When God created the earth and all that is in it, He declared everything to be good except for one thing, and that one thing is the loneliness of man. The majority of my own life I have spent alone, my only companions being God Himself and the animals around me that went through their cycles of birth and death almost too rapidly for me to grow attached to any of them. And yet when the Lord called me, at the age of twenty-three, to venture to the north of St. Anne's Cleft where the Norse live, I was terrified.
In my mind, I had every right to be. The Norse, just seven years prior, had murdered the seventy-eight brothers in Christ who called St. Anne's Monastery their home. The Norse had nearly killed me as well. And hardly a day would pass when I wouldn't wish I had died along with my seventy-eight brothers. Yet the voice of God grew stronger until I could no longer shut it out. So I fashioned a short tunic and a pair of trousers for myself, dyed them unassuming colors, and set off on foot.
Though I kept a brisk pace, the journey took me fully a day. I arrived to the sound of hammering, and I looked through the dim of the setting sun to see men assembling a sea of tents, speaking one to another in Norse, before most of them left for the village. The remainder slept in the tents, though I chose the woods for myself.
When morning dawned, I awoke to find ships lining the harbor, and both the village and the sea of tents were swirling with activity. I could blend in, unassuming, and for the first time in seven years, I walked among people. I heard voices--shouts, whispers, songs! There were children with their mothers, and grown men with their elderly fathers, and such things that one never sees on an island monastery. I had forgotten that such things existed, if I had ever known them to exist in the first place, having spent my entire life cloistered away.
The crowd shifted to the area of tents at midday, and I followed. The village appeared to be having a meeting, as a man stood in front of the throng of Norse men and woman and began to speak. I did not understand a single word spoken, yet the sound of a human voice was like honey to my soul.
A man approached me and asked a question in the unintelligible language of the Norse. I stood like an idiot for a bit, staring at him, until I received a revelation. I pointed to my ear, then to my mouth, and shook my head. The man nodded. For as long as I was with the Norse--I had no idea how long, at the time--I was deaf and mute. And all the better, for I would never trust myself to keep secret my true identity.
The man, by hand signals and the words that escaped him regardless of my supposed infirmities, gave his name as Einarr. He motioned towards the bull's hide where men challenged each other to duels, and I made as clear as I could that I was a farmer and knew nothing of swordsmanship. Einarr drew his sword anyway, and after a while, it was clear that he wanted to teach me.
I learned from him. When the crowds left on their boats, I returned home and practiced the forms he had taught me. I strengthened myself, and in seven years' time, when the boats returned and the sea of tents was once again erected, I again saw Einarr. Again he taught me. Another seven years passed, and I was Einarr's equal; another seven, and I was better than he.
I truly wish that I could have spent more time with Einarr. He was a kind man, and his kindness showed me that not all Norse are the barbaric monsters I made them out to be after they massacred my brothers. Yet the greatest gift he left me with was the gift of swordsmanship, for without him, I would never have known how to defend myself or my home.
Last Sunday was Father's Day, and for some reason, I didn't put as much stock into it as I did into Mother's Day. Sure, I bought my dad something--a white baseball cap, because his collection of black ones doesn't work well in the torturous Texas sun--but I didn't get him a card until I was on my way to the restaurant where we were eating out for lunch. (This is a place with grilled cheese sandwiches on the adult's menu. It's incredible.)
On Mother's Day, everyone is focused on giving Mom the day off. And she deserves a break. It's hard enough babysitting; I can't imagine what it's like trying to turn a child (or multiple children) into a functioning adult while simultaneously doing laundry, cooking, and keeping the house from looking like a tornado hit it. But on Father's Day? It's Sunday, so most dads don't have to work, anyway...do I grill something for him to eat while watching golf?
I was prepared for a quiet Sunday locked up in my room when Dad came to me and said, "At 2:30, you can teach me how to make one of those pin thingies."
I grinned. I'd been wanting to show Dad how to make a penannular cloak pin out of copper electrical wire for at least two weeks. I didn't know why I wanted to. I guess I'm still five years old inside, holding up pictures and books and penannulars and saying "Daddy, look what I made!" And part of me, I guess, just wants to spend time with Dad. When he's not working, he's watching TV, and my sister commandeers most of whatever social energy he has, sparing enough to give me hugs and encouragement and the occasional three-minute conversation at mealtimes or right before bed.
So when we spent about an hour making half a dozen penannular cloak pins, I was ecstatic.
At first, he was just watching me make them. It's simple, really. All you do is bend a piece of copper wire into a horseshoe shape, then hammer it out a bit, making sure the ends are especially wide. The hardest part is using hammers and pliers to attach a pin around the ring, loose enough so that it will move and pivot, but tight enough that it won't slip off the ends. (The end result is basically the prototype of the safety pin.)
I truly enjoyed that rare gem of time I spent with my dad, but I realize that other people aren't as lucky. My sister recently had a birthday party, and I took her and a friend to buy a few last-minute supplies. While we were at Kroger, I was about to say "Let's not forget to buy a Father's Day card" when I stopped myself. The friend I was with had lost his father to a heart attack several years ago. And even though I didn't realize it at the time, that day was actually the anniversary of his passing.
I know that so many people have lost their fathers to sickness, accidents, or even war. But so many more have lost their fathers to alcoholism, apathy, or laziness. They have dads who won't take time to be dads. Some of them may have left the home; others might as well have. I realize that death is a part of life, and that there will be fatherless children as long as this earth spins. But there are far too many right now, and a lot of it can be prevented.
Dads are important. A real dad does more than put food on the table. He disciplines his kids. He teaches them to be respectful and selfless. He shows his sons how to treat women, and his daughters how a man should treat them. He's the spiritual leader of the home. I respect a single mother, but I know she deserves some help.
My dad isn't perfect, but he's great. I know he'll lay aside his work to help me if it's necessary. I know I can talk to him. And I know that, even if it takes a few weeks, he'll find some time to spend with me.
How did you celebrate Father's Day? If you're a dad, what does the perfect Father's Day look like to you? Let me know in the comments below! God bless you, dear readers, and don't forget to like us on Facebook!
The term "imaginary friend" is kind of a misnomer. Just because no one else can see them doesn't mean they're not real.
To me, Kida was real. She was the greatest. Dressed in the coolest of Samurai armor, with one sleeve longer than the other to hide the tiger-bite scar near her elbow. I didn't know that there were no tigers in Japan. I just wanted to think of an animal as tough as Kida, and I thought of a tiger. But Kida won every fight she ever had with a tiger.
I loved Kida. I knew what her voice sounded like. I drew pictures of her and talked to her, and I introduced her to my next-door neighbor Heather. The three of us would play together in my backyard, or we'd go over to Heather's house and play Littlest Pet Shop. Kida didn't play Littlest Pet Shop with us. She'd always wait in Heather's back yard, letting the wind push her in the board swing that hung from a tree branch.
Sometimes, I'd look both ways and cross our street, and play with Gloria Mendez. She had tinker toys and a pool table and board games like Mousetrap and Operation. But more often, we used our imagination. Gloria liked to pretend she was a cat. But Kida never went inside her house, either. She'd wait outside and look at the neighbor's puppies, or wander through their flowerbeds. And since Gloria didn't often come to my house, where Kida was more expressive, she didn't know her very well.
But usually, Kida was the only one I had to play with.
I did my school at home. I'd start at 8:30 on the dot, and I'd take a break at 10:00 for a snack, and I'd wrap everything up around noon, just in time for lunch. But since Heather and Gloria worked until 3:30, and then had homework, I'd usually only get to see them on weekends and over the summer. So more often than not, I had to entertain myself.
I'd normally do one of three things. I might hang out in my bedroom, watch television, or play outside. And Kida usually did all three of those things with me.
Sometimes, Kida would invite me into her own world. She had so many friends--deer and foxes and birds and all the other animals that I'd read lived in Japan, and a boyfriend who just so happened to be a character from one of my favorite TV shows. My home became the forest she lived in, surviving on her own and killing tigers and generally being the coolest person I knew.
The only thing we had in common was that we spent most of our time alone.
I had the benefit of having a family. Kida's family died when their house caught fire, and she was raised by the Samurai until the government disbanded them. I, on the other hand, had a mom and a dad who loved me, and a brother who didn't, and a wonderful set of grandparents who lived so close to us, we could see their front door from our back door. But Dad worked, and Mom kept house when she wasn't homeschooling me, and Nick had obedience issues that made him an angel in public and a parental-attention-commandeering devil at home.
So it was basically just me and Kida.
As a writer, I do a lot of crazy things in the name of research. I've told you about some of the things I've done--like learning how to process wool. The whole deal is a pain in the butt, and I'm so glad I can just buy my yarn from Walmart. I've also learned how to nalbind, which is a process similar to knitting or crocheting, and tablet weave (as the name suggests, a form of weaving).
But this past week, I had some friends do the research for me.
My sister loves to cook, and she's very good at it. We have a mutual friend whom we'll call Jane for the sake of privacy. Jane also likes to cook. And since I've been meaning to cook something in the name of research for a while, I decided to try some good old-fashioned delegation.
I challenged my sister and Jane to a cooking competition with a twist: whoever made the most disgusting dish won.
If you've read Where the Clouds Catch Fire (which you can purchase by clicking the "purchase" tab above), you'll know that Alynn McNeil is a terrible cook. She can make oatmeal without a hitch, usually, and she's mastered a few soup recipes. But when it comes to being creative and making do when supplies are low, our heroine falls short. And she doesn't just fall short, she falls flat on her face, because she's also clumsy. And the kitchen is a very bad place to be clumsy in.
In the book, when Alynn runs out of oats to make oatmeal with, she tries to substitute parsnips. Now parsnips are similar to carrots, but they're white, and they have the faintest hint of radish-y spice to them. Originally, Alynn was going to ruin the mixture by accidentally adding yarrow, which I've also referenced quite a bit in my blogs. Yarrow stops bleeding, so it's nice to have in the kitchen with all those knives around, especially if you're clumsy like Alynn. However, yarrow is also extremely bitter, and it can resemble parsley when you're in a hurry.
When Jane and my sister made parsnip porridge to see if yarrow would really ruin the mixture, I also gave them a list of other ingredients they could use. It was a short list--salt, pepper, parsley, onions, and garlic--but Alynn wouldn't have had much else on hand. Even pepper was pushing it, because it was only available via trade with India and the Middle East at the time.
I went upstairs and lost myself in a library book until I heard my sister's voice; "Lukas, breakfast is ready!" I smiled and headed downstairs to find two bowls filled with something that looked like lumpy mashed potatoes. There was also a glass of water and a trash can, just in case.
I took a bite from the first bowl and about died. I didn't think my kidneys would be able to process all the salt I'd just eaten. Have you ever drunk salt water? That's nothing compared to the saltiness of what that bowl contained.
We ended up giving a spoonful of it to my dog, but we didn't want to mess up her thyroid, so we chucked the rest of it into an empty field. Turns out my sister had made that first disgusting bowl. The second, the one Jane made, was a bit more palatable. The texture really wasn't all that bad, and I can see myself using unsalted parsnips in dishes sometime in the future.
Needless to say, I did a bit of editing that evening.
What's the most disgusting dish you've ever eaten? Have you ever eaten a parsnip? If not, will this blog post encourage or discourage you from doing so? Let me know in the comments below! God bless you, dear readers. Have a wonderful day, and don't forget to like us on Facebook!
So what did you guys think of "Target Twenty-Eight"?
Personally, I loved it. Being a Chicago Italian myself, I was able to put in a few things I loved about living up north--like the Brookfield Zoo, which my family went to every so often. But I was fortunate enough to live in the suburbs, where the mafia wasn't that much of a problem. Thank God.
Anyway, it takes me a while to formulate a new short story. And since I was at summer camp last week, my parents are under the weather, and my sister's birthday party is this coming weekend, I haven't been able to put much thought into what I'm going to write about next. I can tell you that it will be a bit more lighthearted than "Target Twenty-Eight."
Now, if you'll excuse me, my sister just dumped the contents of my pencil holder onto the floor, so I've got a bit of cleaning up to do....
Being a writer means that you know things most people don't. For example, I know that, in Viking-age Iceland, it was illegal to shoot a moose with a bow and arrow while skiing on private property. Will anyone need to know this in real life? No. Will it prove useful to me? Most likely.
Knowing things that most people don't means that you also notice things that most people don't. You catch grammatical mistakes and spelling errors in both Facebook posts and published books. You wonder why all the characters in the movie Ever After have British and American accents if the movie is supposed to be set in France. And not only that, but you also tend to reverse-engineer movies and books.
I do, anyway. The first time I recall doing this was while I was watching Night at the Museum 3: Secret of the Tomb. I hadn't yet seen the first or second movies (oh well), and I was having a movie night with my mom while my dad and sister were out of the house. I remember pausing the movie (to get more snacks) while protagonist Larry Daley battled a snake-demon-goddess-thingy and mentioning to my mom, "Do you remember when the Neanderthal used the defibrillator earlier in the movie?"
"I'm pretty sure they're going to use it later on in the movie."
And, spoiler alert, guess how they won the battle with the snake-demon-goddess-thingy. With a defibrillator. I felt so pleased with myself.
I notice other things in movies that most people don't--especially clunky dialogue. I cringe when characters repeatedly use figures of speech or bad metaphors. Even a simple "That's what I'm talking about!" can really make a scene less fluid. One metaphor I loved, though, was in the movie The Spy Next Door, which I recently watched with my family: the villain is described as being "so crooked he could eat nails and poop corkscrews."
And don't get me started on medieval movies. Especially How to Train Your Dragon.
I love this franchise. The books, the movies, the TV shows, and even the holiday specials are made with excellence. But I've spent the past few years studying Vikings, and I'm going to make some critiques to the historical accuracy.
First off, I really can't complain much about the outfits. And not because they're historically accurate; these guys live in Scandinavia, and "a few degrees south of freezing to death" as protagonist Hiccup puts it in the first movie. No one would be wearing short sleeves. But the producers were aiming for a children's universe where historical accuracy is optional. and I myself will confess to dodging costume protocol in order to establish character. (This is one of the reasons my own character Lukas wears brown instead of black; it's friendlier and less depressing.)
That being said, I'll say that Hiccup's outfit is probably the most accurate of the group's. A long-sleeved tunic with trousers and boots is standard Norse fare. Even his hair is fairly period-accurate. My issue is primarily with the girls' costumes. Astrid and Ruffnut ought to be wearing full-length dresses with frocks over them, not short skirts and leggings. In Dreamworks' defense, I'm pretty sure that Astrid--the pretty blonde on the left--is wearing a shirt made of nalbinding, which is a Norse fabric-making technique similar to knitting or crochet. But I'll talk about nerd crafts another day.
I've read the first six books in the series, and they aren't much more historically accurate, although they're obviously well-researched. They refer to horned helmets and huts rather than longhouses. They also refer to an assembly of local tribes which is simply called The Thing.
At first, I laughed. And, honestly, I used to make me feel better about my own writing. "Come on, M.J.," I'd tell myself, "all writers think their own work is stupid. I'll bet Cressida Cowell wished she came up with a better name than The Thing." But turns out that The Thing is the actual name of the Norse parliament, and it was indeed a meeting of all the tribes in the area.
Am I ever going to stop critiquing movies for every little thing they get wrong? It depends. If a movie is exceptionally good, for instance, I'll be so drawn in that I forget to critique. But I'll probably watch it for a second or third time and say, "But medieval people didn't have toilet paper!"
Do you notice the little things in movies? Are you a fellow fan of How to Train Your Dragon, and are you awaiting the third movie as eagerly as I am? Who's your favorite character? Let me know in the comments below! God bless you, dear readers, and don't forget to Like us on Facebook!
That beeping...that deplorable beeping...I will smash whatever is making that noise with my bare fists and throw it into the bear grotto at Brookfield Zoo....
A sweet voice calms me. Perhaps the beeping object must be fixed, not smashed. "Is that a smoke detector?" I ask. My voice is abnormally soft, and a pain erupts in my chest. I try to rub it away, but a hand grabs mine.
"Don't move. You'll pull your IV line again. You're in the hospital, Max. You got shot when you were trying to protect me."
I open my eyes to see Valencia. She sits on the edge of my bed, smiling softly. "You're going to be okay," she promises.
I look around the hospital. Everything is a sanitized white or a bland toupe, except for the picture of a forest on the wall below the television. Valencia has been watching puppies play on Animal Planet.
"You like dogs?" I ask.
"Only the little fluffy ones."
"My grandmother had a Shih Tzu once...." Another pain stabs my chest. "It was a psychopath."
"My neighbor growing up had a psycho dog. Ronny the black lab." She smiles, and I smile back.
"You look lovely today." I want to go back to sleep, but I don't want to leave Valencia either. Especially with the shirt she's wearing--a lovely red shirt that flatters her figure and comes just low enough at the neckline to excite my imagination. The morphine does nothing to benefit my self-control.
Valencia blushes. "Thank you."
"I'd get you some flowers, if I could...red roses, to match your lovely shirt...." The pain strikes my chest again, and I must wince, because Valencia hits a button on my bed.
"Do you want some more pain meds?" she asks.
"I'm already high. Don't bother. How long was I out?"
Valencia smiles. "Nineteen hours. They had to give you anesthesia so they could get the bullet out of your chest. The first time you woke up, you tried pulling out your IV lines, so they sedated you again. And that was about three hours ago."
I realize that Valencia's dark hair is frizzy on top, and that her beautiful shirt is rumpled. It must be the middle of the night. When a knock sounds at the door, I am surprised, and Valencia calls for whoever stands behind it to enter. I'm not surprised to see a man in a suit with a badge. I resigned myself long ago to the fact that I would be put in a federal prison, most likely on death row, but I have a strange hope that my fate will be different.
"You're Massimiliano de Angelis?" the suited man asks.
"You're the Navy SEAL turned assassin who killed eighty-four people?"
Valencia pales, but I shake my head. "I killed twenty-seven people. I will give you their names. But the remaining fifty-seven were relocated to different countries--" I pause to take a breath as the pain in my chest grows unbearable again--"I will give you their names, aliases, and last known addresses."
"No need. We already know." The man flashes his badge. "Timothy Close, FBI."
I hold out my hands to be cuffed, but I quickly fall back with a grimace. "Why does it feel like there's an ice pick stuck in my arm?"
"There was a shard of glass stuck in it after the sniper shot my kitchen window," Valencia says. "You're ex-Navy? Also, are you sure you don't want more morphine?"
"Pain is weakness leaving the body," I say. "I was in the Navy. How else could I have learned my ways of getting rid of people?"
"And the government wants you back," Agent Close says. "We have enemies, too--terrorists, mainly--and we need someone to help keep the world safe. Technically, you'll be on work release from Marion Penitentiary. Don't think you're getting out of this without consequences."
I smile. "I never thought otherwise."
"So you'll take the job?"
I look at Valencia, and she takes my hand with a soft smile. "I think he should wait until all the morphine's out of his system before he makes that decision."
"But if I say yes?" I ask.
Valencia's eyes sparkle. "Then I'll tell you to be careful."
"Think carefully about your decision," Agent Close says. "We'll be contacting you within the next few days. Get well soon, Max." He nods and leaves, and I am grateful.
I turn again to Valencia, and to the book she left on the chair beside her. I can barely make out the title: A Rare Benedictine.
"You read the Cadfael Chronicles?" I ask.
"Gosh, yes. I love them."
"Could you read out loud to me?"
Valencia smiles and opens the book, and I lie awake listening to her soft angel's voice. Not even a murder mystery is frightening when she reads it.
M. J. Piazza is a Jesus-loving, dog-walking country girl who just so happens to write books.