The Aurora Borealis dances above North America during a strong solar storm. Photo by Nace Hagemann. Visit the photographer’s website at Nace Hagemann Photography.
Whistle on Whiteface Mountain ♦
Excerpt from the Novel by Melissa F. Kaelin
MONDAY, JUNE 17, 2013
Clarence swayed back and forth in the rocking chair on his front porch. The wooden chair was decades old, and it creaked with every motion. He twirled the long white hair of his beard between his thumb and index finger, and stared into the blue sky beyond the evergreens.
Sunbeams warmed the trees on a breezy morning in northern Michigan, but dark clouds were moving in, trekking toward the cabin from the west. Clarence gazed ahead, watching as the clouds expanded upward. They formed cumulus mountains in the distance, and before long, their mass blotted out the sun.
Clarence stood up and turned to go inside. His rustic cabin was decorated with artifacts of nature, from the thick stump of driftwood artfully lodged in his front yard, to the agates displayed in every corner of the house. Some were small, set in clear glass bowls on a ledge or a table. Others were as large as bowling balls, like the geode revealing a cove of purple crystals beside the iron coat rack.
He shuffled a few steps to his darkroom, where he stored a cache of technological indulgences. On one side, the small room was outfitted with everything he needed to develop film. Shelves lined the other side of the room. They were piled with camera bags, tripods, and a stash of Aurora chasing gear, including headlamps, cleats, and a compass.
Clarence touched his thumb to the edge of an old photograph, displayed on the darkroom wall. It was one of his first photos of the Aurora Borealis. Taken on film, the photos exhibited the signs of a novice. Some were blurry, some were grainy, and a few were underexposed, yielding near black images with a glossy shine.
Although his life had since changed, he remembered those first years fondly. He was still in his first five years of marriage, settling down in a modest house just north of Grand Rapids, and he could hear the pitter patter of his daughter’s feet on the living room floor.
Laura was four years old when Clarence caught his first glimpse of dancing skies.
He’d been working in the garage of his family’s two-level home, building a new bedframe for Laura out of oak lumber, while his wife was knitting inside. He had finished the base and started on the headboard, piecing together an elaborate design of hand-carved posts. He drilled a screw into the first post of the frame, holding the curvy oak rod under his callused fingers.
While he worked, Laura came running through the open garage door. She’d been playing in the backyard around the corner, wearing a white summer dress with yellow daisies.
“Daddy!” Laura called. “Daddy, come here!”
“What is it, sweetheart?” Clarence asked, lowering the drill.
“Come see,” she said, in a tiny voice. “I want to show you something.”
“I’m a little busy right now,” he said gently. “Is everything alright?”
“Yes. Eve’thing is alright.” She missed a few consonants. “But there’s a pink cloud in the sky.”
“A pink cloud? It must be quite a sight!”
“Why is it pink?”
He looked beyond Laura to the light outside the garage. The sunlight was softening and the sky was getting dark behind the houses in their neighborhood. “Oh, it’s just the sunset,” he said. “Sometimes the sky changes colors when the sun goes to sleep.”
“No, Daddy,” Laura scolded. “There’s a pink cloud.”
He held the bedpost steady – it needed another screw before it would be secure. But he set down the drill to listen to his only daughter. “What does it look like?” he asked, indulging her.
“It’s really big, and it’s really pink, and it’s really bright,” she said without blinking, “and it has stripes.”
Clarence was nodding along, but he stopped. “Stripes?”
“Yes,” she said matter-of-factly. “Stripes.”
The sunset must have been especially radiant to fit Laura’s description. But she was a curious child, and she was filled with wonder when she learned new things. “You’re very excited about this, aren’t you?”
She nodded, bouncing up and down in her summer dress. “Daddy, come see.”
“Honey, I have to hold this post here until I get the screws in. Otherwise it might fall down. Why don’t you go back out and play? If you can do that for me, I’ll make sure we have time to read a bedtime story tonight. Okay?”
“Okay.” She ran back outside.
Clarence drilled the last screw into the headboard post. He got up to retrieve another post from the shelves on the wall. Then Laura came running back into the garage.
“Daddy, the pink cloud.” Her eyes bulged with anticipation. “It’s getting brighter!”
“That’s great. It’ll probably keep getting brighter until the sun goes to bed.”
Laura burst into a brief smile, then she made a strange face. She pivoted on her heels and ran back out of the garage to check the sky again.
Clarence laughed softly to himself. Laura had always been a joyful child, but when she wanted to know something, she could be very persistent. Even skeptical. He put the second post in place, set a screw against the wood, and began driving it in with a screwdriver. Not two minutes later, Laura was back.
“Daddy,” she said, this time with worrisome energy. “The pink cloud is getting closer!”
Clarence looked up from the headboard. As a young father, he wondered if he should correct his daughter after all the interruptions – less he create a monster – but he couldn’t help himself. He was an inquisitive man, and he loved every second of it.
“Come see.” Laura stood still this time, and her voice was panicked. Her eyes were larger than he’d ever seen them.
Again, he looked beyond her to the scene outside the garage. Oddly, most of the sunlight had disappeared from the sky. “Alright.” He made sure the second post was secure. “Can you do me a favor?”
“Can you please put my screwdriver in the toolbox over there?” Setting the drill on the worktable, he pointed to an open toolbox.
Laura ran up to him and grabbed the screwdriver by the handle. Then Clarence swooped her into his arms and kissed her on the nose. “Gotcha.”
She giggled loudly. “Come on, Daddy. Hurry!”
Laura broke free from his hug, dropped the screwdriver in the toolbox, and dashed out of the garage. He followed her to the backyard, past the sandbox and the swing set. They stopped just short of the neighbor’s yard. Clarence lifted his daughter up and sat her on his shoulders.
“Now, about this pink cloud.” The evening sky had grown darker than he imagined from his spot inside the garage. He hadn’t realized he’d been looking at the last remnant of day and the onset of night. Sunset was long gone.
“There.” She pointed up.
He lifted his gaze to follow her finger. “Unbelievable.”
Above him, he saw exactly what his daughter described. A cloud of bright pink light stretched across the middle of the night sky, forming parallel stripes. It grew brighter with each passing minute, and it seemed to be expanding, coming closer to the ground.
“I think I know what this is,” he said, getting chills. “I’ve read about it, but I’ve never actually seen it. It’s rare here in Michigan.” He used his soft voice to comfort Laura, who was alarmed by the neon streaks pulsing in the dark.
“What is it, Daddy?”
“It’s the Northern Lights.” He was so enthralled he forgot to use small words. “It’s a rare celestial phenomenon, caused by solar plasma shooting off the surface of the sun.”
“Select you femomimom?” Laura repeated.
Clarence laughed heartily, realizing how he must have sounded to his little girl. “Yes,” he said. “Celestial phenomenon. The Northern Lights are created when solar matter travels millions of miles from the sun to our planet, and enters the Earth’s atmosphere.”
“It’s from the sun?”
“That’s right. Solar matter reacts with oxygen and nitrogen particles to create colorful lights.”
They watched the Northern Lights together, Laura holding onto the sides of her dad’s head while she stared up at the sky. The colors danced so fluidly through the night, Clarence began to shuffle his feet. He held Laura’s legs to his chest and turned in circles, dancing under the lights.
Laura laughed from the top of his shoulders, her face whirling in the cool night air.
A father for the first time, Clarence had never experienced love like this. With just a few words, he was able to ease Laura’s mind and bring her comfort. He knew things wouldn’t always be this simple. Someday she would ask bigger questions, face greater fears. But tonight, the awe of nature’s light show combined with their impromptu father-daughter dance, to create an aura of harmony.
Clarence could feel his heart expand in his chest, spilling over with his daughter’s love. Nothing else entered his mind.
When Laura got tired, he helped her down and carried her inside to her bedroom. He let her down onto the pillow, and pulled the covers up over her legs.
“Were you scared?” she asked, pulling the covers over her mouth.
“Scared?” Clarence sat down on the edge of the bed. “No, I wasn’t. Were you scared?”
“Kinda.” Her eyes darted to the window.
Clarence wondered if he should worry about her, even after sharing in the awe-inspiring moment. “It’s alright. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Laura nodded. Then he tucked her into bed and kissed her goodnight.
Going to the kitchen, Clarence brewed a small pot of coffee, poured himself a mug, and grabbed his 35mm camera. He looked in on his wife, who had fallen asleep with her head against the couch. Then he went back outside and took a few photos of the Northern Lights.
He sat on a swing facing away from the house, and settled in to enjoy the show. The Aurora surrounded him. He watched late into the night, as the Northern Lights twisted and turned through the sky, drawing curtains over the constellations, even as the stars shone through.
High above him, the veils of light filled Clarence with curiosity and imagination. At once, he wanted to learn more and honor the timeless mystery of the night. Just watching the Aurora dance, he was overcome with a strange sensation. It was both soothing and electric – a peaceful fever. Like meditation or song, the natural phenomenon worked its power over him, making him feel more centered and more alive.
That night, viewing the Aurora Borealis became a passion for Clarence. He vowed to see the lights again, with both Laura and her mother by his side. He never wanted to miss another show.
Clarence blinked his eyes. As he stood alone in his darkroom, he wondered when the Northern Lights would make their next appearance. He studied his first photo of the Aurora. It was almost completely black, with a slight tint of purplish pink in the center. He had planned to give it to Laura when she was older, but the photo hadn’t turned out.
. . .
Bonus Excerpt: The Good Tyme Writers Buffet
For a Public Reading on June 22, 2019
Excerpt: ‘A Cherry in the Crate’
A Novel by Melissa F. Kaelin
This is an excerpt from my novel, Whistle on Whiteface Mountain, which is under consideration by a NYC talent agency. For a little background: After the loss of her 15-year-old brother, Allison finds herself listening to classic rock n’ roll on a road trip through the Great Lakes region. She’s traveling with her dog and her friend, Danny, who is a chef and restaurant owner. Allison is a budding photographer who is vying for a job in the marketing office at Children’s Hospital in Albany, New York. This piece is called ‘A Cherry in the Crate.’
SATURDAY, JULY 27, 2013
The sun rose over the rolling hills, radiating warm light in the form of a red rubber ball. With the Gremlin parked snugly in a gravel driveway, the road stretched out before us until it reached the tree-lined horizon. Touristy signs dotted the roadway, boasting of local art and Michigan’s crop of tart cherries. The nearest sign was only a few yards away.
I leaned against the front bumper, crossing my legs at the ankles and stopping to take it all in. My Australian Shepherd sat by my side, and Danny stood casually in front of me.
“I don’t know how we got here.”
“That’s easy,” Danny said, looking up from under his fraying blue ball cap. “We took 41 up through Escanaba, found our way east on Route 2 after Munising, and caught 31 South when we reached the mainland.”
I sighed, staring off into the distance.
“That’s not what you meant.”
A look passed between us.
“I thought we could use a break.” He stepped toward me. He placed his hand briefly on my shoulder. “Let’s check this place out. Stretch our legs.”
“Isn’t it a little early?” I asked, peeling my body away from the car.
When Danny had seen a sign for locally grown cherries, he’d pulled off the road without hesitation. Just beyond the sign was a white trailer with a red and green logo, and it overflowed with cherries in wooden crates. The trailer, shaped more like a garden wagon, created a stark contrast to the lush green landscape. It stood just off the side of the road, on land that looked to be part of someone’s home or small farm.
“Really? A cherry stand? We could just get donuts or something.”
“Why not?” Danny asked. “We haven’t had anything to eat in a while. We might be able to find the owners. And I thought you would like the light.” He gestured to the east.
I lifted my gaze to see a gorgeous gradient of color. The glow of dawn gave the grassy knolls a red tint, and the sky was soaked in the early orange that beckons a bright blue day. It was the most sunlight I’d seen since we left Albany, so much my eyes needed time to adjust.
“Want me to grab your camera?”
“No. The lens is broken.”
His eyes widened. “How did that happen?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Danny knew how important photography was to me, but he must’ve sensed my resignation. It wasn’t every day a prized possession broke, especially one that doubled as a passion and a source of income. Camera lenses weren’t cheap, and I didn’t know how I was going to afford a new one.
Maybe it was a sign – a hint from the universe I should leave it all behind. There were many other ways to make a living in marketing. Besides, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of working for that haughty boss in the first place. Especially after seeing the way he treated the children in the hospital.
“How long have you had your camera?”
“Actually, the camera is fine.” In the last few days, I’d developed a habit of avoiding eye contact. This clearly made him uneasy. “Only the lens is broken.”
He studied my expression, waiting for me to go on.
“Since high school,” I said finally. “Senior year.”
He turned slightly and walked toward the cherry stand, and I followed behind him. There was no one in sight, but a wheel barrel sat on the sidewalk by a modest brick house with gardening gloves strewn over the top.
Danny glanced back at me. “Was the camera a gift?”
“It was the first thing I really spent a lot of money on, when I worked part-time in high school. No one in my family is creative. Well, maybe Eric.” A lump formed in my throat. “Guess I’ll never know what he would grow up to be like.”
“Not even your mom?”
“Least of all, her.” I gazed at the red rubber ball on the horizon. “I don’t really have anything in common with my parents.”
“You don’t like to talk about them, do you?”
I shrugged. “We’re not very close. We never spend time together, so why spend too much time worrying about it?”
“How long has it been since you moved away?”
“Seven years,” I said. “Our lives are our own. What good can come from looking back?”
The scent of cherries greeted us when we reached the wagon, and I was struck by a vision.
In my parents’ kitchen, while they were still asleep, the same scent filled the cluttered room. One corner of the oak kitchen table was cleared. There, my wrists and Eric’s wrists reached into a metal mixing bowl, our hands stirring a batch of cherry coffee cake with a wooden spoon. It was a Saturday on a long weekend, and the old recipe was a family favorite.
At 3 years old, Eric was such a ball of energy he wanted to be part of everything. That day, he was my little helper. He would make a mess of the batter and scoop some up to his face to taste it, before we transferred the pale goo to a glass pan. Our parents would wake up in time for the coffee cake to come out of the oven. They would never say it out loud, but they looked forward to it too – the breakfast treat we saved for long weekends.
This whole trip had thrust me into the past – the flashbacks and dreams following me like an unshakable shadow. I wanted to push forward, to get Danny back to his restaurant. To move on. Part of me even wanted to get back in time to start my new job.
Danny wasn’t one to reveal his emotions. He turned to me then and said something matter-of-factly. “You’re so independent.
I didn’t know whether it was a compliment, a slight, or merely an observation.
Below a mandarin orange sky, I clutched a handful of ruby red cherries. It was one of those times when everything feels so strange, it settles into your memory like a surreal dream. The words we said were framed in this light. Every phrase arrived in my mind like an echo. There was too much truth to it, or not nearly enough.
“Look who’s talking,” I said. His comment was so ironic that I first formed my reply as a jab. After the words took shape, a smile formed and a laugh escaped my lips. Danny was the most independent person I knew, but I admired him for it. I wanted to create my own legacy the way he had, without relying on a single soul.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re a self-made man,” I paused. “Just think about what you’ve created. With your restaurant.”
“I didn’t do it on my own.”
“Might as well have. You put everything into Meraki Blue, and look how successful it’s become.”
“It took a long time for it to get that kind of traction.”
“But it was your dream,” I said, my voice full of admiration. His modesty tempted me to run away with the conversation. If I had achieved something like that, it’d be hard to resist telling the story at every turn.
He eyed the cherries in my hand. “Are you going to do something with those?”
I glanced down, and looked back at him. “It was your dream, and you turned your dream into a reality! Danny, give yourself a little credit.”
A man and a woman moved about in the back lawn, working between the house and a large pole barn. They hadn’t seen us yet, but they must’ve owned the produce stand. From the looks of it, they were starting the day’s work in the garden.
“Do you think they know we’re here?” I asked.
“They’re bound to come this way eventually.”
I looked out across the land, wondering how many acres they had in the backyard. It was way more than the lot back in Wisconsin.
“It’s true,” Danny said. “I always dreamed of starting a restaurant. But a lot went into the decision. Even before our college years.”
“I know. You worked really hard on that place.”
“Dad did too,” he said.
“Anthony? Are we talking about the same person?” I had a hard time imagining Danny working alongside his father to start his business. This was the same guy who lingered around the restaurant, giving unsolicited advice.
“Yeah.” Danny took the fraying ball cap off his head and rustled his thick, curly hair. His hard eyes softened, the way they did when he opened up or got caught flirting over dinner. “He taught me a lot about running a business, and he used to let me bounce ideas off him when I was a teenager. Dad was my mentor.”
“But you guys disagree on everything.”
“Right. Well, that’s just family for you.” Danny raised the corner of his lips in a smile. “I mean, Dad taught me what he could, but he wanted me to go a different direction. He tried to get me to take over his store. I wasn’t sure a restaurant gig was the right fit, and I almost did go into management. Then, when I didn’t and went to culinary school instead, Dad had to take a back seat.”
“That couldn’t have been easy for him.” It surprised me Danny had ever doubted becoming a chef. The tone of his voice gave him away, though, and it was clear he still had doubts about the decision.
“It took some getting used to,” Danny said. “For both of us.”
Still, Danny was his own person. He was nothing like his father. Being raised in a father’s image and groomed to fill his shoes ought to be enough to stamp out a person’s ambition. Or at least push them away. But there was pride in Danny’s eyes.
“Do you ever wish you had done it on your own?”
“Not really,” Danny said. “Dad was great. He’s smarter than he lets on. When the restaurant first got up and running, he really helped me hold it together. You know, there were times when it might’ve been easier to go it alone. But it all comes down to one thing.”
Danny looked into my eyes, and I fought to push down a range of emotions. I glanced down at the cherries in my hand, and I started to put them back in the wooden crate, lifting each one and setting it on the pile. I couldn’t look at Danny.
The man and woman turned in our direction, noticing us for the first time. They began to walk toward the garden wagon, and they waved and smiled from the back lawn.
“What about your parents?” he asked. “Did they do anything to help you get your feet on the ground?”
I couldn’t think of anything to say. A cherry slid between my thumb and index finger, and I let the ruby red fruit fall into the wooden crate.
“Come on. There must be something?”
“They were pretty absent from my life,” I said. “Especially in my teenage years.”
“Nothing? Not even a small gesture?”
I set another cherry in the crate, and wondered if it was truly worth sifting through painful memories just to find something to share with Danny. My upbringing in Wisconsin had been marked by long silences, arguments and parents who were completely checked out.
We had been perusing the cherry stand leisurely, but the owners didn’t seem too concerned about us being on the farm. The couple finally reached the white wagon. Then the woman took off her gardening gloves and set them on a table nearby.
“Would you folks like to buy some fresh cherries?” she asked. “We don’t usually open this early, but if you’re buying, I’m selling. We have some spreads and jams inside too, if I can interest you in that sort of thing.”
“Sure,” I said, realizing there were still three cherries in my hand. “Do you have a bag or something I can put these in?”
“You bet.” She set a few farmers market baskets in front of us. “Those work great.”
“How much for two?” I asked.
She gave the price, and I started counting out some cash.
“I’ll get this one,” Danny said.
Before I knew it, he was handing her the cash, and I was standing there with an extra wad of dollar bills. “Danny, I was going to –”
“You know, it’s okay to depend on other people sometimes.”
“I know.” It wouldn’t hurt him to take his own advice.
He moved right next to me, so his shoulder touched mine, and he scooped up some of the cherries from my pile. He slid them into the basket, letting the fruit that had slipped through my fingers tumble together into our stash.
I looked up at Danny.
“Not everyone expects you to go it alone.”
. . .
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