Serpent Blog

A Good Day to Die 
I honestly have no idea what to do next. I am clueless, really. My characters are all standing on a cliff, the void below obscured in dense mist. As I put pen to paper today, I step into new territory. I have the same feeling now that I did when I stepped off the plane in Japan almost ten years ago. Where the Hell am I? What is this place?

[excerpts from A Serpent's Journal, February 15-18, 2002]

Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco

Yesterday I finally finished (chapter) thirty-one and broke the three-hundred page mark. I feel good about this and even a little proud. I have taken a twelve-page short story and have so far squeezed three-hundred pages out of it.

I am at ninety-thousand words and am thinking Iíll go one-fifty or so before completing the revision draft. But now I face the daunting task of making it all come together, of making it all make sense. I have more fear today than I did the day before I began.

I canít speak this language. I canít even read the signs. Where do I go? What do I do? How do I even begin? Iíll do as I always do. Iíll start with a feeling that is tied to an image and see where the dream leads. God this is exciting. Do you still feel it even after you have written many stories and many books? Does it stay or go away? I love this feeling, Iím giddy with it. Today, is a good day to die.

February 18 , 2002

I re-read the last two chapters, focusing on thirty. (chapter) Thirty is where Jacob drinks lye for the first time and has a bizarre vision of sorts. There is now no question that he is a blessed child, more than ready to lead a revival of his own. His father can no longer deny that he has power, nor can he hinder his development into a great man. He cannot deny the promise that the boy holds.

His physical appearance, and his shy personality, belie his gift. He is like a young athlete, a Tiger Woods, or the son of an Olympian. In the shadow of his father he stagnates. It is time for him to move on, not to a greater teacher, but to a different kind of teacher Ė in a different kind of arena. This much I know. The rest is all fuzzy to me. So it is time now for Jacob to lead the show. Weíll see if I can get some pages in today.


Crazy Horse

Today is a good day to die. This quote is attributed to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse from the Battle of Little Bighorn, but is a war cry of the Lakota Sioux. When researching it I stumbled upon this wonderfully written account of that day. I am trying to locate the man who wrote this. It made me weep:

Some time in the early spring of 1876, Sitting Bull climbed to a hilltop, seeking a vision. In his dream, a great dust storm swirled down upon a small white cloud that resembled a Lakota village. Through the whirlwind, Sitting Bull could see soldiers marching. The little cloud was swallowed up for a time, but the storm eventually dissipated and the village emerged unharmed.

It was an encouraging dream. And in the spring of 1876, the Lakota needed encouragement, for General Philip Sheridan had already drawn up a plan that would send three columns of soldiers to find Sitting Bull and drive him and his followers onto the reservations.

One column, led by Brigadier General George Crook, was to move north from Fort Fetterman; another, under Colonel John Gibbon, was to march east from western Montana; and the third, commanded by General Alfred Terry, would march west from Fort Abraham Lincoln.

With Terry went the 566 enlisted men and 31 officers of the Seventh Cavalry, led by George Armstrong Custer. They moved out to the tune of "The Girl I Left Behind Me."
On June 6th, some 3,000 Lakota and Cheyenne were camped along Rosebud Creek in Montana. There they held their most sacred ritual -- a sun dance -- in which prayers were offered and vows made to Wakan Tanka, their Great Spirit.

Sitting Bull slashed his arms one hundred times as a sign of sacrifice. Then he had another vision: The soldiers came again to attack his people -- "as many as grasshoppers," he said -- but this time they were upside down, their horse's hooves in the air, their hats tumbling to the ground as they rode into the Lakota camp.
On the morning of June 17th, General Crook's column had stopped to brew coffee on the bank of the Rosebud, sure that no Indians would dare attack so large a force as theirs. Then, suddenly, Crazy Horse and more than 500 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors rode down upon them. Crook's command included Crow and Shoshone scouts, eager to fight the tribes that had once taken their lands, and in the desperate fight that followed, the Indian scouts twice rescued the soldiers by riding through the Lakota and Cheyenne ranks. Unnerved by the enemy show of force, Crook withdrew the next morning.
The Lakota and Cheyenne moved north and formed a new camp, where for six days they celebrated their victory along a winding stream they called the Greasy Grass. Whites called it the Little Bighorn.

On June 21st, Custer met on the Yellowstone River with Colonel John Gibbon and their superior, Brigadier General Alfred Terry. They knew nothing of Crook's retreat.

Terry ordered Gibbon to march to the mouth of the Little Bighorn, while Custer and the Seventh Cavalry would try to locate the Indians and drive them down the valley toward Gibbon and annihilation.

As Custer rode off, Gibbon called out to him, "Now Custer, don't be greedy. . . . wait for us."

"No," he said, "I will not."

Fearful that Sitting Bull would elude him, Custer pushed his column hard -- 12 miles the first day, 33 the second, 28 the third. The exhausted troopers began to grumble about the man they privately called "Hard ***."

As they followed the Indians' trail, they did not grasp the full meaning of the fresh pony tracks that seemed to cross and recross it. In the last few days, 3,000 more Indians -- Lakotas, Arapahoes and Cheyennes -- had left the reservations to join Sitting Bull. His encampment now stretched out for three miles along the Greasy Grass, a gathering of more than six thousand Indians, eighteen hundred of them warriors.

On the evening of June 24th, Sitting Bull made his way to a ridge that overlooked the encampment, gave offerings to the Great Spirit and prayed for the protection of his people.

Custer knew nothing of the terrain and could not tell how many Indians awaited him. But it had been a surprise attack that had destroyed Black Kettle's Cheyenne on the Washita eight years earlier. With the weapon of surprise, a victory seemed just as likely here.

Custer hurried toward the Little Bighorn. He saw dust rising over a ridge just ahead of him and thought the Indians were already on the move to escape.

It was now or never.

Some 40 warriors appeared, then began racing back toward their camp. Custer sent Major Marcus Reno and three companies -- 140 men -- in pursuit, promising to support them. The Battle of the Little Bighorn was about to begin.

Reno's men crossed the river, formed a thin skirmish line, and began firing into one edge of the village, assuming that Custer would reinforce them. They were soon outnumbered and Reno ordered a retreat.

The soldiers were falling into the village, just as Sitting Bull's vision had predicted.

More warriors swarmed out of the village, but still Custer did not come. Instead of following Reno, he had led his five companies of 210 men toward a ridge, convinced the Indians were fleeing and that by charging down into the village from there, he could cut them off.

Custer was outnumbered more than four-to-one, but he led his troops down toward the village, firing as they came. Cheyenne warriors led by Lame White Man, Hunkpapa Lakotas under Gall, and Oglalas under Crazy Horse rode out to turn Custer back. Stunned at the sight of hundreds of warriors headed right at them, Custer and his men stopped short and began a headlong retreat toward the summit of a long, high ridge.

Some of the Indians remembered later that the legs of the men and the horses trembled as they scrambled up the slope.

Crazy Horse:

I called to my men: ďThis is a good day to die: follow me.Ē...As we rushed upon them the [soldiers] dismounted to fire, but they did very poor shooting. They held their horse's reins on one arm while they were shooting, but their horses were so frightened that they pulled the men all around and a great many of their shots went up into the air and did us no harm.


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On Cormacís Fire, Updike's Passing, Planets Like Dust and Mountaintop Removal  
I am very happy to host guest blogger Don Williams this week. His New Millenium Writings is brilliant...

Events and ideas sometimes explode to bounce around like beads from a careless woman's necklace, so that sometimes you have to string several at once in order to regain footing. Herewith, beads on a string.

* The world lost a would-be shrine when the old Cormac McCarthy home burned down Jan. 27 in Knoxville. The famous author's brother Dennis and sister-in-law Judy were at my writing workshop at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church that evening. They were stoic. The house was rundown, perhaps beyond saving, long out of the family's possession. Later, Dennis read aloud the following sentence from The Road, Cormac's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

" He felt with his thumb in the painted wood of the mantle the pinholes from tacks that had held stockings forty years ago."

I tried gleaning support for saving the house over the years. After all Cormac's likely been short-listed for the Nobel Prize more than once for novels such as No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, The Road, Blood Meridian, Suttree, Child of God and so on. I envisioned a shrine like the Thomas Wolfe home in Asheville, the wondrous Carl Sandburg place in Flat Rock.

Here's what I wrote about the McCarthy house in a June 1990 article in The Knoxville News-Sentinel. "Later they moved about 10 miles away to Martin Mill Pike, a sinuous drive into the leafy countryside of South Knox County. When I saw it, the white, gabled structure was choked with weeds and debris, but once it was structurally sound and dignified.

" 'Cormac ran all these forests and hills,' Annie Delisle (his former wife) said in her singing English accent as she drove past the house.. 'He used to put his traps out here..' "

An opportunity for a McCarthy shrine has passed, yet others remain. To read more visit

* John Updike was the first author interviewed for New Millennium Writings, the journal I began in 1996, and his death, also on Jan. 27, left me feeling a sad disquiet. Twice I met him, a tall, gracious presence. He was generous with his wisdom and preciously guarded time. At the Tennessee Theater for a Friends of the Library reading, the always industrious writer made corrections to his poetry as he read. Three things he said to me in those years stayed with me.

First, "When you come to the practice of your art you have to go with what thrills you. If you wrote some opposite way, you would get criticized for that. You have to please yourself."

In response to my question, "Do you believe in God?" he said this:

"Not to believe in God seems a terrible confession of meaninglessness." And yet, he also said.

"What does the Hubble Telescope tell us? It's a ridiculously large universe from which no clear message emerges.."

* Such notions first confronted me as a teenager reading science-fiction and watching Star Trek. Wednesday I read an article about a new study that concludes the cosmos is teeming with Earth-type planets, many surely awash with water and life. The article at posited the existence of up to 100 billion such planets in our Milky Way alone. A decade ago, the story would've thrilled me. Somehow, it doesn't now. The age of miracles and wonders has taken the edge off my capacity to marvel, I suspect. If so, there's a loss worth lamenting.

* Destruction of this good earth is worth lamenting even more. Mountaintops blasted away with all attendant life thereon, and waters that will never be as clean again in states throughout the Appalachians and beyond are worth decrying. Fortunately, two bills coming before the Tennessee state legislature, possibly as early as next week, would eliminate much mountaintop removal. For more information about how you can help stop such practices, visit or email

* On a national scale, "The Clean Water Protection Act would sharply reduce mountaintop removal. protect clean drinking water. and protect the quality of life for Appalachian coalfield residents." writes Matt Wasson of

"The good news is that Representatives Frank Pallone and Dave Reichert are preparing to introduce the Clean Water Protection Act in Congress. Already, 91 of their fellow members of Congress have agreed to co-sponsor the CWPA when it is introduced. Is your representative one of those co-sponsors? Click here to find out:

"If your representative isn't on the list, please take a moment to email and ask them to support the CWPA and to take a stand," by clicking the same link:

"You may also help move the CWPA through Congress by joining the 4th Annual End Mountaintop Removal Week in Washington, taking place March 14-19th," writes Wasson.

As I wrote to my state Rep. Richard Montgomery, "a bulldozer, dynamite crew and dump truck is not a jobs program, it's pillage by industry insiders at the expense of everyone else."

Please help put America on a clean energy track and fight the destruction of our world.

Thanks and God Bless.

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, short story writer and the founding editor and publisher of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of literary stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Michigan Journalism Fellowship, a Golden Presscard Award and the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize. He is finishing a novel, "Orchid of the Orchid Lounge," set in his native Tennessee and Iraq. His book of selected journalism, "Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes, the Best Writings About People" by Don Williams, is due a second printing.

For more information, email him at Or visit the NMW website at

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The Good Fights 
I pray to God, show me what is right and help me to see. Help my work to have meaning. I think more and more about the effect of my work. I hope it will do a small amount of good. Perhaps that is too much to strive for...A writerís own nature is his worst enemy. Nothing escapes his attention and his curiosity. His penchant for distraction will drive him away from his work if he is not careful. I donít know if this is true of all writers. I really only know one, and I donít know him very well. But the same things that drive his desires to know and to explain also drives him away from his work. And, there is the desire for feeling. We want to feel, everything. Spiritual bliss most of all. The quest for knowing is a quest for spiritual bliss.

Wednesday, February 13, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco

Dear Andrew,

I am milking chapter 31 for reasons Iím afraid may depress me, and you. What am I so damn afraid of? I suppose I fear really delving into Jacob. I suppose I fear the end. I suppose I fear my own commitment to this book. Whatever it is, Iíve got to get out of this damn cave. Iím stuck in a cave both literally and figuratively. Yesterday they found themselves a helluva snake Ė which is what Charles Flint asked for. They found a huge snake but did not manage to catch it. It has escaped into the cave and now they have to go after it because it is THE snake I need. It is the snake that will live in Jacobís unused coffin, and the snake that, well, now Iím thinking too far ahead.

I need this snake and it wonít come easy to them because it is old and over seven feet long and they have come into its world. If they manage to catch it must be on its terms. I cannot allow one man and one girl to traipse into a den of serpents and just walk away with a huge snake. I simply cannot allow that to happen. This snake must fight. This snake must assert its right to live where it belongs. I am being told by Lane Zachary (my agent at the time) that every chapter is big, every moment is big. I am being told there is too much drama and perhaps there is, but this snake and this cave have their own ideas Andrew. It needs to be as difficult for me to write my way out of it as it is for my characters to get out of it. This is no ordinary cave I have found in the North Georgia Hills, this is a sacred place and will not give up her secrets easily Ė even to an Indian who knows and respects it. This should be how it always is. We should struggle like mad for what we want. We must fight for what is good.

Now Iíve lost my train of thought. This is the danger of working in a small cafť. When it gets noisy my ears perk up and Iím in listening mode and then my brain switches away from the work. You must be frustrated by me. Iím a rambling fool.

Must finish (chapter) 31 today. All there is left to do is wrap up the snake hunt and go back for some appropriate bible verses. So today that will be done and there will be no more excuse, I will go back to Jacob and Charles and John, and kill one, elevate another and relegate the third to apostle status. You guess which is which.

Just one more thing. People are always talking about Hemingwayís prose as being terse and lean, and this is true to a point. There are many fine examples of this in his work. But there are also many examples of the exact opposite. I came across a passage today in Green Hills of Africa that would put Cormac McCarthy to shame. Iím talking about a sentence a page and half long Ė beautiful prose, wonderful writing, but not at all what one would expect from Hemingway. And this is not an anomaly. Nor are his use of adverbs; which the myth claims he abhors. He uses both long sentences and adverbs often, but masterfully, so as not to draw attention to themselves and much can be learned from this.



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My Little World... 
There is so much I donít know that it astounds me. My lack of knowledge is as vast as the stars and the universe and when I look at Serpent Box sometimes I get the feeling that Iím staring into a night sky. Steinbeck had East of Eden mapped out pretty well in his head. He knew what he had to do. He knew how to control tempo and manipulate the readerís emotions. I suppose this comes with experience, but I wish I knew more about what I wanted to happen next in my little world.. And it is that, my world. My place...

A Serpentís Journal
Excerpts, February 8-11, 2002
South Park Cafť, San Francisco


I have taken a big detour with this chapter in the cave and I canít help thinking that it will get cut. I think about this a lot now Ė about what will be cut out Ė and it depresses me because I put so much into every little sentence. But this is really the part I love most about this, the construction elements of building and shuffling and rewording and reading aloud and tweaking and polishing and then letting it sit for awhile like a bowl full of yeast feeding on sugar-water and then coming back to it yet again until it is just right. This is the real writing I think, the work after the original thought. Crafting the thought. If I have any talent, this is where it lies, in this part of the process. Give me the raw materials for a story and I can build a good one. Please tell me that one day I can work with you on a story, just one is all I ask, a gem of a short story, a miracle of a piece. Lord how I yearn to work on a short again. I hope that what I am going through now will help me and make me a better short story writer. This novel business is not for a manic, impatient writer like me.

. . .

It is a fine morning. Skies are blue with only the long wispy clouds that mean good weather to come. It is bright, so bright that one is forced to wince and hold a hand to the brow in order to see. I did not finish chapter 31 yesterday. Perhaps I got too cocky. Iím having some problems with Magdalena because I still donít know her yet and Iím having problems within the confines of the cave. Logistically, I have three people down there and I have to get two of them into a small chamber where there are snakes who are down here near a hot-spring keeping warm. I had thought that this might be the easiest kind of writing because outside [the outdoors] is my element. Once Iím in the natural world, I am at home, but Georgia is not my home and I wish to God I could have spent a few days in the woods there before tackling this book. I want to know the trees and the topography. I want to feel the quality of the air. Maybe my next novel can take place in California, or upstate New York which are the two worlds I feel I know better than any, including my own inner landscape.

It occurred to me that I am wring this for many reasons, some of them hidden to me. I of course want to tune up before working, and I want to summarize my thoughts, thus distilling them. Also, I think I am trying to convince myself that I am sane. And there are other things going on here too. Will I ever read this once I am done? Will anyone else? Who knows. But I know one thing, Steinbeck helped me with his letters to Covici, and perhaps one day I can help someone too. This has become part of the process now. I hesitate to stop for fear of jinxing the work.

Okay, now Iíll work. I am in a different cafť, one much quieter Ė though quite a distance from home. And they make the best coffee here. It is dangerous, for I will drink too much coffee.

. . .

If this thing ever gets done itíll be a miracle straight from God himself. This book has no business being completed, with my life the way it is, all odds are against it and I suppose this is why I persevere. I am stubborn like you would not believe. I simply will not give up. But I will give up this ridiculous tirade. I must finish 31 today. I must. I have milked it far too long. I have milked this book far too long, I must make better progress and work harder. The problem is I am not reading anymore. I need to be reading and Iím spending all my time reading Steinbeck's journal and the bible and Hemingwayís politically incorrect hunting journal. None of this inspires. The bible a bit. The Steinbeck a bit but I need more. Man this is turning into a rant but I must need to rant. God how I wish I had a real friend Andrew. Okay Iím done. I hope you donít even read this one, I have nothing to say today, not here, perhaps it will all come out through my fingers.


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So it would be. The boy would never dwell upon the land again. Before him lay the sea with all her glorious shades and shimmers, shadows and sallows, and it was blinding in its brilliance so that he had to shade his eyes with his hand and squint to recognize it as something real and of this earth. His first sight of it. And surely this was Heaven. It heaved like a great beast and roared against the rocks below where the docks could be seen in miniature at this distance, and the ships at mooring, the Men of War, with their jolly boats plying to and fro like pond skimmers. He stood in the dog-cart and held onto to his uncleís arm for balance. The man, who was his fatherís brother, spoke not a word. But the boy could see in his eye a look that required no translation. The mere mention of the sea had often sent him into a reverie, where heíd stare long and hard at the sky as if expecting a divine visitation. His eyes would take on that same quality heíd seen in his own father when he sat before the fire, lost in tales of ships. They would glisten and burn and smile, his eyes did, like an old man with the best hand of cards.

His uncle sat the horse on the rise above Bristol and gestured with one hand to the expanse before them. He swept his hand across the horizon and turned to the boy who stood rapt before this new marvel in his only suit of clothes.

"This is your life now, Johnny", he said. "Here lies your fate. The destiny of all true sons of England."

He clucked with his tongue at the horse and the cart moved down the muddy road with a wobble and creak. The boy stood the whole way, making a conscious effort to feel the ground below the wheels. To feel the earth. They spoke not a word as they wound their way to the wharf where the sound of men drowned out the sound of surf. The boy saw the ships and their sailors, every man jack of them alive as he had never seen men living, their bodies strong, their eyes happy in their work, their skin glowing and as tan as a saddle. He saw the yawning gun-ports of the ships and the peeking iron muzzles with their black gaping holes of death, cold now and oiled to a high sheen, and he saw the carpenters at work, the boson and their mates, with hammer and adze amidst the flying chips of wood, scores of men at earnest fitting. He saw the reefers high above hum unfurl the great spreads of canvas that flapped and thundered like a corps of drums and he was at once excited and afraid. His life now.

The cart pulled up before a berth where a three-decker lie at lading, a monster of a ship as tall as a mountain, whose rigging and decks were filled with the shouts and activities of seamen. They stood before a be speckled old man in a black frock coat with shiny brass buttons and a snow-white wig who sat before a ledger propped on a folding table. His uncle pushed him forward and cleared his throat. The man glanced up at the boy with a sour look on his face and a smudge of black ink on his upper lip. He extended his hand and the boy moved to shake it but the man was not interested in such greetings and reached out to his uncle who produced a folded letter secured with a red wax seal.

"Name", the man said.

The boy could not speak. He felt the beating of his heart in his chest.

"Name", the man repeated.

"Silver", his uncle said for him. "John W. Silver. Signing on as mid-shipman, 3rd class".

The man cracked the seal on the letter written by the boyís father before he died. He scanned the note and nodded at the boy and entered his name in his ledger and spoke again no more.

"Now, you behave yourself Johnny, his uncle said. Make your father proud. Youíll be back in three years, God willing, and youíll be back a man, which is more than I can do for you."

He dropped a few coins into the boyís hand, and gave him his fatherís old greatcoat and his saber, which he raised from its scabbard so that the boy could see the first few inches of white steel .

"Remember this well Johnny", he said. "Take good care of your sword and your sword will take good care of you".

And he shook the boyís hand and he turned and the boy watched him climb into the cart with the horse and he watched him until he vanished in the throng of men, until the hoof beats were no more. He never laid eyes on his uncle again.

There was a moment when he thought of running, but the sound of the ship and the smell of it overwhelmed that urge and the moment passed. The ship had claimed him as her own, and the sea hers, and for the rest of his days those two great creations, one of man and one of God, would vie for his life and fight for his soul, until he was broken and cursed, disfigured and damned, and a boy like himself would come to redeem him.


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