The Tale of Eliot Dodge

In honor of my favorite holiday, Halloween, I give you a spooky story by yours truly.  Happy Haunting!

The Tale of Eliot Dodge

By Luthien T. Kennedy


“You gotta be kiddin’ me!” I laughed. “Are you dim or what?”

“Hey, you can piss off, Mikey. Everyone knows the cemetery’s haunted,” Austin shouted.   “I ain’t goin’ in there!”

“We’ve still got two good hours of daylight left,” Jordan grinned, rubbing his thigh nervously.

“IT’S FULL OF DEAD PEOPLE! You two wanna go in there, go right ahead, but I’m stayin’ out here where it’s safe,” Austin answered, clutching tight to his bike handles, his foot on the pedal, ready to ride at the first hint of anything even remotely creepy.

“Nobody actually died there, Austin,” I answered, annoyed. “Ghosts aren’t real, and if they were real, they’d leave their ghosts where they died or haunt their own houses, not come hang out at a boring old cemetery for the rest of eternity. Jeez.”

“Never mind the ghosts, what about zombies?”

“Oh my God, Austin, if they were going to turn into zombies, they’d have done it by now!” I laughed.

“Well, if Austin’s not goin’ in, I’m not goin’ in,” Jordan chuckled, looking slightly relieved that he wasn’t the first one to cave.

“This is bull,” I answered. “What did we come out here for if both of you were just going to chicken out?”

“I said back at your house I’d ride out here with you, but I wasn’t going in, didn’t I, Jordan?” Austin answered.

“He did.”

“What a bunch of babies! I’ll go in by myself then, and you two can stay out here, have a cuddle and pray I come out safe,” I said, hopping off my bike, tugging my backpack up on my shoulders and heading for the entrance. I didn’t believe in ghosts, but that didn’t stop my palms from sweating or the lump from growing in my throat.

“You don’t have to, Mike,” Jordan said. “Let’s just go back and look it up on the internet like everyone else.”

“I’m going in there to get the answer, and I’m going to prove to you losers that there’s nothing scary about a stinkin’ cemetery.”

I’d been to a cemetery before, but not quite like this one. My grandpa Ed died two years ago, and my mom didn’t want to leave me with my dad because she didn’t trust him to remember to pick me up from school. Besides she said she thought it was important that I understand death, like somehow I had gotten to the age of ten, watching the Disney Channel every day, without ever realizing that people died in the end. “Death is just a part of life, Mikey,” she told me. “It’s the one thing we all have in common,” which was pretty smart, I thought now that I was twelve and headed into Ridgefield’s cemetery alone. What had I learned at Grandpa Ed’s funeral that would help me now? I learned that funeral homes smelled funny and dead people generally look weird, not gross, but not like themselves. I also learned why they call dead guys stiffs. While nobody was looking, I touched Grandpa Ed’s hand. He didn’t even feel like he had ever been real.

The place where Grandpa was buried was newer than Ridgefield’s cemetery, and all the headstones were set in neat rows and there were hardly any trees, except up by the little building where my mom said they held non-religious services for families. Ridgefield’s cemetery was older than old and overgrown with trees so that even during the day the ground was dark with shadows. The newer parts, up over the hill, looked a lot like where Grandpa was buried, straight and orderly, but the parts closer to town, down in the valley where there were graves more than two hundred years old, the plots were haphazard, almost as though the grave diggers had just fit people in wherever they could get them. There was every kind of grave there, with tombstones shaped like crosses and with gargoyles sitting atop them and statues of angels standing watch, crypts covered in moss and great, molding mausoleums where whole families had been laid to rest.

“You need anything, Mikey, you text me,” Jordan said as I headed off toward the darkness of the oldest part of the cemetery, off to find out for myself who the first person buried at Ridgefield’s cemetery was and what year they were buried there. Our history teacher, Mr. Sparks, had set the assignment. He told us we could go to the library or even use the internet for help, but for the more adventurous among us, he had drawn out a map leading the way right to our morbidly buried treasure.

“Like your wimpy butt’s going to come in after me,” I mumbled under my breath as I left.

“Bet you five bucks he gets scared and comes back with some story about how he couldn’t find it,” I heard Austin say.

“Maybe we shouldn’t let him go alone,” Jordan answered. “What if something happens to him?”

“Yeah, like he stumbles across an axe murderer who’s using the cemetery as a secret hideout and he kills him and eats his kidneys. Oh, or one of those big tombstones falls on him and crushes his head! Squelch! Wonder what his brains look like all squished?” Austin laughed.

“If he’s not back in half an hour, we’re going in after him,” Jordan chuckled.

“Correction: you’re going in after him.”

“But then the axe murderer would get you, and we’d come back and all we’d find is your right shoe and your bike.”

“Piss off, Jordy!”

“You piss off,” he laughed. “Why do you always have to tell people to piss off?”

“My dad says it all the time, and it makes my mom mad,” Austin answered seriously.

I listened to their voices as I hurried along the outer path, the dates on the gravestones growing older and their voices growing fainter with every step, until I couldn’t hear them anymore. Anything might have happened in that place, and no one would know about it for all the trees, I thought, which was a mistake, because my heart started to echo in my ears and I wondered if twelve year olds could die of heart attacks. The only thing that kept me going was the idea of rubbing Austin’s nose in finding the grave, and refusing to let him cheat when I knew the answers for Mr. Sparks’ assignment and he didn’t.

I turned up the dirt road that led to the abandoned church at the top of the hill, where I’d have to pull out Mr. Sparks’ map in order to find the right grave. Being a history teacher, Mr. Sparks had a thing for local lore, as he called it. He said no one had attended Ridgefield’s original church there in the middle of the city cemetery in more than a hundred years, and from what I could see of the place as I started toward it, it looked like no one, including me, would ever want to go there. As Sparks told it, the year the church closed its doors, the cemetery had run out of room for new plots and the city needed to purchase more land. Unfortunately, none of the farmers with land surrounding the place were willing to sell, which meant the only option was for the church to give up its churchyard at the top of the hill, where parishioners and members of the community had held picnics under the shade of the giant oak every Sunday in the spring since Ridgefield was barely more than a settlement. The dispute between the pastor and the mayor of Ridgefield was big news at the time, and it was a few months of heated negotiation before the city was able to purchase the church and its land for enough money to build a bigger and better church in town, which was built that same year a hundred years ago, at the corner of East Fletcher Road and 21st Street.

The old church was supposed to have been demolished to make room for even more plots, but a woman from the congregation asked if she could buy the building and help tend the graveyard. She didn’t have much money, her husband having died several years before, but she believed that the dead needed God to watch over them, and she said that it was a sacrilege to tear down a house of worship, which I assumed meant something pretty bad would happen, probably involving demons and exorcisms. She had been married in that church twenty-six years before. Her son, who had died only a few years before, had been baptized there. That church was her family, and even though they were building a new church, the idea of losing the old one, where so much of her life had been spent in happiness and sadness, was too much to bear. After all that argument with the pastor, the mayor agreed to sell the church building to the woman for a dollar, on the condition she helped tend the graveyard, and she apparently lived there for several years and was known for planting flowers at every grave each spring, until she died many years later and was buried in a plot right under the giant oak. After her death, the old church house was left standing, in her honor, Sparks told us.

Left to ruin, I thought as I came up to the front porch and looked up at the old building, gray and crumbling. Even though it was in a terrible state, there was an eerie sort of calm there, like God and that old flower lady were both looking on, watching me as I scanned the building. The steps leading up to the porch were all termite-eaten and broken to pieces. The front doors were chained shut with rusting chains and a padlock that was so old it only had a keyhole and no knob for putting in a combination. The stained glass windows were missing pieces, and boards had fallen off of the building so that one could see right inside to the pews, if a person was brave enough to look, which I wasn’t. But the grounds were strangely well-kept, like that old lady had stuck around for a hundred years, still making the flowers grow, likely sad that her church, bought for a dollar, had been allowed to decay after her death. The thought gave me shivers.

“You one of Sparks’ kids?” came a voice from behind me.

I nearly peed my pants as I jumped around, yelling, holding my hands out in front of me like I knew judo or something. The young man, maybe twenty, wore a blue work suit stained with dirt and sweat. He had a small shovel in one hand and held the other hand on his hip like he was tired and couldn’t wait for the day to end and didn’t have much time for kids in his cemetery. His skin was pasty white, I thought.

“Sparks’ kids, yeah, yeah,” I said, breathless. He must have been a groundskeeper, and I must have looked pretty spooked being out there all alone, because he laughed at me, as he wiped his dirty sleeve across his forehead.

“You got your map then?” he asked.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, dropping my pack off my shoulders and kneeling down to unzip the bag. I didn’t know why I kept repeating myself. It was just a guy in a blue jumpsuit, with a shovel, in the middle of a cemetery. There wasn’t anything strange about that, was there? “Anybody else been out here yet?” I asked, trying not to sound too nervous.

“Not that I’ve seen, but they rarely come. We get maybe one a year, and any more than that always come in groups, though they usually do more to frighten each other than they would do coming alone. Kids tend to work each other up.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I laughed, then frowned at myself for sounding stupid again. “My friends are waiting for me at the gates.” I may have said this because it was true and on topic, since my friends had managed to give me the creeps even though I left them back at the entrance, or I might have said this because I didn’t want the man to think I was there alone.

“Lily-livered?” he chuckled.

“Yellow,” I nodded, pulling out the map and unfolding it. “Right, so from here it looks like I go… that way,” I said, pointing to the southeast, down the hill into the valley.

“I’ll show you the way, if you want.”

I don’t know why, but my guts told me I should just let the man get back to his work. I didn’t know anything at all about him, except that he worked at the cemetery, and what sort of person worked at a cemetery anyway? “Um… I’m pretty sure I can find it on my own,” I answered. “What’s your name anyway?”

“Eliot Dodge,” he smiled. “I don’t blame you, not wanting a stranger’s company, and in a cemetery no less. Tell you what, kid, I’ll be up here working, if you need anything, but I doubt you will. You’re certainly not like most kids.”


“The ones that make it this far usually just ask me for the answer and leave as fast as possible,” he laughed.

“Yeah, I guess I’m not like most kids,” I grinned, proudly. “Thanks for the offer, Mr. Dodge.”

“You’re welcome. You tell Sparks I said hello,” he smiled, and turned away, to head off around the side of the church where the old oak stood, leaving me very much alone.

As he disappeared around the corner, I gave a pretty big sigh of relief. “Axe murderers,” I whispered, pulling out my phone to check the time and make sure I had bars. I snapped a selfie with the old church behind me before grabbing up my backpack and heading off, using the map as my guide.

A few minutes later, after winding my way down a path into the valley, turning left at a statue of an angel with its wings stretched six feet wide, then right at the grave of Nelson and Millie Grover, I found myself stood in front of the oldest grave in the cemetery, with my hands on my hips, feeling a bit let down, because I guess a part of me thought it would be more eventful than it was. The bones of Julian Parsons were buried there, or at least I figured there was likely only bones left of the man after so long—there had likely been little more to him than bones when Parsons died in 1723 at the ripe old age of 96, which was incredibly old, I had to admit, especially for so long ago. While we were studying the colonies, Mr. Sparks told us that back then an “elderly person” usually didn’t live past 40, so Julian Parsons had more than doubled his life, likely outliving his own children and even most of his grandchildren, if he had any. I wondered if this was what Mr. Sparks had really sent us to find out as my phone buzzed in my pocket.   It had been almost a half hour and Austin wanted to know if I was officially the first person to die in the cemetery. I messaged him “OFFICIALLY NO!” and took a picture of myself in front of Julian Parson’s grave, to prove I’d been the only one brave enough to use the map.

But when I turned back toward the hill to leave, my stomach clenched and my palms began to sweat again. I took a few steps forward, but something was telling me I really didn’t want to go back by way of the old church. I looked off across the cemetery grounds, toward the road back to town hidden behind so many trees. It was already six and getting dark down in that valley, and I would have had to walk through hundreds of graves if I didn’t stick to the map. I was tempted to yell for Mr. Dodge or to call Jordan and have him talk me through getting back to the gate, but I thought that was something only a chicken like Austin would do (even though Jordan wouldn’t have held it against me, I would have held it against me, and Austin definitely would have held it against me).

Every step back along the path through the graves toward the church on the hill was deliberate so that I could be as soundless as possible. Even the birds had gone silent, as though they didn’t want to be heard returning to the churchyard any more than I did. From this view, the church looked even more ominous sitting up there in all its deteriorating glory, presiding over thousands of dead Ridgefielders, a rotting corpse hardly more than bones herself.   I didn’t know what I was so afraid of or what I thought would happen when I got back to the church, but I knew I didn’t really want to make it up to the top of that hill. I kept imagining horrible things, like Jordan laying on the ground in front of the church steps with Dodge’s shovel sticking out of his eye socket and that little old lady up there in her church, watching me through a hole in a stained glass window, angry that I had let her home go to ruins, though I knew I was only twelve, and it didn’t make any sense that if ghosts existed, the old lady would hold what had happened to her church against me when there were thousands of other people, both living and dead, she could hold it against. Surely all old ladies had a soft spot for boys, even dead ones?

When I was close enough to the top of the hill to feel comfortable, I cut the corner rather than going up past the church, darting between graves to get to the dirt road. It felt like what that old lady would have called a sacrilege to be stepping over those graves the way I did, but all I wanted to do was get to the road and make a mad run back to my friends, to my bike, to my mom and the comfort of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a big glass of milk, and some happy Disney Channel movie with absolutely no dead people and no cemeteries and none of Mr. Sparks’ idea of adventure. But as I was almost to the road, still a few graves to go, hurrying between the foot of one grave and the headstone marking the next, I heard a sound in the distance, like a tree creaking. It sounded strangely like my old rope swing sounded now that I weighed ninety pounds, but this heavier, like someone too big had decided to have a slow ride, and was stressing the rope and the branch, as they swung.

I was tempted just to dash right over the last few graves, but I stood there listening for at least a minute, frozen in fear as my heart pounded furiously in my chest, but slow, like the beating of a war drum. “Mr. Dodge?” I called out, my voice cracking as I pulled my phone from my pocket and dialed Jordan’s number. The sound came again, creaking dangerously, and I looked up at the church, thinking it must just be settling into its death.

I put the phone to my ear and heard Jordan’s voice, a welcome sound now that my hair was standing on end. “What’s up? You find the grave?”

“Just a minute,” I whispered, still standing there surrounded by the dead, frozen in my tracks. Maybe Mr. Dodge was messing with me? But what if something had happened to him and he needed help?

“What’s wrong, man?”

“Is he dead?” Austin laughed in the background.

“Mr. Dodge, are you all right?” I called out, stepping right on top of Nancy Dowdy and James Fisher as I turned toward the church.

“Who’s Mr. Dodge? Don’t play games, Mikey. Come on, I’m not scared,” Jordan said, though he sounded like he was. I wished he and Austin were there with me. I’d even hold their hands, I thought as I took a few careful steps toward the old building.

“Did you say Dodge?” Austin asked, his voice high-pitched. “What the heck, Mikey, stop kiddin’ around!”

“Shut up, Austin,” Jordan said. “Mikey, what’s going on?”

“I’m up at the old church,” I whispered, moving slowly toward it. “There’s a man here, a groundskeeper, named Eliot Dodge. I heard something. I don’t know what it was, but he won’t answer. He’s probably just trying to scare me.” As I walked toward the far side of the churchyard, the sound of the old tree creaking grew louder. I could see lots of its twisted branches, its leaves turning red as fall took hold. “Mr. Dodge?” I called again, pausing as I came to the corner, trying to get up my nerve to look. The old lady was buried under that tree, I thought. She’s buried under that tree. All that’s over there is more graves. But Dodge had gone around there.

“You get out of there now, Mikey,” Jordan said.

Austin started spitting curses, yelling at Jordan to give him the phone, yelling at me to run as Jordan could be heard trying shove him away, yelling at him to shut up, Austin arguing with him that he had to tell me something, saying something about Dodge, but it was Austin, I thought. He had an overactive imagination, and I knew he wanted me to be just as afraid as he had been. He didn’t have to worry about that though. I was so scared by that point my whole body was freezing and my teeth had started to chatter even though the sweat poured off of me in buckets.

“Mikey, what’s happening?” Jordan asked, Austin saying, “Oh, God! Oh, No! Mikey, come on, get outta there, man!” in the background.

“Mr. Dodge?” I called out again, hesitating at the corner, arms out, ready to do some old movie kung fu on Dodge, sure he was waiting for me to come around that corner so he could jump out and scare me.

All I heard was the sound of that rope swing making the tree creak and Austin repeating, “God, oh God, oh God, “ sounding like he was pacing circles.

“Mikey, Austin’s having a nuclear meltdown out here. Stop messing around and come on,” Jordan said in my ear.

“All right, Jordan, I’m on my way out now,” I said loudly. “Tell your mom I’m sorry I made you late for dinner again.” And then I did the stupidest thing I’ve ever done—I darted around the corner yelling, “Aha!” like I thought I was going to scare Eliot Dodge before he could scare me. Boy, was I wrong.

As I came around the corner, the end of my word of surprise caught in my throat, turning to a long scream of terror that didn’t sound like it came from my body. I wanted to run, but my feet were stuck there to the hallowed ground and Jordan was yelling in my ear, “Mikey, what’s wrong? Mikey, stop screaming!” He swore loudly, yelling at Austin to come back, yelling at me to run, telling me he was coming in for me, but I just kept screaming, panic overwhelming me, heart racing a million miles a minute.

There was Mr. Eliot Dodge, swinging by the neck from the old oak, hanging right over the old woman’s grave, overgrown with flowers. His work jumper had been ripped, and the skin on his face, neck and chest had been eaten away, picked at by crows and bugs, like he had been hanging there for several days, not a few minutes.

I took a gasping breath and finally my feet came loose from the earth and I turned to run as fast as I could, screaming louder, back down dirt road, back down the hill, Jordan still yelling, “I’m coming, Mikey! I’m coming!” I must have been running faster than I’d ever run in my life, because Jordan had hardly made it twenty yards up the path when I met him, the shriek still pouring out of me, and the look on his face when he saw me was just as frightened as I felt as he grabbed my arm and we hurried out the gate together, jumped our bikes and rode away. It wasn’t until the cemetery was good and behind us and I had gotten winded, pedaling as hard as I could, that I finally stopped screaming.

“What did you see?” Jordan shouted. “Mikey, man, you’re really cryin’? What the heck? We gotta call the police or something?”

I didn’t tell him. I couldn’t tell anyone what I saw. No one would believe me. I didn’t believe me.

I didn’t have to tell anyone.

By the time Austin and Jordan got done with school the next day (I had faked being sick to avoid it, but I regretted being at home alone all day), they made sure everyone knew I’d been to the cemetery alone and had an epic breakdown. My mom didn’t know about any of it, I’d told her we were just riding to the store, so she was surprised when Mr. Sparks rang the doorbell that evening and asked to speak with me.

“Hello, Mikey. So I heard you saw Mr. Dodge at the cemetery? Are you sure you didn’t just look up the cemetery on the internet and decide you’d try and pull a prank to get out of school or something?” Mr. Sparks chuckled as he sat down across from me in the living room.

“You went to the cemetery?” my mom said, sounding pretty angry with me.

A chill washed over me, and all I could think about was the sound of that tree creaking and my feet beating against the ground as I ran. “It was for an assignment. I just wanted to be able to say I did it, Mom,” I whispered anxiously. “And I can prove I was there, Mr. Sparks,” I added, pulling out my phone and turning it on. I’d left it off so I didn’t have to face Austin and Jordan. I didn’t believe in ghosts. I didn’t believe in zombies or paranormal experiences. Death didn’t scare me, after all I had touched a dead man’s hand when I was ten. But I couldn’t get the image of Dodge hanging there over that grave out of my mind.

“You’re trying to tell me you think you really saw the ghost of Eliot Dodge?” Mr. Sparks laughed.

“Mikey, what’s he talking about?” my mom said, rubbing her hand over my hair, looking worried.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Peterson,” Mr. Sparks said. “Every year I assign a bit of investigative work to my history students. Their goal is to see if they can find out who the first person to be buried in Ridgefield’s cemetery was and what year they died. It’s meant to be a fun project, leading into the Halloween season, not meant to scare them so bad they start skipping school. For the braver ones, I’ve drawn out a map to the site—no research, just pure exploration. I hear all sorts of things about kids’ trips to the cemetery. They like to pretend they’ve seen the ghost of a young man who died there more than a hundred years ago, up by the abandoned church. It adds a bit more excitement to the experience.”

“A hundred years ago?” I asked, feeling my eyes grow wide. “I saw him! I talked to him, Mr. Sparks! He told me to tell you he said hello! He was as real as you and me, standing there in front of me, and then I came back, and he was—he was—“ I felt the little bit of cherry jello I had managed to eat since Mom got home rise dangerously in my stomach. Mr. Sparks looked concerned, and leaned forward, expecting me to continue. “I saw him,” I whispered. “Hanging from the old tree. The meat had been picked off of him. ”

“You saw him hanging over his mother’s grave?” Mr. Sparks answered.

“Are you two making this up, or have you been planning all of this to scare me?” my mom said loudly, causing us both to jump.

Mr. Sparks cleared his throat and chuckled, though the grave look in his eyes didn’t change. “You caught us. Just a little joke, Mrs. Peterson,” he lied. “I just wanted to check in on Mikey, bring him his make-up work and make sure he would be at school tomorrow. There’s another assignment I don’t want him to miss. Not quite as exciting, and no more cemeteries, I swear.”

My mother made the noise she always makes when I’m being difficult and shook her head at him, crossing her arms over her chest. “I’ve got to finish making dinner,” she said impatiently. “Thank you for stopping by, Mr. Sparks. I look forward to seeing you again at Parent-Teacher conference in a few weeks.”

“Mikey might need some help with the math lesson from Mrs. Pruitt,” he answered quickly. “Mind if I take a moment to explain it before I go? Mikey can see me out.”

“Of course,” she answered and hurried off to the kitchen as Mr. Sparks pulled a small stack of papers from his bag, watching her back as she left the room.

“You really saw him?” he whispered, handing me my homework.

“I really saw him,” I answered, shuddering at the idea.

“Mikey, Dodge had been missing for five days before the pastor of the church found him hanging there, half eaten. They never found out if he hung himself or if someone strung him up there, but there weren’t any news articles about the state they found him in. It was a different time. People might have talked, but they all expected to be treated with dignity, when it came to the news, like they didn’t want to know too much. The only record that mentioned how he was discovered, hanging from that tree where his mother was later buried, was in the police reports, so how did you find out about this?”

“I saw him,” I whispered.

“Can I see the picture you took, just to make sure you’re telling the truth about being there? I mean, maybe you’re an excellent sleuth and managed to dig something up on the internet.”

“I was there, Mr. Sparks. There are two pictures,” I said, opening the gallery on my phone and scrolling down to the end, while Mr. Sparks looked on expectantly.

But it turned out I had taken three pictures by mistake. One was of me grinning dumbly in front of the old church. One was of me, again grinning dumbly, in front of Julian Parsons’ headstone. The third was blurry, because I had taken it by accident while I was running away, and my finger blocked most of the view, but there in the corner of the picture hanging from the old oak by the church, dead more than a hundred years, was Eliot Dodge’s ghost.

Mr. Sparks said the image was too blurry to know for certain what it was he was seeing, and before he left that night, he decided that me and my friends could have gone up there to rig the shot, proof of all the rumors of Eliot Dodge’s mysterious death. He didn’t want to believe it, even though I know he could tell I was telling the truth. I can’t blame him.  I didn’t want to believe it either.


Happy Halloween, from my family to yours!



Drawing 101: Lesson Two: Never Draw a Changeling… Just Never.

Before I get too far into this week’s post, I wanted to take the opportunity to thank Indie Reader for recognizing The Eleventh Age in their October 15, 2014 “Alike But Indie” column “If You Liked The Magician’s Land, You’ll Love…”  It can be difficult being an author in a time when the industry is experiencing so much change.  One doesn’t always know the right steps to take to get the work noticed, so it means even more when it comes unexpectedly, as this did.  Thank you so much, Indie Reader!  You seriously made my week!

Speaking of last week, I forgot to update the Character Tidbits page in all my excitement.  To make up for my absentmindedness, this week I’ve posted two new pages–Phileas Foote and  Ash (Aisling O’Toole), who is one of my favorite characters and happens to be the subject of this week’s Drawing Lesson, which I’m considering making a regular category, but we’ll see.  So, without further adieu…

Never Draw a Changeling… Just Never.

In The Eleventh Age Elli’s best friend is the quick-witted, sharp-tongued, and beautiful Aisling O’Toole, who happens to be a halfling–half nymph and half goddess–which makes her a metamorph or shapeshifter. As I mentioned in a previous Drawing Lesson, Ash’s character sketch has given me enormous problems, so much so that I had to quit trying and come back to her with fresh eyes more than once.  Since I finally managed to get her right, in honor of Ash’s metamorphic ways, I thought I would share her remarkable transformation.

When I’m drawing a character, I try to find people who look similar to the people I see in my head and work from there, changing them as I see fit.  For the most part this is easy enough, and usually I can get a character down within the first three sketches.  The girl I originally selected as the basis for Ash was gorgeous.  I knew she wasn’t a perfect Ash when I selected her, no one was going to be, but I liked the shape of her features, especially her eyes, which were big but still pixyish and looked very much like the real Ash’s amber eyes.  If I had known how difficult she would be, I would have chosen someone else from the start, though that probably wouldn’t have helped me much in the end.  You’ll see why.

bad ash 1For the record, this was my third attempt with the original model with the perfect eyes.  Even though the drawing is awful (by this point you can see my frustration coming out in the graphite), I am glad I didn’t throw it away like the previous two attempts because it’s nice looking back, to see just how much I’ve improved as an artist.  (There’s a lesson in here about practicing, I’m sure, but who needs practical drawing lessons? If you’ve come to me for that, you’re in big trouble, but I digress.)

With every attempt at drawing this girl, I only seemed to get worse, and my younger daughter kept coming along, looking at my work, telling me her chin was too short or her nose was misaligned or her face didn’t fall in the right point on her head. She was a very patient critic, my Bird, even though I became more convinced that I was just a terrible artist with each sketch of not-Ash I drew.  Bird is a teenager, so she might have just laughed at my struggles, rolled her eyes and gone about her business.  Instead she kept repeating in her very best voice of reason, “It’s better than I could do, Mom.  You’ll get it.  Keep trying,” which I did, until about a month ago, when I decided I just couldn’t draw a person in profile and I turned to the great and powerful internet for help.

bad ash 2After watching some how-to videos on drawing, I came back to the original model recharged, drawing her several more times, altering hair and even the shape of her eyes, which was one of the things that I liked most about model 1 in the first place, but still I couldn’t get her right. I thought that if I just kept changing things, eventually she would look like the girl I saw in my head, and I wasn’t willing to give up… that is, until I was about half way through this drawing–the last drawing of model 1 ever made.

It is far better than the other drawing, as you can see, however even before I started her ridiculous hair (which I drew several ways before quitting, though the evidence didn’t come out in the picture), I had already figured out it wasn’t really that I couldn’t draw Ash, or even that some small thing about the model needed to be altered and if I could just find whatever it was and fix it, she would be the perfect Ash.  The trouble was that the girl I was drawing repeatedly and requiring still more brief art lessons/therapy sessions with my fourteen year old for, was just not Ash, not at all, and I was too stubborn to recognize it.  I don’t know who model 1 was, but she wasn’t who I thought she was.

This weeks-long endeavor at redrawing the same girl fifty different ways is how my hidden character inspiration board on Pinterest became full of dozens of potential Ash Wannabes, all of them beautiful, but most of them not at all Ash-like.  Here are the other girls I drew in my search for the real Ash:

None of them were good enough, which is why it probably wouldn’t have done me any good to start with a different model, because I was just bound to go through this process, but at least I made some serious strides in my ability to draw a person the right way in one attempt, which is exactly how many times it took me to draw the fifth model, who turned out to be the one.


Ash, the changeling
Ash, the changeling

I’m not certain why I had such a difficult time finding her to begin with, in fact, when I started drawing model 5, I thought she would likely end up in the Not-Ash pile as well.  But now that she is finished, with her coy eyes and her lips that hint of a thousand secrets and her wild hair that gives away just enough of who she really is at heart to satisfy that she does not take herself too seriously, I’ve decided that maybe the reason this has been such a difficult journey has something to do with the nature of Ash’s character as a shapeshifter.

Needless to say, if you are going to start drawing people, whether for your work or as a hobby, I highly recommend you steer clear of all changelings, because they have a nasty habit of changing on you when you least expect it. Beyond that, remember that just because a person might be a changeling doesn’t mean they want to be changed by you.  I suppose you could say that I have learned not to keep sketching the same person, hoping somehow she would magically turn into someone she was not for my sake.

Yup, that’s a metaphor.   Happy Drawing!

Distractions: Day in the Life of Author


The Phone is ALWAYS ringing. Always.
The Phone is ALWAYS ringing. Always.  Always.  Always.


Once upon a time there was a phone that rang constantly, distracting Author from the most important story she had ever written.






I ask myself if I've fed the fish at least three times a day.
I ask myself at least three times a day if I have fed the fish yet.  Obviously, by the algae smudged glass you can tell that Nixon the snail is never in want of food.

It rang so often that Author had seriously considered dropping the phone into the fish tank on more than one occasion, but she thought perhaps phones weren’t very good for fish, and fish probably weren’t very good at taking messages.





Chickens have nightmares too.  True story.
This is Camilla (the red) and Simba (the gold).  One day they were sleeping on the porch right next to the sliding door, as they often do, and out of nowhere Simba jumped up in the air, flapping and squawking, looking around her as though someone had just tried to drop her into a vat of boiling oil.  So I had to stop working to look up whether or not chickens dream, which they do.  True story.

It wasn’t that she particularly liked the fish, in fact she regularly thought about feeding them to the chickens, but she worried that would make the chicken eggs taste fishy, and surely someone would complain about fishy eggs (and missing fish), and complaints were the last thing Author needed with all of the other distractions keeping her from her work.






Sometimes I distract myself.  The internet does not always lie.  Onions and leeks can be regrown from the root ends of grocery store produce.
Sometimes I distract myself. The internet does not always lie. Onions and leeks can be regrown from the root ends of grocery store produce.  And chickens also really like green onions, which is why I made this basket out of spare guinea pig cage parts

She didn’t particularly like the chickens or their eggs, either, because the chickens liked to eat the vegetables and dig for worms in the garden, requiring Author to come up with new and ingenious ways of keeping chickens from gobbling up all the green onions.






Guinea pig enclosures should not be kept too clean.  They must ingest certain kinds of their droppings in order to remain regular.  Furry piggy constipation is not fun.
Guinea pig enclosures should not be kept too clean. Apparently pigs must ingest certain kinds of their droppings in order to remain regular. Furry piggy constipation is not fun.  Trust me.

But she had to admit that chickens were far better than guinea pigs, because at least chickens stayed outside where chickens belong, and for some strange reason guinea pigs had to live indoors, which meant regularly dealing with guinea pig waste–not her favorite subject.

Even so, Author definitely liked guinea pigs and chickens far better than the phone that rang constantly.



One day, Author decided to make a list of all the things that distracted her most from her work, to try and put the constantly ringing phone into perspective and determine if there was anything that could be done to resolve her distractions, so that she could get back to the most important story she had ever written.

Oh, the cruel irony of the woodpile haphazardly stacked at the base of the dying tree.  These are just two of the many tasks that have been demanding my attention for weeks, along with a broken dryer, a leaky faucet, a dead icemaker...  The list is never-ending.
Oh, the cruel irony of the woodpile haphazardly stacked at the base of the dying tree. These are just two of the many tasks that have been demanding my attention for weeks, along with a broken dryer, a leaky faucet, a dead icemaker… The list is never-ending.

As it turned out, there were several things that were almost as distracting as the phone, like the tree that had barely survived the previous winter and was dying a slow death right before her eyes, along with countless other things around the house that needed fixing and just wouldn’t be fixed because there wasn’t time or money.







I can only read news on weekends, otherwise satirical art happens.
I can only read news on weekends, otherwise satirical art happens.

The news was almost as distracting as the phone, as well, often causing anxiety from the worry over foreign conflicts and incurable diseases, or worse yet, causing debates about everything from climate change to equal rights.

But those distractions could all be controlled by simply practicing avoidance and self-control.  The phone, which could not be turned off, in case of emergency, was an intrusion from the outside world, demanding at least a cursory glance at the Caller ID before being swiftly ignored, unless it required an answer.  And that tiny glance, however brief, and the quickest push of a button a dozen or more times a day had directly caused the loss of countless sentences, driven from Author’s brain with each shrill ring, ring. ring!  Surely, the most important story Author had ever written required sentences!

However, as Author made her list, she realized that the phone was not the worst distraction of all.

There were three things in this world that were far more distracting than any phone that ever rang constantly…

I'm always most afraid when they are acting sweet and innocent.
I’m always most afraid when they are acting sweet and innocent like this.

…and their names were Plava, Aziz and Rorschach.


Today is the day they will eat the postman.  They begin plotting his demise early in the day.
Today is the day the dogs will eat the postman. They begin plotting his demise early in the morning.

When they weren’t sitting in the front window, waiting for the next unassuming postman, car, cat, dog, bird, skunk, or ladybug to wander past, so that they could howl another rousing verse of “Bark!  Who Goes There!” a song which provided the two dogs with endless entertainment, Plava and Aziz made certain to keep things interesting by taking turns whining at the back door, coming inside and out, going outside and in, forcing Author up from her seat, away from her computer, at least fourteen times a day.

The instincts of dogs could not be silenced with the quick push of a button.  Author knew these dogs were definitely much more distracting than ringing phones.

But far worst of all–

Worse than Plava and Aziz,

Worse than the most terrible news and the endless lists of incomplete tasks, which only grew the more it was avoided,

Worse than guinea pig excrement and garden destroying chickens and fish that didn’t know how to answer constantly ringing telephones–

was that heinous,



Rorschach Schrödinger.

If he is not meowing for food, wrestling with one of the dogs, clawing furniture, or walking back and forth across the piano, he is walking back and forth across the keyboard or reaching around the computer playing attack the fingers.
House cats are the arch nemeses of authors everywhere.

Rorschach, with his sweet fuzzy cheeks and his entirely-too-innocent purr, was the biggest distraction.  Rorschach, with his swishing fat pouch and the charming way he wound himself around Author’s feet causing her to trip almost every morning before she was quite awake, was the greatest of menaces.

If he was not meowing to be picked up and sat on the counter so he could eat three nibbles of food before jumping down again, wrestling with Plava or chasing Aziz, clawing at furniture to sharpen his interior decorating skills or jumping on the piano to play his favorite horror film tune, “Cat Walks Up Piano, Cat Walks Down Piano”, trying to catch guinea pigs through the bars of their cage, eating houseplants, scratching at the back door hoping that he would be allowed outside to harass the chickens, the birds or the squirrels, or napping in some warm patch of sunshine, then he knew Author was writing, which meant he knew it was time to strike.  If Author was writing, Rorschach, with his big green, slightly off-kilter eyes and the curious way he licked his side whenever he was embarrassed for falling off the table unexpectedly, could be found walking back and forth across Author’s keyboard, rubbing his nose against her forehead, demanding attention while she uttered impatient curses.  If he knew Author was writing, he could be counted on for attempting to knock Author’s computer from its stand because that was when he just had to know how the stand was engineered even though he figured that out at least twice the day before.  If Author was busy trying to write the most important story she had ever written, then Rorschach was surely right there, having an exciting game of catch the typing fingers, which involved the cat hiding behind the computer and quickly reaching around to bat at Author’s hands as many times as possible before she finished typing a sentence–current record, 42!

After taking all of this into consideration, Author decided the phone wasn’t so bad, but she knew exactly what she would do with it the next time it rang, and the fish were going to love it.

The End.

And the Moral of the Story Is…

Yesterday I published Blackeney’s character page, which honestly gave me a bit more difficulty than any other character so far, though this really didn’t surprise me, because Black’s tale is darker, so he’s harder to summarize.  The Eleventh Age is an epic fantasy, and all of my characters fit fantasy archetypes at the surface–after all what is a fantasy without its trusty tropes?  Black is no different from any of the others in that respect, however when I first started writing several years ago, my original goal was simply to produce an action-packed, young adult fantasy that had a female hero, because I thought the world could use more stories about girls, who weren’t quite as transparent as their glass slippers, but as I began building my world, in which young Elli Foote, like many a hero before her, discovers her extraordinary purpose and embarks on her harrowing journey with her band of trusty tropes at her side, I developed a few ulterior motives.  I wanted to write a story with a moral at the end.  I wanted to write a story that crossed cultural boundaries.  I wanted to write a story in which my characters spoke to real-world issues, suffering the sort of troubles ordinary people suffer, like loss, abandonment, poverty, hunger, abuse–all of these are things Black has experienced firsthand, just to name a few, which is what made writing his summary so difficult.  My trouble was in remaining true to his character without giving too much away, which I think I’ve managed.

I’ve alluded to this desire to keep my characters real before.  Not only do all of them have to have flaws and hidden agendas, weaknesses and passions, but all of them must have perfectly rational reasons for their otherwise odd behaviors.  Black, for instance, is a warrior who does not fight, and his reasons are rational and uniquely his own.  The thing is, Black knows as well a I do that what is rational is not always logical, and our rationalizations can sometimes (read: almost always) be built upon false beliefs.  We humans are actually quite adept at dealing in false beliefs, which brings me to the topic of the day:

Monkeys, Babies, and the Moral of the Story

If you are reading this, chances are 1. you are human and 2. you possess fairly well-developed theory of mind, which is, very basically, the ability to understand that you have a mind, which holds knowledge, beliefs, and intentions unique to you, and that others have minds of their own, in which they hold separate knowledge, beliefs and intentions that are different from yours and everyone else, for that matter.  This probably seems fairly straightforward, especially since you’ve possessed the beginnings of this theory of mind since you were as young as seven months old, however even though it seems obvious, this theory can only ever be a theory because there is no way for me to prove that you have a mind or for you to prove that I have one, because we are each only capable of experiencing the world from our singular perspectives, and anything else is, well, just theory.  What this theory of mind allows you to do is to make assumptions, based on your own understandings, in order to predict or explain other people’s actions, and it comes in quite handy in just about every interaction we have with one another (and anything else we perceive as having a mind, it turns out).

Scientists have been working for decades to determine if humans are the only animals that possess theory of mind, to determine if this is in fact what distinguishes us as humans, which is a rather difficult task, because animals and humans don’t speak the same language, though we can understand certain animal behaviors as similar to our own.  There is plenty of documented evidence supporting the idea that animals have emotions.  We know elephants and gorillas cry over the loss of family and friends, even across species.  We know dogs will visit the graves of deceased companions.  But while we’re perfectly aware that other animals have minds, after all our theory of mind allows us to assume this by their behaviors, whether or not those animals possess a theory of mind and are aware that we have minds as well is open for debate.

If you’ve ever played fetch with a dog, you know that animals are capable of viewing your behavior and predicting what will happen next.  We had a Belgian Malinois years ago that I loved to try and fool when playing fetch.  I could see that she would watch my eyes and the angle of my arm and take off milliseconds before the ball ever left my hand, and very rarely did I ever fool her.  The dogs we have now are not quite so intuitive–one of them just looks at the ball, dimly, like he’s still not certain what it is, while the other will go after the ball and keep running past it forever, but now I’ve gotten sidetracked. It is clear from my own experience that dogs are definitely aware of what people are looking at and capable of making predictions about their actions.  For a while,  some researchers had the idea that this sort of awareness of visual access might be evidence of full-blown theory of mind in other animals.

O’livia, the Belgian, even displayed some cross-species compassion once, a few years before she died.  Though she never had puppies of her own, she attempted to nurse an opossum that had been abandoned and wandered into our yard, weak and blind and squealing for its momma.

Livy and her possum pup
Livy and her possum pup, safe between her legs

Initially I believed that my wonderful, bright dog had chosen to display the tenderness of motherhood, and trust me when I say that Livy was anything but tender under normal circumstances.  It definitely seemed to me that she understood the baby opossum was lost and alone and hungry, and that she knew just what to do and actually wanted to help.  Then I found the first baby opossum to make it into the yard, very much dead, and the second, dead as well, and I began to wonder if perhaps this third opossum, whom she was being kind to, nursing even though she had no milk, was really lost and alone and hungry, and having found a warm, furry body, it had climbed up and attached to Livy by mistake, while dear ol’ Livy was busy murdering its siblings (much more Livy-like behavior).  I began to suspect that when the opossum attached and began to suckle, it triggered her mothering instinct, probably through a release of hormones, and that overrode her hyperactive prey drive.  I will never know if Liv actually possessed a theory of mind capable of commiseration with and showing compassion towards a baby opossum, but I do know from my experience that I am just great at anthropomorphizing all manner of animals and creating false beliefs within my own little theory of mind.  I’m officially human.  Yay!

Recently, developmental psychologists and comparative cognition researchers have managed to conduct several false-belief task tests on human babies and various primates.  This sort of testing was necessary because one of the most important steps in development of theory of mind is establishing the ability to distinguish what another person can or can’t know based on their observations.  The comparative cognition researchers were beginning to suspect that all primates had a solid theory of mind based on other tests that definitively showed primates (and other animals) have a visual awareness that extends to others, like with my dog, Liv.  For instance, a monkey is more likely to steal a piece of food it knows has not been seen by its owner, and they even retain this knowledge in the future, but without non-verbal tests for false-belief tasks, they couldn’t draw a firm corollary between visual-behavioral awareness and behavioral-mental awareness.  (You can and should read about some of these false-belief tests and their results here, I just wanted to give a basic idea moving forward.)  In each of the false-belief tests, what is being examined is whether or not the subject (baby or monkey) understands what a second subject can know based on its experience.  For instance, the baby or monkey watches the second subject place an object in a specific spot, and while the second subject isn’t paying attention, the object moves somewhere else.  Will the baby or monkey know that the second subject must believe that the object is in its original spot (i.e. does the baby or monkey have an understanding of what the second subject knows based on its world view)?  It turns out that 15 month old human babies consistently exhibit that they understand and are not surprised by true-belief based actions committed by the second subject (when the subject returns to where the baby last saw the second subject place the object), and they consistently exhibit that they understand and are surprised by false-belief based actions committed by the second subject (when the subject returns to look where the object actually is, where they could not have seen the object go).  Human babies, surprise, surprise, have a developed theory of mind.  Much to the dismay of the comparative cognition researchers, monkeys don’t care, either way.  Once visual access is lost, the monkeys no longer expect the second subject to look in either spot, whether during the true-belief test or the false-belief test, because as far as a monkey’s concerned, the subject can’t know where the object is.  This does not necessarily mean that monkeys don’t have a theory of mind, by the way, it may just mean that their theory of mind relies on continuous observation, because they are continually observant, and their theory of mind is based on being a monkey, which you have to admit makes a little more sense than their theory of mind being the same as us humans.  If their theory of mind were just like ours, they would probably be out there conducting tests on pigmy goats to determine whether or not pigmy goats too think like apes and humans, but they aren’t.

I have no vested interest in whether or not this proves that humans are massively unique, so you might be asking yourself why is this important to me?  Because other animals dance and sing during mating season, and we people find it fascinating and devote whole studies to it, and frankly, it’s that sort of stuff that I find fascinating.  Humans dance and sing all the time, just for fun, and we’ve got people who study that too.  Unless we’re depressed or otherwise inhibited, we seem to always be spit-polishing our feathers, because we are very much concerned with what others think about us–other people and other animals as well, it seems.  We lie for attention and affection.  We cheat on tests in order to give ourselves a false sense of security and to instill in others a false belief of our abilities.  We don’t just watch life, observing the real, we all play mentalists, examining other people for signs they are bored, hungry, angry, tired, lying, and a plethora of other interesting little things we believe they might feel or do at any given moment, based on that theory of mind we’re so keen at using, and we habitually make up stories to answer that profoundest of questions: why?

We read whole books about how other people go through their lives, and we invest ourselves deeply in their worlds, purely for entertainment purposes.  We even write whole books for the entertainment of others, which is stranger still than reading, because it requires that we not only consider that other people have minds, but that we have an understanding of how to manipulate and influence those minds, by creating still more minds, all worrying very humanly over the contents of still other minds, just to elicit specific thoughts and emotions, not in ourselves, but so that the moral of the story is understood by someone else in the end.  The depth of our theory of mind means that we don’t just cry when we lose our own loved-ones and friends, we cry when people we know lose loved-ones and friends, we cry when we hear about people we don’t know losing loved-ones and friends, we cry when elephants cry because they have lost loved-ones and friends, we even cry when we read about fictional creatures from other universes crying over elephants crying over losing loved-ones and friends.  Okay, I made that up.  But we do read about conferences where other people talk about studies still others have conducted to determine if other primates understand false belief, and we ask ourselves questions like, “Even if they did understand false belief, would they be capable of understanding it to the depths that we do?” which gives rise to still more questions and potential things to study, which leads me to believe that perhaps the ability to ponder and theorize and postulate and query even though we have a fully developed theory of mind that is capable of understanding not just that some other person or animal can only know what he has experienced, but that sometimes people will surprise us, and we enjoy being amazed like that, might just be what makes us human.