The Heart of Something Wild: Part Three

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Khalil’s blood was pounding, his heart was racing, his hands were clenched in fists. Then, in almighty rush the sights and the sounds of the tribe flooded back into focus. Some people were shrieking in fear, gesturing to Urafiki’s strange and twisted figure at Khalil’s feet. Others were sobbing in heartbreak, reaching for Paki’s fallen form. Others, only a few, were shouting in anger, crowding behind Abasi. And between them all Khalil stood alone.

“He cheated!” Abasi spat. “He revoked his right to a companion! And a creature cannot fight in the blood duel!”

“Abasi, you are a fool!” one of the elders chided. “He has just saved your life.”

“That wouldn’t have been necessary if he had not brought that monster into camp!”

“Abasi you have nothing to gain,” one of the women spoke up, “the challenge is over and Paki is dead.”

“But he was not slain by a member of the challenge. It is not honorable!”

Most of the people looked over to the head priest, he was the final word on the law of their tribe. The man was shaking his head gravely, clearly uneasy with his burden.

“It does not…seem honorable,” he finally muttered, then looked earnestly to Khalil.

Khalil understood. The priest knew that this was a gray area, and was hoping that Khalil would resolve the matter for them.

“No,” Khalil agreed. “It was not.”

The tide let loose again.

“Then Abasi is our new chief,” one of the warriors standing off to the side spoke up.

“He was not a challenger,” Paki’s mother chimed in. “Only a companion. Paki was challenger and Paki is chief.”

“He’s dead,” another woman said flatly.

“Then his son inherits the throne.”

There was quite a rumble of dissent at that.

“Perhaps Paki was not honorably defeated, but he didn’t win the challenge either!”

“He had been going to.”

“Evidently not!”

“How are you all forgetting that Khalil saved us from that creature!”

As each side began to shout over one another Khalil noticed various members of the tribe glancing over to him expectantly. They wanted him to speak up, to make a claim, to settle the matter for them. But he knew that wouldn’t work, the rifts were too deep. He would just become another of the contending voices pulling the tribe further apart. Besides, he had already tried to give the tribe a peaceful resolution and nature had intervened, so who was he to say what was right anymore?

So much had gone wrong this night. Khalil should not still be alive. Paki should not have been killed. Urafiki should not have had to die simply for defending its friend. Paki should not have ever betrayed him. So many wrongs: against their tribe, against nature, against friendship.

But above the agony of Khalil’s losses was the matter of his continued presence and how it was driving that rift between the brothers and sisters that he loved. He had tried before to decide for the tribe what was in their best interest, now all he could think to do was to let them to decide on their own. And to do that, he still needed to remove himself from them.

“Hear me!” Khalil finally said and the tumult quickly hushed. “Our law has been broken. I don’t just mean violated…it is broken into pieces. Each of you tries to claim one of those pieces but it will not all fit back together anymore.”

He paused and could see in the people’s faces that they agreed with his summary.

“Therefore all that remains is to build anew,” he continued. “You must find a new law this day and become a new tribe… And as such, I am no longer your chief,” he reached up to his chest and undid the clasp there, dropping his ceremonial mantle to the floor. Gasps of shock rippled through the crowd.

“I am responsible for everything falling apart. I am sorry.”

Another slight pause.

“I hereby exile myself that you may find your own way to continued peace and unity. May you be guided by wisdom.”

Tears glistened in Khalil’s eyes as he turned away from his people. He could hear their rumbling whispers, but he could not make out the words. He did not try to. Slowly, purposefully, he hobbled away from the fire, past the huts and the crops, beyond the fringe of their clearing, and into the wild that lay beyond.

He was vaguely aware that the arguing in the center of the camp had picked up again, and he found himself praying that they would be able to find their way. Stumbling over the thick foliage in the dark he felt his way still deeper and deeper. On occasion he looked over his shoulder to see if he could still glimpse the bonfire or hear the tribe’s heated debates.

He continued until there was no more sign of his people and he was enclosed entirely in the blackness of the night. Groping in the dark he found a large boulder and lowered himself into a seated position on it.

The darkness of the jungle pressed close against him and now the tears began to flow. Some were for Paki, his lost friend. Some were for the hate he had felt, his desire to kill that very friend for his betrayal. Some were for Urafiki, whose only crime was loyalty and carrying out that which Khalil intended. Some were for his tribe, fractured by the drama of the night. And finally some tears were reserved for himself, alone and broken, a man at odds with his own nature.

He wondered how long he would be able to survive out here on his own. Should he try to find shelter and food? He had great difficulty hunting with his low stamina, but he could try gathering resources. Even so, it would only be a matter of time before he became sick or found by some larger predator, and then he could only help the end would come quickly….

He shook his head, trying to change those thoughts. Instead he found himself wondering what he was supposed to have done differently. Should he have let Paki stand with him and died together as friends? Should he have left Urafiki to die alone on top of the mountain? Even with the tragedy of that night he still felt he had only made the choices that seemed right. At least at the time.

As he sat in the darkness his eyes became sensitive to little pinpricks of light and he found himself captivated by them. First were the patches of starry night sky visible above the canopy of the trees. He stared upwards at the partial signs they made to him, the incomplete guidance they tried to impart. He looked downwards and saw the drifting glow of the fireflies, the random meanderings of life. As he watched their swirling forms he noticed that some of the fireflies were growing larger than the others. Confused, he closed his eyes and shook his head, then looked back at them.

He realized he had mistaken the depth of the points of light and that some of them were actually torches drifting in his general direction. He stood up, his heart racing. Had Abasi argued his way into chiefdom and sent warriors out to dispose of him?

But no. The lights were far too many for that. They only had a score of warriors in their tribe and he could now make out at least fifty torches, all spread out evenly in a fan to find him.

Slowly realization set in. The tribe was following him into exile. Rather than try to salvage the pieces of a broken law they were willfully abandoning their home to follow him into the unknown. Somehow he had earned their trust and now they wanted his help to begin a new legacy. He called out to them.

***

This completes my story The Heart of Something Wild. If you have missed the previous sections of the story you can find the entire work here. Furthermore, it is possible to access all of my previous short stories in their entirety on this page. That page can also be found by selecting Collections from the top menu.

On Monday I spoke about underdog stories, ones where the hero wins not by being the biggest and strongest, but by persevering in what they believe to be right. A common method for this is in their winning the hearts of the masses, who then combine their strength together to overthrow the opposition. This is often the martyr whose sacrifice creates a cause greater than themselves. Ultimately I knew that this was an element I wanted to use in bringing The Heart of Something Wild to its resolution.

Obviously, though, our main character does not actually die the martyr’s death in this tale. Perhaps he intended to, but was frustrated in those designs. That was a creative decision, one where I meant to suggest that he was trying his best, but some higher power intervened to reward him for his selflessness and give him something better. That higher power is left open to interpretation, it could be nature, the spirits of his ancestors, karma, God, or something else.

I would say this example is different from the many unfortunate examples of stories that pretend they are going to feature a heroic sacrifice, and then chicken out at the last moment. This is one of my greatest narrative pet peeves, and I feel strongly enough about it that I’ll be dedicating my entire post on Monday to it. Then, on Thursday I’ll be presenting a new short story. I’ll see you then.

The Heart of Something Wild: Part Two

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“Is it finally asleep?”

Khalil spun around in surprise and found Paki peering into the hut, his eyes locked on Urafiki.

“Yes,” Khalil grinned. “It is soothed, well fed, and resting. It will not eat you today.”

“I am grateful” Paki laughed back as he stepped fully into the home. “Am I disturbing you now?”

“No, Paki, in fact I’ve wanted to speak with you.”

“About the challenge?”

“Yes.”

Paki shook his head. “I do not see why you are so hesitant about it. Who else would you have stand with you? I am the finest warrior in all of the camp, everyone says so.”

“I would say so, too,” Khalil sighed. “But I would also say that one man against two makes for difficult odds. By that I mean no slight to you.”

Paki waved dismissively. “Did you not hear how I fought two Oroko at once in their last raid?” He folded his arms impressively and assumed the boastful stance he always used when recounting battlefield glories. “I used my disadvantage to my advantage. You see, I let one of them–”

“Stab you in the arm so that you could reel him in with your other hand,” Khalil finished. “And then you could dispatch of the other in one-on-one combat. Yes, I know the story, Paki…. Everyone in the camp knows the story, just as everyone in the camp knows how you fight. Abasi has even sparred with you!”

“And I have sparred with him!” Paki added forcefully, frowning at the stings to his pride. “You really believe that I could not defend you?”

“You would protect me too well! Even if it cost you your own life.”

Paki nodded slowly, his frown turning into contemplation. “I see now. And you are right, there is a great risk in this.” He nodded his head in deep thought, then spoke with conviction. “But…this is also what is right. You being our chief is right. Protecting my friend is right. This is the honorable fight for me, and it is the natural order of things that that which is honorable comes with great risk. All the more glory that follows it as well.” This last part he added with a broad smile. “I do wish to earn my calling as head warrior after all.”

Khalil grimaced and shook his head. “Is it right for me to be chief, though? Suppose you could defeat Abasi and whomever he chooses for his companion, what would happen then? Abasi has raised great support these past months, and his death would not be taken well. It could mean civil war for our tribe.”

“And what of us who support you? If you were to fall we would rebel against this coup.” Paki made a spitting noise, but did not actually desecrate the floor of his friend’s hut.

“If you did then you would be rebelling against me, as well!” Khalil snapped and fully spat on the ground. “I am going to ask–I am going to order–all those loyal to me to accept what I have already accepted. We must choose the better compromise here, and the better is that I die quickly and the tribe loses neither its best warrior nor its unity.”

“And serve Abasi? The man is a fool!” Tears were forming in Paki’s eyes. It was impossible to tell if they were of sorrow or anger.

“He will need all of the help you can provide,” Khalil admitted, “I need you to be there for him.”

Paki did not respond, he only hung his head downwards with his eyes closed, tears seeping from them.

“Paki I am now a chief, and though my legacy may be short, let me at least have this one choice to do what is right for the tribe. And for you.” He stepped forward and raised his hand to place it on Paki’s shoulder. But Paki heaved backwards and out of reach, staring up at Khalil with a deep wound. He held the gaze for a moment and sniffed angrily, then stormed out of the hut without another word.

Khalil’s hand was still suspended in the air, but slowly he closed the fingers into a fist and turned back. He was surprised to see Urafiki awake, watching him from the basket. Urafiki was making a low growl in its throat, and its eyes were narrowed. Those eyes were not on Khalil, though, but on Paki’s retreating back.

*

The moon had already begun waning when Paki and Khalil returned to the camp, and now it seemed to shrink more quickly than usual with every passing day. Khalil had tried to catch Abasi’s eye a few times to see what lurked within, but the warrior was steadfastly avoiding him at all times. Khalil supposed that was gracious of Abasi, better to be ignored by him than to be publicly taunted.

More unpleasant was the fact that Paki was now avoiding him, too. When they had their feasts Paki would come for food and then carry it back to his hut. When they held their councils Paki would stare ceaselessly at the ground and never speak a word. The thought had occurred to Khalil that as chief he could demand Paki and Abasi to acknowledge his presence, but what would be the point of that? To satiate his pride? He would be gone before long anyway.

As promised, Khalil held a private meeting with the elders and warriors he knew to be most sympathetic to his cause. He thanked them for their support and then ordered them to respect the rituals and traditions of the tribe. If he was to fall, then preserving the community was what mattered most. Some of them tried to argue, but he merely held up his hand and revealed his intention to face the challenge unaided. The significance of that was clear. He would die, and if Khalil was no longer around for them to rally behind, then it would be hard to justify any rebellion.

Those supporters now avoided making eye contact with Khalil as well. Pleasantries would have sounded too hollow, so numb silence prevailed instead. When Khalil felt the loneliness become overwhelming him he would go back to his hut and be with Urafiki. Though their time together had been short, they had already developed a close bond. Khalil made a collar-restraint so that the creature would not be able to bite him when applying the poultice to its wounds. When it came time for the next application of the salve, though, he found himself hesitating to put the restraint on his friend.

Urafiki’s biting him was not unjustified from the creature’s perspective. How could it understand that he meant it goodwill with the stinging cure? If anything Urafiki was being quite forgiving, and it felt wrong to therefore suppress it. And so Khalil tossed the wood and string contraption to the side and administered the poultice to Urafiki’s hurt while bracing for the bite. It didn’t come. Urafiki raised itself up and hissed, but never latched onto Khalil’s arm as before. All following treatments followed this same pattern and soon Urafiki’s condition was markedly improved.

After a week the creature began to move around the floor of the hut, crawling on four legs like a dog. With the finger-like claws on its hands it could climb up onto Khalil’s table and cot, and at times would also raise up on its back legs. It could stretch up to three times its regular height, and in doing so revealed a long, spindly body beneath the bat-like wings that stretched between its joints.

Khalil had found the creature to be playful, its favorite activity being play-fighting with him. Generally this was initiated as he was ambling about the hut and Urafiki would bowl into his legs from behind, knocking him to the ground. In a flash Urafiki would move up to his chest and neck and hiss menacingly, pausing to let him grip it and throw it to the side. Then it would circle about and make another lunge.

Khalil was grateful that the creature did not try to venture out of his hut, any camp members who had caught a glimpse of Urafiki in his home had all hurried away, disturbed by its strange and somewhat sinister appearance. As such Khalil knew that the creature would have to return to the wild, and so it was that on the afternoon preceding the new moon he lifted Urafiki into his arms and hobbled out of the camp’s clearing, looking for a quiet clump of trees to meditate under.

“You won’t be able to stay here anymore,” he said while stroking Urafiki. “You have your strength back and now you must leave. I hope things go better for you than before?”

Khalil found a quiet corner of the jungle, and knelt down to meditate and pray. As he did, Urafiki paced around him like a sentinel. Khalil quieted his mind and connected with his core. As he did so, he was unsurprised to find a well of fear and sorrow bursting out over him. He had done well in repressing it these past days, but this consignment to death went too strongly against all his basic instincts. Khalil did not try to fight the torrent of tears and shaking, letting them roll over him in one successive wave after another. With each one he collapsed more and more until he was laying prone on the ground, fatigued by the surging emotions. The did not engulf him, though, rather they expressed themselves and then moved on. As their ripples slowly diminished he at last felt the quiet peace of their absence. There simply was not any capacity to grieve left in him.

THUMP! THUMP!

The beating of the drum back at camp signaled that the sun had just begun to dip between the horizon. All challenges to the chief were to be made before it had set completely, and it was Khalil’s duty to be there to receive them. Wiping his face with the back of his hand he rose to his feet and staggered back towards camp.

Urafiki instinctively followed but Khalil shook his hand at it with a loud “Shah!” and it halted. It did not retreat though, only paused and transfixed with eyes of confusion.

“Live a long and happy life, my friend,” Khalil bowed, then continued his walk to the center of camp.

Here the beginnings of a bonfire were crackling and the tribe members were trickling one-by-one into the circle of its glow. Khalil nodded to the priest beating on the drum, and stood at attention on the circular rug at the head of the gathering. Already he could see a ripple moving through the crowd and Abasi emerged from their depths to approach him. Khalil closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, then looked to the man and nodded.

“Great chief,” Abasi saluted him, bowing low and then rising. “Though your rule has been brief it has been gracious. I want it to be known that I have no disrespect for your character.”

Khalil nodded blandly. Abasi meant no offense but he was come to kill him? What was he supposed to say to that?

“Even so,” Abasi continued, “may all the tribe bear witness that I come to deliver a challenge to Khalil, son of Kibali…”

A pause.

“…on behalf of Paki, son of Jomo.”

There was another stir in the crowd as a second figure emerged from their midst. Paki was covered in full war paints and carrying two war clubs on his shoulder. On one end of them was the heavy cudgel, the other end was whittled down to a vicious point. Paki strode up to Khalil, meeting his gaze for the first time in days with harshly intent eyes. He held out one of the clubs to Abasi and gave only the shallowest of nods to Khalil.

“I challenge your right as ruler of this tribe,” he murmured in a low whisper.

Khalil was taken aback, but kept the surprise from his face. “Is this an honorable fight, too, Paki?” he asked coolly.

“We’re past that now.”

“Paki, son of Jomo,” the priest with the drum chimed in. “You have challenged our chief, and so there must be a blood duel. You cannot withdraw until one of you lies dead. You understand?”

“I do.”

“And you have chosen Abasi as your companion in this challenge?”

Paki nodded.

“Khalil, son of Kibali, you have been challenged. Who will fight as your companion?”

Khalil shook his head. “None stand with me.”

The priest sighed. “So be it.” He waved to the other priests and they spaced themselves out, pressing the crowd back to form an open circle with the bonfire at its center. Paki and Abasi backed away to one side of the circle and Khalil turned to another of the priest’s who had retrieved a war club for him.

“When I strike the drum the challenge will begin,” the first priest announced.

Khalil looked to Paki first, and then Abasi. Abasi must have known that the tribe would more willingly fall into line behind Paki, and he would still receive a promotion for his loyalty, probably be made head warrior. It made sense. And yet…. though it was a clever and rational betrayal on Paki’s part…it was still a betrayal.

THUMP!

Abasi and Paki advanced at him from either direction, Abasi hanging back slightly to allow Paki the honor of the kill. Khalil stood motionless, letting them advance. As Paki’s figure loomed nearer though he found himself gripping the handle of the club he had been given.

Paki stepped into a charge and raised his war club high. Khalil’s heart skipped a beat. Not out of fear, but of anger. He moved so suddenly he caught himself by surprise, swinging up in answer to Paki’s challenge. Paki was caught off guard by the motion and barely managed to transition his own attack into a block. He did not fully deflect Khalil’s blow, instead diverting it to his shoulder, where it connected with a cracking thud.

Paki roared in anger, easily ducked under Khalil’s next swing, and then swept Khalil’s legs out from under him. The world turned on its side and Khalil fell onto his back, hard. He was winded and dazed, and unable to hold onto his club as Abasi kicked it out of his grasp. Above him Paki was turning his own club over, pointing the sharp end down towards Khalil’s heart. Paki looked upwards, giving a war cry as he plunged the weapon downwards.

It never connected. To Khalil’s surprise a white blur streaked through the air and wrapped itself around Paki’s head. The warrior shrieked in surprise and lurched backwards, trying to grapple the blanket that had secured itself to his face. Suddenly he stopped his struggling, instead raising himself higher and higher, clear up onto his tiptoes, his hands limp at his side. It seemed as though he were in a trance, then suddenly the spell was broken and he collapsed down to the ground, dead. The white “something” spun off from Paki’s face and revealed itself to be Urafiki.

Khalil staggered back up to his feet as Urafiki slowly raised up onto its back legs, its arms dangling a few inches off the ground. It was hissing menacingly, with ears flattened back against the skull and mandibles were drawn back to reveal its gaping mouth. Its eyes were wide and bloodshot, staring intently as Abasi.

Abasi was clearly unnerved, backing away as Urafiki sidled side-to-side before lunging forward at him.

“No!” Khalil cried, lurching to the side just in time to intercept the creature. He wrapped his arms around the beast, but it was manic, scrabbling up and over his shoulder. Khalil fumbled at his waist, pulling out a knife and stabbing the creature in the side. Urafiki cried in pain and dug a claw into Khalil’s arm.

“Just stop!” Khalil ordered, but the creature was filled with the bloodlust and continued to writhe after Abasi. Khalil drew out the knife and plunged it again, rewarded with another gouge from the creature’s claw, this time in the side of his neck.

Urafiki gave a confused cry, but lurched once more for Abasi.

“I’m sorry,” Khalil gasped, finally burying the knife in Urafiki’s heart. The creature seized up in his arms, going rigid and then slowly limp. Khalil looked into its eyes, wild and wondering, then fading into emptiness.

***

 

As I mentioned in an earlier post about communication, it is essential for the audience to feel connected to the character so that they may share in the emotions they are feeling. I would imagine, and intend, that most readers will feel sorrier for Urafiki’s loss than Paki’s. In the bigger scheme of things that might seem unbalanced, given that Khalil and Paki have shared an entire life together, but the audience did not personally experience that history. Instead our window has spent more time on Khalil and Urafiki’s relationship and it has been a more positive one as well. Therefore I am able to steer the reader to giving that loss the far greater weight.

On Monday I also wrote about the concept of characters and plotlines subverting the reader’s expectations with a surprising reveal. I suggested in that post that usually a character’s actions are telegraphed well in advance so that their shifts and turns are expected. Paki’s betrayal would fall under that category, as I first show him being greatly distressed and then removed from Khalil.

Urafiki’s sudden involvement may not have come as too much of a surprise either, most readers probably assumed that the creature was going to get involved in the ending somehow. My hope, though, was that Khalil then slaying Urafiki would come as a shock. Urafiki was his friend and Abasi was his enemy, so it seems counterintuitive for him to do that. However I have tried to establish a trait that Khalil honors duty above friendship, and so hopefully it will still feel honest.

I also hope that Khalil’s surviving the challenge feels earned. Obviously I set him up as the underdog, and therefore needed him to come out of the ordeal by more unconventional means. That’s a common theme to stories, the hero who somehow manages to best the insurmountable challenge. I’d like to spend some time exploring that idea this next Monday.

Then, on Thursday, we’ll have the third and final piece of The Heart of Something Wild I’ve been working on this story right up to the final minute, and still felt that the closing segment needs to feel less rushed. Come back in a week to read that conclusion.

The Heart of Something Wild: Part One

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In the middle of the African jungle, the domain of a native tribe.

Khalil paused to lean against the rock face, taking one deep breath after another.

“I’m not made for this, Paki,” he panted.

“Maybe not,” his friend grinned to him. “Thankfully you only must do this once.”

The cold air hissed sharply into Khalil’s lungs and he winced slightly at the necessary discomfort of it. For as long as he could remember he had been a fragile man, essentially a cripple. Movement was painful, stamina was low, illness was constant. The shamans had not expected him to live to adulthood, but evidently life was the one thing that remained persistent in him. What a pity it would be to lose it.

“And what if I don’t make it to the peak, Paki?” Khalil asked. “Is it so much better to die at Abasi’s hands than by the jungle?”

Paki’s smiled faded at the somber thought. He leaned on his spear and looked to Khalil intently. “If it comes to a challenge, Khalil, I will be your friend in that battle.”

Khalil nodded slowly. He was grateful, but surely Paki had already played that scenario out in his mind and discovered the obvious conclusion. Khalil would be useless in any fight, and so it would be Paki alone against Abasi and whatever companion he brought into the ring with him. Paki was a fine warrior, the finest Khalil had ever known, but even he wouldn’t stand a chance when outnumbered two-to-one.

Paki mistook Khalil’s silence for comfort, and so he grinned and stood back erect. “Come, I will help you with this next part and then you will be done with this journey.”

Khalil rose back to his feet and put his arm around Paki’s shoulders, letting the broad man help him up the rocky path to the mountain’s summit. Though he was working doubly hard to bear the weight of them both, Paki was still able to chatter happily about all the good the two of them would accomplish together.

“With you as chief, and me as head warrior, we will finally take control of the entire region. I’ll win the battles and give the land to you acre by acre. You will fill them with crops, and keep our people fat! Our fathers wanted to do this, Khalil. And their fathers before them. But you and I, we will be the ones to succeed!”

Khalil smiled in spite of himself. He had no such ambitions of his own, but it was always amusing to hear Paki’s enthusiasm.

“Reach out and grab the lip of the rock there,” Paki instructed. “Can you hold your weight while I get above? Good.”

Paki gripped the ledge at their heads and easily swung onto its surface, then turned and reached down to pull Khalil up as well. He sighed and looked his friend in the eyes.

“This is it,” Paki said solemnly. “Only chief’s blood past here.”

Khalil looked down and saw the stripe of dark red painted across the rock. Paki was correct. Khalil bent down to the mark and extracted a knife from the strap on his chest. A quick cut across the hand and he smeared the blood over the line, adding his legacy to it.

His price having been paid, Khalil  stumbled forward, following the narrow path as it curved forward and to the left, the rock wall on his side seeming to fall away as he ascended to its level. The closer he came to the summit the fiercer the wind whipped him until it died away entirely as he emerged onto the wide, flat circle of the mountain peak. The Chief’s Peak. From up here only the tallest of the trees were visible, all others lost in the fog beneath him. Even those taller appeared like mere saplings from this elevation, and no other rock formation reached as high as he did now. Only the gray clouds above dared to challenge his sovereignty. Only the gray clouds above…and Abasi below.

Khalil sighed and shuffled to the center of the circular plane. He sat down in a meditative stance and tried to find his heartbeat. After a few moments he was calmed and allowed the spirit of the place to wash over him. Not even his fear of impending death could fully tarnish the grandeur of this place. The last six chiefs in their tribe had all been Khalil’s ancestors, and with the recent passing of his own father he was now number seven. This ritual of climbing to the Chief’s Peak made his title official. It was here that chiefs came to commune with the spirits of those that had gone before.

Now that he was officially chief, though, he could officially be challenged. Ever since they were youths, Abasi had been vocal of how dishonorable it would be for their tribe to be led by a cripple. Everyone knew he had intended to wait until Khalil’s father passed away and then herald a new line of rule.

Abasi would have to wait for the new moon and there make his challenge. Then the ritual battle would commence and Abasi and Khalil would fight to the death. Each of them could bring one companion into the ring with them, but the contest would conclude as soon as either the chief or his direct challenger lay dead.

Of course, Khalil could reject the challenge, or seek a more dishonorable way of removing Abasi, but either action would require his banishment from the tribe. Then, as an outcast in the jungle, he would meet an even crueler end.

“What would you have me do?” Khalil queried the stormy skies above him. “What is the purpose of my rule if it is to be so short?” Perhaps the spirits themselves wished the line of chiefs to change, and Abasi was merely carrying out their will? Perhaps his purpose was merely to die easily and make way for the new reign? But for Abasi? The man was a brute.

That rift between the tribe’s warriors had mounted nearly to the breaking point as Khalil’s father’s health had been declining. There were not many such as Paki that remained loyal to the old bloodline, most of the tribe members saw Abasi’s succession as inevitable. Those that did stand by Khalil were devout, though, and that might mean civil war.

“Father I am afraid for the tribe,” Khalil groaned. “If I am to be removed, so be it, but I worry that the fallout may split the worst against the best. If it comes to blood, then it will be the tribe as a whole that comes out the loser.”

He bent forward, touching his forehead to the cold rock as his tears flowed into one of its recesses and formed a little pool. His fate was worse than death, it was to lose the legacy of all that he loved. For a time all he heard was his own sobbing, and it was only as his heaving started to diminish that he recognized other soft sobbing sound mixed with his own. Surprised, he snapped his head up and turned to identify where the noise was coming from. At first he saw nothing, but then noticed a small bundle of white flesh rising and falling behind a clump of rocks. He awkwardly rose to his feet and hobbled over to investigate.

Khalil had never before seen a creature as the one the lay before him. It had no fur and no feathers, but the majority of its mostly-white-slightly-pink skin was covered in some strange dark shell. The being seemed to have long, bony limbs, across which was spread a thin membrane of skin like the wings of a bat. So entangled were these limbs and wings, though, that it was very difficult to make out the proper form of it. Protruding out from under one of those wings was what could only be a head. It was flat-faced and looking forward like a person, with large green eyes that flitted up towards Khalil in apprehension. Where its mouth ought to have been there was instead two rows of white mandibles, small and thin like the interlocked fingers of a child. Above the eyes were two tall, pointy ears, again calling to mind the image of a bat.

The creature was obviously in pain, and as Khalil looked closer he realized that the dark shell was actually the creature’s own dried blood. The source of it seemed to be an old spear wound in the creature’s side. Though the creature had escaped its assailant it had evidently come here to die. The ants seemed aware of its impending demise, and were already marching across it, following the trail of its blood. Gently Khalil reached down and brushed the insects away, and as he did so the creature raised its head to look at his hand. It made no other movement, only mewled softly.

Khalil was surprised to see it had strength to prop itself up, and wondered if there wasn’t still a chance for the creature. He cautiously and slowly reached around it, trying to find a good grip to pull it upwards. The thing moved its eyes up towards his face and made a strange, deep clicking noise in its throat. Khalil was uncertain if it was a growl…or a purr. He swallowed nervously and lifted upwards, pulling the thing into his arms. It was heavy and large, nearly the size of his entire torso. It shivered as he held it to his chest, and a single claw on the edge of its wing dug slightly into his shoulder, but only to better support itself. Khalil winced, then rose to his feet.

He hobbled back to the path that led down from the summit, and carefully descended until he reached his friend. Paki was sitting on a boulder in contemplation, but as he heard Khalil approaching he rose to his feet and greeted him with a smile that quickly changed to a look of disgust.

“What is that?!” he asked, stepping back warily.

“A gift from the spirits,” Khalil grunted. “And it’s heavy, so come and help me.”

“It might be venomous!”

“Don’t touch it then. I’ll carry it and you support me.”

Paki fidgeted uncomfortably, but made his way over to help. “I don’t like it. Couldn’t you have just leave it where it was.” He came near enough that Khalil could put his arm around Paki’s shoulder, and together the two continued down the path.

“It is hurt, and weak. It was going to die.”

“Yes, well, that happens in nature.”

“Yes, it does,” Khalil sighed heavily.

“I doubt it will even survive the trip down. Just don’t think I’m going to help you with it.”

“No, Paki.”

Descending from the mountain was a far easier prospect than climbing it, even with the added burden of the new creature. They camped only one night and made it back to the village early in the afternoon of the next day. Now, in the quiet of his own hut, Khalil emptied a woven basket and laid the creature inside. It fixed him with its penetrating stare as he laid it down, moaning piteously.

“Patience,” Khalil whispered to it, then ambled over to the storage hut and returned with some raw meat, a bowl, and various herbs. He dipped a little water into the bowl and sat cross-legged on the floor next to the creature’s basket.

The creature made a pleased growling sound at the scent of the meat, and as Khalil offered a piece it snapped so vigorously that Khalil recoiled for fear of losing a finger. “Easy there. Easy…” he used his other hand to stroke the creature until it calmed down, then brought the meat close again and let it slurp the food from his palm. “That’s better. Now what am I going to call you?”

The creature remained docile even as Khalil ceased stroking it, allowing him to feed it more scraps of meat from one hand while he crushed the herbs and mixed them into a poultice with the other.

“Hmmm, Urafiki, that’s the name for you. And I do wonder what sort of creature you are. Not really a bat, but a little like it… I would think you’re too large to fly, but I can’t imagine you crawling all the way onto that mountaintop… And that mouth…” he watched the creatures mandibles slowly extend out to the next piece of meat, grip it tightly as if they were miniature hands, and then shovel the bite into the gaping hole of its mouth. Khalil shuddered unpleasantly. “I really don’t blame Paki for finding you unsettling.”

Khalil sighed at the mention of his friend. “I’m going to have to set Paki straight, he’s a good man and doesn’t deserve to get himself killed on my account.”

The creature was eating its food slower now, and its eyelids were drooping heavily.

“Yes, you need sleep. But first let me tend your wound.” Khalil grabbed a rag and a large bowl of water. He dabbed away at the dried blood, clearing it away until he could see the wound clearly. It wasn’t a spear jab, it was too small for that. Perhaps a blow from one of the creature’s own kind? In any case the blood started flowing again as Khalil patted away the last of the dried stuff, and Urafiki arched its neck to try and lick the spot.

“Here, this will be better,” Khalil assured it as he dipped his fingers into the poultice. He placed a clump on the hole and Urafiki hissed and nipped at his arm. “Ach!” Khalil winced, and looked down to see a small pinprick of blood on his bicep. Evidently Urafiki had teeth in that mouth. “I know it stings, I know! But it’s good for you, understand?” He got another dollop of the balm and began to lower it towards the wound. As he did so Urafiki craned its neck, expanding its mandibles back towards Khalil’s arm.

“Don’t you bite me,” Khalil glared at it and Urafiki stared him right back in the eyes. He lowered the poultice closer and Urafiki inched its head forward again. “I know it stings, I’m sorry.” Urafiki made a light hissing noise.

“Fine then!” Khalil pressed the poultice against the wound and in the same moment Urafiki latched back down on Khalil’s arm. Khalil winced but finished cleaning the area thoroughly, Urafiki clinging on and hissing the whole while. At last Khalil pulled his hands away and Urafiki also relinquished its bite.

“It’s a good thing you don’t know this poultice must be applied every day!” Khalil scolded. “I’ll make you a harness for your head before next time,” he muttered, examining the bite in his flesh. There was a single tooth mark, small but deep, as though a hole had been drilled straight into him. There was no discoloration or swelling that would suggest venom of any sort. Strangely, looking at the bite calmed him. Urafiki had not tried to seriously harm him, it had only returned offense for offense and then let him go. He could respect that.

Khalil looked over to the creature and saw that it was watching him with its eyes cocked in interest, as though curiously inspecting him. Slowly the expression faded as the eyelids began drooping again, and soon Urafiki was fast asleep, purring contentedly in the basket.

***

As I mentioned in my post on Monday, my intention with this story was to examine characters with different forms of communication. Here our main character Khalil has two interactions, those with his friend Paki and those with the creature Urafiki.

Paki and Khalil know each other well and seem to speak the same language. They were raised together, they share the same customs and patterns, and they are friendly to each other. However, at their core they do not understand one another at all. Khalil is feeling fearful and apprehensive, while Paki is confident and brash. Thus, even though they know the meaning of one another’s words they are constantly miscommunicating. The most obvious example of this is where Paki declares that weak things die in nature, and is then utterly oblivious to how that cruel fact applies to Khalil’s own situation.

On the other hand Khalil and Urafiki seem to share nothing. They not only do not speak the same verbal language, they are not even of the same species. They do not share a history together and each is initially unsure of the other’s intentions. Even so, they do share some common grounding experiences. They each find the other in a place of isolation, wounded and likely to die. They each are misunderstood and looked down on by others. They are each hurting and respect one another’s pain. For these reasons, the communication between them is more pure and on the mark than between Paki and Khalil.

A week from now I will post the second half of this story, and it will open with Khalil forcing Paki to understand his communication better. These moments of sharp clarity can often change relationships entirely, whether for better or worse. That is something I wish to discuss more with my post on Monday, check back then to catch that, and then again on Thursday for the next section of The Heart of Something Wild.

With the Beast

aerial shot of ocean
Photo by Kyle Collins on Pexels.com

Now and again a familiar echo will take you back there. Seeing a field of grain, or feeling the warm sunlight washing across your skin. Hearing the croak of a frog at night. You close your eyes and the skin pricks with the memories, a familiar trance stirs once more.

Now you can hear the subtle raise in pitch as the wind passes between your arms. You taste the salt in that air as it passes to your lungs. The granular texture of sand caught in your hair. The heat of the unshaded sun mixed with the coldness of the ocean breeze, it causes you to alternate between shivers and sweats. You are somewhere else.

Opening your eyes you see yourself transported to the familiar scrawl of that coastline, the lazy surf rocking against it and back again in tiny waves. Though you have not been here in years you remember the details perfectly.

Turning around you face east and see that you are standing only on a sandbar, the island proper now a hundred yards ahead. It is a hulking mass of green, mountain clothed in forest. The larger peak on the right side, the northern side, gives the landmass an overall lopsided appearance, as though it might unbalance and fall back into the sea at any moment. The mountainous green is skirted all about by outcroppings of gray cliffs against which the western tide crashes in frothing white foam.

Lowering your gaze to the island’s only sandy coast you spy the small shape of the Whit family’s vessel, a simple wooden boat tipped to one side with a stray furl of sail whipping in the breeze. Its owners are disembarking from it now, and though they are far off you know their silhouettes instantly: two men, a woman, and a small girl.

At the sight of them you feel a familiar ache in your core, a longing and regret. Why have you returned to this place? You have traced these paths many times already, and each time you have followed the same bootprints, bent the same leaves, broken the same bones. It never changes. Is peering into the sweetness of their faces worth the agony of their later corpses?

But you have arrived, and to begin a memory is to already slip to its conclusion. It must be seen through. And so, as if on cue, you feel yourself step forward into the water, splashing your way to the island and its explorers. The water is shallow, never rising more than halfway to your knees, sloshing pleasantly until you return to crunching sand.

The explorers are more familiar to you than family. Beings that live within. Nearest is the patriarch, John Whit. He is crouched beside the boat, packing away all of the charts and compasses of their completed sea voyage. Every instrument and paper has their proper storage place now that their use is complete, and the satchel into which he tucks them is just the right size to accommodate them all.

As he works he tucks his gray mane behind wide ears, exposing a long, bald forehead and leathery, copper skin. He is a proud man of a proud heritage, one that is noble in virtue, if not in blood. It is for his own late father’s great service that this very island was gifted to the Whit family.

John turns and faces the sea he led his family across. He charted their course well and saw them through with a careful hand. Indeed he hopes to chart them rightly still, for he sees in this land an opportunity to build on the foundation established by his ancestors. He wishes to take that which he was given and prove he was worthy of the gift by adding to it something more.

Beside him is his son, William Whit, packing seed and dirt samples into a large sack that he slings over his shoulder. He is the only child of John, and has lived life comfortably and well, so evidenced by the beginnings of a potbelly beneath his folded arms. His whole life he has wanted for nothing but an opportunity to make his own mark, to give expression to his great ambition. Perhaps his father has the careful hands to steer, but he will be the surging steed that carries the family forward.

For where John looks backwards to heritage, William looks forward to legacy. He stands erect and strokes his chin thoughtfully, ruffling the close beard as his deep set eyes peer out at their surroundings with a gaze that is both penetrating and discerning. Upon these untamed wilds William sees overlaid a future of bridges and statues, ports and shops, a center of trade and wonders of construction. Important diplomats and even royalty walk the streets about him, and deeper inland he can hear the hum of mills and factories. He sees the land rich and giving, and can hardly wait to plumb its secrets.

At William’s feet young Clara babbles to her doll. Her yellow curls stand in stark contrast to her father’s dark scruff. Ivory arms hold the toy aloft, and she speaks to it of the infiniteness of the ocean and how as they sailed across it she felt that they would remain motionless in its eternities forever.

From moment to moment her eyes stray from the doll to the hulking island mountain before her. There is a wariness of the unknown in her expression. All her short life “home” has meant one place and one place only, so that this new land might as well be an entirely alien world.

She mutters something to her doll about how these forests and mountains are more “real” than she had expected. Indeed to one that has only seen such sights in the sketches of storybooks, the living and breathing wild has so much more “realness” to it that it becomes as terrifying as it is exhilarating! She slowly crosses the sand to her mother’s skirts and buries her face in their familiar closeness.

Eleanor Whit strokes her daughter’s hair with a hand thin and veiny. Her slight frame is wiry and toned for labor. She was not raised in the comfort of her husband and learned while young how to do her share and still more. Her auburn hair is drawn back into a snug bun, the better to not get in the way of her work. The angular features of her face survey the rest of her family, even as the family surveys the land.

She sees the stoic resolve in John, the anxious excitement in William, the curious apprehension in Clara. Far more interesting to her than the island is the effect it will have on this family. Much like the water through which they have just passed, trials and opportunities serve to dichotomize individuals, buoying up those that are worthy and sinking those that are not. The isolated nature of this island is such that they, separated from the influences of the world and society, can grow intimately acquainted with who they are inside and become what they will ultimately be.

Eleanor does not regret the moment, she only gives it the solemn consideration that it is due. In the same breath she resolves to do her utmost to see them through to a happy end.

John gives their gear a final look-over and is at last satisfied that he has all they need to set up their first camp. He has distributed their equipment into three packs, one for each of the adults. The rest remains safely stowed in the bottom of the boat for them to return for later.

“How does it look, William?” he asks as he hands the first of the packs to him.

“Good, good,” William smiles. “Plenty of opportunity for manufacturing with all of the natural resources. Wood, rock… There’s also a couple bays over there that are large enough for a port, and with the distinct climate we could probably also grow some produce that’s hard to get on the mainland.”

“Sounds promising,” Eleanor beams cheerfully, stepping forward to take her pack from John. “So what comes next?”

“Well we need to find a camp first of all,” John asserts. “Somewhere further inland where we can keep dry.” He gestures to the rocky cliffs that mark the end of their beach. “That means finding our way on top of there somehow. We’ll need more rope.” So saying he turns back to the boat and extracts a few more lengths.

William turns and surveys the rock in question. “Yes, be good to get a better look at the rest of the island from up there, too. What about over there?” He points to the southern edge. “Can’t tell for sure what is round that bend but it looks like the rock slopes more gently there.”

As Eleanor follows William’s gaze she gives an involuntary shiver. It isn’t much, but her slight frame cannot hide it. John notices it and asks “Are you up for the climb, Eleanor?”

She is about to answer when Clara tugs at her sleeve. She, too, has followed the conversation and her eyes are wide with apprehension.

“I don’t want to, mother.”

Eleanor tuts at John. “Of course, I’ll be fine.” Then, turning to her daughter: “And there’s not a thing to worry about, Clara. You’ll be locked safe with me the whole way.”

John looks to William who just shrugs and nods.

“Well, what are we waiting for, then?” Eleanor asks. “Hadn’t we better get going?”

“The sooner the better” John concedes and they turn their backs to the waterline. Four abreast they walk down that long shore: John and William on the left, Clara clutching her mother’s hand and burying her face in it. Four embers reaching out for something to catch their spark and set the world alight.

And so they were.

***

This is meant to be the intro to the novel I’m currently working on. It is my first time doing anything past the planning and outlining stages, so I admit it was a bit daunting to actually give a voice to the story.

As I mentioned on Monday, though, I had as my guide the intention to establish the mood of the story and then begin on the first arc. Obviously there is a lot of mood here, in fact it might be too much, but at least it is pointing in the direction I want. Thoughtful, pondering, and reflective. I think that is captured even in the very first line “Now and again a familiar echo will take you back there.”

Also writing in the second person definitely stands out, and gives a distinctive tone. Again, I wonder if it isn’t coming across too strongly, but I do like how it naturally encourages introspection in the reader. I’ll probably be going back and forth on how deep I want this tone to be, and would love to get any feedback on it!

After establishing the story’s mood, though, my next object was to move directly into the first plot points and establishing the story’s main arc. And so I established that these are explorers trying to make something of themselves in their own virgin corner of the world. Amidst the hope and optimism I’ve sowed traces of underlying menace, and it is easy to predict that these themes will escalate throughout the tale.

By this method I’ve been able to establish expectations in the reader, which serves the double purpose of giving them a roadmap ahead, and also allowing me to subvert those expectations as desired.

Another interesting decision in establishing the mood was choosing where to begin the story geographically. I knew it took place on an island, but I could have opened in the forest, or on a cave, or any other number of places. I chose a coastline though because I felt it spoke to a subconscious association with things deep and timeless. That’s a notion I’d like to look at in greater detail next week, this idea of speaking in a universal and symbolic nature. I’ll see you Monday when we delve into it!

Gifts from Daniel Bronn…and Jerry: Part Two

photo of two brown wrapped gifts on wooden table
Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Jerry’s mind was still caught up with these feelings of not deserving the praise being heaped on him and of scheming a way to get out of his job when an opportunity seemed to present itself to him. Two weeks into delivering Daniel Bronn’s charity parcels, Jerry had returned for the next package and had instead been asked to take a seat.

“Jerry Blakeney,” Daniel Bronn smiled at him, as though his very soul was warmed simply by seeing Jerry. “I’m so glad you’ve been helping us out with our business here. I must say you are very efficient. It seems each of your deliveries takes less time than the one before.”

Jerry nodded. “I try to not loiter about.”

Daniel shrugged. “Well I wouldn’t want you to overwork yourself, of course.”

Jerry merely grunted. Sitting in a cab all day wasn’t exactly his idea of overworking himself.

“But it’s not enough for me to be pleased with your work, Jerry,” Daniel continued, suddenly looking very serious.

Here it is, Jerry thought to himself, his heart skipping with excitement. He’s received a complaint and he’ll finally give me the boot. Now I’ll get to see him shout! I wonder what he looks like when he shouts.

But Daniel did not shout. “More important is the question of whether you are pleased with your work here. Are you?”

Jerry stared blankly, struggling to find words to express the conflicted feelings he had held of late. “Does it make any difference?” he finally asked, and a flash of concern wrinkled Daniel’s brow. “I’m a delivery man. If I didn’t like it you could replace me in an instant. Anyone could do this job.”

“Hmmm,” Daniel’s brow furrowed even deeper and he shook his head ponderously. “I don’t think so, Jerry. I could send anyone to just deliver a package, it is true. But I’m not sending just anyone. I’m sending Jerry Blakeney.” Jerry wasn’t sure why Daniel Bronn was saying his name like it meant something. “I send you because it is Jerry Blakeney I want to send, not just the package. Do you understand?”

“Well…that’s very kind of you. But I don’t know that anyone else cares to receive Jerry Blakeney. I think they just want the package.”

“Perhaps they haven’t been receiving the real Jerry Blakeney, then.”

Jerry wasn’t sure why, but a weight pressed on his heart at that. “Maybe,” he said slowly, “maybe I’m not cut out for this work.”

“Your work here doesn’t make you happy?”

Jerry shrugged. “I know it should, I suppose. It’s regular and dependable.”

“But is that happy?”

“Maybe it’s as close as anything can be.”

Daniel cocked his head inquisitively, inviting further clarification.

“It makes my life comfortable,” Jerry proceeded. “There’s three things that make me uncomfortable. My landlord coming for rent, my ex-wife coming for alimony, and the grim reaper coming for my life. Each of them is either appeased or delayed by money, though. You pay me well for this work, frankly more than you probably should. So whatever my feelings of the work itself, it does at least make the rest of my life more comfortable.”

Daniel put his fingertips together and then rested his lips against them, his brow furrowed in deep thought. “A man must survive first of all, I suppose.”

Jerry nodded. “I’d agree with that.” It was probably the first time he had agreed with Daniel Bronn on anything.

Daniel continued thinking deeply, going so far as to close his eyes and shut out Jerry and his office entirely. He remained so for such a long while that Jerry leaned forward, checking whether any snoring was coming from his employer. Just then Daniel’s eyes snapped open and startled Jerry so badly that he fell out of his seat and into the one next to it. Daniel pretended not to notice.

“Jerry, I want to make you an offer,” Daniel Bronn said with a gleam in his eyes. “You say the wages here are enough to keep you comfortable, though maybe not all the way to happy. Fair enough. Well I’m going to add this on top of your regular wages for today,” reaching into his waistcoat Daniel fished out a number of bills and from withdrew from their midst a crisp ten dollars. “But this comes with an injunction. You cannot spend it on anything that makes you more comfortable, only on something that makes you truly happy.”

Jerry’s eyes narrowed. He really didn’t see what this had to do with his not wanting to deliver packages anymore.

Daniel Bronn continued. “You find what truly makes you happy and I think you’ll also find out that you really are the right man to make my deliveries. Say we give it a week? If at the end of that week you would still rather not work for me, then I’ll write a glowing letter of recommendation to any employment opportunity you’d prefer.”

Jerry still didn’t seem to see the connection that Daniel Bronn envisioned, but he decided not to quibble over it. At the very least he had his path out of the company, and it had been far more painless than he had imagined. So he nodded, thanked his boss for his understanding, and took the ten dollar bill.

A few minutes later Jerry emerged from Daniel Bronn’s office with his hands full. In one he carried yet another package, and in the other he still clasped the ten dollars. He was staring so intently at it that he didn’t realize he had stopped in front of the receptionist’s desk. When at last he did glance up he found her staring at him inquisitively, a slight smile of amusement on her lips.

He merely shook his head in confusion. “I just don’t understand it, Miss–” for the first time he surveyed her name plate. “Miss Greensborough.”

“Most people struggle to understand our employer’s generosity.”

“Hmmm. Do you ever wonder if it’s a cover-up?”

“A what?”

“A front. A way to deflect suspicion while he embezzles money and makes deals with the mob.”

Miss Greensborough laughed. “Certainly not! Daniel Bronn is the only true philanthropist I’ve ever known. His only objective with his charity, is charity.”

Jerry sniffed. “Charity? I’d almost prefer embezzlement.”

“You don’t hold with the notion?”

Jerry looked thoroughly sour and shook his head. “Charity, by definition, means people getting things that they don’t deserve.”

“Oh!” Miss Greensborough exclaimed as if offended.

“I don’t expect you to see it my way. But I grew up in a gutter without anyone showing me any ‘charity.’ Everything I am I earned by grit, and I have no time for anyone who isn’t willing to do the same.” He glanced down at the bill in his hand. “And I have no time to be shown it, either.” He felt duty-bound to hold onto the bill until his employment was officially terminated with Daniel Bronn, but then he wouldn’t lose any time in tossing it into that same, cold gutter.

*

The next few days weighed on Jerry Blakeney in a way he didn’t understand. He tried to convince himself that he was thrilled to be changing jobs. Daniel Bronn’s recommendation would carry real weight and he wouldn’t have any trouble getting a job at somewhere he truly belonged. And yet, at the thought of finding some more menial labor he couldn’t help sensing that he was giving up on an important opportunity. What that opportunity was, exactly, he couldn’t say. But he was sure it had nothing to do with the excellent pay and comfort of his current station.

He even went so far as to wonder whether there was anything to Daniel Bronn’s challenge. Could he spend the ten dollars on something that would bring him actual happiness? He could enjoy a week of the finest dinners the city had to offer, he could buy a mattress fit for a king, he could get himself a nice suit for special occasions. But no, each of these would still be a gift he didn’t deserve. He would hate them even as he enjoyed them. Beyond that he had an idea that Daniel Bronn would be disappointed in such a use of the money, though he wasn’t sure why that particularly mattered to him.

Added to all of these complications was the fact that this last week of charitable deliveries was the most difficult yet for Jerry. He had started being recognized as Daniel Bronn’s personal emissary, which meant even when walking down the street he was barraged by all manner of friendly salutations and hopeful smiles. No one seemed upset when he passed them by on his way to someone else, if anything they might even follow him to share in the happiness of whomever fortune had smiled upon today.

It was not right for him to be the bearer of such goodwill in the world. He had done nothing to earn that role. It was simply another one of those charities Daniel Bronn was trying to inflict on him.

And so it was that Jerry finally came to the last day of his deliveries. Daniel Bronn did not mention the significance of the day when Jerry came into his office for the first morning package. He merely smiled at him as ever, beckoned him close, and withdrew the parcel from his drawer.

“It is going to a Miss Rose Dally right on the Southern border. She does laundry for a friend of mine, and that friend is worried about her. Thought she could use some positivity.”

Jerry nodded, took the package in hand, and stowed it in an inner pocket of his coat. By now he had a well-established routine for his deliveries, and he soon found himself in the back of his favorite cab, on his way to 344 Sycamore Lane.

Now, in the privacy of the rear bench Jerry allowed himself to palm his forehead and massage his brow. He did not care to return to the Southern border of the city. It was the region he had been raised in, and he did not care much for the memories he had from there. The ride to that portion of town started with streets steeped in poverty and only went down from there. No one chose to live on the Southern border, no one stayed here that had an opportunity to leave.

As the cab continued he felt the familiar shift from paved roads to gravelly paths, he saw streets through which the shadow of his child self still seemed to linger. The place was unchanging, what buildings had been erected here were left here until they collapsed or burned down. Old factories were repurposed into housing units, grocery stores into community markets.

It was in front of one of these repurposed buildings, an office space turned into an apartment complex, that the cab finally reached its destination. Most of the windows were shattered and boarded up and the wood was splintering underneath the peeling paint.

With a sigh Jerry stepped out onto the curb and considered the package he was to deliver. He noticed he was smelling a fragrance from it, so he raised it to his nose and inhaled deeply. Bath salts. When Daniel Bronn knew the recipient well enough he always tried to send personalized and meaningful gifts, otherwise he might just send them generic luxuries that could be sold for essentials.

As Jerry made his way into the building interior he spied an old lady seated at a makeshift counter near the off-balance staircase. She would be the landlord.

“Looking for a Miss Rose Dally?” he gruffed.

She sniffed unpleasantly. “Well she don’t live here no more. Couldn’t keep up with rent.”

His brow furrowed as he stared around at the walls of peeling wallpaper. The place was incredibly dark, due to the lack of any electric lights or oil lamps, in combination with the boarded windows.

“Is rent here much, then?” he asked.

“Only $4.50 a week.”

He did not try to hide the incredulity on his face at the exorbitant rate, which elicited a scowl from the old woman.

“If that was all you needed…” she said testily.

“Does she have a husband?”

“Died in the war. Has two children.”

“Do you know where she went?”

“No. I do not.”

He sighed after a moment of reflection. “I do.” There was a catholic mission nearby that accepted women and children. Surely that was where she would have gone.

Jerry stepped back out onto the street and began walking in the way of the mission. The cab that had brought him was only a block down, and the driver stuck his head out the window to see if Jerry needed another ride. Jerry merely waved him off, somehow the walk felt more appropriate.

It wasn’t far to the mission, and soon he was ringing its bell. The door cracked open and an old nun peered up at him.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Is Miss Rose Dally here?” he asked. “I have this parcel for her.”

The nun squinted at the package, decided it seemed harmless, and promised to go and fetch the woman. The door was closed and Jerry looked back at the package somberly. Bath salts…

A minute later the door cracked open again, and he met the face of a woman artificially aged. She couldn’t have been more than thirty-three, and yet stress and sleepless nights etched lines across her face, giving it a desperate look. He had seen that same look on his own mother.

“Miss Dally?” he said.

“Missus.”

“Sorry, Missus. I was sent to give these to you.” He handed over his offerings. She took the parcel, sniffed it, and tucked it under her arm somewhat bewildered. The crisp ten dollar bill, though, she held in grateful shock, pools of tears welling in her eyes.

“It’s none of my business, Missus,” Jerry said softly, “but in the middle of Patterson’s Street there’s an old lady by the name of Martha Hulce. She puts up women and children at a fraction of the cost what you were paying for rent. It’s better maintained, too, and a safer part of town.”

The door opened wider and the poor mother wrapped her arms around Jerry’s neck. She sobbed deeply. Tears that had needed to come out for some time now and finally felt that they could. This time he did not try to run from the tenderness, but instead patted her back soothingly until her breathing returned to normal. She stepped back and there was an awkward moment as each tried to think of what to say to the other, but no words came to either. So after a moment they both just smiled and nodded, then Jerry turned and began walking down the street, looking for a cab to take him back.

For the first time in years Jerry was smiling. It was small, it was subtle, but it seemed to let a warmth into him he had long been without. He was happy. “Well,” he sighed with an amused shake of the head. “I guess I’ll stay on with Daniel, then.”

***

In my Core Needs post I discussed character motivations, and how they are driven by their subconscious needs. Clearly Jerry succeeded in finding his core need, a need to be charitable himself. He felt conflicted for all these blessings he had not earned, but in the end he found a way to deserve them. More than being able to receive kindness, he needed to be able to give it.

Also, on Monday I wrote about contrasts in stories. In this half of the story we are able to see how the contrasts between Daniel and Jerry were able to shift from opposition to complementing one another. Daniel’s wealth and lofty background allow him to provide the vehicle for charity, but it is Jerry’s poverty and humble background that better facilitate the empathy and understanding.

Some of my favorite stories have been Christmas tales such as It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, tales of goodwill and reclamation. This was my own little effort to write such a tale, and I hope it finds you filled with a spirit of kindness and peace, no matter what your religious or cultural affiliation.

This will conclude our series, and next Monday we’ll start on something entirely new. I look forward to that post and to the entire coming year! I’ll see you then.

Gifts from Daniel Bronn…and Jerry: Part One

brown cinnamon
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“He’ll see you now.”

Jerry stood up and tried to readjust his tie. A lump in his throat was in the way, though, so he swallowed that down first, then finished with the correction. He dropped his hands to his side, flexing them as he exhaled deeply, bracing himself to march into the office before him with confidence and composure. Not just any office. The office of Daniel Bronn, who was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the entire city. And Jerry’s new boss.

Jerry could feel the receptionist’s eyes watching him, but the moment of action he’d been summoning his nerve for collapsed. He instead looked downwards, shuffled across the carpet, and knocked timidly at the door.

“Come in,” a bright voice called from within.

Jerry swung the door inwards, feeling strangely glued to its motion so that he presented Daniel Bronn with his left shoulder rather than his front. Looking downwards he saw that his sleeve had caught on the doorknob and he shook it loose and righted himself, now entirely red in the face.

Daniel Bronn pretended not to notice, and only beamed at Jerry while waving him forward with his hand.

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” Jerry muttered as he continued his shuffle up towards the great man’s desk. “Jerry, sir.” He extended his hand, then questioned whether he had the right to, and started to retract it. Daniel lunged forward though, caught the retreating appendage and shook it vigorously.

“Yes, of course, Jerry Blakeney!” Daniel boomed, as if recognizing an old friend.

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“Don’t be sorry, Jerry. Have a seat instead.”

Jerry nodded appreciatively and backed into the seat awkwardly, not daring to take his eyes off of the man. Daniel was probably about the same age as Jerry, in his mid-sixties, but his eyes twinkled with a boyish fire and the corners of his mouth were crinkled in constant smiles. He had a run of baldness scurrying down the middle of his head, but it only served to make his broad, pleasant face all the broader and pleasanter. The man was not obese, but he had a jolly girth that quivered with his every laugh.

“Jerry, I’m glad to have you on my team,” Daniel said, still smiling but now with a tone that indicated he intended to get down to business. “It was Mister Ray that offered you the position, wasn’t it? Yes, well, he told me he had high expectations of your capabilities.” Jerry gulped. “Yes, he very much liked you. And now that I’ve seen you…. Well, I like you, too.” Jerry gulped again, wishing Daniel wasn’t so taken with him.

“Well I will certainly do my best, sir. Really I’d like to get going on it right away.”

“Aha, a man of action! All the better, especially given the importance of the work you’ll be doing here. Our very image to the world!”

Jerry started at that. “Oh… when Mister Ray explained the position to me it sounded like I was just going to be delivering some packages.”

“I suppose that is the technical description. But don’t you see that that makes you a representative? Most of the people I distribute to will only ever interact with a single member of my business. And it won’t be me, and it won’t be Mister Ray. It will be you. You are my extension!”

Jerry nodded blandly. He had had employers like this before, ones who felt it was necessary to excite the rabble with how significant their position was. Jerry wasn’t fooled. He knew that he was the detritus of any company he worked for, a body filling a space that could be replaced at any moment. He was okay with that fact, for he had made peace with his role in the world long ago. Admittedly the wages Mister Ray had promised him was more than double what he ought to be being paid, but no doubt that would change once the company got wise to their competitors rates.

“When can I start?” he said simply.

“Right now, if you’d please,” and so saying Daniel Bronn pulled open a drawer in his desk and extracted a medium-sized, brown package, bound both ways with a healthy length of twine.

Jerry rose to his feet and took the package in hand. It was heavy. “Just the one?”

“But of course,” Daniel Bronn tutted. “Each package is important and deserves its own moment. A cart full of deliveries would make it an overly-large assembly line.” He pulled a sour face at the idea of that.

“I’ll deliver it and be back for the next then. The mail-room is in the basement I suppose?”

Daniel Bronn shook his head. “Each package is important,” he reiterated. “You will receive each directly from me.”

It don’t sound like a particularly prudent use of Daniel Bronn’s time, but if that was how he wanted things to be, so be it. It made no difference to Jerry. So he gave a curt nod, and then turned and made his way out of the office, the floor, and the building.

Jerry caught the first cab he could and for the first time read the address on the package as he recited it to the driver. As the car lurched into motion Jerry frowned. The address was in one of the poorest districts of the city, not too far away from where he lived himself. Perhaps there was a factory in the middle that made use of all the cheap labor? But then there was the matter of the name on the package as well. It was not a company name, it was an actual person’s name “Gladys Monroe,” with no following qualifiers like ‘PhD’ or ‘CEO.’

He shrugged. It didn’t really matter he supposed. Instead he leaned back against the moth-eaten upholstery, lowered his hat over his eyes, and allowed himself a little nap. Somehow he sensed when the car had slowed up against the curb of their destination, and he slid his hat back up, paid the driver, and stepped out onto the street.

If he had been confused about the address before he was thoroughly baffled now. There was no factory, no offices, no buildings of importance at all. Instead he was facing a row of the homeliest homes he had ever seen. Each of them seemed to be leaning slightly off center, the gaping holes in their walls were patched with corrugated zinc sheets, and their yards were completely bare patches of dirt.

Jerry spun around to examine the other side of the street but it was all the same. He read and reread the address on the package but it seemed to match his destination exactly. He saw a rusted mailbox in front of the house and he wiped away enough grime to make out the name on its side. “Gladys Monroe.” He decided that he would have to go back to Daniel Bronn and explain the mistake, and spun around to see if his cab was still near enough to be hailed.

“Hello?” a voice called from behind.

He spun back around and now saw the front door of the house opened, a weathered little woman emerging tentatively towards him.

“Ahem,” he said, “I don’t suppose you know a Daniel Bronn, do you?”

“Daniel Bronn?” she repeated slowly, shaking her head. “Who’s he?”

He smiled, pleased with her confirmation that this wasn’t where he was meant to be. “No matter. Clearly there has been some mistake, I’ll just be on my way.”

“Is he by any chance a nice, rich gentleman?” she said suddenly. “Balding, a little large, and with the nicest smile you can imagine? Like it would light a room even in the dead of night?”

Jerry paused, and licked his dry lips slowly.

“I only ask because I saw the package. Such a man gave me a ride home in his limousine the other day and said he’d send something to me, too.” She looked down as if embarrassed. “I told him he oughtn’t bother.”

Her eyes shifted sideways to the package in Jerry’s hand, and Jerry found himself instinctively pulling the parcel back. It wasn’t that he disbelieved her, necessarily, just that he didn’t want her to have it. Somehow it seemed…wrong.

“And your name was…?” he prodded, grasping at any chance that this still might not be the intended recipient.

“Gladys. Gladys Monroe.”

He sighed in defeat and extended the package back out. “I guess this is for you, then.”

She seemed not to notice his reluctance, and instead happily received the parcel and began to open it right away. In spite of himself, Jerry’s curiosity kept him rooted to the spot, anxious to see what the great and mighty Daniel Bronn might have sent to such a woman. The heavy brown paper came off and Gladys drew out glass jars filled with all manner of expensive spices, enriched flour, and high quality lard. Jerry couldn’t resist a slight smirk. No doubt this woman could hardly afford her daily biscuits, and he had sent her seasonings fit for a king.

Gladys, however, didn’t seem to find the gift strange at all. Instead her whole face broke in a wide grin and she chuckled pleasantly. “What a thoughtful gift!” she proclaimed, then looked up to Jerry with tears shining in her eyes. “You see he met me when I was out with my cart of food. Bought some of everything I had. Said he liked it, but a man of distinction like him must have a refined palate. My food isn’t fit for such folk. Not that I’m a bad chef, if I do say so myself, but, well, there’s only so much one can do with the ingredients I have to work with. Now though…!” and she shook her hands enthusiastically, jars of spices clutched between the fingers.

Gladys took a step towards Jerry and in a moment of horror he realized she was opening her arms to give him a hug. He clapped his hand to his head and quickly backed away. He muttered something like “Well, got to be off then. So long!” and then sprinted away to find the nearest cab.

There was no nap for Jerry on the way back to the Bronn Institution. He was quite shaken up by his first delivery experience and he wasn’t sure why. So what if a wealthy man was wasting his riches giving spices to a nearly-homeless woman? So the man was a fool, all the better for Jerry. The more foolish Daniel Bronn was, the longer it would take him to get wise to the fact that Jerry’s position could be replaced by the postal system at a fraction of the cost.

Was that it then? That this setup was too good to be true? Jerry didn’t deserve so cushy a job, and so it seemed only a matter of time before it would be taken from him. He shrugged his shoulders. So one day he’d be back looking for a new job. So what? May as well enjoy a break when it came.

But no, that still wasn’t it. It was something about the way Gladys had looked at him with such tearful thankfulness. As if she had mistaken him for someone else, someone better. It unnerved him.

Jerry was still lost in his thoughts when the cab pulled up to the Bronn Institution. He paid the driver and got out in a daze before shaking himself and making his way back in. Hopefully Daniel Bronn would have a more sensible assignment for him now. Something like giving an eviction notice to a tenant, or disposing of evidence of corporate malfeasance, or shooting a stray dog that had annoyed Daniel.

No such luck. After asking Jerry to recount his experience delivering the package to Gladys Monroe, Daniel Bronn had plopped an even larger package on the desk and sent Jerry out to deliver that as well. It had smelled of beef, and the address took Jerry to a poor butcher. Next was a small package with no address, only a description of a homeless man that frequented Bowery Street. Next came a tall parcel filled with quilts that went to the orphanage.

That was the end of the first day at the Bronn Institution, and the following ones only saw more of the same. Every day was delivery after delivery, all to people that were poor and had only the most tenuous of connections to Daniel Bronn. In fact, some of them had no connection whatsoever! One time, when returning to Daniel Bronn for his next assignment he had found the man thumbing through the city registry, looking for a random home to send his next package to. It was maddening!

Every delivery seemed to splinter Jerry’s conscience like ice cracking in a thaw. As he considered why he felt this way, he came to realize it mostly had to do with the profuse thanks most recipients tried to bestow on him. It made him feel like he was an impostor, like he had somehow duped them into thinking he was more than what he knew himself to be. It made him feel guilty, and he became progressively grumpier and gruffer with each passing day.

Strange as it sounded, Jerry found himself hoping his surly demeanor might get him fired! Fat chance of that. He was pretty sure Daniel Bronn had never fired a person in his life. Even if he did fire Jerry, Daniel Bronn would probably feel so sorry about it that he would start sending him gifts too, and that would be even worse!

No, sooner or later Jerry would have to out-and-out quit. He didn’t know exactly how to approach such things, he had never before been employed long enough to even consider quitting. But he would figure it out, no doubt of that, because he simply could not continue like this for much longer.

***

I feel like a lot of my stories lately have been quite serious, and it’s been a lot of fun to write something a little more humorous and lighthearted. That’s not to say that a lighthearted story cannot also be serious, and indeed I am trying to grasp at real issues I see in the world today.

As I promised on Monday, our main character Jerry is a confused individual, one with surface needs and core needs. On the surface he needs a job and he needs to be comfortable. He’s obtained one, but not the other, and so he feels divided about what to do next. Deeper, though, he core needs that are based off of a sense of self-doubt and unworthiness. He has his pauper’s pride and is therefore offended at the charity he is seeing such rampant display of. That’s something he needs to work out, and how he does so will be elaborated in the second half of this story. That piece will not only conclude this story, but also the entire series we’ve been doing, which has included The Last Grasshopper, Cursed, and A Minute at a Time.

There’s been a common theme across all of these stories. Actually more than one I would say, but there’s a particular one that I wish to focus on with my next post on Monday. That theme is one of a pairing of opposites. These have been stories about old and new, good and evil, bitter and sweet. Any culinary artist will tell you that opposite flavorings paired together is fascinating to us humans, and on Monday we’ll consider why that might be. Come back then to read about that, and then come on Thursday to get the conclusion of Gifts From Daniel Bronn…and Jerry.

A Minute at a Time

clock close up time
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Christopher slowly cracked the door open, taking a peek into his son’s bedroom. Heavy curtains shaded the room in a perpetual dusk, and it took his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. His hopes of finding the child fast asleep quickly faded as he instead made out the silhouette of the little two-year-old sitting upright on his bed, clawing at the tube running into his nose.

“I don’t like it!” Teddy squawked in frustration as he caught sight of his father.

“I know, Ted, I know,” Christopher muttered, quickly closing the distance to his son and gently pulling his chubby hands down from his face. “I don’t like it either.” He tutted sympathetically at the red marks on the cheek where Teddy has successfully pried the tape loose. “Here, let me fix this.”

“No! Take it off!” the child squirmed, trying to fight Christopher off as he realigned the tube and taped it back into place.

“Don’t you remember what we said about this?” Christopher asked, his voice strained by the ongoing struggle. “We know it’s really, really hard. But this is so important because this is how you get your medicine. If you don’t get your medicine you’re going to be really sick like before. Understand?”

Teddy did not understand. He only became more agitated and began to lunge for the side of the bed, trying to get away from his father. “Let me go!” he whined.

“If you can’t sleep you don’t have to,” Christopher conceded.

Naps with Teddy were hit or miss these days. When he was able to sleep things were so much better. Sleep was the one time that he was free from the otherwise constant aches and pains, even if only for a short time. On the other hand, not being able to sleep meant that those aches and pains would now be compounded with general crankiness. The little boy might escalate in frustration for hours until sheer exhaustion would finally force him to lose consciousness. It looked like this afternoon was going to be one of the hard ones.

“Let’s try and eat some food, then,” Christopher suggested. Teddy had refused to eat any lunch before his nap.

“No,” Teddy shook his head as Christopher scooped him into his arms. “It’s ouchie.” By way of explanation he wrapped his hands around his throat.

“We’ll get some formula, then, something that isn’t too rough on you.”

Teddy didn’t protest, but he gave a small whimper of dissatisfaction. They made their way to the kitchen, and once there Christopher put his son down in a chair and began preparing the bottle. The child whimpered louder and rubbed his eyes slowly, but he was too tired to try and move from the spot.

“I want Mommy,” Teddy finally moaned.

“I know, buddy, I know,” Christopher sighed. “Mommy pulled the midday shift for today, though,” he explained before realizing his son wouldn’t understand. “Mommy had to do some extra work.”

“No,” Teddy shook his head.

“It’s important. So we can pay for your medicine.”

“No more medicine,” the toddler started clawing at his tube again.

“Hey, hey, don’t do that!” Christopher chided in exasperation. He spun the lid onto the bottle and rushed over to stop Teddy. “Kiddo, c’mon…”

Another brief struggle ensued as Christopher resettled the tube again. He tried to think of how to explain these things to his son, not for the first time. After a moment he shook his head in defeat, not for the first time. How was a toddler to understand having to hurt for his own greater good? A toddler shouldn’t have to understand those sorts of things. “Teddy I know you don’t want to have your medicine. But Mommy and Daddy need you to have it.”

“Why?” Teddy croaked.

“Just because we need you to.” Christopher stroked his son’s hair. “And we also need you to trust us. We need you to do this just because we love you.”

Teddy grimaced, and squirmed to get away from his father’s affection, too grumpy to accept that kindness right now. So Christopher grabbed the bottle instead. “Here, try this,” Christopher placed the nipple into his son’s mouth, where it hung loosely as Teddy just gave his father a withering look. “Don’t you want to try to drink some?”

“It’s ouchie,” Teddy merely repeated, tapping his throat lightly.

Christopher hung his head in defeat. The child didn’t go into a tantrum, he didn’t scream, and he didn’t throw anything. His eyes just started welling up with tears until he blinked and they gushed down his cheeks, a whimpering cry quivering from his lips.

Christopher felt the tension in him break and he started to cry as well. He knelt down on the floor and wrapped his hands around Teddy’s legs, clasping them behind his bottom, holding him ever so gently yet with such fervent intent.

“I’m—I’m sorry, Teddy,” Christopher gulped out. “I’m just so sorry.”

For a sweet, bitter moment they just rested there, breaking the silence only with the soft sound of their mutual sobs. Every now and then Christopher would look in his son’s eye and briefly reaffirm the difficulty of the situation.

“It’s really hard. Isn’t it, Teddy?” he’d say and Teddy would nod sadly and say “Yeah.”

“You don’t like doing this, do you?” he’d say and Teddy would shake his head and say “No.”

“You just want to be all better right now, huh?” he’d say and Teddy would nod again and say “Yes, daddy.”

As the tears started to slow down one last thing broke in Christopher and behind a fresh curtain of tears he muttered. “I wanted to never let something like this happen to you, Ted. I’m sorry.”

Teddy didn’t say anything, but he looked at his father intently, and as he did so his eyes stopped watering. Finally he raised the bottle back to his lips and took a few deep gulps from its contents.

“Good boy,” Christopher smiled, wiping away both of their tears. “You want to read a book?”

Teddy nodded and Christopher scooped him back up. Together they moved over to the living room bookcase, and selected a favorite story, one about an anthropomorphic boat. Christopher sat down on the nearby couch, Teddy on his lap, opened the book and began to read.

At five pages in Christopher noticed that Teddy had stopped sucking from the bottle and when he glanced down he found that the child was asleep. Christopher sighed contentedly, closed the book, and reclined more fully into the couch.

He began gently stroking his son’s back and he looked upwards, mouthing a silent prayer of thanks. Things were still hard and in only an hour the struggle would start all over again. But for now, this was enough.

*

As I mentioned on Monday, our nature is such that we give and take influence to and from those we are closest with. We are defined at least in part by where others’ shadows intersect with our own. In this story I tried to present a father and son that are hurting together. Though their specific roles in their shared challenge are different, they still do share that challenge. When one of them hurts, both of them feel it.

Also note how this story is presented in contrast to the short piece from last week. In both cases we began with a father trying to connect with a son. In this one, as in Cursed, the father is trying to give something to the child. Ekal was trying to give his son moral strength and Christopher was trying to give his son understanding. In both cases the son was not able to receive it. The difference here is that then Christopher transitions into taking, allowing himself to empathize for a moment with his son’s pain instead. Many relationships struggle when both parties are trying to actively push their influence on one another, never stopping to receive back in turn. We know that to converse is to exchange words in a back-and-forth discourse, but sometimes we forget to do the same with our emotions and empathy.

If there was a single word I would use to describe this short piece it would be “need.” Both Christopher and Teddy are coming into the situation with their own needs. At first they don’t even know what those needs are, and have to dig a little deeper to find what truly resonates. Character needs are obviously a huge consideration when sitting down to author a story, and I’m going to take some time next week to delve further into it. We’ll look more closely at the needs presented in this short story, and then consider ways other classic stories have incorporated their characters’ needs in a nuanced and meaningful manner. I’ll see you on Monday for that post!