The Noble: Part Two

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A grave somberness lay heavy on the air, and time itself seemed to freeze until the slaves were drawn out of their reverie by the sound of Lenny riding back to their perch. Rather than dismounting he steered the horse towards the line of slaves, all the more to intimidate them as he spat out his obligatory threats.

“All of you take heed!” he snarled down to their still-bowed heads, the bloodlust lingering in his eyes. “There are never any second chances for escapees here. I will gladly ride into town with an empty rope than be made a fool of!” He reached the end of the line and found the only slave daring to look him in the eye. “You, however,” he pointed his finger to Jules and nodded approvingly. “You will be rewarded when we arrive at town. Not with money, your next master would just take that, but I’ll buy you a proper meal before the auction.”

Jules nodded appreciatively, then lay back down on the ground, determinedly turning his back to the other slaves so as to not meet their gazes. With a final curse Lenny circled his horse round and went back to the fire where Bartholomew and Harry were waiting. The three sat around the low blaze, muttering in dark voices until at last they were calmed enough to return to their sleep.

The next morning when Lenny roused the slaves to their feet he had the good sense to not ask about the fresh corpse at the end of the line. He simply cut Jules’s body free, and stomped back to his horse, anxious to move the party away from that place. Bartholomew had followed behind him with the key to unlock the prisoner’s fetters but Lenny barked at him not to.

“No more kindnesses for this lot!” he ordered, spinning around in his saddle to face the slaves. “You may thank your friend William for that.”

There came the tug on the rope and they all lurched into their march. Though they moved onwards, that spirit of death persisted with them as they went. Of course things would have already been grim for one of their own to be killed, but it was all the more so when that one was William Gray.

It was only now with his loss that they fully realized how deeply they had let him penetrate their broken natures. There had been a sense of hope in their lives again, though in what exactly they could not say. Something better, and strangely enough something internal. Something long dormant within them all had been awakened by William’s fire, and now that he was gone they were afraid to lose that part of them again.

The guards felt a weight, too, but for them it was a far more damning sensation. Though William had been only a slave there was a part of them that knew he was more elevated than they, and so it felt out of place to have claimed his life. Perhaps they had possessed his body, but they had never had power over his spirit as with the other slaves. Now that free spirit seemed to stalk them, judging and condemning them for his spilled blood. His memory brought to the surface all that they despised within themselves, and they became, if possible, more harsh and cold to the world. Almost frantically they drove the team onwards, anxious to reach their destination and see if the local tavern couldn’t craft a brew that might lift the spell they were under.

Over one hill and then another they marched, and as they went Robert did not lift his eyes once. Quite possibly he felt the weight of William’s absence most of all. He alone knew that William had intended for him to stand as defender for these poor souls and, fool as it sounded, he really wished that he could. Robert was discovering that a far worse fate than living as nothing was to believe that it could be otherwise. He was drawn out of these thoughts, though, as the line slowed to a stop and a few gasps of shock echoed from their party.

Looking up William saw that the hill they had been climbing was crowned by a small fortress. The layout of the walls and the five towers above them answered exactly to the form William had described of his regal home. There was even the red and yellow banner fluttering above the structure. Robert was so shocked by the manifestation of William’s dreams that it took him a moment to register that something was wrong about the image though.

This place was obviously deserted and uncared for, and clearly had been so for decades. Twenty, maybe thirty years judging by the way the vines had grown across the rock walls and even pulled patches of them down to the earth. Indeed, if William had not planted the idea of a lion holding a flower into Robert’s mind he doubted he would have been able to make out its faint form on the frayed and weathered banner overhead.

Robert did not dwell long on this mystery, though, for he now noticed the anxious way their three cruel masters were leaning into one another and conversing in hushed whispers. That riddle he understood in a moment: they were afraid whether they had, in fact, slain a lord the night before and whether it might become known. The three mercenaries finished their contemplation, and accordingly Harry and Bartholomew spurred their horses down opposite walls of the fortress, no doubt circling the place to make sure it truly was as deserted as it appeared. Meanwhile Lenny swung his leg out of the saddle and dropped to the ground, advancing on the slaves with a grim determination in his face.

“See here, now,” he menaced as he strode down the line, looking each of them in the eyes in turn. “I know that you’re wondering if this structure isn’t the very fulfillment of that fool William’s prophecies.” He spat. “Not a chance. Our dearly departed friend merely saw this place while traveling with his prior master, and in his delusions made up that he belonged here. His mind was as broken and empty as the walls of this place, so he found he felt it a true home to him. Do you understand?

Lenny had made his way to the end of the line, turned behind their backs and strode up the line the other way. He prodded each one of them firmly between the shoulder blades as he continued his speech, his voice becoming more strained with passion.

“I said it before. I am not going to be made a fool of by the likes of you. If any of you so much as breathe the name ‘William’ when we get to town I will haul you out in the public square and murder you with my bare hands!” His voice was screeching now, and rather than prodding he had taken to gripping them from behind and shaking. He reached the end of the line and turned back around, coming along their faces again, his own contorted in pure rage.

“Do you understand me?! I will kill every mongrel of you. Inch. By. INCH!”

Lenny had reached Maggie who squirmed under his glare. He gripped her in his rough hands and slid his fingers around her throat, slowly choking the life out of her. “DO YOU DOUBT ME?!” he frothed, and Robert knew Lenny was debating whether he should kill her to make an example to the rest of them or not. All the other slaves were numb with horror, but Robert’s own heart was racing. He didn’t feel the hopelessness the rest of them did, he had the terrifying and electrifying realization that he could resist this.

William would not have waited this long. The thought, unbidden, flashed across Robert’s mind, and without another pause he turned and bolted towards Lenny and Maggie, bursting his iron fetters off with a sharp snap of the wrists. He wrapped his freed arms around Lenny and tackled him to the ground, all of the other slaves staring in amazement at the miracle he had seemingly just performed.

Lenny roared like an animal, and began pummeling Robert’s sides with his fists. He got his foot up between the two of them and kicked out, sending Robert crashing to the ground a few feet away. Lenny curled up to a crouch, reaching down to his side for the hilt of his sword.

During their struggle one of the other slaves, Bert, had been looking back and forth from Robert’s open shackles to his own around the wrists. A question was in his face, and with a hopeful grin he thrust his arms apart, bursting his iron lock open as well. In a moment he had leapt to Lenny’s side and pinned his arm so that he could not draw his sword.

Robert was as amazed by this development as everyone else, and as he ran forward to help Bert wrestle with Lenny the other nine prisoners tried to burst their bands as well. They all broke free. With a laugh Robert realized William had stuffed all of their locks!

Four more of the slaves rushed forward to help secure their foe, but an angry voice called out, and they turned to see Bartholomew and Harry rushing at them with drawn swords! Casting his eyes around for an escape, Robert spotted a break in the fortress’s wall near to them. He called to his comrades to follow him as he dashed towards it. They thrust Lenny to the ground and rushed across the grass. As they reached the toppled rubble they scrambled into the courtyard on the other side and Robert continued casting his eyes around for their next avenue of escape.

He wasn’t searching for just anything, though, he knew what he was looking for, and at last he found it. “Just keep following me,” he assured the others as he took off towards the door at the base of the tallest tower. The rest of the crew followed him across the courtyard, and as they reached the door they heard the sounds of their three pursuers scrambling through the same hole in the wall that they had come through.

Robert wrenched the heavy door open and waited for his companions to clear the threshold. “Up those stairs!” he commanded, pointing to the steps spiraling upwards. “All the way to the top! Do not stop!” As the last of the slaves cleared the space he slammed the door shut. There were brackets on either side of the door to hold a restraining beam, and looking to the ground he saw the corresponding length of wood. He quickly slid it into place, just as a thump on the other side of the door signaled the arrival of their pursuers. The rotting wood would not hold them for long.

Robert bounded up the steps with an incredible energy, and as he reached the other slaves he quickened his pace still, moving to their front. After all he alone knew what it was he hoped to find at the top of this tower. Beneath them they heard the wrenching sound of the tower door finally breaking inwards.

Looking up Robert saw the trapdoor that signaled the end of their staircase and the entry into the crowning room. He heaved his shoulder against the barrier, but it wasn’t locked, and so he tumbled into a large, open room. He scrambled back to his feet as the other slaves filed into the room behind him, looking around at the majestic bedroom they had just entered.

A few decades ago it would have been ornate and lavish, but now the colors were faded and the perfumes were spoiled. Against the back wall there still stood a massive portrait, and on its faded canvas could still be made out the memory of a noble family. Both the lord and lady were beautiful and dark-haired, a deep contemplation etched into their eyes. In contrast to them was the young lad that sat on his father’s knee. His golden curls wreathed a face shining with pure joy and innocence. He could not have been any older than four or five.

Robert could not dwell on the image, though, he was already dashing to the corner of the room where his hopes were being answered in the form of a suit of armor, standing to attention on its wooden frame. Though it was coated in dust and grime, its fine craftsmanship could not be concealed. Ornate carvings stood sprawled across its perimeters, and its steel was overlaid in places with golden figures. The greatest of these figures was that of the lion with a flower in its mouth, emblazoned across the whole of the breast.

“Help me with this,” Robert ordered, lifting the helmet off and tossing it to one slave. He pulled up the cuirass and handed it to another two. There remained a coat of chainmail on the frame and Robert nodded to another two of the slaves as he held his arms out to receive the armor.

Understanding set in and soon all hands were at work, pulling the chain over his head and around his arms, buckling the cuirass over it, locking the helmet over his head. Meanwhile others were clasping the greaves around his legs and last of all the magnificent sword was placed reverentially into his open palm. The slaves stood back, marveling at the specter that stood before them now, a living embodiment of both rich history and hopeful future.

Robert took his first awkward steps, getting a feel for the great weight. He had no experience and no training, but the burden truly rested on his shoulders now and there was no time for second thoughts. Even now they could hear the footfalls of the slavers nearing their perch. Robert turned towards the trapdoor and raised his sword.

“All of you behind me,” his voice echoed from within his helmet, and the slaves did not hesitate to obey. He had no training or experience, but he knew he needed to calm his racing heart. He settled his frantic breaths into something long and controlled. He tightened his grip on the sword’s hilt and closed his eyes, listening to the footfalls growing louder. He discerned that there were three sets of them, and in his mind’s eye he measured the time before they would be spilling into their room. He counted. One. Two. Three. Four.

Eyes flashing open Robert charged. He barreled to the lip of the trapdoor and down the steps just as Bartholomew appeared at the top of them. Bartholomew’s wide expression of shock was visible for only a moment before Robert had collided into him and sent him flailing backwards down the stairs. Behind Bartholomew, Harry and Lenny awkwardly leapt over the body, leaving it to bounce violently down the stone until it came to a permanent rest some two dozen steps below.

Harry was next, and in desperation he swung his sword at Robert, but the blade clattered uselessly off the armor as Robert cut him down with a single, controlled motion. Lenny took a step backwards to assess the situation, and Robert could see that Lenny’s eyes roved over every gap in Robert’s metal. Beneath the helmet Robert ground his teeth together in determination, raising his sword to chest height as Lenny did the same.

At the same moment Lenny charged up the steps as Robert bounded down them. Lenny turned the point of his sword forward and jabbed it up, while Robert swung his in a wide arc. The two blades collided and Lenny’s brittle metal shattered into a hundred pieces. Unopposed Robert’s sword continued in its swing, passing into Lenny and cutting the cord of his life in a flash.

Robert stood panting, watching Lenny’s lifeless form fall away. His chest heaved and he reached his hand to the wall for support. He closed his eyes and whispered “thank you.” He let a few more moments pass, then turned and stepped back up into the bedroom, all the other slaves encircling him in awe.

Maggie came forward with a old rag she had found and reverently cleaned the bloodied blade. His hands free, Robert unclasped the helmet and viewed his fellow slaves. No, his fellow freemen and freewomen.

“We are The House of Gray” he declared.

“The House of Gray” ten voices echoed.

***

As I said in my previous post, my intention with this story was to give an examination of a character discovering his true self. Specifically I wished to examine the notion of a person discovering their true calling within another, such as Robert being given his duty and example from William. While William calls Robert to the work, though, it is Robert who actually does that work and therefore earns the noble identity he possesses by the end of the story.

Personally I am glad that I took the time to do this piece in two halves, and as I said on Monday I feel that that truly does a greater justice to the work than if I had to rushed it in half the time. In either case we have now concluded this series of stories, and next week we’ll return with an entirely new category. Have a wonderful weekend and I’ll see you then.

A Proper Cadence

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On Thursday I shared the first half of a story that I had originally intended to publish in a single post. As I explained at the time, the reason for dividing it in two was based on the constraints of my appointed deadline. Each of my posts is given a three-day period to be taken from conception to published completion, and trying to do the entire story of The Noble in that allowance would have rushed the the work faster than it should have been. That “rushing” to which I am referring is twofold.

First, the story would have had to be less words. Where I have three days to write each story post, there are only so many words that I can write and still somewhat polish the work before pushing it out the door. I’ve come to learn that for me 3000 words is about my limit before I’m going to be cramming to get the post done in time.

So why didn’t my story fit within that 3000 word limit? Well, right from the outset I had created a general outline for the story, and it called for a very specific number of scenes: five. Each of those scenes was going to run for about a thousand words. Thus the only way to make the math work would have been to lop off two-fifths of the story, either by compressing the length of each scene or by removing them entirely.

So in my dilemma I saw only three options.

  1. Reduce to 3000 words and publish a polished but incomplete story, one that would essentially be a glorified outline of the full story I originally wanted to do.
  2. Super-speed write five thousand words, leaving no time for polish and refinement, and thus taking a hit in quality.
  3. Break the story into two posts.

Obviously the third of those options is the most attractive, given that it does the fullest justice to the story itself. But why did my story need to have five scenes in the first place? Could it really have not worked with only three? Why did each scene have to be a thousand words? Could they really have not worked with 600 each? These are questions related to a story’s overall cadence and a scene’s overall rhythm. Let’s look at these in greater detail.

How Many Scenes?

How many scenes are to be in a story is determined early in the writing process, usually it comes about as a direct byproduct of outlining your plot. Which leads us to the following question: when writing an outline, do you consciously consider how many scenes you are setting up your story to have? Do you have a specific number that you are trying to shoot for? Do you just starting with the beginning scene, decide what should immediately follow, and thus incrementally add scenes until you get to the end? It might be tempting to ignore these questions entirely and just let the story happen “naturally.” That does sound nice, but in practice this approach runs a high chance of finishing your entire work and only then discovering that its pacing is lopsided and disjointed. Far better to put the time in up front to get this right.

In the case of my story The Noble, I chose five scenes for a very specific reason. There were five main phases that I wanted my protagonist to go through in his arc, and each of those phases needed their own equal weight within the story. These steps of the story were chosen intentionally to give his development the natural arc I wanted, passing sequentially through cynicism, intrigue, hope, despair, and finally triumph. Notice how that sequence establishes the cadence of the entire story. About half of it will be spent in slowly ascending from cynicism to hope, after which we have a climatic drop to our lowest low and rise to our highest high. It’s a full and complete experience, and to reduce it to any three of those sequences would make his journey feel disjointed and unnatural.

These are exactly the sort of considerations you want to have when planning out your own stories. Have you decided which cadence you want your tale to follow? Have you chosen scenes that contribute to that natural rising and falling motion?  If your outline is missing a step in its arc then your plan is incomplete and you need to develop it further. Or if you have a complete trail from start to finish but then a few extra scenes along the side, then those parts are just “filler.” Cut them.

How Many Words

Alright, so that’s why I wanted five scenes for my story, no more and no less. But why did I choose 1000 words for each of those sequences? Quite frankly, I didn’t. When I first began I had no consideration for how many words each sequence would be,  that decision was to be determined by one thing and one thing alone: the tone.

Personally, I don’t believe in trying to make a story or a chapter fit into a predetermined size. I don’t think you should inflate your text to try and make it look more serious, I don’t think you should cut each sentence in half because you want it to sell better. It may be that a bigger or shorter story will be perceived differently, or will affect how many sales you are likely to achieve. But I consider each of those criteria to be far beneath the ultimate deciding factor: what sort of rhythm does your story want to be written in.

Consider my story Tico the Jester. This was from the perspective of a child and her toys. Their reality was one of quickly changing interests and high-energy imagination. The scenes there wanted to be written in a fast and snappy rhythm. Pausing to describe the scenery in detail would have been contrary to the tone of that story.

One the other hand consider Deep Forest. This was the recounting of a strange being slowly awaking in a massive forest, one buried by the accumulated dust of millennia at rest.  The scenes there wanted to be elaborate and ponderous. Trying to quickly move from one sensation to another would have also been contrary to the tone of that story.

So when it came time to write the first scene of The Noble, I simply started writing, detailing things or leaving them unexplained according to what felt right. It felt right if it matched the tone that I was trying to establish for that story. At the end of the first scene I looked at the word-count and it was at a thousand words, and I knew that this would be the average magnitude for each scene in the work. Individual sections might run a couple hundred words above or beneath this average, but they would all be around this estimate because they would each be given equal weight in their own space.

To be clear, this isn’t an excuse to be unnecessarily wordy, which happens to be a flaw of mine that I am trying to keep in check. Nor is this an excuse to ignore painting the scenery, a flaw of mine that I am trying to get in the habit of. Merely it is stating that you try to find a narrative tone which has good synergy with the ideas of your story. Allow yourself to move along at a snappy pace when appropriate, and pause to take a knee and breathe in the world when that is what’s wanted.

 

In conclusion, I want to reiterate that your driving motivation in deciding both your story’s cadence and your scene’s tempo should be what your story needs. You should give your story what it deserves, and then let every other consideration follow behind.

It was that very mindset that resulted in me deciding that The Noble simply couldn’t exist in a single post. I look forward to sharing the second half of that tale with you on Thursday, and I hope you’ll find it was worth the intermission.

The Noble: Part One

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Robert remembered the moment he first met Lord William Gray distinctly. Lenny had just finished shoving the man into the mud and then stomped away, ordering Robert to lift him back out. William had fallen in face first, and with his hands bound behind his back he started to kick wildly for fear of drowning in the filth. Robert gripped him around the shoulders, pulled him up to a kneeling position, then helped support him as he rose to a stand.

After spitting enough mud to the side that he could speak again William gurgled out a “Thank you, sir.”

“You ought not talk back to the guards like that,” Robert gruffly reprimanded as he brushed the mud from William’s eyes and nose. He gave a glance to the guards in question, but for the time being the three of them were huddled around a map a few dozen feet distant. No doubt they were trying to determine which district of Cotswolds their party was lost in now.

“Thank you, again,” William repeated as at last his face was clear enough that he could open his eyes. He was tall, with golden locks that fell to his shoulders. He held himself in an upright and dignified manner, one that did not fit with his dirty station. “It was a matter of principle, you see. They don’t have the right to speak to me that way.”

“You’re a slave,” Robert shrugged. “You don’t have any rights.”

“Well, in the first case, even a slave has the common rights of all men, and in the second case, I’m not properly a slave either, you see I am–“

“Lord William Gray, I know. I heard. You were being quite emphatic on that point when they brought you in.”

“Hm,” William pursed his lips. “And what about your name, sir?”

“Please don’t call me ‘sir’ anymore, I don’t want them thinking I need a shove in the mud as well. I’m simply Robert.”

“And what is your surname?”

“I’m simply Robert.”

“Well, Robert, I am indebted to you. I won’t forget this, and I will repay.”

“I’m sure you will,” Robert said dryly. Then stepped back as the guards came back from their huddle to the line. They were called Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew, and each of them bore the scowling mark of a man that maintained a constant hatred. This hatred was as necessary to sustaining them in their work as food and drink, for without it they would never be able to keep their consciences at bay.

“Now you listen,” Lenny spat as he grabbed William by the shoulder and cut the rope off of his wrists with a rusted knife. “I’ll have no more of your backtalk. You’re in a rough bind, I know, but I’ve bought you fair and square.” He pulled William’s hands round to the front where he tied them again, and then fastened the cord to a long rope. This rope ran the full length of thirteen slaves and held them in their line. “You see that I spare you the irons, at least until night? I make things as nice for you as I reasonably can. So don’t give me your guff. Save it for the master I sell you to!” He gave the knot he was tying one more tug, then turned and mounted his nearby horse, the one to whom the line of slaves was secured.

Robert was fastened to the rope directly behind William, and could see from the way his shoulders were rolling back that he was inhaling deeply, no doubt preparing to call a reply to Lenny.

“Don’t say it!” Robert hissed and William froze. “You’re part of the line now, and that means all the rest of us are liable to pay for whatever trouble you stir. I hate Lenny, but what he says is true. If you must fight back, wait until you’re sold off on your own and none of us will be harmed for it.”

William was still for a moment, clearly giving Robert’s words sincere consideration. “I understand,” he finally replied, keeping his voice low so they would not be overheard. “I do not intend to subject myself to these injustices, but you’re right that I have to consider all of you. You’re my brethren now, and I mustn’t do anything until I’ve convinced each of you to fight alongside me.”

Robert was spared coming up with a response to this strange declaration as Lenny urged the horse into a trot and the whole line of sorry souls lurched forward into their march. They moved at a pace somewhere between a walk and a jog, passing over one rolling hill after another. As far as the eye could see in each direction was nothing but long, green grass with the occasional sprinkling of bare, gray rocks to break up the pattern. Above them the sky was overcast by a multitude of thin, wispy clouds, diffusing the sunlight into a universal ambience. It might have been an lovely scene, were it being viewed by less dismal souls.

When Robert had first joined Lenny’s party there had only been three others, wretches  whose masters had sold them off to cover debts, just as Robert’s had done. As they took a winding course through the hill-lands, their numbers had increased one-by-one until they now marched thirteen long. They were destined for the auction houses in one of the main cities, where Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew would sell them at a decent profit.

Until this William fellow, all the slaves in their party had come in quietly. Years of servitude had long conditioned them to the rough manner in which they were treated, and the prospect of leaving one master for another was a familiar passage. But William was different. From the first moment Lenny brought him he had shown the signs of an unbroken spirit. He had proudly explained that he was in actuality a royal lord, waylaid on the road by a band of highwaymen, mistaken by them for a rich servant, and then sold into slavery at their hand.

Everyone in the party, slave and slaver alike, dismissed his story out of hand. The general consensus was that the poor man was insane, and likely it was for this condition that his prior master had chosen to sell him away. Where many of their band considered this a great source of fun and teased William for his sincerity of delusion, Robert could only shake his head in pity. He knew there must come a time where this dreamer would be forced back to his cruel realities, and Robert could not wish that crushing on anyone.

If Robert was honest with himself, though, it was not pity alone that he felt for the man. He could not help having a wonder and a fascination for him, too. At the close of each day, as they sat around their evening fire, one of their crew would invariably ask William for stories of his home and prior life. At first they had done this to mock him, but he spoke with such a fervor and richness of detail that it was impossible to not be captivated by the visions he spun. Night-by-night, the slaves’ faces became less cynical and mean, changing into something softer and longing. For a blissful hour they would forget their pitiful lives and saw the world of William as if in a trance.

They seemed to feel the summer wind blowing, fluttering out the red and yellow banner of his ancestors above their heads. They saw its emblem, that of a lion holding a long flower in its mouth. They lowered their eyes from its billowing form and found themselves on the parapet of a strong and imposing fortress. With William they passed the attendants and soldiers on either side, each bowing or saluting in turn. They followed him up the spiral staircase to the lord’s chambers at the peak of the tallest tower. They heard the din of workers below and the singing of the birds above. They smelled the perfumes and the salts from the bath, the starch and the dye from the laundry. They saw the wardrobe filled with rich and colorful garments, the complexity of design stitched into the thick rugs covering the floor. They felt the soft warmth of the feather pillows, the cold hardness of the his fine suit of armor’s steel.

Only one of the slaves remained immune to William’s magic. Jules had enjoyed listening to the stories at first, but after a time said it made him frustrated to hear dreams that could never be real. Fantasy made his reality unbearable, and so he would always excuse himself from the rest of the party when the tales began and brood elsewhere on his own.

It wasn’t as though William only offered intangibles to his fellow slaves, though. He was just as gracious with his daily food portions as he was with his words. He explained that the other slaves had not been properly nourished through life as he had, and so they needed the food more. Each time he would look them firmly in the eye and assure them that they would make it out alright. No one doubted that he truly believed it, and that he truly intended to share his better life with them all. Perhaps they were still not ready to believe William’s tales, but they did come to believe in him.

Though the three slave-traders heard bits and pieces of William’s lordly stories, they didn’t harass him any further than to occasionally make fun of his madness. William had kept his word and refrained from giving them any more trouble. That proud defiance never dimmed in his eye, but he held his tongue at their jeering. In fact he seemed to be saddened that they chose to be his enemies rather than his friends.

William’s intended rebellion never came to fruition either. Although William had gained the slaves’ appreciation, he was not any closer to winning their fighting spirit. A failing he admitted to Robert one night after all the others had fallen asleep. At night the line lay on the bare ground in their marching order,  still tethered to the line though now with iron fetters. As William and Robert were neighbors in the line they would often hold whispered conversations as the others drifted out of consciousness.

“I know I have to take this next step alone,” William was saying. “For a while there I had an ambition of us all raising up together and overpowering our captors. We outnumber them by ten, after all, but I have come to see that this isn’t in your nature to do.”

“Well of course not!” Robert shook his head. “We may outnumber them, but they’re still armed and we are not. Even if we were to overpower them, some of us would die in the effort.”

“Yes,” William nodded solemnly, “and I would be the first. But I would do it.”

Robert scoffed. “Then your escape attempt wouldn’t do you any good, would it?”

“Would I not be free then?” William smiled. “And my people would be free, too.”

“Who?… Oh, you mean us?”

“Of course. As I said before, you are my brethren. You are all of you of the House of Gray now.”

Robert just smiled and shook his head. “I must admit that being of the House of Gray still feels pretty drab right now.”

“You joke tonight, but soon you will see. The time of our liberation is soon upon us.”

“Oh?” Robert asked in amusement. “How soon?”

William grinned, raised his iron shackles up to where Robert could see them, gave a tug and the lock sprang open! Robert started, and snapped his gaze over to the fire around which the slave traders spent their nights. All three were still asleep. “What are you doing?” he hissed.

“I had a moment alone with the fetters the other day and stuffed mine full of grass. The lock can’t catch properly.”

Robert stared at this revelation. “But what are you doing?”

“As fortune would have it, I know these lands. These brutes have been leading us straight towards my very home, the one I’ve told you all about. It isn’t even a full day’s journey ahead. If our overlords see it as I have described and realize that I have been telling the truth I’m sure they will be very moved, though probably not towards doing me any kindness! My only chance is to get away tonight.”

Robert grimaced. “William, please don’t do this. You’re just going to die out there on your own.”

“I know you don’t believe me, Robert. I forgive you for that. But I’ll be restored to power within twenty-four hours and come back for you all! I’ve been gone long enough that the servants have likely abandoned the homestead, but there are enough hidden treasures in the place that I can immediately hire mercenaries and free you. Then all of us will live in my halls and we’ll build the House of Gray anew!” There was a joyful fire in William’s eyes, an excitement to at least be at his moment of action.

But Robert could not match his enthusiasm. “William, in spite of my better senses I really do like you. And honestly I do want to believe in your tales. Even without the promise of being a part of your court, I just like to imagine that such a place as you describe is really out there somewhere…. But dreams only have a place in us when we don’t get lost in them.”

William smiled in pity. “So you assume I am mad and off to my doom. What of it? Let me go, then. It is my choice.”

Robert nodded. “I suppose you have that right.”

William grinned broadly. “A slave has ‘rights’ do you say? Perhaps I’ve made a change in you yet! And that’s why I trust you with what I must ask next Robert. Listen to me close. I make a new man of you, I have that right as well. No longer are you to be ‘simply Robert,’ I pronounce you Robert Gray.” William lightly touched each of Robert’s shoulders. It would have been comical were his face not so sincere. “And I am entrusting you with these people until I return. Take care of them and follow the example I’ve set for you. You are my steward until I return.”

In spite of his doubts, Robert’s eyes grew tearful. Whether it was madness or not, something long too still in his heart stirred at the calling.

“Now see to this, I have born your shackles and I have broken them,” William proceeded. He reached down and pulled Robert’s wrists up to eye level. “By which I mean: I stuffed grass into your fetters as well.”

“You what?!”

“Just in case. Don’t worry, they won’t notice, you can’t even tell there’s anything different until you give them a sharp tug.”

Robert turned the lock towards him and saw a few telling blades of dead grass poking out from the metal.

“But listen,” William continued. “I must leave now. Will you take this charge to care of the others?”

“Alright, William, that much I can manage.” He nodded. “And who knows? You’re a crazy fool, perhaps, but you also also seem to have luck on your side. You may survive yet!”

“I intend to.” With that William gave him a wink, then began crawling away from the line. He moved as stealthily as he could muster, making for the declining slope at the edge of the plateau where the party currently slept. Robert watched the retreating form, and for a brief moment a part of him entertained the idea that maybe the man really was a lord. Whether crazy or honest, one thing was certain. William simply didn’t belong with a crew as wretched as the rest of them.

“MAN ESCAPING!” A shrill voice split the silent dark. Down at the end of the line Jules had risen to his feet and pointed accusingly at William’s retreating shadow.

“No!” Robert roared, but the damage was already done.

Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew were on their feet in an instant, and had fully apprised the situation after another. Lenny barked at the other two to remain with the line as he sprinted towards the nearest of their horses.

William didn’t even glance backwards, but upon hearing the cry rose to his feet and sprinted full speed, now disappearing down the edge of the plateau.

Lenny threw his leg over the horse, and reached down to its side, pulling out a sword that flashed in the moonlight. He dug his heels deep into the horse’s sides, eliciting a whinny of protest, but then the beast obediently charged forward.

By now all of the slaves were on their feet, motionless as they watched horse and rider drive past them and down the same slope William had gone over. After a moment William returned to their view, a dark form streaking across the large valley that extended ahead. It was a field, open and bare, with nowhere to hide. Though his situation was hopeless, William continued to run, leading further and further away from the camp as now the horse came into view and quickly closed the distance.

As Lenny charged past the fugitive his arm could be made out swinging, catching the form of William with the shining sword and felling him to the ground. William’s body lay still on the ground for a moment as Lenny hauled back on the reins, drawing the horse to a stop. As Lenny dismounted, the prone figure began to lift and fall, haltingly trying and failing to push itself back upright. Lenny advanced purposefully, raised the sword, plunged it down, and stilled the body forever. There was no cry, no flash of lightning to herald the moment, yet all the slaves felt a tremor within and bowed their heads mournfully. All but the traitor at their end.

*

It was certainly not my intention to publish half of a short story this week, after all on Monday I already examined the series as a whole and meant for today to wrap it all up with a nice bow. The more I tried to cram the full tale of The Noble into a single post, though, the more it became apparent that it needed more space to breathe.

However I see in this an opportunity. I think this idea of feeling out the needs of a story, whether it needs to move along at a snappy pace or whether it needs to simmer, is something we ought to look at in greater detail. As such, I will examine this idea in greater detail on Monday, and then a week from now provide the second half of The Noble and really conclude this series.

 

Who Are You Really?

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Are people inherently good or evil? It is a question that has puzzled our species for millennia, and likely will continue to do so for a very, very long while. No doubt this question takes such a hold on us because the nature of humans is divided. There is a conscience in us all, but there also is a beast. Which of those two halves do you consider to the more real part, or is each one an equal half of the whole? Are there only these two halves to a person, or is there an entire spectrum in between? If you are able to answer all of these questions for yourself, am I fundamentally the same as you or might my own reality be different?

These are ponderings of the soul, and as such the deepest, most personal musings we can ever engage in. And we certainly do engage in them, every single one of us has an opinion on all these matters. Even if this were the first time you had heard such questions and had never before given them serious thought, you will still have an initial default reaction that accepts some of the notions and rejects the others.

But what’s with all of this philosophizing in a blog about writing anyway? Well, what better way to give expression to our beliefs and ponderings than through story? Writers have considered and influenced philosophical opinion for as long as pen has been to paper.  One obvious example is the advice Polonius gives us. “To thine own self be true” he says, but Hamlet, like all the rest of us, wrestles with knowing who exactly is that own self he is to be true to?

Shakespeare was by no means the first author to grapple with these ideas, though. More than 2400 years ago Sophocles wrote of Antigone, the faithful sister that tries to bury her brother in defiance of the king’s command. She asserts that this defiance answers to a higher law, one written into the very human soul, a moral compass that defines her. So powerfully does she feel on the matter, that when she is frustrated in following this inner guide it breaks her and she cannot go on living.

Shifting our focus to somewhere more recent I am reminded of an episode from the original Twilight Zone series entitled The Masks. Here an old and wealthy man plays host to all of the mean and rotten descendants who will soon inherit his fortunes. He requires each of them to wear masks, ones that grotesquely reflect their individual character flaws. In this way, the wearing of the mask is actually the unmasking of the true self within.

In my own way I have tried to incorporate themes of discovering one’s true self in each of my short stories during this last month. Each of these four stories has approached these questions in a different way and with different conclusions.

The Wolf in the Room had as its objective to query what it is that defines a person as such. Here we had a main character that scene by scene lost more and more of his humanity, finally transforming into something new: a wolf. Meanwhile there was a corresponding wolf that incrementally gained in humanity until it took the form of our main character.

My purpose with this strange account was to pose a culturally relevant question, absent any answer. If a man changed into the form a wolf while a wolf changed into the form of that same man, are the two now their original selves or their new selves? I expect the outcome of the story will be dissatisfying to most readers, where it is determined that a person is defined by nothing more than their current physical status. I believe most of us would maintain that as we grow and change in life, there yet remains an inner identity within us that remains constant. What, then, is the essence of that which remains permanent?

In Stars and Stones is something of an outlier in this series, given that it features no central characters, therefore no personality arc, and therefore no questions about the true self. And that is exactly the point. This is a story about what is left of life when it lacks any consideration for one’s own humanity. Everything in this piece is presented in a cold and calculated way, a textbook reading of numbers and events, with no consideration for what any of it actually means. The conclusions that are drawn from this clinical perspective are quite bleak: all things die and no legacy is permanent. Life, as such, is meaningless.

Socrates suggested that the unexamined life was not worth living, and surely he meant examined by the heart. Numbers and statistics are wonderful tools for measuring this world and we have a great need for them. Yet we must not forget that we also have great need for humanity, for thoughtful introspection, and for loving connection to others. Yes there are the cold facts of life, but there also the wonderful warm mysteries within it.

The Basketball in the Water echoes the importance of these humanizing moments, though it was far more forward with its themes. At the outset we have a man meeting with his therapist, a man who has gone to great lengths to avoid just these sorts of introspections. So much of the anxiety and fidgeting he exhibits are a direct result of that unwillingness to look at the man within, and the story suggests that it is most often tragedy and guilt that prevents us from engaging in this otherwise natural and healthy self-reflection.

Because of his mistakes he is burdened with a fundamental belief that at his core he is inherently evil, not good. He feels his past has condemned him, and so sees nothing but pain in rehashing that past. I tried to craft his plight in such a way that the reader would understand why he would naturally feel that way, but in the end want him to accept that he is being too hard on himself. The hope is that if the readers were able to have that sympathy for his situation, then perhaps they could consider whether they are not being too hard on their own situations as well.

Revenger of Blood suggests the presence of not only a self, but also of a higher self. Throughout its length the main character is grappling between a sense of duty and a conscience that refuses to consent to that duty. Ultimately the protagonist is able to come to the epiphany that the only true duty is that of the conscience. Sometimes we try to make the decision between right and wrong so complex, weighing pros and cons and debating both sides of the field. Nine times out of ten, though, our inner compass has already told us what we ought to do, and we’re just not willing to face the unpleasant consequences that can accompany acting on our conscience.

I might go to a grocery, select my items, and purchase them for their full retail value. At this point I have done no wrong. I have not tried to rob the store, I have obeyed every law, and I am completely justified. However the absence of doing wrong is not the same as doing right. The law does not require me to smile and brighten my cashier’s day, but perhaps my conscience does, though my introverted nature is uncomfortable with the prospect. If I do not learn to answer that higher call of my heart, I will lead only a half-complete life. The greatest acts of good we do are those that are demanded only of our own heart.

 

It has been quite fulfilling writing this more contemplative series of short stories. Obviously when authors publish work with introspective musings a very personal part of them has been opened for all the world to see. You can probably already tell that my answer to the question “are people inherently good or evil” is that I believe them to be good. There are those that would feel obligated to defend that belief by citing all sorts of logical or religious rhetoric. I suppose those have their place, but for me I cannot give any better evidence than that when I do good, I simply feel that I am being by most true self.

This Thursday I will be posting my final story in this current series, and I will be maintaining the theme of characters seeking to discover their true selves. Specifically I will be focusing on the idea of being called to redefine oneself into something greater. I hope to see you then.

Revenger of Blood

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In ancient Jewish society there existed a unique law to deal with the accidental killing of another. The man that was guilty of the manslaughter was permitted to flee to a City of Refuge, an asylum where none was permitted to do him any harm. If that man ever strayed from his City of Refuge, though, he would be at the mercy of the Revenger of Blood. This Revenger of Blood was a man that had been given the right and duty to slay the killer should he encounter him abroad.

In the last year of the reign of Herod the Great, King of Judea, there lived a man of Hebron named Elkanah, a wealthy and powerful man, known abroad as honorable and pious. To this man came Omri, a servant of Elkanah’s uncle…

“Did he say for what purpose he came?” Elkanah asked his attendant, Hoshea. Hoshea shuffled behind his master as he moved about his court, attending to all matters of business before the end of day.

“No,” Hoshea replied. “But he did suggest that his matters were urgent, and there was a graveness about him.”

Elkanah nodded as he stepped up to a pedestal where one of the local merchants stood. The merchant pulled up a ledger and laid it on the pedestal. As Elkanah reviewed the record, he motioned to another nearby servant to bring him his own record as well, and the two were laid side-by-side for comparison.

“I am nearly finished here, go and fetch him. Also, invite him to stay with us for the Sabbath afterwards.”

Hoshea made to leave but Elkanah held up a hand to stop him. “And then fetch the money purse and buy for sacrifices before sundown.”

Elkanah turned back to the records, gave them one last analysis, then turned to the merchant and asked “Are we satisfied?” The merchant nodded, and now laid their contract on the pedestal instead. Elkanah motioned to another servant who brought them a reed pen and in turn they signed the bottom of the paper.

Elkanah nodded to the merchant and his associates, who made their way out of the room, passing by Hoshea as he returned with a short and rotund man in tow. The man appeared nervous and pulled his cap into fidgety hands as he entered the room.

“Peace be unto thee,” the man saluted as he approached Elkanah. “Thine greatness and goodness are known for miles, Rabbi, I am thine servant, Omri.” Then he bowed himself to the ground.

Elkanah lifted the man up and clapped his shoulders. “I am glad to see thee, Omri. Will you stay with us for dinner that we may discuss your matters in comfort?”

“I am honored,” Omri inclined his head in another slight bow. “But if thou wilt be gracious, I am weighed by a somber business and would be relieved of my duty.”

“Very well.”

“As thou knowest, I am the servant of Hiram, thine father’s brother. Ever since that tragic accident with thine father, Hiram has sent servants from time to time to discover the movements of thy father’s killer. He does this tirelessly as his duty to thine father.”

Elkanah nodded. “Hiram is an honorable man, by all accounts that I have heard.” His gaze strayed slightly to the side where Hoshea was now drawing a measure of gold and silver from the money chest and placing it into his bag.

Elkanah motioned a pause to Omri, then turned and called “Hoshea, come here.” When the man drew near Elkanah reached into the money bag and pulled out a coin that was faded and pockmarked. “We do not use this coin for purchasing sacrifice, Hoshea.”

Hoshea shrugged. “The markings are still legible. It is permitted.”

Elkanah smiled, but his voice was firm. “There is that which is permitted, and that which is sublime. Go and replace the coin.” Then he turned back to Omri.

Omri gave another slight bow, and then continued. “At all times thine father’s killer, a youth named Talmai, has remained in his asylum in the city of Shechem, never once abandoning his refuge. Yet three nights past, my master received word that Talmai’s father, an elder in Jerusalem named Anah, lies dying on his bed and calling for his son. It is known that messengers are bearing this news to Talmai, and there are those that say Talmai loves his father dearly and will not fail to answer the call.”

Elkanah somberly turned his back to Omri, bowing his head in deep contemplation. “And your master calls on me to fulfill my duty as the Revenger of Blood upon this young man’s head.” He face grew paler by the moment and the tips of his fingers quivered slightly. “Though I have never harmed any man at any time.”

“If you will permit me…” Omri began tentatively. Elkanah made no effort to suppress him so he continued. “There is no joy in this work before you, and there are none that envy thine station. But the way of duty requires of us to do that which is just, no matter how it aches our conscience. Such was the lot you chose when thou accepted the station of Revenger.”

“Never did I expect this youth to abandon the safety of his refuge.” Elkanah turned his head upwards, but closed his eyes against the light. “But truly, it was my duty to accept the station… I will do that which I have pledged,” he finally determined. “Go and tell thine master. I will take my journey to the northern entrance of Jerusalem; there I and my servants will lay in wait for the man, and take him while he is yet on the road.”

Omri bowed. “I thank thee, my lord. God be with thee.”

“In this?” Elkanah whispered to himself, after Omri had left the room.

*

Elkanah stood atop a rocky outcropping, one that overlooked the road to Jerusalem eight cubits below. Ahead of him the road emerged from a distant crevice and passed through a wide plain before turning beneath his feet. The moon was only half full, and this portion of the path was the only stretch that was well illuminated in all the region, though his position was further lightened by two torches on either side.

From his perch, Elkanah and the small group of men with him saw his servant Hoshea running down that dusty road towards them. He closed his eyes and sighed, knowing that such speed could only foretell that he had been successful in discovering the man Talmai. Hoshea reached the bend in the road and made his way around to the back of the rocky outcropping, where its sloping side led him up to where Elkanah stood.

“Master—” Hoshea panted as he stepped into the light of the torches. Elkanah held up a hand, silencing his servant until he had had a chance to regain his breath. Hoshea paused to take a few, long and deliberate breaths, then nodded. “Master, I have been and seen, and the report of Hiram’s servants is true. The four men come and one of them is tall with ruddy cheeks and dark, curly hair, the same as how Talmai is described to be. They will be at this place within the hour.”

“Are they armed?”

“No, they are not.”

That surprised Elkanah, but he nodded and turned to one of the men standing at his side. “Now Uzziel, take thine men and conceal them among the trees both before and after this bend in the road. Then thou and two that thou choosest wait in the road, without weapons that thou may appear peaceful. When the four men are drawn near to thee, hail them and say ‘Art thou Talmai?’ and they will say ‘Nay, we know not of whom thou speak.’ Then say thee ‘But we know thou art Talmai, and we are messengers from thy father, come to bear news that he has died this very day.’ Then the man will not be able to compose himself and will begin weeping. Thus we will have confirmation of his identity, and then call to thine men and they shall catch the man and bring him here to me.”

“It is well said,” Uzziel approved, then he turned to his men and they all departed with him until Hoshea and Elkanah were alone on their perch. Elkanah motioned to Hoshea and they doused both of the torches, then turned to face the road and began their wait.

Elkanah could feel his heart pounding in his chest, its every beat protesting the moment coming. He ran his hand along the hilt of the ceremonial sword at his side, a weapon that had only been ornamental in his house. For a moment he looked heavenward and silently prayed for strength, though partway through that request changed to a petition for understanding why these events had come to him.

The minutes slid by slowly, and the initial tension slowly relaxed. One-by-one Uzziel’s guards down below settled into seated positions, and then Hoshea did the same. It was just as Elkanah himself began to bend his knees that four dark figures came into view, travelers emerging from the shadow of the crevice in the distance. A muted call from Uzziel and the guards in the trees crouched deeper into their grass, while Uzziel and the two men he had chosen rose to their feet and stood conspicuously on the side of the road. Up above, Elkanah and Hoshea lay on their stomachs so that their silhouettes would not be visible to their quarry, and watched to see what transpired.

With the scent of dust filling his nose, Elkanah peered at the dark figures as they drew nearer and nearer. The more he tried to stifle his breath the more ragged it wheezed out of him. After a moment he reminded himself the men below would not be able to hear his breath and he let it out, long and heavy. He found himself wondering which of the four approaching men was Talmai. Which was the one that did not know he was now taking his final walk and breathing his final breaths?

The men passed by the first set of trees where Uzziel’s guards were hid, and passed on without perceiving the threat behind them. As they started towards the bend in the road and caught sight of Uzziel and his companions there was a noticeable slowing of their steps. Even so they came forward, no doubt not wanting to betray their anxieties.

From up above Elkanah could not hear the words spoken between Uzziel and the four travelers, but after a few exchanges between them he saw the third of them draw his hands up to his face and begin wailing so loudly that Elkanah could hear it clearly. Uzziel cried out and at the same moment seized on the weeping man, dragging him down to the ground. Talmai’s associates leapt upon the two strugglers, trying to pry them apart, and Uzziel’s associates leapt upon them in turn. There was a moment of complete confusion, but then the armed guards had rushed in from the trees and at sword point took each of the travelers by their arms and held them still.

Elkanah could not hear the words that Uzziel threatened to Talmai’s three companions, but they must have been compelling for at his word they were released and ran off into the night without a single glance back. With only Talmai remaining in their grip, Uzziel and his men made the march towards the sloping side of the overlooking rock and Elkanah and Hoshea rose to their feet and rekindled the torches. At first Elkanah faced towards the approaching men, but as they drew towards the light he found he could not face his captive and so he turned his back to them.

He listened as at Uzziel’s command the guards moved into an enclosing circle around the crown of the rock, preventing any escape for their captive. Then there was the thud of the young man being dropped to the ground behind Elkanah, from which point a faint sobbing arose.

“He is here, Master,” Uzziel’s voice announced unnecessarily, Elkanah nodded but still did not turn.

“Talmai,” Elkanah breathed out. “Thou knowest who I am?”

The sobbing continued for a moment longer, then was gulped down and replaced with a quavering timbre. “I was told that the man I slew had a son. And that he had taken upon himself the role of the Revenger of Blood.”

Elkanah nodded bitterly. “Why, then, wouldst thou leave thine City of Refuge?”

“If thou knew where to find me, thou knowest why I came. No matter the risk, I had my duty to perform.”

“Indeed, a father is worth a man’s life,” Elkanah agreed, finally turning round to see his prey. Talmai was young, not yet thirty, with a gentle, open face. As much pause as Elkanah had already felt, it only deepened now.

Talmai looked despondently into Elkanah’s eyes, but his expression softened as he saw the hesitation in him. “Thou art the master here I perceive,” he spoke up. “There is none to force thine hand in this thing.”

“There is the law.”

“The law allows thee to take mine life, but it does not require it.”

“It is written an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It was wrong for my father to die, even by an accident. This offense deserves a balance.”

“I do not deny what is deserved, yet still thou hast a choice. Why dost thy choose so?”

Elkanah called on his determination and hardened his face. “I am an honorable man, and I ever do my duty, whether it is my pleasure or not.” He gripped the handle of his sword and at last drew out its full length.

“It is also written thou shalt not kill.”

“In this case…it is permitted.”

Elkanah was in the act of stepping forward, but his own echo gave him pause. He looked over to Hoshea who grimaced at him meaningfully. Closing his eyes he tried to find his center within. He whispered so silently that none other could hear: “Is it blasphemy to want more than the law?”

He looked down to his hand, to the sword in it. He looked to his other hand, to its open palm. “Perhaps you are right, Talmai,” he finally said. “Perhaps within rightfulness itself there yet remains a choice to make.” He dropped the sword to the ground with a ringing clatter.

“Let him go,” Elkanah heard himself speak.

“Master?” Uzziel asked.

“Let the prisoner go,” Elkanah said forcefully and looked Uzziel in the eye. “He is free of the law today.”

Talmai’s face dropped into the earth and he sobbed the loudest yet. Though the guards stood apart from him he remained unable to move as his whole body convulsed with emotion. With Hoshea’s help, Elkanah also sunk to the ground, faint and weak from the release of so much tension.

“What are we to say to Hiram?” Hoshea asked him.

Elkanah thought, then finally replied. “We will say we found another law, a new star to follow.”

***

I mentioned on Monday that I was a bit uncertain about coming up with some good examples of multilayered dialogue in today’s story. Ultimately there was more I had wanted to accomplish in that respect than I was able to, but still there are a few instances of it here, hopefully enough to illustrate the idea sufficiently.

Beginning with the most subtle, there is symbolism and imagery, such as Elkanah being elevated above the men traveling their journey and then standing in judgment of and ultimately setting Talmai free. All of this is meant to be a parallel to the hope that there is a God above, one who is watching us travel through life, judging us, and offering mercy that we do not deserve.

Then, of course, there are a couple hints meant for the audience alone. For example, in the introduction we are told the story takes place mere years before the birth of Jesus Christ. That, and the mentioning of following a new star are obviously meant to be indicators of the approaching “new law” that Elkanah ultimately chooses to follow.

Omri’s line “but the way of duty requires of us to do that which is just, no matter how it aches our conscience” is also meant to carry a deeper meaning. On its surface it might sound noble and self-sacrificing, but the more we think about it the more it doesn’t sit right with us. Eventually it becomes clear that his definition is, in fact, exactly wrong.

The most obvious use of a dual meaning, though, is of course the echoing of the phrase “it is permitted.” Elkanah pronouncing this as justification for killing Talmai is a callback to the earlier conversation between himself and Hoshea, where he taught that there is a permitted way, but also a more sublime way, and we ought to follow the latter.

What I particularly like about this is that in the end it is Elkanah’s owns words that convince him of what he ought to do, and his words alone. When it comes down to it, every decision that we make is only done by our own inner persuasion. We must find all our answers inside, and indeed there is a theme in stories of conflict being resolved only when the hero is able to identify his or her true self to guide them. There is a lot of wisdom in that theme when done properly. Come back on Monday where we will look at this concept in greater detail, as well as how the theme has been utilized in each of the short stories of my current short story series. I’ll see you then.

Secret Messages

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One of my favorite things in stories is when the dialogue is multilayered. As I said in my post last Thursday, this sort of dialogue always comes with an obvious meaning, the literal definition of the words being said, but beneath that is a second meaning, or in some cases even a third. Think of a spy film where the villain and hero meet in the middle of  crowded ball. The villain implies bodily harm through a veiled threat and the hero laughs it off with a witticism that ends in a code phrase meant for fellow agents who are listening in over his earpiece.

Or what about even blunter dual-messages that crop up in many romantic stories? Here the two main characters are very obviously confessing their love for one another, but for tension’s sake are pretending to discuss something else entirely. No one is fooled, nor indeed are they meant to be.

“There you are Miss Dotty, the plumbing is all fixed. Seems a few things just got built up and needed to be let out.”

“Oh thank you. Yes, I suppose that is my way. I just hold in too many things which I ought to be expressing out…in my plumbing, that is.”

“Yes, well, we all do. Sometimes we need another sympathetic heart to come and help us open up…to flush out our sludge, that is.”

“Well I’m sure you wouldn’t ever care to know about my sludge Mister Donny.”

“On the contrary, Miss Dotty, I have never felt so alive as when scrubbing out your vile filth.”

“Oh Mister Donny!”

“Miss Dotty!”

Well that is more than enough of that. Moving on…

Obviously there can be clever wordplay in these verbal acrobatics, but I wish to focus more on the more subtle examples, ones where the dual meaning isn’t being said from one character to the other, but rather from the character to the audience. And if audience members have not been paying attention, they might very well miss out on that hidden message entirely, meaning it comes as a reward only to the observant.

An example of this would be the oft-repeated phrase “recalled to life” in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Most every reader is going to pick up on its initial meaning, that of a man condemned to an age of imprisonment finally being “exhumed” back into the real world. However that phrase is also a motto for the entire novel, and it is entirely possible to miss out on some of its incarnations. There are the long-forgotten injustices and cruelties being recalled into sharp clarity via the barbarity of the French Revolution. There is the man condemned to the guillotine and then rescued from it. There is the man who lost his soul, then found it again in an act of selflessness. And in that same man there is his literal death, and then rebirth in a legacy that will live on forever.

There’s another excellent example of dual-meaning in the film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). The very last line of the film is “no, this is for me,” by which a customer indicates he does not want the book he is buying to be gift-wrapped. On the surface that is pretty clear. He is keeping the book for himself and therefore doesn’t need it wrapped, the store clerk won’t give his pronouncement any second thought. The audience, however, happen to know that this book is in praise of the anonymous Stasi agent who spared the author when he was under surveillance in Eastern Germany. The audience also knows that this man purchasing the book is that same Stasi agent, and that his entire career was ruined by that decision to spare the author, a decision he made for no other reason that that he felt that the author was a good man.

Now that simple pronouncement of “no, this is for me,” is referring to the fact that he is the one to whom this book has been dedicated and thus it is literally for him. It is for him also in the sense that this is the legacy which he has earned by his sacrifice, the reward for his suffering. It is for him because he has earned it, a gift that needs no more wrapping and concealing. For such a short sentence, it is impressively loaded with meaning and a very fitting conclusion to the entire story.

Before closing, I thought I would try and tackle the question of why does this sort of multilayered communication stand out to us? Why do we judge it as something “good” when a story incorporates these elements in a thoughtful and effective way?

Well first off, I feel that this is a subset of an greater multilayering principle that improves every aspect of a story, including dialogue. After all, we all know a character is flat if they only have a single dimension with no conflicting principles, and I have mentioned in a previous post that as much as possible we should strive for scenes that progress more than just a single plotline at a time. Characters and scenes and dialogue that are multipurpose, that advance more than one idea at a time, are by definition more complex, more difficult to achieve, and therefore more impressive when done well. Something about our human nature sees beauty in complexity, and incorporating it is an excellent way to engender goodwill for your story.

The other reason why I think we gravitate to these sorts of layered dialogues is because they are tied to a pattern of social behavior we all partake in: that tendency to say things while meaning something else. After a certain age we have all learned to not say things directly, for better or worse. To put it kindly we have speak with nuance and suggestion, and to put it more unkindly we have are manipulative and passive aggressive.

We engage in this game whether we are in love and trying to tease the other person into disclosing their feelings before we do, or whether we are in hate and trying to disguise a barb that we can claim was never our intended meaning. Across the whole spectrum of emotions we have become masters of saying things and meaning things, and doing so separately from one another. It’s amusing, then, that sometimes we have a hard time incorporating this extra dimension into our writing. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in trying to force things that we forget we can do it naturally. If you’ve struggled with this sort of layered dialogue, see if you can just get out of your own way and rely on your basic intuition.

On Thursday I will post a short story in which I try to build up an example of this sort of multi-layered dialogue. Admittedly this is a daunting task to me, at this point I have a general outline of the story I want to do, but don’t actually know the details of my dialogue yet. Hopefully I’ll be able to take my own advice, stop stressing about it, and just let my natural multi-dimensional self shine through in my writing.

The Basketball in the Water

body of water under blue and white skies
Photo by Matt Hardy on Pexels.com

Fidgety Frank. Denise always came up with nicknames to help her remember new patients, and alliteration was one of her favorite methods. Of course, “fidgety” would be a fitting description for many of the assorted lot that made their way through her office, but Frank managed to carry it to a degree that put the rest to shame.

He had not yet told her that their meetings were a waste of time and he would be moving on, but the speech was coming soon, she was sure of it. Maybe he would actually leave, maybe he wouldn’t, she wasn’t about to lose any sleep over the matter either way. As she said to all of her patients that threatened to leave therapy early, there was no shortage of potential clients waiting to take their place. The quitters were the only ones that had anything to lose, not her.

And if Frank left it would be his loss. His need was desperate, that much was clear. She didn’t know what exactly unresolved baggage he was carrying inside, but she could see in his eyes how desperately a part of him wanted to share them. There was just that other part that kept getting in the way. The loud part. The part that would shortly be telling her there wasn’t any purpose in continuing their work. For Frank’s sake she truly hoped that the wounded part of him would win out and get the help that it so desperately needed.

“So what are we talking about today?” Frank squirmed in his seat, seeking a position of comfort that ever eluded him.

“What would you like to talk about?” Denise countered.

He sighed deeply and shrugged. “I’d rather talk about something real this time, this chitchat that goes nowhere doesn’t do me any good.”

She smiled, but suppressed the eye-roll. “I appreciate your honesty. Why don’t we talk about your father? You mentioned in your bio that he—”

“No, there’s nothing to talk about there,” Frank quickly interjected. “Look, maybe this isn’t going to work out, maybe…”

Oh, here it is, she thought, but then he didn’t finish the sentence.

“May I be honest with you, Frank,” she leaned forward meaningfully.

“I suppose so.”

“Right now you’re blocking me. And the only reason you have to block me is because there is something to talk about there. That being said, I want you to know that I respect this role of you.”

His brow furrowed in confusion. “What do you mean this role of me?”

“The part of you whose job it is to protect yourself from being hurt. For better or worse, it’s just trying to keep you safe right now, and I think that is very admirable of it.”

A long pause, and then “Well…maybe he’s right to.”

“What is he afraid would happen if he let down his guard?”

Frank wasn’t fidgeting anymore, but he looked uncomfortable with the introspection. Clearly he wasn’t accustomed to much soul-searching.

“That I would not like what I learned of you?” she prodded.

He shook his head.

“That you would not like what you learned of you?”

One corner of his mouth pulled back in a pained expression.

“Maybe—maybe I’m better off not knowing myself too well,” he offered slowly.

Denise closed her eyes and nodded while breathing deeply, simulating the emotion that must be behind such a statement. “That sounds very hard,” she sympathized, then opened her eyes. “But in your heart do you believe that to be the truth?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged.

She paused, deliberating how to move forward. She wouldn’t ask about his father again, not yet, anyway. It was in the forefront of his mind now and his subconscious would find a way to bring the subject back to light if it decided he ought to.

“I want to pause for a moment and get a sense of where your emotions are coming from in this moment, alright? You told me you had that conference to attend earlier this week, the one with that special speaker you were anxious to hear. How did that go for you?”

He shrugged and shook his head. “Maybe I assumed too much. He wasn’t very interesting, actually.”

“No? Did you try to have that conversation you wanted with him about your company’s new sector? The electrical contracts?”

“No, I wouldn’t have been able to stand it. I mean, now that I’ve seen the guy I can’t believe I never recognized how conceited he was before.”

“He talked a lot about himself?”

“No, not that,” he paused to think. “More to do with how he said it. You know what I mean? Like with everything he had this air of authority, like his opinions were the gospel truth.”

“Opinions that you don’t think are right? Opinions related to your branch of engineering?”

“More just opinions on life,” he clarified. “He seemed so confident about having all the right answers.”

“Opinions on life that you don’t agree with, then? Such as?”

Frank put on a face like he was trying to remember a specific example. She was quite sure he already had that example in mind, though.

“Yeah, there was one, I suppose,” he said casually. “Like he started the whole thing off with this humorous electrical story, something to break the ice with the audience, y’know? And he talks about how great his dad was, and how he could always depend on him. Said when he was a kid he blew out all the fuses in his house with a school project, and his dad had to call in sick and spend the whole morning to fix his mistake and make it all right.” Frank was rambling on at a pretty good rate, anxious to get his thoughts out. “And he kept flashing this grin, y’know, a long-suffering ‘how could my father have ever put up with me’ sort of look. He even said something at the end about ‘that’s just how it is for dads, right?’ Like their role is to always fix up after their kids problems.”

She squinted. “Remind me…you don’t have any children of your own?”

“No, but I know well enough that kids need to be able to handle their own issues. You can’t just solve it all for them.”

“Sure,” she nodded. “Sounds like something you’ve put quite some thought into.”

“Oh, I don’t know, I guess I just never want to treat my kids like how I was raised.”

There it was. He had brought it back up on his own. “How were you raised?” she asked offhandedly.

This time Frank spared the act of pretending to not have a story already in mind. “So I remember these times where my dad told me to wash our dog. Now I was real little, like maybe five or six, and we had a big dog and he hated getting those baths. He would growl at me and I was scared of him biting my hand off or something like that, so I’d just pull out the hose and spray him from a distance and let him shake himself off. I even poured out some of the soap from the bottle so it would look a little emptier. Course my dad could tell right away what I’d done. He just shook his head and took me back to show how it was ‘supposed’ to be done. He’d grab the dog tight and scrub him down, said I just had to show the mutt who was boss, like he did. Every time he knew I wasn’t going to wash the dog right, yet we kept on playing this charade where I’d get scared, and pretend to do it how he wanted, then he’d pretend to be surprised that I’d messed up and get frustrated about it.”

Denise grimaced sympathetically. “I see. Correction wasn’t really about empowering you to be better, just about making you feel worse already?”

“Yeah,” he said grimly.

“It was often that way?”

He nodded.

“What’s the earliest memory you have of him correcting you like that?”

“Oh…probably that same one. The times with the dog.”

“So around five or six you said?” she made a quick note on her clipboard. “When is one of the last times you can remember an example of that?”

Frank fidgeted again. “Oh—um, well I’m not sure exactly.”

“You don’t have to know exactly. Just what’s the latest example that comes readily to mind?”

Frank continued to fidget. She was sure that once again he already had a memory in mind, he just hadn’t decided if he was going to share it yet. She waited, giving him time to process, but gradually his eyes glazed over and became lost in the world of his own thoughts.

“Frank?” she prodded.

He shook himself back to the present. “I guess…” he said slowly. “I told you when we first met that my dad died in a boat accident. You remember? Well I was maybe thirteen or fourteen. We were on this big yacht that my father’s boss had rented out for his daughter’s wedding. Everyone was in their best clothes and I was playing in the back with my brother and the son of one of his work friends.”

He paused, so Denise nodded, encouraging him to continue.

“Well there was a little pool with a basketball hoop on the back, and we had taken one of the balls from that and were just goofing around with it. Just playing around like kids.”

He paused again, this time with a pained and divided expression, as though torn about continuing. Denise could also see the two halves of him as distinct beings, one trying desperately to reach through the passionless mask that the other tried just as desperately to hold on his face.

“So what happened?” she finally asked.

“The basketball we were playing with fell into the water… In our roughhousing it somehow went over the edge and bobbed on the surface farther and farther behind the boat. And then I heard someone running behind me and it was my dad, still dressed in his tuxdeo, complete with his jacket still on and everything. He just, looked at me…sadly…and then dove into the water to go and get that ball.”

“Your father—went into the water to retrieve a basketball?” Denise asked incredulously. She paused, drumming the end of her pen against the clipboard as she thought. “And he didn’t come back?”

Frank cast his eyes down bitterly. At first he was still as a statue, but slowly his whole body trembled and silent tears started to drip into his lap. “Those clothes just soaked in the water like a sponge. He hadn’t even taken his shoes off.” Frank gave a shuddering gasp and the tears came harder. “I—I feel so confused. I hate him so much for doing that, but I know I shouldn’t.”

“Because he left you to feel all the guilt of it?”

Frank considered this, head still bowed, then slowly nodded. “Why would he do that? I can still see his face as he ran by me. He looked so—determined. So condemned because it was like he had to dive in and he knew it was going to be dangerous. It’s not fair for him to put that shame on me, he shouldn’t have felt so obligated to fix my mistake that he would risk himself like that. I didn’t even mean to knock it in. It really was an accident.” He looked to her with a need, as if waning her to absolve him.

“I believe you,” she said, but she was still thoughtfully tapping her pen against the clipboard. “It wasn’t really a basketball that fell into the water, was it?”

***

As I said in my post on Monday, every story is combined of elements both authentic and fabricated. At the time I was referring to how the actual structuring of a story will need to ground itself in realism to be relatable to the reader, but also incorporate fantasy to fill in a meaningful narrative. However, as I wrote about that topic I was reminded that there is also a power to stories that allow their characters to stray between the lines of authenticity and fantasy as well.

In this story Frank has more than one part to him and more than one truth to express. By concealing the details of the event for which he feels most guilty, he is also revealing just how deeply his emotional trauma runs and signaling to the therapist that he needs her to dig there. A masterful writer will imbue characters with dialogue that accomplishes more than one purpose with every line. Dialogue can will always exist on the obvious surface layer, but it can also speak to deeper layers as well. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, though, and it would be well worth taking some time to examine this tool in greater detail next week. Come back on Monday when we’ll look closer at multilayered communication in a story.