Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.

just a little more

I will not post the entire novel in serial fashion, but want to put out a few more chapters. Today’s chapters are a little more of the main characters trying to figure out what the heck happened and what they’re going to do next. Tomorrow will be a little backstory. Were you a fan of the television show Lost? It started with the plane crash and the characters trying to survive. Then you began to learn their backstory. Then you learned who they really were. Then they changed. And then…well, it all went too crazy. No smoke monsters in my story.

If you missed the first two chapters, start here.

Here are chapters three and four.

James Brown

He awoke, at first thinking he was in bed at home. He was cold.  He looked to the right where his window should have been, glowing with light from the streetlight outside.  Not the streetlight. Moonlight, maybe.

Then he remembered.  He was camping.  Upward Bound.  Weekend retreat.

He was cold.  He reached for a blanket – but no, he was in a sleeping bag.  He felt around and found nothing.  He tried to sit up but pain in his back forced him back down.  He closed his eyes and soon he was asleep again.

A half hour passed before he regained consciousness, and this time, even though he had no illusions of dreaming, he had no sense of where he was or how he had gotten there.  He pulled himself into a sitting position, ignoring the pain and stiffness, and by the light of the moon he could see mountains, miles away. He was at the overlook.  But something wasn’t right. He was in a thicket on a narrow ledge. Definitely not the overlook.

He began to notice the aches. First was his knee. His jeans were ripped and there was a long ugly cut caked in dried blood.  A dull ache on the back of his head. His fingers throbbed. He looked at his right hand and saw more dried blood where his fingernails used to be.  His tried to hold up his left hand but pain shot through his elbow.

Although everything he saw, from the bright moon and the mountains to the trauma inflicted on his body, seemed real, he had no idea what had happened, or where he was, or why he was sitting on the side of a mountain. He fumbled for his cell phone in his jacket pocket and discovered he wasn’t wearing his jacket.

He stood and looked up at the sheer rock face looming twenty feet above him and knew he couldn’t go up.  He looked to either side and though there wasn’t a clear path, it seemed passable. 

Right or left. He had no idea. He turned to the right.  His first step was shaky and he steadied himself on the rock face.  He took two more steps and stopped.  With his next step, he would have to clear the underbrush with his foot.  He swept the vegetation, then waited to make sure his equilibrium was good. He reached for the rocks again but misjudged the distance and teetered to his right until his hand hit.  He took a deep breath.  He could wait.  He should wait. But he had to move.  He was alone on the side of a mountain and he couldn’t just sit.

He looked forward.  His path was clear.  One step.  Then another.  He was feeling a little better, his head a little clearer.  Another step through the brush, but this time, his foot failed to find firm ground.  Before he knew what was happening, he was rolling down the hill.  He tried to grab at branches and managed to snag a twig but thorns ripped his flesh.  As he rolled over rocks and briars, he felt himself going airborne – just long enough for a feeling of weightlessness to register – before he crashed back to the ground, smashing over a small tree as he did.  He stopped when he slammed into another tree a hundred yards down the hill.  After a few seconds he opened his eyes, his face in the forest floor.

After a few seconds, he got to his feet and began walking parallel to the contour of the hill, this time going to his left.  He could only see moonlight reflected off of leaves and the darkness of their shadows.  Tree trunks were a combination of black and gray vertical lines.  He walked without conscious thought, not even thinking of why he was tromping through the underbrush.  He just walked. 

An hour passed, and then he stopped.  His legs were weak and his skin felt cold and clammy.  He started to fall but staggered toward a tree and managed to remain upright.  When he felt his stomach starting to heave he took two deep breaths, hoping to stave off what he knew was inevitable.  It worked for a moment, and then it didn’t.  He staggered backwards and eased himself down to the forest floor, face toward the ground.  His heart was pounding.  He took another deep breath and closed his eyes.

Katherine Loudendale

It was a restless sleep and Katherine was glad to see the dawn creeping into the forest.  She was unsure how many times she awoke or how much sleep she actually got, but she knew it wasn’t nearly enough.  She stretched out over her bed of leaves and grimaced at the stiffness of her muscles and joints.  She tried to work out a kink in her back but it just got worse.  As she sat up, a sharp pain cut through her shoulder blades causing her to catch her breath as she went back down.  She took a moment to take another breath and slowly pushed herself up, powering through the pain.  She sat upright for a few minutes as she thought about her next move.

The sun was growing stronger and from the sunrise, she determined her compass directions.  She still had no memory of why she was away from her camp or how far from it she was.  She would hike up to the ridge and try to find it, but knew the state park would be in a general southwesterly direction.  She’d give herself an hour and then move toward the park, though really, depending on where she actually was, that choice wouldn’t guarantee that she would make it there. But it was her best chance. 

As she stood she noticed that a heavy dew had settled in the forest.  She looked around and found several fleshy leaves and rolled them together to form a funnel cup.  Then she spent twenty minutes going from leaf to leaf knocking the dew off and into her leaf cup until it was about half full.  She carefully raised it to her mouth and sipped it slowly.  It wasn’t enough to keep her hydrated but it felt good on her parched lips.  She knew she’d eventually come across a stream and that she’d have to drink.  She also knew it would likely make her sick.  As for food, she could easily survive for a few days on nothing but nuts, berries, and roots.  Surely by then she’d have made her way out.

Her one hour limit turned into two and though she had found a ridge, she saw no sign of her camp, no trail, or anything that indicated that anyone had ever been through the forest.  She checked the angle of the rising sun but the higher the sun rose, the harder it was to get her bearings. If she was off even a little, she would easily miss the park.  Or just hike through its forest without even knowing it.

She began walking back down the ridge and after an hour, she came across a clear-running stream.  She knelt along its banks, scooped up a handful of water and smelled.  Nothing.  A good sign.  She took a small sip.  No taste.  Another small sip.  She knew that she couldn’t expect to smell or taste bacteria, but it was all she had.  She took several handfuls and drank until her thirst was satisfied.  Then she leaned back against a tree and closed her eyes and listened to the stream flowing over the rocks.  She was asleep in minutes.

Then a gunshot. 

A long war whoop.

She recognized the voice. 


copyright 2020, joseph e bird
photo copyright 2015, joseph e bird

if this seems familiar

A couple of years ago I wrote Song of the Lost, the story of James and Katherine and how their lives change after they are lost deep in the Appalachian forest. For a number of reasons I’ve never been satisfied with the story. The premise, how lives change when fired in the crucible, is solid. But the story itself has never been what it should be. I’m determined to make it better. With that said, here are first two chapters of the revision. Comments and critiques are welcome.

James Brown

The trail was lit brightly by the moon and he knew the first overlook was just ahead and he wondered how magnificent it might be, bathed in that reflected light of the sun from a million miles away. So he followed the trail a little farther until the valley below opened up as a dark gray canvas of shapes and shadows, and a pale horizontal light coloring the horizon. He stepped closer to the side, onto the dark gray rocks that formed the edge of the mountain. He looked for a place to sit, to spend a few minutes by himself, to take it all in, to let the cool night air wash over him. A large, flat boulder was two steps away.

He moved forward, then stepped beside the boulder where he would turn and lower himself onto the flat rock. But what he was sure was solid ground was only darkness, and his foot found no purchase and continued downward. He fell to the side and hit the rock with his elbow as his leg slid down the crevice. He reached for something to stop his momentum but his fingers found only the face of the rock. His fingernails scraped along the sandstone until they hit a crack and for a moment, his slide down the boulder stopped. Then the nail of his middle finger tore off on the face of the rock and he fell over the edge.

Katherine Loudendale

She pushed herself up off the rock into a sitting position. Her head ached and she touched her forehead and felt the swelling knot. Moonlight filtered through the trees and she could see the shapes and silhouettes of the forest. She recognized nothing.

Her body ached when she moved and her throat was dry. She instinctively reached for the straps of her backpack, but there were no straps. She looked around, patting the rock in the darkness. She forced herself to her feet, and looked beyond the flat rock on which she was standing. No sign of anything. No backpack. No water. Nothing. And that’s when she noticed her feet. No shoes. She could feel an injury of some kind on her left foot. A stinging pain. She sat back down and peeled off her sock. It was damp. Blood. Across the top of her foot, a long cut.

She took a deep breath. It would come back to her. She just needed a minute to get her bearings. She looked at her wrist to check the time, but her GPS watch was gone, too.

That she would be in the forest made sense. Just another of her backpacking weekends. That she was alone wasn’t a surprise. She liked hiking solo, despite her father’s misgivings about going out by herself.

It’s a fine line between calculated risk and just plain reckless, he had said.

But when? She couldn’t remember the last time she had spoken to him. She couldn’t remember what day it was. If she was in the forest, it had to be Saturday. Or maybe Friday. If it had been a particularly stressful week she would sometimes take off early, leaving Astor in charge of the office. For that matter, it could be Thursday.

But in the middle of the forest with no gear? No. That wouldn’t happen.

Everything she would ever need was in her pack. Water. Rations. First aid kit. Knife. Matches. Hand-held GPS to back-up her new trekking watch. Pepper spray. Something about the pepper spray. She rubbed the thumb and forefinger of her right hand together, then she held them to her nose. The smell was strong and distinct. She had used the pepper spray.

Maybe a bear. That would make sense. Maybe she had set up camp. A bear wandered in. She used her pepper spray to try to ward him off. But that didn’t explain why she was sitting on a rock in the middle of the woods. Whatever the reason, she knew her camp would be close by. It made sense. She could find it easily by hiking in ever-widening circles.

She put her bloody sock back on and started walking toward the edge of the darkness that defined her field of vision. She turned to her right and began to walk the imaginary circle in her mind. It didn’t take long for her to see that she was on a slope, the side of the mountain. Her campsite of choice was always a high point, preferably on a ridgeline. She started hiking up the hill. But the woods were thick and she didn’t see the thicket of briars until they were cutting her legs and thorns were piercing her feet. It took her what seemed like half an hour to pull the branches off her shirt and out of her hair and still there were fresh cuts on her legs, arms, and even her face. Once clear of the thicket she knew she had to wait for daylight.

It was a relatively warm night and survival wasn’t going to be an issue and she would only be a little uncomfortable. In the morning she would be able to get her bearings, maybe even hike to the top of ridge and quickly determine where she was. How she got there was still a mystery.

She hiked down from the briars hoping to find a change in the topography, an ancient slip where the land leveled out a bit and leaves collected on the forest floor. But after a couple of minutes she decided to sacrifice a little comfort for the need to retrace her steps the next day. She found a relatively clear area and pushed aside enough debris to give her a smooth play to lie.  She gathered leaves in higher pile for her head and hoped she wouldn’t need more to serve as a blanket. As experienced as she was in the forest, she didn’t like the idea of covering herself with decaying litter and the critters that come with it. Bad enough that she would be on top of them. When she was satisfied with her bedding, she lay down, one foot atop the other, her arms across her chest. She stared into the darkness, the leaves of the trees moving in shadow above her. Sleep would come slowly.

copyright 2020, joseph e bird
photo copyright 2018, joseph e bird

dreams of the past

The photo is a basement shoebox relic.  It’s old.  It’s bent and cracked. No Photoshop effects, here. Just a snapshot.

The subjects are familiar faces, but the photo was taken probably more than sixty years ago, before I really knew them. Maybe before I was born. Even in the older women there is youth I never saw in later years. From left to right, my Aunt Shirley; my grandmother Bettie Pearl, who I knew as Mom; my great-grandmother Tida, who we called Tidy; and my mother, Gloria, who looks to be with child.

The place, I believe, is my great-grandmother’s kitchen. If I had to guess, I would say it was breakfast.  There’s the coffee pot and toaster.  But I can’t imagine them gathering so early just for breakfast. Maybe lunch, which they called dinner.  Dinner would have included fried potatoes and tomatoes from the garden. Supper was the evening meal.  There would have been men in the picture by then.

There’s tension evident in the photograph.  Not a one could manage a smile, which is very unusual for my mother and Aunt Shirley, especially in front of a camera.  There’s a weariness, too.  Maybe they had been working.  Maybe canning tomatoes or beans.

They were all different.

My mother was the free spirit, enjoying every moment.

My aunt was sophistication personified, full of grace and elegance.

My grandmother, hardworking and kind, ready to share with everyone.

My great-grandmother, the strong, independent woman living by herself.

Maybe that was the source of the tension. Around the table love and respect, yet each one not quite understanding the other.  One dreams of this, another of that. And dreams, what are they for, anyway? another may think.  And Tidy, who has already seen enough heartbreak for all of them, keeps it to herself.

I’ll never know. They’re all gone now.  Not that any of them would give me a straight answer anyway.

I think that’ s the wonder of old photographs.  They tell a story, but never the entire story. A moment frozen in time that forces us to think about those who have gone on, to see if we can fill in the blanks. It forces us to remember them as they were, beyond the smiles and laughter. It forces us to remember who they really were.

56 Miles in Andes, NY

I’d like to share a story one of my New York running friends wrote. Sadly, it’s all too true, but Ari tells it with strength and grace and a perspective that is shaped by those long, lonely miles on the road.

The photo above is mine from the West Virginia highlands, which is not that different from upstate New York. Click on the link below and you’ll see what I mean.

i slip him a bill

i slow down and make a right into the alley.

there are cop cars all over the place. i wonder what’s going on. but they’re not near where i’m going.

it should be a quick transaction.

i park and look around. the cop cars are empty. there’s a guy in a pickup with the engine running.

i walk toward the back of one of the buildings along the alley where the meet is supposed to take place. he’s not there. maybe the cops scared him off. not likely. him and the cops, they have an understanding.

so i wait. it’s starting to rain. maybe i should find another dealer. but i really need it.

finally he comes to the back door. his face is covered. he holds up the package with my name on it.

is this what you want? he asks.


i slip him a bill. he hands me the package.

a cup, really. coffee. guatemalan. my drug of

this is how you get coffee in the age of coronavirus.

altered reality

I’ve got a restraining order against me.

Ain’t that a hoot.

So I can’t go home.  But it’s not bad here.

There’s a bird feeder outside my window.  I’ve got a television that sets on my dresser.  I’ve got cable, so that’s good.  Not that there’s much to watch during the day.

There’s a little refrigerator in my room so I don’t have to walk down to the dining room room when I need a drink.  Non-alcoholic, of course.  It’s been years since I had that kind of drink.

It’s just the one room. Not counting the bathroom, complete with all the grab bars.  Like I’m set up to do gymnastics or something.  Not at my age.  And the cord to pull in case I can’t get off the can.  I don’t need that, but they have this place set up for old people who can’t get around.

I’ve been here a couple of weeks.  I think.  Maybe longer.  I have it written down in a notebook I keep.  Let me look.

No.  That can’t be right.  That would be almost a year.  I must have written the date down wrong.  Couple of weeks.  Three, at the most.

My wife never comes around.  She’s the one who got the restraining order.  Says I came home a couple of weeks ago and tore up the house.  Maybe I did.  After I caught her running around, you wouldn’t blame me, would you?  She’s been doing that for years.  Even before she got sick.  Then she was laid up in the hospital and she started in with one of the doctors.  I tried not to say anything until she got better.

The food’s pretty good here.  Sometimes I sleep in past breakfast.  They don’t like you to eat in your room unless you’re bad off.  If you do that too much, they’ll move you over to the other building, so I get out as much as I can.

I used to carry on myself, if I’m being honest.  I was in sales.  I’d go to these out-of-town conventions and there wasn’t much to do when the day was over so we’d go down to the honky-tonks. Well, you know what happens there.  Everybody did it.  Doesn’t make it right, but everybody did it.

But I felt bad about it.  I tried to keep it from Bea, but after a while the guilt just felt like an anchor pulling me under water, deeper and deeper.  So I told her all about it. I figured she’d throw me out and I know she thought about it, but I started going to church with her and after a while, things just kind of smoothed out.  Truth is, I don’t think she ever got over it.

Everything’s upside down now. Out anniversary is next week. Fifty some years. Not that it matters.  She won’t care.  I want to try to talk some sense into her.  We’re both wrong,  All kinds of wrong.  Wish we could get it worked out.

She hasn’t been here in a few weeks.  I’ve got it here written down.  Somewhere.  Can’t find it right off.  It’s somewhere.

No.  Wait.  Yeah.  That’s right.  She’s never been here.  Never will be.

She’s been gone four years now.

I wish we could have got things straight.

copyright 2020, joseph e bird

you’re gonna make me lonseome

Never been a Miley Cyrus fan, but I love this version of Bob Dylan’s classic, You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome.

You Beneath Your Skin

“It’s a dark, smog-choked New Delhi winter.”

It’s a world and culture unfamiliar to me. Damyanti Biswas’s novel, You Beneath Your Skin, is steeped in cultural references and customs that are lost on me and at times left me confused. So what? Her story and her characters transcended the cultural divide and drew me in. Her heroes are flawed, her villains are sympathetic (except maybe one in particular) and their individual stories are compelling. People talk about how a novel needs a strong beginning, but it’s the end that either leaves you disappointed, or glad you read the book. Biswas nails the ending. So satisfying in every way.

“I’ve known for a while,” he said, breaking into Hindi, running a finger over a discolured patch on her forearm. “I’ve got them, too. Can’t show you because they are on the inside.”

What really counts is the you beneath your skin.

melancholy morning

it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

Songwriter Lesson:

take a look at the second line of that verse.
it’s too long. the rhythm is off. it’s grammatically incorrect.
and he has to drag it out to make it work.
so what.
he’s just telling the story. the way it is.

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