Story Time: “Smoke”


A Winter’s Tale by Mark Ivan Cole
December, 2017

Old George couldn’t see Jack’s house from here. He was always grateful for that. On warm summer days, he could almost forget that his Damn Brother Jack lived just over the hill. On cold nights, a ghostly plume of chimney smoke would remind him, though. George’s stomach clenched whenever he saw that smoke.

Brothers George and Jack were enemies from Day One. Couldn’t stand each other. As young men, they fought fiercely. As old men, they stopped speaking but the bickering continued. Nasty Brother Jack had trained his dogs to do their business in front of George’s gate. Old George was sure of it. Every time it happened, he would shovel up the mess, walk down the road, and fling it over Jack’s gate.

There was only one road from town, and George lived a little further out. Anyone passing by got called in to Suddenly Friendly Jack’s place for a visit. By the time the visitors left, it was late, so they hurried on. Old George knew Jack did this just to spite him.

No travelers would pass tonight. It was Christmas Eve and the world lay under a blanket of snow. A million stars joined the moon on this silent night.

Old George sat by the window, warmed by the fire and a mug of hot cider. Despite himself, he looked for that plume of chimney smoke. He couldn’t see one. A certain smugness settled in his belly. Maybe tonight he could just pretend Jack didn’t exist.

Outside it was quiet and cold. No smoke? Not a whiff? Old George tried to imagine why.

Jealousy soured his stomach. What if some kindly folk had invited Lonely Old Jack into their home for Christmas? The fools! Didn’t they know that he would drink their eggnog, eat their roasted goose, and then play “poor me” so he could take home the mincemeat pie and mashed potatoes?

Old George grumbled into his half cup of cider and glared out the window. Even a wisp of smoke would show no one was being that nice to Undeserving Brother Jack. There was no such smoke.

There must be another reason.

A sprig of hope sprang up in George’s chest. Ugly Old Jack had moved away! Packed up everything and gone! Old George could take that little house apart timber by timber, cut it up for firewood and burn it! He could tear that dratted chimney down and heave it into the woods!

George sipped the last of the cider. Then he looked for smoke. Still none.

Maybe the reason was simple. Maybe Lazy Old Brother Jack just wasn’t prepared for snow. That was probably it. Such an idiot.

Old George glared out the window, willing that plume of smoke to rise. It didn’t. He watched. He fretted. His own fire went cold. Finally, he got up, pulled on his boots, and grabbed his coat and hat.

He stood by the door, debating. He looked out the window. Still no smoke.

Resigned, he donned his old gloves and filled a sack with firewood. It wasn’t the lump of coal Jack deserved, but it would have to do.

He stepped outside and shut the door, shivering in the night air. Stomping a path took awhile. By the time he reached his gate, he was breathing heavily. Steam rose from his coat and hat. The firewood weighed a ton. He looked up the hill. No smoke.

George rammed his gate open. He stomped down the road to Jack’s gate, half hoping to see tracks leading to town. Nope.

Old George put a hand on the gate and checked for smoke one more time. Nothing.

It took several minutes to force the gate open.

Old George grimaced and trudged up the steps. He could hear Jack’s three dogs barking and whining inside, scratching on the door. What a ruckus.

Old George steeled himself. “Jack!” he bellowed over the barking.

Ornery Old Brother Jack did not answer.

“Jack! Open up!”

George’s throat hurt. Dogs barked and scratched.

The door wasn’t locked. Old George stood aside, opened the door, and let the dogs charge past. They disappeared around behind the house, only to come bounding back, barking and whining. Inside, the house was dark.

“Jack!” yelled Old George. “It’s George!”

Somebody grunted.

The dogs were in already, heads down, ears down, wagging tails low to the ground, restlessly circling round and round.

“Hell, Jack, it’s freezing!” said Old George, stomping his boots and coming inside. “Why are you in the dark? You drunk?”

He knelt down by the fireplace and opened the sack of wood. With practiced hands, he built a stack in the hearth and lit it. Finally, he stood up and looked around. His brother Jack lay on the bed, one foot sticking out from under a ratty old quilt. George tucked the foot under the quilt. It was stone cold.

“What’s with you, Jack?” he said.

“Don’t know,” croaked his brother. “Just hurts.”

“Where?” said George.

“Everywhere,” said Jack.

“How long since you ate?”

“Don’t matter,” croaked Jack. “Dogs gotta eat.”

Anger burned. “Don’t be such an idiot, Jack!” Old George looked around. A shriveled braid of garlic hung by the window. “No food,” he growled. “I’ll be back.”

“Sit,” said Jack.

Old George’s next reply got stuck. Couldn’t come out. For a minute, George couldn’t breathe. The dogs whimpered. One got up on the bed and licked Jack’s face.

“Just sit,” said Jack.

Old George pulled up Jack’s chair and sat down. “Sure you don’t want something? Soup?” he said. His hands wouldn’t stop shaking.

“Nothing,” said Jack. “Just stay.”

“Stubborn old coot,” muttered George.

“Sorry George,” whispered Jack.

“For what?” croaked Old George.

“Everything,” said Jack. He turned his head to look at his brother. A thin grin spread over his face. “Gotta say…” His voice trailed off.

Old George sat mute.

Jack sucked in a breath and tried again. “Warmest I felt in years,” he said. He let out a long sigh. “It’s good.”

Old George nodded. Jack said nothing. The dog on the bed nudged Jack’s wrinkled cheek but got no response. All three dogs started howling.

Something hard in Old George’s heart finally broke.

Hours later, the house was dark, save for a faint glow in the hearth.

Old George stood up and covered his brother’s face with the quilt. The dogs looked at George.

“Come on, boys,” he said. They followed.

Out on the moonlit snow, all was calm, all was bright.





Here Be Dragons

Here Be Dragons

Dragon 1 - Graphite and White Charcoal on Colored Paper, Digitally ProcessedOver the years, I’ve done hundreds of drawings as inspiration and exploration for my epic fantasy novel “THE VALENBLADE.” This is one from a few years ago. My fascination with dragons started way back when I was a child, so “The Valenblade” had to have at least one. (Spoiler alert! It does.)

You can buy “THE VALENBLADE” on Amazon as either an e-book or a paperback!


Stay Happy or Die

Stay Happy or Die

One of the fun things about writing a novel is exploring ideas. Fantasy settings like the one in The Valenblade allow all kinds of room for that. Here’s an interesting question:

What if every minute must be a party…or you all die?

Magic comes at a cost. The architects of a great spell put something at risk to make the magic work. That risk was mitigated by another spell, but that spell endangered something else. That risk had to be balanced by yet another spell that endangered something different. In time, everything became dependent on everything else, and the element that keeps all this in balance is happiness.

For the magic to continue working, everyone involved has to join the party. Happiness is mandatory. There can be no confusion, no questions, no sorrow or grief. Any departure from the revelry risks the collapse of the entire structure and the end of everything. So it has been for centuries.

Imagine what happens when someone shows up whom the spell does not ensnare. What if this person doesn’t join the party like everyone else? The whole house of cards could collapse. Now what?

To find out, read THE VALENBLADE by Mark Ivan Cole (me!), available worldwide as an e-book or in paperback on

The Citadel2_Duo_400

Inner Vision: “Emerging”

Inner Vision: “Emerging”


“Emerging” – Inner Vision – Acrylic on Canvas – 13×17.9″/33×45.5 cm

“Emerging” – Acrylic on Canvas – 13×17.9″/33×45.5 cm

The path to this sacred place is long and difficult.
Many times have I come to stand on this shore
waiting, hoping for a glimpse.
Each time, I have had to leave before the darkness falls.
Time and again, I have returned.
You knew I would.
Once more the arduous journey is taken.
Patience, persistence, openness, constancy, trust.
You emerge.
I see you.

The Western Pass

The Western Pass

WesternPass_AC_605x450“The Western Pass” – Acrylic on canvas/linen – 18×24″/60.5x45cm

Oral history suggests that this was once a well-traveled road, but centuries of avalanches and landslides have reshaped the landscape. Few of the old markers remain. At one point, we lost the trail completely and had to backtrack almost a full day to pick it up again. Snow is beginning to fall in the higher elevations, so we quicken our pace, continuing after sunset if we can see at all.

Tonight we can go no further. The storm that has threatened all day has arrived. We settle in under an outcrop that provides at least a little shelter from the wind and sleet.

Dawn arrives with a welcome stillness. We shoulder our packs and continue. Once again we lose the trail. Once again we see it resume further ahead. We follow it, cutting switchbacks wherever possible.

Shadows recede from the mountain tops, reluctantly allowing the rays of the rising sun to finally warm our backs. The pinnacle that used to stand here now lies in pieces a long way down the slope. Whatever cataclysm sent that gendarme into the abyss took the road with it. We work our way up the exposed rocks, avoiding the choss and loose dirt as we search for proper hand and footholds. Breathless, we clear the corner and look across the divide.

Only now do we see the ruined gate.

It’s taller than I expected, probably four times my height. It’s also surprisingly intact. One of the arches has fallen and any details have long since worn away, but how this thing still stands at all, I can hardly imagine.

The legends say the gate leads not to the valley but to a world beyond. We’re here to find out if the legends were true. One way or the other, it leads to places you and I have never been. On the other hand, every step we’ve taken since we embarked on this journey has led us somewhere we have never been before.

That’s why we’re here. And so, we continue.