The Last Grasshopper

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Once the fields had been green and lush, covered by tall blades of grass rolling in the wind. Now they were scattered over only by the occasional dry stalks: brown, brittle and crackling under every chilly breeze. These remaining sentinels pointed up to skies that were overcast and perpetually stormy, a curtain of gray broken only by the occasional crack of lightning and thunder.

Across these fields’ shriveled husks there crawled a single warden, an old and weathered grasshopper. Of all the changes that it had experienced, it was this solitude that struck it as the most strange. For though it had been born in a time when the earth was still new, when flowers were in bloom and water was running, it had not witnessed any of this at the first. Instead it had been hatched within the ground, buried among the masses.

There the first life it had known had been dark and churning. The entire universe seemed a rolling, crawling mass. Its brothers and sisters were innumerable, swarming and pressing it, urging it to claw upwards, to chew through pod and earth, to climb until at last it burst out into the air and greeted its first sunrise.

Here at last it had stumbled upon the nature of its reality, to exist suspended between two great infinites. There was that of the never-ending depths beneath, the earth of its birth. There was that of the ongoing expanses above, the sky that it would dissipate into at the other end of life. Between those two extremes it would dwell: crawling, hopping, and flying, ever wavering between the two yet never fully belonging to either.

What it did belong to was the community. Each new day saw another geyser of small white nymphs like itself bubbling out from beneath the earth and crawling up to take their claim of the land. The ocean of greenery seemed endless, yet the appetite of their horde was relentless. They moved as a body from one field to another, ingesting and digesting, eating all that they could in a race to grow. And grow they did, first doubling in size, then tripling, then molting into a new form that could bear still more multiplications.

Perhaps if they had had a mind that could contemplate their nature, they might have considered the effects of eating this perishable food. For if the plant was alive as they had been, and if it could die and be consumed, and if that entity then became a part of their bodies and now defined them, then were they not consigning themselves to the same eventual fate? Perhaps had they found some immortal food that did not die in the eating of it, then they would have lived forever. But it was too late, they had eaten that fruit and now they bore the common curse of all the earth.

And death did, in fact, begin to manifest. Indeed, all that prevented them for overrunning the entire landscape was that now they were large enough to capture the attention of the birds, and the spiders, and the mantises, and all other manner of predatory life. So as they grew in mass, they diminished in numbers, such that an equilibrium was more or less maintained.

They were still legion, but with each following day they were lesser and lesser of a legion. By the time they approached full maturity and began to mate, their only remained enough to replace their initial numbers and thus not make any gains against nature’s balances. Here the grasshoppers found the beginning of their fulfillment, their great purpose to recreate themselves in new forms. Here was how they cheated nature and gained their immortality.

But that victory was momentary, and the world was already signalling a turning of the tides. For even as the grasshoppers planted their eggs in the soil, they were finding that the ground was colder and harder than it had been before. The loose moisture in it was beginning to freeze and the chill of the night seemed to persist longer into each new morning, suggesting soon it would overtake the days entirely in one eternal slumber.

In anticipation of that great sleep one grasshopper after another succumbed to the elements, curled up, and perished. In doing so their last duty to the next generation was being fulfilled: they were leaving a space in the world for their children to fill. Immortality was still the promise, but immortality only through death. Through incarnation.

Some fell when caught out in the cold. Others starved from the sparseness of food remaining. Others were simply too old and frail to support living any longer. Though when born in the spring they had defied numbering, yet they were finite. Numerically and mortally. As they entered late autumn they could be counted as no more than a thousand. A week later they were no more than a hundred. Before another week was spent there remained that only one.

That final grasshopper did not even know that it was the last of its kind, it simply was aware that it no longer encountered any others of its race. Of course every year saw a “last grasshopper,” by the nature of things some creature had to fill that role, and this year it happened to be this one. In some ways that may seem a momentous thing, yet it passed by each year with none to take any note of it. Perhaps that was fitting. Life began in heat and noise, but then tapered out in a long, slow decrescendo. There would be no loud crash to signal the end, only a muting into nothingness.

And yet not quite nothingness. For the seeds were already in the earth, and in time legions would rise again. None of that next generation would know of this, their nearest forebearer. This final grasshopper was a last strand, stretching from its edge of the infinite towards the other until it would break under the strain of that distance. The next year’s generation would not know of that past, yet they would still owe their entire existence to it.

The grasshopper raised its foreleg for another step, but its clawed foot failed to grasp the stalk, and instead it fell to the ground.

***

I really enjoyed writing out this piece. As I mentioned on Monday, the changing seasons has given me a lot of thoughts about the nature of existence, mortality, beginnings and endings, birth and death. It helped me to process and give closure to those sensations by just being able to find words that gave better definition to those ideas. It serves as an important lesson that we need to pause, take in the world, and then channel it through our imagination to create something new from that experience. I hope each one of us can live our days being inspired by all that richness which surrounds us.

Even as I concluded with this piece, though, it was already bringing up new thoughts and ideas that I still want to explore further. Specifically I want to take some time to linger on the idea of the passing of a torch. This is obviously a classic theme in stories, and there are many takes on the ideas of mentors, tradition, and old flame rekindling in a youthful disciple. Sometimes, though, this rite of passage does not occur so smoothly. On Monday we’ll speak some more about this concept, and I hope to see you then. In the meantime, have an excellent weekend!

The Noble: Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We are The House of Gray” he declared.

“The House of Gray” ten voices echoed.

***

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

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

The Noble: Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what is your surname?”

“I’m simply Robert.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?… Oh, you mean us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You what?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

 

Revenger of Blood

flock of white birds photo during sunset
Photo by Adam Grabek on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very well.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

“Are they armed?”

“No, they are not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There is the law.”

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

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

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

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

“It is also written thou shalt not kill.”

“In this case…it is permitted.”

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

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

“Let him go,” Elkanah heard himself speak.

“Master?” Uzziel asked.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Basketball in the Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I suppose so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shook his head.

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know,” he shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

“He talked a lot about himself?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” he said grimly.

“It was often that way?”

He nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Frank?” she prodded.

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

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

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

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

“So what happened?” she finally asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

In Stars and Stones

astronomy constellation dark dawn
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The first thing that the astronomers of the Mauna Key Observatory made clear to the public was that our solar system is in constant movement through the galaxy. Some of the general populace would already be aware of this, but the scientific community had long since learned to speak to the lowest common denominator when presenting new scientific discoveries. And so they explained that just as how our moon orbits the earth and it in turn orbits the sun, so also the sun orbits the center of the Milky Way Galaxy and it in turn orbits the far off center of the Virgo Supercluster. It was that last statement was the part that was a discovery, for all prior research had suggested that our galaxy orbited no central mass, only that it ever drew nearer to its neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy.

For the time being they had no explanation as to why this inter-galactic movement had never before been noticed, but cheerfully assured they would keep the public updated on this most fascinating of developments. The public, as a whole, were mildly entertained by the news but little further thought was given to the revelation.

Coincidentally, in that same year another discovery came to light which made far more of an impact on modern culture. In the midst of the ongoing Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, some seismic shifts had collapsed a large portion of their borehole and then filled it with a number of archaeological artifacts such as had never before been seen. What was most notable, though, was that these items featured unmistakable signs of synthetic materials, suggesting a community that possessed a technology which belied the age to which they must have belonged.

*

Seven years had passed since the first reports on the galaxy’s movement towards the center of the Virgo Supercluster, and each of the major astronomical observatories had confirmed the findings of the Mauna Key Obervatory. As each establishment published the results of their research, though, each claimed that the rate of the galaxy’s movement was slightly greater than that which had been measured by any of the preceding publications. By this pattern it soon became evident that the movement was accelerating, and doing so at a rate of that was greater than anticipated.

The full implications of this could not be fully extrapolated though. It was becoming abundantly evident that the scientific community possessed neither sophisticated enough models nor detailed enough data to predict future outcomes with any degree of confidence. The distances were simply too large and the rate of motion too great. Thus it was that mathematicians and physicists committed themselves to providing more robust systems for analyzing these extremes.

Meanwhile the archaeologists were facing steep obstacles in the case of the ancient relics uncovered by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. The first hurdle had to do with the fact that the IODP’s mission statement was solely to bore a hole to the earth’s mantle, a massive undertaking in and of itself. The research of ancient civilizations was simply not on the agenda. That did not mean that the program’s board was disinterested, but that all of their specialized drilling equipment was funded by a great number of investors whose personal needs had to be represented in their operational decisions.

The program did, at least, agree to halt all further drilling efforts for three months, while a conference was held for all interested parties to come to an agreeable resolution. The outcome of these proceedings was that the financial institutions behind the IODP agreed to a seven-year loan of their project, to any party conducting research into the ancient civilization, providing said party could raise sufficient funds. The exact quantity of those sufficient funds was never publicly disclosed, but it was public knowledge that several leading governments contributed significantly to securing the contract for a coalition of top archaeological institutions. All of the resources available to the IODP, including their drilling ship, the Chikyu, and all of its equipment and manpower were assigned to this new outfit.

The second challenge that the archaeological community faced was in identifying an approach for ultra-deep excavation. Securing pieces and drawing them up to the surface would destroy all by the sturdiest of the relics, and it was a physical impossibility to dig a large enough channel down to such an immense depth, thus ruling out more traditional excavation techniques.

*

Four years later all astronomers were in agreement that the momentum of our galaxy was accelerating at an alarming rate. It had even reached the point where backyard hobbyists were noticing their night skies changing by the slightest of degrees. Again, some acceleration had always been expected, but this large of a change was unprecedented. All projected trajectories and timelines for this orbit were updated, and the natural conclusion was that the orbit was not shaped like the wide, circular path of a planet around the sun. Instead it was more akin to the long, drawn out ellipsoid of a comet.

Under this theory it stood to reason that until just recently the galaxy had been in the most outer limits of that orbit. At that point its movement would have been so slow that it was virtually imperceptible, and thus had never been noted until this time. Of course the implication of this theory was that this orbit passed even nearer to the Virgo Supercluster’s core than originally anticipated. Indeed the proximity would be so near that its effects on the planet would be devastating.

It was determined not to share these speculations with the general public, given that they truly were speculations. Yet, as mentioned, even hobbyists were starting to see the rapid changes and it was not be long before they began to draw the same conclusions for themselves.

The tension in the astronomer circles was in stark contrast to the excitement in rippling through the archaeological community. At long last they were able to develop a process by which slices of deep earth could be flooded and then siphoned upwards to the surface for testing. What was extracted by this process would be greatly fragmented and somewhat homogenized, but not to such a degree that the separate elements’ composition could not be evaluated. In addition, the safe retrieval of some small and individual relics could be accomplished through the use of durable tunneling robots, which were to be lowered to specific areas of interest through specially drilled boreholes.

The flooding and siphoning process was completed first, and every component was passed through triage into categories of cultural, structural, and natural origin. A barrage of tests was then conducted on each category and the carbon dating estimates cast the entire project into deeper intrigue. Every sample, regardless of which category of it had been drawn from, dated to the same point of time several hundreds of millions of years ago. More than three hundred million at least, and quite possibly more than six.

This alarming result left the scientific community unable to resolve this ancient culture with any of the existing historical timelines of the earth. Either an inexplicably ancient and intelligent civilization truly did exist many millions of years before even the dinosaurs walked the earth, or else all of the scientifically approved methods for dating elements were fundamentally flawed and the entire prehistoric record would be called into question.

Added to these perplexities was the further analysis conducted on the synthetic materials which had been extracted. It was determined that the necessary methods for producing these composites was of such a sophistication as to put it on par with modern steel and titanium. This was irrefutable evidence that these ancient beings possessed a degree of intelligence and technology that rivalled even our own. A civilization much like ours on an earth so ancient that our evolutionary ancestors had not yet crawled out the ponds.

*

Another five years and the acceleration of the world had reached such magnitude that it was visible in the night sky. The appearances of “shooting stars” were constant, as another million tons of passing space debris burned in the atmosphere every second. A few degrees off of the equator a comet-like tail extended far out into space, formed by all of the evaporated moisture, each day growing ever longer and brighter.

Every estimate of the galaxy’s movement was outdated by the time it was published, and astronomers grappled with the fundamental problem of not being able to chart distant celestial bodies before they had already been passed by. This became known as the “train outrunning its own light conundrum” and the so the world flew blindly on.

Simulations were only capable enough to illustrate the “general” trajectory of this orbit, and there was a great deal of concern about what exactly would happen when the world reached proximity to the center of the Virgo Supercluster. This point now had been given a name: the Pericore. Similarly the point furthest from the cluster was now referred to as the Apocore. The general consensus was that as the earth approached this Pericore it would be subjected to unimaginable forces of acceleration, heat, and gravitational pull, but the specifics of how these would manifest was mostly speculation.

World governments tried to quell the ensuing panics, calling for order as they initiated construction of deep, underground bunkers. Though they promised that the best minds would find a way to preserve humanity, those same best minds knew that there was no possible hope. The most likely outcome was that the entire planet would to be scorched from its peaks to its core for centuries. The atmosphere would be disintegrated, all life would be destroyed, and the earth would be left as dry and empty as the moon.

Immediately before the astronomers broke their silence on the doom they saw ahead, the archaeologists claimed their ultimate prize in the form of ancient writing from the prehistoric civilization. The figures had been deeply engraved into a hyper-compressed cube of some glass-like material. It was too large to retrieve up to the surface, but after digging a series of additional bore-holes and flushing away the surrounding sediment, they succeeded in reaching the artifact with a team of robots. These were manipulated to rotate and photograph the entirety of the artifact for further analysis.

Linguistic experts and cryptographers alike were called on to collectively decipher the characters’ meaning, and soon a rough translation emerged. This accomplishment was greatly helped by the fact that this record had been designed for interpretation, as evidenced by how the piece was structured.

On the first face of the glass cube gave a sequence of numerical quantities, with corresponding representative symbols beside them. There then followed basic operations on those quantities to establish a shorthand for mathematics. These mathematical expressions included binary operations for ideas such as “and,” “not”, “all,” and “exists.”

The second face of the cube featured a series of pictures filled with geometric shapes. Though each of these was different in style from one another, it was realized they were all varied representation of the same concepts: those of planets, solar systems, and other celestial bodies.

With the foundation of those first two faces, the third could now be properly understood. This one defined a core vocabulary, by first defining objects and then operations and states that pertained to them. For example the scale of the planet defined on the second face was paired with a small fraction defined on the first face to give the dimensions of a much smaller entity, one which answered roughly to that of a humanoid. These entities were combined with the symbols established for mathematical addition and subtraction to communicate ideas such as birth, growth, and death, and again all of these combined ideas were then associated with a single symbol for the word that represented this.

On the fourth face the cube finally began to deliver its message in earnest. It described many people at great distance from each other spread all across the planet. It suggested that a portion of these people spent their time measuring the stars that passed by.

The fifth face described a galaxy shown to be moving along a massive, elongated orbit. It gave figures for the distance of that orbit and the time it took for the galaxy to transition through it. The record drew special attention to the point of the orbit where the galaxy grew nearest to a cluster of other stars.

The sixth face used depictions for many different forms of death. The death of “all” was specifically emphasized. After this mass destruction it illustrated the galaxy continuing along its orbit back away from the star cluster. At one point it passed through a cloud of some sort, the meaning of which was not explicitly defined. After passing through that cloud, though, there came many of the symbols representing the ideas of “birth” or “life.”

The general consensus was that the cube’s authors had spied a fertile cloud of elements and gas which stood in the latter half of the galaxy’s orbit. This cloud would be able to replenish the earth back to a state of supporting life, and that life would perhaps evolve and become an intelligent society. And by their intelligence that society could one day find this ancient record, the record of those that had been before. A record written moments before they were all blended into the ground with fervent heat in a burning that was destined to rise again.

***

As rough as I feel this week’s short story still is, things started for it in a far messier place! As mentioned in my post on Monday, every story’s first draft requires a multitude of cleansing passes and iterating to brush away all the noise and dirt until the true story finally shine through. It’s a process that takes a great deal of time, and is as important as any other phase of crafting a story.

In the case of these blog posts I do need to meet a deadline, one which I’m already late in meeting, and so my short stories do not have the full benefit of this process. That being said I do take time to refine these stories as much as I can within my constraints, and I would never dream of posting my initial rough draft out here for the public to see…well, aside from just this once!

In order to better illustrate the points I said in my Monday post I will not present my original first draft of this story and then the same draft with the edit marks throughout which ultimately led me to the final version you’ve just read.

 

ORIGINAL FIRST DRAFT

The first thing that the astronomers of the Mauna Key Observatory had to make clear to the public was that our solar system is in constant movement through the galaxy. Of course some of the general populace would already be aware of this, but you always tried to speak to the lowest common denominator when approaching new scientific discovering. And so they explained that just as how our moon orbits earth which in turn orbits the sun, so also the sun orbits the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, which in turn orbits the far off center of the Virgo Supercluster, of which it is a part. That alone was a very notable discovery, for all prior research had suggested that our galaxy orbited no central mass, only that it ever drew nearer to its neighboring Andromeda Galaxy.

For the time being they had no explanation to offer as to why this inter-galactic movement had never before been noticed, but cheerfully assured they would keep the public updated on this most fascinating of developments.

Coincidentally, other surprising news came to light in the midst of the ongoing Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. After some seismic shifts collapsed a large portion of their borehole, the researchers there discovered it had been and then filled with a number of artifacts of archaeological importance. What was most notable was that these items featured unmistakable signs of synthetic materials, even though they were found at a depth that would make them predate even the oldest of dinosaurs.

*

A number of years had passed since the first reports of the Milky Way galaxy’s movement towards the center of the Virgo Supercluster. Each of the other major astronomical observatories had conducted their own experiments in relation to the Mauna Key Obervatory’s findings and all agreed with the conclusions that had been presented. As each establishment published their confirmation, though, it became a pattern that each stated that the rate of movement towards the supercluster core was slightly greater than had been measured by each of the previous publications. It soon was evident that the rate of movement was accelerating. This was by no means unusual, only that the rate of that acceleration seemed greater than anticipated.

The full implications of this were yet to be fully extrapolated though. For the time being what was most evident was that the scientific community at large did not possess either sophisticated enough models nor detailed enough data to predict future outcomes with any degree of confidence. The distances were simply too large and the rate of motion too great. Thus it was that mathematicians and physicists were put under great demand to provide more robust systems for analyzing these extremes.

Meanwhile the archaeologists were only barely beginning to make any headway in the case of excavating the ancient relics uncovered by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. The first hurdle had, of course, to do with the fact that the IODP’s mission statement and basis for funding had nothing to do with the research of ancient civilizations. That was not to say that the members of the program’s board were disinterested, but that all of their specialized drilling equipment was the property of a great number of investors whose personal needs had to be represented in their operation decisions.

The program did, at least, agree to halt all further drilling efforts for three months, during which a conference was held where all interested parties could hopefully come to an agreeable resolution. The outcome of these proceedings was that the financial institutions behind the IODP agreed to seven-year loan of their project, the drilling ship Chikyu, and all other relevant equipment and resources necessary to any party capable of carrying out research into the ancient civilization providing they could raise sufficient funds. The exact quantity of those sufficient funds was never publicly disclosed, but it was common knowledge that several leading governments contributed significantly to securing the contract for a coalition of top archaeological institutions.

The second challenge that the archaeological community faced was in identifying an approach for ultra-deep excavation practices. Grabbing pieces and drawing them up to the surface as had been done with the first discoveries would destroy all by the sturdiest of the relics, and it simply was not an option to dig any reasonably large channel down to such an immense depth for more traditional excavation techniques.

*

Four years later and all astronomers were in agreement that the momentum of our galaxy was accelerating at an alarming rate. It had even reached the point that backyard hobbyists were noticing that their night skies were starting to change by the slightest of degrees. Again, some acceleration had always been expected, but this large of a rate of increase had the scientist’s updating their projected trajectories and timelines for this orbit. The natural conclusion was that the wide circular pattern of a planet around the sun was not the correct shape for their movement. Instead it was more akin to the long, drawn out ellipsoid of a comet.

Under this theory it stood to reason that the last several hundred million years had seen the galaxy at the zenith of its furthest reaches in that orbit, the point where its movement would be so slow that it was virtually imperceptible and thus why it had never been noted until this time. Of course the implications of this theory were that at its nearest point this orbit were even nearer to the Virgo Supercluster’s core than originally anticipated. Indeed the point would by necessity be so near that its effects on the planet would be devastating.

It was determined not to share these speculations with the general public, given that they truly were only speculations. Yet as mentioned, even hobbyists were starting to see the rapid changes and it would not be long before the more insightful of them began to draw the same conclusions for themselves.

The tension in the astronomer circles was countered by excitement in the archaeological community. After a great deal of innovation and experimentation they were able to develop a process by which slices of deep earth could be flooded and then siphoned upwards with acceptable damage to interned artifacts. What would arrive would be greatly fragmented and somewhat homogenized, but not to such a degree that the separate parts’ composition could not be evaluated. In addition, individual holes would be bored into particular areas of interest, through which durable tunneling robots could be lowered for limited retrieval of smaller and more delicate relics.

By the nature of the two extraction methods the flooding and siphoning process completed first and every component was passed through triage into various assumed categories of cultural, structural, and natural. Separate tests were done on each category in order to ascertain whether the context of this ancient civilization was at odds to the culture itself. Or in other words, this discovery was so deep in the earth that it did not make sense for it to belong there naturally, yet there was no explanation for what sort of cataclysmic event could have been buried a community to such an extent.

Each of the tests returned and the carbon dating estimates did nothing to alleviate the scientific community’s complexity. The structural, cultural, and natural remnants all dated to the same point of time several hundreds of millions of years ago. More than three hundred million, that was clear, quite possibly more than six.

This conclusion led to more than one theory among the public that the archaeological community was attempting to pull some elaborate hoax. The scientific community meanwhile had no satisfactory way to resolve this news with any of the theoretical timelines for this earth and its creatures’ evolution. The implications were either that an unexplainably ancient civilization truly did exist since even before the dinosaurs walked the earth, or else all methods for dating the world were fundamentally flawed and all grounding for the entire prehistoric record was upturned.

Added to these complexities was the analysis on the synthetic materials which had been extracted from this ancient period. The methods of producing these composites was unfamiliar to any known chemical process, but the sophistication of it was on par with modern steel and titanium. Perhaps it was even somewhat superior. This seemed to suggest that even if these ancient beings were not humanoid in their original appearance, they were human-like in their degree of intelligence and technology. A civilization like us on a world so ancient that our ancestors had not yet crawled out the ponds. That news gave even the skeptics a moment of contemplative pause.

*

Another five years and the acceleration of the world had reached such speeds that it was visible in the night sky. The appearance of “shooting stars” were everywhere as millions of tons of passing space debris were burned up in the passing atmosphere. A few degrees off of the equator a comet-like tail was forming from all of their evaporated moisture and each fortnight it could be seen from another degree of longitude’s distance.

Every estimate of the galaxy’s progress through along its arc was long since outdated by the time it was published and astronomers still grappled with the fundamental problem of not being able to measure distant enough celestial bodies before they had already been surpassed. This became known as the “train outrunning its own light conundrum” and the result was that the world flew blindly.

Simulations were useful only to illustrate the “generally” perceived trajectory of this orbit and the current progress along it. There was a great deal of concern as to what would happen when the world reached proximity to the center of the Virgo Supercluster, a point which now had been given a name of its own: the Pericore. A name was naturally derived from the similar terms Perigee and Perihelion, and similarly the point furthest from the cluster was now referred to as the Apocore. The general consensus was that as the earth approached the Pericore it was destined to be subjected to unimaginable forces of acceleration, heat, and gravitational pull.

World governments naturally tried to quell the ensuing panics, calling for order and loudly initiating construction of deep, underground bunkers. Though they promised that the best minds could find a way to preserve their people and cultures, those same best minds knew there was no possible hope to be found. The best estimates were that the entire planet was going to be scorched from its peaks to its core for a duration of at least several centuries. If a material existed that could withstand the heat, which it did not, then food and other resources would shortly be consumed and any survivors would be left on husk as dry and empty as that of our moon.

Before the astronomers’ discoveries were brought to light, the archaeologists had successfully claimed an ultimate prize in the form of ancient writing from the prehistoric civilization. The words had been engraved deeply into a hyper-compressed cube of glass. After a series of digging additional bore-holes, and flushing away surrounding sediment they succeeded in using a team of robots to both turn and photograph the entirety of the artifact for research.

The photographs were shared publicly and linguistic experts and cryptographers alike collectively worked to decipher the characters’ meaning. It soon became evident that this record had been intended as a message to foreign beings, as the piece began by establishing core principles of the culture’s language.

On one face of the glass cube was a sequence of numerical quantities and operations on them with corresponding symbols that established a shorthand for basic mathematics. These mathematical operations included binary definitions for ideas such as “and,” “not”, “all,” and “exists.” The next face then featured a series of pictures, each determined to be a different representation of the same concepts: those of planets in a solar system.

With these established, the two faces’ information combined to bring meaning to a third, one where relationships between the celestial bodies and the scale between them were used to illustrate galaxies, planets, and even entities whose sizes answered roughly to that of a humanoid. These entities were illustrated in various interactions including birth, growth, and death, and again all of these ideas were then associated with a symbol for the word that represented this.

On the fourth face the cube began to deliver its message in earnest. It spelled out a statement of many people at great distance from each other spread all across the earth. It suggested that a portion of these people spent their time measuring the celestial bodies that they passed by.

The fifth face began again with pictures showing a galaxy moving along a massive orbit like a comet around some massive cluster of stars. It gave figures for the distance of that orbit and the time it took for the galaxy to transition through it. It drew special attention to the point of the orbit where the galaxy grew nearest the cluster of stars.

The sixth face showed numerous depictions different forms of death. The death of “all” was greatly emphasized. After the mass destruction it showed the galaxy continuing on its orbit back towards its Apocore. At that point it passed through a cloud of some sort, the meaning of which was not explicitly defined, but after doing so were symbols representing the ideas of “birth” or “life.” The general consensus was that the message suggested a fertile cloud of element and gas stood in the orbit of the planet and would replenish it back to a state of being able to support life.

Life that would perhaps evolve and grow over untold eons, perhaps even become intelligent. And by that intelligence that society may even one day be able to find this record of those that had been before, a record written moments before they were blended into the ground with fervent heat.

***

 

DRAFT EDITS
Bold text represents an addition, strikethrough represents a removal.

The first thing that the astronomers of the Mauna Key Observatory had to make made clear to the public was that our solar system is in constant movement through the galaxy. Of course Some of the general populace would already be aware of this, but the scientific community had long since learned you always tried to speak to the lowest common denominator when approaching presenting new scientific discovering discoveries. And so they explained that just as how our moon orbits the earth and it which in turn orbits the sun, so also the sun orbits the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, which and it in turn orbits the far off center of the Virgo Supercluster, of which it is a part. It was that last statement was the part that was a discovery, That alone was a very notable discovery, for all prior research had suggested that our galaxy orbited no central mass, only that it ever drew nearer to its neighboring, the Andromeda Galaxy.

For the time being they had no explanation to offer as to why this inter-galactic movement had never before been noticed, but cheerfully assured they would keep the public updated on this most fascinating of developments. The public, as a whole, were mildly entertained by the news but little further thought was given to the revelation.

Coincidentally, in that same year other surprising news another discovery came to light which made far more of an impact on modern culture. In the midst of the ongoing Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, After some seismic shifts had collapsed a large portion of their borehole, the researchers there discovered it had been and then filled it with a number of archaeological artifacts such as had never before been seen. of archaeological importance. What was most notable, though, was that these items featured unmistakable signs of synthetic materials, suggesting a community that possessed a technology which belied the age to which they must have belonged. even though they were found at a depth that would make them predate even the oldest of dinosaurs.

Many of the general populace received that news with complete skepticism, assuming the Drilling Program was having a joke at their expense. Every scientist involved in the ongoing investigation and extraction, though, considered this find to be the most significant of the last two or three centuries.

*

A number of Seven years had passed since the first reports on of the Milky Way galaxy’s movement towards the center of the Virgo Supercluster., and each of the other major astronomical observatories had conducted their own experiments in relation to confirmed the findings of the Mauna Key Obervatory’s findings and all agreed with the conclusions that had been presented. As each establishment published the results of their research their confirmation, though, it became a pattern that each stated claimed that the rate of the galaxy’s movement towards the supercluster core was slightly greater than that which had been measured by each any of the preceding previous publications. By this pattern it soon became was evident that the rate of movement was accelerating, and doing so at a This was by no means unusual, only that the rate of that was acceleration seemed greater than anticipated.

The full implications of this were yet to could not be fully extrapolated though. It was becoming abundantly evident For the time being what was most evident was that the scientific community at large did not possessed neither sophisticated enough models nor detailed enough data to predict future outcomes with any degree of confidence. The distances were simply too large and the rate of motion too great. Thus it was that mathematicians and physicists were put under great demand to committed themselves to providing more robust systems for analyzing these extremes.

Meanwhile the archaeologists were only barely beginning to make any headway facing steep obstacles in the case of excavating the ancient relics uncovered by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. The first hurdle had, of course, to do with the fact that the IODP’s mission statement and basis for funding had nothing to do with the was solely to bore a hole to the earth’s mantle, a massive undertaking in and of itself. The research of ancient civilizations was simply not on the agenda. That was did not to say mean that the members of the program’s board were disinterested, but that all of their specialized drilling equipment was funded by the property of a great number of investors whose personal needs had to be represented in their operational decisions.

The program did, at least, agree to halt all further drilling efforts for three months, during which while a conference was held where for all interested parties could hopefully to come to an agreeable resolution. The outcome of these proceedings was that the financial institutions behind the IODP agreed to a seven-year loan of their project, the drilling ship Chikyu, and all other relevant equipment and resources necessary to any party capable of carrying out conducting research into the ancient civilization, providing they said party could raise sufficient funds. The exact quantity of those sufficient funds was never publicly disclosed, but it was common public knowledge that several leading governments contributed significantly to securing the contract for a coalition of top archaeological institutions. All of the resources available to the IODP, including their drilling ship, the Chikyu, and all of its equipment and manpower were assigned to this new outfit.

The second challenge that the archaeological community faced was in identifying an approach for ultra-deep excavation practices. Grabbing Securing pieces and drawing them up to the surface as had been done with the first discoveries would destroy all by the sturdiest of the relics, and it simply was not an option was a physical impossibility to dig any reasonably a large enough channel down to such an immense depth, thus ruling out for more traditional excavation techniques.

*

Four years later and all astronomers were in agreement that the momentum of our galaxy was accelerating at an alarming rate. It had even reached the point that where backyard hobbyists were noticing that their night skies were starting to change changing by the slightest of degrees. Again, some acceleration had always been expected, but this large of a rate of increase change was unprecedented. had the scientist’s updating their All projected trajectories and timelines for this orbit were updated, and the natural conclusion was that the orbit was not shaped like the wide, circular pattern path of a planet around the sun was not the correct shape for their movement. Instead it was more akin to the long, drawn out ellipsoid of a comet.

Under this theory it stood to reason that until just recently the last several hundred million years had seen the galaxy at the zenith of its furthest reaches in had been in the most outer limits of that orbit. At that the point where its movement would have been so slow that it was virtually imperceptible, and thus why it had never been noted until this time. Of course the implications of this theory were was that at its nearest point this orbit were passed even nearer to the Virgo Supercluster’s core than originally anticipated. Indeed the point proximity would by necessity be so near that its effects on the planet would be devastating.

It was determined not to share these speculations with the general public, given that they truly were only speculations. Yet, as mentioned, even hobbyists were starting to see the rapid changes and it would was not be long before the more insightful of them they began to draw the same conclusions for themselves.

The tension in the astronomer circles was countered by in stark contrast to the excitement in rippling through the archaeological community. After a great deal of innovation and experimentation At long last they were able to develop a process by which slices of deep earth could be flooded and then siphoned upwards with acceptable damage to interned artifacts to the surface for testing. What would arrive was extracted by this process would be greatly fragmented and somewhat homogenized, but not to such a degree that the separate parts’ elements’ composition could not be evaluated. In addition, the safe retrieval of some small and individual relics could be accomplished through the use of individual holes would be bored into particular areas of interest, through which durable tunneling robots, which were to could be lowered to specific areas of interest through specially drilled boreholes. for limited retrieval of smaller and more delicate relics.

By the nature of the two extraction methods The flooding and siphoning process was completed first, and every component was passed through triage into various assumed categories of cultural, structural, and natural origin. Separate A barrage of tests were conducted done on each category, in order to ascertain whether the context of this ancient civilization was at odds to the culture itself. Or in other words, this discovery was so deep in the earth that it did not make sense for it to belong there naturally, yet there was no explanation for what sort of cataclysmic event could have been buried a community to such an extent.

Each of the tests returned and the carbon dating estimates cast the entire project into deeper intrigue. did nothing to alleviate the scientific community’s complexity. The structural, cultural, and natural remnants all Every sample, regardless of which category of it had been drawn from, dated to the same point of time several hundreds of millions of years ago. More than three hundred million that was clear, at least, and quite possibly more than six.

This conclusion led to more than one theory among the public that the archaeological community was attempting to pull some elaborate hoax. The This alarming result left the scientific community meanwhile had no satisfactory way unable to resolve this news ancient culture with any of the existing theoretical historical timelines of the earth. for this earth and its creatures’ evolution. The implications were Either that an unexplainably inexplicably ancient and intelligent civilization truly did exist since many millions of years before even the dinosaurs walked the earth, or else all of the scientifically approved methods for dating elements the world were fundamentally flawed and all grounding for the entire prehistoric record was upturned would be called into question.

Added to these complexities perplexities was the further analysis conducted on the synthetic materials which had been extracted from this ancient period. It was determined that the necessary The methods of for producing these composites was unfamiliar to any known chemical process, but the of such a sophistication of it was as to put it on par with modern steel and titanium. Perhaps it was even somewhat superior. This seemed to suggest was irrefutable evidence that even if these ancient beings were not humanoid in their original appearance, they were human-like in their possessed a degree of intelligence and technology that rivalled even our own. A civilization much like ours like us on an world earth so ancient that our evolutionary ancestors had not yet crawled out the ponds. That news gave even the skeptics a moment of contemplative pause.

*

Another five years and the acceleration of the world had reached such speeds magnitude that it was visible in the night sky. The appearance of “shooting stars” were everywhere constant, as another millions of tons of passing space debris were burned up in the passing atmosphere every second. A few degrees off of the equator a comet-like tail extended far out into space, was forming from formed by all of their evaporated moisture, each day growing ever longer and brighter. and each fortnight it could be seen from another degree of longitude’s distance.

Every estimate of the galaxy’s movement progress through along its arc was long since outdated by the time it was published, and astronomers still grappled with the fundamental problem of not being able to chart measure distant enough celestial bodies before they had already been surpassed by. This became known as the “train outrunning its own light conundrum” and the result was that so the world flew blindly on.

Simulations were useful only capable enough to illustrate the “generallyperceived trajectory of this orbit, and the current progress along it. and there was a great deal of concern as to about what exactly would happen when the world reached proximity to the center of the Virgo Supercluster., a This point which now had been given a name of its own: the Pericore. A name was naturally derived from the similar terms Perigee and Perihelion, and Similarly the point furthest from the cluster was now referred to as the Apocore. The general consensus was that as the earth approached the this Pericore it was destined to would be subjected to unimaginable forces of acceleration, heat, and gravitational pull, but the specifics of how these would manifest was mostly speculation.

World governments naturally tried to quell the ensuing panics, calling for order and loudly initiating as they initiated construction of deep, underground bunkers. Though they promised that the best minds could would find a way to preserve humanity their people and cultures, those same best minds knew that there was no possible hope. to be found. The best estimates were most likely outcome was that the entire planet was going would to be scorched from its peaks to its core for a duration of at least several centuries. If a material existed that could withstand the heat, which it did not, The atmosphere would be disintegrated, all life would be destroyed, and the earth then food and other resources would shortly be consumed, and any survivors  would be left on a husk as dry and empty as that of our the moon.

Immediately before the astronomers broke their silence on the doom they saw ahead discoveries were brought to light, the archaeologists had successfully claimed an their ultimate prize in the form of ancient writing from the prehistoric civilization. The figures words had been deeply engraved deeply into a hyper-compressed cube of some glass-like material. It was too large to retrieve up to the surface, but after a series of digging a series of additional bore-holes and flushing away the surrounding sediment, they succeeded in reaching the artifact with using a team of robots. These were manipulated to both turn rotate and photograph the entirety of the artifact for research further analysis.

The photographs were shared publicly and Linguistic experts and cryptographers alike were called on to collectively worked to decipher the characters’ meaning, and soon a rough translation emerged. This accomplishment was greatly helped by the fact It soon became evident that this record had been designed for interpretation, as evidenced by how intended as a message to foreign beings, as the piece was structured. began by establishing core principles of the culture’s language.

On the first one face of the glass cube was gave a sequence of numerical quantities, with corresponding representative symbols beside them. There then followed and basic operations on those quantities to them, with corresponding symbols that established a shorthand for basic mathematics. These mathematical expressions operations included binary definitions operations for ideas such as “and,” “not”, “all,” and “exists.”

The second next face then of the cube featured a series of pictures filled with geometric shapes. Though each of these was different in style from one another, it was realized they were all varied determined to be a different representation of the same concepts: those of planets, in a solar systems, and other celestial bodies.

With these established, the foundation of those first two faces, information combined to bring meaning to a the third could now be properly understood. This one defined a core vocabulary, by first defining objects and then operations and states that pertained to them. For example the scale of the planet defined on the second face was paired with a small fraction defined on the first face to give the dimensions of a much smaller entity, one which one where relationships between the celestial bodies and the scale between them were used to illustrate galaxies, planets, and even entities whose sizes answered roughly to that of a humanoid. These entities were combined with the symbols established for mathematical addition and subtraction to communicate ideas such as illustrated in various interactions including birth, growth, and death, and again all of these combined ideas were then associated with a single symbol for the word that represented this.

On the fourth face the cube finally began to deliver its message in earnest. It spelled out a statement of described many people at great distance from each other spread all across the planet earth. It suggested that a portion of these people spent their time measuring the stars celestial bodies that they passed by.

The fifth face began again with pictures showing described a galaxy shown to be moving along a massive, elongated orbit like a comet around some massive cluster of stars. It gave figures for the distance of that orbit and the time it took for the galaxy to transition through it. It The record drew special attention to the point of the orbit where the galaxy grew nearest the to a cluster of other stars.

The sixth face showed numerous used depictions for many different forms of death. The death of “all” was greatly specifically emphasized. After the this mass destruction it illustrated showed the galaxy continuing along on its orbit back towards its Apocore away from the star cluster. At that one point it passed through a cloud of some sort, the meaning of which was not explicitly defined. After passing through that cloud, though, but after doing so were there came many of the symbols representing the ideas of “birth” or “life.”

The general consensus was that the cube’s authors had spied message suggested a fertile cloud of elements and gas which stood in the latter half of the galaxy’s orbit. of the planet and would This cloud would be able to replenish it the earth back to a state of being able to supporting life, and that life that would perhaps evolve and grow over untold eons, perhaps even become an intelligent society. And by that their intelligence that society could may even one day be able to find this ancient record, the record of those that had been before. A record written moments before they were all blended into the ground with fervent heat in a burning that was destined to rise again.

***

 

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Did the number of edits surprise you? I don’t usually visibly mark my corrections, so I personally was pretty amazed at how many of them stacked up by the time I was done. And as mentioned before, “done” in this instance is actually far more limited because of the blog deadline, for my more personal stories this would merely be the first of many transformations. I think you can really get a sense that the story you first write a draft of and the story you finally publish are two entirely different creations.

Now obviously in today’s little fiction I have invoked the name of science while presenting a story whose details boldly defy scientific reason. For example, there is no rational explanation for how any remnants of an ancient civilization could have survived the long march of time, let alone the complete devastation that I describe the earth being subjected to.

Obviously I had to make a decision where the line between realism and suspension of disbelief fell, and this is where it left me. This is certainly a question that often comes up when writing a story, and I’ll look into the topic in greater detail with my next blog post on Monday. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!

The Wolf in the Room

gray timber wolf
Photo by Matej on Pexels.com

Doctor Barlow nodded to the attendant standing by the control panel for the “green” room. He stepped up to the metal door’s reinforced glass window and peered in at his patient: poor Lucian Thorpe. The small, nervous man was sitting on the edge of his cot in a daze, his eyes staring absently into thoughts only he could know. There came the loud click of the door’s mechanical lock releasing and Lucian snapped out of his reverie and locked eyes with Doctor Barlow.

“Doctor Barlow!” Lucian exclaimed with nervous relief as the man crossed the threshold into the small room. “I had been hoping to—” his voice trailed off at the sight of the armed guard entering in behind Doctor Barlow and standing at attention against the back wall.

Doctor Barlow followed Lucian’s gaze and gave an understanding laugh. “Oh, don’t worry about him,” he said with a carefree wave of the hand. “You must remember that this is a unique facility, and so it comes with all manner of unique protocols. He’s just here because he has to be, it’s nothing to do with you.”

Lucian nodded, though his eyes lingered a moment longer on the assault rifle that the guard held in his stiff hands.

“Now Lucian, can you tell me if you have been experiencing any other symptoms?”

The shock on Lucian’s face bordered on incredulity.

“I mean aside from the obvious.” For there were obvious symptoms. The yellow coloring of the eyes, the long gray wisps of hair sprouting all along the body, the jumbling of the teeth. Indeed, the extreme nature of these changes were eclipsed only by the rapidity in which they had occurred. When Lucian had been admitted to the facility two weeks ago he had been a full three inches taller and hadn’t even begun to form his tail.

“You mean how I feel?” Lucian sneered, the timidity suddenly melting from his face.
“Like I’m being eaten from the inside out! Does that count as a symptom?!”

Doctor Barlow made a check on the clipboard he clasped before him. The minuteness of it only aggravated Lucian further and he simultaneously snapped his shoulders back and his maw forward in a sudden snarl. Doctor Barlow immediately recoiled and the guard swung his gun up level to Lucian’s eyes.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Lucian whimpered, his apprehension rushing back as he covered his face and curled back onto the bed. “I’m just so mixed up,” he moaned. “Doctor, please, what’s going on?”

Doctor Barlow sighed and lifted thick glasses from his eyes, then massaged his face with his palm. “This is a complicated business, Lucian. To move things too quickly would only risk further injury. We don’t want to give you temporary relief, Lucian. You understand? We’re here to cure you.”

“Can you?” Fear mingled with skepticism.

Doctor Barlow smiled. “Of course we will. Why do you think you were brought here, Lucian? It was because we never fail at this facility. Already we’ve isolated your strain, duplicated it, and are hitting them with the full barrage of tests and treatments. One of them is going to stick.” Doctor Barlow reached out and firmly shook Lucian’s knee. “Doubt yourself if you must, son, but believe in me.”

Lucian’s eyes did not shine with hope. But he did believe that this was his only chance, and no matter how slim a chance that might be he wasn’t about to jeopardize it. So he simply nodded.

Doctor Barlow accepted the gesture and smiled as he rose to his feet. “I’m on my way to see the team now. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they’re already preparing the cure.”

Lucian started to raise his arms, clearly wanting to him to stay and give more details, but Doctor Barlow pretended not to notice and strode out of the room. The guard backed out after the doctor, then the door shut and the mechanical lock clicked back into place.

*

“Anything?” Doctor Barlow asked the other two specialists as he rubbed his tired eyes again.

“Of course not,” Doctor Hoeg scoffed. Over the past two weeks they had overseen dozens of tests and then reconvened dozens of times to discuss the complete nothingness that had been turned up by all of that work.

“Well that’s not quite true,” Doctor Gretzel scolded as she thumbed through her folder. “We have a new theory as to why we aren’t able to isolate the strain,” she offered, handing Doctor Barlow a sheet of distribution graphs. “Each of these was taken from the same blood sample at equal intervals of two hours. The extreme changes in the composition suggest that the thing is mutating rapidly. So much so that we can never track the same iteration from one test to the next.”

Hoeg actually laughed aloud at this. “Well that certainly seems like a promising path of inquiry then!”

“That is enough,” Barlow ordered calmly but firmly. “Act like the professional you’re supposed to be.”

“Fine.” Hoeg said shortly. “In my professional opinion we need to stop avoiding the obvious realities. We can’t identify anything about this strain, we can’t even identify if it is bacterial or viral. But what is clear is that what is happening to that boy is going to reach its culmination in a matter of weeks and we’ll be no closer to any answers than we are right now. Can we please have the discussion now of what we do when things take their course?”

Barlow inhaled long and audibly. Then exhaled still more forcefully. “Not yet,” he said evenly. “Not until we know where that course even goes.”

Hoeg shook his head in frustration, clearly wrestling with the thoughts he wanted to voice. The same ideas that all of them had thought but never dared say. “Have you been to see the canine today?” he finally asked. The fact that all of them consciously avoided calling the ‘canine’ by its common name was evidence enough that they were skirting around its myths.

Barlow shook his head. “I’m on my way there next.”

*

In another wing exactly like the one where Lucian was being held, Doctor Barlow peered through the window of another door into the “pink” room. He made no movement to enter this room, though, he only watched its occupant at a distance. When the canine had first been brought it was a creature of fits and spasms, constantly snapping at unseen afflictions and lunging viciously at anything that came too near. Now, though, the changes to its body had crippled it, subjecting it to a wakeful paralysis of twitches and shivers. The creature was obviously suffering, and even its breathing seemed to be a terrible labor.

Barlow watched it lying there on the floor, its chest rising and falling to unnatural extremes. Each exhale came out in long, guttural sighs, and was then followed by a rush of rasping inhales in quick succession. If things continued as they were, the creature would not be surviving much longer.

ONE WEEK LATER

Doctor Barlow paused a few feet back from the “green” room. Far enough back that he wouldn’t be within view of the window in the door. He glanced nervously to the guard at his side, but he just stared stoically ahead. Doctor Barlow took a deep breath, nodded to the attendant, and then took purposeful strides into Lucian’s quarters. Well, at least the quarters of the thing that had been Lucian anyway. The being that occupied these walls now barely resembled a human at all. Its back was deeply hunched and its limbs were unnaturally long and thin, with hands hanging so low they were nearly scraping along the floor. The lower face had extruded itself forward and the mouth and nose in particular were pulled out to a peak in front. What had at first seemed like an excess of hair was now clearly thick gray fur, and it covered nearly every inch of the body.

Doctor Barlow couldn’t repress a grimace and slight shake of the head. “Lucian?” he asked tentatively. “Can you hear me?”

The creature did not appear to understand, it just kept revolving awkwardly on the same spot in the corner of the room. It refused to meet eyes with Doctor Barlow, but there came a growl from its throat that finally formed into recognizable—though strained—words.

“I hear you,” Lucian croaked.

“Lucian, do you know who I am?”

A series of sniffs and pantings, then finally “Doctor.”

“Very good, Lucian,” Doctor Barlow praised. It wasn’t very good, though. Yesterday Lucian had still remembered his actual name. “You’re doing very well.”

“No more games!” Lucian snarled, his fur starting to bristle as he slowed his pacing to face Doctor Barlow directly..

“Lucian I am taking your case very seriously.”

“Then be serious!” Lucian started to raise himself as tall as possible, coming within a few inches of a regular man’s height.

Barlow sighed. “Obviously you are worried, Lucian, I understand that. But no matter what depths this reaches you must believe me that there is still hope. If you can be changed you one way you can be changed back the other.”

“Stop. Playing. Me!” Lucian took a step forward and the guard raised his rifle an inch.

Barlow removed his glasses, and rubbed his eyes. “What is it you want to hear, Lucian? That I don’t know what’s going to happen. That I don’t know anything anymore? Very well. I don’t.”

Lucian sneered. Then fell back to his pacing. “Did you find it?”

“Find what?”

“That wolf.”

“Oh. Yes, we found it.”

“How has it changed?”

“Changed? I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s just a simple canine. It’s had some blood work done, of course, but nothing else of note.”

Lucian bared his teeth in a long, sinister inhale that puffed him up larger. “Don’t lie to me!” he struggled to voice each word. “Every memory I lose I gain another. But not my memories. Hunting rabbits and drinking from streams and biting flesh… Biting Lucian.”

“Well I don’t think you should dwell on those thoughts, Lucian, that’s clearly just some fever dream, totally understandable.”

With a snap Lucian flung himself at Doctor Barlow, digging at him with his claw-like hands and snapping at his arm with sharp teeth. The guard swung his gun up to fire but the two men were too entwined for a clean shot, so he instead rushed forward and thrust the barrel of the gun into Lucian’s chest, hurling him back to the ground. Lucian landed on all fours, circled round, then leaped up again only to be caught by the butt of the rifle slamming between his eyes and crumpling him to the floor.

“Open the door!” the guard roared, seizing Barlow under the arms and half-supporting-half-dragging him out of the room. Once they cleared the door and it slammed shut Barlow struggled back to his feet and pushed the guard away.

“Sir, I—” the guard began.

“NO!” Doctor Barlow shrieked, his eyes manic. “No!” he threw his clipboard to the floor and continued to stare hatefully at the guard until he shifted his eyes to the ground. Barlow swung his penetrating gaze over to the attendant who also shifted her eyes down. Doctor Barlow gave them each a final scowl, then turned and strode out of the room.

*

An hour later a somewhat more composed Barlow stood outside of the “pink” room, staring at his other patient within. The canine had not died, in fact it had improved quite remarkably. Once the internal organs had shifted to support the new form it had started to thrive, growing more energetic each day. Enthusiastic even. It still moved about on four paws, but when it reached the walls it placed its hands against them and raised to a standing position. It even spoke with the attendants through the protective screen. English words, about the vocabulary of a three-year-old, but improving each day.

Hoeg and Gretzel stood on either side of Doctor Barlow.

“There’s no denying the eventualities now,” Gretzel mused as they watched the creature give a toddler-like smile as a cookie was deployed through a chute to its tray.

“No,” Barlow agreed. “And there’s no need debating the proper course of action to follow.”

“Of course there’s need!” Hoeg spat. “But evidently you two would rather not face your own consciences.” He shook his head. “Thinking you deserve to play god!”

Before this morning Barlow would likely have ignored the disrespect, but now he turned and puffed out his chest as he stared straight down Hoeg’s bitter eyes. “Do you not understand you little fool? Any action here is to play god. There is no right answer!” He sneered, then turned back to face the creature. “All that remains is the reputation of this facility…and you’re outranked.”

“And outvoted,” Gretzel added.

TWO WEEKS LATER

Lucian was finishing getting dressed in the “pink” room, smiling at Doctors Barlow and Gretzel as they went through his final questionnaire.

“Yes, that’s right,” Lucian answered. “I remember the bite, but nothing after that until I came to a week ago.”

They nodded satisfactorily and made simultaneous checks on their clipboards.

“We know it wasn’t easy for you to stay an extra week with us, but I’m sure you understand it was necessary for us to be thorough?” Barlow asked, pausing a moment to scratch at his arm.

“Oh, of course.”

Barlow grinned. “Well I think I’m satisfied.” He looked sideways to Doctor Gretzel. “How about you?”

“Me too,” she grinned back. “What about you, Lucian? Ready to get out of here?”

He laughed as he rose to his feet. “Definitely!”

“Let’s get you to that family of yours,” Doctor Barlow nodded as the three of them left the room and made their way towards the waiting room. As they went, Doctor Gretzel explained the package they’d be sending him home with and the instructions for self-monitoring his conditions for the next two months. She also assured him that all of his questions would be addressed in the medical brief that was included as well. Doctor Barlow alternated between nodding in agreement and persisting at that itch under his long shirtsleeve.

Meanwhile, over in the “green” room the guard waited behind the half-closed door while the tranquilizer took effect. The large wolf’s bared teeth relaxed their growl, its lids slowly drooped, and finally its head rolled back onto the floor unconscious. The guard entered the room and quickly attached a muzzle to the sleeping dog, then slid it into a metal carrier which he padlocked shut.

It was the one concession they had allowed Doctor Hoeg, something to help ease his conscience. The specimen wasn’t to be dissected for future research, rather it would be flown to the wilds of Canada, somewhere a thousand miles from the nearest human civilization. Somewhere it could be forgotten back to the myths and legends where it properly belonged.

***

On Monday I spent some time advocating for a kinder and more productive form of critical analysis on an author’s work. My main points in this pattern of feedback was that the reviewer should first identify the accomplishments of what has been written, suggest improvements that could lift the story still higher, and close with a vision of what the story could then become in its most ideal form.

So to start off, in this week’s story I do think I’ve developed a unique and interesting interpretation on a classic myth, that of the werewolf. I also like how this story reaches natural conclusion, but one that ends with questions that could be picked up on later. Is Doctor Barlow being changed now? Is the new Lucian truly the same as before?

Areas that I feel could be enhanced are both general and specific. Generally I feel the work could use a little more breathing room. Taking some more time and space to allow for a richer atmosphere would do a lot for improving the sense of intrigue. Also the characters could use a little more time in the oven as right now they are flatter than I wanted them to be.

To get more specific, one scene that I felt breezed by particularly quickly was the first conversation between Lucian and Doctor Barlow. This is our introduction to the strange situation, and I don’t feel the moment has allowed dread and understanding to slowly creep through the reader like it should. Later when Lucian attacks Doctor Barlow it would also carry more punch if there was more buildup leading to that moment. All of the communication between the doctors could be refactored, too. Quite frankly I knew I wanted conversations and conflict there, so I put in some placeholder text and then there wasn’t time to find something else that had a better fit.

In conclusion, I would say that the foundation is there, but that the story needs iteration, experimentation, and growth. With that sort of time and care then I think this short could become the prologue to a rich and suspenseful novel. This could be the introduction of how the legend of the werewolf was introduced into modern suburbia through an eccentric doctor that got a little too close to his subjects.

 

Taking that time to analyze my story and focus on its potential has increased both my appreciation for what it is now and my desire to work it into something better. I didn’t feel that I had to hold back in expressing my honest criticisms, but I also didn’t feel insulted by them.

Obviously there is another type of critique which I have not had time to illustrate here: the in-process editing where an author reads over their draft and corrects small errors as they go. Grammatical flubs, inconsistencies, and awkward phrasing are inevitable in a rough draft, and every work is greatly improved by many read-throughs and quick-fixes. That’s a process that deserves a closer examination and I hope to see you on Monday when we’ll do just that. Have a wonderful weekend!