“Look, pussy willows.” I point out to my small person.
“What if they’re fairy eggs, and they’re going to hatch and make everything turn green soon?”
“Good one.” This is our game. Who can come up with the wildest ‘what if?’. The winner is our imagination. I consider my answer, sipping from my coffee. “What if the tree is a fairy nursery and the pussy willows are fairy babies swaddled up to stay warm? Shh. We don’t want to wake them up.”
There’s a rustle. A robin chirps. A crocus pokes through the leaf litter. Yellow coltsfoot blossoms dot the ditches. A rotten snowbank collapses and trickles into the water. My small person’s eyes grow wide.
She is still uncertain if she should be a scientist, an artist, or a unicorn veterinarian when she grows up. The crease above her nose tells me these are serious decisions.
I keep my vote to myself. “What happened to your dragon farm?”
“Oh, I’m still doing that but there’s a lot of free time in dragon farming. Especially if you’re helping.”
“I’ll be helping.”
She pulls a piece of paper from her bag. “I’ll make a list. Pros and cons. I want to be a scientist so bad but there’s so many sick unicorns who need my help.” She sighs deeply. The world is heavy on her shoulders.
I take a deep breath. “That’s a loaded question, pumpkin. Every writer has a different way of knowing, and I can only tell you my way.”
She looks frustrated. “But how do you know?”
“I know a story is done when I can read it out loud without tripping over any lines or feeling self-conscious.”
She stares at me, a perplexed look on her face. I struggle to explain myself. “It might sound simple, but it takes a lot of work to get there. First I revise it a few times on paper, then I start reading it out loud, pen in hand to mark the spots that need work. Sometimes I’ve gotten my plot tangled in my first revisions, so I have to do undo all of that.”
She continues to stare, the furrow in her brow growing deeper.
I start to sweat. “Sometimes I’m so embarrassed I want to burn it, so I put it away for the rest of the day. By the next morning I’m ready to tackle the broken spots and sculpt my story into what I want it to be.”
I chuckle. “These days this involves pen, paper, and a clipboard resting on the baby’s bottom while she contentedly suckles. When I’m done I’ll feel happy and exhilarated.”
“That means happy and alive. When I wake up the next day, I might read it again and realize how much work is left. One day I’ll read it and everything will fall into place, a story that flows as smooth as the baby’s bottom it was edited on, and then, at last, I’ll know it is done. At least until my critique group tells me otherwise, but that’s another thing altogether.”
She shakes her head. “No, mum, I mean, how do you know when its finished?”
I stare, drawing a blank. “I don’t understand.”
She stamps her foot. “How do you know when to stop reading?”
The old man stuck his bottom lip out and squinted. “It’s a pirate map, indeed, matey.”
The boy leaned in for a better look. “How can you tell?”
The old man lifted a dirty, bony finger and traced the curves. “Arrr, I’d know it anywhere. It’s useless, boy, let it go. We’ll never find treasure with a map like that.”
“But grandpa, why not?”
“Well, you see where things get all squiggly here, that’s where the rum kicked in. Pirates are famous for drinking all the rum they can find. I stuck to tea meself in me pirate days. Called me a teetotaler, but here’s the thing: being sober, I was the only one who could draw a line to save me life. This here map’s been drawn by a drunk, look how it meanders about. I tell you the treasure’s lost as can be. Best forget about it.”
“Okay grandpa,” said the boy, and pretended not to notice as his grandpa cut down the bit of branch with the map and shoved it into his pocket.