The latest episode of the Consternation of Monsters Podcast adapts my story “The Ones that Aren’t Crows.” It is is one of three award-winning stories in the collection, the others being “Nigh” and “…to a Flame.” However, when this particular story won 2nd place in the Animals Category of the 2011 West Virginia Writers Annual Writing Contest, it did so under the title “Native Arts.”
I never liked that title. I often don’t like my first choice of title and tend to use them as placeholders until I can find something that feels like a better fit. It was not until a later draft of the story, a revision I made prior to a live-reading of it, though, that the new title suggested itself and felt perfect.
As to the origin of the story itself, it is a quad-fold affair.
The first fold: Back in 2007, the wife and I took a two-week trip to her home state of Alaska. It was a three week trip for her, as she had gone up to present a poster at a medical conference, in her capacity as chief resident at the local hospital. (She likes to downplay the significance of the chief resident part, as she was the only person in her program for that year, so she was the only available candidate to be chief resident. I maintain she would have been chief regardless of other candidate availability, but that’s a question for an alternate universe.) I flew up after that first week and we rented a Winnebago in which to vacation, touring around Alaska to see the various places where she’d lived and grown up. Our first leg of the journey took us down to Seward, where we spent a couple of days on the shores of Resurrection Bay–occasionally venturing out onto the water for chilly June tours of the Kenai Fjords and the glaciers that could be seen there. Oh, and the whales. We saw a goodly number of whales, though due to the slowness of our camera we mainly took pictures of their tails as they disappeared again beneath the surface. The ranger on the tour was sure to point out the restricted speeds for the tour boats in the bay, done to give whales plenty of time to get out of the way. We had a great time.
One of the things I noticed during our trip, though–which brings us to the second fold–was the amount of native Alaskan art on display, everywhere you went. There were brightly-painted totem poles in most of the places we visited, as well as other totemic art that depicted whales and bears and birds and fish, all with bright red, teal, black and white coloration. Curious, I began reading up on the traditional stories of the native peoples. They offer some very interesting tales of how the world came to be, and the interesting gods and figures who helped shape it. The standard fantasy trope of “what if these aren’t just myths” began to ring in my head. Or, more importantly to a common theme in the stories I write (and those of many other writers) what if belief in the myth is the power necessary to make it real?
Another source of inspiration, perhaps the third fold, came during one of a number of, perhaps, ill-advised solo hikes I took during our time in Alaska. I like to explore, especially when there is the promise of a cool view, or a waterfall to be seen, and I’m willing to go above and beyond to reach that goal. I always invited the wife to come along, but she’s rarely interested, especially if the journey will require strenuous physical effort. One of my hikes, in Valdez, was to try and climb up the lower section of a mountain, to try and reach a step where the lower part of the mountain jutted out, creating a natural incline that continued on up to a much higher elevation. It looked like the sort of thing a person could reach and then walk up to get a great view. The wife thought the plan was foolhardy and a lot more work than I knew, but I insisted on trying it. Because neither of our cell phones worked well there, I said if I didn’t come back in an hour and a half she was to assume I’d been lost or eaten by a bear and call the authorities. It was, as she predicted, more difficult than I’d thought, because to simply get to the foot of the mountain meant having to walk pathways through the thick brush leading up to it. While in those paths, I came upon the remnants of a lunch interrupted. There was a plastic grocery sack which had been torn open and its contents shredded. My memory of this is that it was a grocery store pre-made sandwich and some chips, but all food items were gone, leaving behind shredded remnants of their packaging. The most curious item from the mess, though, was a 16 oz plastic soda bottle, its cap still in place, but empty due to a VERY large tooth hole in the side of the bottle. (I thought I had a picture of this, but evidently not.) The tooth hole, to my eye, could only have been made by something the size of a bear. I was then on my guard, as this meant bears were in the area, or had been in the area. I still continued on my trek, though, eventually making it to the foot of the mountain, and then, slowly, step by step, handhold by handhold, clawed my way up the steep slope of the foot of the mountain. It was tough going. But while I did it, the image occurred to me that it would be super creepy if, suddenly, I were to discover the claw marks of a bear on the side of that slope, except the claw marks in my image were of a bear being dragged UP the slope by something much larger. And I instantly knew what that something would be. It’s the same creature that went on to inspire “The Ones that Aren’t Crows” and is a short story that may yet appear in next year’s volume of tales. (I did manage to make it to the top of the step, but it took way more work and way more time than I’d planned for it to. By the time I got up there, it was time to head back or risk the wife calling out the authorities.)
The fourth fold of this tale’s origin happened over a year after we returned from our trip. We had left Lewisburg and moved to Princeton, WV, in 2008. I had been looking for a job there, but things were pretty scarce. So I began seeking other possible employment opportunities. I saw an ad online for a job as a transcriptionist. I thought this might be something for me, since I type superhumanly fast. The application process involved learning the formatting, in which the transcriptionist types all the words being heard, down to the ums and uhs, and any incidental sounds or other business that can be heard–doors opening in the background, coughing, sneezing, etc.–is included in bracketed statements. I learned the format, took the transcriptionist test and thought I did pretty well. Never heard anything back from them, which led me to believe that what they were really trying to do was sell me the expensive transcriptionist foot-peddle-pause button, which seemed to be mentioned a lot in their materials as being something serious transcriptionists used. I didn’t bite. But I did think that the idea of a short story formatted as a transcription was something I’d not seen before. I even thought of a way for the format itself to become part of the storytelling. After that, it was just a matter of plugging in a story and I knew just the one that would fit.
As I said before, this story has been read live on a couple of occasions and turns out pretty well. It does require a second reader to provide the transcription notations. I’ve always read the captain’s part, with someone else doing the transcription voice. The first time I read this live, back in 2011, my wife did the voice and was excellent at capturing the cold, flatness I heard in my head. Unfortunately, when I recorded that reading, only I had a microphone, so her voice could not be heard in the recording. The second time, she was unavailable for a reprise, so I recruited my friend and fellow actor Joe Lehman. We performed it for the Greenbrier Valley Theatre’s Literary Tea series in 2013. I had a much better recorder by then and we were both miked. It was a great performance, too. Joe was great at keeping the exact same tone on each of his repeated words and I felt especially in good bronchial form as the captain. Unfortunately, when I stopped the recorder after the show, something went amiss and the recording vanished into the ether never to be seen again. It was a tragic loss, as that would have been a recording for the archive and probably would have been podcasted in some form long before now.
I’m still pleased with how Episode 04 turned out, though. The text-to-speech program I used for the transcriptions is not without his charms. I may have to hold on to it for future use.