Miki Johnson & Anna Shelton – Story #1

Hi guys!

I’m including below the text of the story I wrote and attached the images that I chose that inspired it. It came out really as a complete vignette, so I’m hoping this will inspire you, Anna, and maybe we’ll end up with more of a series of related short stories.

Read the Intro to the series HERE

Photographs by Anna Shelton; Text by Miki Johnson

My baby sister, Lilly, left when I was nine. She walked into a wall and just kept going. The wall was filled with beautiful woods, like the concrete was a window and you could look straight through it to the world outside (although the world outside was really just more houses with more concrete walls).

The wall was in the basement of the abandoned house next door. Dad said the people who used to live there — the Greens; I saw them sometimes but they didn’t have kids so not very much — they had tried to buy a house they couldn’t afford, so the bank came and took it away from them. Except the bank didn’t take it away; it just put up a sign with a phone number in the front yard and a lock on the gate and sent a man to mow the grass sometimes.

Of course, mom and dad told us never to go to the Greens’, and of course we went anyway. Their big pool was filled with old leaves now, and we piled them into islands and pretended to row between them in dug-out canoes like we’d seen on the NOVA show about Polynesians.

One day we found a small window into the basement with a broken latch and small enough that only two little girls could squeeze through. The first day we went through the window, we were scared of the dark and the stillness inside, but we were more curious.

We didn’t explore the basement then because it was darkest of all and we didn’t have a flashlight. I took Lilly’s hand and led her up the narrow stairs that opened into the big kitchen. The refrigerator and stove had been removed, but we could still see their white shadows on the linoleum floor. It made me feel itchy to stand so close in the corner where the stove used to be, but I did it anyway to show Lilly I wasn’t scared. I’m older but I was always scared and she never was.

She walked out of the kitchen, through the empty living room, and straight up the still-shiny wooden stairs — and I followed her. In one of the rooms, a dresser with a broken drawer sat dark beside a dusty window. On it roosted a heavy anvil of a bird. I think it was a bald eagle at first, but now it was just a pile of rust with a beak. Lilly stood on tiptoe to see it and reached her doll’s hand toward it. She wanted me to get it for her, but I could barely lift it and I told her she would hurt herself and pulled her into the bathroom across the hall, where we found a blackened Q-tip in the wastebasket.

We were daring each other to touch it when we heard a flapping and banging in the other room. I peeked through the door and saw that big rusty bird sitting on the floor beneath the window. He was shaking his feathers and blinking scared and then he flew straight up and tried to go out the closed window again. A shower of tiny metal flakes like Fourth of July sparklers fell around him as he landed, shaking, on the floor. I felt Lilly squeeze past me and I whisper-barked for her to stay back, but she went right up to the window and pushed it open and lifted that impossibly heavy orange and grey bird onto the ledge. After a few minutes more of blinking, its big wings crackled open and it flew away. I was too scared and confused to yell at Lilly, so we just stared at each other for a while and then we had to run home for dinner so mom and dad didn’t get mad.

The next day we went back to the house as soon as we could sneak away. We were heading for the window, but as we scurried past the pool, we stopped with our eyes wide open and our mouths hanging. Our islands of leaves were all green, with tiny vines and miniature pine trees growing above rocky cliffs that came up to my chin and Lilly’s forehead. Turquoise water flowed between them and we waded in to our knees to dip our hands in and sprinkle it like rain over the islands and lick our fingers to find them salty.

When we squeezed into the basement half an hour later, we found the woods. We had brought dad’s heavy black flashlight with us and Lilly squealed when its beam fell on the trees at the end of the carpeted room. A light breeze was blowing and their leaves were catching the sunlight as they shivered.

Lilly had always loved the woods, so I was happy when she followed the grassy path, filling her pockets with buckeyes and laughing along with the mischievous grasshoppers. She never got to spend enough time outside — a few weeks at grandma and grandpa’s every summer and our annual trip to northern Maine was all.

Pretty soon I couldn’t see her, could only hear her laughter and leaf-rustling. I put my hand to the wall but it was hard and I couldn’t press myself through like she did. I called to her because I was scared like always, but I knew she wasn’t scared. Dad and mom and I are so sad still, but I know where Lilly is, she is happy.

Anna (on collaboration I)
Upon first reading Miki’s story inspired by four of my images, I was struck by an unexpected feeling of sentimentality, or maybe “tenderness” is the proper word. Seeing the images come to life through an imaginative narrative, and from a person I’ve never physically met seemed to make them more meaningful. I found myself focusing on the word “energy” in a collaborative sense, and thinking about its ability to be absorbed or bounced around between people. It provides endless possibilities for where an idea can go.

As a photographer, I tend to work alone. There are pros and cons. Having complete control over a project is liberating and daunting at the same time. I’ve found myself inspired to take a project to completion, but also to have many more remain stagnant. Sometimes one gets tired of their own voice, whether through photography, music, writing, etc. They have to live with it and think about it day-in and day-out.  I’ve always admired folks who can work through this intimacy and view their creations with an objective eye or ear. Collaborating with another helps peel back layers that may have hardened, and creates a more malleable environment.

Miki (on collaboration I)
It took me a few weeks to finally sit down with Anna’s photos and start writing. When I first looked at them, several thoughts popped into my head, enough that I knew I could write something from them. But then they just kind of sat there in my inbox.

I am still an undisciplined enough writer that I cannot find the creative pulse of my writing just any old time. I have to be in a certain mindset, attain a certain emotional calm, and be able to dedicate a certain amount of uninterrupted time to it. And that’s just for the non-fiction stuff that I usually write. The last time I wrote any kind of fiction, let alone for a public audience was…well, actually, I can’t remember.

Here’s what I did: I narrowed down the handful of images Anna sent me to four I felt the most connection to. I put them on my iPad and took it and a small notebook and pen to a coffee shop near my house. I put in headphones, sipped my tea, and looked at the images until ideas started pushing into my head. Instead of immediately beginning to write, I made a fast list of themes I saw threading through the images, ideas I wanted to explore in my story.

I ended up writing five pages in a half-size notebook, longhand, and then jotting notes for the ending of the story. About five days later I went back and re-read what I had, typed it into the computer, and added a middle section and a few ending paragraphs.

A few things I noticed about this process: 1) I was happy with myself, proud even, but equally nervous about showing Anna and Bryan what I’d made. 2) Despite the original plan, I had written a whole story instead of part of one. 3) Although the larger themes were pulled from the photos, my own life and experience came in in the small details, hopefully creating a stronger sense of truth within the fiction.

The print issue can be purchased through MagCloud for $16.00 plus shipping. It is also available as a FREE PDF download.

Issue 4

LPV Magazine: Issue 4

Featuring work by John Francis Peters, Miki Johnson and Anna Shelton, Mark Peckmezian, James Turnley and Ryan Headley.

Find out more on MagCloud