Debra Devins has taught creative writing for adult education programs, local writing groups, and private students for over 30 years. She began teaching in Cornwall in 2014 after librarian Margaret Haske approached her with the idea of offering classes at the Cornwall Library. Her creative writing class this summer at the Cornwall Library introduced participants to writing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The class focused on writing inspired by life experiences, creating fictional characters and stories, poetry, and managing the inner critic. Eight participants chose between assigned writing exercises or independent writing. Each week they shared their writing with the class for helpful and encouraging feedback.
The Chronicle asked Debra to canvas her class and see if any participants would be willing to share their work with our readers. Several took us up on our offer and we present them below. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did!
I have taken countless, impromptu walks to Rattlesnake Swamp to relax, clear my head and check out what is going on. Mill Brook runs west through the swamp from Cream Hill Lake about a mile upstream and on down about two miles to the Housatonic River. Often there is a small pond at the center of the swamp, depending on the amount of rainfall and beaver dam activity. There is normally a deeper, wider section of the brook between Rattlesnake Road and Cream Hill Road which intersect near the Swamp. Each of these roads has a small bridge through which the brook runs.
A variety of short and tall grasses spread out from the brook and pond, with bushes and saplings scattered about and the ground rising to the East and South to meet wooded hillsides. Several bleached, dead trees provide perches for birds seeking a good place to look for their next meal.
In the spring looking down from the Cream Hill Road bridge I see churning movements in the muddy bottom of the brook and bubbles erupting, breaking free of the mud’s hold and floating to the surface. Pollywogs line up in the shallows near the sandy shore waiting for their arms, legs and webbed feet to grow. Minnows dart randomly across the brook casting equally fast-moving shadows on the bottom. Behind me cars motor by, their drivers oblivious to the vital panorama of activity unfolding before me.
I recall years ago a resident, big-headed Kingfisher who never failed to sound the alarm as I approached the Swamp, circling me near the intersection of Rattlesnake and Cream Hill Roads, chattering all the while and telling me to get lost. He did not appear to be protecting a nest and I didn’t look like a poaching fisherman. Perhaps he just didn’t think I belonged there. The adults of the local beaver family there would slap their tails and dive below when I approached, surfacing sometimes minutes later and staring back at me with only their eyes and small black noses above water. A blue heron would fly to the far reaches of the swamp as I arrived, though he usually was one hundred yards or so away in the first place and in no apparent danger.
Except for the Kingfisher, these swamp dwellers gradually became used to my frequent visits and decided I was not cause for alarm. One evening as I was surveying the swamp from the bridge at Rattlesnake Road, I heard some sticks snapping in the bushes behind me. Suddenly a young bobcat burst out onto the road, not more than ten yards uphill from where I stood. He (or she) did not see me and casually trotted up the road and disappeared into the woods. I felt as if I had somehow become part of the landscape.
We were two years out of university, where Mary and I had forged a friendship that we
knew would last a lifetime. Kindred spirits, we were like sisters, but better because we
had chosen each other. On this particular day in November 1979, we all gathered, a small group
of friends and family, to celebrate her marriage in a quaint restaurant in the Hudson
River Valley. Like the homes in Nancy Meyers’ films, it was the kind of classic space that you can see yourself living in. Its exposed brick walls, candlelit tables, and bookshelves overflowing with old, worn, leatherbound books just screamed, “warm, cozy, and elegantly intimate!”
It was there, on the shelf, and it immediately caught my eye, even in the dimly lit space. One of many pieces of art for sale by a local, showcased artist. I was so drawn to it, this imperfect and organically shaped pottery vase, sporting the random outline of women’s bodies, their hair exaggerated and painted in black and white. It just made me smile! Was it the whimsical design that attracted me to it, or that I imagined the women, wild and free like their hair, were so like Mary and I in times gone by. I wanted it.
The night was filled with love and laughter, the culmination of an emotional day of
celebration and reflection. Taking place in the present, yet straddling the memories of the past
and dreams of the future. I kept staring at the formed piece of clay, and at one point I asked the
waiter to fetch the price of the vessel I was coveting. When he returned it was immediately clear to me that the object of my desire was very much NOT within the confines of my meager budget.
So why in the midst of all of the festivities was I contemplating the financial options that might enable me to acquire it? Very quickly reality set in. I was working as a nurse in NYC and barely able to afford my rent, let alone the cost of this quirky vase that I most certainly did not need!
Still, I mentioned the piece, and my obsession with it, to Mary. I pointed to it, illuminated by a tiny light on the bookshelf that cast a golden glow on the glossy glaze finish. We shared a good laugh about the price, and how we had both altruistically chosen the wrong profession to support such indulgences. Then, as our conversation turned toward the events of the day, talk of the object was dropped, and the vase was left behind. At least by me.
While I have no recollection of the gift that I gave to Mary for Christmas that year, I know it could never compete with the unforgettable vase she bought for me on her wedding day so long ago. It continues to symbolize the strong bond of our enduring friendship.
“Yeah, Well I’m Not”
My oldest sister, home from airline stewardess school, complete with a polaroid of her with Q-tips sticking out of her ears and her eyes crossed, a memorial to the fun she’d had, offered to leave behind “The Exorcist,” a book she was just finishing, but warned, “It’s pretty scary.”
What could my fluffy sister possibly think was scary enough to elicit a warning? After all, I had successfully hidden under my coat, with my feet well off the floor, during the showing of “Night of the Living Dead,” in which I’d accompanied the musical score with my own coloratura notes of anguish.
“What’s it about?”
“Priests trying to exorcise a demon from a possessed girl.”
“Oh, that doesn’t happen. I can handle it.”
“Okay, I’m just saying. You might want to wait a few years.”
Within two weeks I was cursing her interpretation of scary while repeatedly throwing the book under the bed, then cautiously retrieving it, as I was sure it would come crawling back out on its own.
I had also taken to checking in with my little sister, who was just about the age of the possessed girl, Reagan, in the book. Stopping by her open doorway I asked her how she was, then getting just “the look,” prodded more deeply asking if she had been feeling well. Her response improved from just a look to, “Who wants to know?”
When I heard the “Combat” reruns end and our father head down the hall to bed, I headed toward my door. I turned the hall light on and quietly walked to her bedroom door. I edged it inward, the light shining on the guest bed. I shuffled in hoping not to trip on anything on the carpet, feeling for possible serpents or tiny flames of instantaneous fire, and stood near the head of her bed waiting for my eyes to bring her sleeping form into focus. What I first saw was white fur with black ears and something red around her neck. She wasn’t possessed, she was a changeling! A few seconds later and her dark hair, spread out under her Snoopy doll, came into focus along with a surprisingly angelic face.
I stood there scanning up and down the covers, turning once to check that the unslept in guest bed was still empty, my eyes back to Snoopy making sure his eyes were not glowing or floating about the room on their own. I bent down to tuck her in as I used to. When I started to fuss about tucking in Snoopy as well her eyes opened wide. Then they focused on me leaning over her and her pet. Then they narrowed into a defiant, silent question.
I explained that I’d read a book about a girl around her age that had been possessed by a demon. That I had to come to check that she, too, was not showing signs. She looked at me for a long time, then said as she rolled over, “Yeah, well I’m not.”
I was doing a lot of business travel and was beginning to feel a little anxious about leaving my wife and daughter alone for days at a time. I decided we should get a dog. To dress up this idea I suggested to my wife that we make the dog a Christmas present to my daughter. Okay, it was manipulative, but I believed in a good cause. Sure, I did.
The dog issue almost agreed to, I started the best breed for protection discussion. I was genuinely against having a Doberman or a Rottweiler in the house. They scared me and certainly didn’t capture the image of a little girl’s pooch. German Shepherds were higher up on the “kinder, gentler” scale, but not enough. Since my goal was to deter a burglar maybe size was enough. After all, if an intruder was confronted in a dark hallway by a very large dog, they were unlikely to linger. I had it, an Irish Wolfhound. Wolfhounds were reputed to be calm, very good with children and huge, standing over six feet tall on their hind legs. It seemed the perfect choice. I suggested we name the dog Tyronne after the eponymous county in Ireland my wife’s grandfather hailed from. Sold!
Tyronne had a lot of personality, in fact he had two, dignified yet approachable and absolutely whacky. Early on he began to study me as I sat on our couch watching a tennis match. Apparently intrigued, he decided to join me. He backed up and swung his hind legs and rear end up onto the couch, front paws on the floor. Like the fans at the tennis match his head went back and forth, following the ball. He didn’t move from this position until the ball was hit off court. He got up and walked behind the TV, looking for the ball. Frustrated he returned to the couch. When he saw the match had begun again, he assumed his sitting position and followed the play of the ball. As the ball was hit off court, he rose and headed for the back of the TV. I turned off the match.
It was going to be interesting.