The Totem

by ivanhope - March 9th, 2011.
Filed under: Main Artery.

"Haida Slate Carvings" by Edward S Curtis, 1907
[Haida Slate Carvings, by Edward S Curtis, 1907]

She chewed quietly at the pencil. From time to time, between bursts of frenetic key banging, she would yank the gnarled wood down from its familiar perch to scrawl some illegible note across the cluttered page. Screen, keyboard, pencil and paper, they were all tied together in a sort of circulatory system for the same primitive, hot-birthing creature: her story.

It had been this way, the same process, the same components, since that very first publication. She could still recall herself sitting, bathing in the warm glow of the magazine’s electronic acceptance for so long that her face began to flush. That’s when she noticed the pencil for the first time. It was brand new then, and only barely gnawed from its first story. It smiled back at her, matching her euphoria with its own hungry indentations. It was love at first bite.

A dozen written journeys soon followed, all of them chewed down into the welcome wooden body of her creative partner. Each shared piece had found its place in magazine, chapbook or e-fiction. It was miraculous, stupefying. Magical. Sitting at her desk, firing up the computer for another go, she knew she would never put the pencil down again.

Until that day when her totem-self snapped in two. It happened as she approached the climax of her most recent story: our heroine chained to a guillotine, no escape in sight. The blade descends. And. The pencil splintered between her teeth. Her mouth filled with the potent mix of blood and stale graphite. She spat the shrapnel into the wastebasket; was forced to stare down at her mangled accomplice. She wanted to cry, but that felt too silly. Too contrived.

She finished the story with an empty mouth. Her tongue felt dry and the prose came out flaccid. She told herself it was in her head. She sent the story out anyway. Rejection.

She tried every sort of pencil after that. All colors, designs, and lead grades. She even tried a mechanical version. Nothing. Pens. Quills. It was no use. The words would no longer sink past the surface of the paper. Her fingers could not press them onto the screen so that they held.

Finally, desperately, she took the fractured limbs of her old friend and ground them up in a sharpener. All that remained was a pouch of grey-tinged sawdust. She would use it as snuff. Conjure the old magic a lip-full at a time. It tasted bitter as it mixed with her saliva and ran rough streaks down her throat.

And so she writes now. Even dictating these strange events to you. She chews slowly, lovingly, on her old charm; hoping the magic will resurface. Knowing it is all in her head. And no longer on the paper. Nor screen.

[originally published as a contest winner for]


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