The Toymaker: Part Five

fire cracker spark in night time photography
Photo by Soumen Maity on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

They did get a look at the building, and what they saw was not quite as disheartening as the knight had feared. There was a central lobby to the building, a place with public access that anyone could approach. The rest of that floor, and the one above, were office spaces, where various representatives could meet with you if you had an appointment. Above that was seven more floors, which were inaccessible to anyone who wasn’t authorized. There were guards at each stairwell and lift that would only admit those that knew the right password.

The knight spent his few remaining discs and managed to track down one of the workers who had been involved in the construction of the building. They got access to some old blueprints, and got a general idea of how things were laid out up above.

“So these top three stories are the highest security areas,” the knight explained to the drummer, after he had had some time to review the plans. “The Boss and other high-profile officials stay here, as well as some of the more historically significant documents, and who knows what else.”

“The teddy bear?”

“I would guess…not, actually. From what I’ve been able to gather, he might be important as an image of the Administration’s ‘divine will,’ but most toys see him only as a lackey. No one gets the impression that he is actually involved in any real administrative decisions. If anything they’re probably more worried about him getting out than anyone getting to him.”

“I see.”

“So that leaves these middle three floors. Considering that the bear is known to live in this building at all times, that further rules out floor five, it’s only small spaces large enough for offices.”

“So four or six?’

“Six is something of an enigma. It’s simply a grid of large, divided spaces, and no one really has any idea what they are for. Conceivably one of them could be the living quarters of the bear. But there’s nothing more definite to point to it as a likely place for him.

“Anything for four?”

“A bit of a stretch, but yes. See we do know that in one of these floors has the printing press where they put together their propaganda. Those flyers have to reach the ground floor to go out in the caravans, and the fourth level is the last one that the lifts on the ground floor have direct access to. To get to the higher levels you have to get on a second set of lifts that start on number four. Four is kind of the cap-off point of the first half of the building, and for sheer convenience’s sake it would make sense if the press was on it.”

“Is that helpful?”

“Just a hunch, but if the communications department is indeed on the fourth floor, and the bear is so frequently featured in those communications…then it might stand to reason that he’s on the fourth floor as well.”

“Alright.”

“Which of course brings up the question, well where on that floor? See here, it’s a sort of spider-web design of rooms. This large central one probably holds the press itself, and all the different departments extend from that down these hallways. They’d want him out of the way until he needed to rehearse a script, so probably one of the large rooms at the far end of these halls. Here, here, here, or here.”

The drummer rubbed his batons together. They were getting close!

“These two have windows, which would not work, because that would risk him being seen by the public outside of their control. So that leaves two. Room number 422 and 478.”

“Yes, and…?”

“And they’re identical. For the life of me I’ve tried to find some way to reduce our options down further, but this is far as I can get. Keep in mind, I might have made a mistake at any of the earlier steps already.”

“Which room is easier to get to?”

“You’re still okay with the distraction-and-bridge idea?”

“Yes.”

“Then 422. It’s right next to a room with a window, which window is right across from the roof of the Spring Club.”

“Alright, 422 then.”

The knight shrugs. “Just as well. In the end it was always going to be a bit of a guess. You’re still sure that you’re the one who should confront the bear? I’m bigger than you are.”

“The dancer knows me. I should go.”

“And even if the bear is there, there’s no guarantee that the dancer is with him. Or that he has any real clue where she is. And even if she is there, or he does know…well, I can promise you that getting out of there isn’t going to be easy.”

“That’s okay. I don’t need it to be easy.”

The knight clapped the drummer on the back. “Well alright then. We’ll do it tomorrow.”

The next day the drummer stood perched on top of the Spring Club. It wasn’t exactly open to public access, but the knight had managed to smuggle him up there via a ladder placed in the back alley. Then the knight had left to go perform his own part of this heist.

The drummer leveled his eyes at the tall, many-windowed building across the way. The knight had pointed out the window in question to him, the one that he would have to pierce through. Just to the right of that was cold, dark concrete, seemingly innocuous, but the drummer knew it was the wall of the room where the bear was this very moment.

The knight seemed less certain of that fact, but the drummer knew it. He was there.

Even just thinking of that bear, the anger started to stir up in the drummer. How could that toy have hurt the dancer like that? He had no right to take advantage of her like that. It hadn’t been an accident, and it hadn’t been a mistake. That the drummer could have understood. But no, the bear had done it only to be cruel!

Slowly the drummer became aware of his tiny fists raised in front of his eyes, trembling with a flowing rage. He didn’t know why or how, but some part of him wanted to hurt that bear. Because the bear had been a hurter, too.

BANG!

A large crack split the air and a corner of the administration building rippled. A cloud of rubble and smoke rushed up against the windows on the first floor. Soon those windows flung open, and various toys stuck their heads out into the air, coughing and gasping for fresh air, while others spilled out through the front doors.

The drummer and knight hadn’t been sure if the firecracker would just make a loud noise, or actually collapse the corner pillar. Apparently it had been the latter!

BANG!

Another equally loud crack burst from the opposite corner of the building, right beneath the cart full of the day’s propaganda papers. Wood splinters and shreds of paper flew everywhere!

“NO TOYS, BUT FREE TOYS!” the knight’s voice echoed from the streets below. “THE FACTORY SUPPRESSES ITS WORKERS AND ENGAGES IN ILLEGAL PRACTICES, AND THE ADMINISTRATION KNOWS IT!”

A few other various shouts from frightened passerby echoed up and down the streets, and then a troop of guards came filing out of the administration building. As soon as they appeared on the scene the knight turned around and ran away, leading them on a chase and calling further criticisms over his shoulder as he went. Hopefully he would get away alright.

The drummer snapped his head up, and narrowed his eyes at the window that was his mark. He stepped back to the edge of the roof, and reached down to where their ladder still emerged from the dank alleyway. He hoisted it up until he could grip its mid-section, then ran forward with all his might. He streaked across the roof, faster and faster. The other edge rushed up to meet him, and he dove to the ground, skidding his legs along the gravel as he thrust the ladder upwards and outwards like a javelin.

It sailed through the air, rungs whipping by him as they measured the distance to the window of the administration building. The ladder’s firecracker-tipped ends touched against the pane.

BANG!

The glass burst into a thousand pieces, and further cries echoed up and down the street. The ladder clanged into place, extending as a bridge at the drummer’s feet. The drummer didn’t pause for a second. He raced across the chasm, knowing full well that it would not be long before more security arrived!

Through the broken window he could see a hallway and a few toys fleeing down it, afraid that he was some maniac come to murder them, no doubt. Well good. Hopefully their stampede would keep the guards back for a few extra moments.

The drummer took one last leap, clearing the last of the ladder and landing inside of the building. He had already made out the bronze 422 on the second door on the right. He stomped over to it, pulling out the hammer slung at his waist. The knight had told him to not even bother turning the knob, the first thing that the bear would have done once the explosions went off was lock it.

Instead the drummer lifted the hammer high over head, and slammed it down on the doorknob, popping the whole thing off with a satisfying crunch. Then he kicked out at the door and let it swing wide.

“Oh no, no, please no!” a panicky voice shrieked from inside. Though it had been a long while now, the drummer recognized it instantly.

“Bear!” he growled. “Where is the dancer?!”

He advanced on the large, misshapen lump huddled on the floor of the lavish receiving room. The lump shuffled and the bear’s faced poked up in terrified confusion.

“The who?”

“The dancer! You took her and ran away, remember?!”

The bear shook his head frantically.

“On the road, on our way to the Great City. We passed by you and spoke to you, then you took her and ran into this dirty town!”

The bear’s eyes squinted at him, as if trying to see someone different. For the first moment it dawned on the drummer that he must look very, very different than he had back on that day. Now he was stained black with soot, scorched and cracked, to say nothing of the haunted glint in his eyes. For the first time it dawned on him that the bear looked very different as well. His fur had been swept back and painted. It made him look unearthly, like some sort of mystic.

“That was quite a long while ago,” the bear finally said. “Yes, I remember. I took her, I kept her for some time. But I haven’t seen her in a long, long while.”

“Where did you send her?”

“Send her? No, I woke up one day and she was gone.”

“She didn’t say where?”

“Of course not. She hated me.”

What?!” hot tears sprang from the drummer’s eyes. This was too much. She was alone out there? And no one knew where! This was the one good thread they had had to follow, and it didn’t get them any closer at all.

“Maybe–maybe she’s back on the road for the Great City,” the drummer said suddenly, grasping for some stray glimmer of hope.

“I–doubt it,” the bear said slowly, backing away towards the corner. “I don’t think she wants the same things that she did before. She’s not really the same toy as she was then…none of us are.”

“I AM!” the drummer roared, charging forward so that the bear scurried flat against the wall. “I STILL WANT TO GO TO THE GREAT CITY!”

“I don’t think you’re the same. Not at all the same at all…”

The bear had a point. For never before would the drummer have considered the violences that his mind was entertaining here and now. He still had that hammer gripped tightly in his hand. Maybe the dancer wasn’t here. Maybe he couldn’t save her yet. But the bear was here, and he could still punish him.

The drummer’s eyes winced shut and his fists shook. A deep struggle rippled through him. At last he dropped the hammer to the ground with a thud.

“I am the same!” he strained. “Same enough anyway.”

The bear looked from the drummer towering over him to the hammer down on the ground.

“You probably should hold onto that, y’know.”

“Why?”

“Don’t you know what they keep on floor six here?”

“No.”

“The scowlies!” the bear shuddered involuntarily. “They’ll already be on their way.”

“I don’t hear anything out there.”

“That’s how you know that they’ve arrived!”

Part Six
Part Seven

 

And so our little drummer comes to another dead-end. This one is a bit bleaker than the previous ones, there really isn’t an obvious next step available to him. As I mentioned on Monday, though, he is still progressing in the journey of his soul.

For the first time we start to see the temper that has been growing in our hero. It’s a progression in him that only feels fitting only because of us blocking the journey to the dancer. We start to realize that his quest to find the dancer is also a quest to reclaim his happy, carefree nature. But in pursuing that, and being frustrated, he is instead moving further from self-peace. This brings up the question, even if he does succeed in finding the dancer, will that be enough to bring him back to innocence?

Perhaps our drummer is beginning to become aware of these inner conflicts as well. It is implied that he realized harming the bear would be an admission that he had changed from who he was before. Moments of self-realization like that are very interesting in stories. Most stories feature a protagonist that changes, but it is only some in which the protagonist is aware of that process. I’d like to take a closer look at this narrative tool, what purpose it fulfills, and how it can be employed most effectively. Come back on Monday to see that discussion, then on Thursday we will see the drummer’s encounter with the scowlies!

The Toymaker: Part Four

multicolored broken mirror decor
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

“So how can we find the dancer now?” the drummer asked as soon as the knight’s attention had returned to the present.

“We’ll have to ask around I suppose. You’ve got a description of her? And of the bear what took her? Alright, I know a few good places to float those out. Someone will have seen them, don’t you worry.”

The drummer still didn’t understand, but the knight seemed confident, so that was reassuring. He decided he would just wait and watch what the knight did, and then he would understand what he had meant.

So they ambled along, the knight trying to find his way through roads that he only half-remembered. He had been down in the factories for quite a very long time, and things had changed a great deal in the meantime.

“Things haven’t been kept up very well, have they?” he said as they hopped across a particularly pothole-riddled road. “I mean they were never very good here to begin with. But somehow they’ve gotten even worse!”

“This is not a nice place,” the drummer affirmed. “Is the city at the end of the main road nicer?”

“What? You mean the one they tell you to go to when you first get made? You can’t ever get there, y’know. Probably doesn’t even exist.”

The drummer came to a sudden stop, taken aback by hearing the knight echoing the exact same thoughts as the bear when he took the dancer. “Why do you say that?” he asked sadly.

“Oh…don’t listen to me,” the knight waved his hand dismissively. “People around here just say that, but they don’t know anything.”

“Why do they say that?”

“Listen, when I first went down that road I was quite committed to it. I passed this city and went a long way farther before giving up and coming back. And let me tell you, there is unquestionably something strange about it. Not a normal road at all! Really you get the sense that you’re not even moving forward after a bit, like you’re walking in place and the turns will never end.

“And that’s not just me, either,” the knight continued. “Lots of other toys got the sense that something wasn’t ordinary about it, too. Like some of them turned around and went back to talk to those chess pieces that first set you on the road. They could never find them. The road just seemed to keep stretching out forever in that direction once you got set on it. So don’t let me cast a shadow on your hopes, but I do say that that is no ordinary road.”

“I guess it doesn’t go to an ordinary place then.”

“What’s that? Oho! I rather like that, good point! Couldn’t be a run-of-the-mill road that takes you to the Great City, now could it? You’re probably on to something there.”

“The Great City is supposed to be something special then?”

“Of course! It’s supposed to be paradise! Now don’t ask me what that means, I thought I knew once, now I know that I don’t know at all. But it’s good. And special.”

“I see. Well once we get the dancer free, she and I will be taking the special road to find the special city. You’ll have to decide if you want to come with us or not.”

“I’m with you for as long as you’ll have me, Captain. I like you. So what if I don’t believe that there’s a city at the end of that road? I didn’t believe you could save up all those discs either, and see what happened there!”

At this point they had come to a low, dilapidated tavern.

“This isn’t a nice place, either,” the knight told the drummer as they walked up to the door. “But it was the best place for information back in my day, probably still is. You just keep close to me.”

The drummer didn’t need telling twice, and so the two went through as one, peering through the smoky dark until their eyes adjusted enough to take in the scene. There were a dozen rough tables strewn about haphazardly; the clientele were in the habit of moving them about as they saw fit, and the management was in the habit of not caring. Along the back wall were two counters, the one for buying food was greasy, and the one for buying drinks was splotch-stained. The only light in the place came from some chandeliers with candles set in a ring. The place was so smoke-filled that it seemed to choke the flickering flames, and bid them shine only dimly.

“This way,” the knight said after a moment, leading the way forward to the bar.

“What can I get for you?” the wind-up clock barkeeper asked as they draw near.

“Some information, my good fellow,” the knight said brightly, flicking a medium disc onto the counter. “I’m trying to find someone.”

“Mm,” the clock said, pocketing the disc and cleaning a glass with a rag.

“A dancer, a spinning ballerina in fact. Possibly in the company of a large, tan teddy bear. They would have come into town over a year ago.”

“Well I remember the bear, of course, but not the dancer.”

“The bear is well enough. Where is he?”

“You mean you really don’t know?” the barkeeper asked incredulously.

“Well, no,” the knight cocked his head, wondering just what it is that they weren’t cluing in on. “You see, my friend and I have only just came out of the factory. Been down there for quite a long while.”

“Oho! Hope you aren’t leading the guards to my nice establishment!”

“Not at all! We came out honestly.”

“Sure, sure. Well then you probably don’t know, but a little while back they started a registry. Made everybody sign up, and kept tabs on where they all were all the time. And all the newcomers had to sign it, too. Even if they was just visiting.”

“So?”

“So that teddy bear is the last name in the book!”

“What? You don’t mean…?”

“I do! Hasn’t been a single other toy shown up since that day.”

“The Maker?”

At that the clock snorted. “Hardly. I mean some say so, but those of us with sense figure this finally proves that the Maker isn’t real. Course administration claims that he is, and rushed the bear straight up into their penthouse. They use him for a figurehead to push all their campaigns forward. That’s where he is if you want to see him, but good luck!”

“I see.”

“You said you’re from the factory? Any idea why its still running then? We sorta figured it would have shut down after the ‘Maker’ was found.”

“Well it’s not like my friend and I were privy to the board’s motivations…. But really a lot of us inside doubt that summoning the Maker was their real intention at all. Maybe at the start, but not for a long while now.”

“What then? Surely they aren’t trying to make the scowlies?”

The knight leaned in close, to be sure he wasn’t overheard. “Oh yes, indeed. They’re entirely committed to it now, trying to find ways to make them useful.”

“Train a scowlie? Why I never!”

“Only very basic things, you understand. They’ll never talk or reason like you and I do, but I’ve seen some tests run with them, where they had been fashioned for single, simple behaviors.”

“Like what?”

“Well…” the knight drew back somberly. “Not very nice things. But enough of that for now. Thank you for the information.”

The clock clearly wanted to speak more with the knight, but already the knight had turned, shepherding the drummer across the room and out into the light.

“What is a Maker?” the drummer asked when they were out in the open again. “And a scowlie?”

“You mean all that time in the factory and you never found out what we were doing there?”

The drummer just shook his head.

“Well…the Maker, according to those who believe, is some great being who made all of us. That’s why none of us knows where we come from, because he makes somewhere else, puts some of his own life inside of us, and then places us secretly in the world. Now that’s a long-old religion, and people don’t really believe in that today. They don’t like the idea of anyone out there having that sort of unbridled power.”

“Why?”

“They’re afraid of him. See we all know he wouldn’t be too pleased with us if he saw us right now. And anytime something bad happens they say its him punishing us. So one day, long time ago now, some of the richer toys got together and built the factory. Said they were going to start making toys of their own. Take the responsibility from the Maker. Not only that, but they said they were going to make the Maker! Fashion him right here in toy form!”

“But…I thought you said they didn’t believe in him?”

“Well, they don’t…and they do. It’s confusing, I know. I guess you could say they wanted to make him here just in case. Because then he couldn’t be up there anymore if ever he did exist.”

“So how did they know how to make him?”

“They figured that if they made enough toys they might make one that looked just like him. And then he would sort of–transfer into it. I don’t understand it all, it was based on ancient manuals that had been written about the Maker. Something to do with: if you capture his image, then he will be in that toy. Don’t quote me on that, but that was the gist of it. Anyway, just think about it: then you would have the Maker of us all caught up in a box. If he still had any powers you could make him do whatever you wanted, or at the very least keep him bound down so that he can’t blast us all into dust.”

“I see…and now they think that the bear is him?”

“Well, you heard the clock. They do and they don’t, same as ever I suppose.”

“Well I think that I’m the Maker.”

“What?! Don’t say that!”

“Why not?”

“It’s blasphemy. Well, I guess maybe you don’t know enough for it to be blasphemy. But a lot of people around here would find a claim like that insulting. They’d say you were being disrespectful to the Maker.”

“But what if I am him?”

“Well…no offense, but you just don’t seem the type.”

“What is he like, then?”

“I–I don’t really know…. Well, obviously he makes things, right? That much is clear. Can you make things like he can?”

“Sure.” The drummer reached down and stacked one rock sideways onto another.

The knight laughed and slapped the drummer on the back.

“Well who’s to say you aren’t, then! Really if any of us was, I suppose why not you?”

“Anyway…the teddy bear wasn’t even the last toy made either. I came after him, I just never signed the registry.”

“You what?! Well I guess that makes sense, you’ve already mentioned that you were around at the time.”

“And actually the dancer came even after me.”

“Well then maybe she’s the Maker!” the drummer laughs.

“I suppose she might be.”

“Curious that she wasn’t on the registry either…. Course, if the bear had her against her will, perhaps he was keeping her hid at the time.”

“But what’s a scowlie, then?”

The knight shuddered. “Nasty thing. See they couldn’t make anything proper in the factory. They couldn’t even make toys like you and I. They could make things that looked like toys, but they were just vacant and lifeless. They tried figuring out the secret of life, and that led them into…weirder experiments. The result were these strange, warped beasts. Random forms of metal, monsters really. And they weren’t ever really alive either. Just like I said in there, they can’t talk or reason, they just operate on one intent, usually a destructive one.”

“I don’t think I like the sound of that.”

“No, you don’t. Trust me.”

“But at least we know where the bear is now.”

Here the knight sighed deeply. “Sure, we know. But that’s a long ways from actually being there. You can’t just stroll into the Administration Building. Especially if he’s their precious figurehead, he’ll be safe from the public, somewhere locked down tight.”

“You don’t think we could get there?”

He shrugged. “Frankly I don’t know how…. But I imagine you will want to try anyhow?”

“Yes.”

“Of course. And if that’s where your quest goes, then I will come along. Whether I can see success in it or not, I meant my pledge to you sincerely.”

“Thank you.”

“Well then…I guess the first thing for us to do is get a look at this place. Let’s go.”

Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

 

On Monday I shared how story characters do not always progress towards the destination they are striving for, but that they should at least progress towards the conclusion of the story. They should be ever drawing nearer to their own, personal conclusion, even if it isn’t the one that they wanted.

This is certainly the case with our little drummer. He finally found his freedom, but still has yet to reach his long-lost dancer. In fact, he seems to have only grown further and further from her, the breadcrumbs are being laid down faster than he can pick them up.

That is an intentional pattern of this story, as I want it to have a theme of tireless pursuit, no matter how many discouragements he faces. With this I am taking cues from some of my most favorite heroic epics, stories that feature a very long way home. Come back on Monday where we will examine this theme more closely, and then on Thursday we’ll get to see the drummer and knight’s daring heist played out!

The Toymaker: Part Three

antique armor black and white chrome
Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two

But what a life!

Much to the drummer’s surprise, he did manage to prolong it minute-by-minute. It seemed that he had broken a spell by having successfully hurled that lump of coal into the furnace; now he found that he could do it again and again. Sometimes he still missed, and then he had to jab with the pole while the foreman screamed at him from behind, but those failures were quickly becoming more and more infrequent.

And despite his fear that the mountain of coal would never be exhausted, it did in fact grow smaller and smaller until it was no more. It took a very long time, but it happened. And then the second mountain diminished until it, too, was no more. The team was sent back to their barracks to rest. The drummer hung his head down sadly. He had barely survived that one work session, and was sure he would not be able to make it through another.

And yet he did. It was still a back-breaking, nerve-wrenching ordeal, but he did come out alive after the second workload many hours later. And he made it past the third. And the fourth.

And the more he survived, the more his nerves began to be numbed. It wasn’t a calm tranquility that he had found, far from it! It was that as each of his nerves fired in rapid succession, eventually they scorched out so that he couldn’t register them anymore.

And though there were no mirrors for him to see himself, somehow he knew that his face must be becoming more gaunt and hollow, just like that of all the other workers. He was wearing the same lifeless mask that had so troubled him when first he came into this place.

He tried to repeat to himself the reason for it all: to raise money to buy the dancer’s freedom. All of this would be worth it when he was free and she was free, and then they would get back to things just as they had been before. To raise money. To buy the dancer’s freedom.

After what seemed like an eternity he did get paid. Two small discs, as promised. All of the other toys took their pay to a murky corner of factory housing for pleasures the drummer did not understand. None of that for him, though, he simply stowed both discs under the cot in his room. After a second eternity he was able to add another two discs. After a third another two.

And then, after an eternity of eternities, he had lined the entire underside of his bed. Surely he must have enough money to buy the dancer’s freedom now? But how to go about this whole process of “buying?” Thus far he had avoided speaking to the vacant souls around him, but it couldn’t be avoided now.

“You wanna do what?” the ventriloquist dummy asked with one eye closed and a cocked head.

“I want to free another toy. A dancer.”

“Sure…only you say you don’t know where she is, or who to pay, and what exactly to pay them to do…just that you want ‘them’ to help you somehow. Did I get all that right?”

“I…well I thought so, but…really I don’t know anything about anything, I’m afraid.”

“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.”

“Can you tell me what I should be doing to fix this?”

“Sure, easy. Forget about her.”

“Oh I don’t think I know how to do that. I think about her all the time.”

“Listen, kid. All my life I used to say you should only worry about yourself, anything more is just an anchor on your soul. Then I came to this place, and you know what, worrying about yourself is too much, even. So now I say let go of everything. You and I might die tomorrow and that’s just it. Might as well die without worries.”

“I’d rather die thinking about her.”

The dummy sighed and kneaded his brow. “You know what, I’m not going to worry about it. Your money, you do with it as you please. If I find you a contact, someone who can help you out with your problem, then you’ll let me be?”

“Oh yes, I promise!” the drummer nodded enthusiastically. “You really mean it? You promise you’ll help me?”

“I don’t do worries, and I don’t do promises. But I’ll try and find someone. Give me two days.”

And that was the last the drummer ever saw of the dummy. And the last he saw of his money. When he came back from his next work shift both were long gone.

“Have you seen a ventriloquist dummy around here?” he asked the knight who stood guard at the factory exit.

“Sure, he came through here just a bit ago. Lucky bloke had enough to buy his passage.”

“His passage?”

“You know, his freedom. The freedom they tell all of us we can buy if we save up enough for it. Course it isn’t but one-in-a-thousand that actually can.”

“Our freedom for what?”

“You know. To leave.”

“What? I can’t leave?”

“Are you serious?! You really don’t know? Of course you can’t leave. You’re a slave! All of us are.”

“You too?”

“Me more than any other! Because I’m the slave that keeps the rest of you trapped. If it weren’t for me standing guard here you’d all be escaped already.”

“Why do you stand there then?”

“You mean why not take a bribe, let some of you out, and then run for it myself? Oh I’ve thought about it. Any guard who tells you otherwise is a liar, and some of them have even tried it…” The knight lowered his voice and leaned in very close. “But then I saw what happened to them after they were caught–and believe me, all of them were caught. So maybe one day when my plastic’s all rubbed off and I can’t feel anything I’ll cash in and take that final ride, have my fun and then pay my last dues. But that day isn’t today.”

The knight nodded in a carefree manner, but after a moment looked down despondently. “Oh, who am I kidding?” he asked. “I wouldn’t even know what to do with a ‘final ride’ anyway. When you’ve been here as long as I have, there’s nothing waiting for you out there anymore. That’s the real reason I don’t ever run.”

“If you were out there, you could help me find the dancer and get her free again. I think you’d be a lot better at that than I’ll be by my myself.”

The knight perked up at that. “A quest, eh? It’s been a long time since I looked for one those. And with another military man, even! I say, that would be a dream!”

“You needn’t run away for it, though. I can save up enough money for both of us to get out.”

The knight scoffed. “Well, I’ll believe that when I see it.”

“And when I do, you’ll come with me? You promise?”

The knight’s helmed head shifted about awkwardly. He didn’t want to raise any false hopes, least of all in himself…yet he was unable to deny the thrill of its call.

“Listen, sir,” he said firmly. “I feel obligated to tell you that I don’t believe you will succeed. I’m sorry, that’s just how it is. But who knows, maybe you have a force of will like I have never seen in this place. And if you do, and if you manage to save up enough discs…well then yes, I do promise. I would gladly pledge my sword to one that had such self control as that! I would not rest until we had won your woman’s freedom.”

“Oh good. I’d much rather have your help than anyone else. There is one thing, I’m afraid if I save up that many discs people will just keep taking it from me. Do you have a place I could leave them.”

“You would trust me with them?”

“Yes. You promised.”

And that was that. Every week, when the drummer got his pay, he brought it straight to the knight, who in turn led him to a quiet aisle lined with lock boxes. The knight had a key to one of them, and disc-by-disc the drummer built a small mound of wealth within. It was, of course, a very long and slow process, but the drummer remained as committed as ever. To him it didn’t matter how long anything took, so long as it was the thing he had to do.

A few months later, after the drummer had saved up about a quarter of the total funds needed, the mound seemed to start growing of its own accord. Each time the drummer came to make his deposit, he could swear that the pile was larger than when he had last seen it. At first it only grew by an extra disc or two, but each week the rate of growth increased. Not only with the same small sized discs that the drummer was paid with, either. Now and again there were medium sized ones, and even one or two larges!

“Where do you think these are coming from?” the drummer asked the knight one day.

“Not a clue,” the knight said quickly. “I guess you’re just lucky.”

Eventually the mysterious additions outnumbered those made by the drummer, so that there was enough to buy both his and the knight’s freedom, and in half the time he had anticipated.

And then, one quiet day, the two of them were standing before “the accountant” holding sacks bulging with their fortune.

“And you attest that you came by all of these funds honestly? The ordinary accrual of your assigned work wages?” the accountant asked.

“Yes, all of it,” the knight said. “Of course you can look up our pay rates and how long we’ve been here to verify that the sum checks out.”

“Oh, I already have,” the accountant said silkily. “And yes, it is…conceivable.”

“I don’t even know how to come by funds that aren’t ‘honestly,'” the drummer offered.

“That is true,” the knight vouched. “He doesn’t.”

“Hmm, well I suppose I have no reason to deny your purchase. Though I am authorized to double your rates if you wanted to open new contracts…”

“Not a chance,” the knight said. The drummer took his cue and shook his head emphatically.

“Suit yourselves,” the accountant pulled two pieces of paper over to him, scribbled at their bottom, then pounded them with a large, rubber stamp. “Show these to the guards at the gates and they will let you through. I assume you know the way?”

“Of course I do,” the knight said.

And so they returned back to the knight’s old post, where his fellow guards stood in wait. There was a strange look between them as they saw their old comrade pass through the open doors. A sort of wishful longing, a stirring of things long since repressed.

The knight also paused a moment in the doorway, and looked back at his home of many years: a wide, empty chasm stretching eternally like a void. He had no love for it…but it was a part of him, and he would feel its absence.

Not the drummer, though. He gleefully strode out into the sun, squinting up at the blinding orb. It hurt him to see it, but it was a hurt that felt good. Yes he was still in this dreary town, and yes he still missed the dancer terribly. But he was getting closer to her now. Closer to being back on the right way. He reached down to his sides and pulled up his long-forgotten batons. They were blackened by soot and chipped all around, but they would still serve him. He pounded out a marching rhythm, and at once the knight snapped out of his reverie and hastened to follow the beat.

Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

 

After some unfortunate missteps our hero is back on track again. I mentioned in my last post that I expected audiences to be made uncomfortable by the drummer’s naivete. He has continually made mistakes that were painfully obvious to the rest of us, and he continued to do so today as he confided in the ventriloquist dummy.

But I wanted to pair those moments with a more positive take on ignorance. I expect readers will find charming his youthful wonder at the pile of discs “magically” increasing of their own accord, and also how he does not understand the meaning of dishonestly obtaining money. The fact that he is so unassuming and so innocent makes him endearing.

This whole sequence within the factory was a side detour in our hero’s journey. Detours such as this are quite common in stories, though some of them are handled better than others. With my next post I would like to examine what the function of such straying is, and how it can be utilized without having the story entirely lose its way. Come back next Monday for that, and then on Thursday we’ll pick things back up with the drummer and the knight.

The Toymaker: Part Two

red and multicolored figure
Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

Part One

But a terrible fear was starting to rise inside of the drummer. What if he couldn’t catch up? What if he couldn’t find her? Did such questions even matter? He had to, he must. For her to be lost was just…just unthinkable.

He hadn’t liked that droopy bear. Not from the moment they had met him. They should have just hurried by him without so much as a “good day.” What had the drummer been thinking speaking to such a toy? He wouldn’t be making any mistakes like that again. From now on it was just him and the dancer, no one else.

“Good evening there, chap,” a sly voice called from the side. It was a jack-in-the-box, popped out to welcome newcomers. “First time at our fun, little wayside?”

No thank you,” the drummer said sternly, but even as he said it he felt bad for being rude to a toy that might not deserve it. “I’m sorry,” he turned to face the affronted jack. “I’m just in a hurry.”

“Well what are you looking for? Maybe I can help you find it.”

“Did you see a bear run past this way? With a dancer on his shoulder? It wouldn’t have been more than a moment a go.”

“Oh yes, that bear!” the jack-in-the-box nodded enthusiastically, even before the drummer had concluded speaking. “Yes of course I saw him. Friend of yours? He came here, signed in, and went between those two buildings right there. Probably on his way to the motel on the other side.”

The drummer turned to look down the alleyway that the jack-in-the-box was pointing towards. It was a narrow crevice between two of the leaning buildings, completely covered in dark shadows.

“Through there?” the drummer asked fearfully.

“Yes, through it towards the motel.”

“Are you quite sure?”

The jack-in-the-box folded his arms indignantly. “You ask me where to find them, I say that’s the where they went. So don’t go if you don’t believe me, what do I care?”

Something felt wrong to the drummer, but the jack-in-the-box seemed so certain. The drummer couldn’t really afford to pass up such a good lead, especially when he couldn’t even explain to himself why it was he felt so hesitant. So he took a deep breath and charged forward.

“Wait, you have to sign the registry!” the jack-in-the-box called after him, but the drummer didn’t stop. Soon he had passed into the shadow between the buildings.

What few windows lined this alleyway had been smashed in, with bits of broken glass littered about and crunching under the drummer’s feet. The rooms beyond had been stripped of all their furniture, and the wallpapers were heavily stained by dirt and grease. The only light was the occasional prism of orange streaming through the broken windows on the right, beyond which the sun was slowly setting.

As the drummer pushed on through the darkness he became aware of some voices just ahead of him. They were low and muttering, speaking in quick, hurried breaths.

“H-hello?” he called out, and all at once the voices fell silent. “Oh don’t go away,” he pleaded. “I need some help, please.”

“Oh…he needs some help,” one of the voices said silkily. “Why didn’t you say so from the beginning, stranger?”

Out of the shadows a tall, wooden doll emerged. Its original unvarnished surface had been covered all over by a wide array of rainbow colors. Behind it followed two weeble wobble brothers.

“Helping people is our favorite thing to do,” the wooden doll grinned. “The jack-in-the-box sent you?”

“Yes. How did you know?”

“He always sends toys here for us to help them.”

“Oh, well actually he sent me here to find someone I’m looking for.”

“Yes, that’s often what we help people with. To find someone. The person you’re looking for is right this way. Follow me.”

“But…you don’t even know who I’m looking for!” That strange discomfort was returning to the drummer and he started to take a few steps back. He thought that maybe he shouldn’t have come this way at all. He wasn’t sure why he felt so wrong, but maybe it didn’t matter if he didn’t know the reasons why. Somehow he knew he just ought to listen to that feeling.

“But I do know,” the doll said. “And I hate to tell you this, but she looked like she had been hurt.”

“She–what?!”

“Yes, she didn’t look good at all. She needed a lot of help. I think she was calling for you.”

“The dancer was?”

“Yes,” the doll nodded solemnly. “It was her.”

The hesitations left the drummer immediately, replaced with a fresh panic.

“Where is she? Take me to her!”

“Of course, though I think we’re going to need some money to reach her. Might need to bribe a guard or two, you understand me?”

“You need…money?”

“Yes. Have you got any?”

“I–no. I don’t even know what that is.”

“Oh…so it’s like that. Well no worry. Maybe someone left you some money. Let’s go and see.”

The doll put his arm around the drummer and steered him towards the end of the alley and down another path.

“Well I’m not sure who would have done that,” the drummer was saying, still a bit confused.

“One never knows,” one of the weeble wobbles said from the drummer’s elbow.

“But it wouldn’t hurt to check, of course,” the other said from the opposite side.

“No…I suppose it wouldn’t hurt. But maybe we should go and find her first. We’ve got to get her back, whether with money or not!”

“Of course, of course,” the doll soothed. “Trust me, I know just what to do.”

They had made a few turns down crooked streets and were now approaching a large, iron factory. It was grimy and smelled of soot and didn’t seem like a particularly nice place to be at all. At the front of it was a heavy door, and beside it a receptionist seated behind a glass window.

“Hello there, Orr,” the doll said to the receptionist, who was a piggy bank.

“Duth,” the pig droned lazily.

“I’ve brought you a new worker, he’ll do excellently on your team.”

Orr grunted and leaned forward, squinting appraisingly at the drummer. “Well he’s new, probably has at least six months of hard labor in him, so that’s good. But they didn’t make his arms very big, won’t be able to lift so much.”

“Oh but he is a determined, spirited sort.”

“Yes, I’m sure…”

The drummer didn’t understand just what they were talking about, nor how this was helping him to obtain money, nor indeed how the money was related to finding the dancer. He was just about to say all this when the two concluded their discussion.

“…and three large discs as a standard finder’s fee,” Orr said, sliding three plastic chips over to Duth.

“Is that…money?” the drummer asked.

“Yes.”

“Oh, so we can go get to the dancer now?”

“Well…no,” Duth said awkwardly. “We’ll need a bit more. But I’ve got you a job now, see. You’ll be earning money at a rate of…” he glanced over to Orr.

“New workers are compensated at 2 small discs per week. Food and lodging is provided.”

“There you go!” Duth said energetically. “That’s a capital rate for you.”

“But I don’t understand what it’s for.”

“Money gets you anything you want,” one of the weeble wobbles said.

“If you want to convince your girl to come back, money will win her for sure,” the other said.

“Oh, she didn’t leave me. She was taken by another toy, a teddy bear.”

“Yes, yes, the story of us all, brother,” Duth smirked. “But either way, you make enough money and you’ll be able to buy her back from the bear.”

“Actually I had been thinking more of just grabbing her and running.”

“Oho!” Orr laughed. “More a rough-and-tumble sort of guy, huh? Well, if you don’t mind me saying so, you’re a little small for a job like that.”

The drummer paused and looked down at his hands. The pig had a point, the bear had been much larger than he was.

“Yesss,” Orr continued, “you know it’s true. But once again, with some money, you can hire some other toys to help you out with that. I know some who will even make sure the bear never comes back after you, if you catch my drift.”

“I see,” the drummer said slowly. “Well thank you for explaining. I think I’m finally beginning to understand. I’ll do some work, I’ll make some money, I’ll be able to pay to get her back…”

“Exactly,” the doll praised. “And it’s the only way, believe me.”

“Then…I guess I’d better do it. Where is the work?”

“Capital attitude,” Orr snorted approvingly. “Come right this way.”

The doll and the two weeble wobbles slunk into the night while Orr let the drummer in through the door, and led the way through a maze of corridors into the heart of the place. The drummer had never seen a place like this before, and he wasn’t entirely sure that he cared much for it. It was dark, with only the occasional, weak candle to give any light. Worse than that, all the toys that they passed along the way seemed to be in a very dire strait.

It wasn’t just that they were so dirty, chipped, and torn. It wasn’t just that most of their paint had scratched off and they had been scored with deep gouges. It wasn’t just that they were missing eyes and buttons, and some of them entire limbs! More than all that it was just the haunted, vacant expression they all bore. Toys with no soul in them, more machines than living things.

The drummer vaguely wondered why so many gaunt, expressionless workers might have come to this sort of place, but then he pushed the thought from his mind. It didn’t matter. All that mattered now was the work, and the money, and buying the dancer’s freedom. He realized that he still was quite confused about a few matters. How was he to know when he had enough money? Where was he supposed to go to pay other toys to help him get her back? And still he didn’t even know where she was!

He felt a little bit of anger towards all the people that had helped him thus far: the jack-in-the-box, the doll, the pig. Each of them had made clear that they really wanted to help him, but none of them had really seemed to listen to him very much.

Again, never mind that now. Work now. Money now. Ask more questions at the next opportunity.

And so it was that the drummer found himself shuffling with a small army of workers down a massive corridor towards an even more massive furnace. At first all the drummer could see of it was the huge cloud of smoke, yawing ahead of them like the end of the earth. The closer they got to it the more it choked them. Soon the drummer was coughing black onto his white, painted gloves. Still they pressed forward, and now the drummer could make out the flame at the furnace’s base. It was too shrouded in smoke to see any tongues, but there was a definite glow of deep, vibrating orange. Its heat was immense, and the drummer felt a crackling along his fresh paint.

“Team three back to barracks! Team four, your quota is two mountains before relief!” A foreman in his toy car snapped down to them. He was gesturing to two immense piles of coal, each more than ten times the height of the drummer! One-by-one the workers walked up to the first pile, selected a single lump of coal, and marched with it towards the flame. When they got close enough that their faces began to singe they hurled it forward with all of their might, eliciting a shower of sparks which proved that they had made their mark.

If ever they missed their mark then they were handed “the pole” and had to shield their eyes to try and see their stray piece of coal and jab it into the flame. All the while the foreman would shout at them, counting down how long they had before he would throw them in instead!

The drummer had a lot of questions about this process, but it didn’t seem to be the sort of place that would care for questions. So he set to work, following the pattern of all the others. All of his first lumps of coal failed to find the furnace, and he quickly was given a nickname by the foreman: Useless.

That harsh toy shouted at him and shoved him, telling him it would be easier on them all if he would just dive into the flame and rid them of his nuisance. All the while the drummer frantically thrust out with the pole, silently pleading for the shower of sparks that would mean he had managed to right his error. When at last the blessed torrent came he ran with from the spot, only to be clutched by dread anticipation as he came back to the pile of coal, and knew he was about to miss yet another throw.

There was no relief, he found himself in perpetual fear. The terror in front of the flame, the anticipation of failure, the despair of the missed throw, the terror, the anticipation, the despair. Each time round they seemed to come faster, seemed to nip more savagely at one another’s heels. The terror. The anticipation. The despair. He was going to be thrown in, that was all there was to it. He couldn’t keep up at this pace. Terror. Anticipation. Despair. But for as quickly as the cycle repeated, the mountain never grew any smaller! The task would never be done, they would never leave here. He couldn’t keep doing this! He had to collapse, had to give up, had to be thrown into the furnace and get it all over with. Terror! Anticipation! Despair!

The little drummer cried in agony as he thrust his blistering gloves forward. The small lump of coal sailed high into the air and a shower of sparks burst forth.

“Well,” the foreman said in surprise. “You get to live a minute more. Move along, useless!”

And so it was. The drummer shuffled along with the line and made his way back to grab another piece of coal. Heart thumping he threw that one clean into the fire as well. Another minute to live.

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

 

Things certainly went from bad to worse for our little hero! It would seem that we’ve gone from a happy fairy tale into an Orwellian nightmare. Along the way we met a few new characters, including a jack-in-the-box, the posing doll, the piggy bank, and the foreman.

I explained on Monday that my purpose was to write each of these characters so that the audience could instantly judge the quality of their character. To accomplish this I made use of a few tricks.

The first was that in the first section of this story I carefully selected the setting where these characters live. This wayside village is clearly a seedy hovel of reprobate amusement, and one assumes that the sort who live here will be just as despicable.

Secondly I chose toys that could symbolize their diabolical natures. The jack-in-the-box is not what he seems at first, the doll is a contortionist, the piggy bank is greedy, the foreman drives things hard.

Then I used descriptive terms and actions to immediately communicate that these characters are wretched. The jack-in-the-box speaks slyly, the doll mutters, the piggy bank drones lazily, the foreman snaps.

Finally, each of these characters are simply much too quick to try and “help” the drummer. Right from the outset this over-eagerness sets our suspicion sky-high. What is frustrating, though, is that the doll does not see what we so clearly do. There is a lot of tension in this piece because of the separation between what he understands and what the audience does.

I would like to examine this idea of characters making choices that the audience already knows are bad. Come back on Monday for that, on then on Thursday we’ll pick things back up with our poor, little drummer. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!

The Toymaker: Part One

brown and black nesting doll on brown wooden table
Photo by Dominika Roseclay on Pexels.com

No toy could remember the moment of its creation, because at the moment of creation it had no awareness at all. It just meandered about, mindlessly performing its set task and entirely oblivious to all. Individuality only came in degrees, a tiny bit at a time.

Day-by-day a toy would gain a vague awareness that there was a constant Rump-a-dum-dum around it. Then it would gain a vague awareness that it was being vaguely aware!

Day-by-day the toy would start to piece together that those Rump-a-dum-dum noises seemed to be synchronized with the little batons that it saw beating against a drum. Then it would piece together that those were its batons, and that it was moving them with its hands, to play its drum.

Day-by-day the toy would begin to wonder why it was playing that drum. And then it would stop. And then the world would sound so empty and strange without the sound that it would start playing again. But it would play it a little differently now. Rump-a-dum-dum-dum! Rump-a-rump-dum!

Now, at last, it would be an individual being, and while wandering about it would start to recognize that there were other beings that were not itself. Some of them would smile knowingly and wink at it and ask if it had “come to itself yet,” which the toy wouldn’t understand the meaning of.

Some of the other toys, though, would be entirely disconnected from their surroundings, like a ballerina that was glassy-eyed and monotonously twirling on top of her box without a single step of variation. And the drummer would see how that little ballerina-on-a-music-box was day-by-day starting to come to herself and look back at him with a bemused wonder. Then the drummer would understand what it meant to “come to oneself” and realized, almost with horror, that once it had been so oblivious itself!

And so the drummer would go back to those that had smiled and winked and would tell them that yes, it had come to itself, and now it was very much confused. Then they would tell him it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, it happened to them all. Then they would tell him that he probably ought to follow this road over here, and presently it would bring him to a great and important city. Once there he could start to learn about the real world.

And a toy, such as this drummer, would thank them, but want to know why he hadn’t always been aware, and why he was now, and where did he come from to begin with?

“No one really knows,” the smiling Bishop might say.

“Even when we know how to know, we still don’t know where we came from,” the winking Knight added.

“We see you new toys waking up, but we don’t actually see any of you get made, now do we?” the questioning Rook offers. “Just one moment there’s an empty pond over there, then you turn your back, and when you look again there’s this rubber duck swimming through it completely oblivious. And it’s always behind your back like that. No matter how you try to see it, new toys always come in secret.”

“Oh how curious,” the little drummer says. “But how do you–”

“To the city,” the stern King repeats. “That is the place for you.”

“They’ll give me the answers there?”

“They might give you an answer or two…but mostly more questions, and really you’d better get used to that in this world. So the sooner you get there and the sooner you get used to it the better, so you’d better get going now!”

And with that a drummer would figure he had better start down that road!

It wasn’t a very straight road, indeed it incessantly curved back-and-forth in a whimsical sort of way. A road meant for play, rather than for function.

And this proved quite the challenge for the drummer. For all his short life he had always marched in straight lines. Indeed with such straight legs and no knees, what else could be expected of him? Thus as he approached the first turn he walked straight into it, then straight through it, then straight off of it and straight into the dirt going the completely wrong direction.

He came to an immediate stop and stared about, trying to understand what was going on. He decided that he ought to try again, and so took another step, still in the wrong direction!

Once more the drummer halted, and he was really getting quite anxious now! He did not know how to move back to the path except for by trying to walk again, but each of his tries seemed to be carrying him only farther away. He couldn’t help but worry whether by trying so hard to return to the road he wouldn’t just wander away from it forever.

And so he waited for a good deal, but nothing useful came from that either, and so he decided he really ought to try just one more time. He thought really hard about going the right way, looked down to his foot, and watched as it continued straight forward in sheer defiance!

And so the drummer paused again and wondered a bit about how exactly one was supposed to go the right way, which meant that he was still pausing and wondering when another toy happened to come her way down the same road.

It was the dancer he had seen from before, the one that had been unaware of her own existence. She went down the road spinning and spinning, which meant of course that she had no trouble with the turns whatsoever.

“Oh,” she exclaimed when she saw the drummer standing off the road a few inches from her. “Are we supposed to leave the road here?”

“I–no, I don’t think so. I just can’t seem to turn properly.” The drummer was very ashamed.

“Oh, are you going to stay here forever then?”

“I just might have to.”

“Wait, I have an idea…” and she spun over next to him, looped her arm around his, and twirled him right back onto the road.

“How did you do that?!” he asked in amazement.

“It’s just what I do. Now can you continue on your way?”

“Well…I can because the road is straight right here. But I see another turn waiting up ahead, and once I get to it I’ll be right back in the same sort of trouble again I suspect.”

“No worries there. I’ll just stick beside you and help you around that turn as well.”

“And the next?”

“And the next and the next and the next.”

Well that was certainly a relief! So the drummer and the dancer continued down the road together. They would still fumble from time to time, such as when the drummer wouldn’t come to a complete stop before walking off a curve in the road, or when the dancer would spin too far and end up pointing back the way they came; but now at least they fumbled together, and somehow that made it better. And both of them would straighten the other out and then they would continue onward together.

“This is quite a long time we’ve been on this road, isn’t it?” the dancer asked after a long time being on the road.

“Yes…but maybe it’s that way with every road. Really I’m not sure myself, I’ve never been much of an expert on them.”

“Sir, I’ve been wondering, what is that you’re holding in your hands?”

“These are my batons, and I use them to play my drum. See, like this.” Rump-a-rump-rump-rump! Rump-a-dum-a-dum-dum!

“Oh!” the dancer cried out, and her spinning changed to matched his beat. And as he saw her change her spinning he changed the way he was drumming. So now her dancing moved his drumming, and his drumming moved her dancing. It was a little disorienting at first, but then they settled into a joint cadence.

Just then they came upon the next turn, and a wonderful thing occurred. The drummer found that so long as he beat his instrument in time to the dancer’s spinning he could now make the turn on his own. And the dancer found that as she matched her spinning to his drumming, she could straighten back out anytime that she turned too far. And so they pulled and pushed with their little music and dance, and beat their way much more easily down the path.

Such good time they were making now, that soon they were catching up on another toy, one that had been sent on his journey long before either of them.

It was a puffy teddy bear, who didn’t have quite enough stuffing to stand up straight. As such he trundled along in a constant stoop, picking out his path carefully and methodically. As the two friends came alongside of him the drummer slowed his beat so that they could match pace with the bear.

“Hello there!” the dancer called out joyfully.

The bear turned his head to see them, which in turn rotated almost half his entire body. “Oh, hello,” he said slowly. “I didn’t see you there.”

“Are you off to the city as well?” the drummer asked.

“Well, you know, I was. But I’ve been travelling down this road for such a very long time and I still haven’t seen it. I’m beginning to wonder if the city doesn’t exist.”

The drummer and the dancer both found that a very confusing idea.

“But how could we have been told to go to a place that doesn’t exist?” the drummer asked.

“I don’t know,” the bear sighed. “It was just a thought that occurred to me while I was walking along my way. Or perhaps it did exist once, but it doesn’t anymore. Or maybe it isn’t really worth going to anyway. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I can think of so many reasons why it isn’t a good idea to stay on this road anymore.”

“Hmm” the dancer pondered.

“And if I can think of so many possible reasons for why I shouldn’t keep going to the city, then surely one or two of them must actually be true. Wouldn’t you think?”

“Hmm” the drummer thought. “But if you don’t go to the city…then where will you go?”

“I thought I would try at this town along the way.”

The drummer and the dancer looked in the direction that the bear pointed, and for the first time noticed that they were nearing a group of buildings on the wayside. First came a building of brick, quite tall and filled with windows on every level. From those windows came quite the tumult of noise, for the tenets of the place were enjoying all manner of raucous songs and games. There was the clinking of bottles, rough laughter, instruments playing out of sync, various shouts for attention, and even the occasional thunderous crash.

Those crashes in particular shook the entire building, for it had not been built very well. Each of its row had a stray hole here and there, and too many of those holes were on the same side, and when the building settled it had decided to lean in that one direction.

Pressed right up against the brick apartments was another building of rough granite. It was as if the second building had been hastily thrown up for the express purpose of catching the first. As such it had not been made very well, either, and had inherited its progenitor’s leaning tendencies. So it rested right up against a third building of wood.

And so it continued, one building tipping onto the next, over and over, until at last they ended in a cluster of little, clay huts. There was a fresh sign out in front of the huts and it read New Vacancies: Cheap!

“Well!” the dancer said in shock. “I don’t know that I care to stay at a place such as this!”

“Why not?” the bear frowned. “I think it sounds like fun.”

“I think I like our fun better,” the drummer said to the dancer and she firmly nodded.

And that made the bear feel a bit upset. Because he hadn’t had any companion to give him fun of any sort during his long slog down the road. Indeed his walk had been so dreary and so lonely that he was quite content to take up residence here and never worry about the fabled city at the end of the road ever again.

But now he felt that this drummer and this dancer were snubbing him, and would probably laugh at his expense after they had parted ways. That made him really quiet mad, so he reached out, grabbed the dancer roughly, and rushed off with her shouting “Oh don’t be such a snob! Give it a try, I’ll bet you like it!”

“Oh dear!” the dancer cried, then looked earnestly to the drummer over the teddy bear’s shoulder. “Help me! Please help me!”

A horrible terror gripped the drummer: a sense of loss that he had never felt before. He fought down the despair, though, and beat out a chasing rhythm on his drum. His legs sprang into action, carrying him quickly towards the bear. He had almost caught up with him when the bear made a sudden turn towards the brick building.

“Oh dear,” the drummer said, trying to pound out a cadence that would turn him. It was tough to do, more than he had anticipated. He had come to rely on the dancer’s touch to do these things, and his swivels were much more erratic now. Still, after a few over-corrections he got mostly in the direction of the bear and began again his charge.

The bear had seen this, though, and made for great many more twists and turns, even more than had been on the road to the city. The drummer valiantly kept up the chase, but he slowly fell farther and farther behind.

“Please don’t worry,” he called out to the dancer as she was about to disappear from view behind the first building. “I will find you. I will keep coming, and I will find you. I promise!”

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

 

On Monday I wrote about how responsibilities often define the characters of a story. Each hero is responsible for something, and it is that duty that drives them to action. In the case of our drummer, he developed a bond with the dancer, and he feels responsible for her well-being. The origin of this obligation was established in a very organic way as the two of them helped each other down the path. Turn-by-turn they strengthened the notion that they depended on one another, and not only for following a road. As the story continues, his every action will be driven by that sense of duty to her.

Another aspect of this story I would like to draw attention to is in my use of the teddy bear. Though we do not become acquainted with him for very long before he commits his crime, his actions are foreshadowed by his introduction. When we first meet him I took care to describe him as a weighed down, gloomy sort of person. I was trying to get the reader to have a sense of unease about him as quickly as possible. This method of signalling a character’s personality, even before they have done or said anything of significance, is something I would like to examine in greater detail with my next post. We will see how it applied to this story and literature as a whole, after which we will pick back up with the plight of our drummer and dancer.

The Last Duty

photo of shed surrounded by tall trees
Photo by Nishant Aneja on Pexels.com

“I am surprised that anyone would come to look for me in my little abode, I’m a man of little consequence.” The old hermit bumbled through his cupboards, looking for a second cup to pour some tea into. It was not an easy task, for he was not in the habit of keeping company in his humble home.

“That’s not true,” the wanderer smiled lightly. He pulled the heavy gloves off of his hands, and then fumbled with the strap around his chest, loosening it so that he could sit more comfortably. “Every man has his circle of influence.”

The hermit paused to look up at the water leaking down from above. The dried longleaf that thatched his roof had been sliding apart for years, leaving whole patches open to the starry sky.

“Well my circle leaks,” he said. “What does that tell you about my influence?”

“That you don’t mind the rain,” the wanderer’s grin widened.

“Oh so smart,” the hermit muttered under his breath. “Got an answer for everything.” Finally he produced two chipped, wooden mugs and a pot. He placed them on the small table, in the center of the one-room hut. He poured the tea and offered the drink to the wanderer who took it with thanks. It was very weak tea, essentially hot water with only the faintest traces of anything else. Indeed the strongest flavor was what seeped into it from the wood of the cup. The wanderer did not seem to mind.

“At least you have a home,” the wanderer said after a few moment’s silence. “I did once…perhaps one day I will again. But for now I remain a wanderer.”

“But there must be something that you wander for?”

“Yes,” the warrior nodded. “I do have a purpose.”

“Well I don’t have that. I would happily trade you home for purpose if my old bones were up to it.”

“Once you must have had one.”

“That’s private,” the hermit said sourly.

“No,” the wanderer said, still smiling in spite of his host’s prickliness. “No man’s purpose is a secret, because all men’s purpose is the same.”

“To their children,” the hermit had a tear in his eye.

“The very same.”

“Do you have children then, wanderer?”

“Of a sort…once. Do you?”

“I did. Once. Why do you say ‘of a sort.'”

“Well I had a people, and they were my children.”

“Ah.”

“I provided for their needs, I gave them instruction, I protected them from evil. And though it pained me to do so, I have journeyed away from them when necessary…. To do for them what is necessary. Was I not a father, then?”

“I suppose. Though why are you not still?”

“I lead them no longer. Another does. But why are you not still a father? Surely the duty of a father extends past all things, even beyond the grave?”

“The grave, yes. But no, not all things–” the hermit looked down into his cup, anxious to escape the question. “You mentioned duty. And of a truth, you named many. But you never did mention how you…disciplined them.”

“Ah yes, the last duty, the one every father hopes to avoid. We all wish that by doing the others so well, we will have no need for that last. Is it not so?”

The hermit nodded gravely.

“Well, there was punishment from time to time in our little community. I gave to them their laws, after all, so I had to enforce them. Never was I cruel, though. Our punishments were chosen together. Five lashes for stealing bread, a night in the stocks for disorderly behavior, we all agreed that these were fair.”

The wanderer took a sip, then continued.

“It seemed enough. It encouraged them to choose their better natures. All were committed to the prosperity of one another, and it was only the occasional stray moment that needed to be curtailed…” the way the wanderer’s voice trailed off was telling.

“And yet?”

“And yet something changed. Something. A monster, a demon, a–a something took their hearts and corrupted them. For the first time we had men who would cheat one another for their own advancement. Women who would falsely accuse one another to take their place. And still it got worse.”

The wanderer’s hands were shaking now. He set down the cup for fear of dropping it.

“I wouldn’t have believed it possible,” he continued, “but they even began to hurt one another for the pure pleasure of it. They had nothing to gain by it at all, they just wanted to see the other bleed.”

The wanderer paused again, and for a minute the hermit did not press him. But at last he couldn’t hold his peace.

“You said it was…something that turned them?”

“It was a man. The scourge of all these lands now. Surely even you have heard of him…”

“Azdenik,” the hermit did not speak the name so much as mouth it. “I know of the man.”

“And yet not a man. There is a dark magic in him, I have never seen one so able to seduce the innocent. Even I was enchanted with him when first he arrived in our village. And such promises he offers. You know of them?”

“Not promises,” the hermit shook his head darkly. “Exchanges. Little pieces of the soul you must give him…but he does not tell you that.”

“No, he does not. When at first he offered his little trinkets to us, his little charms and totems, we thought he was making a joke. How could his little idols make our fields double in yield, our clothes shine with greater luster, or our luck run more sweetly? How could such a clever, charismatic man expect us to believe such fantasies?”

“And yet?”

“And yet my people took them. They winked at his stories in public, but in the dead of night they came to his door and crept back to their homes with his wares. I knew it was happening. Everyone did. Even then it gave me great unease. But I could not explain why, and so I felt I had no right to intervene.”

“And your people began prospering?”

“Yes. I told myself it was just a coincidence. That this man came and then my peoples’ crops began yielding more and more each week, who could believe the two were connected? But the crops were only increasing in the homes of the most naive and gullible, the very same ones I knew would have taken Azdenik’s offer. Eventually more and more of my people started seeing increases in their farms, and so I knew that even the more practical were beginning to be swayed. If he had stayed much longer, everyone would have had one of his totems.”

“But he didn’t stay?”

“No, that was his greatest trick of all. You see if everyone had gotten one of the totems there would have been on a level playing field. By leaving early he put a rift in our town. Now those that prospered had an unfair advantage. They started spending more lavishly, and all the shopkeepers raised prices so that they could share in the wealth, too. Of course that left all the farmers who didn’t have a totem out in the cold. Suddenly they were paupers, and not because of a lack of industry. Those people started to grow bitter. Bitter feelings became bitter thoughts. Bitter thoughts turned into bitter words. Bitter words incited bitter actions.”

“What did you do?”

“We had our laws still, and I enforced them. But they were no longer of any effect. Discipline only works when it awakens a man’s innate desire to do good, and it doesn’t accomplish anything to put a scornful man in the stocks.”

The hermit nodded, as though he understood something of this. “And then it’s easy to come down harder and harder on them. If they won’t awaken to remorse, perhaps they will to fear…”

“Aye. And then you aren’t their loving, guiding father anymore. You’re their vengeful taskmaster and they hate you for it.”

“Yes, you are not their father anymore,” the hermit nodded sadly. “The duties of the father can extend through the grave. But through hell?”

“Surely there must be something a father can do for a child even then,” the wanderer fought down his despair. “Do you not think so?”

“I don’t know what.”

“There must be. I know that there must be!”

“If you say so.”

A few moments of dark silence passed between the two, then the wanderer continued with his sorry tale.

“I only saw how complete my failure was when Azdenik returned. I could see in his eyes that he knew what had happened in his absence. He had counted on it. We were but a husk of the charming village when first he visited. He offered the survivors to join his band, to drink more fully from the power of his totems and follow him in conquest.

“I begged my people not to go. Reasoned with them, pleaded with them. Threatened them! But Azdenik was their father now, not me. They left me, every single one of them left me. Gone to break the innocence of other lands, gone to kill and plunder, gone and made me a wanderer without a home.”

“Terrible,” the hermit shook his head. “just terrible. Although…you said you had a purpose in your wandering?”

“Yes, to do my last duty to my children.”

The wanderer’s voice grew dark and very cold. He reached out and took another long, slow sip from his tea. “My children lost their innocence,” he whispered, “and I quest to reclaim it.”

“You–still think to save them?”

“All are innocent at birth. And all are innocent in the grave.”

“Oh,” the hermit groaned, and shook his head at the heaviness of that pronouncement. “Why have you come here, grim man?”

“I raised one army after another, eight times!” the wanderer stood upright and clenched his fists.  “Each one I spent against Azdenik and his people–my people–and each time I alone crawled away from the bloody defeat. Now I know of a certainty that there is no breaking Azdenik so long as he holds those cursed totems!”

“Why have you come?” the hermit wept, holding his shaking head in his hands. “Why have you come?”

“To do what you would not, weak man!” the wanderer spat.

“Leave me!”

The wanderer turned rabid. He grabbed the hermit by the front of his frock, and pulled him up to his feet.

“Tell me what I need to know!” he snarled through clenched teeth. “Azdenik must have a weakness!”

“I don’t know, I don’t know…”

“No lies!” He threw the hermit against the wall, and the old man crumpled into a sobbing heap on the floor. The wanderer leaped on him, turned him over, and struck him across the face. “Tell me!

“I c-can’t. I don’t know. It’s not right…”

“It is the only right that is left!”

“Why do you trouble me? Why should I know these things?”

“No man knows another like a father knows his child!”

I have no child!” the hermit wailed. “Azdenik isn’t my son! My son was Geoffrey Braithwaite!”

“Yes. Good, good,” the wanderer’s eyes glinted and he panted like a predator closing in on his prey. “And you know how to kill Geoffrey Braithwaite.”

“No.”

Yes you do!” He struck him again, then leaned in hungrily. “You do not wish to, but you do know what his weakness is. He must have one, and you know it. You can tell me how to kill him, and you know that when I do the monster he became will die as well. Don’t do it for me, old man, do it for your son. Do your last duty to him…. Let me give Geoffrey rest.”

Streams of tears ran down the hermit’s face. His mouth stood agape in silent wailing. “I never knew it would go so far,” he sobbed. “I should have smothered him when I could.”

“I will. I’ll do it for you. Tell me how. You know!”

Several moments.

“Alright…I’ll tell you.”

 

As I said on Monday, my entire intention with this story was to show a character that does what he has to, even though he feels condemned by that action. It’s not like this was ever going to end in a positive place!

At the start of this story the hermit seems innocent enough. He is polite, has basically good desires, and a few of his comments suggest that he has a strong sense of duty. This seems well and fine, but as we press towards the end we realize that there came in his life a moment of conflict between his good desires and his duty. He wished for the well-being of his wayward son (a good desire), and because of it denied an obligation to destroy him (his sense of duty). This crossing of the lines is even hinted at with a subtle line of dialogue: “it is the only right that is left.”

In the end he is persuaded, or perhaps we should say forced, to finally choose duty over child. Now let me make abundantly clear, this is not a resolution that I intend for the audience to be wholly on board with. My expectation is that the audience will be taken aback, and then call into question the logic with which the story concludes.

As I suggested on Monday, a story like this is intended to divide readers. Some of them might finally conclude that the hermit should never have relented, and some will say that he should. Some may say that he already failed long ago just by letting his son go astray. Some may say that that couldn’t have been helped.

Whatever conclusion a reader settles on, they will understand their own selves better for having made that determination. That is the entire point of a story like this: to dissatisfy the audience into a self-affirming decision.

This story does not end with an answer, only with a question. Namely, to what extent is a man responsible for what he has created? This has long been a query of literature, extending back as far as Frankenstein’s monster and even Oedipus. Come back next week when we’ll look more closely at this idea of a character’s responsibility. I’ll see you there on Monday.

Shade: Part Three

white and black moon with black skies and body of water photography during night time
Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two

An hour later, down in the nearby valley, Reish stood immobile in the middle of his barracks. An hour ago he had felt the tremor, a signal born down to him by the third shade which he and Gallan both shared. Gallan was coming.

Reish didn’t try to fight it, he didn’t try to hide his location from Gallan at all. Let him come. Let all the reckonings happen here and now. And so he just stood there, silently waiting until there was a knock at the door.

“Let him in,” he ordered tersely.

The door opened and six guards entered with Gallan in their midst. They had taken the precaution of putting him in shackles, which Gallan now reached out to with his shade and systematically disassembled. The bonds dropped unceremoniously to the floor.

“Hey!” one of the guards roared at him.

“Leave it,” Reish sighed. “If he meant you any harm he would have killed you as soon as he’d seen you. Go now.”

“But, sir–” the guards were clearly uncomfortable with the idea of leaving Gallan alone with their leader.

“And if he meant me any harm I would have killed him before he even arrived,” Reish added. “Leave us.”

The guards didn’t need telling a third time. Reish waited until the door had closed before stepping near to Gallan.

“Well, Gallan. I can sense that you haven’t come here to assassinate me…”

“Even if I tried it wouldn’t work.”

“No. It wouldn’t. So why are you here?”

“To offer you an end to our feud.”

“Hmm, well I hardly believe that you mean to join forces? No, of course not. But I also can’t believe that you’ve come to just lay down and die at my feet.”

Gallan smiled. “I will do exactly that…if you satisfy my demands.”

“Ah, yes, a deal. I should have realized. No doubt you’re worried about that little clan of yours. Alright then, you nobly sacrifice yourself and yes, I will let them go free.”

“Don’t lie to me, creature!” Gallan spat. He spoke directly to the placid beast-side of Reish’s face. “I have long known that you have one purpose, and one purpose only. Total conquest.”

For the first time the beast-side of the face flexed on its own, giving a cold scowl. “Very well, I will give them some time then. I will let them hold onto their hope for a season. And then, last of all, their end will be quick and painless. Is that what you want?”

Gallan shook his head in disgust. “You think I’m so crude as to deal in false hopes for them?”

“No?” the beast taunted. “I thought that was all you did.”

Gallan didn’t dignify that with a response. It was interesting to hear the beast say those words, though, for that same thought had been echoing in his head for some time. Now he knew where it came from, and strangely enough that made him feel more confident in himself.

“But if you haven’t come for them, what did you come for?” the beast demanded.

“I’ve come to trade myself for Reish.”

Reish was startled by that. “That’s not possible!”

“No, it isn’t,” the beast agreed. “You know his sins, I am owed his soul. He’s much too entrenched to ever be let go.”

“He might be… but personally I doubt it. You’ve had him for seven years and still you don’t have full control of his body. Clearly there’s something there that is resisting you.”

“Gallan, don’t do this!” Reish pleaded.

“I still don’t understand,” the beast interjected. “Trade yourself for Reish? So what…I get your body and soul and vacate his? I don’t see how that serves me any better.”

“You don’t get my soul, just my body. It’ll be one of your puppets.”

“Not interested.”

And you get the third shade. Entirely.”

That gave both Reish and the beast pause.

“So…” the beast said slowly, weighing the options in his mind. “I get your body and the third shade. The full benefit of a shared shade, encased in a body that is entirely under my control…Meanwhile your soul goes on to the afterlife, and Reish leaves me, soul and body. That is your offer?”

“And Reish has no remaining ties to the third shade, no powers with which to challenge you.”

“While on the other hand, I could continue to string out our war, take over the third shade bit-by-bit, as well as Reish’s body and soul, and then kill you once the third shade will allow it…”

“Take over the third shade almost. Reish’s body and soul almost. Let’s not play games. Both of us know that you will never have the whole of them this way. You will always be fractured. If you could take them all the way you would have done it already. Like I said, there’s something still in Reish that you haven’t been able to take from him. And so long as you don’t have all of him, you won’t have all of the third shade.”

“But if I do things your way, then you die tonight. And then, you must realize, I kill Reish. And then I kill all your little followers.”

“That…is a distinct possibility.”

“Ah,” the beast crowed. “So that’s why you’re willing to do this. After everything you’ve been through you still have a glimmer of hope. Hope that somehow Reish and the others will find a way out of all this.”

“If ever they could, it would only be this way. With all ties having been cut. I don’t know that they will succeed. Frankly, I don’t know how they would. But yes, as you say, I do still hope.”

That was it, all the cards were laid out. If Gallan held back his true motives it would only make the beast skeptical about the deal.

The beast would know that Gallan’s logic was correct. A complete severance was the only way for the people Gallan cared about to ever go free. Yes, that would also unchain the beast, but that couldn’t be helped. The creature would at last be free to exercise its full potential, a being of power such as the world had never seen before. And so any victory for Gallan’s people was only theoretical. In practice their escape would be a virtual impossibility and Gallan’s hopes rested on the smallest possible of margins. The beast would consent.

“Gallan, no!” Reish shrieked. It was a great strain for him to speak, but he continued shaking his head, wresting for that control. “You can’t do this. I don’t want you to save me. It’s too late. I don’t want–”

“Don’t you remember, Reish,” the beast-side sneered. “You don’t ‘get what you want,’ now do you?”

“Gallan, please,” Reish pleaded.

“Well, beast,” Gallan narrowed his eyes. “Is it a deal or not?”

The beast met his gaze. “Do it.”

Gallan closed his eyes and reached out with his shade. He could discern the essence of the whole room around them. Not by its walls and furnishings, but by its atmosphere and spirit. It was dark, oppressive, and bleak. Three souls, two bodies, one demon. He could sense them all. The demon and the third soul were reaching out for him and he received them.

Gallan was flung to the ground with a cry. His body went rigid and then convulsed. The transference did not happen all at once, the darkness hit him in one wave after another. A cold hopelessness crept over him. Inch-by-inch it pried at his soul, seeking to take him over. It gave him visions of all the horrible things it had done, of the people it had broken, of the sins it had made them do. It told him he was a fool, that it would do all these same things to those he now died for.

Gallan’s fists clenched and unclenched rapidly, the nails piercing into his skin. A shuddering cry rose through his chest, but before it could expel another followed right after it. And another and another, as if he needed to vomit, but nothing could get out because the convulsions ran too near one another. Hot tears flowed silently down his temples and into his hair.

Still the darkness pulled at his soul, trying to pry it free of his body. Inch-by-inch. Gallan wanted to give up that ghost, but he couldn’t willfully. It wasn’t its natural time, after all, and so it could only be wrested out involuntarily.

The darkness beat at his heart, and he realized he had to let it in. Though it broke him to do so, he opened himself to it. It felt like a strong ropes running down his throat, splintering off into separate cords of black, that pushed at force through his veins to pervade every cell of his body. Before it had been a cloud around him, but now it was in him. It was him. He felt himself shamed and unworthy. His purity was gone, his nobility was broken. We was overcome by a wave of deep fear, and that led him into pure hatred. All he wanted to do was break and destroy the world so that he could rest in its ashes.

Then came the almighty slash. Now that the darkness was inside him it seemed to grab his soul like a claw and wrenched violently until it began to pry loose from his body. The soul tore and left behind great patches of spirit that shriveled into nothingness. The claw ripped again, and the soul was almost torn free.

Everything was fading around Gallan, the world seemed to be growing cold and distant. It was as if the world was falling away beneath him. He was vaguely aware of a tearing sensation, but it seemed far off, like the shadow of a struggle. Strangle enough there was a peaceful disconnect. In fact he was free now, and drifting to somewhere new.

“Gallan, Gallan,” Reish sobbed. “Why did you do this? Why? It’s already too late for me.”

Reish was huddled on the ground, his form quivering in ceaseless sobs. Gallan had been right, a part of Reish had managed to hold on all through the years. Though the beast took so much of him, a hope had always remained. But it had not been a hope in himself, he had lost that long ago. It was his hope in Gallan. No matter how far Reish sunk, no matter how many people were destroyed, he rested in the confidence that at least Gallan would be out there. It had always comforted him to know that there still stood a champion for the people, a last beacon of good.

But now that beacon was gone. And gone in exchange for him, the most unworthy of them all.

And yet, Reish could not deny that bit-by-bit, inch-by-inch, a freshness was returning to him. For the first time in years he had control of his own body again. That weighing oppression was slipping away, leaving him with a clarity and an innocence that he had long forgotten. It felt so strange to be his own self again. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do with it, yet here it was all the same. It felt like being born anew.

Reish wiped his eyes and looked up from the ground. Gallan was nowhere to be seen. Where he had fallen there now lay a full-beast. It was stark and gaunt, a hideous contortion of spindly limbs projected at strange angles. Its skin was pale and hairless, stretched uncomfortably over long bones. Its maw was flat, but very wide, and between its motionless lips one could see the vise of pointed teeth.

The creature’s chest rose and fell and its eyes turned beneath its lids. It would awake soon, and it would arise with one purpose: to hunt him. Though Reish was still reeling from the cacophony of emotions, he knew he had to flee. Trying to slay the beast as it slept would be to no avail. There was a ghostly aura all about it, the sign of the third shade. Though the creature was unconscious the shade would not be, and it would protect its master well.

So Reish stumbled to his feet, turned from the place, and walked out into the night. He would go and find Gallan’s people, try to reach them before the beast did. He would warn them. Most likely they would just execute him on the spot, they certainly had the right to. Well, then at the very least he could allow them that final service.

Or perhaps they would see more meaning in Gallan’s actions than he did, and they would let him live for Gallan’s sake. If they did that, then he would offer them what pitiful aid he could for as long as he lived. His soul had been repurchased, and his duty was clear. Though he was no Gallan, he would try to stand in that man’s ranks, no matter how hopeless the situation had become.

 

This is the end of Shade, though clearly not the end of the story for Reish, the beast, and Gallan’s people. But then, we didn’t see the beginnings of their story either, so it felt fitting to leave things in media res as well. Even if this short story has not been the entire story, it still shows a complete arc on its own. There has been a hero, a conflict, and a reclamation.

At the outset for Shade I made clear my intentions for the story: it was to create an unspoken expectation in the reader and then defy it. I attempted to do this by introducing Gallan right from the outset as a heroic character, one that the audience assumes will carry the torch through the entire tale. Reish, meanwhile, I introduced as the reluctant villain, suggesting to the audience that he might sacrifice himself for the greater good and thus reclaim his soul.

That reclamation does happen, but I flip things so that it is Gallan who is sacrificed and Reish who is left to carry the torch. Thus is there both the fulfillment and the subversion of unspoken expectations.

On Monday I mentioned that the previous section of Shade had been heavy on exposition, and that I wanted this one to invoke more feelings from the reader. This section did end up still having a considerable amount of expository dialogue, but at the end we do delve deep into the actual experience of the characters. My intention was that both their hope and their despair would come through and shadow the emotions of the reader.

Of course trying to make the reader feel both hope and despair at the same moment is an interesting paradox. Combining contrasting flavors is something I have spoken about in a previous post, and how an author can use it to arrest a reader’s attention. There is another side to this sort of juxtaposition that is worth examining, though: how a writer can both subvert and satisfy a reader’s expectations at the same time. That, ultimately, was my wish with Shade, to end it on a note of both triumph and defeat. Come back on Monday where I’ll explain this approach in greater detail, and until then have a wonderful weekend!