Every beast has its predator…

DM du Jour

Chris Scarborough

The Trophy Hunter

Zakariah Johnson

On the steep hillsides of the upland country, mountain aspen and ash trees fluttered yellow and red among the dark, evergreen larch and pine, reflecting like signal flares in the tannin-blackened mountain creek. The hunter, a solid-colored figure totally cast in reflective orange garb like a cheap plastic toy, slid silently down the slope over the slick mat of pine needles, gun in hand. The creek flowed hidden through the narrow gorge. Larry was a long time reaching bottom, breathing hard. He took off the orange cap and wiped his brow. Brown hair, brown eyes. He crouched back on his heels, the warm rifle barrel upright before him in his hands.

“Well, well, well…what have we here?” The soft ground in the draw was filled with the prints of deer and elk that walked silently, a step at a time, a stop between…

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The web lives forever! Found an old story of mine still wriggling on Danse Macabre.

DM du Jour

The Conqueror Worm-Noel


Zakariah Johnson

We were pioneers. I suppose we are still, though not so alone as before. Our earth is connected now, and on their long way through the empty quarters visitors pass here regularly, sojourning, taking lovers among us, feeding, some staying until their touch and scent is expected, even anticipated, as any other member of the colony.
There are other kinds of touches to recall. Burning, for one, burning like the day of new beginning. On that day I had been vaguely aware, as we ever are, of following my simple path, the one of clearest reward and least resistance through the same corridors as before and before that. When at once the universe parted, burning, rending me from all I had known or had thought ever to know. I remember the pain, and a terrible tearing, as a part of myself, the part remaining, was…

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Stories Told in 2014

Sometimes (OK, most of the time) sending out query letters for short stories seems like shooting arrows into the dark–where will they land? will anyone even see them? Every now and then though, I get lucky and a shout comes back from the dark: “Hey, waddaya think yer doin’??? Ouch!” But if I get really lucky, the voice says, “Nice shot. Fire another!”

This year I had four of my short stories–four of the arrows fired into the night–accepted and published. (A few more stories are pending in various states from “accepted” to “under consideration,” but I don’t want to count my chickens early.) In my weaker moments I think I might be starting to figure this writing thing out, but in my stronger moments I remind myself (1) not to get cocky and (2) to get back to work.

If you’re looking for some entertainment, here are links to the stories published in 2014. All but the first are crime fiction leaning (shoving?) in the direction of noir:

  • The Mizpah Heart. I won 2nd place in the Provenance Prize contest held by Old As Adam with this super-short story. The challenge was to create the fictitious history, a “provenance,” of a 1920s-era German medical model of a human heart. (My fellow Portsmouth Writers Salon member Tammi Truax won first place, also available on the link.)
  • The Kashgar Rat. The first of two short stories I had published in SHOTGUN HONEY, the masters of flash fiction noir. “The Kashgar Rat” follows the immigration proceedings of a serious badass on the run from the PRC. Folks tended to like the sentence, “I sucked my jeans dry after pissing myself, but I’m still thirsty…”
  • Between the Rocks and the Hard Stuff. This is the second noirish tale SHOTGUN HONEY published for me. It’s about Moira, a woman determined to live free at any cost. If you like caving, you might dig this one.
  • Williston. Cindy Rosmus at YELLOW MAMA picked up this guns & trailers tale about the modern-day, busting-at-the-seams boom towns of North Dakota, where fracking technology has attracted more job seekers than there’s housing for and more criminals than the local law enforcement is sized to deal with. BIG thanks to Lee Kuruganti and Noelle Richardson for the jarring illustrations that help set the mood on this (check ’em out!), probably the darkest thing I’ve written to date.

That’s it for now. I’ll post more as promises of publication become reality.



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New Story Out: The Kashgar Rat

Just a quick note–the good-looking and immensely talented editorial team at Shotgun Honey magazine has deigned to publish my hard-boiled tale of an immigrant traveling a rough road, The Kashgar Rat today. It seems a fitting tribute to the 4th of July.

Shotgun Honey specializes in noir flash fiction–nothing over 700 words long–so following them lets you start your day with a literary thrill readable in under three minutes. I hope you enjoy it.

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Pole Dancing to the Peak

Or, “Homo habilis: How a Pair of Tools Helped Me Walk Upright”

At 6,288 ft (1,917 m), Mount Washington is the premier peak of the famed White Mountains of New Hampshire. I had never climbed it, and neither had my younger kids, so in the depths of the last winter, when late-night fires burned low and promises were made to the smoke and semi-conscious children, I had vowed that This Would Be the Year! Come late June, and school is finally out of session, even after our many snow days. With a full schedule in the months ahead, making good on the promise required going NOW. The only slight problem was my swollen knee, “tweaked” though perhaps not torn or twisted about two months ago during an ill-conceived run down a trail in hiking boots. “Tweaked” has been enough to prevent jogging or other meaningful leg exercises or cardio for about two months. Rest is indicated, but a promise made is a debt unpaid and the trail has its own stern code (perhaps you’ve heard that one before?) So what to do? Buy some poles!

Image And here they are, being modeled near the Crawford Trailhead, a couple of miles below the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (AMC) Mizpah Hut. For $9.99 a piece, I picked up a set of Mountainsmith “Pinnacle” hiking poles. I’d never used poles before, but I assumed from the price I paid and the comparisons I made that these poles had none of the features one would actually want in trekking poles–rubber grips instead of fancy cork ones, rubber bottoms instead of pointy graphite or whatever high-strength carbon the more expensive ones are made from. But I’m cheap, so I went with these. And I could not have been happier. The combined ages of the three other hikers on the trip added up to more than a decade shy of my advancing dotage, yet with the poles, even on a sprained knee, I was able to more or less keep up with the lads. I’ve never hiked with poles before, but after this trip I doubt I’ll ever go on a significant hike without them–they help to relieve stress on the knees, to keep balance, and to threaten young whipper snappers with a caning. Of course I’ve been told this before, but I’m a slow learner. Anyway: thank you Mountainsmith!

Image Image Above, you can see the three whipper snappers–Stuart, Ryland, and Maddoc–who were largely unimpressed by the poles being shaken in their general direction, “You damn kids!,” etc. The boys acquitted themselves very well on the 3 or so miles up to Mizpah Hut, which is shown in the background, and got even faster the second day (another key difference between young legs and old.) The lower photo shows some of the interesting people you get to hang out with when you invest the time to hike into the backwoods; left-to-right, a young couple from North Carolina, a young couple from Montreal, and, in the window, an Appalachian Trail section hiker who was wearing his winter gear in the sunshine because he’d lost so much body fat he was no longer able to keep warm. That is dedication, though with the food they serve you in these huts, I don’t see how anybody could lose weight.

We were up at 6:30 the next morning, breakfasted by 7:30 and on the trail soon after. The first day had seen us going up a moderately steep grade through mixed but predominately deciduous forests. This changed almost immediately, as the first 1/4 mile between Mizpah and the Lakes of the Clouds Hut (our destination for Day 2) goes nearly straight up out of the soft and gentle woods and first into the krummholtz and then into the Arctic-like felsenmeer, two words everyone should get to write at least once in their life that both basically mean landscapes shaped by snow, ice, and wind.

IMG_20140624_074525943 Here are the lads, ahead of me, either waiting or catching their breath after shouting to the old man to get it in gear. The Crawford Trail up to Mizpah, and then from Mizpah to Lakes of the Clouds, and even from that hut up to the summit of Mount Washington is steep in places and rocky everywhere (get some boots with steel shanks), but the terrain itself isn’t any harder than parts of Monadnock or Mount Katahdin. If you’ve done either of those, you can handle Mount Washington–at least the hiking part of it. What makes Mount Washington particularly hard is this:

IMG_20140624_192317163 This weather up there really, really sucks. This sign is not an exaggeration. The highest winds recorded at the summit were 231 miles per hour. Now that was an unusually bad day, but 60, 70, and even 80 knot winds are not uncommon there, you should even expect them. So, your feet might not feel any worse than on those other peaks, but you must-must-must carry gear to protect you against any weather, even in the summer. This makes the AMC huts a wonderful resource to use when trekking there, because staying in the huts eliminates the need for tents, sleeping bags or mats, and even food, which leaves you to fill up your pack with winter clothing you have trouble believing you will need when you’re standing in 80 F weather at the trailheads down in the valley. Trust me, you’ll need it.

IMG_20140624_075332494 This is Maddoc, AKA Beau Geste, posing with some arctic cotton near the summit of Mount Pierce. The kepi soon went back into the pack to be replaced with more suitable headgear as we ascended into moor-like terrain:

IMG_20140624_110443753 Yes, I hiked with Sherlock Holmes, shown here in his deerstalker and Columbia raincoat. The kid has style. This is near Lakes of the Clouds hut. I think you can see some of the lingering snow to the right.

IMG_20140624_103337586_HDR Here’s a viewpoint on the Crawford trail, showing the classic U-shaped valleys formed by the glaciers that flowed through the area not long ago, in geologic terms. This is near where we heard and saw a lovely white-throated sparrow, one of the few birds that comes up so high, where the wind never stops and the resources are scarce.

IMG_20140624_133209725_HDR The Lakes of the Clouds, which the nearby AMC hut is named for, are a series of small tarns (another word you should really try to use as much as possible.) Note the fog. The hike from Mizpah crossed several 5000+ foot peaks and we were shrouded in fog most of the time, with visibility getting down to less than 50 feet. It was noticeably colder here, though only 1000 feet higher than Mizpah. This far north the effects of elevation on climate seem to be greater than in the south. I’ve heard every 1000 feet in elevation gain is the same as traveling north 200 miles, but I doubt it’s this cold in Quebec this time of year. We heard many spring peepers by the tarns even though it was June 23. The peepers in southern New Hampshire were done with their mating calls in 2014 by mid-to-late April. We also heard wood frogs and saw one fairly large American toad. The AMC naturalist at the hut said he had never seen an American toad up there, and no one has explained what the toad was seeking at that altitude…

Inside the hut was warm, dry, and filled with coffee and camaraderie–in short, the typical AMC hut experience:

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Triple-decker bunks, giant moths outside and marathon ping pong games–what’s not to like? The sunset wasn’t bad either:

IMG_20140624_191944226_HDR Subtle, yet sublime.

The next morning the forecast was for a 90% chance of rain, and potential thunderstorms in the afternoon. This being the case, we rose early, despite having been kept up most of the night by an unfortunate snorer with sleep apnea. We were on the trail for the remaining 1.6 miles to the summit by 7:30. I would post pictures of the climb, but visibility was down to 20 feet or less, with high winds and wet surfaces everywhere. I wear glasses but the humidity and wind managed to fog my left lens and keep it fogged, so I ended up climbing that morning without glasses–being partially impaired in two eyes worked better than being totally blind in one. I don’t have pictures of the sea of rock, rain, wind, and fog, but if you hold up a white sheet of paper, you’ll have a good idea of what we all saw: white white white. There was no view at all, despite being on the top of the highest peak in the state. I’ve heard there rarely is.

Here’s Maddoc at the top, where the winds were probably blowing 50 knots:

IMG_20140625_101959374_HDR I have more pictures of Maddoc than of the other two lads because Maddoc was my hiking partner and the other two paired up. That way no one hiked alone, but the teens got to do a faster pace and bag a couple peaks that my knee convinced me to take the path around. Maddoc was gracious enough to skip those peaks, too (thanks bud!) But we all summited Mount Washington, ending up at the top about 9:30. The wind and rain were raging, so we waited inside the state park building sipping hot drinks while we waited for the cog railway. Yes, that’s right. We hiked up the mountain, but took the train down. Again, this plan was made mostly for the sake of my knee, but also because, let’s face it, whoever saw a bumper sticker that said “I climbed DOWN Mount Washington”? There’s just no cachet in it. And the train was fun as well:

IMG_20140625_111040785_HDR IMG_20140625_124603564

In the picture above you see the lads waiting to ride the first train of the morning down. The people getting out into the wind rode the first train up and all ran straight into the state park building. We were the only ones descending. Happily we were able to skip the four-mile hike from the lower train station back to our car by hitch-hiking with a hiker we’d encountered earlier, and happier still our car was still there. The kids were so tired on the way back that no one even argued over the music, but it was a good tired.

See you out there!





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Six Stanzas of Separation

A recent acoustic jam session in a small town New England coffee shop has taught me some lessons about our enduring human database. The owners of the coffee shop invite everyone in the community to come monthly and bring any kind of music they want to play. It isn’t an Irish session or even a folk session, per se. The jam included a woman of a certain age who started learning guitar in her late sixties, a ninety-three-year-old fiddler who stopped over from an assisted living center, and a pair of young Mormon missionaries, one of whom hailed from Tonga and played a mean ukulele. Beyond the folk songs we learned in elementary school music, we didn’t have a lot of standards we knew in common. The fiddler knew an infinite number of Irish reels and like songs passed down from his own French-Canadian grandfather, the guitar-strumming woman favored pop music reminiscent of the 1890s, I threw in a few bluegrass and Latin standards (you actually can play “Besame Mucho” on a banjo), and the Tongan missionary played some good time Israel Kamakawiwo’ole numbers while his Anglo compadre surprised us all with some reggae spirituals on guitar.

The fidder’s remark that he’d learned at least one of his songs from his French-Canadian grandfather got me to thinking about musical jam sessions as a time machine and applying the Six Degrees of Separation game to music. If our ninety-three-year old fiddler—born in 1919—had been ten when he learned a song from a ninety-three-year-old fiddler, that fiddler would have been ten in 1846, just the right age to learn the greatest patriotic hits of the Mexican-American War. Mind you, this is still only one degree of separation for a man still playing in ongoing sessions. Now, picture a ninety-three-year-old fiddler in 1846, born in 1753. He would have been the right age to hear the same fiddle tunes played by famous colonial musician Thomas Jefferson. The old men of 1750s would have grown up learning to fiddle English Civil War tunes, not to mention to sing Iroquois prayers or Angolan Herero cattle-herding songs, depending not just on their own ancestry, but on whom they stumbled across for an evening of shared music. And that is only three degrees of separation. Six would land us in a time earlier than the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, perhaps even earlier than recognizable English, though some melodies would remain familiar.

The polyglot ancestry of those present at any jam is also likely to take you unexpectedly far geographically in musical memory. At least two of those at the jam had some Native American ancestry. Add that to the acknowledged French-Canadian and Tongan heritage of those present and you have a mix not too different from what Herman Melville described in New England in the 1850s. My banjo was the only overt African at the gathering, but the centrality of African influence on American pop and folk music also goes back as far as Plymouth.

My own grandmother was monolingual in English, but at least three of her own grandparents grew up speaking something else, and singing the songs of those languages and places. What songs she hummed to me in my crib and where she learned them are unanswerable questions. What is clear, though, is that through the music of our families, friends, and neighbors, we touch not only the whole world, but the whole world back in time through many centuries.

It would be easy now to say something negative about Thomas Edison and the technology he unleashed on the world with his first recording. Recorded music has unarguably diminished the primacy of live music and the community ties built and reinforced by musical gatherings. But there is also an upside to recorded music, similar to the one Garry Kasparov describes in advocating a reformed version of chess that combines people and computers. As someone who grew up literate and dependent on literacy, I have a mind like a steel sieve—what I hear goes in one ear and out the other. Sitting in on jam sessions where experienced hands are willing to play slowly helps my musical memory improve, but I’m still frankly hopeless. Which is why when I got home from this session, I couldn’t remember the entirety of any of the new tunes I’d fumbled through. However, since some of the tunes had names, I was able to find versions of them online, even some with the musical notes written down. Which means that next month, thanks to my printer, I’ll be able to join the ninety-three-year-old fiddler in playing at least one of those ancient songs, and I’ll join him again in passing it along in the databanks of the soft machine.

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New Dance Steps

For some time I’ve been using websites for music and news that allow me to customize my preferences. For music, I can choose the music I enjoy to create a “station” that plays only the artists I like best or performers judged to have a similar style. For news, I can do the same thing by creating alerts or customizing preferences to give me updates only on what I am most interested in. The result in both cases is dismal failure. The more “likes” I apply to the music station the more monotonous it becomes. The more I configure my preferences for “news” the less information that is genuinely newsworthy, surprising or even entertaining gets brought to my attention. I hate to paraphrase the Rolling Stones (whom I have never “liked” or even liked much), but sometimes it is better to get what you need than what you think you want. Variety is more pleasing than favorites, it seems.

Which is one reason I read a daily online literary magazine over which I have no editorial control. In my case, the journal is Danse Macabre, “Nevada’s first, finest and foremost online literary magazine.” I trust the editors to please me but not as often I would attempt to please myself by staying in the comfortable but constraining rut of my own preferences. I find about 60% of what they publish immediately accesses my reading pleasure centers and much of the rest does after I wrestle with it, maybe twice, and try to get into the author’s head. As in breaking in good shoes, challenging writing gives you more support in the long run. A small number of the stories, essays and poems I decide aren’t for me; which is just as well, because it reminds me that the editor and I are in a conversation whereas my “preferences” alone are a monologue.

Trusting the editor is what it comes down to in finding a mix of content to keep the reading experience fresh. I have yet to find an algorithm that can do that, though no doubt the next generation of customization software will include a feature to let music fans or news junkies include a set percentage of content guaranteed to make them howl, just to keep things interesting.

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