Sunday, November 1, 2009

Storytelling in Steelhead -- was it good for you too?


The charmin' Riven Howemewood invited me to take part in a Halloween spooky storytelling marathon in the garden at the Steelhead public library. What a grand time, Thank you Riven!

I only got to stay for part of the event, but there was a real nice turnout and great readings. Some of the presentations were readings of works by authors such as Ambrose Bierce (always popular at this time of the year) or things like this piece, which was found and read by Hawc DaCosta. There were also original stories read by some of our in-world authors--for example, my friend Headburro Antfarm offered up what I understand was an enhanced version of his sewer zombie epic (sadly he took his turn at storytelling before I was able to get there), and I presented two pieces that I wrote this morning, basing them on a couple of traditional tales that I expanded and stuffed some dialogue into.

On the whole, other than a couple of stupid typos, I thought what I did turned out pretty well. So I decided to share them with you folks here (also I'm too damn tired to write anything else today, but hell, I want to give ye somethin').

The first story is based on what may be at least in part, an old plains Indian story. I tried to write in the voice of Pawnee grand mother telling the tale. The second is a fanciful expansion on common story that sort of falls into the realm of western urban legends. It is told in Dio's usual voice, so you cussin' fans won't be totally disappointed.

The Salt Witch

Long ago, in the days before the white men came to the plains to hunt and trade and draw their maps, even before the bearded men in iron clothing brought the Horse, which ran away or were stolen by the People, who would use them to make a new way of life upon the grasslands...

There was a story told among the Pawnee people, living in what the white men now call Kansas and Nebraska, the story of the Salt Witch, and the Pawnee chief who destroyed her.

The Pawnee are a brave and war-like people, taking great joy in their fights with their old enemies the Sioux, and others who would do them harm. In those days before the coming of the Horse, they moved on foot, following the game they hunted, including the sacred Buffalo. Ayah! you gotta be brave to do that! ....hunting buffalo on foot! Maybe some time I will tell you how they did it. But not now.

Now I will tell you about a journey that lies at the heart of this story of the Salt Witch. For the Pawnee also made great journeys for many purposes on foot, pulling their things behind them on the framework of sticks the Metis and voyaguers call travois.

There was one band of Pawnee down in what is now Kansas, who were led by one of the most brave and fearsome war chiefs the people had ever known. It was so long ago, that no one recalls his name, but, oh, they remember how fierce he was!

This man knew no fear, in sight of an enemy he was possessed of such rage that no one could stop him in his killing, it seemed like nothing created by the Spirits or man could turn him aside from his prey!

Only his gentle and beautiful wife could calm him...only she had the power over his heart to turn him from the path of his rage. He loved her with a force as powerful as his anger, but with her he was as kind as a grandmother, and filled with joy like a young man who has just come to know his first affection for a woman...

One day, the elders of his band came to him and said, “The people need salt, there is little left in our camp...will you lead our people north, above the wide river to the salty lakes? There they may gather the salt that is left on the banks as the sun dries out the waters.”

The war chief agreed, and he told his people to bundle their things and load the travois, and they set off across the grasslands, across the wide river, into the sand hills of what the white men now call Nebraska, where they could find the dried salt on the banks of the saline lakes and ponds.

Along the way, they met another band of Pawnee, coming south from those lands. “Greetings brothers!” they said. “Where do you journey to?”

“We go to the sand hills, to gather salt from the banks of the lakes.” said the chief.
“Ayah!” the others cried. “Beware when you get there, for there is a witch woman who dwells there now! You will see a pillar of the salt, in one place, and then when you turn, it will be in another! It is the Salt Witch, hunting you! She is evil, and feeds upon the fear that dwells deep in a man’s heart, and she will try to steal or kill the spirits of your people!”

Many of the chief’s band felt dismay and their hearts turned to ice at this news. The elders came to him, and asked, “Should we turn back?” But the chief, he talked to his warriors, and gave them new heart. They agreed with him that they all should go on, having come this far.

They went on and found a place where a great salty lake had been burned almost dry by the sun, and there was much much salt that some of it formed pillars that stood tall above the ground...

and the people...

as they worked...

felt sure some of the pillars seemed to move.

Or perhaps it was just one. It would be far behind you..and then you turned to scrape at the salt with an antelope’s shoulder bone, and when you stood up again...the pillar seemed closer....

The chief shouted to his people to work hard and fast, to be brave as the Pawnee are, and to not fear things that cannot be seen and may be only in the mind. But many of them still felt fear, especially the chief’s wife...and she could feel something gripping at her heart.

They finished, taking much salt that would last them a very long time and could also be used to trade with other bands. Oh! but they were glad to leave that place....and as they traveled back, their hearts grew lighter...except for that of the chief’s wife.

Her thoughts grew dark, her chest was pained, her breathing shallow, and her dreams at night made her cry out and wake, sitting up, washed in sweat, her eyes wide....The chief was greatly troubled, and worried for his wife...

He asked the band to stop when they got to the wide river and to camp for awhile, so she could rest, and the medicine man could try to help his wife....

They of course agreed, for the whole band was fond of the chief’s wife...but they could do nothing for her, and during the night of their second day in camp by the wide river, she died.

The people of the band were greatly saddened by this...the women cried out and the men spoke in low voices, their eyes downcast...but not the chief.

He stood looking towards the the sand hills and the salty the one lake, where the pillars of salt stood. An elder asked him, “My brother, what passes through your mind? I know you are troubled and grieving...but there is nothing else we can do...”

The chief turned his head slowly towards the elder, and the old one could see the fire beginning to burn in his eyes, the darkness in his face, how his chest heaved as his heart beat faster and faster like a war drum...

The chief stripped off his clothing and painted himself black...he took up his great war club which had a stone head made of pure white stone from the sacred Black Hills...the stone the white men call quartz, which dwells in the earth with the shining yellow rocks the People know as the blood of the Sun.

The stone head of his war club was hard and sharp, a pure glowing white, which is why the People call such rocks “stone ice” was fixed with stout rawhide laces to a sturdy ash haft, and this club had been washed in the blood of many enemies...

The chief stood for a moment on the edge of the camp, gripping his war club..and then he let out a cry that was as if a bear and a panther had joined voices, and his people knew he had been taken by his rage. They watched as he ran on powerful legs towards the north.

The chief ran until he came to the very lake bed where they had gathered salt, and there, he saw an apparition: an old woman standing over the figure of a young woman...her face was twisted in horrid glee, as she held the young woman by the hair, a stone knife lifted in her hand!

The chief let out another roar, twice as dreadful as before, and he charged forward, his war club raised...

The Salt Witch--for it was indeed her--laughed and let go of the young woman, turning towards the onrushing man. She reached out with her magic to feel for his fear...

and she found none.

All she could find was rage. A terrible, immense, towering rage...

Rage so was not like the anger that grows from fear or was an elemental power, like the great fires that sweep over the grasslands in dry season, or the storms that blacken with sky with clouds that crash and throw their burning lances at the earth....

And the Salt Witch herself now knew fear...for the Salt Witch was not some evil sprit that could not be killed. She was a living thing...fully evil, yes...but a being who could die.
And knowing this, she tried to turn herself into a salt pillar to hide, but the fear had caught her so completely, she forgot how...

She could only whimper “Mercy” as the war chief closed with her...

But the rage does not know mercy...he brought the club of pure white stone down on her head and split her skull from crown to chin. He wrenched his weapon from the mass of blood and brains and teeth, and then swung at the hand that still clutched the wicked stone knife, smashing bones and flesh and shattering the knife into a hundred pieces.

He swung again and sank the club into her chest, laying open what was inside...and as she fell, he thrust his hand into the gaping wound and tore her heart from its very roots. Dropping his club and the bloody organ, he took her arms and wrenched them from the sockets, pulling the wretched creature to pieces with his bare hands.

And then he heard a voice.

“Husband...she is dead. You may cease your rage...”

It was the young woman... was his wife...

She was shimmering, and he could see through her, for it was just her spirit, which had been taken captive by the Salt Witch, and was now free...

...but she still had to power to calm his rage one last time...

She smiled at him...and he sank to his knees before her smiling spirit, and he wept...for the first and last time in his life, he wept...

She bent forward to kiss him, and he was calmed...the rage was gone...

...and the spirits of the winds came and took her to the Other Side Camps, where she would wait for her husband.

The chief wiped the tears from his face and stood...he piled the remains of the Salt Witch and called out to the Great Spirit to hold the evil thing in this place until the end of time...and the shattered body parts of the vile creature became, for one final time, a pillar of salt.

And he returned to his people and journeyed with them for many years, until he too passed and rejoined his beloved in the Other Side Camps.

Now when the People go to that place to gather salt, they have no fear. They beat the ground with clubs around that salt pillar to remind the Witch of how she was destroyed, and to chastise her with the knowledge that one who feeds on fear can have that fear turned upon them.

Devil Dogs of the Comstock

Chinese folk are a lot like injuns an irishmen: they got a certain understandin’ that most other folks don’t, ‘specially in matters of a spiritual nature.

An’ they kin be downright philosophical regadin’ about jus’ about nearly ever’thin’...

Like here’s a story ‘bout some fellers what went to the Comstock hopin’ to make their fortune..but they sorta tended to run about a day late an’ a dollar short, so when they got to that part o’ Nevada, the big rush was over, and the smaller sliver claims was already played out.

Well, they figgered it wouldn’t hurt to look at some of the abandoned claims to see if anyone has mebbe missed somethin, and they was in this one lil’ minin’ town when they heard tell of a nearby canyon that was jus full o’ old claims, where the work had seemed so promisin’ and tussle fer diggin’ rights had been so enthusiastic, that the miners who had been digging up there had all got guard dogs to keep off claim jumpers.

So these two fellers...brothers most likely, bein’ as when yer both as dim-witted as these boys were, ye ain’t gonna be willin’ to put up with each other less’n ye got blood ties forcin’ the issue....

...anyhow, they was fixin’ to go up to this canyon, and they gets to talking with an ol’ Celestial gent who tells ‘em, “You be wary, for that canyon has spirit dogs--you hear how miners up there have guard dogs?”

“Yep” says the two brothers, noddin’ their mostly empty heads.

“Well,” says the ol’ Chinese man, “when silver all gone up there, miners go..but most leave dogs behind...don’t need them no more...they starve and die, still guarding masters’ claims.”

The two fellers of course, don’t put much stock in this, cuz like I said, they warn’t possesed o’ much in the way o’ fetchums. The head on up the canyon and find a likely lookin’ ol’ hole cut into the hillside, an’ set up a little camp.

The old claim, was purty much just a little square hole framed up with some crude hewn they was a chain pegged outside. Our heroes follow the chain inside the hole an’ see the bones of a very, very big dog at the other end, just within the entrance of the diggin’s, where the por critter musta crawled to an’ expired.

Beyond that, they discover purty much the usual o’ what ye’d expect in a hole dug into a hillside, which ain’t a whole lot. They keep pokin’ around, not findin’ much, but they do manage to piss away the better part o’ the day, so that they elect to settle in fer the night at their lil’ camp instead o’ headin back to town.

After dark fell an they’s a-layin under their blankets by the far, when the one says, “You hear that?”

“What?” says the other.

“Like a snufflin’ an’ growlin?” says the first.

“NO. Tis jus’ coyotes mos’ likely. The far will keep ‘em at a distance. Now shut the hell up an’ go to sleep ye feckless turd-brained puke.”

“I ain’t feckless,” the first one mutters all petulant-like, as he rolls over.

They try to go to sleep, but after a while they kin both hear the snufflin’ an growlin’...the older one takes out his six shooter, an’ fires a round into the brush to scare off whatever it was...and it got quiet again fer a while...

but then the noise starts up again, louder than before..and just as the one feller is gonna let off another shot, they hear this barkin’ an snarlin’...not like ye get with a coyote, but with a big dog.

..a big mean dog.

...a big mean dog who is utterly an unforgivably pissed off...

The hair is a-standin’ up on the back o’ their scruffy red necks, an’ they both start turnin’ toward the sound o’ the barking...

...which happens to be a-comin’ from in the minin’ hole dug in side o’ the hill not more’n a few yards away...

an’ they kin see see two red, glowin’ eyes, starin’ at em from in the darkness o’ the hole...

an’ then...the chain starts to move.

The older one who’s got a bit more of a calculatin’ side to his nature, he says...”um...Billy Jon, how long do ye recollect that chain was?

An’ Billy Jon, bein’ the more emotional o’ the two, just sorta goes,


They both leaps up an takes to runnin’ fer the hosses fast as they kin, no boots, no britches (no brains) an’ Billy Jim--the older and slower o’ the two--swears he felt somethin’ nippin’ at his calves.

They get to the hosses, yank the picket pins outta the ground, leap on and take off with no saddles, a-hangin’ on fer dear life, not stoppin’ til they got back to town. Whole town hears about this, an’ o’ course, some laugh about it, an’ others..well, they don’t.

Next mornin’ our two intrepid prospectors is debatin’ about goin back up for their gear, when along comes the ol’ chinese fella with his mule, carryin’ their saddles, camp gear an’ clothes an’ all...

“Here.” he says with a lil’smile. “I get your stuff for you.”

“Well, that’s right neighborly of ye, ol’ man, “ says Billy Jim. “But how in tarnation kin ye jus’ so calmly go to that place when there is somethin’ so downright goddam evil up there?”

“Oh, it not evil.” the gent replies.

“What do you mean, it ain’t evil?” says Billy Jon with a good deal o’ incredulity.

“Ah,” says the ol’ chinese man. “Dog’s master tell him, you be good dog, guard claim--never let nobody but master dig here. But master never tell dog is ok to stop guarding claim. So he keep doing it. He just being good dog. Good dog...



  1. It was excellent! I really loved it - even using voice, but then I am a closet show off :-D

    I'm so glad I got to catch one of your tales - and especially the one I did - I love tales of love and rage and revenge - especially rage. I've always said the Marvel character I'd like to be is the Hulk as I just love all that animalistic anger, so to hear of the witch staring into the chief to find his fear and finding only a pure sun-boiling rage was a real thrill for me - TY! I'll read the second one later today (I'm wall-to-wall in RL at the mo, hence my unusual comment silences)

  2. Hey HB,

    Yeah, I like the Pawnee chief too--I think Hulk and Hulk-like characters touch something universal in most of us. The Dalai Lama maybe, he might not be able to relate to the Hulk in a direct sort of way, but most of the rest of yes--yeah.

    And I thought it was really fun the way the audience members go into it, cheering for the chief and sneering at the witch as she got hers.

    It was nice to see you there and I'm glad you got to hear the one story and enjoyed it.

  3. I've finally posted my pictures and thoughts from the event, along with the full text of my tale:

  4. Those are some nice pics, HB! (hehe, "HTML Bollocks"--you make me laugh)

    I think this is a very interesting point, that you were not much of a storyteller or writer before being sucked into "storytelling rp" here on the dreadful interwebs thingie.

    Hell, I think all of us are writing more than we did 10 years ago--AND unlike with most of the crap I wrote a decade ago, there is actually someone reading what I write now. Maybe not a lot of you, but certainly more folks than saw any of my fiction before.