Stories from my Grandfather – Skate’ne

WHAT’S PLAYING: Brandi Carlile “Hard Way Home”

Late one afternoon, some children were playing near their house when they saw an old woman approaching. The children ran away, frightened by her stooped posture and white hair, but curiosity soon drove them back.

“Do not be afraid of me, children,” the old woman said. “I am your great-great-great-grandmother. Go to the house and tell your mother that I have come.”

The children did as they were told. They spread a deerskin on the ground for the old woman, and brought her food and drink. The old woman questioned the children while she ate, asking them what time their father would return and where he slept.

The unsuspecting children told her all.

That night, after all had gone to sleep, the old woman entered the house, cut off the man’s head, and put it into a basket. Then she covered the man’s body with his blanket to be discovered by his poor wife the next morning, and quietly left the house.

Soon she met a couple of wildcats.

“Stop, old woman,” called one of the wildcats. “Show us what you have in the basket.”

“You must not see it,” she said, “for it is very bad poison. If you look upon it, you will lose your eyes.”

“We must see what you carry, even if it costs us our eyes,” they replied, and raised the cover on the basket. When they saw the man’s head, they knew the old woman was Skate’ne, an owl monster who prowled the night, killing men and animals. They decided to kill her. One held onto her, while the other went to find a length of rope.

When he had gone, Skate’ne turned to the wildcat holding her. “I like you, and so I will do you a favor. Do you see that large club over there? Grab it and strike me down, for whoever kills me will always have good fortune.”

Anxious to kill her before his companion could, the wildcat released Skate’ne and ran to get the club. When he turned back to strike the old woman, she had already turned into an owl and flown away.

So, be wary of the dark, my children. For Skate’ne prowls the night.

Book Review — A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly

WHAT’S PLAYING: Hugh Laurie “Ain’t Necessarily So”

This week’s book is A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly.

When beautiful and ruthless octoroon Angelique Crozat is found strangled to death in the midst of an opulent Mardi Gras costume ball, dark-skinned Benjamin January—physician, music teacher, and son of a former slave—soon finds himself the prime suspect in her murder. With his freedom and life at stake, January sets out to find the real killer. His quest will take him from the opulent mansions of rich white planters to the huts of voodoo-worshipping slaves, and through the dark streets of 1833 New Orleans in search of a murderer who is poised to strike again.

I’ve been a fan of Barbara Hambly since I read Dragonsbane. One of the things I admired most about her writing is her methodical attention to detail. A Free Man of Color is no exception. Hambly focuses on the delicate, twilit world of 1830’s New Orleans, managing to capture the city’s exotic strangeness, while maintaining an absolute sense of physical reality. The landed aristocracy and their colored mistresses celebrate Mardi Gras, completely oblivious to the squalor surrounding them. The period detail—fashion, food, manners, music, and voodoo—is rich and decadent, full of sights, textures, sounds and tastes of the city.

The prose is a bit clunky at times (“crimson with rage”, etc.), but Benjamin January shines as a good man in a bad situation, trying to do what is right in a society that classifies people according to an intricate scale of color and bloodline from mulatto to octoroon and everything in between.

Favorite Line/Image: “Phrasie, don’t be a fool.” Livia thrust herself into the fray, slapped Euphrasie loudly on her plump cheek.

Euphrasie fell back, opening her mouth to scream, and Livia picked up the water pitcher from the sideboard. “You scream and I dump this over you.”

Clisson, Odile, and Agnes Pellicot promptly retreated to the doorway, hands pressing their mountains of petticoats back for safety. January reflected that they’d all known his mother for thirty years.

Euphrasie, too, wisely forbore to scream.

Bottom Line: A sharp portrait of curiously nuanced class divisions.

Coming up next: The Siren by Tiffany Reisz

Writing Lessons from Mom – Conflict

WHAT’S PLAYING: Pink! “Fucking Perfect

I have a terrible temper. My dad says I’m just like my mother—a 6-foot stick of dynamite with a 2-inch fuse.

 

Despite our shared anger management issues, you’d be hard pressed to lure my mother into an argument. To understand why, you have to go back a couple of hundred years…to the days of the traditional Choctaw duel.

This wasn’t your typical pistols-at-dawn affair. Choctaw duels were a bit more decisive.

The disputants would face one another across the village square, and then their assistants—usually a brother or close friend appointed for the occasion—would split their heads open with an ax. The dispute was resolved, and the community didn’t have to put up with incessant bickering.

My people are nothing if not practical.

Another incident of Choctaw dispute resolution involves the legendary chief, Pushmataha. Having been insulted by General Henry Knox, Chief Pushmataha bought a barrel of gunpowder and fitted it with a fuse. He sat on the barrel, lit a cigar, and invited the general to sit beside him. Knox declined and never insulted Pushmataha again. Nor did any other American general.

 

Despite this culturally inspired aversion to conflict, I often find myself embroiled in pointless arguments.

You see, I like to be right. Moreover, I like to prove that I’m right. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent trolling the internet or leafing through obscure reference books just to win an argument that any reasonable person would have already forgotten.

While this almost psychopathic need to prove myself has played holy hell with my personal life, it’s served me well in my writing.

As any writer will tell you, you can’t have a story without conflict, whether it’s inner, outer, preferably both. You have to have conflict in order to tell a decent story. It’s that simple.

What it isn’t, however, is easy. I’ve learned the hard way that handling conflict well in real life does not translate to being able to do the same in writing. Like my ancestors, I’d much rather write (or be involved) in a physical altercation, than explore my characters’ (or my own) feelings.

 

 

Still, dealing with emotions and the different faces of humanity is part of what it means to be a writer. So, while my relatives are solving disputes with the threat of skull bashing and explosions, I’ll save my more violent tendencies for the page.

But, if you see me stalking towards you with an axe in one hand and a reference book in the other….

Run.

Stuff I Learned the Hard Way – My Flirting Could Use Some Work

WHAT’S PLAYING: Mike Posner featuring Lil’ WayneBow Chicka Wow Wow

Last week, a friend of mine insisted I go bar-hopping with her. It didn’t take much effort since I’m always up for a cocktail.

When I was busy guzzling my third margarita, two very attractive men approached us and started chatting. Things were going fairly well, until we got on the subject of happy places.

I said my favorite place to be was in bed. One of the guys asked if I took anything to bed with me.

My answer? “A teddy bear and a switch blade.”

I don’t think he’s going to call.

The Very Inspirational Blogger Award (Black and White Edition)

WHAT’S PLAYING: Dev “Bass Down Low”

The lovely and talented Halfway between the Gutter and the Stars nominated me for the Very Inspirational Blogger Award. I am doubly honored because—with her fearless honesty and unbelievable strength—this woman, in my humble opinion, is the very epitome of inspirational.

Check out her blog here and see what I mean.

The Rules:

1. Thank the blogger who nominated you.

2. Share seven things about yourself

3. Nominate other bloggers you think deserve the award, and post on their blog to let them know they’ve been nominated.

Seven Things about Me:

1. I have no sense of direction. During my visit to New York, I spent twenty minutes looking for my hotel, only to discover that it was two blocks away…in a straight line…directly across from the entrance to the train station. And I was using the GPS feature on my phone.

2. I’m extremely gullible. Seriously, you could tell me that bats fly out of your ass at midnight on the third Sunday of every month and, as long as you said it with a straight face, I’d probably believe you.

3. I’m terrified of commitment. Always have been, but it’s gotten a lot worse since my fiancé died. The thought of owning a house, setting down roots, or falling in love again makes me want to vomit.

4. I was raised with the belief that crying is useless and self-indulgent, so I tend to bottle everything up until I can’t bear it anymore. I usually cry once every three years, unless I’m watching a Hallmark commercial or a Disney movie. Then all bets are off.

5. My favorite book in the whole world is The Long Nosed Princess by Priscilla Hallowell, published in 1959. I read it at least once a year and have since I was ten years old.

6. Growing up in Mississippi, I had to deal with a lot of crap for being mixed race. One of the poems that helped me through was “Cross” by Langston Hughes.

My old man’s a white old man
And my old mother’s black.
If ever I cursed my white old man,
I take my curses back.
If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I’m sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well
My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I’m going to die,
Being neither white nor black?

7. I am extraordinarily clumsy. I once executed a perfect routine during a karate competition, complete with kicks, flips, and splits. I bowed to the judges, turned, and then tripped over my own feet as I left the mat. Fortunately, they didn’t penalize me for it.

Now, for the nominees (I’m only listing seven, mostly because I’m too lazy to do more. Besides, naming all the inspirational blogs out there would take me days.):

1. Janice Heck

2. S.Z. Williams

3. Fic Faq

4. Melinda VanLone

5. Word Flows

6. This Man’s Journey

7.  No More Race