The 30-Page Test

SH-sightseekingRuth Goodwin keeps two lists as she gets ready for winter. The longer one is all the chores she needs to complete.

The other, much shorter but more fun, are all the indulgences she savors in winter.

But the first one’s not working out too well.

You can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Lights in Water, Dancing, will be out early in 2018.

You can subscribe to the Carding Chronicles by clicking the subscribe button on my home page. When you do, my stories will speed from my keyboard to your inbox every Thursday without any further effort on your part.

Enjoy!

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If you don’t live in a place that has real winter, you might not appreciate how much time it takes to get ready for the cold and snow.

As soon as Labor Day slides past, you can hear the snow tires of the mind begin to spin among Vermonters as they pick apples, watch the leaves fall, harvest their winter squash, and calculate whether this is the year to replace the old snowblower or not.

Now Ruth Goodwin’s a pretty well-organized person. While other folks jot their lists of chores down on random envelopes or paper bags, she keeps a sturdy, spiral-bound notebook on her kitchen counter “to keep track of myself.”

This morning, Ruth is basking in the satisfaction of going through her getting-ready-for-winter chore list for the last time.

“The best part about having a list is checking things off when they’re done,” she always says. “That’s why I hang onto them.”

She readies a red pen and begins.

Clean leaves out of gutters.

Check.

Cut back gardens.

Check.

Top up wood supply to use when we lose electricity.

Check.

And on it goes, right through draining the garden hoses, harvesting the last leeks from her garden, and storing her wind chime collection until the zephyrs of springtime waft again.

Check. Check. Check.

When Ruth got to the end of her chores list, she flipped the page to her second getting-ready-for-winter list, the one that includes the stuff she loves to do that she doesn’t have time for when the weather is warm and inviting.

This list is short but the execution of it is…well…as long as a winter in Vermont.

1. Stock up on the really good hot chocolate mixes when Andy has them on sale at the Coop.

Ruth strolled over to the special cabinet in her kitchen that held her Lake Champlain hot chocolate collection. It was time to indulge.

She reached for her favorite cocoa mug, filled it with milk, and placed it in the microwave to warm.

Check and double check on that one.

2. Line up small projects to make for holiday gifting.

Ruth turned toward her kitchen table. Or to be more precise, the table that is occasionally used for eating in her kitchen.

It was piled high with bright fabrics, a basket of buttons and ribbon, several gnomes in different stages of creation, a half-knitted hat, a flannel dog jacket waiting for a turn on her ironing board, and a pile of Christmas cards waiting for an excuse to cascade to the floor.

Ruth’s red pen hesitated during the check off process on this item. She had a nagging feeling there were half-finished ornaments lurking in a closet somewhere.

She sighed, and moved her pen to the next item.

3. Make small projects for holiday gifting.

The timer on her microwave dinged before Ruth had time to think about this perennial item on her list. No matter how hard she tried, there were always projects left over when the holiday gift-making season ended.

Yes, she could continue working on them, and get a jump on next year.

But somehow, the air went out of her gift-making mania every January 1, never to return until Thanksgiving rolled around again.

As John Lennon once sang: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

So much for item number three. Hot chocolate in hand, Ruth settled down in her favorite chair for item number four.

4. Scour the Swap Shed for good books to read on long winter nights.

Ruth gazed with a mixture of longing and anticipation at the carefully curated pile of novels and non-fiction she’d unearthed during the volunteer hours she spent sorting books at the Shed.

There were some old favorites, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and two trilogies—Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the delicious Forsyte Saga.

There was some new-to-her Wendell Berry, a book passed along by Edie Wolfe called The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust by Diana Henriques, and some  schlocky mysteries to speed through when the power goes out.

Tucked away at the bottom of her great pile of winter readables was a volume Ruth had been salivating over ever since she found it. She liked its title—Sightseeking: Clues to the Landscape History of New England—and the way its letters sprawled across the center of the elegant cover.

Ruth Goodwin is a woman of many loves—her daughter Sarah, her dog R.G. (her beagle’s name was a spoof on the narrator of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, Archie Goodwin), her friends, cousins, aunts, and uncles, gardening, and anything that involves thread, needles, yarn, pens, and paper.

But on a fine fall day, nothing topped tramping in the woods. Ruth knew every trail in Carding. In fact, she’d been instrumental in making some of them. So a book about the New England landscape was written just for her.

Now Ruth could be termed an impatient reader though she would dispute that. “I just don’t see any reason to waste time on a book I don’t enjoy,” she once explained to her book group. “If I don’t like a character or an author’s writing style by page thirty, why should I continue? There’s always another book, one I’ll probably like better.”

She sipped her hot chocolate, flipped the pages to Sightseeking’s prologue, and settled in for her first read of the season.

Her frown muscles were getting exercised by the end of the first paragraph.

“What is this?” Ruth muttered, flipping the book around to see the spine. “Damn, published by a university press.”

After college, Ruth had promised herself she would never, ever read another textbook or academic tome. But this book was about the New England landscape. Surely she could learn something from it.

She pressed on.

“While many archaeological methods will be creatively applied to landscape artifacts, our analysis is equally beholden to dialect geography, and in particular to what I call the Kurathian Hypothesis,” the author wrote at the bottom of page two. “This asserts that the distribution of vernacular artifacts follows subregional lines that reflect original points of settlement (hearths) and subsequent internal migration streams (settlement paths), both of which have strong geographical determinants.”

“Aaarrrgh!” Ruth flipped to page thirty and read: “Name-strings are coherent, linear distributions that can act as toponymic tracers of settlement movements.”

The thud of Sightseeking as it hit the far wall of Ruth’s kitchen woke R.G. out of a sound doggie sleep, and he barked furiously. Ruth snorted as she reached for one of her schlocky mysteries.

“Talk about a good book spoiled,” she told R.G. as he snuggled onto her lap. Then she raised her cocoa mug in salute to the bashed book on the floor. “And you know what you can do with your Kurathian Hypothesis.”

The Reading Pile

Ruth Goodwin has been collecting good books to read over the winter, and now that the last of the fall chores is done, she’s ready to settle in with a cup of hot chocolate.

Only the first book she picks up is not exactly what she expected.

So how do you deal with bookish disappointment? Keep reading in hopes it will get better? Find something else to read?

Ruth is faced with that dilemma.

Here’s a sample of tomorrow’s Carding Chronicle.

SH-sightseeking

 

The Wishing Stone

SH-amethystEveryone who knows Tupelo Handy agrees that she is a memorable child, a girl who seems happier in her own imagination than any place else.

So what does she make of the amethyst wishing stone that her Uncle Amos brings home?

What would you do with a wishing stone?

You can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Lights in Water, Dancing, will be out early in 2018.

You can subscribe to the Carding Chronicles by clicking the subscribe button on my home page. When you do, my stories will speed from my keyboard to your inbox every Thursday without any further effort on your part.

Enjoy!

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Come closer. Look me in the eye.
Tell me what kind
of animal you want to be today.
                —from “Picnic, Lightning” by Billy Collins

Most people, if they thought of Tupelo Handy at all, regarded her as a “rather strange girl.”

Her third-grade teacher, Miss Somerville, could tell you that Tupelo was happier wrapped in her imagination than any place else. She despaired that the girl would ever learn her times tables or that the name of the big river that divided Vermont from New Hampshire was Connecticut or that blue and yellow paint make green.

Nevertheless, Miss Somerville did admire the girl’s clever eye when it came to identifying flowers and bugs or the small differences among a maple leaf or that from a box elder or a sycamore tree.

Tupelo’s Uncle Amos, a rather eccentric fixture in Carding prone to wearing shorts and Hawaiian shirts in the deepest part of winter, took Miss Somerville’s concerns seriously. He was a building sort of man, one who could fix a dripping faucet or stop a door from squeaking or create a whimsical sculpture from discarded gardening tools and lawn furniture.

Amos relied on math in order to fit floor boards together properly or to calculate the correct pitch for a shed roof so he told Miss Somerville that he would take it upon himself to school his young niece in the world of numbers.

Tupelo’s mother, on the other hand, thought that her most important motherly duty was protecting her daughter’s imagination. Cassie had had her imagination cut off when her father died, a devastating blow that was compounded when her mother succumbed to the wooing of a second husband who turned out to be a wretched waste of oxygen.

So Cassie wanted her little girl to have all the time in the world to laugh and explore and climb trees and raise rabbits and chickens or any other creature she saw fit to adopt.

Cassie fed her daughter’s creative impulses with stories, many of them made up on the spot about whatever was at hand—a white rock or a black-and-orange caterpillar or an early-morning icicle dangling from a twig.

Amos enjoyed the stories too, when he heard them, but he often wondered if Tupelo recognized the border between the land of myth and the land of numbers where two-plus-two always equaled four.

Of all the critters in Tupelo’s world, birds were far and away her favorites. She’d developed a language of noises and coos that allowed her to communicate with the small flock of chickens they kept in a pen close to the house.

She convinced a pair of chickadees to eat sunflower seeds from her hand. Hummingbirds landed on her shoulders for brief respites as they fed on the red bee balm that grew wild in a nearby field.

And she hardly ever left the house without being accompanied by a crow quartet who functioned as heralds as she walked through the woods.

But now it was cold weather time, and the activities of summer were put away for the moment.

Amos now spent more of his time tending to activities at the Swap Shed located in Carding’s landfill than he did at home. The Swap Shed was principally for books, and there were always a lot to sort. But at this time of year, folks wanted to offload all sorts of non-book stuff like kid’s games, dishes, cooking utensils, and whatnots, and if Amos didn’t keep a close eye on what came in the door, the Swap Shed became impossible to navigate.

Not that he turned away everything but he’d learned you had to be selective.

His due diligence occasionally turned up treasures for “his girls,” as he called Cassie and Tupelo, which is how Andy found a chunk of rock covered with amethyst crystals for his niece’s “cool rocks” collection.

He placed it just so on their eating table so the girl would find it at breakfast, and her eyes grew wide with delight as soon as she spotted it.

“It looks like a purple porcupine,” she whispered as she picked it up. “What is it?”

“A wishing stone,” her mother said before Amos could swallow his mouth full of oatmeal.

“How does it work?”

“You look closely at it,” Cassie said. “And you tell it what animal you wish to be today.”

The girl wrapped her fingers around her new treasure, and raced to the window so she could hold it up to the light. What animal did she want to be? Her list was so long. A chickadee perhaps, flitting from the bird feeder to the trees and back. Or the garter snake who left his skin behind in the wood pile last summer. Or the monarch butterfly sleeping in its jade-colored cocoon that she’d tucked away in a corner of her bedroom to wait for spring.

But as all these wishes sped through her heart, Tupelo caught sight of her reflection in the window’s glass, a girl with big eyes, sleep-tousled hair, and a magic purple stone.

Somehow, Andy sensed the child’s delicate balancing act as she assessed all of the possibilities that stretched out in front of her. He wanted to tell her that she could have story and numbers at the same time but he knew it was her lesson to learn.

On her own.

Tupelo brought the amethyst rock closer to her mouth, her eyes riveted on the yard and woods beyond the window.

“What’s your choice?” Cassie asked.

Tupelo took a breath. “Girl,” she whispered.

Author of the Carding, Vermont novels, quilt books, and book publishing guides.