I wonder which gymnast commentator was the first to excitedly shout “…and he sticks the landing!” It’s become a staple of the sport, used to signify that the athlete has performed some particularly difficult dismount, and still managed to land with perfect finesse. In this sport it isn’t so much about how many flips and twists you can do in the air, it’s how many you can do while still maintaining your control through to the end.
This is “theory versus execution,” and “easier said than done,” and “not just talking the talk but walking the walk.” In so many circles of life people are far less impressed with what you can imagine, and more so with what you can actually do.
And yes, this applies to writing as well. The fact is, coming up with a great idea for a story is not that hard. Go attend any writer’s group and you will meet dozens of people who all have “great ideas.” And it’s not that they’re wrong, either. Every person has a genius inside of them, and when they really set their imaginations to something the result is both exciting and awe-inspiring.
Yet very few of these would-be magnum opuses ever actually get written. It’s one of the greatest tragedies that so much creativity goes unrealized, so much potential goes squandered. And why does this happen? Well, “easier said than done.”
I’ve written about this before, the gap between imagination and execution. The talent is not in having a great idea, it is in being able to give a voice to it. We do not praise Da Vinci for having the image of the Mona Lisa in his mind, we praise him for actually getting it onto the canvas.
Failure and Fear)
I’m sure we can all think of experiences where an author has gone for something impressive and left us disappointed. Just recently I read a novel that had me cringing as the main character had a story related to him, one that was meant to be wise and profound, one that would compel him to action. And while the main character was nodding his head and expressing amazement at such “profound wisdom,” I was just rolling my eyes at such shallow kitsch.
Of course some authors may wish to avoid falling flat on their face like that. And so, if the story calls for a moment of grandeur they try cheat their way around it. They will say something impressive happened, but they don’t actually show it. I remember a film where the main character stood up to give a rousing speech at the film’s conclusion. Instead of actually coming up with something meaningful for him to say, though, the movie simply drowned out his voice with sentimental music and slowly panned past a row of people, all nodding as if they were hearing him say something very moving.
That’s hardly any better, and it’s quite possibly even worse. So what then? Well some authors will just avoid including anything meaningful at all. There’s no risk of flubbing an impressive sequence if there just aren’t any impressive sequences. Or maybe they figure out how to do one thing right, and then they just churn that out over and over with every story. It’s like that childhood friend who could draw Fred Flinstone really well…but only from this one angle and in one pose.
In my work-life these sorts of limitations are not tolerated. The software industry is ever-changing and ever-evolving. If you stand still and never stretch yourself, then you will not keep your job. Perhaps your work is poor quality, you will get feedback on that and you will be expected to improve. To improve you are expected to ask for training and put in the hard work to master that area. Once you have mastered that task, then the process starts over as you are expected to now take the next step.
Sometimes you see the moment of epiphany in a new developer’s eyes, the moment when they finally get it. Their daily work isn’t the software, it’s the improvement. We aren’t asking them to “do their task,” we’re asking them to “own their craft.”
That transformation is where the worker becomes the true professional. Steven Pressfield, a very accomplished author himself, explored this very notion in his book The War of Art. Here he explains that being professional isn’t about being paid, it is about being a master of one’s craft and not accepting any personal limitations. The professional author is a true artist of the page, one to whom creativity is both the means and the end.
If a professional writer found he couldn’t stick the landing he wouldn’t rewrite the scene to hide his weakness. He would say “well, I guess that’s what I need to learn next.” When the professional writer publishes her next book she doesn’t “play it safe” and just rehash everything she did before. No, each of her entries is a testament to how much she’s challenged herself, and how she’s grown to meet those challenges.
My Own Downs and Ups)
The second short story I published on this blog was called The Houses’s Finest Hour, and it was my attempt at doing an ambient piece. For the entire post I ignored characters and plot, and instead focused on describing a location, using all of the long and flowery sentences I could muster. I did it because I knew it was something I didn’t do very much, and I wanted to give myself a challenge. Well, I certainly succeeded in that regard.
It was one of the most difficult things I had ever written. I just wasn’t any good at it. I wrote and rewrote, and second- and triple-guessed every sentence. It took tremendous effort to post what I did, and frankly even then it still wasn’t very good. I knew it wasn’t very good, but it really was the best I could do then.
At that moment I knew I had found the next thing for me to learn. Throughout the entire year that has followed I have returned numerous times to this same task, not willing to let that freshman effort be my final word on capturing an atmosphere. Almost all of my work has involved scenery-painting in one form or another, and a few have even been built exclusively around it. Sculpting Light, Deep Forest, and The Last Grasshopper all represent milestones in my journey to improve in that regard. In fact, just two weeks ago I posted Washed Ashore, which represents my latest attempt at writing a piece that conveys a palpable mood.
I would say there is obviously still room to grow, and I still haven’t given my final word on that subject. But I have actually improved, and I am glad I didn’t try to shy away from a portion of storytelling just because I wasn’t very good at it initially.
Being able to pull off an impressive narrative sequence is, in some ways, what being an author is all about. It is a large part of what characterizes and defines all of the most celebrated writers. If you really want to make your next piece sing, you’re going to have to write that is hard.
That’s what I’m personally going to be doing with my very next post. In my current story I’ve already introduced our main character Taki, and established that he is about to engage in some sort of futuristic and dangerous racing competition. Now this particular sport is going to be central to all the rest of the story. So I really need it to be something that is exciting and original, somewhere that the reader will want to spend time. The reader needs to readily understand how this sport works, they need to be utterly captivated by it, and they need to be curious to know more!
If I fail in this ambition, it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb. As I said, the meat of the story is going to be taking place around the race track, so if that track isn’t an interesting place to be then the story isn’t going to be interesting to read. I’m flipping off the pommel horse and I may just fall flat on my face. But I’m all for the challenge. In fact I’m excited about it. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out!
Khalil’s blood was pounding, his heart was racing, his hands were clenched in fists. Then, in almighty rush the sights and the sounds of the tribe flooded back into focus. Some people were shrieking in fear, gesturing to Urafiki’s strange and twisted figure at Khalil’s feet. Others were sobbing in heartbreak, reaching for Paki’s fallen form. Others, only a few, were shouting in anger, crowding behind Abasi. And between them all Khalil stood alone.
“He cheated!” Abasi spat. “He revoked his right to a companion! And a creature cannot fight in the blood duel!”
“Abasi, you are a fool!” one of the elders chided. “He has just saved your life.”
“That wouldn’t have been necessary if he had not brought that monster into camp!”
“Abasi you have nothing to gain,” one of the women spoke up, “the challenge is over and Paki is dead.”
“But he was not slain by a member of the challenge. It is not honorable!”
Most of the people looked over to the head priest, he was the final word on the law of their tribe. The man was shaking his head gravely, clearly uneasy with his burden.
“It does not…seem honorable,” he finally muttered, then looked earnestly to Khalil.
Khalil understood. The priest knew that this was a gray area, and was hoping that Khalil would resolve the matter for them.
“No,” Khalil agreed. “It was not.”
The tide let loose again.
“Then Abasi is our new chief,” one of the warriors standing off to the side spoke up.
“He was not a challenger,” Paki’s mother chimed in. “Only a companion. Paki was challenger and Paki is chief.”
“He’s dead,” another woman said flatly.
“Then his son inherits the throne.”
There was quite a rumble of dissent at that.
“Perhaps Paki was not honorably defeated, but he didn’t win the challenge either!”
“He had been going to.”
“How are you all forgetting that Khalil saved us from that creature!”
As each side began to shout over one another Khalil noticed various members of the tribe glancing over to him expectantly. They wanted him to speak up, to make a claim, to settle the matter for them. But he knew that wouldn’t work, the rifts were too deep. He would just become another of the contending voices pulling the tribe further apart. Besides, he had already tried to give the tribe a peaceful resolution and nature had intervened, so who was he to say what was right anymore?
So much had gone wrong this night. Khalil should not still be alive. Paki should not have been killed. Urafiki should not have had to die simply for defending its friend. Paki should not have ever betrayed him. So many wrongs: against their tribe, against nature, against friendship.
But above the agony of Khalil’s losses was the matter of his continued presence and how it was driving that rift between the brothers and sisters that he loved. He had tried before to decide for the tribe what was in their best interest, now all he could think to do was to let them to decide on their own. And to do that, he still needed to remove himself from them.
“Hear me!” Khalil finally said and the tumult quickly hushed. “Our law has been broken. I don’t just mean violated…it is broken into pieces. Each of you tries to claim one of those pieces but it will not all fit back together anymore.”
He paused and could see in the people’s faces that they agreed with his summary.
“Therefore all that remains is to build anew,” he continued. “You must find a new law this day and become a new tribe… And as such, I am no longer your chief,” he reached up to his chest and undid the clasp there, dropping his ceremonial mantle to the floor. Gasps of shock rippled through the crowd.
“I am responsible for everything falling apart. I am sorry.”
Another slight pause.
“I hereby exile myself that you may find your own way to continued peace and unity. May you be guided by wisdom.”
Tears glistened in Khalil’s eyes as he turned away from his people. He could hear their rumbling whispers, but he could not make out the words. He did not try to. Slowly, purposefully, he hobbled away from the fire, past the huts and the crops, beyond the fringe of their clearing, and into the wild that lay beyond.
He was vaguely aware that the arguing in the center of the camp had picked up again, and he found himself praying that they would be able to find their way. Stumbling over the thick foliage in the dark he felt his way still deeper and deeper. On occasion he looked over his shoulder to see if he could still glimpse the bonfire or hear the tribe’s heated debates.
He continued until there was no more sign of his people and he was enclosed entirely in the blackness of the night. Groping in the dark he found a large boulder and lowered himself into a seated position on it.
The darkness of the jungle pressed close against him and now the tears began to flow. Some were for Paki, his lost friend. Some were for the hate he had felt, his desire to kill that very friend for his betrayal. Some were for Urafiki, whose only crime was loyalty and carrying out that which Khalil intended. Some were for his tribe, fractured by the drama of the night. And finally some tears were reserved for himself, alone and broken, a man at odds with his own nature.
He wondered how long he would be able to survive out here on his own. Should he try to find shelter and food? He had great difficulty hunting with his low stamina, but he could try gathering resources. Even so, it would only be a matter of time before he became sick or found by some larger predator, and then he could only help the end would come quickly….
He shook his head, trying to change those thoughts. Instead he found himself wondering what he was supposed to have done differently. Should he have let Paki stand with him and died together as friends? Should he have left Urafiki to die alone on top of the mountain? Even with the tragedy of that night he still felt he had only made the choices that seemed right. At least at the time.
As he sat in the darkness his eyes became sensitive to little pinpricks of light and he found himself captivated by them. First were the patches of starry night sky visible above the canopy of the trees. He stared upwards at the partial signs they made to him, the incomplete guidance they tried to impart. He looked downwards and saw the drifting glow of the fireflies, the random meanderings of life. As he watched their swirling forms he noticed that some of the fireflies were growing larger than the others. Confused, he closed his eyes and shook his head, then looked back at them.
He realized he had mistaken the depth of the points of light and that some of them were actually torches drifting in his general direction. He stood up, his heart racing. Had Abasi argued his way into chiefdom and sent warriors out to dispose of him?
But no. The lights were far too many for that. They only had a score of warriors in their tribe and he could now make out at least fifty torches, all spread out evenly in a fan to find him.
Slowly realization set in. The tribe was following him into exile. Rather than try to salvage the pieces of a broken law they were willfully abandoning their home to follow him into the unknown. Somehow he had earned their trust and now they wanted his help to begin a new legacy. He called out to them.
This completes my story The Heart of Something Wild. If you have missed the previous sections of the story you can find the entire work here. Furthermore, it is possible to access all of my previous short stories in their entirety on this page. That page can also be found by selecting Collections from the top menu.
On Monday I spoke about underdog stories, ones where the hero wins not by being the biggest and strongest, but by persevering in what they believe to be right. A common method for this is in their winning the hearts of the masses, who then combine their strength together to overthrow the opposition. This is often the martyr whose sacrifice creates a cause greater than themselves. Ultimately I knew that this was an element I wanted to use in bringing The Heart of Something Wild to its resolution.
Obviously, though, our main character does not actually die the martyr’s death in this tale. Perhaps he intended to, but was frustrated in those designs. That was a creative decision, one where I meant to suggest that he was trying his best, but some higher power intervened to reward him for his selflessness and give him something better. That higher power is left open to interpretation, it could be nature, the spirits of his ancestors, karma, God, or something else.
I would say this example is different from the many unfortunate examples of stories that pretend they are going to feature a heroic sacrifice, and then chicken out at the last moment. This is one of my greatest narrative pet peeves, and I feel strongly enough about it that I’ll be dedicating my entire post on Monday to it. Then, on Thursday I’ll be presenting a new short story. I’ll see you then.
Opposition is a constant experience in our human lives. To make even the simplest of changes by necessity requires that we exist in one state, with our destination in another, and some form of resistance in between the two. If I wish to stand it must be that I am first in some more reclined state and then exert force against the pull of gravity. It is a simple logic that if these different states and the resistance between them did not exist, there would never any change for we would already be at our destinations.
Furthermore, it appears that this resistance which we encounter always flows more strongly in a particular direction. Specifically, it always flows against order and improvement. Tied into the very fabric of the universe seems to be a universal principle that it is always easier to make a mess than to clean one, to end a relationship than to build one, to ruin a reputation than to establish one, and to damn oneself than to find salvation.
To become the men and women we dream of demands, then, that we live a life of constant effort, always moving upstream and against the grain. Given the exhaustion we see at that end of the spectrum and our repulsion for the depravity at the other end, most of us settle on a more comfortable middle ground. In a word we choose “mediocrity,” days spent performing no great evil but also accomplishing no great good. An existence of forever living beneath our potential.
We might even try to convince ourselves that this is as good as life ever gets. Heroes are a fantasy, we say, and effort would only lead to broken dreams. The world is too big and too evil, and trying to stand against that storm will only get you snapped like a dry reed in the wind.
It is at times like these that stories, true stories, provide an all-important lesson on the power of endurance more than strength, of sacrifice more than fortification, of perseverance more than speed. Consider the situation under which Gandhi chose to defy the British rule in his homeland of India. Most of his fellow countrymen had accepted their dejected state because the British just seemed too great a force to stand against. As Gandhi swam against the current he raised no armies and fielded no battles, at least not in the military sense. But he did refuse to obey and he did refuse to be curtailed. His victory was achieved simply by being willing to face that tide of resistance longer than the British monarchy was, a feat all the more impressive given the principle I mentioned before: that the resistance is stronger against the good.
Stories of real world change shake us out of our cushy chairs and demand we face the reality that we could be more. We all have our demons, the forces that send us scurrying back under the bed whenever we consider improving ourselves. They might be ignorance, poverty, depression, or shame. “I would like to be a better person, but to do so would mean facing the guilt for past misdeeds.”
In this way our demons hold us back, and seem to wield greater power than we possess. Even so, they can be worn down if we are simply more persistent than they. More willing to pick ourselves up after a setback. More willing to endure, to sacrifice, and to give. If we learn anything from Gandhi’s example, let it be this: you can beat a man into submission simply by standing up more times than he is willing to knock you down.
As such, I care very little for stories where the hero wins the day just by being more skilled than the enemy. If he simply shoots faster, has bigger muscles, or hits harder until he wins, then there is no relatability to me and my situations. If I could simply punch my personal flaws into submission I would have done that a long time ago.
A far more meaningful narrative example is that of Disney’s animated feature: Hercules. Here we have a protagonist who literally is the strongest all around and does indeed try to punch all of his problems into submission. Eventually, though, he is frustrated to learn that life simply will not work that way, and ultimately he gives up his physical strength to instead learn endurance of the heart. It is by this path that finally he becomes the god he dreamt to be.
Like Hercules, our personal improvement often requires sacrificing that which gives us strength and comfort: our addiction, our complacency, our facade. Growth comes by taking off the armor that doesn’t fit and facing Goliath in our true form: small, vulnerable, and weak. This deliberately stacks the deck against us and puts us in the role of the underdog.
If you want a director who is master of the underdog tale, look no further than Steven Spielberg. From his early film-making titles like Duel, to his suspenseful thrillers like Jaws, to his gripping adventures like Indiana Jones, Spielberg consistently gives us an everyman who is entirely out of his depth. For each of them their path to success is a journey of setback after setback, failure after failure, one plan crumbling after another until finally their perseverance sees them through. I finish each of these films feeling exhausted for just having been witness to such constant struggle.
Another underdog tale I appreciate is King Henry V by Shakespeare. What I like most about this is that it leaves no question as to whether the uphill battle is worth the effort. The story certainly spends its time in the trenches, setting Henry and his small band against a series of losses and facing down innumerable foes. But then, at long last, there follows the triumph on St. Crispin’s Day, the charmingly bumbling courtship of Katharine, the King of France adopting Henry as heir, and the peaceful union of two great nations.
The play speaks a great truth, one that all of us would do well to remember when facing our own uphill battles.
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard of anyone laying on their deathbed and saying “I just wish that I had tried less.” In the end we never do regret our efforts, only what we were. I cannot name all of the rewards we may find by our betterment, but the first of them, the heart that has its reclaimed itself, is already more than enough for me.
At this time I would normally do a little plug for my short stories, instead I would like to take a moment to dedicate this post to a dear friend of mine who passed away unexpectedly on Saturday.
Corey Holmgren was a military chaplain, therapist, youth teacher, father, husband, and friend. He was also the mentor who initiated me into the ranks of those that fight for their best selves. He did so much to show me the complacency I had accepted, and the potential that was waiting for me. It was he, and others like him, who inspired me to wake up and improve myself, making a number of changes, including writing these regular blog posts. Corey was a part of me that I was not ready to lose.
His family was not ready to lose him either and I’m including a link to the GoFundMe that has been set up for them. As it says over there: “If you are unable to donate, please keep them all in your thoughts and prayers.”
Khalil spun around in surprise and found Paki peering into the hut, his eyes locked on Urafiki.
“Yes,” Khalil grinned. “It is soothed, well fed, and resting. It will not eat you today.”
“I am grateful” Paki laughed back as he stepped fully into the home. “Am I disturbing you now?”
“No, Paki, in fact I’ve wanted to speak with you.”
“About the challenge?”
Paki shook his head. “I do not see why you are so hesitant about it. Who else would you have stand with you? I am the finest warrior in all of the camp, everyone says so.”
“I would say so, too,” Khalil sighed. “But I would also say that one man against two makes for difficult odds. By that I mean no slight to you.”
Paki waved dismissively. “Did you not hear how I fought two Oroko at once in their last raid?” He folded his arms impressively and assumed the boastful stance he always used when recounting battlefield glories. “I used my disadvantage to my advantage. You see, I let one of them–”
“Stab you in the arm so that you could reel him in with your other hand,” Khalil finished. “And then you could dispatch of the other in one-on-one combat. Yes, I know the story, Paki…. Everyone in the camp knows the story, just as everyone in the camp knows how you fight. Abasi has even sparred with you!”
“And I have sparred with him!” Paki added forcefully, frowning at the stings to his pride. “You really believe that I could not defend you?”
“You would protect me too well! Even if it cost you your own life.”
Paki nodded slowly, his frown turning into contemplation. “I see now. And you are right, there is a great risk in this.” He nodded his head in deep thought, then spoke with conviction. “But…this is also what is right. You being our chief is right. Protecting my friend is right. This is the honorable fight for me, and it is the natural order of things that that which is honorable comes with great risk. All the more glory that follows it as well.” This last part he added with a broad smile. “I do wish to earn my calling as head warrior after all.”
Khalil grimaced and shook his head. “Is it right for me to be chief, though? Suppose you could defeat Abasi and whomever he chooses for his companion, what would happen then? Abasi has raised great support these past months, and his death would not be taken well. It could mean civil war for our tribe.”
“And what of us who support you? If you were to fall we would rebel against this coup.” Paki made a spitting noise, but did not actually desecrate the floor of his friend’s hut.
“If you did then you would be rebelling against me, as well!” Khalil snapped and fully spat on the ground. “I am going to ask–I am going to order–all those loyal to me to accept what I have already accepted. We must choose the better compromise here, and the better is that I die quickly and the tribe loses neither its best warrior nor its unity.”
“And serve Abasi? The man is a fool!” Tears were forming in Paki’s eyes. It was impossible to tell if they were of sorrow or anger.
“He will need all of the help you can provide,” Khalil admitted, “I need you to be there for him.”
Paki did not respond, he only hung his head downwards with his eyes closed, tears seeping from them.
“Paki I am now a chief, and though my legacy may be short, let me at least have this one choice to do what is right for the tribe. And for you.” He stepped forward and raised his hand to place it on Paki’s shoulder. But Paki heaved backwards and out of reach, staring up at Khalil with a deep wound. He held the gaze for a moment and sniffed angrily, then stormed out of the hut without another word.
Khalil’s hand was still suspended in the air, but slowly he closed the fingers into a fist and turned back. He was surprised to see Urafiki awake, watching him from the basket. Urafiki was making a low growl in its throat, and its eyes were narrowed. Those eyes were not on Khalil, though, but on Paki’s retreating back.
The moon had already begun waning when Paki and Khalil returned to the camp, and now it seemed to shrink more quickly than usual with every passing day. Khalil had tried to catch Abasi’s eye a few times to see what lurked within, but the warrior was steadfastly avoiding him at all times. Khalil supposed that was gracious of Abasi, better to be ignored by him than to be publicly taunted.
More unpleasant was the fact that Paki was now avoiding him, too. When they had their feasts Paki would come for food and then carry it back to his hut. When they held their councils Paki would stare ceaselessly at the ground and never speak a word. The thought had occurred to Khalil that as chief he could demand Paki and Abasi to acknowledge his presence, but what would be the point of that? To satiate his pride? He would be gone before long anyway.
As promised, Khalil held a private meeting with the elders and warriors he knew to be most sympathetic to his cause. He thanked them for their support and then ordered them to respect the rituals and traditions of the tribe. If he was to fall, then preserving the community was what mattered most. Some of them tried to argue, but he merely held up his hand and revealed his intention to face the challenge unaided. The significance of that was clear. He would die, and if Khalil was no longer around for them to rally behind, then it would be hard to justify any rebellion.
Those supporters now avoided making eye contact with Khalil as well. Pleasantries would have sounded too hollow, so numb silence prevailed instead. When Khalil felt the loneliness become overwhelming him he would go back to his hut and be with Urafiki. Though their time together had been short, they had already developed a close bond. Khalil made a collar-restraint so that the creature would not be able to bite him when applying the poultice to its wounds. When it came time for the next application of the salve, though, he found himself hesitating to put the restraint on his friend.
Urafiki’s biting him was not unjustified from the creature’s perspective. How could it understand that he meant it goodwill with the stinging cure? If anything Urafiki was being quite forgiving, and it felt wrong to therefore suppress it. And so Khalil tossed the wood and string contraption to the side and administered the poultice to Urafiki’s hurt while bracing for the bite. It didn’t come. Urafiki raised itself up and hissed, but never latched onto Khalil’s arm as before. All following treatments followed this same pattern and soon Urafiki’s condition was markedly improved.
After a week the creature began to move around the floor of the hut, crawling on four legs like a dog. With the finger-like claws on its hands it could climb up onto Khalil’s table and cot, and at times would also raise up on its back legs. It could stretch up to three times its regular height, and in doing so revealed a long, spindly body beneath the bat-like wings that stretched between its joints.
Khalil had found the creature to be playful, its favorite activity being play-fighting with him. Generally this was initiated as he was ambling about the hut and Urafiki would bowl into his legs from behind, knocking him to the ground. In a flash Urafiki would move up to his chest and neck and hiss menacingly, pausing to let him grip it and throw it to the side. Then it would circle about and make another lunge.
Khalil was grateful that the creature did not try to venture out of his hut, any camp members who had caught a glimpse of Urafiki in his home had all hurried away, disturbed by its strange and somewhat sinister appearance. As such Khalil knew that the creature would have to return to the wild, and so it was that on the afternoon preceding the new moon he lifted Urafiki into his arms and hobbled out of the camp’s clearing, looking for a quiet clump of trees to meditate under.
“You won’t be able to stay here anymore,” he said while stroking Urafiki. “You have your strength back and now you must leave. I hope things go better for you than before?”
Khalil found a quiet corner of the jungle, and knelt down to meditate and pray. As he did, Urafiki paced around him like a sentinel. Khalil quieted his mind and connected with his core. As he did so, he was unsurprised to find a well of fear and sorrow bursting out over him. He had done well in repressing it these past days, but this consignment to death went too strongly against all his basic instincts. Khalil did not try to fight the torrent of tears and shaking, letting them roll over him in one successive wave after another. With each one he collapsed more and more until he was laying prone on the ground, fatigued by the surging emotions. The did not engulf him, though, rather they expressed themselves and then moved on. As their ripples slowly diminished he at last felt the quiet peace of their absence. There simply was not any capacity to grieve left in him.
The beating of the drum back at camp signaled that the sun had just begun to dip between the horizon. All challenges to the chief were to be made before it had set completely, and it was Khalil’s duty to be there to receive them. Wiping his face with the back of his hand he rose to his feet and staggered back towards camp.
Urafiki instinctively followed but Khalil shook his hand at it with a loud “Shah!” and it halted. It did not retreat though, only paused and transfixed with eyes of confusion.
“Live a long and happy life, my friend,” Khalil bowed, then continued his walk to the center of camp.
Here the beginnings of a bonfire were crackling and the tribe members were trickling one-by-one into the circle of its glow. Khalil nodded to the priest beating on the drum, and stood at attention on the circular rug at the head of the gathering. Already he could see a ripple moving through the crowd and Abasi emerged from their depths to approach him. Khalil closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, then looked to the man and nodded.
“Great chief,” Abasi saluted him, bowing low and then rising. “Though your rule has been brief it has been gracious. I want it to be known that I have no disrespect for your character.”
Khalil nodded blandly. Abasi meant no offense but he was come to kill him? What was he supposed to say to that?
“Even so,” Abasi continued, “may all the tribe bear witness that I come to deliver a challenge to Khalil, son of Kibali…”
“…on behalf of Paki, son of Jomo.”
There was another stir in the crowd as a second figure emerged from their midst. Paki was covered in full war paints and carrying two war clubs on his shoulder. On one end of them was the heavy cudgel, the other end was whittled down to a vicious point. Paki strode up to Khalil, meeting his gaze for the first time in days with harshly intent eyes. He held out one of the clubs to Abasi and gave only the shallowest of nods to Khalil.
“I challenge your right as ruler of this tribe,” he murmured in a low whisper.
Khalil was taken aback, but kept the surprise from his face. “Is this an honorable fight, too, Paki?” he asked coolly.
“We’re past that now.”
“Paki, son of Jomo,” the priest with the drum chimed in. “You have challenged our chief, and so there must be a blood duel. You cannot withdraw until one of you lies dead. You understand?”
“And you have chosen Abasi as your companion in this challenge?”
“Khalil, son of Kibali, you have been challenged. Who will fight as your companion?”
Khalil shook his head. “None stand with me.”
The priest sighed. “So be it.” He waved to the other priests and they spaced themselves out, pressing the crowd back to form an open circle with the bonfire at its center. Paki and Abasi backed away to one side of the circle and Khalil turned to another of the priest’s who had retrieved a war club for him.
“When I strike the drum the challenge will begin,” the first priest announced.
Khalil looked to Paki first, and then Abasi. Abasi must have known that the tribe would more willingly fall into line behind Paki, and he would still receive a promotion for his loyalty, probably be made head warrior. It made sense. And yet…. though it was a clever and rational betrayal on Paki’s part…it was still a betrayal.
Abasi and Paki advanced at him from either direction, Abasi hanging back slightly to allow Paki the honor of the kill. Khalil stood motionless, letting them advance. As Paki’s figure loomed nearer though he found himself gripping the handle of the club he had been given.
Paki stepped into a charge and raised his war club high. Khalil’s heart skipped a beat. Not out of fear, but of anger. He moved so suddenly he caught himself by surprise, swinging up in answer to Paki’s challenge. Paki was caught off guard by the motion and barely managed to transition his own attack into a block. He did not fully deflect Khalil’s blow, instead diverting it to his shoulder, where it connected with a cracking thud.
Paki roared in anger, easily ducked under Khalil’s next swing, and then swept Khalil’s legs out from under him. The world turned on its side and Khalil fell onto his back, hard. He was winded and dazed, and unable to hold onto his club as Abasi kicked it out of his grasp. Above him Paki was turning his own club over, pointing the sharp end down towards Khalil’s heart. Paki looked upwards, giving a war cry as he plunged the weapon downwards.
It never connected. To Khalil’s surprise a white blur streaked through the air and wrapped itself around Paki’s head. The warrior shrieked in surprise and lurched backwards, trying to grapple the blanket that had secured itself to his face. Suddenly he stopped his struggling, instead raising himself higher and higher, clear up onto his tiptoes, his hands limp at his side. It seemed as though he were in a trance, then suddenly the spell was broken and he collapsed down to the ground, dead. The white “something” spun off from Paki’s face and revealed itself to be Urafiki.
Khalil staggered back up to his feet as Urafiki slowly raised up onto its back legs, its arms dangling a few inches off the ground. It was hissing menacingly, with ears flattened back against the skull and mandibles were drawn back to reveal its gaping mouth. Its eyes were wide and bloodshot, staring intently as Abasi.
Abasi was clearly unnerved, backing away as Urafiki sidled side-to-side before lunging forward at him.
“No!” Khalil cried, lurching to the side just in time to intercept the creature. He wrapped his arms around the beast, but it was manic, scrabbling up and over his shoulder. Khalil fumbled at his waist, pulling out a knife and stabbing the creature in the side. Urafiki cried in pain and dug a claw into Khalil’s arm.
“Just stop!” Khalil ordered, but the creature was filled with the bloodlust and continued to writhe after Abasi. Khalil drew out the knife and plunged it again, rewarded with another gouge from the creature’s claw, this time in the side of his neck.
Urafiki gave a confused cry, but lurched once more for Abasi.
“I’m sorry,” Khalil gasped, finally burying the knife in Urafiki’s heart. The creature seized up in his arms, going rigid and then slowly limp. Khalil looked into its eyes, wild and wondering, then fading into emptiness.
As I mentioned in an earlier post about communication, it is essential for the audience to feel connected to the character so that they may share in the emotions they are feeling. I would imagine, and intend, that most readers will feel sorrier for Urafiki’s loss than Paki’s. In the bigger scheme of things that might seem unbalanced, given that Khalil and Paki have shared an entire life together, but the audience did not personally experience that history. Instead our window has spent more time on Khalil and Urafiki’s relationship and it has been a more positive one as well. Therefore I am able to steer the reader to giving that loss the far greater weight.
On Monday I also wrote about the concept of characters and plotlines subverting the reader’s expectations with a surprising reveal. I suggested in that post that usually a character’s actions are telegraphed well in advance so that their shifts and turns are expected. Paki’s betrayal would fall under that category, as I first show him being greatly distressed and then removed from Khalil.
Urafiki’s sudden involvement may not have come as too much of a surprise either, most readers probably assumed that the creature was going to get involved in the ending somehow. My hope, though, was that Khalil then slaying Urafiki would come as a shock. Urafiki was his friend and Abasi was his enemy, so it seems counterintuitive for him to do that. However I have tried to establish a trait that Khalil honors duty above friendship, and so hopefully it will still feel honest.
I also hope that Khalil’s surviving the challenge feels earned. Obviously I set him up as the underdog, and therefore needed him to come out of the ordeal by more unconventional means. That’s a common theme to stories, the hero who somehow manages to best the insurmountable challenge. I’d like to spend some time exploring that idea this next Monday.
Then, on Thursday, we’ll have the third and final piece of The Heart of Something Wild I’ve been working on this story right up to the final minute, and still felt that the closing segment needs to feel less rushed. Come back in a week to read that conclusion.
In the middle of the African jungle, the domain of a native tribe.
Khalil paused to lean against the rock face, taking one deep breath after another.
“I’m not made for this, Paki,” he panted.
“Maybe not,” his friend grinned to him. “Thankfully you only must do this once.”
The cold air hissed sharply into Khalil’s lungs and he winced slightly at the necessary discomfort of it. For as long as he could remember he had been a fragile man, essentially a cripple. Movement was painful, stamina was low, illness was constant. The shamans had not expected him to live to adulthood, but evidently life was the one thing that remained persistent in him. What a pity it would be to lose it.
“And what if I don’t make it to the peak, Paki?” Khalil asked. “Is it so much better to die at Abasi’s hands than by the jungle?”
Paki’s smiled faded at the somber thought. He leaned on his spear and looked to Khalil intently. “If it comes to a challenge, Khalil, I will be your friend in that battle.”
Khalil nodded slowly. He was grateful, but surely Paki had already played that scenario out in his mind and discovered the obvious conclusion. Khalil would be useless in any fight, and so it would be Paki alone against Abasi and whatever companion he brought into the ring with him. Paki was a fine warrior, the finest Khalil had ever known, but even he wouldn’t stand a chance when outnumbered two-to-one.
Paki mistook Khalil’s silence for comfort, and so he grinned and stood back erect. “Come, I will help you with this next part and then you will be done with this journey.”
Khalil rose back to his feet and put his arm around Paki’s shoulders, letting the broad man help him up the rocky path to the mountain’s summit. Though he was working doubly hard to bear the weight of them both, Paki was still able to chatter happily about all the good the two of them would accomplish together.
“With you as chief, and me as head warrior, we will finally take control of the entire region. I’ll win the battles and give the land to you acre by acre. You will fill them with crops, and keep our people fat! Our fathers wanted to do this, Khalil. And their fathers before them. But you and I, we will be the ones to succeed!”
Khalil smiled in spite of himself. He had no such ambitions of his own, but it was always amusing to hear Paki’s enthusiasm.
“Reach out and grab the lip of the rock there,” Paki instructed. “Can you hold your weight while I get above? Good.”
Paki gripped the ledge at their heads and easily swung onto its surface, then turned and reached down to pull Khalil up as well. He sighed and looked his friend in the eyes.
“This is it,” Paki said solemnly. “Only chief’s blood past here.”
Khalil looked down and saw the stripe of dark red painted across the rock. Paki was correct. Khalil bent down to the mark and extracted a knife from the strap on his chest. A quick cut across the hand and he smeared the blood over the line, adding his legacy to it.
His price having been paid, Khalil stumbled forward, following the narrow path as it curved forward and to the left, the rock wall on his side seeming to fall away as he ascended to its level. The closer he came to the summit the fiercer the wind whipped him until it died away entirely as he emerged onto the wide, flat circle of the mountain peak. The Chief’s Peak. From up here only the tallest of the trees were visible, all others lost in the fog beneath him. Even those taller appeared like mere saplings from this elevation, and no other rock formation reached as high as he did now. Only the gray clouds above dared to challenge his sovereignty. Only the gray clouds above…and Abasi below.
Khalil sighed and shuffled to the center of the circular plane. He sat down in a meditative stance and tried to find his heartbeat. After a few moments he was calmed and allowed the spirit of the place to wash over him. Not even his fear of impending death could fully tarnish the grandeur of this place. The last six chiefs in their tribe had all been Khalil’s ancestors, and with the recent passing of his own father he was now number seven. This ritual of climbing to the Chief’s Peak made his title official. It was here that chiefs came to commune with the spirits of those that had gone before.
Now that he was officially chief, though, he could officially be challenged. Ever since they were youths, Abasi had been vocal of how dishonorable it would be for their tribe to be led by a cripple. Everyone knew he had intended to wait until Khalil’s father passed away and then herald a new line of rule.
Abasi would have to wait for the new moon and there make his challenge. Then the ritual battle would commence and Abasi and Khalil would fight to the death. Each of them could bring one companion into the ring with them, but the contest would conclude as soon as either the chief or his direct challenger lay dead.
Of course, Khalil could reject the challenge, or seek a more dishonorable way of removing Abasi, but either action would require his banishment from the tribe. Then, as an outcast in the jungle, he would meet an even crueler end.
“What would you have me do?” Khalil queried the stormy skies above him. “What is the purpose of my rule if it is to be so short?” Perhaps the spirits themselves wished the line of chiefs to change, and Abasi was merely carrying out their will? Perhaps his purpose was merely to die easily and make way for the new reign? But for Abasi? The man was a brute.
That rift between the tribe’s warriors had mounted nearly to the breaking point as Khalil’s father’s health had been declining. There were not many such as Paki that remained loyal to the old bloodline, most of the tribe members saw Abasi’s succession as inevitable. Those that did stand by Khalil were devout, though, and that might mean civil war.
“Father I am afraid for the tribe,” Khalil groaned. “If I am to be removed, so be it, but I worry that the fallout may split the worst against the best. If it comes to blood, then it will be the tribe as a whole that comes out the loser.”
He bent forward, touching his forehead to the cold rock as his tears flowed into one of its recesses and formed a little pool. His fate was worse than death, it was to lose the legacy of all that he loved. For a time all he heard was his own sobbing, and it was only as his heaving started to diminish that he recognized other soft sobbing sound mixed with his own. Surprised, he snapped his head up and turned to identify where the noise was coming from. At first he saw nothing, but then noticed a small bundle of white flesh rising and falling behind a clump of rocks. He awkwardly rose to his feet and hobbled over to investigate.
Khalil had never before seen a creature as the one the lay before him. It had no fur and no feathers, but the majority of its mostly-white-slightly-pink skin was covered in some strange dark shell. The being seemed to have long, bony limbs, across which was spread a thin membrane of skin like the wings of a bat. So entangled were these limbs and wings, though, that it was very difficult to make out the proper form of it. Protruding out from under one of those wings was what could only be a head. It was flat-faced and looking forward like a person, with large green eyes that flitted up towards Khalil in apprehension. Where its mouth ought to have been there was instead two rows of white mandibles, small and thin like the interlocked fingers of a child. Above the eyes were two tall, pointy ears, again calling to mind the image of a bat.
The creature was obviously in pain, and as Khalil looked closer he realized that the dark shell was actually the creature’s own dried blood. The source of it seemed to be an old spear wound in the creature’s side. Though the creature had escaped its assailant it had evidently come here to die. The ants seemed aware of its impending demise, and were already marching across it, following the trail of its blood. Gently Khalil reached down and brushed the insects away, and as he did so the creature raised its head to look at his hand. It made no other movement, only mewled softly.
Khalil was surprised to see it had strength to prop itself up, and wondered if there wasn’t still a chance for the creature. He cautiously and slowly reached around it, trying to find a good grip to pull it upwards. The thing moved its eyes up towards his face and made a strange, deep clicking noise in its throat. Khalil was uncertain if it was a growl…or a purr. He swallowed nervously and lifted upwards, pulling the thing into his arms. It was heavy and large, nearly the size of his entire torso. It shivered as he held it to his chest, and a single claw on the edge of its wing dug slightly into his shoulder, but only to better support itself. Khalil winced, then rose to his feet.
He hobbled back to the path that led down from the summit, and carefully descended until he reached his friend. Paki was sitting on a boulder in contemplation, but as he heard Khalil approaching he rose to his feet and greeted him with a smile that quickly changed to a look of disgust.
“What is that?!” he asked, stepping back warily.
“A gift from the spirits,” Khalil grunted. “And it’s heavy, so come and help me.”
“It might be venomous!”
“Don’t touch it then. I’ll carry it and you support me.”
Paki fidgeted uncomfortably, but made his way over to help. “I don’t like it. Couldn’t you have just leave it where it was.” He came near enough that Khalil could put his arm around Paki’s shoulder, and together the two continued down the path.
“It is hurt, and weak. It was going to die.”
“Yes, well, that happens in nature.”
“Yes, it does,” Khalil sighed heavily.
“I doubt it will even survive the trip down. Just don’t think I’m going to help you with it.”
Descending from the mountain was a far easier prospect than climbing it, even with the added burden of the new creature. They camped only one night and made it back to the village early in the afternoon of the next day. Now, in the quiet of his own hut, Khalil emptied a woven basket and laid the creature inside. It fixed him with its penetrating stare as he laid it down, moaning piteously.
“Patience,” Khalil whispered to it, then ambled over to the storage hut and returned with some raw meat, a bowl, and various herbs. He dipped a little water into the bowl and sat cross-legged on the floor next to the creature’s basket.
The creature made a pleased growling sound at the scent of the meat, and as Khalil offered a piece it snapped so vigorously that Khalil recoiled for fear of losing a finger. “Easy there. Easy…” he used his other hand to stroke the creature until it calmed down, then brought the meat close again and let it slurp the food from his palm. “That’s better. Now what am I going to call you?”
The creature remained docile even as Khalil ceased stroking it, allowing him to feed it more scraps of meat from one hand while he crushed the herbs and mixed them into a poultice with the other.
“Hmmm, Urafiki, that’s the name for you. And I do wonder what sort of creature you are. Not really a bat, but a little like it… I would think you’re too large to fly, but I can’t imagine you crawling all the way onto that mountaintop… And that mouth…” he watched the creatures mandibles slowly extend out to the next piece of meat, grip it tightly as if they were miniature hands, and then shovel the bite into the gaping hole of its mouth. Khalil shuddered unpleasantly. “I really don’t blame Paki for finding you unsettling.”
Khalil sighed at the mention of his friend. “I’m going to have to set Paki straight, he’s a good man and doesn’t deserve to get himself killed on my account.”
The creature was eating its food slower now, and its eyelids were drooping heavily.
“Yes, you need sleep. But first let me tend your wound.” Khalil grabbed a rag and a large bowl of water. He dabbed away at the dried blood, clearing it away until he could see the wound clearly. It wasn’t a spear jab, it was too small for that. Perhaps a blow from one of the creature’s own kind? In any case the blood started flowing again as Khalil patted away the last of the dried stuff, and Urafiki arched its neck to try and lick the spot.
“Here, this will be better,” Khalil assured it as he dipped his fingers into the poultice. He placed a clump on the hole and Urafiki hissed and nipped at his arm. “Ach!” Khalil winced, and looked down to see a small pinprick of blood on his bicep. Evidently Urafiki had teeth in that mouth. “I know it stings, I know! But it’s good for you, understand?” He got another dollop of the balm and began to lower it towards the wound. As he did so Urafiki craned its neck, expanding its mandibles back towards Khalil’s arm.
“Don’t you bite me,” Khalil glared at it and Urafiki stared him right back in the eyes. He lowered the poultice closer and Urafiki inched its head forward again. “I know it stings, I’m sorry.” Urafiki made a light hissing noise.
“Fine then!” Khalil pressed the poultice against the wound and in the same moment Urafiki latched back down on Khalil’s arm. Khalil winced but finished cleaning the area thoroughly, Urafiki clinging on and hissing the whole while. At last Khalil pulled his hands away and Urafiki also relinquished its bite.
“It’s a good thing you don’t know this poultice must be applied every day!” Khalil scolded. “I’ll make you a harness for your head before next time,” he muttered, examining the bite in his flesh. There was a single tooth mark, small but deep, as though a hole had been drilled straight into him. There was no discoloration or swelling that would suggest venom of any sort. Strangely, looking at the bite calmed him. Urafiki had not tried to seriously harm him, it had only returned offense for offense and then let him go. He could respect that.
Khalil looked over to the creature and saw that it was watching him with its eyes cocked in interest, as though curiously inspecting him. Slowly the expression faded as the eyelids began drooping again, and soon Urafiki was fast asleep, purring contentedly in the basket.
As I mentioned in my post on Monday, my intention with this story was to examine characters with different forms of communication. Here our main character Khalil has two interactions, those with his friend Paki and those with the creature Urafiki.
Paki and Khalil know each other well and seem to speak the same language. They were raised together, they share the same customs and patterns, and they are friendly to each other. However, at their core they do not understand one another at all. Khalil is feeling fearful and apprehensive, while Paki is confident and brash. Thus, even though they know the meaning of one another’s words they are constantly miscommunicating. The most obvious example of this is where Paki declares that weak things die in nature, and is then utterly oblivious to how that cruel fact applies to Khalil’s own situation.
On the other hand Khalil and Urafiki seem to share nothing. They not only do not speak the same verbal language, they are not even of the same species. They do not share a history together and each is initially unsure of the other’s intentions. Even so, they do share some common grounding experiences. They each find the other in a place of isolation, wounded and likely to die. They each are misunderstood and looked down on by others. They are each hurting and respect one another’s pain. For these reasons, the communication between them is more pure and on the mark than between Paki and Khalil.
A week from now I will post the second half of this story, and it will open with Khalil forcing Paki to understand his communication better. These moments of sharp clarity can often change relationships entirely, whether for better or worse. That is something I wish to discuss more with my post on Monday, check back then to catch that, and then again on Thursday for the next section of The Heart of Something Wild.