Until the Sun Rises

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They fall asleep as soon as the fire is lit. Firelight flickers on the walls of the cave, on the dirt floor and their weary faces. We don’t dare take roads through this country, and walking through fields and bogs is hard with their short legs and tired feet. Tramps aren’t a welcome sight this far south. The last farm we stopped at sent us packing with dogs on our heels. Cole still has a bruise from the rocks they threw. We might be luckier in the cities, but we don’t dare risk even a small town. Not yet.

Another wolf howls, and Cole smiles at me when I look up. He’s tired, I can see that, but he won’t sleep tonight. Our feet were bleeding when we passed through the first bog this morning, and the wights are following us now, drawn to blood and weary hearts. He’ll stay awake to keep them off, although I’ve told him three or four times that I’m not tired, and haven’t lain down yet to prove it.

He’s afraid of the wights, I think. And of being found. We’re always afraid of being found. We avoid the roads, beg at farmhouses, and eat bitterroot and wild potatoes to keep from being caught in a town or village. It’s worse for him than it is for me. When we ran, I was still a child, still six months shy of the right age. But Cole is a year older than I am, and to the men that ran our workhouse, he stole me. Me, and the nine other children we’ve dragged along with us. We shouldn’t have taken so many, but I couldn’t leave any of them behind. We belong together, all of us, and to leave even one behind would have hurt too much.

So he’s a thief who stole ten children from the mills they worked in. If they catch us, I’ll go back to the workhouse. But they’ll hang him.

So we stay awake together, listening to the wolves howl until the sun rises.

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Les Miserables

I will admit, this is an intimidating post to write.

Not only because Les Miserables is such an incredible, life-changing book, but because Victor Hugo happens to be one of my favorite authors. His mastery of prose, of story, and of character blew me away when I first read this book.

Also, he was the sass master of the ages.

I swear, there was a reason that man was exiled. Whatever explanation is in the history books is only partially true. Really, it was because the rich and powerful were tired of how sarcastic and mocking he was whenever he wrote about them.

The man had no filter.

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If you have read Les Miserables yourself—or spoken to someone who has—undoubtably you have heard about how long-winded it is. To be fair, there are at least two—very long—chapters devoted entirely to describing the Battle of Waterloo and the complete workings of the Paris sewers, neither of which had more than a passing significance to the story. They were unnecessary and very misplaced in the more modern view of storytelling.

I loved them both.

The Battle of Waterloo was fascinating simply because I knew almost nothing about it, and much preferred learning the particulars in Hugo’s style of writing rather than the dates and facts of a history book. As for the sewers of Paris—perhaps the less said about that the better. Let’s just say, it gave me several marvelous story ideas. Someday, when I do not have a full fantasy series and a biography hanging on me and begging for my attention, I shall write them.

It may be a while.

Les Miserables is the story of Jean Valjean, a Frenchman in the early nineteenth century. A convict, in fact, who, because of a loaf of bread, has been condemned to spend the rest of his life as an outcast of society. Nineteen years, he served for a loaf of bread—and for attempting to escape. His time in prison left him bitter and broken, and he continues to live out of that bitterness, taking what he can from life and stealing where nothing is offered.

Until he finds himself on the doorstep of the Bishop of Digne. The man invites him in, gives him food and a bed where most offered a bullet and a dog’s teeth. That night Valjean steals his silver and all the money in the house and disappears.

A few hours later, he is brought back, ready to be sent straight back to prison if only the Bishop will identify him.

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The Bishop refuses. He informs the guards graciously that Jean Valjean is not a thief, and that everything in his bag was given to him. More than that, he takes the only silver left in the house, two silver candlesticks, and offers them as well, insisting that Valjean must have forgotten them.

This gesture of grace, something that is so far out of Valjean’s experience, turns his life on its head and begins a journey of epic proportions to become, as the Bishop makes him swear, an honest man. From this point, the story leads through a labyrinth of characters, including the daughter of a prostitute who becomes Valjean’s ward, a police inspector driven by an almost fanatical desire for justice, and a poor, threadbare student standing on the barricades of the French Revolution. Grace and the law are put on trial together, and the failings of the law are covered by the redemption of grace.

Long-winded or not, this is a book for the ages, and one I recommend to anyone looking for a new favorite classic to read.

I promise not to judge if you decide to skip the chapter about the sewers.

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

Leave Me Weeping

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The taxi is already loaded, everything I own, everything I want to take with me already in the trunk. The meter is running, but I ask the man to wait and go down to the creek.

The sky is gray this morning, but the rain has finally stopped. Ice clings to everything. I slip three times before I make it down the path and reach the creek bed, but the ground beneath the old willow is dry. I push aside the thin branches and touch the old, twisted trunk. We used to play here when we were children. My brothers and I would moor our raft beneath the branches and leaves to keep it safe from prying eyes, from pirates and mermaids and goblins. And from the neighbor’s kids. This willow was our fortress, our safe haven.

Now it’s nothing. An old dead tree. I trace the heart carved into the bark, the initials I left there three summers ago with a boy who is long gone. This tree saw everything when I was growing up. My first broken bone, my first fish, my first kiss. I stayed in an empty house on a deserted farm for the memories in its branches. My brothers left a long time ago. One of them is in the Navy now, the other a bartender in a town without a name. Neither of them call.

I should have left too. I am leaving. The farm is sold, the house ready for its new owners. I’ve said goodbye to everything but the willow, and a new life awaits. A new me. It’s what I want, it’s what I’ve needed, no matter how painful it is. So, before the taxi driver gets impatient, I let go of the person I was here. I leave her weeping with the willow, lost in what should have been, and climb back up the path to the taxi waiting for me.

I have a future. Even without the willow.

I Live With A Cat

I live with a cat. Her name is Mrs. Hudson.

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She is not my housekeeper.

I might be hers, though. Housekeeper, servant, devoted slave. Something.

Mrs. Hudson came into my life about a year and a half ago. I found her in a small cage in the humane society.

Okay, my mum found her.

I was there to see a different cat, one that caught my eye in the pictures of her on the humane society’s website. I went to see her and found, rather sadly, that she was most definitely not the cat for me.

Some cats aren’t, you know.

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But my mum, not one to give up as easily as that, walked around and found another cat that she liked very much. We sat with her for a few minutes while she loudly proclaimed her displeasure at our interference in her daily life, and decided that yes, this was the perfect cat for me.

I, too, dislike having my daily life disturbed.

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Since then, Mrs. Hudson and I have gotten very close. She is something of an old lady, already ten years old, and—well—a bit crotchety. She sleeps on my couch, eats too much food, runs from one end of my small house to the other when she is excited or frightened, leaves dead mice in the middle of my floor, and throws up in my hallway when she is deeply displeased with me. She scolds me when I come home late from

work, refuses to eat the human food I drop on the floor, (because really, what do I think she is, a dog?) sneaks outside when I leave the door open—even though she has no claws and would last .2 minutes on her own—and wakes me up in the middle of the night to inform me that the fire in my wood stove has gone out, and we are both about to freeze to death if I do not get up right this moment and do something about it.

I love her so much.

Portraits

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She brings me with her when she goes out. Children bring in more money, she says. Children without shoes, without good clothes, with hunger in their faces and pinched cheeks. Everyone will stop for a hungry child.

So I go with her. We sit on the curb together, watching the rain fall, huddled together to share the warmth of a single threadbare blanket. The cobbles leech all the feeling from my bare feet, but she’s never let me bring so much as a box to sit on. I suppose it only helps if I’m cold.

I let her do the begging. She’s tried to get me to help, but I’m sitting here with her in the cold. That’s all the help she’ll get from me, no matter how ungrateful she says I am.

Instead, I watch. I watch the people go by, the families pushing strollers, the girls out shopping together. I watch the businessmen chatting on their phones, the women tugging their children on a little faster when they see us, the old war vet who sits opposite us and feeds the pigeons. I watch them all, and I remember their faces. Their clothes. The way her makeup is smudged, the way he keeps his hood up, his headphones in. The way she smiles and he doesn’t. I store them all away, their faces, their expressions. When we finally have enough, we go home, and I pull the sketchbook out from under my mat and draw the ones that I liked. The ones were messy, the ones that captured my notice. I don’t beg, but I steal their faces, their portraits. The way they looked at me, the way they looked at each other.

It’s a harmless kind of theft. I doubt they’ll ever notice.

The Tale of Despereaux

I have mice in my house.

I suppose it’s inevitable. As beautiful as my house is, it is still right smack-dab in the middle of the woods. I am the only motel for many mice miles around. (Are mice miles a thing? Like, 5280 little mice steps? I feel like scientists should look into this.)

So, yes, I do have mice in my house. I also have a cat. She is old and fat and lazy, and I love her. Her name is Mrs. Hudson. She caught a mouse once, left it half-eaten in the middle of my floor, and when I came in managed to look as proud of herself as if she’d killed a deer to feed me.

I think she wanted me to eat it.

I did not.

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The only other mouse I saw was hiding in my shoe. At 4:30 in the morning. While I was getting ready for work. Sad to say, I did not find said mouse until the shoe was already on my foot.

A certain amount of screaming ensued.

Most of it was mine.

I did not end up feeling particularly dignified that day.

Needless to say, mice and I do not get along very well. Or, at least, mice in the house. Mice in books however, I have always enjoyed. Mostly because they do not hide in my shoes.

One of my favorite literary mice is Despereaux, from The Tale of Despereaux. Despereaux is an extra small mouse with ears that are too big for himself and eyes that were already open when he was born, as if he didn’t want to miss a moment of his new life. He is smart, inquisitive, and decidedly un-mouse-like. He doesn’t scurry or cringe, he doesn’t like to run away, and—perhaps oddest of all—Despereaux is a reader. The stories he reads teach him about chivalry and bravery, kindness and valor. They are stories of knights and ladies, princesses and kings, forgiveness and heroism. The stories he reads lead him to search out his own adventures, and before too long he dares to speak to a princess of his own—a princess of a broken kingdom.

 

His conversation with her is overheard, and as a result, Despereaux is banished by his fellow mice. (For as everyone knows, mice are forbidden to talk to humans.) He is thrown into the dungeons for the rats to find, and saved by the jailer when he agrees to tell the lonely man a story and bring a little light to his dark tasks.

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But more than one lonely jailer needs the light Despereaux has to offer. There are many bitter and darkened hearts in this broken kingdom, ranging from a small servant girl name Miggory Sow to the very king himself. Light, stories—and soup—are all needed to bring Despereaux and his princess to a happy end at last.

This lovely book is chock full of gorgeous imagery, beautiful prose, and characters that you will not easily forget. The next time you are searching for a book to let a little light into your world, I would suggest reaching for this one.

“Once upon a time,” he said out loud to the darkness. He said these words because they were the best, the most powerful words he knew and just the saying of them comforted him.

Cairns

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They came from the south, it was said. Pilgrims from far off lands, from the edge of the sea to the valleys of the great deserts. Men saw them on the roads, children drew them water from the wells, and women gave them bread at their doors. They came with their heads covered and their sandals worn, with dust on their clothes and dust on their faces. Old and young, rich and poor, men and women, they came. The bridge beyond the village walls was their purpose, to cross and continue their treks through trackless wastes and over mountain peaks. Men watched them pass and shook their heads, avoiding the eyes of these dirty wanderers. They were the roamers, the pilgrims, and they were left alone.

They touched nothing in the village. The children gave them water, the women gave them bread, and they took what they were given and left nothing behind. The wind stirred the dust as if to erase their footsteps, the sun wiped their shadows from the ground, and they left nothing behind.

But when they had crossed the bridge, when the mountain torrent was behind them and the empty road ahead, they did pause. To leave something behind.

Cairns stood beside the road. Heaps of stone placed as carefully as coins on a miser’s desk, left behind by men and women with nothing else. Hundreds of them stood now, after countless years, stretching out along the edge of the river’s gorge.

The villagers dared not touch even a single stone. Altars to the gods, they guessed. Or monuments to the dead. Penance, perhaps, for sins long since committed. Whatever their purpose, they were sacred.

The children alone thought to ask. They questioned the men that passed through, the women they drew water for, anyone that would listen.

Few answered. Some shook their heads, as silent as if the gods had left them mute. Others only smiled and said it was a story for pilgrims, not for children. And so their questions went unanswered, their curiosity, unsatisfied.

But still they asked. And at long last their answer came with the sun’s rising in the east, with the morning wind and the breath of a new day.

He came from the deserts, the men told them. There was sand in his beard, age in his stooped back. The children gave him water and the women gave him bread, and they asked him about the cairns. Why leave them behind? Who are they for?

The man took their gifts and smiled at their questions, and when he rose to move on he said only, “Come, and let me show you.”

The bravest followed him across the gorge. The water was high at this time of the year, choked with ice and black with silt it dragged from the mountains. It raged and screamed with voices that woke their fear, and the rope bridge swayed beneath their small feet, but still they followed him.

On the far side he knelt and took seven stones from his bag. The children crowded around, watching as he stacked them by the edge of the road with weary hands. He kissed the last stone as he set it down and rose, taking up his staff to continue his journey.

The children ran after him. Why stack the stones? Why leave them behind?

The man leaned on his staff and looked back at the pile of stones he’d left behind. A smile touched his weathered face, and he said quietly, “They are there to remember. When there is a river that is too wide, a mountain too high, or a night that is too cold, I look back to the stones. To remember that here I was afraid, that here I was overwhelmed, that here I wanted to give up and despair.” He nodded at the stones. “Here I fell. And here I got up again.”

Charlotte’s Web

I live on a farm.

Have I ever mentioned that before? I do. We have a milk cow, a bull, a rabbit, too many chickens, and ducks.

I love ducks. They quack.

And waddle.

Hehe.

I love everything about living on a farm. Baby animals, fresh milk and eggs, strawberries from our garden. I grew up bottle feeding baby goats (at two AM), hand-raising Shetland Sheepdog puppies, cuddling kittens, and, yes, butchering hogs. I have been spat on by llamas, butted (and knocked off my feet) by goats, and bitten by calves.

You didn’t know calves bite? They bite.

It hurts.

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I am a farm kid through and through, which is one reason why Charlotte’s Web is so very dear to my heart. The farm where Wilber lives is just the sort I have always dreamed of having, with fields, an orchard, sheep, horses, and a rope swing in the barn. We had a rope swing once, but it’s gone now. We don’t really have room to swing in the barn anymore anyway.

It’s full of hay.

I love it.

Despite the beautiful farmyard, a pen all to himself, and a slop bucket that’s always full, life is far from perfect for poor Wilber. Because poor Wilber is a pig, and on a working farm, pigs are kept for—well . . .

Sausage.

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Wilber is quick to despair of his lot in life, but his nearest and dearest friend, a spider named Charlotte, is determined that Wilber will live as more than a walking ham. She weaves a web above his pen, a very special web with words woven right into the center of it. Some Pig. As time goes by, more words appear in the webs above Wilber’s pen, and because people do not tend to notice a little spider hiding in the corner of a barn, Wilber is given the credit. He becomes something of a celebrity on the farm, then in the county, then in the state, and to top it off, he is brought to the state fair to display his amazing powers.

Charlotte, despite problems of her own, agrees to accompany him. Their simple friendship is the very center of this book, a lovely, charming example of the loving support a friend can be. Charlotte’s web has always been one of my favorite stories, and I can say without a doubt it will be one of the first chapter books I hand to my children.

When I eventually get some.

Until then, I’ll just read it to myself.

On foggy mornings, Charlotte’s web was truly a thing of beauty. This morning each thin strand was decorated with dozens of tiny beads of water. The web glistened in the light and made a pattern of loveliness and mystery, like a delicate veil.

Counting Pebbles

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Long ago, between the forests of India and the waves and tides of the great ocean, there lived an honored Maharaja of splendid wealth and wisdom. Men and lords of men came to him from every corner of the world to ask for his advice, for his blessing, and for his gold. His advice he gave freely, to whoever might ask, but his blessing and his gold were reserved for an honored few.

The wise and the rich came to him, fools and beggars, strong and weak, men who were cruel and men who were kind. One needed money to build a palace, another weapons to fight a war, still another jewels to win the heart of a lady. They came before the mighty Maharaja with eloquent arguments, with gifts of spices and ivory, with slaves and promises of honor and worship for his help.

He listened to them all, powerful generals and ignoble beggars, with equal patience. When the last man had been heard, he stood and bowed to them all with great courtesy and invited them to follow him. He led them through his great palace to a courtyard littered with smooth pebbles, some as large as birds’ eggs, others smaller than the coins they begged him for.

“Here you will find all that you ask me for,” he told them solemnly. “Sit here and count the pebbles, and you will receive what you need.”

The wisest were the first to complain. “What purpose could there be?” they asked him. “To play with pebbles like children in the dust!” And they left him.

The rest, too, were angry, and they asked him, “Why should we count pebbles? Ask us to fight in your armies, or mine your gold, or build you another palace! Ask us something of worth! Not to waste our time.”

But he shook his head, and said only, “Count the pebbles.”

“For how long?” they asked. “For what purpose?”

But he replied, “Count the pebbles.”

Some left him then, shaking their heads in frustration. Others shrugged their shoulders and sat to begin. For hours they stayed there, sitting in the dust. Counting the pebbles. They piled them in heaps, heaps that grew by the hour. The sun rose higher and the air became thick with the dust they stirred up. More left him, their anger and humiliation stamped clearly on their faces. “He’s mocking us,” they said as they left. “He brought us here to make fools of us.”

The Maharaja said nothing as he watched them leave. At last only one was left, a boy who had come to ask for money to buy his father’s land from his debtors. He sat alone in the corner of the courtyard, a pile of pebbles before him. The sun sank beneath the horizon, the sky grew cold, and still he worked on. Counting pebbles. The dust settled and a wind from the sea blew through the courtyard, cold as the waves it had touched, and still he stayed.

At last the moon rose, and the stars appeared in the blackened skies. The wind blew harder, and the pebbles the boy had piled up were touched with the breath of the sea and the white of the stars. A sound like shattering glass filled the courtyard, and his pebbles fell, tumbling back to the ground as gems and coins, jewels and diamonds. The boy started to his feet, amazed. The Maharaja entered the courtyard then, and smiled at the boy as he told him, “Here is what you asked for. Go buy your land.”

Mr. Popper’s Penguins

Children’s books hold a special place in my heart. I love the fantastical stories they come up with, the whimsical, ridiculous ideas they present as ordinary, everyday facts. Ideas that would make an adult scoff and say, That would never happen, but would make a child sigh and say, I wish I had a penguin living in my refrigerator.

Not that I, at any point in time, wished for a penguin in my refrigerator.

I would, of course, never do that.

Ahem.

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Children understand the concept of what if far better than adults do, I think. They are much less likely to shoot down a book about a boy who flies, or a magical wardrobe, or, even, a penguin in a refrigerator. I am so thankful for those adults whose wonder and whimsy and child-like imagination has survived the gauntlet of adulthood. While the world is insisting on teaching children the meaning of the word, Impossible, those books are there to whisper what if.

We need that.

One of the loveliest children’s books that I have ever come across, and one that I read over and over again as a child, is Mr. Popper’s Penguins. This wonderful little book is the story of Mr. Popper, a house painter who sat at home at night with his globe, his pipe, and a book on Antarctic adventures. Mr. Popper had always regretted his rather dull existence as a house painter and wished he’d been a great explorer like Captain Cook or Admiral Drake.

But it’s hard to explore the Poles and work a day job at the same time.

So Mr. Popper has to content himself with studying Antarctica, reading the National Geographic Magazine, and writing to his heroes in hopes of getting a reply. And one day, he does get a reply, in the form of a very large box shipped to his front door, complete with air holes and handle with care labels attached.

And inside this box is—a penguin.

(Are you beginning to understand about the penguin in the refrigerator yet?)

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Mr. Popper is delighted with his new pet, and the escapades that Captain Cook, as the penguin is quickly named, lead him and his family on spark a delightful and hilarious chain of events. Of course, no penguin is happy alone. They are social little animals, after all. So in the end, Mr. Popper ends up with not one, but twelve penguins waddling after him and causing havoc on buses, trains, in hotels and theaters, and finally, on a ship sailing for the North Pole.

This charming book is just the sort to make a practical mind scoff. It is impossible, impractical, and absolutely, spectacularly ridiculous. It is a book that, a lovely, brilliant way, asks the ever important question . . . What If.

In my opinion, the world would be a better place with more books in it like Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

Mr. Popper soon found that it was not so easy to take a penguin for a stroll.