touching bottom

I cannot keep these days from sinking –
thirty-four years away, I awake
to the smell of lake water
and its soft slaps against the poles
of the dock, the wood on aluminum
of oars caught in oarlocks

three and more decades gone, and I know
with certainty that the lake bottom
is still sandy, and that at twilight,
two loons will arrive – carved from
a perfect summer night – to begin their calls
with rising chortles pulled into those
longer notes that seek out our edges,
indistinguishable from the edges of the sky

thirty-four years back, I might return
and instruct that wide-eyed summer self
to plant her heart in that space,
where it might quietly wait with the pines,
with the dry sighs of summer grasses,
and the smooth leaves of the wintergreen –
for some other sun-quivering July day,
when her feet can touch bottom again

© Sarah Whiteley

no prayer refused

it was simpler then,
as children, to have a creek
rolling through the back yard

more tangible than airy gods
to carry all our worries
– no prayer refused –

© Sarah Whiteley

Diving back into writing after my recent busy work schedule is proving to be a little more challenging than I expected. So I am dabbling here and there on a few small pieces and giving my brain a chance to unwind from all the chaos. So if things have been quiet on the blog-front, this is why. The pre-sales period for Wandering Wonderful just happened to coincide with some big work deadlines, which made keeping up with both a massive effort. But now that both are over, I’m looking forward to some restorative ventures out into nature and putting pen to paper once more.

On a side note, I did hear from the publisher while proofing my galleys that they are a little behind schedule on printing. I do not know yet what this means for Wandering Wonderful, but I think it likely that the drop date may be a little later than the initially anticipated May 17th. I will post an update once I have more information.

the traveler, starting young


I never was in so much trouble
as that time I vanished down the tracks,
losing sight of the afternoon,
small shoes balanced on the ties,
walking into evening between the rails

even at that age I could name goldenrod
and dog rose, Queen Anne’s lace and sumac –
could pick out moths from butterflies –
but had not yet discovered the word
for that unrelenting itch to wander

but mother knew the word and four miles later,
I was spanked all the harder
for the future loss of her daughter
who would disappear along the tracks
to find solace down some dusty road

© Sarah Whiteley

the creek

I lived once alongside the creek
with its green tumblings and blue pools,

where younger hands than these knew
the language of the ridges in the bark
of the oak that created a bridge of itself –

a path to the tall grasses fanning the sky
on the other side, where the small adventures
of frog-finding and sugar maple climbing waited,

to the tucked-away nests of the kildeer,
who darted in with shrill admonishments
to distract curious eyes from their cache

even then the creek was a confidante,
swallowing cares without complaint –
rolling them into eddies,
tumbling them over rocks,

until with time they inclined
more toward the size and shine of sand,
the gift of a much more manageable grit

© Sarah Whiteley


I was the kid who was forever bringing home strays or baby birds. Some I’d thrust upon neighbors (apparently I was hard to resist), some would hang around, and some unfortunately wouldn’t make it. I stopped doing this when I hit about 12 years old. But then in high school, my friend called me with 4 baby rabbits. From what I understand, her mother’s boyfriend had set traps and the mother rabbit had been caught in one. And now here were her orphaned babies who were clearly too young to fend for themselves.

I took on the care of Hoover (named for the vacuum cleaner, not the president). He was small enough that he required warmed kitten formula from a medicine dropper every few hours. I remember cradling him in my palm with his oversized feet sticking up, feeding him until his belly was round and his eyes drooped. It was the last few weeks of school and I carted him around everywhere in a little shoebox and when feeding time came, the teachers let me use the microwave in the teacher’s lounge to warm his formula.

Eventually he got big enough to start eating leafy things on his own. I’d take him out into the backyard and let him wander beneath the safety of a laundry basket. There was a nice little patch of clover near the garage where I’d set us up for an hour or two every day. A couple of times, the laundry basket was removed but he always hung around and let me take him back inside. Until one day he decided he knew where he belonged and darted into the neighbor’s garden.

I didn’t try to go after him. I knew it was time to let him be what he was meant to be. We saw him quite often over the summer, munching away in the gardens – clearly thriving.

I thought a lot about Hoover while I was painting this. Lately I’ve been feeling a bit like a stray myself. But then I think that sometimes all we need is for someone to show us the clover. And that will happen when we’re ready to come out from under the laundry basket.

Fat Rabbit

at Sleepy Eye

days stretched out so long, they toppled
off the end of the weathered dock
into the spring-fed cold at Sleepy Eye

among the shadows between the pilings
swam the uncatchable ghost of a walleye
(suitably fish-tale-sized)
someone years past had called Walter

every summer we saw him jump,
breaking the lake at dusk, just offshore
where the small-flies gathered
in their short-lived, tiny-winged hordes

at the splash “it’s Walter!”
we’d gasp and sit properly awed
while we envisioned the sort of net
that might finally nab him

the “growed-up” me is somewhat relieved
Walter’s remained a fish-ish myth,
dodging all the efforts and lures
of the great northern fisherman

this way, he’s stayed a childhood tale –
of firefly nights among hundred-year pines
and the hollow sound of wooden oars
striking the sides of a kid-captained boat

© Sarah Whiteley

a different sort of genealogy

my father’s father kept the accounts
for a coal mine in eastern Pennsylvania
until one Valentine’s Day his heart quit
on him and birthed a widow in its stead

driving through the corrugated remains
of a Poconos coal town it’s unsettling
to think how the experiences of others
will invariably influence our own

and I wonder how that suddenly empty seat
might have turned the course of that
twelve-year old boy who would in forty years
be my father and was he as hollowed out

as the empty mines that gutted the hills,
or as that old miner’s shack crouched
at the base of the rocks weeping rust
and coal dust for thirty years and more

earlier that morning I’d been snailing along
in the car lost in the sudden morning fog
of November in the Alleghenies with every turn
and curve a ‘poke at fate’ in near-zero visibility

when God or Providence or what-have-you
sent succor in the hulking form of a Kenmore truck
whose keeper leaned his elbows on my window
and said it’s ok, just follow me

I was drawn in by the confidence of his long
experience and followed the red trail
of his hazards to the next town,
where I turned off with a double-honk of thanks

now trawling through the landscape of my father’s youth
I wonder how it was he found his way through the fog
with no light to follow but miners’ lamps disappearing
into dark shafts, and no one to say just follow me

© Sarah Whiteley

The Embarrassment of Phileas Wensleydale Trout – Chapter 2

***If you missed Chapter 1 of Phileas, you may find it here.***

Mornings in the Trout household typically began when Mrs. Trout, in her pale blue robe with matching pale blue slippers, made her way down the hall and into the kitchen to put the kettle on.  Once the kettle was filled with water from the sink and set upon the stove, Mrs. Trout would stand with her back resolutely turned until it deigned to boil.  She’d once read, you see, that “a watched pot will not boil” and while a kettle was not quite a pot, Mrs. Trout concluded that the same complicated principals of thermo-ocular dynamics still applied and therefore she never, if she could help it, made eye contact with the kettle until it cheerily whistled, letting her know it was once more safe for her to turn about and continue making breakfast.

From beneath his blankets, Phileas could hear the kettle whistling in the kitchen and knew that his mother was even now reaching for pans, cracking eggs, and beginning to mix up what would undoubtedly be another cheese omelette for his breakfast.  It wasn’t that Phileas particularly minded cheese omelettes, but some mornings he couldn’t help but think that a simple bowl of cold cereal and milk would make for a nice change of pace.  Remembering the cheesy noodle casserole, the cheese drenched broccoli, and the toasted cheese bread from the previous night’s dinner, he thought that this was definitely one of those mornings.

Phileas stretched his legs until his bare feet popped out from beneath his blankets.  He wriggled his toes in the cool air and squeezed his eyes shut, knowing that in a few short minutes, his mother would be calling for him to get out of bed and come eat his breakfast.  He’d asked for cereal once or twice before, only to have his father briefly peer at him over the morning paper and utter a rather sharpish “Nonsense, boy!” before going back to reading the agricultural news, no doubt deeply fascinated by the latest in dairy related innovations.

Phileas was just wondering whether or not trying once more to ask for cereal would be worth the look of disappointment on his father’s face, when from beside his bed came plip! plip-plip! plop! “Aww, crud!”

Phileas whipped the blankets off his face and sat up in bed.  “Who’s there?” he called to the empty room.  His books sat stacked upon his desk.  His clothes were piled at the foot of his bed right where he’d left them.  His closet door was shut tight, holding back the mess which stood taller than he was and would no doubt be a small avalanche when his mother ventured to open the door.  In other words, nothing looked any different than it had when he’d gone to bed the night before.

He looked in what he thought was the direction the noises and voice had come from.  He’d heard of ghosts, of course, but as he didn’t know anyone who had died, he didn’t think anyone would have a reason to haunt him.  And really he wasn’t sure he actually believed in them, even if his mother swore they were real.

“Is there someone there?” he asked quietly to the room.

“No,” came a very small voice.

Phileas gave a little jump.  He could see no one!  But he knew he hadn’t imagined the voice.

“I heard you!” he said, half hoping he really hadn’t.

“No you didn’t,” came the very small voice, sounding just slightly smaller than before.

“I heard you again!” cried Phileas, now really hoping he hadn’t.

“Aww, crud!” said the small voice.  “Two-Legs can hear me!”

“Two-Legs?” said Phileas.  “Who are you?” he asked.

“Nobody, Two-Legs,” said the voice.

“Where are you!” demanded Phileas, kicking the blankets off his legs and jumping onto the floor.

“Nowhere!” cried the voice, going up a pitch as if in fright.

“Don’t be silly!” said Phileas.  “You can’t be nobody and nowhere if I can hear you.”

“Crud!” said the voice.

“Tell him he’s sleeping,” said another small voice.

“You’re sleeping!” cried the first small voice, sounding just a little desperate.

“I’m not sleeping!” said Phileas.  “There are two of you now.  Who are you?”  Phileas dropped to his knees and peered beneath the bed.  Nothing but a pair of socks and a small ball of dust.  He crawled across the floor and dug into his small pile of clothes.  Nothing but clothes.

“Better come out before I find you!” said Phileas, whipping his head around.

“Or what?” said one of the small voices.

“Shh!” said the other voice frantically.  “Don’t anger the Two-Legs!”

“Oh, pish!” said the other small voice.  “He’ll never find us in the lamp.”

“A-ha!” cried Phileas, lunging for the lamp at the same exact moment two tiny gray-furred creatures leapt from the shade.

“Eeee!” they squealed as they disappeared behind the dresser.

Phileas was so surprised, he tripped over a shoe and landed hard on his hands and knees.  Mice? he thought wildly.  He’d been hearing mice?  But mice couldn’t talk, could they?  He supposed they must have their own sort of mouse language, of course.  But he couldn’t speak mouse.  Could he?  How could he speak mouse and not know it?  What would people think?

“Phileas! Breakfast!” called his mother from the kitchen.

Phileas sat back on his heels and stared up at the lamp, its shade now tipped at an odd angle.  I must be ill, he thought.  Or mad.  He’d once heard of a man who thought he was a tree.  Everyone had called him mad, sadly shaking their heads whenever they spoke of him, recounting how one day he’d taken an ax to the old oak that once grew on the mayor’s front lawn.  As he was being dragged away, people swore they heard him yelling “My leaves are greener!  My leaves are greener!”

Phileas shuddered.  Was he mad?  Had he gone to bed completely normal only to wake up crazy?  Was that how it happened?

“Phileas!” called his mother.  “Your father says he’ll explode if you’re late to school again today and we don’t want that now do we?”

“I won’t really explode, dear,” Phileas heard his father respond.

“Only think of the mess!” called his mother.

“I am not going to explode!”

“But, dear, you clearly said…” replied his mother.

And then it hit him.  He had become just like them.  Phileas Wensleydale Trout was embarrassing.

The Embarrassment of Phileas Wensleydale Trout

     Phileas Wensleydale Trout didn’t have much going for him in his young life. There was his name, for one thing. What had his parents been thinking? What was a Phileas anyway? And as if that hadn’t been bad enough, he was also burdened with a middle name that celebrated his father’s favorite kind of cheese.  Of course that cheese couldn’t have been a nice mellow cheddar that smelled of homey goodness and sandwiches your mum tucked into your lunchbox with little notes wishing you a good day at school. No. Wensleydale cheese (blue Wensleydale, to be precise) had an odor there was only one other place you could smell. If you were to wander down to the docks to the launderer and shove your face into one of the large baskets which held the grimy, sweat-sodden undershirts of the crew of the Moldy Musket – a ship known not for its adventurous exploits, but for the fact that its sailors (perhaps out of some misguided superstition) never changed their undershirts for the entire length of a voyage – you would have some inkling of what Wensleydale cheese smells like. By the time Trout gets tacked onto the end of first and middle names like Phileas and Wensleydale, well – you can see why Phileas might have reason to complain.

     But Phileas’s name was the least of his problems – or rather, only the beginning of his problems. He often wondered whether he would have had a better, slightly less embarrassing life if his parents had given him a better, slightly less embarrassing name. But even if poor Phileas had been called something rather more normal sounding – like Jack Rogers, for instance, or Max Anderson – he would still have spent nearly every day of his young life in mortal embarrassment.

     Phileas lived with his mother, father, and pet canary in the small rooms above his father’s cheese shop, “Trout’s Tasty Cheeses.” Now, every child will tell you tales of how embarrassing his or her parents are. But Phileas, though he wouldn’t dare speak of it (not even to the canary), had them all beat. He thought of himself as relatively normal for a boy who lived with embarrassing parents above a cheese shop and often thought to himself that at one point, his parents must have been normal too. Otherwise, where would Phileas had gotten it from? He’d find himself gazing at his mother and father across the breakfast table, wondering just where their lives had taken a sharp left turn at the corner of Crazy Street and begun their endless journey down Off Your Bloomin’ Rocker Avenue.

      Phileas’s father was Henry Trout, although he was usually referred to as “Mr. Trout” or “The Cheeseman.” No one knows just when Mr. Trout’s obsession with cheese and all things cheese-related began, but obsessed he was. Even to the point of drilling holes of varying sizes into the dining room table in order to make it more closely resemble cheese. Like a “fine aged Swiss,” boasted Mr. Trout. He was extremely proud of his handiwork and greatly enjoyed the looks upon the faces of the people he displayed his table to – mistaking their looks of dumbfounded astonishment for admiring awe. No matter that Mrs. Trout was constantly losing teaspoons and dainty bits of china to some of the larger holes, Mr. Trout would loudly laugh and say “all part of its charm, my dear!”

     Mr. Trout’s obsession with cheese didn’t end with his shop or his hole-riddled table. Their rooms were dotted with cheese-themed furniture, from the wedge-shaped ottoman and the sofa which resembled a great brick of cheddar to the cheese cloth curtains which he insisted his wife hang in place of her favored rose chintz patterned drapes. It seemed to Phileas that his life was filled with nothing but cheese, cheese, and more cheese. He didn’t dare bring any school friends home for fear of dying of cheese-induced embarrassment only to be buried by his father in a cheese-shaped coffin with a headstone in the shape of the round wheel of Parmesan. And no doubt heaping platters of cheese would be served at his wake.  

     Mrs. Hyacinth Trout did her best to accommodate her husband’s cheese obsession, feeling in her heart of hearts that it was only right for a wife to support her husband in all matters. She knew this was right because she’d read it in an issue of Women’s Calumny Quarterly, which she read most faithfully and believed whole-heartedly.

     Ah, dear Mrs. Trout! There is a certain familiar expression which many people employ (whether they realize it or not) in their daily lives. That expression instructs a person to take certain things “with a grain of salt.” In simple terms, this means to not believe absolutely everything you are told or that you read. There are varying degrees of how one should take things “with a grain of salt” of course. These range from the “complete and utter hogwash” to “most of that is true, I’m certain, but as you’ve no photographic evidence, that fish was more likely six inches long and not eighteen inches long.” Mrs. Hyacinth Trout lacked this ability to apply disbelief where necessary and believed innately absolutely everything she was told.

     One might wonder what harm there is in believing everything one is told. Well no harm at all, unless you are poor Phileas Trout and your mother is one Mrs. Hyacinth Trout who once set out saucers of cream and half a dozen soup bones when she heard it would be “raining cats and dogs” later in the day. She meant well, of course, thinking only of how the poor wee things would be hungry after such a long drop and would be grateful for a bit of something to eat. And there was that exceptionally hot afternoon one July when she overheard someone passing by say “boy, I’m just burning up.” Mrs. Trout, knowing her civic duty, promptly doused the man with the bucket of dirty dish water she’d been about to dump into her flowerbed.

     With such parents and such a name, it was no wonder Phileas lived in dread of the morning he’d wake up and realize he had become just as strange and embarrassing. For eight years, no such thing occurred. And then one Tuesday morning in April, on the 156th day of the eighth year of his life – it happened.


Ok, folks… my first meander into sharing some of my fiction.  This is a WIP and while I haven’t edited the crud out of it, I’ve enjoyed toying with it recently.  (In other words, don’t go reading this like it’s a finished product.)  I have a pretty good idea of where it’s headed and I hope some of you will enjoy coming along with me.  If not, feel free to skip the posts tagged “fiction” – no worries.  I know it’s not my usual fare but it is one of the many facets of Sarah.