The Strange Refusal

“What do you mean you won’t go with me?” I asked as my mouth fell agape. My arms spread wide.

For weeks—no, months—I battled dragons, outwitted trolls, survived sirens, and endured the rigid elements. All of it climaxed in this very moment. The moment where I gaze upon the beautiful princess, offer her my hand, and lead her away in the sunset to a happily-ever-after drove me to press on despite the miserable, near-death circumstances. I knew a helpless maiden was waiting for me. In all my challenges, I didn’t think I would face an outcome as tragic as this.

The princess crossed her arms and huffed. Her evergreen dress swayed ever so slightly. “I said I’m not going.”

“But, Princess Evelyn, I don’t think you understand.”

“I understand perfectly well,” she snapped while stepping closer. Her lavender hair fell in perfect ringlets. Her deep, plum eyes stabbed my heart like the sharpest of blades. Her fuchsia lips pursed, yet not in the way I hoped—to offer a kiss. She spoke with dramatic hand gestures: “You came all this way in hopes to whisk me away because I’m a hopeless wreck in need of a man to save me. Did you ever think once that maybe I enjoy my life here?”

Bewildered, I gazed around and noted the long, rickety bridge behind us. I crossed it to reach the castle. Luckily, the only fiend I encountered there was the fear of falling in the endless ravine. No dragons in sight. We stood outside her old, slightly tilted tower. At least she came down to speak with me.

My dented, dirty armor clanked as I ran my fingers through my dark, matted hair. There wasn’t a living soul in sight. My trusty horse, Middy, whinnied in the distance to protest my unspoken observation. I commanded her to wait on the far side of the bridge. How could Princess Evelyn find happiness here?

“You can’t be serious?” I asked utterly perplexed. My eyes locked with hers, unreadable and unwavering. “You can’t be happy here all alone. How do you even find sustenance to survive?”

“I am certainly not alone,” Evelyn said. “Watch.” At that she sang a wordless tune, calling a single dove from beyond the ravine. It glided over and daintily perched on her extended finger. “See?” She smirked. “The birds bring me whatever I need.”

“Please come with me,” I begged, bending on one knee. The grinding armor pierced my ears. “Just cross that bridge and we can start a new life together.” I grabbed her hands for emphasis, but she pulled away.

“Never! That bridge is filthy and covered in moss and much too rickety.” Evelyn wrapped herself in her arms and shivered, despite the warm sun beating upon us.

I stood up, unwavering. I could not give up after coming this far. “What if I called my steed to lead us forward? She could—.”

“Certainly not!” She shook her head. “I’m perfectly content here.” She dramatically collapsed as her dress ballooned around her, shaping her like a finely decorated cupcake. She buried her face in her arms. Her shoulders shook with the sound of sniffles. The bird cooed, now perched on her shoulder. I felt panicked.

“Have you ever seen a Pegasus? Middy can fly us to a better place. My castle is extraordinary and my kingdom would adore you. The servants would cater to all your needs. You won’t need the birds to–”

Evelyn bolted to her feet and ferociously grabbed my arm. “What did you say? Your horse can fly?” She leaned toward Middy across the bridge with her hand shielding her eyes. A loose stone tumbled down the ravine. Evelyn shrieked and jumped in my arms. I nearly lost balance and went tumbling myself.

“Of course, princess,” I replied. Her plump, fuchsia lips trembled inches from mine.

“In that case, take me away from this retched place!”

Pleasantly confused by her sudden attitude change, I whistled with two fingers. In response, Middy flew over the ravine and gracefully landed before us in a puff of dirt. I had never seen a princess scramble so quickly to mount a horse. Her limps clamped Middy like a tree trunk.

“Please, could you move quickly?” Evelyn asked. “I’m craving a roast. Birds don’t deliver such things, you know.”

I stifled a chuckle and mounted Middy along with the princess. Evelyn squeezed me from behind. Even with the armor, I felt short of breath from her tight grip. With a large flap of feathered wings, Middy lifted us into the air. Princess Evelyn squeezed my torso as we flew over the ravine and past the bridge. Her muscles relaxed.

“I never fancied bridges,” Princess Evelyn huffed. “How much longer until we arrive?” We had only been in flight for a few moments.

“Soon, my darling,” I reply as we fly and into the glorious sunset of our happily-ever-after.

Beyond the Tree

The wind comes and the wind goes. It tangles, twists, and dances in my hair, awakening hope and love within me. But does it end there?

Endings aren’t always the happy sort, you know…

What if I rooted where I was planted? I had no choice where I fell, but I can uproot to sow elsewhere. Yet what if I didn’t? What if I stayed, right where I was, basking in the light of day, chilling in the freeze of winter?

What if the wind didn’t stop me from growing? What if I was unbending like the trees? I could withstand the harsh glances of winter and the scorching trials of summer. What if I could breathe so easily, my breath aiding those around me.

Trees don’t plant themselves. It takes work–hard work. After all, trees don’t start as trees. Each begins as a tiny pocket, a minuscule seed. Sometimes it’s planted with purpose. Sometimes it rides the wind, sails the waves, or hitchhikes on furry beasts, but, regardless of how it arrives, you can’t deny the seed made it. The seed exists, dawning for a brighter day.

Seeds never stay as seeds–unless harvested too early. Sometimes people pick seeds before their roots ground, their flowers bud. People fry them. Boil them. Bake them. Eat them. Cannibals they are.

Do they realize seeds bring life? Do they recognize the seed’s potential? Maybe it sees beyond the expected. Maybe it dreams of becoming more, because trees are more than capable. People harvest trees for greater purposes, after all.

Trees don’t die in vain, as do the seeds. They get sawed and planked together to create your grandfather’s rocking chair, where he smokes and rocks and dwells on a life poorly spent.

Through pain and humiliation, a tree gets cut and mashed and refined and molded into thin, white paper, birthed with new purpose. Yet, oh; how it’s wasted! Authors murder with ink stained hands, but they are not condemned. They risk the sin to bring you this. To spread the words of life and speak into hardened hearts and far-off souls.

Maybe seeds dream these things and maybe they don’t. We will never know for sure. Yet through it all, one thing I know is certain:

A seed is never just a seed, and a tree is far beyond that.

Swimming Mountains

The birds led the way.

Royal Caribbean manned the boat for this Alaskan tour. The small vessel coursed through bright green water amid a heat wave. With the temperature skyrocketing to 80 degrees, locals acted as if the sun exploded.

Only thirty minutes out to sea, Tour Guide Kelly sprang to life. The former Naked and Afraid contestant pointed out a ring of bubbles no farther than 100 feet from the boat. Regulations prevented the boat from creeping any closer. Eyes shifted and cameras snapped to get a better picture.

Paula, a middle-aged home-school mother, dreamt of seeing wild whales since she was a girl. In those days, her overworked mother barely afforded food, and her father routinely guzzled alcohol. Her family’s poverty ruined any chance of her seeing wild whales. They simply couldn’t afford it.

In the distance, bubbles fizzed on the surface of the water. Black masses broke from the green blanket, noses pointed toward the hazy sky. Their heads rose and jaws clamped to trap the fish inside their mouths, which matched the looming mountains in the distance. Each gulping mouth—perhaps six in all—rose and fell to collect another meal of fish.

Tour Guide Kelly called it “bubble net feeding.” People rarely witness this unusual feeding because humpbacks are solitary creatures. They only bond for this purpose. The dominant male dives 3-5 meters below the water and blows a ring of bubbles toward the surface. The bubbles rise, growing larger and larger, until they surround an unlikely school of fish. Confused with nowhere to go, the fish swarm amidst the bubbles—bees without a queen. The humpbacks catch their prey this way. Once the mouths disappeared, the circling birds dived for leftovers.

Paula knew the struggle of eating nothing but leftovers. As a girl, her cupboards were often bare. She wondered what she and her three older siblings would eat next, but her resourceful mother managed to keep them fed, once making a meal from hot dog strips, baked beans, toasted bread, and melted cheese. Paula’s poverty taught her the gift of gratefulness.

“So do the whales ever breach?” a passenger asked.

Breaching means breaking the surface. Why would whales jump out of the water? Do they feel threatened? Are they showing off? What would happen if one jumped so high it capsized a boat? Paula’s mind swarmed with questions.

“I’ve been doing this for four years,” Tour Guide Kelly remarked with her long, blonde hair falling below her shoulders, “and I’ve never seen them do it.”

As if on cue, a single humpback suddenly defied gravity. Paula’s shutter clicked. Countering all odds, the whale lifted its 66,000-pound body from the water. Nose pointed to the sky. Back gracefully arched. Fins outstretched. It lifted higher and higher, water spraying about its thick trunk.

The whale became one of the snow-capped mountains lined on the horizon. It embodied liberty—something once far from Paula’s reach. She thought the sea felt freeing to her younger self, a once trapped child.

People scrambled on the boat. Many whipped out their phones and cameras, desperately trying to capture the moment. Unfortunately, the whale already descended to the water whence it came. Only she and another resembling Steve from Blue’s Clues had snapped the picture. The pair instantly became celebrities. Nearly everyone wanted a glance at the pictures, although Steve had captured the better one. Even so, a woman begged Paula to text her the lower quality photo.

As a child, Paula craved attention—attention from her busy working mother, her abusive father, and her absent siblings. As the youngest, she slipped away unnoticed. Quiet often she felt alone to fend for herself. Once popular in middle school, Paula’s social status plummeted in high school. Her poverty made it difficult to fit the status quo. The girls gossiped. The boys taunted. She graduated her junior year to escape the school’s ruthless mockery. The distance eased her burden.

The Alaskan boats also kept their distance, but the whales could approach as close as they dared. One swam closer to the front of their vessel as Paula stood near the back. She beelined for the front and gawked with jealousy as the humpback switched course. The massive creature dove beneath a paralleling ship and peeked its head on the other side in an effortless swish. The boat cheerfully bobbed from the force.

“They’re so lucky!” Paula exclaimed. “I wish that were us.” Her childhood forbade feelings of entitlement, but now something stirred. Something felt intimate, perhaps scary, about a whale swimming underneath her boat. She wanted the experience for herself.

As if hearing her cry, the whale turned and swam toward the front of her boat, its nose dipping underneath the water, tail rising in the air.

“It’s under us! It’s under us!” the captain yelled as everyone scrambled for a closer look. Soon her boat rocked like the last one, and Paula caught a glimpse of the creature’s back on the other side. She got her wish.

In moments the tour ended, and Paula welled with disappointment at its closure. Her childhood dream became a memory as the boat set its course for land.

“Do you think they’re just hyping this up?” Paula asked on the ride back, pondering the day’s events. Perhaps every tour had this much whale activity. Maybe Tour Guide Kelly exaggerated the experience to make it seem unusually special. Each ticket cost $200 and only 16 people attended, so Paula assumed the tour must be routinely extravagant.

Her best friend recalled how the captain acted like he had goosebumps. “No, I don’t think so,” she mentioned. “I overheard the captain whispering to the guide what an awesome excursion this turned out to be.” And Paula believed it.

The tour ended with bittersweet satisfaction, bringing more than simply excitement. The excursion overflowed with improbabilities: enormous creatures breaking from ocean depths, and a little girl leaving poverty’s curse.


This is a nonfiction piece about my mother fulfilling her dream to see wild whales. She also deserves the photo credit, as it is the one she took on her tour. I want to thank her for being vulnerable and letting me share her story.

Manga: Encountering Literature Differently

Walk in any bookstore and guess what you’ll find—books! Of course, you’ll find them past stacks of calendars, beyond hordes of toys, and outside the sweet-smelling café. With a newly bought, eco-friendly mug steaming in your hand, you peruse the shelves. Between tongue-burning sips, you’ll stumble upon one aisle speckled with standing and squatting readers. The hooded introverts gather here. In silence, each reads a small graphic novel sporting big-eyed, spiky-haired characters. An occasional page turn breaks the quiet. Your heartbeat quickens. Upon discovering the geek’s haven, most will turn and run, but I dare you to investigate!

Manga Basics

In the bookstore scenario, the engrossed book-lovers are reading manga. Manga represents Japanese comics. These small volumes traditionally read from right to left, reverse of how Americans learn in elementary school. Dare opening a manga with the spine on the left and you’ll risk spoiling the ending! Some American printed mangas come with warning labels on the back to prevent this common mistake. Each booklet features a colored cover. Black-and-white drawings illustrate the story inside. When converted to an animated format, manga is then called “anime.”

Some lump manga directly with Westernized comics, but there are major differences between the two. For instance, most comics revolve around a superhero in the sci-fi genre. Storylines for comics follow a predictable cycle—solve the mystery, fight the battle, save the damsel. Repeat.

Although manga can revolve around a superhero-like protagonist, manga maintains a far greater reach. They branch into nearly every genre imaginable. There is manga about psycho circuses, twitterpated school girls, enormous robot battles, men’s volleyball games, and demons working part-time jobs. Unlike comics, manga appeals to readers of each gender, age group, and ethnicity.

Most manga genres fit into two broad categories: shonen and shojo. These categories help readers predict the nature of the story and who would find the story most appealing. Although each manga is written with a target audience in mind, those outside the intended audience can—and frequently do—enjoy reading them.

“Shonen” translates as “boy.” This genre typically focuses on a strong, young male protagonist with special abilities who goes on adventures with his friends. Together they grow stronger and learn life lessons along their perilous journeys. Eventually the protagonist faces his enemy who he defeats or converts to the good side—a popular trope in manga. Shonen also covers sports and mech genres. Although geared toward adolescent boys, girls and older individuals still find shonen entertaining.

Correspondingly, “shojo” translates as “girl.” This genre encapsulates stories of young girls looking for love in a high school setting. Stories include the dramas of everyday life blown out of proportion. Shojo includes the “magic girl” genre like Sailor Moon, which features super powered girls with iconic transformation sequences. Likewise, shojo is written with young girls in mind, but others frequently enjoy the genre as well.

Manga Sales Skyrocket

Japanese culture has saturated American life since the shaky relations of World War II. Thousands of people cosplay (costume + play) at anime conventions across the nation. Hollywood develops live-action movie adaptions for popular manga and anime (Death Note, Attack on Titan, and Ghost in the Shell.) Additionally, manga sales have steadily increased over the past three years. Thousands of ordinary people enjoy manga and express their love in various ways.

Manga sales have risen due to its increased availability to consumers and explosion of bestsellers. Barnes and Noble stores responded to the growing demand by nearly doubling their shelf space reserved for manga. Other bookstores have reacted similarly. Additionally, manga has become digitized for easy access on e-readers, lowering the price from paperback and encouraging readers to stockpile volumes in their virtual libraries. Anyone can dip their toes in the realm of manga by finding one of the many free resources online. Consider it an easy entry.

Millennials and Manga

Millennials, some of the biggest advocates of manga, encounter literature differently than other generations. Rather than reading an entire book, millennials scan for relevant material. The growing technology and fast-paced environment of social media has trained millennials to sift through piles of information. This unconscious indoctrination emphasizes the importance of visually stimulating material, thus revealing the appeal of manga.

Manga stretches an immense, emotionally-driven storyline into booklets meant for an hour’s reading time. This entertaining succinctness draws the millennial’s interest. Manga is deeply rooted in its Japanese heritage, which provides windows into Japanese culture. Manga also evokes an emotional response. With loveable and relatable characters, intense storylines, and stunning art work, a manga series easily engulfs any reader.

The otaku culture, comprised of anime/manga junkies, is entirely welcoming of new fans. To encounter a fellow fan means instant friendship. Complete strangers across the nation congregate at conventions to celebrate their love for fictional characters. Would you go? Would you join the family? I dare you.

Beginner’s Guide to Manga

Diving into the world of manga may re-shape your habits and engulf your free time. It may not. But with an overwhelming amount of titles and genres to choose from, it can be challenging to figure out where to begin. Here are some great beginners for those interested in starting manga:

  • Naruto, one of the top-rated shonen manga, follows a cursed boy named Naruto training to become a world-class ninja. The animated series recently ended after 700+ episodes, and the manga extends through 72 volumes. Finishing this series would take dedication, but, clearly, fans adore it.
  • One-Punch Man, probably closest to Western comics in story, yet it pokes fun at the stereotypes found in both Western comics and in Japanese entertainment. The protagonist represents an unbeatable, Superman-like hero. No enemy stands a chance against him, as he can defeat them in “one punch.”
  • Your Lie In April, an engrossing shojo manga, tells the story of a prodigy pianist who lost his mother. Since her death, he hasn’t gone near a piano. That is, until he meets an outgoing violinist who turns his world upside down. She inspires him to return to the keys and rediscover his passion for playing. Over all, the art style is beautiful and the themes are immensely moving.
  • Death Note will keep you on the edge of your seat. Probably labeled a shonen, this manga revolves around a notebook that murders anyone who’s name is written in its pages. An affluent high school student discovers the notebook’s hidden powers and vows to cleanse the world of unrighteous souls. The series evokes the reader to question morality as a renowned detective known only as L decides to stop the heinous killings.

I dare you—explore the manga section. It’s worth a visit.

The Vibrant Life of Being Ginger

Majestic Unicorns

It’s rough being a majestic unicorn. I never asked to live as a ginger. Society labels me both a mystery and a mutant, but my gingerness doesn’t define me. We shouldn’t judge by the color of our skin; neither should we judge by the color of our hair. I am more than my fiery mane, yet to say my pigmentation doesn’t affect the way I live my life would be an invalid statement. My hair comes with challenges, but don’t believe every stereotype you hear about gingers.

First off, know that less than 2% of the population sports a genuine crimson crown. The rest either dye their hair or envy our auburn locks—as least that’s how I imagine it. To those who dye their hair, I refer to as “box gingers.” The “organic gingers” are natural like me.

You can find organic gingers in most European countries or the Americas. Scotland boasts the densest population at 13% with Ireland heeling at 10%. The United States contains its fair number of redheads as well, which is where I live.

I have cool hair, not a cool accent. Sorry to disappoint.

As a recessive gene, red hair only reveals itself in a child who receives the “ginger gene” from both parents. My parents obviously blessed me with both despite being brunette. Surprise! Many people carry half the ginger gene without even knowing it. Undercover unicorns roam the earth, and you could very well be one of them.

Sensitive Skin

My rosy locks correlate with a small amount of melanin, which is the pigmentation of the skin. This lack of melanin results in a pale complexion susceptible to easy burning and bruising. Research shows that gingers also respond differently to pain and other sensations like heat and cold. Experts say we are more sensitive to stimuli and require more anesthesia during surgery.

I beg to differ. After my abdominal surgery, my head felt like a bobbling bowling ball and my anchored lungs forgot how to breathe. Fully gaining consciousness and teaching my tongue to talk sucked six hours from my life.

I had quite enough anesthesia.

On a different note, I would admit to bruising quite easily. Just look at me too intently and I’ll bruise. I remember jumping in bed one night, and my thigh grazed the edge of my opened dresser. I wailed in pain. The result—a murky bruise swelled to the size of a loaf of bread. It stayed for an entire month. I frequently scan my arms for little, painful surprises and always discover plenty. The winter months makes it easier to hide my ugly patches, the result of everyday scuffles.

Summer is wonderful, but the sun is my worst enemy. If I’m outside without any sunblock, I’m toast—literally. I need to lather on my 100+ SPF, hide in the shade, and don a sombrero to enjoy any quality time outdoors without risk of the painful afterward. Then I might last an hour without repercussions.

Practical Problems

Aside from fair skin, people rarely consider the practical problems of being ginger. For instance, having red hair complicates my fashion choices. Red is a bold color after all. I must avoid wearing bright reds, yellows, or oranges to prevent clashing. I can wear a dark crimson if feeling especially bold, but nothing lighter. I also can’t wear pale hues like soft peach, baby blue, or any shade of white. Against my snowy skin, I simply wash away. Aquas, teals, purples, and greens best compliment my candy-apple locks, and it shows in my wardrobe.

I’ll admit, I’m not very good at remembering names. Most people aren’t. But the pressure to remember only builds when you’re a ginger. As a ginger, I obviously look different from the Jessicas and Britneys of the world. My hair makes it easy for others to remember my name, and I feel guilty when I cannot reciprocate.

Occasionally, people will mix me up with other gingers. This gets on my nerves. Make us brunette and people suddenly won’t get us confused. We are different. And, no, we aren’t all distant cousins. We are ginger—not synonymous with underground cult member. Keep your gingers straight, and you’ll gain immense respect and adoration from us.

On another note, my hands suffer from notorious phalange freeze (NPF), a disease I just invented. This complicates formal introductions. Handshakes lead to the shocked, inevitable comment: “Geez! Your hands are cold.” My hands turn purple when they’re cold and, on rare occasion, red when they’re warm. Whether this is due to my flaming hair or my abnormally long fingers, I guess I’ll never know.

Dark Myths of Gingerhood

According to gingerhood mythology, I do not have a soul. News to me. Thanks to historical prejudice and an unfortunate South Park episode, we gingers continue to suffer mockery. In prior times, people hunted us and burned us at the stake thinking we were Satan-worshiping witches. Some surmised from our pale complexion that we change into vampires at death. Still others believed we were conceived through unclean sex, thus exposed in the color of our hair.

Nowadays, people ridicule us with ridiculous and offensive nicknames: carrot top, ketchup, fire extinguisher, hothead, leprechaun, fire crotch. Luckily, I’ve never suffered much ridicule. My grandma affectionally calls me “Red” and professors call me out in class, but I know others suffer adamant bullying. I ask that you consider the implications of a nickname before labeling a ginger.

We are more than our hair color.

Hotheadedness probably stands as the most common misconception about gingers. I understand red is associated with anger, but it also correlates with passion and love. Do I have a temper? Sure, we all get angry at times. I was quite stubborn as a child, but don’t all children sport an attitude at some point? Don’t call me hotheaded because of my flaming hair. It’s irrational.

Dying Breed

Anyone who tells you gingers are a dying breed is either uneducated or out of their mind. Although we comprise a small percentage of the population, thousands of people carry the ginger gene. The probability of become extinct is slim to none, but that doesn’t make us any less special.

Do you have a ginger friend? Appreciate them! Do you lack a ginger friend? Befriend one! Do you want to repopulate the gingers? Marry one! Even if you don’t naturally grow scarlet tresses, you may introduce another majestic unicorn to the world.

Or become a box ginger. We won’t judge—not too much anyway.

Red

Paper is a blank canvas, until the ink has built its town, its city, no, its grand empire, on the snowy, barren plain. Cautiously I grab the stack off the printer, careful not to bend its corners. I flip the pages like an old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation. As the pages turn, a breeze of cool air brings butterfly kisses to my cheeks. I ensure each piece found its place and the ink didn’t smear. Pristine. Crisp. Perfect.

I stand the papers upright and clack them against the table, marching like the hooves of regal Gypsy horses. Taking the stapler in hand, I hover it over the top left corner with a slight tremble in my wrist. The alligator waits to snap its teeth upon the prey. Holding my breath, I clutch the ends together and pull back apart. A straight sliver of metal now hugs the pages together in a neat little family.

Thoughtlessly, my fingers brush the cover page as a grin tugs at my lips. Did it smear? No, thank goodness. My heartbeat slows from the scare. Holding the stack to my face, I deeply inhale as the inspiring smell of crisp paper and fresh ink wafts into my nose. I ponder all the blood, sweat, and tears. My eyes are bloodshot, my hair unkempt, my head aches from lost sleep and computer-screen glare. But this one’s a keeper. It’s sure to impress, I convince myself while slipping the stack into one of my sturdy, protective folders.

The anxious longing sets in immediately upon handing over my newly birthed child. For days I wait and pace and worry for my moment of reunion. Will she like it? Did I remember to add in that comma? Certainly I removed all the contractions—right? I read it over a thousand times. Was it “do” or “due”? I just can’t seem to remember! Judgement. Stares. I can feel them already, as if sitting in court waiting for the judge’s sentencing.

Just when I can bear it no longer, a stack of paper slaps the desk in front of me. My hand trembles as it reaches toward the blank, back sheet. My inner teapot shrieks upon the stove. “Turn me over!” the paper screams in my ears. My head pounds. It’s now or never.

I quickly flip over my stack and stare.

What once was black and white in holy matrimony was now stained in red. I close my eyes, but the red remains. Red. rEd. reD. It blots my vision. Opening again, the red remains. Words scribbled out. Entire sentences scratched from existence. Comments and foreign words litter the once spotless snow.

My head meets the desk, resting on the remains of my creation. I add more sweat. I add more tears. Once so spotless, crisp, and clean, it’s now stained in the blood of a murder scene.


Published in the Wineskin, April 2016