woodland creatures

The hall of antlers was a place Henry only saw in his dreams.

The Hall of Antlers

 

It was staggering to think of how many bodies it had taken to fill that expanse. How much blood, how many lives. In the dream, the question was soft, merely wonder, because awe was the only way to traverse such a place.

And in the dream, the antlers screamed as they broke. No avoiding them–it was impossible to take a step in any other direction. The only way through the dream was forward, but in those splintering howls and shrieks, all Henry could hear were warnings.

Halt
Stop
Go back

But there was no other way.

When he reached the end, the same figure always peeled itself out of the dark. A great horned god, Herne or Woden, so massive in stature that it could only be the night itself.

KNOW ME, it always said. REMEMBER I WILL COME FOR YOU.

The dream always ended with those words. But being a person of solid skepticism, he never put any stock into dreams. He went about his life and his business unharmed by any antlered god, unscathed by even the darkest night.

It was daylight when it finally came to claim him.

He should have known before the deer on the path opened its mouth and screamed.

Nicolas Le Boulanger, "Un Dernier Regard"

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in search of someone else

I.

she was the smallest spark.
a fading star,
a wisp of smoke,
a gasp,
a plume of breath
on an icy winter night.

she always liked it austere.
honest:
no ornamentation, no comfort
bare bones and brittle
waiting for a spring
that might never come.

in her deep dark forest
and its endless black trees
the only thing holding her there
jaws and teeth warm against a frozen neck.


desert girl, winter girl
frozen girl, bloodless girl.
on dark nights
her eyes are always darker,
endless as the void inside her heart.

II.

he was
burning, trailing flame like
icarus melting in the sun.
a daedelus in his blood, far, far below,
screaming for someone
to save him, to
catch him in their infinite arms.


he never could find anywhere comfortable–
restless and uncertain,
no longer able to tolerate the pain
that wide, white void
a searing light
that would finally burn him to nothing,
would finally take him home.

in that endless, hungry sky
in its brutal nothingness
only falling, never catching,

his hands slipping forever,
safety always missed.

III.

that night, sunlight crashed into a deep, dark forest.
trailing fire,
melting ice,
searing anything too close to ash.
and the falling boy,
the burning boy,
stumbling with the wings melting agony down his back–

he trailed wax and blood through that dark, dark labyrinth,
trailing a cloud of sparks
in a place that had forgotten light.
its shadows shied away, its monsters fled,
too terrified to show their faces,
too curious to let the light go out.

so they whispered and he wandered,
counting all the stars in the dark.
North Star, blue and beautiful,
antithesis of all the colors he bled.

and when he found the dark girl,
the winter girl,
that strange, subtle creature with endless night in her eyes
he swept the shadows from her bloodless face
and revealed the smallest, most vulnerable moon:
translucent skin, pale blue to his flush pink,
blue eyes the color of twilight reflecting light back at her.

and
he was softened,

she was illuminated.

IV.

The deep, dark forest is burning down,
Brutal summer skies snuffed and seared by threads of dark.
She runs now, runs faster
leaping out of the labyrinth ,
free and graceful as a doe.

and he follows, fleeing at the same pace,
fighting to get free.
all those pinprick stars burning
as the sky bleeds its thousand colors
wind singing, howling as those clashing voids come to claim them both.

Even this collision couldn’t tear them apart.
One explosion, blowing back again,
a cell dividing, a star exploding,
Tessellating, fracturing,
defining all the cracks in the universe.

we will find each other again,”
the call of every star in the void.

the story you hadn’t written yet

I didn’t see you until I saw you,
carved out of the end of summer,
late September sunshine along the curve of your jaw.
Sky blue, clear like the way you
saw through everything,
All the way to its core.
And I started admiring fields of pale grass and the corner of your mouth–
that line that forms when you really smile,
the exact way you started to
when you began to see me, too.

Did you feel the way I did?
All lit up like a Christmas tree,
a forest filled with ten thousand fireflies.
Dappled morning sunlight reflecting off a creek,
the path of golden coins the full moon makes over the ocean,
Each trail of light a ladder to heaven.

And I saw you.
And in the dark—
did you see me there? my natural state
Those scraps of shadow and soft violet evenings.
Did my colors smudge yours? Did they call you
to crawl into the dark even as I climbed up to you,
finding you somewhere in the middle,
startled, but not frightened
surprised, but maybe expected
like we found each other at exactly the right time.

Seven months.

About to be eight, if we’re really keeping count, but at this point, what’s the difference? Why haven’t I posted in half a year’s time?

Let’s throw out some guesses.

  • working on new projects
  • crappy mental health
  • crappy health in general
  • OCD

That last one. What the hell is that? is something I asked roughly two months ago. What are you talking about? There’s a long list of abbreviations in my medical file, but OCD is not one of them.

Sure, I have problems getting out of the house sometimes. But I’m not a neat freak by any means. I don’t get twitchy if something is out of place. I do have a thing about getting stuff on my hands, but that’s from working in healthcare. It’s not like obsess over it or anything.

Unless it’s bleach. Or engine oil. Or gasoline. Or chemicals.

Or someone’s sick. Or if it’s a bathroom. (Yikes.) Flu season? You best believe my hands will be freshly washed before I eat in a public place.

If I eat in a public place, because that’s difficult sometimes. The noise level bothers me at times, and then I feel a little on edge because it seems like people are staring at me, and I get weirded out when people see me eat. I can only eat half my plate, because if I eat more than that, I could get nauseous or get stomach cramps and end up having a panic attack.

And–oh yeah, if I have a panic attack in public, I start having trouble leaving the house. All that trouble with driving starts. I get to where it’s difficult to go to and from the mailbox. You know that lady on Shameless? Sheila? Yeah, I get her. I totally understand her deal.

Mine’s not that bad–really, it’s not that bad–it can’t possibly be that bad…

That’s what I kept telling myself most of this year. It’s not that bad. Bad was the time I was trapped in my bedroom at thirteen with the bureau shoved up against the door.

Bad wasn’t only being able to go outside very early in the morning or very late at night. In my mind, I could still get out–albeit with someone else, not alone. That was still something. I’d been in worse places.

But denial isn’t that great of a place to be, either.

Turns out that my definition of “bad” is pretty far off base. It’s easy to keep digging yourself into a hole when you believe it really isn’t that deep. You can jump out any time you like. You’re fine, really. And when you start getting pinned in a corner with meds not working and your view of the future getting really narrow, well, maybe you’re just not trying hard enough.

Or maybe you just can’t be fixed.

Here’s what I didn’t think OCD was: I didn’t think it had anything to do with the endless, ever-spewing thought tape running constantly in my mind. That was just background noise, you know? Just negative cognitions, a logical outcome of the things I’ve lived through. But there was a problem with that.

There wasn’t just the negative thought tape, running independently despite my attempts to shut it down. There was also the constant chess game of trying to out-logic myself.

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MR. ROBOT is awesome, by the way.

If there’s one thing I’ve heard over and over in my trials with my own mental health, it’s that to all appearances, I’ve got my crap together. I’m smart, I’m competent, I know how to advocate for myself. I stay on top of my treatment and I do my best to understand its rules so I can beat the illness at its own game.

Well, it’s a bit of a problem if you’re following the rules for the wrong game. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of this. So when friends and family threw together the cash to get me to see the therapist who pulled me out of the nosedive I initially fell face-first into at 19 and got me to graduating college with a 3.0, I kind of had to go. My own strategies weren’t working. The thought tape was getting louder than ever. Meds were failing. Everything we tried not only didn’t help, it made things worse.

So I sucked it up and I went to go see Bailey, because if there’s one person I know I can trust with their hands in my skull, it’s her. I filled her in on the last eight years, explained the situation, and almost immediately, she said “Here’s the thing–this isn’t trauma you’re struggling with right now, this is OCD.”

Say what?

What?

I was thinking, Whoa, wait a minute. I don’t have rituals. I don’t have compulsions. Obsessions? What are you…

Oh.

And over the past two months, it’s fallen into place fairly neatly. Not only have I not kept this thing we will call The OCD at bay, I’ve fed it. I made it bigger. And yeah, trauma has fed it over the past eight years, with good reason, but the presenting issue, the thing that is in my way, yes.

Yes. The thought tape. The obsessing. The attempts to out-logic the monster.

You can’t out-think a thing that has already overrun your thoughts.

I thought I was facing my fears, but…I wasn’t approaching them the right way. I thought, if I can just get through it, even if it’s awful, then I’m still okay. Wrong. Absolutely wrong. That simply reinforces thoughts like I just can’t eat in public or I knew I’d be miserable on that trip anyway. Sitting there, eyes closed, sweating, trying to wait out the anxiety or keep it pushed back far enough that it wasn’t obvious how scared I was–that wasn’t the right approach at all. Shutting my eyes, bracing, flinching…those things might have gotten me through the moment, but they never got me to see what was really happening. They hid it. And all those avoidance strategies just made it worse.

So, it’s been about two months since I’ve started working on rerouting my thoughts, and I’ve learned a few things. Huge things. Things that are now clicking and making sense.

Instead of tolerating the distress of a fear, I walk straight into it.

I see it, I recognize it, and I face it intentionally.

And then I do it again, and again, and again. Willfully approaching situations that make me nervous isn’t easy, but it’s getting easier. It comes more naturally. The instant The OCD whispers You can’t do this, I respond by doing it. Whatever it is.

Two months in, I can drive again. I’ve gone from seeing friends maybe once a month to at least once a week. I’ve even made new friends. I’ve made awesome progress getting back to doing things I hadn’t done in months. Life is improving so quickly now that it’s hard to think I was so hopeless two months ago. I thought there wasn’t any direction left to go in.

Now, I’ve realized I can go in any direction I want. I just have to take the first step. One of the biggest ones is actually talking about it:

Guess who said “hi” to the neighbors for the first time in months–and didn’t have a meltdown!! 

Okay guys…next up is going to the mailbox…without checking first…to get the mail. I CAN DO THIS. BELIEVE IN ME.

I RAN ERRANDS BY MYSELF. The bank. The grocery store. The DMV. I did it alone. And I didn’t freak out!!!

SAID HI TO MY NEIGHBOR. AGAIN. AND GOT THE MAIL WITHOUT CHECKING.

Had dinner in a loud restaurant which was kinda crappy at first, but eventually I acclimated and it came down WHILE I WAS THERE. WHAT?! I recovered enough that later I even swung by to meet Pru at the close of her shift and she and I hung out for a bit

Guess who had a giant panic attack and started sobbing in the grocery store but pushed through it and didn’t run and stared at people like YEAH I’M CRYING THIS PLACE SUCKS AND I HAVE STOMACH CRAMPS BUT I AM GONNA POWER THROUGH IT AND IF I VOMIT WHATEVER, DON’T CARE, I DO NOT CARE….and eventually I even calmed down and got through the store. The world didn’t end!

Biggest surprise? People are actually supportive of that stuff. No judgment. No laughter. No people making fun of a thing that has crippled me for months. Hmm. Another thing The OCD was wrong about.

Plus? A lot of people have messaged me that they’re glad I’m talking about it because they suffer from it, too.

Maggie Stiefvater has written some brilliant stuff on OCD, and there are plenty of other people in writing who struggle with mental illness. While stigma promotes the idea that we shouldn’t talk about it…it’s evident that we should. People feel less alone. They connect with each other. Help each other. Offer encouragement. Y’know, the things we all need to get by.

Anyway, that’s been my life for the past few months. I think I’m slowly getting back to writing. The thing tickling my brain now involves a haunted house set in a patch of woods where time gets weird and the kudzu is a little strange. It’s equal shades Lost Souls, Stranger Things, and Donnie Darko. So far, it’s very fun. We’ll see where it goes.

Take care of yourselves, guys.

 

And it’s done.

I’ve polished IN THE HEART OF THE HOLLOW FOREST, and it’s ready for readers. This thing that took its first form in 2011 (maybe even earlier!) is complete. I can FINALLY get this thing out there. Awesome.

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Awesome work by Alex Ruiz

So what’s next? Contemporary, fantasy, science fiction…? My two loves are horror and fantasy, but they usually stay close to the real world. The idea I’ve been bouncing around lately…very much doesn’t. There are mecha, irradiated megafauna (we’re talking Pleistocene-sized megafauna), people who survived in massive underground bunkers, and posthumans forced to survive up top. My brain is pulling apart tons of memories from an awesome class on nuclear politics I took as an undergrad, and everything I love about deep time. Also, MECHS. MECHS MECHS MECHS.

(You guys have no idea how much I love mecha, but eventually you will.)

I’m still worldbuilding and characters are slowly taking shape. I think there’s a red sky from a not-quite-recovered atmosphere, and while plant life has made a comeback, it in no way resembles the plant life of the world as it was before. The setting is grim, but the characters…I think the characters may actually be a little more light-hearted this time around. The protagonist might even be cheerful!

But I don’t know yet. We’ll see. I’ll post back here when I have more to tell. I’m hoping for a tiny synopsis soon.

Happy Fat Tuesday to those of you celebrating!

So close…

At 96,000 words, IN THE HEART OF THE HOLLOW FOREST is close to completion. The story has arrived at the climax in that glowing glass forest, and I have a strict outline in place for how the final scene goes down. It’s sad, kinda brutal, and arriving just in time for October.

But I still have a ways to go.

With the recent struggles in publishing regarding diversity, I’ve realized I need to do more for this story. I’d already planned a trip to Cherokee in October to ask questions and learn more about the community, but I need to do more than that. I need to find people willing to tell me what parts of my research are right, and which are wrong. American Indians deserve respect in literature, especially YA literature. There is a great need for more novels by American Indian authors. As an ally, I want to make sure I do this right. I want to ensure the depiction of Cherokee culture in the story is one that will help readers instead of doing harm.

I was surprised when the story took this particular turn and rewrote itself. While researching legends in North Carolinian history, I discovered many Cherokee legends and stories about the area, and how awful the Removal was. What I was taught in high school and college barely scraped the surface of what the Trail of Tears was really like. It opened my eyes to the reality of American Indian history and how it continues to affect American Indians today. I’m glad I learned more about this, but I wish I had been taught the truth in high school and college. I think that’s something that has to change. American history and world history focus primarily on Western nations. So why aren’t we taught more about American Indian history? African history? Middle Eastern? Asian history? Why are so many cultures erased as though they never existed at all?

Colonialism still continues. Erasure never stops. The shift in focus with publishing is a good thing, but it’s hard. We still have to keep working, listening, overcoming our own perspectives to see another’s.

I am glad the Eastern Band of Cherokee have managed to keep their land, but at the same time, I’m dismayed by how the federal and state governments continue to encroach on Cherokee land and rights. Learning about the conditions in reservations across the US and the terrible injustices American Indians live with every day has made me aware that colonialism never really ended–and the general public is completely unaware of it.

The only way I can help as an ally is to support American Indian authors. I am not an authority. I can’t speak for them. I have a story, and there are three Cherokee characters in it. I dearly hope that I haven’t made mistakes, but as Cherokee is not my culture, I know the chances I’ve gotten something wrong are high simply because it’s not my culture. The responsibility of getting the research right is on me.

It will take a long time for this work to be finished, but I must do it right or not at all.

Let’s stay motivated. Positive change is possible. I will continue to believe that.

NYC (a review)

Last week, I visited New York City for the first time. Despite living a mere two hours away from NYC as a child, I’d never experienced the Big Apple. I have plenty of memories of Philly (gray, pretzels, gray, more gray) but New York? None.

So when I got onto a plane at 5:30 AM last Tuesday, I had no idea what I was in for. I mean, people try to prepare you. My mother wrote a very careful itinerary including directions for getting a cab. I was warned that the driving could be a little scary.

Let me tell you. I am TERRIFIED of planes. Like, I cried most of the way to New York (quietly and with dignity…sort of) but that cab ride from LaGuardia to Riverdale? Ha…hahahaha. Hahahahaha.

(It wasn’t quite as scary as the ride from the Bronx to the Met, but at least I had my big sister to protect me then.)

I am so glad to be home where there are proper lane divisions and driving is DRIVING, not furious salmon fighting upstream and/or for dominance. Everything was so much FASTER up there that me and Husband felt like a pair of true bumpkins. Luckily we had my sister to lead us from the Met to St. John the Divine to Broadway and the Bronx Zoo. She compacted a true tour in the space of three days–a miraculous feat, honestly, when you consider she also wrangles three young kids.

So here’s the quick and dirty on New York:

Bus rides can take two hours. The subway involves running and confronting the most harrowing ranges of your personal bubble. Never hang out in the road, because a Caterpillar going 50 mph might run you down as soon as a Lexus. The roads are pure Darwinism. Survival of the fittest, whether you’re driving or trying to amble across. Yet somehow, passengers still thank people when they get off the bus and people can be very cheery and polite.

Everything is big and close together, and deep in the city it feels like you’re navigating around some hectic man-made mountain range. The buildings have a way of making you feel like a mere speck amongst thousands. When I followed my sister through the subway and up into Time Square, I wanted to clutch onto the back of her jacket because I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen so many people in one space before in my life. I ended up clutching Husband’s jacket instead and watching my surroundings very owlishly because I was experiencing some kind of weird deja vu. I’d seen the city countless times on a screen, but never in person. The screen doesn’t provide the scent of street carts and the sensory overload of hundreds of flashing screens and people shouting for your attention while you try to follow your long-legged navigator.

I followed my sister through a number of cool places. She took us to the Met, and I enjoyed the Asian exhibit while Husband dorked out over the medieval weaponry. After that, she took us to Alice’s Tea Cup, which was rather lovely. I had a white chocolate strawberry scone that was worth flying up for again at a later date.

Thursday, we took off a few hours early for a show and wandered through Columbia’s campus and St. John the Divine. I’m fairly certain that when Cassandra Clare was imagining the Institute, she was thinking of St. John the Divine. It’s IMMENSE. HUGE. I had a true sense of awe walking around in there, and was so pleased at how quiet it was. I’ve never been in a cathedral that big, and wow, I wish I could have used it somehow for a book idea. (Unfortunately, I already picked North Brother Island, which I was able to vaguely see as we crossed over the East River a few times.) It was a nice pause before we headed into Time Square to go see Aladdin.

I’ll say something for Broadway. It defines entertaining. The stagecraft and the sheer glitz of the performance was unlike anything I’d seen back home. I’m not usually big on musicals, but this one made me realize why people make such a big deal out of it.

11196237_10152737032390740_3348405704266045595_nOur last day was spent almost entirely at the Bronx zoo. We met up with a very old friend who drove four hours just to see me and Jeremy, and we traversed the entire zoo. The butterfly garden was wonderful, I enjoyed the birds probably more than anyone else did, and I got to spend time with a friend I hadn’t seen in five years. We picked up like we’d seen each other the day before, same as always, and had a very nice time giggling and just BEING with each other.

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(I also really liked the peacocks everywhere. It’s very clear who actually runs the zoo.)

All in all, it was a good trip. My sister and I got to spend some time together–which is very nice considering how far apart we are. Our family has always been spread between the North and South, and there’s no telling where she’ll live next. However, I did manage to cope with being on not one, but three planes, so hopefully travelling will get easier for me one day. At least I can survive plane flights.

And New York.

For someone as anxious as myself, the fact that I did not experience a SINGLE panic attack in New York is pretty phenomenal. On the planes, yes, but they were easier to control than in the past. It proved to me that if I can survive the subway, terrifying cab rides, planes, Times Square, and nearly getting lost a few times, I can survive anything. It gave me a huge victory over anxiety, which was almost as nice as seeing my sister.

Almost.

So that was the trip! IN THE HEART OF THE HOLLOW FOREST is still in progress (now sitting at 81k, oy vey). I’m close(r) to finishing it. In the meantime, I’ve been making some decent coin with freelance editing projects, trying to get over a rather nasty tooth extraction, and Early Summer. It’s already 90 degrees here in South Carolina, and spring is gone for another year. My yard projects are about to become downright hellish, but once they’re done…they’ll be DONE.

If they get done. Book first.

See you guys next month!