The Stories We Tell Ourselves

My demons are clever…because I help them.

I can turn anything into a story. I wander around here muttering to myself, spinning past, present and future events into stories like an old spider in a web. I make them beautiful, awe inspiring, and terrible. Some of it wanders into books I’m brooding on. Some of it I torment myself with. And some is just debris rushing down a swollen tidal bore. It’s creative, and it’s therapy. Stories reveal the essence of a thing, frame it in such a way or that, and help us to cope or understand.

I love my therapist. She has wild, white curly hair, an ornery laugh, and a dark side worthy of a crone in a fairy tale. Whenever I present one of my well-crafted descriptions of some personal demon or other, she grins and says, “That’s quite a story you’ve got there.” And we laugh, because I’ve given my demons an identity, a kingdom, power of attorney, and then carved my story in stone like a gargoyle on a cathedral roof. I’d be better off going in there with a finger up my nose. Because as any writer will tell you, no story is cast in stone.

So what’s real? If neuroscientists and quantum physicists would have their say, it’s not what you think. My therapist recently told me that when we experience something, the details of that experience begin to shift and fade in our memory after 20 minutes. Then our imaginations step in to fill in the gaps. Think about that. Twenty minutes. Now slap on a decade or three. What’s real now? Not that old memory, I don’t think. But the emotion around it convinces us that the story is real. Well. Yes and no.

Painting illustrates this nicely. Years ago, I was out in the woods and saw a trout lily blooming near the path. A beautiful thing. So I took a picture for something to paint. When I started the painting, I didn’t bother with the photo, I just went with how the experience felt. The result has nothing to do with that photo; it contains infinite impressions from somewhere else. The same is true of my memory of totaling my truck on a creepy wooded road in upstate NY, drunk and stoned out of my fucking mind. Or that argument I had with my mother about her meatloaf recipe. Just stories. I’ve long since lost the photos.

Trout Lily, by F.T. McKinstry

Trout Lily, by F.T. McKinstry

We live in an infinite sea of stories, alive and breathing, independent of time and space. It’s an open system, always in motion, always seeking balance. I read fantasy novels as a kid that changed the trajectory of my life and saved me from becoming a teenage suicide statistic. Were those stories “real?” Depends on who you ask. To me, they were. Not only that, those stories mean something different to every person who reads them — and they are just as real.

Middle Earth

Map of Middle Earth by J.R.R. Tolkien

Point is, if you can write a story, you can change it. And if you listen, the story will often rewrite itself…and then healing happens. I’ll end with one of those.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Rosemary Plant

Once upon a time, in the spring, when my heart yearns to grow things, I spotted a pack of rosemary seeds in a nursery. Lovely. I brought the seeds home and planted them.

Rosemary BloomsWell, for some reason, the rosemary seeds did not start easily; it took time and effort to get them to sprout. But they did, and one of them got strong and began to grow. It’s cold here, and my gardens are no place for a rosemary plant, so I brought it inside for the winter and put it in a sunny window. In late spring, I took my new baby back outside to bask in the warm, fresh air for the summer.

So it was for many years, and the rosemary got big, with long gnarled limbs and bark like a tree. It bloomed a few times. In summer, it lived on the back porch where it was greeted each morning by the rising sun. In winter, it took up the whole bottom half of the window. It had a soul, my rosemary plant, like sun, wind, river stones and healing mysteries. When I talked to it, it talked back. Sitting outside in the morning, we discussed all kinds of things. Beautiful things.

Last summer’s end, when the shadows grew long and the wind whispered of darker things, my rosemary plant grew silent. Puzzled, I brought it inside as usual, and placed it in the window. But something was wrong. As fall descended in the mountains, my rosemary fell too.

There was no discernible reason for this, as far as I knew. But I knew nothing, and never had that been so evident. I fretted, puttered, and despaired as the rosemary leaves, once grayish green, thick and fragrant, began to shrivel and turn brown. I combed the internet for everything I could learn from those who did know, and when that didn’t help, I prayed to the Soul of Rosemary flourishing in the halls of the Great Earth Mother. A comforting image with no shadow, that. It was like trying to stop the setting sun. Nothing had changed, and yet everything changed, until at last, without a word, my friend left me.

Baby RosemaryI did remember that life is infinite and her cycles never-ending, though grief doesn’t tend to care about such platitudes. Even so, I had managed to get some cuttings, which I put into water to root. In time — a long time — some of them did. Heartened, I let the pale, tender roots get strong, and then I planted the sprouts in a pot and gave them a sunny place by my desk where I can look after them. The plant still feels fragile, with strong places and weak ones, as if it’s not yet certain it wants to be here.

I know the feeling. But as rosemary taught me, some things must stay in the dark for a long time before they’re ready to come into the light.

© F.T. McKinstry 2019. All Rights Reserved.

My Wild Wood Elf

Hemlock, by F.T. McKinstry

“Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground.” – Oscar Wilde

Eleven years ago I adopted a rescue kitty I named Hemlock, after a beautiful pattern in her fur that looked like the bark of a hemlock tree. As a kitten, she had been abandoned and left in the woods to die. Metaphorically speaking, the same thing happened to me and I’ve spent my life dealing with it in much the same way she did: half wild, a bit fey, hard to get close to. In time, with love and patience, Hemlock came to trust me. She was a familiar of sorts. She taught me things, and we understood each other.

Yesterday, I sank to my knees and gave Hemlock to the gods, along with a part of my soul.

Sickness and death have a singular power to drive us into the shimmering web that holds the Universe together. It doesn’t matter what you believe, what platitudes you invoke to comfort yourself, what gods you pray to or not. Death plays no favorites, and in its wake we are alone, staring into the void. In whatever shape it takes, death transforms everything it touches. A window to the Source, inherently creative, death alters the very fabric of time and space and reminds us of what we are.

Grief

Of the vast, infinitely complex array of human emotion, grief wears the crown. It is subject to more denial, tricks and traps than any other emotion and nothing is immune from its clutches. Being imaginative and naturally resistant to change, we have elaborate ways of dealing with grief. We have developed a system for recognizing its stages, all the ways we maneuver, hide and contort ourselves to elude the inexorable. Because it fucking sucks.

Case in point, I shouldn’t be writing this now. I’m as raw as an open wound, between the worlds, a ghost haunting Hemmy’s grave out there collecting snow beneath the trees. I can’t get my head around the fact that she is gone. My house has become a dreary landscape of empty spaces where she used to sleep, play and warm herself. I still feel her frail, dying body in my arms. My eyes are swollen and my head’s stuffed up and grief is surging through me in thorny, spiky waves, tearing me to pieces.

There’s a panel of dispassionate psychiatrists and neuroscientists in my head patiently explaining that my sensations of Hemmy’s presence, seeing her ghost in the shadows of the house, or the image of light surrounding me as the pain ravages my heart are all just mental constructs, delusions, fancies I’ve created as part of the stages of grief. That I’m just manufacturing meaning so I can cope with the loss. Bullshit. If losing Hemmy were meaningless I wouldn’t feel this way. I’m rallying to Quantum Theory, which has begun to sidle up to the fey and frown at the tenets of materialism.

Yeah. Quantum Theory, bitches.

Hemlock

Rest in peace, Hemmy, my wild, wood elf girl. You will shine in my heart always.

© F.T. McKinstry 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Marked

The Hunter's Lair

The mother of a fey child learns the pitfalls of mingling with immortals when her boy is taken by a ferocious winged monster at the request of the god who fathered him.

Excerpt

The constellation of Sioros, the Winged Hunter, sparkled on the twilit sky to the north. The towering cluster gazed down from a large star called the Hunter’s Eye, which shone with steady, soothing light that Lorelei felt before she opened her eyes with a violent shudder. A fisherman’s wife from Othurin, she had a simple mind. But in the light of the Hunter’s Eye, her mind became a tapestry, silvery and glinting in divine patterns of arcs, lines and colors from which her thoughts fell most strangely.

She knew the name of the star, for one thing. Alberon. Yes, that was his name.

This elusive memory brought up another, crushingly accessible one. A mother’s grief drew her up from the dead-cold ground. “My baby,” she gasped, rustling in the breeze between day and night as a raging river flooding over a millwheel, splintering it. She staggered across the bloody path before the cottage, its hearth cold and windows dark.

Away in the distance, a woman screamed.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“Marked” is included in Wizards, Woods and Gods, a collection of twelve dark fantasy tales exploring the mysteries of the Otherworld through tree and animal lore, magic, cosmos, love, war and mysticism.

This story tales place in the world of Ealiron, and contains a cameo appearance of Lorth of Ostarin, the protagonist of The Hunter’s Rede, Book One in the Chronicles of Ealiron.

© F.T. McKinstry 2017. All Rights Reserved.

The Om Tree

The Om Tree, Cover Art

Trees know things. A tree planted by a god at the dawn of a forest and raised in close proximity to an energy well beneath a wizards’ citadel knows a great many things. In this short story, a wizard-assassin loses what is most dear to him and thereby learns the true nature of his art.

Excerpt

In the beginning stood a tree.

I always start my tales with that; it is fitting, as I have stood here for so long. I have spread my roots on many worlds, being seeded by an undying star named Om. He has a child named Ealiron, the creator of this world on which I now grow. He knows I am here, of course. When I took root as a sapling, he sang to me. A charming fellow, really.

But my tale begins with a mortal. He calls himself a wizard, but he is not like any wizard I know. His name is Lorth, which in Om’s tongue roughly means “water-loving root.” A nice name for a most unsavory man. I call him the hunter.

Want to read more? Get it for free on Smashwords.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“The Om Tree” originally appeared in Tales of the Talisman, Volume 7, Issue 3, available in paperback and Kindle.

“The Om Tree” is also included in Wizards, Woods and Gods, a collection of twelve dark fantasy tales exploring the mysteries of the Otherworld through tree and animal lore, magic, cosmos, love, war and mysticism.

The protagonist of “The Om Tree,” Lorth of Ostarin, is also the main character in The Hunter’s Rede, Book One in the Chronicles of Ealiron. An Om tree appears in the novel as well; it stands in the wizards’ citadel itself.

© F.T. McKinstry 2016. All Rights Reserved.