This became a credo of mine.
Attempt the impossible in order to improve your work.

[Bette Davis]

When I was in school, one of my English teachers did me the favor of ruthlessly criticizing each of my compositions. I’ve been working at improving my writing ever since. Five years ago, I joined an internet chapter of The Story Circle Network to continue my quest. I entered a very short story in an SCN writing contest in June. The topic was “beginnings.” Yesterday, I received an email saying the I’d won second place. I’m not very competitive by nature, but I have to tell you, I was so encourage that I wanted to share my story with you folks:

The Fern

This is his. This is mine. This is ours. I was sorting—sorting and weeping and re-boxing twenty years of collected stuff. I’d been at that chore for days so my eyes were puffed to slits, and I had to make myself get out of bed each morning. My husband had announced that he’d decided to move away and start a new life. Our three children were devastated, and I was desperately trying to hold together what was left of our world. Family life as we’d known it was over.

“Mama, Mama.” I heard the deck door slide shut and footsteps mount the stairs. My ten-year old daughter, Rachel, popped her head around the railing. Her eyes brimmed with terror. “There’s a fire up the mountain. Valerie and I were playing in the woods and we found it. We tried to stomp it out at the edges, but it was too hot.”

I phoned the ranger. Within a few minutes, firemen were climbing our lane—a path too steep and narrow for their engines. “Lady, start hosing down your cedar shakes so the house won’t catch. We’re bringing in the convicts to fight the fire,” the ranger called out as he climbed the slope behind the house.

The crew raked and shoveled the rest of that hot summer day. Updrafts sent the flames racing over the mountain top while I watered down my house. By evening, the fire was contained and the weary crew was trucked back to the prison farm. When I finally fell into bed, all that was left of the fire was the smell of charred vegetation drifting through my window screen, and a pulsating glow of embers on the ground that rose behind my house. The ranger had assured me that the danger was past. Everything had burned that would burn. I was amazed that the trees stood as green and untouched as they had been that morning. Only the thick underbrush had burned so that, from a distance, a person couldn’t tell there had been a fire. The ranger said it had been a good thing. With the undergrowth gone, another fire wasn’t likely to start on our mountain for many years.

That night I dreamed. In my dream, I’d driven my children to the safety of the valley away from the fire. Then I made my way back up the mountain to evacuate other people to safety. As I drove, the houses beside the road were places from my childhood—Grandma’s home in Kansas, my childhood home in Indiana, homes of other friends and kinfolk, most of whom had long since died. I stopped at each house and offered a ride, but everyone said they would stay in their places. My anxiety built the further up the mountain I drove. Nobody would come with me to safety.

The kitchen door at the last cabin was ajar. I stepped in and saw an old lady standing with her back to me watching the fire through the window above her sink.

“Do come with me down the mountain to safety. Nobody else will come. I don’t know what to do.” By then I was in tears.

“You can only offer, but you have to accept what other people decide for themselves. You can only control the course of your own life,” she said as she turned to face me. “I will go with you.”

I was stunned. She was me—a very old version of me. Then I woke up.

A Smoky Mountain mist rose from the creek and obscured the valley that morning. As I worked at my sorting in my home above the clouds, I shed not a tear. My spirit was quiet and my actions were so methodical that I finished my chore by evening. My dream had been like a birthing experience, and I knew I needed to learn how to live in my new world.

After supper dishes were done and my children were occupied with a game, I went to walk the mountain side. The mist turned into a gentle rain, and the ashes on the ground turned from grey powder to black sludge around my shoes. I had to look up to see anything that was alive and green, and when I did, the rain soothed my face like a cool compress. I kept climbing, trying not to think about how I could raise from what seemed to be the ashes of my life.

Then I spied a spot of green in the middle of a glen. I hunkered down and curled over to see it, trying not to fall into the black ash muck. The wee tendril of a fern had pushed through the charred leaf bed. Its end was tightly curled into a spiral, but it was opening into a frond. Life was already returning to the forest floor. As I uncurled from my crouch, I knew I’d thrive again soon.

Photograph by James E. Miller