This year, I’ve been using an idea lifted from Kurt Vonnegut as an opening point in my middle-grade presentations. In his “Rules for Writers,” Vonnegut advises, “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
Most books follow that dictum consciously or not. I know that I certainly put it into practice in Blood Mountain. I do terrible things to those kids.
In these two short excerpts, we’ll meet Carter and Grace as they get a little deeper into the story (for a previous excerpt, click here). In “Bog,” taken from the end of Chapter 30, we find Carter traveling alone. Rangers advise hikers of three cardinal rules should they find themselves lost in the wilderness: “Stay put, stay dry, stay warm.” In this scene, Carter is failing, and fighting, spectacularly. He doesn’t have much choice.
In the next excerpt, we briefly visit with Grace, injured and alone on DAY 4, and get a glimpse into her spirit and toughness.
Plowing forward, Carter takes a hard hit from an overhanging branch. The blow staggers him, knocks him to his knees. He stays on all fours, woozy. He touches his head, his fingers come back wet and red. He sits back, resting on one arm, dazed, holding the shirtsleeve of his outer wrist against the wound. The shirt becomes wet with blood. Streaks trickle down the left side of his face. He gathers himself, continues the descent. He trips on roots, skidders on slick surfaces and falls against jagged rocks, slicing his fingers. Carter finds that his legs no longer work properly. A bloody gash forms on his left knee, bleeding into his boot. Each blow, each misstep drains something vital out of him. Slowly his energy leaks away, deflated like a forgotten birthday balloon.
Despite all this, Carter remains determined to plunge forward. He walks unquestioningly into a wall of dense vegetation. The summer-tangle of branches grope like sinister arms. Hellish snags claw at his flesh, rip his shirt.
Carter keeps fighting, keeps moving forward.
Bog all around him.
He longs for firm footing, a dry fire.
Twilight drops down like a quivering leaf. The bugs gather in swarms. For the first half hour, Carter slaps at them, waves his hands, rubs his arms and legs, scratches furiously, even howls out loud; mosquitoes, gorged with his blood, explode when slapped on his forearms and legs. Reinforcements come to take their place. In desperation, Carter smears black ooze all over his skin and face, gets it in his mouth and ears. Eventually, he surrenders. His tender face reduced to a swollen welt, blistered and raw. Black flies take turns tormenting him. They dive and bite and veer away. His eyelids swell, his left eye nearly shut.
He weaves, falls, despairs, rises again.
He cannot stop here.
He cannot die.
Carter Taylor is eleven years old and he feels his life wavering on some great precipice.
Grace, his feverish mind recalls.
In the relative openness of the bog, he easily sees the stars in the velvet sky. When did it become night? When in the world have there ever been so many pinpricks of light?
He feels cold to the core.
Shivering, wet, bone-tired.
He keeps walking, staggering, reeling through the reeds, bumping into dead, bare, nutrient-starved trees.
His boots fill with water. He finds himself leaning against a dead tree. He pauses to rest for a moment, a minute, an hour. He doesn’t remember. His mind blank, a void. Fear slaps him awake. Instinct yanks at his collar, shakes him. If he stays in this grievous bog, he won’t live to see the morning. It is the one clear thought in his muddled mind. Can’t stay here.
The temperature drops.
He blunders into the black.
He steps and his foot does not sink.
Another step. The ground holds.
Another, and another.
Carter hangs his head, drops to his knees, begins to crawl, feels the firm earth under his hands.
He’s made it through.
So tired, so tired.
Carter stumbles another 75 yards, losing his hat in the process. He collapses, curls into a ball beneath a weeping willow that has taken root in the rot. He does not wonder at the way the graceful giant’s branches sweep downward, or how its long, slender leaves resemble tears of tree-sorrow and tree-remorse. How did it come to grow so sad? He does not wonder at all. Just knows in his bones. The cold presses against him. He shivers in anguish. His body begins to shake convulsively. He rolls and looks to the sky.
I am not lost, he thinks. The world is lost.
I am right here. I am right here. And there is the moon, right where it is supposed to be.
Light is coming and with it a new day.
Grace watches unmoving as the dark woods gradually take on space, contour, color, dimension. The shapes of tree trunks, movement in the branches, squirrels chittering and birds with their insistent, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here!
The trees come alive with birds and their words.
Today springs from yesterday, the dream of tomorrow becomes the new now, and inside Grace’s chest an ember still glows. Call it hope. Call it fierce will. Grace is determined to live. Somehow. Some way. She is alone and injured, her infection blackening, one girl in the vastness of a mountain wilderness. Somewhere, she hopes, Carter is okay. He never should have left. A terrible decision. Grace begins to feel that tug of negativity, her thoughts going down a dark path, but she fights against them in the same way a falling figure claws against gravity. She senses that negative thinking will not sustain her here. Carter will find a way, she resolves. My job is to survive.
Grace closes her eyes and prays. It has never seemed to do much good in the past. She isn’t, honestly, all that sure. But prayer is a meeting of soul and intention. Her prayer does not require answers. Grace has never understood how some people claim to talk with God, or how He answered their prayers. This new morning, Grace does not expect a reply. It is enough to think the words, to bring unity of spirit and mind, the meeting of wish and desire –- like a corked bottle with a rolled up note inside, floating in a great, unpeopled sea.
Sending the note is enough.
I am here.
I have survived so far.
I would love with all my heart to see another day.