The assignment was to write 300-500 words on three of a list of possible times/locations/events, an emphasis being on description. These were the three I wrote. They aren’t, perhaps, some of my best description work, but I nevertheless derived great pleasure from writing each of them.
Exercise One: Doomed Ship, 1880
The dark, ruminative bell of the church tolled for midnight on pine-covered Fidalgo Island. The loggers and the townsfolk alike were abed when the schooner crept through Puget Sound, seeking haven for the night. It had been a rough day; most of the crew on watch were sore and tired, and the November cold increased their weariness. It went unnoticed at first when the mate, leaning against the forward mast, drifted briefly into sleep and dropped his burning pipe onto a deck recently coated in thick-smelling tar.
The light of the fire soon grew in intensity in the black midnight, and someone, perhaps the rector of the church, first roused another, who in turn woke several prominent persons. A group of them walked down to the dark, lapping water to better see the burning ship. The crackling of the flames could not be heard at that distance, and so the heavy breathing of men recently moved from their sleep was all that marked the night stillness. The clouds formed a diaphanous film over the sky, dimming the moon that rose over the Cascades but also granting it a hazy crown of light. The fiery ship and the moon glared at one another, competing, the flames in their temporal glory and the moon in its quiet, eternal radiance.
A plump storekeeper held up a lantern so as to see his way down to the shore more clearly. “I think I know that ship. It’s the Pacific Chieftain. They’re loaded ’erup with oil.”
“It’ll blow,” a young man in a nightgown and boater said. The scent of burning drifted over the water, and black human shapes could be distinguished against the glaring of the flames, moving back and forth in frantic motions.
A walrus-mustached man pushed his bowler back and stamped because of the cold. “Nothin’ left but little bits.” He spat into the earth, and the lantern light glittered off the abdomen of a small ant that bustled out of the way.
“Wretched creatures,” the storekeeper said.
There was a bright light, and a roar passed over the water to meet the ears of the spectators. Several pulled their hats off. They only saw now the sparks of small pieces of wreckage burning in the water.
“Little bits,” said the man with the walrus mustache. “That’s the end of the show, boys. Good night.”
Exercise Two: Road Endures, 1865
Archie McKnight ran the rough black leather of the reins through his fingers. He and his two brothers, Fergus and Alan, stood their horses on the top of a rise. It was dusk, and the crickets thrummed, shrill and cautious. The evening star was in the sky, the first of the night host to look down on the hills of northwestern Georgia. A column of cloud stood up from the glowing haze like a sword of the gods embedded in the earth. In the valley below them the three former soldiers saw a town, the abrupt spire of a church being the only apparent attempt to reach out of the natural enclosure.
“Is it home?” young Alan asked, shifting his lids sleepily. Fergus grunted and rubbed his bearded chin, but Archie did not answer. The crisp wind kept him from lethargy, but made him less inclined to speak and break the silence of the air, which was rapidly chilling. The cicadas buzzed nearby from flaming autumn dogwood and maple trees.
Archie’s pacer snorted, and the Georgian leaned down to place a hand on the horse’s warm neck, the hairs of which were stiff and muddied from the journey. He grimaced, for as he inclined his body he felt the soreness of each muscle. The church-bell rang from the town below, and the thought passed through Archie’s mind that this town was much like all other towns he had seen in the hills. At its heart it felt the same; only the details were different. Perhaps the town was a mirror of all other towns, having the same cast of characters to endless variation, like when the aspiring actors in the camp stumbled through an amateur harlequinade in an attempt to entertain the other boys.
What held the three brothers there, on top of the ridge, none of them could identify. But they all felt it. There was something indefinable that demanded silence. Fergus chewed on the stem of a corncob pipe and rubbed a dirty knuckle against his cotton pants. Alan squinted vainly, a combination of weariness and the loss of his spectacles enervating his vision. Archie sat upright and motionless, contemplating the sight as the sun went down.
“Is it home?” Alan asked again.
“We’ve a little further to go, brother,” Archie replied.
Exercise Three: When the Flames Die, 1890
The frosty January wind gnawed on all exposed flesh that Saturday, driving those in the town of Willow Hill to their hearths and fires. But those who spent the day traveling wrapped themselves tightly in blankets and coats; those who had none were too cold to lament their plight. Rias Bouden drove his wagon homeward, his wife Tess beside him and his three living children, Ike, Cager, and Lottie, in the bed with the supplies they had purchased in town.
The wagon passed by a small, triangular clump of white pine not yet chopped down by the farmers, contained on all sides by the fields of the farmers of oat, rye, and barley. Rias glanced upward at the sky, which was whitened as if it were powdered. His nose was red and swollen, but when he sniffed in the keen sharpness of the air he thought he caught the familiar scent of snow.
“Hand me de brandy,” he said to his wife, and she obligingly handed the bottle to him.
“We need to go sout’ someday.” Rias took a drink of the liquor, and felt a warmth bloom within. “Good land dere. Oats’ll grow better.” The warmth faded, and he looked regretfully at the empty bottle.
“Where we get de money, eh?” Tess returned. “We shouldn’t ever have bought dat land from yer cousin.”
“We had no more money den. De pine und de mill in Peshtigo we lost in de fire. Cy was good t’us.” Rias stopped, unwilling to speak more than was necessary.
“Anyway,” called dark-haired Ike Bouden from the back, “we got dem horses, und I’m old enough to help wit’ de work like a man.”
Rias rubbed his beard, feeling as he did so the numbed, wrinkled skin of his cheek. It felt as if he were rubbing a cracked stone, and he hastily removed his fingers. “Next year’ll be better.”
“It’s nineteen years been since de fire.” Tess pulled the scarf up over her mouth. “Nineteen years,” she repeated, though her words were muffled. “Our poor Addie.”
“Better off now.” The farmer turned around to inspect the occupants of the back of the wagon. “’Salmost dark, und church is on de morrow. Get to sleep, Cager. You’ll wake yer sister.”
The boy shifted the bag of sugar he rested his head on. “I’m tryin’. My feet are cold.”
“He needs shoes,” Tess said.
Rias grunted. “I know it, yah. You get sleepin’ too, wife.”
Conversation ceased, and the treading of the horses was all that could be heard, except for Lottie’s gentle snoring. Tess rested her head on her husband’s shoulder, and Rias blinked to prevent himself from nodding off. Presently night threw its blanket over Wisconsin, and the farmer lit his lantern. The shadow of the wagon accompanied them through the unmeasured minutes of the wintry night. Rias longed for the taste of tobacco, but he could not muster the willpower to flex his frozen muscles and reach for his pipe. He had no matches left anyway.
Cager spoke from the back. “Sing to us, father?”
“Not tonight,” Rias said. “Get to sleep.”
The horses plodded on.