The Barnhill Family’s Disaster In the BWCA: A Tale of Love, Loss, Heartbreak and Redemption

All right, maybe “disaster” is too strong a word. It wasn’t a disaster. It was almost a disaster. Very, very almost.

First of all, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should warn you off the bat that if you are the sort of person to be deeply troubled by stories of Cute and/or Beloved Domestic Animals In Peril, then you should stop reading right now. I actually started this post a while ago, but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it until we had a better sense of my dog’s prognosis.

I couldn’t write this when I honestly thought she was going to die.

Unfortunately, it’s still an open question. She’s definitely on the upswing, and after what she’s been through, she looks fantastic. Still. We could still get Very Bad News next week, so I’m just hanging on to each precious day, and feeling grateful for it. Gratitude, I’ve found, is a powerful thing. Very powerful, indeed.

In any case, my dog is super old, super gnarly, and is, as far as I can tell, made of cast-iron. We’ve had more scares than I can count with her, and every time she comes out of it astonishingly healthier than she was before. She had a brain event a while ago when she lost control of her limbs. We thought that was it. She got better. She ate a dead fish and got a terrible salmonella infection that the vet said would have killed any other dog on earth. Not Harper. She has eaten, digested, and shat batteries without even a stomach ache. She’s tough, smart, and fiercely loyal to us. She’s the greatest dog on earth, and I’m speaking in entirely empirical terms here.

Anyway, here’s the story:

We piled the family (two parents, three kids and a dog) in our extra-long, Kevlar canoe, along with backpacks and Duluth packs, and slid into the wilderness.
The Boundary Waters, as usual was exquisitely beautiful. It was greener than in recent years due to heavy snows and consistent (persistent?) rains, the rivers were plump and high, the lakes lousy with fish, and wildlife scurrying in every direction. It was also, however, lousy with bugs. Massive swarms of the biggest mosquitoes I’ve ever seen in my life crowded the air, divebombed our eyes, invaded our noses and mouths and assaulted our skin. It was a mosquito invasion, a mosquito apocalypse, a mosquito Plague from a very pissed-off God. We cowered and wailed and begged for forgiveness, but received no succor. We learned later that we’re having a banner year for mosquitoes this year. So that’s great.

Now here’s the thing about camping: even when it sucks, it’s great. It was cold, drizzly, and windy. The kids work hard, we work hard and it’s awesome. One of the things about being outside from the moment you wake up to the moment you crawl into the tent. is that you become incredibly good at noticing things. We notice the shine of the clouds on the water. We notice the wiggly shadow of a beaver as it slides just under the skin of the waves and disappears into the weeds. We notice the rhythms in our own bodies, and the rhythms in one another. We anticipate one another better, respond better, listen better. When we’re in the woods, we operate better as a family.

And there was one thing that both my husband and I noticed: Harper was slowing down. We knew it would happen, of course. Some day. In the future. Harper was sixteen after all. At least. She came into our lives in the fall of 1998, and the vet said she was between three and six back then. And after all these years, she never showed a hint of ever slowing down. She went running with me, chased squirrels and rabbits, and was a general spaz.


This year.

This year she lagged.

This year she slowed.

This year, instead of leaping into the canoe and leaping out, she paused, planned, stumbled.

My husband and I watched her and worried. “This is probably her last year camping with us, ” we said over dinner. And we were sad about this. When Harper first came into our lives, we were a couple of idiot kids with no sense of direction, no plans, no lives. Harper made us into a family. And we never looked back.

On Saturday morning, the day we were supposed to leave, I woke up before everyone else, stumbled out of the tent, and realized that Harper was gone.

Like, completely gone.

I filled her food and water bowl, called for her, walked the trails that spidered away from the campsite before they vanished into the thick undergrowth, and found nothing. No tracks. No signs. We heard nothing in the night. The ground wasn’t disturbed. She just….. vanished.

Come back, come back, come back, my heart said. But she didn’t.

So, we couldn’t leave. Fortunately, we always pack an extra day and a half’s worth of food, because you never know if it’s just going to be too dangerous to paddle out. The weather can be changeable and dangerous, and it’s important to be prepared.

Also, one can lose one’s dog. And you can’t look – or weep – on an empty stomach.

For the rest of the day we looked. Ted bushwacked in three directions, calling her name, but heard nothing. We piled into the canoe and paddled along the jagged shore of the large lake, calling and calling, but nothing. We talked to other campers, but they had seen nothing, heard nothing.

Come back, come back, come back.

As the day waned, Ted and I tried not to look at each other. We tried to smile for the kids. We tried to keep them upbeat. We did our best to keep from crying, because we knew that any emotion we show, the kids will feel a thousand times over. “This sort of thing happens all the time,” we lied. “Harper’s a tough cookie. She always knows where we are. She’d never leave us for good, never.” That part had always been true….but what if it wasn’t?

Finally, we went back to the portage trail that we had hiked across to get to this particular lake in the first place. We figured, if she had run off chasing something and got turned around, she might have ended up on the trail, recognized the smell, and stayed put until we came back.

In retrospect, it wasn’t a great theory, but it was all we had.

It was an awful trail, thick with bugs and mud, and about a mile long. And while it was easier to do without Duluth packs on our backs and a canoe on our shoulders, our hearts weighed heavily inside us, and so it was a long, trudging slog. The only one among us with a spring in his stride was my son, Leo.

Leo the true believer.

Leo the ardent friend of his dog.

Leo, whose first language is Dog, who’s prime culture is Dog, who was – and I will admit this freely – raised by his dog.

Leo believed that we would get to the end of the trail, and his dog would be waiting for him. Leo believed that he would be exasperated but happy, and that the re-united family would trudge on back.

But Harper wasn’t there. Leo stood there for a moment, his damp breath punching in and out of his nose, before dropping his backpack to the ground, tilting his little face to the sky and letting out a long, brokenhearted wail.

And the girls cried.

And Ted cried.

And I cried.

Because there was no pretending anymore. There was no illusion of a happy ending. We had lost our dog. And lost her forever. We took one another’s hands and trudged back to the canoe.

Come back, come back, come back, our hearts thundered.

That evening, I made dinner. We sat on a log and told stories about Harper. I told them – though they heard it before – about how Harper showed up at our friend’s house, sick, scrawny, and desperate for love. I told them how Harper took care of Ella when she was a baby, herding her like a little lamb, keeping her near me as I desperately typed out my four-times-delayed Master’s thesis. We told them how Harper used to grab the leashes of other dogs and take them for walks.

“We love Harper,” the kids said.

“We know,” we said. “We love her too.”

Come back, come back, come back, in our breathing in and our breathing out, in our watering eyes, in our twitching lips, in our shaking hands.

In the middle of doing the dishes, we heard a sound – a high, bright howl. I thought it was a loon. Or a pack of loons. Loons aren’t in packs, I thought absently.

Ted leaped to his feet. “HARPER,” he called. That’s not Harper, I thought. It’s a pack of loons. “Harper,” he called as he turned on his heels and ran up the rocky knoll next to camp.

The howls pitched higher, and there were more of them. Coyotes? Wolves? It certainly sounded like more than one animal. The kids followed Ted, calling wildly for their dog.

“Harper, Harper, HARPER!”

About a third of a mile down the lake, Ted saw a scuffling in the scrub. Then the points of ears. Then a curled tail. Then our dog, scrambling out of the woods and into the water.

“Don’t take your eyes off her,” he told the kids. “Don’t let her out of your sight.” He ran down to the shore and leaped into the canoe, paddling like mad to our dog.

It was then that I started sobbing.

Ted carried her back to the campsite and we gathered around her. She was in rough shape. She had some puncture wounds around her snout and some cuts on her two back flanks. She didn’t want to put any weight on her back right leg. But the worst of it was a benign tumor on her front left leg – a tumor that the vet had told us was dangerous to remove at her age since older dogs don’t do well with surgery, and she couldn’t care less about it, so why bother. It had grown by quite a bit, was now irregularly shaped, and quite red. It oozed.

“She may not make it through the night,” Ted told me.

“I know,” I said. “And we may have to carry her on the portages home.”

“I know,” he said, and we both knew that we would happily carry her down a thousand portages, just to get her home again.

Harper is home now. And she’s doing great.

“This dog is built to heal,” our vet said. “She may even outlive us all.” And I believe it. She’s on antibiotics and they appear to be working. She’s eating and drinking and annoying the neighbors with her obsessive barking at All The Squirrels. She’s not out of the woods by any means. We still may find out that her tumor has outgrown its blood supply, that it’s now necrotic and will eventually kill her. That’s a possibility and I accept it.

Still, she’s home.

Still, she’s alive.

And I know I don’t get to keep her forever, and I know that her life has an expiration date, but by being grateful for today, I also have the opportunity for gratitude for every day. Gratitude, I think, is one of the great forces of the universe. We are much happier when we are saying thank you than when we are saying please. Gratitude anchors us in the world we are in, this moment, this experience, this life. When we are in a state of gratitude, we are most fully alive.

I am grateful that Harper’s okay.

I am grateful that she came into our lives.

I am grateful for the irrevocable shift that she precipitated in my life. I am grateful forever.

So this is my prayer right now: Thank you.

Into the Woods

Last year, I took my family into the wooded north of my fair State – to a wilderness area known around these parts as the Boundary Waters (officially the BWCAW, or Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness). If you’ve never been, you simply must. Ancient rocks, abundant wildlife, deep, cold lakes with some of the clearest water in the world. Moose. Eagles. Cougars. Wolves.

It’s magnificent.

We went sporadically when the girls were little, but ever since my son turned two, we’ve gone every year. And every year, we’ve come home saying, “Well, that was definitely our hardest year. Next year will be easier.”

We said that when Leo tried to lose himself on the portage.

We said that when he stabbed a hole in the tent with a stick.

We said that when he peed on my sleeping bag ….. on purpose.

We said that when he dumped boiling water on his feet – right before a huge storm, and we couldn’t leave.

And we said that last year, when, after using the latrine and accidentally dropping the hand sanitizer into its putrid depths, decided that he would be responsible. He would be useful. And he would be brave. So, my son – my irony-loving son – hooked his arm on the lip of the toilet, and lowered himself inside.

He returned to the campsite, up to his thighs in decomposing shit, proudly displaying the hand sanitizer.

Next year, Ted and I told ourselves with quavering voices and shaking hands. Next year will be easier.

And today, I believe it. Today, we venture into the woods.

There is a great poetry to the wilderness excursion. We go seeking……something. Peace. Riches. Serenity. Enlightenment. Adventure. Castles. Dragons. Enchanted Kings. And we re-emerge into our real lives indelibly changed.

Or the world that we left has shifted under our feet.

Or the universe we left is not the universe to which we return.

We go to the wood and survive in the wood and are changed by the wood. We become fairy tale, fable and myth.

Last year, when we were camping, I brought a notebook and wrote the opening chapters of my project Witless Ned and the Speaking Stones. Since then, I finished the book, and realized that Ned needed an accomplice – a girl named Aine.  Now I return to the story, again in longhand, and will restart the narrative while sitting on a rock, next to a groaning tree and a windy lake.

And you know, I’m rather excited about it.

Another Student Story!

Many of you may remember that, a while back, I did a fiction residency at Epiphany Catholic School. I told the kids that if they started a story and wanted to work on it for a while, they could send it over to me at any time and I’d share it on my blog. Well, finally a really cool kid took me up on it! Sixth grader Christine  wrote a very fun little story about a dragon who was convinced that he was just a plain pet lizard, despite the encouragement of the people around him. I hope you guys enjoy this as much as I did. Thanks, Christine, for sharing your story with us!

The Dragon That Could

By Christine Z.


“Henry? What was that?”

“Uh…nothing Mom. Bruce just ran into the door again.”

Bruce is my pet lizard. Well, he’s not really a lizard but he sure thinks he is.  He is actually a dragon, but he can’t fly or breathe fire or doing anything a normal dragon can do, so we just say he’s a lizard.  I’ve been trying to teach him how to fly but, well, I think you know how that’s going.

“I told you, Henry. Lizards don’t fly! No matter how hard you try, I won’t fly because I’m not supposed to!”

       “Bruce, how many times do I have to tell you? You are a dragon! Not a lizard! If I wanted a lizard, I would’ve just gone next door to Monty’s. He’s got a billion lizards. But no. I flew all the way to Zion to find the perfect dragon. Do you know how far away that place is from here?”

          “No I don’t…OF COURSE I DO! I lived on Zion for years before some stupid kid named Henry came and kidnapped me because he wanted a lizard that he could teach to fly.”

          “No, Bruce. He wanted a dragon because he thinks dragons are really cool.”

          “If he wanted a dragon then he should’ve kidnapped a dragon not a lizard.”

          “Okay Bruce. I’m done. I give up. You just won’t accept the fact that you are a dragon, so I will stop trying to make you.” Pft! Yeah right! I would never give up, but I have a plan to make him realize that he really truly is a dragon.

          “Thank you. You have finally found some respect.”

          “Stop it. You’re starting to sound like my sister. She’s all ‘You should learn to respect people. You would have more friends if you did.’ I hate those kind of people.” That sounded really lame. What kind of brother quotes his sister in front of his friends? I’m surprised Bruce is still awake.

“Woah! Take a chill pill. I was just kidding.”

“You better be because I hate my sister when she does that. Do you have any brothers or sisters?” Wow, Henry. Could you be more obvious? I mean, really? ‘Do you have any brothers and sisters?’ Just thought I’d blurt that out without thinking because I want my plan to be ruined.

“Since when do you care about my family?”

“Um. I-I’ve always…uh…c-c-cared a-b-b-bout…mm…yo-your f-fam-m-mily. Hehe. I…uh… j-just…um…th-th-thought that y-you…uh…w-wouldn’t want-t-t to…mm…t-talk a-b-b-bout it. Hehe.” I just blew it! I hate how I can never lie because whenever I try to, I always stutter.

“Oh. I know what your trying to do.”

“Ummm….Y-you d-d-do?” Oh no! My plan will be ruined if he finds out what I’m doing.

“Yeah. You’re trying to bring up a sore subject for me so that you can play Mr. Nice Guy who is trying to be a good friend.”

“I can never keep anything from you, Bruce.” That’s a lie. For example, one time I went to the movies with my friends after school and when I came home an hour late, Bruce believed that I was studying at the library. He is so gullible. Gosh. I never noticed how parent-like Bruce is. That’s exactly what I need: another parent.

“And you shouldn’t…keep anything from me. Friends don’t keep secrets, remember?”

“If friends don’t keep secrets, then tell me about your childhood.”

“Okay. Deep breaths, Bruce. You can do it. Just tell Henry about your family. I think I’m ready.”

“Good. Now let’s start with your most interesting memory.”

“My most interesting memory? Um let’s see…oh I remember. It was a long time ago so my memory might be a little rusty, but I’ll try my best. I was outside playing with my best friend Roy, he was a unicorn, when this strange creature came up to us. The creature was big and hairy. He had beady red eyes that stared at you as if you would be a perfect snack. He started to walk toward us growling and gaining speed fast. Roy picked me up and put me on his back because then we could run faster. Roy ran faster than I’ve ever seen him run before. He was obviously just as scared as I was. As we were running, we noticed that the creature’s footsteps had disappeared so we stopped to rest. Then the creature jumped down from a tree and almost landed on us. We quickly got up to run again but something stopped us.”

“What was it? What stopped you?”

“See, that’s the thing. I don’t remember what stopped us. I also don’t remember anything before that day or after that day. The next thing I remember is waking up to the sound of wind. That was the day when you came and took me. I don’t know how much time passed between those two events. I don’t remember my family or my home or anything except that horrifying day.”

“Oh my gosh! Are you serious? You don’t remember anything other than that day?”

“Nope. Nothing. It’s as if all those other memories before that were never there.”

“Wow, this is serious. We need to find out what happened to you to make you lose your memory. I guess we get to go back to Zion.”

“Really? You would do that for me?”

“Of course I would. We have only one problem.”

“What’s that?”

“How are we going to get there? My mom took my jet pack because she found out that I stole dad’s hovercraft.”

“It’s too bad you don’t have a sister with a bubble car.”

“Oh yeah! Kat’s car! We can use that to get to Zion! You’re a genius, Bruce!”

“I know.”

“But how are we going to get the car? Kat is always watching and she has fingerprint locks.”

“You get the fingerprints and I’ll distract her.”

“Okay. Meet back here in ten.”

“See ya!”

Okay so now I have to get my sister’s fingerprints. How am I gonna do that? I’m just kidding. I know exactly how to do that. I just have to get her to hold something long enough to get her prints to stay. I think it’s time for her daily dose of Vitamin Q. Vitamin Q is a vitamin that makes your attitude 100%. We give this to Kat once a day because she has a very rotten attitude.

Now that I have a plan, it’s time to take action. I open my bedroom door and walk out and down the hallway. As I walk by Kat’s room, I hear her on the phone with someone and she says that 2:00 would work fine. I wonder who she’s talking to. I’ll probably find out later. Anyway, I walk up the long and winding staircase and finally reach the study. In the study, you sit on a special chair and you hold a book. By holding the book, all the contents of that book absorb into your body through your skin. If I am going to a different planet, I should probably learn more about it. I sit down in the chair and pick up a book about Zion. Every book takes a different amount of time to download into your brain. For example, this book about Zion will take three minutes. I wait impatiently while the book absorbs. Two minutes left. Why is this book so big? One minute. It’s almost done. 5…4…3…2…1…beep beep beep.

Now to the kitchen. I walk through the living room where dad is watching robot racing as usual. Finally, I’m in the kitchen. I get out a glass and go to the computer. I type in Vitamin Q juice and…

“Henry, what are you doing?”

“Oh, hi Mom! I was just getting Kat’s Vitamin Q juice to bring to her room. I thought I would help out and do it for you today.”

“How sweet of you! I won’t disturb you. Just keep working. I love you!”

“Love you, too Mom!”

I press enter and the cupboard opens. Inside the cupboard are the juice and a Unibar (for her unicorn). I take both and head for Kat’s room. I walk back through the living room and the study. I carefully go down the stairs and walk back down the hallway. I knock on Kat’s bedroom door and I hear a loud thump from inside. The door slowly opens and a head peeks out.

“What do you want, squirt?”

“I brought you your VQ juice and a Unibar for Sparkles.”

“Ugh! Why does mom make me drink this crap? It’s disgusting!” She tosses the Unibar to Sparkles and watches her devour it in a second. Kat takes the glass and drinks it as fast as she can. She makes a sour face and gives the glass back to me. She smiles at me and sits back down on her bed. “How’s life, Henry?”

“It’s fine but I actually have to go find Bruce. See you later!”

“Okay, bye buddy! I love you!”

Did you see how fast that juice worked? It’s amazing, isn’t it? I walk out of her room and go back to my room. I carefully put the glass down on my desk, trying not to smudge Kat’s fingerprints. I go to my computer and type in fingerprint kit. My desk drawer opens up and inside is a full fingerprinting kit. I open it up and remove some powder, a brush, and a fingerprint holder that looks like a half cylinder shaped piece of plastic. I dip the brush into the powder and dust the glass. When I can see the fingerprints, I take the plastic and place it on the glass where the fingerprints are. I carefully remove the plastic from the glass. It worked! I can see her fingerprints. Now I wait until Bruce comes back…

“Hey Henry! Did you get the prints?”

“Oh, hey Bruce! Yeah I got them. Did you find a good distraction?”

“Of course! I called your sister and told her I was a boy from school. I asked her if she wanted to go see a movie and she said yes! She is going to see the movie at 2:00.”

“So that’s who she was talking to on the phone! Okay so if the movie is at 2:00 then we still have ten minutes. Let’s get some sketches of what Roy and the creature look like to help us when we are on Zion.”

“Good idea!” He gets out a piece of paper and a pencil and starts to draw. Eight minutes pass. Finally, Bruce says, “There! All done. This one is Roy and this one is the creature!”

“Good job, Bruce! It’s 2:00! Let’s go steal some cars!”

Bruce and I walk down the hall and into Kat’s room. We walk to the other side of the room where the door to her garage is. The door is locked so I take out the fingerprint and put it up to the fingerprint lock. Access granted! We walk into the garage and get into the bubble car. I use Kat’s fingerprint to start the engine. We drive the car out of the house and all the way to Zion. It took a whole two hours!

We land on Zion and get out of the car. I take out my computer and scan the sketches that Bruce drew into it. Roy’s picture comes up and says that this really is a picture of Roy Unigreen. His profile says that he was killed by a unicorn hunter many years ago. The creature’s profile comes up and says that his name is Alek Hunter. He is a well-known and feared unicorn hunter. He has killed over 200 unicorns.

“I’m sorry, Bruce, about Roy. I can’t believe that Alek killed him. It was a very cruel thing to do.”

“That’s okay, Henry. It’s not your fault. Besides, I barely remember Roy.”

“I am going to set up a GPS feature to locate Alek.”

“Sounds good.”

BUZZ! Target located.

“The GPS found Alek! It says that he is in Cavern Cave in northern Zion.”

“I know where that is! I’ll lead the way!”

“I’m right behind you.” This is so exciting and sad at the same time. I’m surprised that the GPS actually found Alek. Usually killers try to hide themselves better than that.

I followed Bruce through forests and jungles, swamps and beaches, meadows and savannas. It seems like we’ve been walking for days, but Bruce never changes pace. He is in a very good mood which makes me happy.

“Hey Bruce?”


“Have you ever thought about why you can’t remember anything?”

“Yes, I have. Loads of times. Why?”

“Because I have a theory.”

“Go on.”

“Well, you know when you stopped to rest because you thought Alek was gone but then he came back?”


“And you can’t remember anything after that?”


“What if someone made you forget?”

“Maybe. My theory is that I hit my head too hard and lost my memory.”

“Both theories are possible, I guess”

“There it is!” He pointed to a very large cave.

“Wow! That’s Cavern Cave?”

“Sure is.”

“Okay Bruce. Whatever happens in there, just remember that you have always been my best friend.”

“Right back at ya. Oh, and I am glad that you kidnapped me and took me back to your house to live with you.”

We slowly walked into the dark and cold cave. Bats flew above our heads. Spiders and rats crawled below our feet. We travel deeper and deeper into the cave, now shivering because of the cold. There was a loud scream. We both jumped and tried not to scream ourselves. We came to a ledge that looked over Alek’s home or room or whatever you want to call it. We were just close enough to hear the conversation below.

“Please! I’ll do whatever you want!” shrieked the girl.

“Why should I let you live?” Alek asked.

“I have a family! Two sons and a husband. They can’t survive without me!”

“Does it look like I care?”

“No,” the girl said quietly.

“That’s because I don’t! There is only one thing you can do to spare your life.”

“What is that?”

“You must go and fetch me the three unicorns that you helped escape from me. Oh and bring me two extras to make up for it.” Alek demanded.

“But it is wrong to kill such an innocent creature!”

“What are you, my conscience? You have no right to tell me right from wrong. Just do what I say or die!” said Alek harshly.

“We have to save her!” whispered Bruce.

“How are we going to do that?” I asked.

“We have to go down there.”

“Okay but be quiet. We don’t want him to know that we are here.”

Bruce and I quietly tiptoed down to where Alek was. A rock fell and hit the floor near where Alek was standing.

“Who’s there?” Alek yelled.

“Why do you hate them?” Bruce yelled back.

“Hate who? Show yourself!” Alek yelled angrily.

“The unicorns. Why don’t you go after dragons or centaurs? Why Unicorns?”

“Who are you? Why should I answer your questions?”

“Because I can make it all better.”

“Make what better?”

“Your life. I can make you a better person.”

“And how would you do that?”

“I can make you forget all the bad things you’ve done. You can start a new life.”

“What makes you think I want a new life?”

“Because you were so focused on talking to me that you walked away from your prisoner and she escaped.”

“What?!?!” Alek screamed furiously.

“Yep. Look around you. Do you see her anywhere? No. And you wanna know why?”


“Because when you heard me talking about a new life without all the bad things and you started to think. And while you were thinking, you started to walk away from her and towards my voice. That means that you were considering my offer.”

“What do you want from me?” Alek asked with a little remorse.

“Do you remember the unicorn and the dragon that you chased in the forest? Do you remember killing that unicorn? Do you remember making the dragon forget everything?”

“Haha. Yeah, I remember that. That was one of my more interesting unicorn findings. The poor dragon had no idea what hit him.”

“Are you sure about that? Are you sure that you made the dragon forget everything?”

“Of course I’m sure. I never make a mistake.”

“Well, you just did.” said Bruce, stepping out of the shadows into plain sight of Alek.

“It’s my young dragon friend. How’s your unicorn pal?”

“I think you know the answer to that, Alek.”

“Wait! How did you remember that day in the forest?”

“Because you made a mistake. You felt bad about hurting a unicorn in front of his friend, so you accidentally did the spell reversed. You made me forget everything except that day when you were supposed to make me forget just that day. I read somewhere that magic is less effective when the user is sad or mad. That means that you were either sad or mad. I think it’s most likely sad because you had a bad experience with dragons and/or unicorns.”


“Don’t know what to say? Here’s a hint: ‘When you drop that rock on me, will you please not hit my head?’.”


“That looked like it hurt!” said Henry, coming out of the shadows.

“We did it!” exclaimed Bruce.

“We’re not completely done yet, though.” advised Henry.

“What did we forget?” asked Bruce.

“Two things. One: we have to bring this young lady home. And two: Don’t you want your memory back?”

“I didn’t even think about that. Do you think Alek could give me my memory back?”

“I think if he could take it away, he can definitely give it back.”

“Yay! We should probably tie him up so that when he wakes up, he can’t escape.”

“Good idea. Hand me that rope.”

We not-so-carefully put Alek onto a chair and tied his arms and legs. Then we made sure everyone was far away from him so that when he wakes up, no one will get hurt.

“Hmm…uhh…um…” grumbled Alek.

“He’s waking up!” cried the girl.

Alek slowly opened his eyes. He started to struggle but soon gave up when he found it useless.

“Good morning, sleepyhead.” said Bruce.

“Get away from me.” Alek said.

“I will as soon as you give me my memory back.”

“Fine. Bring me that book over there. The big blue one.” he opened up the book and then said, “This dragon’s memories are gone. Put them back where they belong.”

There was a big flash of light and then I saw fire. I ran over to see where the fire was coming from. It was coming from Bruce. He can breathe fire again!

“Thank you, Alek. I will always remember this.” said Bruce gracefully.

“Yeah whatever. That was easy magic.” said Alek.

“Now open that book of yours and give yourself a new life without evil.”

“Alright. Hold on…Lemme find it…Aha! Here it is!” he said, “My life is bad and makes me sad. Give me a new one with many balloons.”

There was a bolt of lightning and he was gone. Alek was gone. Hopefully that spell worked and made him a better person with many balloons.

“Wait, Bruce, if you can breathe fire do you think you can fly?” Henry asked anxiously.

“I don’t know. Let me try.” he said right before he started flapping his wings and flying. He was FLYING!

“I can fly! Woo hoo!” Bruce screamed excitedly.

“So when Alek took away your memory, he must’ve made you forget how to fly. This makes so much sense now!”

Bruce came back down to the ground and told us to hop on his back. So the girl and I got on Bruce’s back and flew to the beach. We stopped at the beach and brought the girl to her family. Her and her family thanked us and said that we should come visit them sometime. We told them we would.

After that, we flew to the bubble car. I got in the bubble car and flew home while Bruce flew beside me. We got home and returned the car to my sister’s garage. We went back to my room because it had been a long day and we both needed some rest. I got in bed and Bruce laid on the floor.

“Today was the best day of my life!” whispered Henry to avoid waking up his sister who was sleeping down the hall.

“I agree. I couldn’t ask for a better friend.” said Bruce.

“I would say the same about you. Oh and one more question” Henry said.

“What’s that?”

“What kind of creature are you?”

“Oh that’s an easy one. I am a dragon and I’m proud of it.” 

All Memory is Magic; All Magic is Memory


When I was three years old, I walked out into the yard. It was a cicada year, though I did not yet know what a cicada was. All I knew was that the air hummed, and the sky hummed, and the grass and trees and flowers hummed and hummed. I knew that the hum was visceral and alive. It moved and breathed. It had substance and texture and mass.

Which is to say, magic.


At three, I did not yet know what magic was. I didn’t know what electric was, either. I simply walked out into the grass, into the green, green grass, and heard a sound that filled me with wonder. Later, I would remember it as hearing magic. And still later, I would remember it as hearing electricity. And even later, I would remember it as hearing bugs.

But the memory of me at three (of unkowingness) has been fused with the memory of me at ten (of intra-knowingness), which is fused still with the knowledge of myself now at thirty-seven (of post-knowingness). Beauty becomes magic, becomes science, becomes philosophy. Now, they are all the same.

Which makes the construction of fiction – particularly fiction with magic in it – a tricky operation. Fiction, you see, relies on memory in which to operate. And this is true for both the writer and the reader. In Story, our memories are gathered, bound, altered, re-formed, re-purposed and re-named. Every story is built again and again in the minds of the reader – an amalgamation of the writer’s memory and the writer’s invention, and the reader’s memory and the reader’s invention.

It is a process that is alchemical, transcendent and infinite in its possibilities.

Which is to say, magic.

Which means that now, as both reader and writer, these fused selves must be parsed out, separated and laid bare. I must remember the magic without the bugs, and I must remember the electricity without the magic. I must rely on my readers to make those connections on their own.

Farewell, Kindergarten!

Today is Leo’s last day in Kindergarten.

Just looking at that sentence makes me fall into grief.

Yesterday, in celebration for their hard work as Kindergarteners, the parents were invited for a Recitation and Ice Cream Social. Now, at Leo’s school, the concept of a recitation is nothing new. It’s part of their School of Oratory curriculum, and they learn how to speak in front of a group, how to communicate effectively, how to make eye-contact and etc. But this was the first time they spoke in front of parents, so it was a big deal.

What’s more: they were reciting poems that they themselves had written. As part of their unit on insects, each kid learned everything they could about a bug, and wrote a poem about their bug. Leo chose spiders. “Why spiders,” I asked. “Because spiders are awesome,” he said.

To get ready to write his poem, he wanted to look at every youtube video ever made that had a spider in it. Like this one:

“I like to know how they move,” he said. “Also how gross they are.”

I arrived a little early with my assigned contribution (caramel syrup; on sale), and was greeted with the requisite Kindergarteney hugs (Look! It’s Leo’s mom! I love Leo’s mom!). I always get hugs from Leo’s class. This is partially because they think I’m funny, but it’s mostly because they love Leo. Because he is funny.

There was a little podium in the front of the room, set up on a small wooden dais. One by one, the Kindergarteners walked up, took the podium, recited their poems, and bowed.

Then, it was Leo’s turn. Leo the class clown. Leo the constant performer. Leo who was sent to the principal’s office during his first week as a Kindergartener. That Leo. He stood up, took the stage, paused to gaze at the audience and made a silly face. The other Kindergarteners thought it was hilarious. He took the podium and cleared his throat.

The Awesomest Spider
By Leo Barnhill

The Spider will leap to its prey
it will quietly creep.
The Spider is big.
The Spider dances a jig.

The Kindergarteners erupted with cheers. It was, as far as they were concerned, the best poem that had ever been written, or would ever be written. Leo bowed, then raised his hands in a two-fisted Victory sign. The crowd went wild.

And then, as his piece de resistance, he lifted his shirt, exposed his bare belly and chest, and rolled his stomach muscles like a belly dancer.

He was escorted out of the room.

Later that day, as he played at the playground and I sat on the bench, decompressing (did I wish for a gin and tonic? Or two? Why yes, ladies and gentlemen. Yes I did.), fifteen different Kindergarteners came up to me and gave me a hug.

“Thank you for putting Leo in my class,” one kid said.

“Leo is my favorite friend,” another kid said.

And last, the kid who gave me no less than four hugs that afternoon, motioned for me to lean down so she could tell me a secret. “Leo,” she whispered, “is my hero.”

“Mine too,” I whispered back, as my son, oblivious to our conversation, scooped up handful after handful of playground woodchips, and shoved them in his pants.