this include deep, mature content. And by that I don’t imply smut, I mean deep philosophy that has no place in a kid’s story. There are conventions across the nation where adults spend thousands on their costumes to walk around in. These cons are on par with other media focused ones–so don’t tell me adults aren’t interested. They are, and they crave older themed works that don’t have the kid maturity cap. The stigma cap bars the way.

scheming

“What are you doing?”  “Me? Just weaving a complex message into the narrative. Nothing critical or anything.”

So why is that children will pick up a book about anthropomorphic creatures and just go with the flow. Yet, in general an adult will look at the same story and in the first paragraph get stuck on pondering how the armor wearing dog is possibly able to hold her bow without thumbs? (I get this a lot. So much so that I now ALWAYS include a THUMB reference in the first paragraph of my anthro works to help the imagination-challenged.) Why? Why doesn’t a child have a hard time getting an animal world but the adult mind resists?

I wish I knew. But I am at a loss as to why. And before it is said, this is not isolated to my own writing. This post covers common venting from other anthro writers. Our interest is on the fringe. Our interest is regarded as a marginal thing. The impression we are left with is that if we want our work to be seen, we need to make the characters human so that readers will be capable of connecting.

We need to make them human …

Envy

“I like humans. In all of the mortal realm there’s no better stew of emotions and ambitions so ripe for corruption.”

The take away from this sadly ventures into a wider scope. One that reveals a deeper problem with our society. If society only believes that children have the potential to look through different eyes and adult do not … well, ok, just look at the news. We prefer familiarity and dislike being challenged to truly look through another’s eyes. Writing is the perfect medium for us to explore other perspectives, and yet there is a caution not to stray too far from the norm. Removing the potential for something more mature because of an MC choice is on par with the frustration of those who try to write a non-child’s story staring a child, or a non-YA featuring a teen. These are unfair leaps of logic. A child can be the star of an adult story–try to market one and see how hard THAT is. If you see humans as merely another animal and thus animals are not that different after all … you tread a very difficult path that the general human ego is not willing to swallow!

Well, guess where I dare to tread! I sharpen my word axe and prepare to cut my niche nice and deep because I know that the voices of my characters have value and worth maturity. Some have found homes, some have yet to be seen as valuable contributions. But in the end I refuse to make the something they are not. Human.

Anthropomorphic, don’t be afraid to see outside of your species box. That level of empathy is important, especially within your species in an age with such social disparity.

Brass-DeathPortalLowRes

Are you ready to see through the eyes of something else? When you are, I’ll be waiting.

All artwork in this post belongs to me.

 

Reflections, Lessons Over A Year of Writing–Seriously

The world of writing is a big old labyrinth without a map, guidebook, rules … logic (sometimes), you get the point. So here is one writer’s pause and reflection over a year’s worth of world crafting.

Last year I upped my game a bit in the writing world. I worked hard on the lessons flash/short story form teach about construction and took more chances on submissions. This paid off. I had twenty-two submissions over the calendar year of 2017 with three-and-one-half (I’ll explain in a moment) accepted for publication. The half comes from being asked to expand on a pitch and write a test draft, which ultimately didn’t make it in. Alright, so the three-ish doesn’t sound that great … but compare to that 2016 when I had thirty-nine submissions with only three acceptances. This increase was due to several factors. One, by working with a writers group I got better at the core craft. The stories I am churning out now are stronger and more focused thanks to their feedback and support. Two, I have gotten better at selecting the markets I was sending to instead of the scatter-shot of the first year. Three, luck. Never discount luck when submitting.

Alright, now anyone who knows me is well aware I like a meatier story. Novel length is where my plotting side goes to. Applying the lessons of short story format I have found it a bit easier to approach newer ideas on formation, and editing is a touch easier. But this is simple improvement that happens with time … let’s get into the nitty gritty in no real order of importance.

Lesson One: there is a story in everything! Some are flashes, some are shorts, and some are too large to be contained. The trick is realizing when you’re shoe-horning a big scope tale into a flash and instead of cramming, let it breathe! This year I grew frustrated with a short story that I have been trying to get out into the world for about two years. Every time it comes back. I asked my writers group to no-holds barred give it a rending and let me know what was triggering the rejections. The verdict came back from my trusted readers: There is more than one story in here–either cut back to one or expand on this other one. I scratched my head for MONTHS over this feedback as I couldn’t decide what to do. Then … Christmas came, and on the Eve at the stroke of midnight I lost my beloved silvermuzzled border collie, Ashenpaw. In my grief I wrote another story of an angel dog, joining Ion’s “Chain Lightning” … and it dawned on me. There IS more to this story. A whole lot more. 2018’s project is now to forge a full novel out of my vision of what happens when our beloved dogs pass on.

AshandIonAngels

Ion and Ashenpaw, the real inspiration behind the Ethereal Dogs Project, my WIP

Lesson Two: a writers group is invaluable. Writing is a grueling and lonely craft. Suffering the lows together helps. In the shorter format acceptance percentages average close to 1% or LESS. That means you are bound to see a lot of rejections even if you rock! This can be for many reasons: wrong tone for their collection, another story like it, editor had a bad day etc. Could have nothing to do with your skills. So you have to be able to gauge how you’re really doing. A good group will share success and failures, give honest and valued feedback, and ultimately teach you to start finding your writing self. Not every piece of feedback will work for you. 😉 Not everyone is Hemingway or King … which leads me to three.

Lesson Three: there is a lot of information on How To … out there, you CAN’T follow it all. So don’t! Learning how to critically evaluate these tidbits is important. But we can’t (and shouldn’t) all write like Hemingway! What makes for great King suspense/horror doesn’t work so great for Tolkien fantasy fans. The key is finding the elements you like to read and want in your stories then learn how to implement them. Good beta-readers in a writing group are awesome for this. You’ll be able to see what come across and what trips them up. You will also find loads of articles out there about adverbs/adjectives, ellipsis, dream sequences, prologues, dialog tags (said vs bookisms)–I could go on for an Illiad length saga. The point is everyone has an opinion. You won’t be able to satisfy everyone, nor should you try. Learn the basic rules, then learn how to stylistically break them. Good fiction isn’t written with pristine grammar. After all, in common English we break the rules all over the place. A grammar correct book can be boring. The key is to present your work in a way that the prose doesn’t get in the way of itself–see, I don’t mean free reign to do whatever you want, the result must be clear to readers. Again, betas who know you will help here. I’m not everyone’s cup of coffee in that I tend toward the purple-prose end. But this is my natural writer’s voice. In revisions I catch the areas that nag, but leave the rest because it suits my work. Style is something that comes with time. You can’t force it. Let it come.

Lesson Four: writing frequently helps, especially when you let the pressure off yourself. Do a fun short challenge. Use a random prompt and see what comes out of it. In a writers group do raw challenges with little clean-up time before posting to see what comes naturally. You learn a LOT by doing this. What comes to you first? How do you build a story (character, setting, threat)? What elements are you good at? What elements do you struggle with? These tidbits will aid you in identifying what your strengths are weaknesses are. Some writers are great at dialog, some are great at beginnings, some at endings, or actions sequences, or non-action scene buildings … etc. Use excercises like this to learn who you are as a writing. You can take these dabblings and expand them later if you love the idea.

Lesson Five: be fearless in your own space. Don’t restrict yourself. You have an idea? Explore it. You don’t have to show anyone if you don’t want. But you never know what comes from just exploring. A simple meandering story can turn onto a path you never would have thought of and spark a whole new adventure. Every page is a blank map of a world, don’t be afraid to simply wander for a bit. Editing is where you refocus after the discovery.

Lesson Six: be YOU. If you have a story to tell, tell it. Get it onto the proverbial page anyway you can, however long it takes. Don’t let anyone tell you not to. And if they do–they aren’t your audience. Writing takes bravery when we share our visions with the world. This isn’t easy, but if the story isn’t what you wanted to say it won’t come across right, from the heart. Keep your convictions. To me there is an older audience out there seeking animal-centric stories. I will write it, they will come.

Remember–there is no map, this journey is yours. Take the step, and the one after, and the one after that … see you on the road!

Vessel and the Dying Light

Around the glades near the shire of Sruth Uaine not even the wind shifted the last leaf clinging to the ironwood branch. In the dwindling light I sat atop the ode-stone watching the perked ears of my fellow Slan as they wound silently through the deer paths. Every moment the sun journeyed closer to the horizon. Every moment hope died a little more.

I longed for that sensation beneath my paw pressed against the stone. Please, let some other Traveler sing to the stones. Let some Slan succeed, somewhere.

I spread out the toes of each footpaw. I was fleet. Perhaps if I joined in the pursuit? But no. Today, the shortest day of the year, did not belong to me nor any other of the bardic order. This day we were but witness to a ritual that belonged to the uninitiated youth. Who was I, a Traveler beyond her first life-span, to steal the honor from the fleet-pawed who had spent their seasons in practice sprints over hill and dale. My fingers caressed the stubborn stone. The magic thrummed against my pads, willing me to evoke the images of the past rituals. I nearly did before letting my ears fall. No, for I might miss the subtle song from another shire.

“Traveler?” A whisper stole my attention.

I leaned forward and stared down into the eyes of an adolescent stoat clutching a pouch on her belt. Stretched to her full height, she turned her gaze out to the filtering trees. I recalled her name from back in the shire, Dochas was a daughter of one of the druids not yet initiated into the order. She was not known for her grace. In fact her footpaws seemed to have minds of their own.

Her tail bristled and twitched as she went on. “Traveler, how … how do you know for sure today is the Solstice? I mean, could we … could we be wrong?”

“The sun speaks its truth. The path has stalled as only the eyes of those who measure know.” I smiled. “You fear that the search is for nothing.”

A tremble swept through her. “What if it was yesterday? What if we missed the opportunity? What if it is today and no one succeeds? Has that happened before?”

“Indeed, it has.” It took all my will-power not to summon the images of those pawful of harsh times. She already shook, no need to mire her fears. “Not in any age that I have born witness to, but in the distant past there have been winters where no beast of any shire has managed to locate the mighty Soitheach. And in some cases they found her in the dusk and failed to catch the wily beast.”

WinterSolsticeBoar

Her eyes searched with greater urgency.

“Without the touch of a paw and the connection to the legendary mother-boar, the harvest that followed was indeed meager. The forest ungenerous. Every shire in the land shed weight in the turn of the seasons. But don’t fret. Look to the sky. The sun’s rays still blush the horizon. So long as light remains, so too does hope.”

“Then … no one has found Soitheach?” She nearly climbed the stone pillar.

Silence reached out of the surface. No new song broke forth. I shook my head.

Dochas heaved a sigh. “How can no one find a boar that large?”

“The whole of our island is immense.” I shrugged. After all, ancient dragons filled the mountain caverns without a trace. Soitheach was indeed more massive than a normal boar, but she was no mountain.

Dochas’s ears drooped. A moment later they crept back up. A paw to rose to her lips.

I held my breath. Silence, for by now all of the young Slan had pressed away from us toward the distant stream.

Crack.

We both turned and gazed into the fiery rays piercing the wood from the distant hill. A mound moved through the bracken. A snorting shuffle carried through the forest. Dochas clung to the shadow of the stone, crouching low she slunk under a fallen truck of a tree and braced herself.

I narrowed my eyes against the blaze of the setting sun. The final fingers stretched into the sky. I sniffed, but no wind carried the scent. The stagnant air denied any hint as to the creature that came our way. Was it Soitheach’s hooves breaking a trail? Or some other immense beast?

Hold still, young one. Let this be your year. Soitheach, give this one the honor.

Yes, I am too old to believe in such a notion as to her hearing me. Or even my will calling forth a creature of legend. I know better than to assume they gave a damn about the lure of my insubstantial voice. A Traveler holds powerful magic, but the elements of nature hold to their own whims.

From the pouch on her belt, Dochas snatched out a mushroom the size of her splayed paw. Gently she blew on the cap toward the creature. Branches snapped and cracked. The ragged outline of the lumbering mound of flesh grew out of the forest. Tusks longer than a Slan’s arm arched toward the sky. Two beady eyes the color of a rippling stream glimmered beneath shaggy brows. A ridge of coarse frost-gray hair stretched along her back. In her wake the forest shivered, frost cracked the ground in her hoof prints.

Soitheach’s breath curled out of her mouth and rose into an icy fog. She turned her focus toward the tree. Dochas’s paw held the offering out like the wooden limb.

I cocked my head. What a clever little mite.

Step by frostbitten step, Soitheach wandered toward her with nostrils wide sucking in the scent. I clung to my perch. A faint finger of light speared the sky. If Dochas moved, the fleet hooves of the beast would carry her well out of range. All it would take was a flinch and the year would be of fallow fields.

Hold! Chasing now would be folly. Patience, young one!

A paw-width away. Every breath of the mighty boar stirred the fur on Dochas’s paw. Still as the steadfast oak she remained, not even blinking as Soitheach’s flanks twitched. Saliva dripped from her open mouth leaving behind a killing frost.

Soitheach lifted her head and engulfed the mushroom. A string of fluid connected paw and beast.

My heart thrummed. It wasn’t enough. Reach, slow… but reach!

Soitheach ground the fungus between her teeth, grunting with obvious pleasure. Her eyes hooded over.

Swift as lightning Dochas’s paw caressed down the muzzle.

Louder than thunder Soitheach squealed her displeasure. She reared her bulk up onto her hunches and nearly tumbled onto her bristly backside. That fate Dochas did not escape. She toppled tail over muzzle behind the tree. She narrowly missed being crushed by the hooves of the bucking boar.

The forest shattered as Soitheach plowed up the hillside leaving a breathless young stoat in her wake bathed in the final blush of the evening sun. Alarmed voices called from all around, ears bobbed in the distance. Dochas lay there gasping for breath, rooted to the spot as she stared where the legend has once stood in four frosted hoof prints.

My heart raced, the song this year … was mine to sing! I bore witness. From my neck I grasped my kenaz and willed the pendant into a fiddle. Already the prose formed in my mind.

Dochas of the shire of Sruth Uaine, you shall be ever-remembered. You, and you alone by your cleverness, have blessed the new year. Tomorrow, when the day grows longer, we may rejoice and sing your name.


A blessed holidays to you and yours, with a happy new year!

The Harpening

One would think that living in a shire surrounded by the next generation of elite story-tellers would be captivating. Well, life in the shire of Coarrunn is boring as watching moss grow on a fallen log. I’ve been here now for a couple years learning my bardic skills from Master Bard Ais from sun-up to sun-down. Nothing but sit your fuzzy rear here and listen.

We’re bards! We’re supposed to tell!

“Ealaidh.” Seinn, an adolescent wolf several years older than me, ruffled the hair between my ears as he joined me by the river. “Aren’t you supposed to be listening to Ais’s lecture on the Bones of Lore.”

I mock-yawned and smirked. “Makes me snore.”

“This isn’t rhyming class.”

With a toothy grin, I replied, “Why all the sass?”

He rolled his eyes. “You’re such a pain.”

“I can’t complain.”

Tweaking my ear, he couldn’t help a little grin. “That cheeky-nature of yours is going to get you into trouble.”

I wrapped my arms around my legs and sighed. “I just want to do something besides listen all day. We’re minstrels-in-training, shouldn’t we be playing instruments, singing, and stuff?”

Seinn adjusted the red scarf around his neck, a nervous habit of his. “Well, yeah, eventually. I mean, I am, but you won’t for a few more turns of the seasons.”

I shot bolt upright. “What? A few more … what will I be doing in all that time … listening to snore-fests?”

“Fraid so. It’s what the novice whelps do. Now, let’s go.” He turned and trudged off.

I lingered by the rippling stream, finding its voice more interesting than my tutor’s. The sensation of a glare burning at my back stirred me to my footpaws. I kicked a pebble and the water swallowed my offering. Grimly, I embraced my fate and followed Seinn back towards the shire.

We passed by the glade where his harping class was about to start. The wolf offered me a hard glare and pointed over the hill to where Ais would be lecturing. With my shoulders rolled forward, I padded on … until I heard the paws of my fellow slan on the strings.

The tinkling beauty called me. Scampering through the brush I edged to the backside of the class to watch as row after row of older novice bards plucked dutifully in echo of the Master Harpist at the front. The lure pulled me, my footpaws nearly dancing, toward an empty harp at the back of the group.

My paws itched, a sensation so dire that if I didn’t touch the strings to make them sing I would cease to exist. The world lived suspended in those strings and playing them released it.

The first touch, tentative, but it brought forth a delicate cascade of sound. My heart leapt. I slid onto the seat and listened to the tune as played by the Master. Fingers shifted, already knowing the way. The moment the silence fell, I repeated the simple tune with the others. Stopping at the end felt like clogging a river. But I listened again. This time more notes than what I had heard poured through. They didn’t stop at the end of the passage.

EalaidhHarpOdeStone

Behind my closed eyes, the glade dissolved to be replaced by a mighty star-fall and a celestial river of brilliant lights. Rich blues, purples, and pinks danced in the void. Around me will-o-wisps flickered in brilliant sequences. A speckled beast dove through the celestial waters, one of the mighty dragon-kin. She arched her head and extended her frill releasing a mighty roar that shook the heavens.

A paw grasped my shoulder. I opened my eyes to find the Master Harpist staring at me in awe, a strange twitch to the corner of his eye. “Young one, you should not be playing yet. You have yet to master your powers.”

I withdrew my claws from the strings and folded my paws pleadingly. “But, I must play … ”

He extended a paw over the class, drawing my attention to it. Every student, even Seinn sat slack-jawed staring at the glimmering images projected in the air around me … my celestial river! “You must release them from your enchantment, whelp.” He knelt before me, gazing into my eyes. “In all my years, I have never seen one of such raw power. No, you must be careful and learn slowly or you may convince a beast that something is there when it is not. Or lead them to be lost to the past.”

I stared at the strings, glimpsing the other bards trapped in my image fog. “I … I don’t know how.”

The Master Harpist heaved a sigh. “And that proves my point. You, most of all, must refrain until Ais has tempered your abilities. For now, I want you to mimic what I play.” He carefully plucked out a sequence.

When he finished, I played it. The moment I struck the last note, the bards all blinked and the dreamy expression faded. Seinn stared at me, confusion in his unblinking gaze.

The Master Harpist took my paws and folded them in my lap. “Now, you don’t touch another harp, understand?”

I couldn’t even nod. The lingering sensation of completeness called to me to touch the strings. The instrument itself promised power sweet and alluring. Without even knowing it I had enchanted a dozen other bards-in-training into an enthralled image fog.

My claw drifted toward a string. The Master Harpist pushed it back away. “There’s another class you should be in right now. Your time will come, whelp. But it is most definitely not now. Off with you before you steal my students again.”

Dutifully I left, over my shoulder I watched planning my next chance to play. At least I was no longer bored.

Halloween Reprise: Once Beatin’, Twice Die

Once Beatin’, Twice Die

Reposted twisted humor story in the spirit of the season of tricks and treats. This tale was inspired by a prompt with a 36 hour writing frame: Pooky and the Pumpkin Parlor. My story triggered a need for the creation of second place, previously only the top running story was to be awarded but they liked my tale so much and wanted to publish it online. Enjoy this delicious devilry …

quantumkitty

I clutched my pumpkin to my chest. Every jostle of the cardboard box I rode in threatened to dislodge my precious prize.

My pumpkin. No one could take it from me. I flexed my claws into the fleshy rind. The juice wicked into my fur. I purred.

The floor of my box dropped. I landed hard and rolled to the side with a hiss. A moment later her face appeared over the edge of the box. A face that looked like a frog had mated with a gourd. Madame Euphrasia.

I spat at her and flexed my claws into the pumpkin.

“Pooky, are you sure you want to go through with this?” She offered me a tight-lipped smile. “Come on now, it was a terribly long walk down here, to the Pumpkin Parlor. But I promise to forgive you.”

“Rowwwrrr!”

“Sweetie.”

I hugged my pumpkin tighter.

Madame Euphrasia reached up and adjusted her pointy hat. “Have it your way you little—”

My hackles rose. I fixed her with a glare.

“—darling.” She softened her expression.

My pumpkin. So soft and squelchy in my claws. Mmm.

The box rocked to the side and I tumbled onto the rust-tinted counter of the Pumpkin Parlor. Jack’o’lanterns hung from the ceiling and cast a warm glow over the spirits floating to the tables delivering alcohol. The entire room glowed in shades of unbroken orange. Well, all save the patrons. The collective monstrosities seated all around were exempt from the color code. A pack of werewolves dressed in black leather perched on stools further down the counter devouring a rack of lamb. In the corner booth a stitched man resembling a burly rag doll slouched with a daisy in his hand. A cappuccino steamed before him.

Even though I had not been here long, I remembered this place. I craned my head to see if I could find that nice wooden box I had once slept in.

A hand slammed the counter. Madame Euphrasia leaned over and glared at the swinging door. “Momordica! Momordica, you mountebank. This is your damn place. I know you are back there. Get your wiley ass out here right now!”

I scaled my pumpkin and curled around the coiled stem. The little curly twigs sproing when I bat them with a paw. I liked that.

“Momordica. Come out before I go back there and drag you out. We need to talk about that sh—“

I hissed and skewered the pumpkin with all ten claws.

She gulped. “—sweet transaction we had the other day.”

Why did that crazy old coot have to raise her voice so much? Never, in all my nine-lives had I known such an unappreciative human.

The door squealed open and Momordica sauntered in, bedecked in shades of ochre. Even his top hat was a rich shade as he flicked it off his head with a bow. “Madame Euphrasia. Pleasant to see you this eve. How may I assist one of my finest patrons?”

Several of the customers narrowed their eyes before returning to their meals.

I resumed playing with the curlicues. Twang. Twang. The hollow gourd responded with a thump. Thump. Thump.

“There is a problem with Pooky. It must be remedied immediately and with great care.”

Momordica glanced down at me and widened his golden eyes. “The darling kitten I sold you just a fortnight ago? He looks perfectly healthy. And I assure you that black cats are all the rage as witch’s familiars. Give him a bit more time. He’ll grow on you.”

She balled her fists and gave me a sideways glance. A bead of sweat rolled down her knobby brow. “I am running out of time. The little bea—creature won’t obey. This is serious, Momordica.”

Obey, schmobey. It’s not like she asked nicely. I rubbed my cheek against the stem of the pumpkin and purred. The hollow reverberated, thump, thump, thump. I wanted to open it. But it was too soon. Too soon to look see.

“Madame Euphrasia, Pooky is just a sweet little kitten. What harm could he manage aside from stealing a ball of yarn?”

“You see that pumpkin?” She smiled like someone pulled her lips apart with fish hooks. “He won’t give it back.”

“A pumpkin?” He burst into laughter. “A pumpkin? I have a whole field of pumpkins. What kind do you wish? Let Pooky keep that one.”

“You don’t understand.”

Light flickered through a glass of whiskey on the counter. Pretty. Must become mine. I slid down the side of the pumpkin and kept my tail brushing against it. With a paw I ticked the side of the glass.

It vanished. But the liquid remained. An amber puddle spread over the wood and dampened Momordica’s gloved fingers.

Where the glass was now was it half empty? Was it half full? Was there even a glass in the first place? If I looked I would know and that would spoil everything. Ohh, my tail is moving. Must get the tail.

He leaned back. “Remarkable!”

“You see? This is no normal cat.”

“Well, of course he isn’t. He’s a witch’s familiar now.”

“But I didn’t teach him that damn trick. You need to understand what he’s stolen.”

I leapt back onto the pumpkin and licked my paws taking care to get between each claw. She flinched as I eyed her.

Momordica leaned forward.

“He’s stolen my heart.”

He laughed so hard he ceased to breath for a moment. “Aww, now that’s so sweet. He’s not a bad kitty. He’s a miracle worker. Who would’ve known you even had a heart?”

“It’s not funny!” She tore open the first few buttons on her dress collar to reveal my claw marks on her flesh. “I mean he literally stole the damn organ!”

I arched my back and growled deep in my throat.

“The sweet, darling animal! I mean, he cares so much … but … but … I need it back. Momordica, I think he has it in the pumpkin. I have no idea how he did it. Where did you find him?” Her face grew pale as a saucer of milk.

Mmm, milk.

He took a few steps back eyeing me. I sunk my claws into the flesh of the pumpkin. My pumpkin. Thump thump, thump thump.

“I found him in a box in the graveyard. Poor thing was half alive, half dead. I carried him here not having any idea if when I opened the box he’d still be here.”

Thump thump. The beat in the pumpkin stuttered. Oh dear. Thump thump … thump … THUD.

She dropped to the floor.

I sighed and abandoned the pumpkin on the counter. No point in looking now. I already knew the answer.

Momordica grabbed it and smashed it open with his fist. Crimson mingled with orange pulp, the witch’s heart cradled in the core. Apparently my touch can only sustain an organ for so long. Who knew.

He looked at me. I glared back before raising a paw to groom off the pumpkin pulp.

“Who would’ve known! Tell me, Pooky, why did you do that?”

Curiosity. I leapt back into the box and pulled the flaps closed. Memories of a past half-life tumbled back to me. The inside of a box, and the musings of a human named Schrodinger.


Happy Halloween! Mwahahaha!

Shadow of Doubt

Shadow of Doubt

samhainsidhewyvern

I reached out and caught the leaf drifting down from the branches. A true masterpiece on a once living canvas. Red tips blazed at the end of the brilliant yellow center. The shrill cry of a sidh-wyvern caught my ear. I glanced up into the shivering autumn leaves and spied her unusual markings.

“What are you looking at, Ealaidh?” Seirm, my bard-in-training charge, flicked his stoat ears in the direction I was gazing.

I ruffled his headfur. “Tis the turning of summer to autumn. Surely you know about the lords of the seasons.”

He chuckled and flared out his short tail. “Of course I know the myth.”

“Myth?” Raising an eyebrow I cocked my head. “Surely you mean myths?”

He stared at me blankly.

“By the multitude of gods, what lazy tailed bard taught you? Oh never mind, it doesn’t matter. Sit. Learn as you should have been taught.” We settled on a fallen log dappled with lichen. The earthy scent filled my nostrils, that damp odor of deceased plants returning to the dirt that gave rise to it. Cycles.

“Seirm, my young bard—”

“I’m seventy-three.”

“My young bard.” I eyed him back into silence. “The seasons did not always turn. Ages ago, not long after the first tribes began the tell of time through Taliesin’s gift of music, Cernunnos turned to Io’s children. The earth had grown weary of supporting constant abundance. So in his great wisdom Cernunnos selected four special sidh-wyverns and gifted them with the power over the weather.”

“Yes. Everyone has heard the legends. But how can something so tiny effect the whole climate? They’re the size of hawks, that’s ridiculous.”

“You are not alone in thinking so. When first they were gifted, one of them suffered greatly under the burden of her task, even into the second year.”

The summer sun cast Muthadh’s shadow long as she stretched her scalloped wings over the hillside amongst the ghosts of shivering leaves. The hawk-sized sidh-wyvern let her translucent back frill tuck in tight as she wrapped her tail around her. Purple and orange scales hardly hid her among the ash tree’s bright green. She closed her eyes and shuddered.

“We are dragon-kin.” She swallowed, hugging the swaying branch with her clawed wings. “What a shameful jest. What am I compared to my larger cousins? A wisp to be blown on the wind?”

A distant cry shattered the air, Muthadh held her breath and spread out her wings prepared to bolt. But for what? She knew that boastful shriek, as did any who roamed the wood in the grip of summer. Luisreadh, the sidh-wyvern whose magic reigned over the season of prosperity. It was his breath that opened the flowers faces to the sun. The current of his wings that spread their pollen through the glades. His cry that summoned the heat of the blazing sun down on the earth.

Muthadh had woken. Luisreadh’s season … was supposed to be ending. Her claws gripped the branch as her eyes locked on her silhouette spilling on the ground. Thin, wiry, substanceless. She whimpered at her shadow of doubt. Green leaves buffeted her. Leaves that were her task to paint as vibrantly as Luisreadh painted the flowers. A warm breeze blew through the wood. Winds that were her task to whip into gales and strip the growth away. The sun winked through the canopy. The same sun it was her task to pull lower into the sky to let land to rest, if she could but summon the courage.

Memories of last year’s attempt paralyzed her. Last year … in what was to be the first turn of the seasons. She bowed her head and whimpered at her failure.

Autumn’s first day was today … and its bringer clung to the branch like a stubborn leaf. When she had opened her eyes on this day and seen the beauty Luisreadh had spread throughout the land, a lump grew in her throat. How could she wilt his beloved blooms? How could she rot this vibrant land? How could she possibly outshine the splendor of the sidh-wyvern of summer?

She spied him winging into the trees, Luisreadh swept through the branches screeching out his pride at his own work. His bright green scales splotched with all the colors of the blooms. Bright rows of spikes lined his back as he undulated through his domain. The spark in his eye lanced Muthadh’s heart. He wasn’t ready to relinquish. For the second time, autumn could not possibly come.

Her shadow shivered up from below, cast over Luisreadh’s masterworks. The shadow mocked her, she swore she saw it narrowing its eyes and laughing up at her. Coward! It whispered. Uninspired fool. Yours is the season of death. Who would ever embrace you? It’s no wonder that no one even missed your failed contribution last year. Crawl into a tree hollow and cry like again! It’s all that is left to you.

She tucked her head beneath a wing and stifled a sob. The gleam of bright blue sparked before her. She opened her eyes to gaze upon on will-o-wisp floating in the folds of her wing. The morpheous sprite floated down to the tree limb, brushing against the bark. “Listen …”

Muthadh bent down and pressed her ear close to the limb.

“Listen …” The wisp evaporated.

weary … rest … The limbs spoke to her in creaks and groans.

She snapped up her head. “You … you would suffer if I did not take over for Luisreadh?”

weary …

“But, you don’t understand. I would be killing you.”

sleep, not death … through winter … spring reawakens … without rest—as if to show her a leaf crisped on the twig and fell to the ground.

“Have you told Luisreadh?”

yes … he bids us to sprout eternal … we are not the evergreen …

Her frill crept up to full, flowing in the breeze between her spines. She watched the reigner of summer soaring on his breeze, oblivious to the cries echoing in the wood. He remained ignorant to the needs of the land. A snarl parted her scaly muzzle. Turning to the shadow of her doubt on the ground she glared hard at it. “Your pointless weight will not ground me. I am the reigner of autumn! This season does not come without my bidding. It is time.” She stroked the tree limb with her wing. “The land needs sleep.”

Throwing her head back, Muthadh released her harsh rasp. Her wings spread and slammed down against the warm current. A cold, crisp bite followed and enveloped her in a spinning frenzy. The skies overhead darkened, leaden with heavy rain clouds as a thunderclap echoed through the valley.

“Luisreadh! Summer has come to a close, the harbinger of autumn has awakened. Bow down and surrender.” She hovered above the tree grove, rain pelting her scales.

A brightly mottled arrow of sidh-wyvern flesh shot up from the canopy. Luisreadh led with his talons and a piercing scream. “I am not finished! I will never fall to you!”

“Spirited words.” She snapped her wing and rose out of his way. Enthusiastic as always, Luisreadh overshot and struggled to pull around and face her. “You know this is how it must be. The land calls to you, but you ignore it. Heed its cries, let it rest.”

Hotheaded Luisreadh bared his fangs. “You challenge me for the mantle? I would have thought last year when I beat you into submission you would have learned. You are not worthy!”

She cringed, the scar on her wing still tugged. But the pain had another effect. She wouldn’t let him win again. Autumn must come, even if he refused to heed the cry of the land. Rising toward him in the growing gale littered with shredding leaves she beat her wings, arching her talons. The chill in the air faded his colors. Each beat of his wings lost power as she stole the mantle from him.

His face lined with shock a moment before she collided with him, entangling him with her talons. He struggled, only to blink up at her. Muthadh carried him lower into the canopy, heading toward his favorite oak tree. “What … what are you doing?” His voice was barely a whisper in her gale.

“Laying you to rest for the turn of the seasons.” She gently nestled him into the crook of the tree, nudging his tail in.

The defeated summer sidh-wyvern’s eyes already were closing where he would sleep three seasons through. “But … why … I beat you into the hillside last year … left you broken.”

She breathed onto the oak leaves and they turned a brilliant array of reds and golds. “I already beat one opponent today. What need have I to prove to another?” A ray of sunlight broke through the clouds casting Muthadh’s shadow against the oak tree. Luisreadh’s eyes blinked back open as the shadow cringed.

Muthadh spread her wings and shot into the heavens, riding the rising gale with each pulse. Beneath her the world turned from one brilliant palette of colors to another of true beauty. The beautiful palette of change as autumn fell upon the land for the first time.

Out of the canopy Muthadh soared, wreathed in will-o-wisps.

Seirm jolted as the sidh-wyvern shot in a tight spiral over our heads and up into the leaden skies.

Placing a paw on his shoulder, I chuckled. “First time you’ve seen a myth, lad? Been around the bard camp too long. Welcome to the real world where there are creatures who truly command their surroundings. Take care to mind them. Especially the harbinger that prepares the earth for the winter sleep … she bares death on her wings.”

Natural Disorder

journeysthrougha-brass-quill

Natural Disorder

We are taught that everything has its proper place. What a bundle of useless lies. Even the novice bard knows we live in a dynamic world. A dynamic world overseen by a pantheon of puerile gods, which is an epic tale of its own accord. Don’t get me started.

The day I first glimpsed the chaos of life dwells within me as an ever present reminder that even nature bickers about the best approach. I was but a neophyte whelp, within the second turn of the seasons under the tutelage of Master Bard Ais in the shire of Coarrunn. And did I have much to learn!

I held up my paw and peered between my fingers into the velvet darkness. The sky sparkled like an endless lake. The sun had winked out and the stars awakened to play.

Darach, the badger, knelt beside me, his oak staff in paw as he grinned. “Well if it isn’t the wee bard-in-training, Ealaidh.” He being a high level druid meant he was privy to my true name. “And what has captivated her attention so?”

I sucked on my claw, still staring at the sky. The birdsong had gone silent as the old druid awaited my reply. “Shh. The sun is taking a nap.”

Darach chuckled and ruffled my head fur. “Ahh, so that tis what you think is the matter. Close. Now, you being a bard love to tell stories. Would it be alright if this old brucach told you one?”

I nodded, barely able to tear my eyes from the odd sky. Darach gathered his robes and sat down on a fallen oak branch. “The sun watches o’er the day. The moon o’er the night. Least that’s how the gods designed it. But not everything wishes to remain in its natural place. Heed me well, little bard. For that tis the way of the world!” His voice faded as the tale filled my ears.

For eons untold the sun and moon remained in their rightful places. The moon watched over the peaceful nights in the company of countless stars sparkling in the heavens. Throughout the day the bright sun journeyed ever on the same path. All was as the gods had deemed it.

Each day the sun rose always in the east and journeyed to the west, without fail. But in time the moon danced to a different rhythm, unbound by the path it appeared at various heights and angles throughout the seasons.

One day when the moon shown faintly in the azure sky the sun remarked, “The day is my time, why don’t you appear when the night descends?”

The moon didn’t flinch. “The sky is large enough for the two of us.”

“But the night belongs to you. Your light is too weak to shine in my brightness.”

“There is more to me than light. For when the earth sees but a sliver of me does not the rest of me remain?”

The sun fell silent for a time before answering, “The earth will never see you by day.”

The moon smiled and shifted, edging toward the sun. Inch by inch the moon came closer, overlapping the bright sun.

“What are you doing?” cried the sun.

All around the sky grew darker. Twilight descended as the moon reduced the sun’s light to a pale ring. The denizens of the earth all gazed into the starry heavens confused by the untimely night. Among them a Shetland unicorn pranced and neighed, frolicking in the unusual light.

The moon smiled on her and cast down her rays painting the unicorn in nightshade and dappling her with stars, a reward for the gaze.

 

Moondancer

Point proven, the moon shifted, slowly revealing the sun once more.

Silence reigned until most of the daylight had been restored.

The moon grinned. “So, none shall see me? It appears all saw me by your very light, dear sun. You provided me with the means, and I thank you.”

The sun could only remain locked on the path in the arc of the sky. “You have shamed me.”

“You had dared me. Ask not what you do not wish to be seen, for even the faintest light can hold the will to shine brighter, and the means to do so, borrowed though it may be.”

“And so, Ealaidh, every so often the moon dances in front of the sun as a reminder that great as we may be, we share this world with others.” Darach gazed up at the lightening heavens, daylight was returning.

My ear flicked at the sound of hoofbeats. Down in the valley a nightshaded unicorn reared in the waned light, the stars shimmering on her black, blue, and purple coat. Her joy spread to me on the very wind. Cocking my head I asked curiously, “Darach, are we suns or moons?”

“We are sometimes one and sometimes the other. There are times when our path is laid and there is naught we can do to step from it. The known path makes us sure and often proud” He gestured to the unicorn. “There are times when we are dancers braving our own spin on life, but that spin involves others for us to be seen. Such as a creature of day turned to night. We, like the sun, are reminded to be humble and to share.”

The daylight gradually grew stronger. I spun on my paws giggling and chanting, “I am the mighty moon! I am the mighty moon! I block out the sun and bring night to day!” The unicorn paused and turned her head my way. She neighed and pawed the earth with a hoof before throwing her mane to the sky.

Darach shook his head with a chuckle. “You, Ealaidh, are indeed a moon. There is no path on this earth that can hold you.”