The Death of Simon Bowie

aged black and white cane elderly
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“I don’t know, I just always liked that sort of sound in–” Simon stopped speaking abruptly and turned to look about the room. He was the only one here. He was speaking to…no one.

What had he been talking about? Who had he thought he was saying it to?… He honestly couldn’t even remember. Perhaps he had been sleeping. He didn’t think he had been, but perhaps.

These things did happen to him from time-to-time. He couldn’t remember exactly when they started. Not until recently…he believed. And each time they occurred he felt his heart skip a beat. It was like jolting awake from the sensation of falling. Only it wasn’t his body falling, it was his mind, and he didn’t know how far it would have gone if he hadn’t woken in time to catch it.

A little shake of the head and Simon Bowie pushed himself up and out of the chair. He shuffled out of the room. He wanted to get away from the moment, to distract himself with something. He lumbered down the hall, eyes downwards to see that he planted his cane tip firmly into the carpet with each deliberate step. As he did so, he found himself face-to-face with a small girl smiling up at him, her hands clasped behind her back.

“Daddy, have you seen where my necklace got to?”

“No, Suzie. I don’t think I have.”

“Oh I know! It must have fallen off while I was swimming. I’ll go get it!” Without another word she bounded away with a youthful skip to her step.

“No wait,” he called out, suddenly concerned. “Suzie don’t go! It isn’t safe.”

He began hobbling after her. Something was wrong about this, he wasn’t sure what, but he remembered that it didn’t go well. “Please Suzie, don’t go so fast!” He reached the top of the staircase and paused. Though he needed to hurry he was afraid, and he took the steps slowly, clinging to the handrail with both hands for support. It was a spiral staircase, and he kept his eyes looking down the center to the floor below, trying to see Suzie and catch her before she went outside.

“Don’t go so fast, it’s too wet!” he called feebly. “It’s been raining and it’s all slippery.”

“It’s rain,” a cold voice said. “That’s what it does.”

Simon cocked his head to look behind his shoulder. It was…her. What was her name? It had been too long, he couldn’t remember. She looked pretty, but in a very haughty and cruel way. A teenage girl with a face blanked by malice.

“I don’t like it,” he heard himself say, but the voice was that of a small boy.

“If you don’t like it, then get Mother to buy you an umbrella.”

“She won’t.”

“That’s right she won’t. She doesn’t have to put up with you, does she?”

Simon shook his head.

“And why is that, Bowie?” she strained the last name like it was a disgusting creature. It wasn’t really his last name, it had been the other woman’s.

“Because I’m a half-breed,” he said dejectedly, reciting his assigned title.

“Good, glad you’ve been listening.”

“It’s not my fault.”

“It doesn’t have to be.”

Simon shuddered at the memory of cold rainwater trickling down his spine.

“You didn’t have to be so mean to me, Margaret,” he said with a tear in his eye.

“What’s this? Tears?” It was yet another voice this time. A tender one. He knew at once to whom it belonged.

“Joyce,” he breathed in awe. She still looked so beautiful. How had she not aged as he had?

“Darling, I’m so sorry,” she said, pulling him close and burying his face in her shoulder. “I didn’t want to go.”

That was why. Because she left.

He tried to suppress his sobs, but that just made his whole body shake so that he might as well have let them out.

“I’m sorry,” he finally managed to say between gulps. “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t cry.”

Joyce lifted his head to look into her eyes. “Darling, you can cry! It’s okay. Why shouldn’t you?”

“I don’t want you to see me so broken-hearted.”

“It’s alright, you can be broken-hearted.”

Simon was at the bottom of the stairs. He didn’t remember getting here. He was looking across the hall towards the door. What was it he had been doing before Joyce and that other one came? It was important. He needed to remember, he needed to fix it, but it just kept slipping from him.

“Did you want to help me look for my necklace, Daddy?”

Oh that was it.

“Suzie, something’s wrong. I can’t remember what–”

“I’m going to go look for my necklace in the swimming pool. I’m going to slip in and drown.”

“No,” Simon shook his head. “That wasn’t how it happened. I was afraid of that, I think, but that’s not how it happened with you.” He screwed his eyes shut and pressed his fists against his temples. What was it? Why couldn’t he remember?

“Why?” Suzie asked with a frown. “Why do you say it was different?”

“Well…I just know that it was…you didn’t die here. Other things happened. Like–” he winced, unable to recall. For a moment he felt a dread, as if forgetting would mean that the other things never did happen. “Like you grew up and got married, remember?”

She paused, then smiled and nodded. Cool relief swept over Simon.

“Yes I did, didn’t I? I’d forgotten about that. Thank you.”

“Of course darling.” She vanished from his view. “Anything for you, darling.”

He paused and closed his eyes. He could not hold onto the present moment even if he wanted to. He just started to drift absently. It felt less like he was standing and more like he was floating on the top of a wave. He opened his eyes again. Had he been sleeping? Or was he sleeping now? Joyce was here again.

“You’re looking better,” she said kindly.

“I think I was able to help Suzie, I think she’ll be alright now.”

Joyce nodded. “I miss her.”

“I haven’t forgotten everything you know.”

“Not everything? What are some of the things that you remember?”

“I remembered the promise you made me make before you went.”

“Don’t lose your heart.”

“That’s right.”

“How is it going with that?”

Simon sighed long and hard. “I don’t know, Joyce. I really don’t… I try. But some days–these last days particularly–it’s been very hard.”

“What makes it so hard?”

“I feel so bad for getting to stay here when you had to leave. I feel guilty that I got to.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“It doesn’t have to be.”

A coldness took him and he pulled himself in tightly, as if to let it pass him by. But it didn’t. Even beneath his lids he could see her. She looked so beautiful. So haughty and cruel.

“Hiding away down here?”

“Leave me alone, Margaret,” his young voice said sourly.

She sneered. “It would be my pleasure, but I’m afraid the adults have left, so it’s my responsibility to see that you are taken care of.”

There is a world of difference between “cared for” and “taken care of.”

“Well I’ll just be down here, so you can leave me be.”

“But I haven’t even told you what today’s rule is though.”

“No more rules, Margaret.”

“Oh no? I think you’ll find this one particularly interesting…”

“I’m not playing.”

She smiled, and there was something triumphant about it. “Suit yourself,” she said softly as she turned away.

Something seemed terribly wrong. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he had just been duped. He frowned and tried to remember what had happened. It was important. Maybe if he remembered in time he would be able to change it…

“Sootie!” he cried, leaping to his feet in a flash of horror. His eyes opened and he was looking down to the bottom of a swimming pool. His daughter was in a rabbit hutch there. He reached down and pulled her out, but she was already lifeless.

“You should have listened to the rules,” Margaret was tutting behind him. “You might have made it in time if you hadn’t been so busy sulking. But that’s your choice.”

His temples were pulsing and his hands were shaking. He was going to hurt her. But before he could there came a sudden tear at his heart, like it beat too hard and had burst a little.

“Ohh!” he cried, collapsing to the floor. He tried to sit up but his heart rent again and he fell back once more.

“Oh no,” he murmured, “Joyce, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry? What do you have to be sorry for?” A gentle hand cradled against his cheek.

“My heart, I haven’t kept it like I was supposed to. One rule, and I broke it. It’s gone!”

“Why do you hold onto all of these things, Simon? Don’t you see how they’re just tormenting you.”

“Well I–I have to–”

“No, you can let them go. Will you let them go, darling? Will you?”

Her hand was over his fist, not prying the fingers open, but inviting them to do so on their own.

“What’s inside of there?” Suzie was asking.

“What?” he asked, shaking his head. “Oh, it’s a surprise. I got it for you, but I haven’t given it to you yet.”

“Is it that necklace?”

“Why…yes it is. It is, in fact. It’s your necklace.”

“Oh thank you! May I have it now?”

“No…I mean I want to, but something happened…”

“Oh not the drowning at the bottom of the pool again.”

“No, I was mistaken, that was something else. But something still happened, and it was too late to give this to you.”

“Well give it to me now and things will be different then, won’t they?”

Simon looked down and tried to open his hand, but he couldn’t. It was locked like a vise, the way it would if he was writhing on the ground having a heart attack. Or the way it would if he were pulling her hair.

“Let go of me!” Margaret shrieked, trying to wriggle out of his grasp but he wouldn’t let her. “I will punish you so badly!”

He didn’t care, it didn’t matter. He had passed that point. He simply tightened his grip, one hand around her hair, the other around her neck.

“Please!” she said, the first time he’d ever heard her use that word towards him. “I didn’t even actually say half the things you remember me saying. Or at least not the way you remember them.”

“You didn’t have to.”

Another throb of his heart and for a moment his vision blacked out to perfect whiteness.

“Why did you name me Suzie, anyway?”

“I don’t know, I just always liked that sort of sound in a name.”

“And why do you think I drowned in that car accident, Daddy?”

“Didn’t you? Don’t go so fast, it’s too wet!”

“There was an accident, but I didn’t drown.”

“Didn’t you? I’ve dreamt so many times that you did.”

Another throb, and he seemed to feel upside down, his lips were cold.

“Simon listen to me, it’s Joyce. Please let go.”

“I can’t,” he strained. “It’s broken. I never even got to give her your necklace.”

“You did, it’s around her neck now.”

“You’re choking me!” Margaret spluttered.

“No,” he snarled “I’m drowning you. I’m drowning–”

Wait no, he couldn’t breath. He was the one drowning! He opened his mouth but his lungs were deflated and couldn’t draw anything in. He was trying to swim up, but his hands were still in fists.

Just let go!

“Daddy, please let go, let me see what’s inside.”

“I can’t,” Simon cried. “I can’t let it go.”

“Please, Simon!”

“You’ll regret this!”

A shout was rumbling inside him, unable to break out into the audible world, tormenting him and constricting his throat. It kept growing. Louder and louder, though never heard. A suffocating wave of–

“Simon?” A quiet stillness fell. He seemed to be floating on the top of a wave. It was white all around him.

“Simon, it’s okay. I’m here with you now. I need you to try to focus on my voice.”

There was still a chattering, but it was strangely muted, like it came from far away. He tried to listen to Joyce’s voice, but it was hard.

“Just listen to me. The more you listen to me the more disconnected you’ll be from all the rest, the more you’ll be able to let go.”

“I broke it. I lost it.”

“You only say that because you’re holding onto those moments. There were good ones, too, don’t you remember them?”

“I–no.”

“It’s okay, just relax,” her hands were stroking over his fingers, teasing them apart. His heart was stopping.

“I lost them. These others are all I have.”

“It’s alright.”

“They define me.”

“No, you’ll find the rest soon.”

His fingers were unclenching. All his body seemed fuzzy, soft, disconnected.

“It’s alright,” she soothed. She was wiping away the last tears.

“I lost it,” he cried.

“I kept it.”

He let go.

***

I tend to be a very visual thinker, using mental images to represent emotions and experiences. For this story, everything began with me imagining two hands crumpling up a paper from a magazine. That crumpled page could no longer be read normally, but one could still make out individual words and pictures here and there, and could infer the basic meaning of it, such as whether it was an article, advertisement, or fine print.

I wanted to write a story like that. One where the reader didn’t need to understand the details, just the gist. As I suggested on Monday, my intention was to literally wrinkle a story, and by so doing give it the feel of a mind that is fraying.

The validity of all Simon’s memories and feelings are suspect. They blend so constantly into one another that one cannot tell whether he is recalling actual events, extrapolating implied meanings, or living out fantasies and fears.

But while the clear divisions may be impossible to find, I think the character of Simon is still understood. He is lonely, he is regretful, he is holding on to hurt. He has seen beautiful and wonderful things, but he is obsessing over the negative. It is his own grip that is crumpling his page, creasing it so that we (and he) cannot see the wholeness and completeness. His great quest is to relax his vise so that he may accept his full self.

And while Simon’s affliction may seem grim, I think that many of us can relate to it. Far too often we define ourselves from our trauma and regret. The emotions that tie us to our lives, to our very selves, are usually negative. We describe ourselves as “not something enough.”

Because of Simon’s insistence that his life be defined by these elements, it took an entire separation of self from life before he could let go of those parts. While he ended up finding his peace, hopefully each of us will be able to secure our own a bit sooner.

Character Wrinkles

portrait of man
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At the end of my last story I teased the fact that I used a character’s name to imbue the story with an extra dose of personality. What I meant by this was that almost no one ever refers to the main character by name. He is known primarily as “my father” and later on as “Pa.”

There are only two times where the character is actually named, and both times it is said by his wife. I thought it was a nice touch to show a sort of reverence for the man. As if all the world is too in awe to call him by name except for the woman he loves. The story never spells out this detail, and I would imagine the wrinkle won’t even be consciously noticed by most readers.

My hope, however, is that the reader’s subconscious will pick up on it, and view the man with greater respect without even knowing why. Whether this attempt of mine actually worked or not is probably impossible to test, but it was a fun way to add more depth to the story nonetheless.

Little quirks like these show up in stories all the time. In the 2011 film Warrior, Paddy Conlon is frequently seen listening to Moby Dick on audio-cassette. It is emblematic of his character’s own personal chase, one to regain the hearts of his sons. Also it draws a parallel between Paddy and the character Captain Ahab, as both have chased their demons too far, perhaps to their own demise. None of these similarities are ever spelled out explicitly, they are  just picked up on naturally by the viewer. It makes the Paddy’s character all the more rich and evocative just by lingering in the background.

Each of my tales in this latest series of stories has featured examples of these character wrinkles. I’ve already mentioned the one from Does What He Must, but now let’s take a look at the others.

In I Hated You, Jimmy my distinguishing characteristic was a little different. It was selected primarily for a more functional reason. Throughout that piece our narrator is describing to us events that are now years in past, and ones that he has made his peace with. Or at least it would seem that he has, except for how he becomes lost in the emotions of the moments he is recounting, even going so far as to make a particularly cold comment about the death of a school bully at one point.

My intention here was not to make our narrator a contradicting character, or to suggest that the peace he claims to have found was false. Instead I am merely trying to lend the emotion that fits for that particular moment of the story. I didn’t want my character to talk about the angry years of his youth with a sober, mature voice, it would have felt unnatural. And so I make it instead as if his voice is aging in step with his memories. Perhaps it makes for a narrator that doesn’t quite make sense, but I think it goes down more smoothly anyhow.

For Harold and Caroline I featured two main characters who were about as different as could be. Harold was flustered and sarcastic, Caroline was mousy and uncoordinated. I did, however, want the two of them to share one trait: each of them is holding back the things they want to say.

I believe that my readers got the sense that Harold was constantly biting his tongue. Every sarcasm and sigh of exasperation was but the tip of the iceberg of what he would like to express. Meanwhile Caroline was unwilling to be vulnerable, and so had to squash down all of her problems and frustrations. She is more open with her friends, but not at all with Harold.

My hope then was that each character would have a sense of being more than they appeared. That way it would feel fitting at the end that Harold has a secret charitable side, and that Caroline has a loving and supportive family. In that final scene each character is for the first time really seeing the other.

The Anther-Child was a piece in which we didn’t even meet our main character until halfway through the story. Up to that point he had only been described as part of a group, the Anther-Children as a whole. And even when he is first singled out it is done very impersonally as “one of the males.”

He is not being treated as an individual because his identity has not been individual until this moment. Then he is slowly given more and more focus. Each of the following sentences deals more and more with his experiences, and less and less with the other character’s. Soon all of the other characters depart entirely and he becomes the sole focus of the piece. At this point he expels his old essence and absorbs a new form from the ground around him. He has a new identity, and it perfectly coincides with how at this moment he has finally become the central character of the story.

Once again, the functional details of how the story is written are reflecting the characteristics of the protagonist and indirectly giving him greater depth.

I wanted to do one last story in this series, and it is going to take the idea of adding subtle character wrinkles in a different direction. I want to write a story about a character that is coming apart. I don’t want to add wrinkles to better define him, I want them to fray him and make him more obscure. I am going to try and write a piece from the perspective of a man who is dying, and as he does so gradually loses his grip on memory, reality, and finally his own identity. It sounds like quite the ambitious exercise, and I can’t claim any confidence for how it will turn out, but frankly I’m excited just to try!

I Hated You, Jimmy

man sitting on door of school bus
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It was years before I forgave my parents for dragging me to Jimmy’s funeral. It’s not like they had fond feeling for the boy, but they just kept saying something about “community” and “civic duty” and stuff like that.

You’ll notice, by the way, that I spelled his name out properly, even at fifteen I knew that that “Jimi” moniker he wanted us to use was just stupid. You’re not important enough to rebrand yourself like some Rock and Roll Hall of Greats inductee.

In Loving Memory of James “Jimi” Watson…

I remembering sitting in my pew, looking down at the obituary, and rolling my eyes on the very first line. I should have stopped there, but I didn’t. I kept reading, and as I did my hands were shaking at the injustice of a revisionist history.

Friends remember James as a brave, yet tender boy. He was always so concerned about the smaller children at school, standing up for the underdog every day.

Perhaps you meant “standing them up” in their locker? Slamming their faces, spitting in their mouths, cornering the girls. He was starting to get old enough to be really scary, carrying a knife in his pocket and allegedly cutting someone on more than one occasion.

So, are we really all going to sit here and just pretend we don’t know the truth about what sort of person Jimmy really was?

I guess so. I’m sure not going to stand up and rock the boat.

I remember sitting there, trying to not feel so relieved about my life’s biggest obstacle having been removed. To be clear, I never wanted the school’s biggest bully to die in a car crash, I never wished any such thing on him. I had always just imagined his family having to move, or him getting thrown into juvie. This was not the way I had wanted to be liberated, but liberated I was. I sat there thinking all the rest of High School was going to be so much smoother.

And you know what? It really was.

I had always told my parents that Jimmy had some personal vendetta against me and they had always said that every kid feels that way. Jimmy’s timely death proved that they had been wrong. Because sure, there were still other bullies, and they still sucked, but life was noticeably better ever after his drunk step-dad got the both of them killed.

Sorry, that was cold.

I’m just not so used to expressing all my frustrations…. And really, now that I think about it, I lied earlier when I said I never wanted Jimmy to die. Sort of anyway. You see I did think those thoughts “I wish Jimmy would just die,” but when it actually happened it wasn’t what I had wanted at all. I wanted the idea of Jimmy to die, but not a person. And ever since that accident I’ve been piece-by-piece appreciating that Jimmy really was a person.

Strangely enough I first started picking up on that fact one day when I was feeling particularly grateful to not have Jimmy around anymore. It was a couple years later in the back of the theater with Grace. I was still trying to work up the nerve to put my arm around her when she leaned her head down onto my shoulder. In that moment I was really, truly happy, and the thought occurred to me that the happiness was only complete because I wasn’t afraid of Jimmy being around to ruin it.

And then, out of the blue, the thought occurred to me that Jimmy wasn’t around to experience it either. I mean sure, he’d had his “honeys” as he called them, but he didn’t know what it meant to really want to care for someone else. For the first time in my life I actually felt older than Jimmy.

The next time I found myself thinking about Jimmy was a year later at graduation, while we stood in line for our diploma ceremony. With his last name being Watson, and mine being Watts, he would have been right in front of me in line, instead I now stared at the back of Berkley Warren’s head instead.

Would he have had plans for going to college? Would he have even made it to the end of High School? Quite possibly not. Jimmy certainly wasn’t the most gifted of students, he was already struggling even in the Freshman year. A fact that probably made him quite bitter.

Or maybe not. With all the other problems he had going on at home, his school performance probably didn’t even compare.

Those problems were ones we kids understood only on the surface at the time. We knew his dad had been abusive, had been taken away to jail, and that his new step-dad was abusive, too. But we didn’t have any clue what that term “abusive” really amounted to. It was just a word back then. We were all told that we were supposed to be nice, no matter what, so that meant Jimmy didn’t have any excuse. None but the kids who were actually facing that stuff knew what it meant to live with it. Not even all of them knew.

I guess I still don’t really know what it means, do I? And I certainly don’t know what it meant to Jimmy personally. All I really know is that it’s heavy stuff, and I respect the fact that Jimmy’s behavior towards me was driven by that weight he carried.

After High School I moved away from my childhood home and went to college. Life started coming fast and I didn’t spend much much time thinking about the people I had once known. By the time the invitation to my 10-year High School Reunion showed up in my mailbox I got a job, married my wife, had a child, and bought a home.

It didn’t take too much encouraging from my wife to decide that I would go, ever since the birth of our son I had been thinking nostalgically about my old childhood home. The time was right for a pilgrimage.

For the most part I was amazed at how much everyone felt just the same to me. A little more weight, a little more facial hair, some bags under the eyes, but still the same people I had always known.

At least so it seemed until I started talking with Blake Johnson.

At first I tried to pretend that I didn’t see him, he had been another of the bullies, after all, and I didn’t want to fake a smile and pretend that bygones were bygones. He came directly up to me, though, shook me firmly by the hand, and gave a very sincere apology. That was why he had come here, he explained, to try and make amends for being such a burden to others in school.

It caught me entirely off guard, and all my preconceptions began to melt. We stood there for another fifteen minutes, going over all the usual talking point of one another’s work and families. As we did, I found that he was indistinguishable from all the other people here. He had grown up, he had changed, he had become a healthy member of society.

We didn’t talk about Jimmy in that conversation, but still my thoughts turned to him as I sat in my car later that night. Rather than start my drive home I was wrestling with something inside, trying to understand something that I hadn’t before.

At last it came through and I realized that I had been allowing myself to feel sympathy for who Jimmy was when he died, but I hadn’t ever considered that today he could have been someone different. And maybe he wouldn’t have changed, maybe today he would be a hardened criminal stewing in some jail cell. But that wasn’t the point. The point is he never got his chance to decide. Blake got his chance, but Jimmy never would.

All I would ever know of Jimmy was a fifteen-year-old kid who really didn’t know a thing in the world.

I thought about my own son waiting for me back home. He’s a pretty good kid, but not perfect. I would hate for anyone to write him off before he’s had a chance to come into his own.

I had thought several times about Jimmy over the years, but the first time ever I cried about him. I cried for a soul interrupted.

 

I mentioned that one of my problems in Harold and Caroline was that the criticism only flowed one way. Caroline was too passive of a character, and so their relationship lacked a back-and-forth to its give-and-take. The thing was, sometimes your character should be passive. In today’s example, the narrator was definitely the victim of Jimmy’s bullying, and that meant he had to hold a more submissive role.

My solution, though, was to write this from the narrator’s perspective, where the reader could hear the sharp barbs in his thoughts, without having to hear them coming out of his mouth. From this view we can tell that he is fighting back against Jimmy, just from a more passive-aggressive stance. Also the fact that this is written from the perspective of an adult reflecting on the past gives him a maturity that Jimmy never holds. Overall I feel a lot better about how I maintained an equal tension between the two while still allowing one to dominate over the other.

 

My other concern with Harold and Caroline was how it didn’t use sideplots effectively. It would introduce new characters and motivations, keep them around just long enough to push the main plot forward slightly, and then drop them without any sort of meaningful resolution.

In today’s piece I wanted to cover more than a decade in a very short span of time, so I knew that meant utilizing the same vignette-style separate scenes. This time, though, I toned them down to the point that they were just backdrops that the main narrative marched continuously in front of. My main technique in accomplishing this was in not having any of the other characters speak. We learn a couple names, Grace and Blake, but because we only hear of them second-hand we never mistake them for central characters and then have our expectations in that disappointed.

As a whole I liked this piece a good deal more than Harold and Caroline. There are still criticisms I could make of it, but for now I’d rather move on to something else.

This story and Harold and Caroline were some of my more grounded pieces, stories where nothing supernatural occurred whatsoever. Perhaps the way things work out for the characters might seem a little convenient or contrived, but that’s as strange as things get.

Softer, slice-of-life tales and rollicking power fantasies have more in common than you might think, though. More often then not, they both deal with the same basic themes, just they paint them with different colors. Come back on Monday where I will explore this concept even further.

The Anther-Child

closeup photo of white rose
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Nestled in the heart of the forest there grew a cluster of Marrowberry bushes, sprung up around the bases of the Elder Trees. The bushes grew directly from the roots of the great trees, sapping all their nutrients from the undiscerning hosts.

Crowning each of the bushes was a cluster of flowers, each such a light shade of purple or pink that they were almost white. They had velvety petals that never fully unfolded, and they always rustled, even when there was no wind. Hidden beneath the layers of petal was the entire plant’s greatest secret: a little community of living anthers, small and bright white beings, each shaped with arms and legs and a head. They were all tethered to their own filament at the navel. Most days the Anther-people lived in a perpetual joy, deriving constant pleasure from the conduit with their nourishing mother. They waved about inside the petals in a carefree manner, bumping into one another and giggling lazily.

They were never fully awake, after all they were still embryos and ever would be. Life was naught but a hazy, blissful dream. Every now and again one would sway into another with a squeal of delight, and the second would dash away to collide with a third, and so continue, chasing one another round and round in a circle, never pausing to wonder what they did, never understanding any of the causes or effects in their life.

One day, in one of the bushes, and in one of its flowers: the anthers were carrying on in just this manner when a passing Wolger happened to hear their play. Not many Wolgers knew the secret of the flowers, and this was one that did not. Even so it paused for a moment, then decided to investigate.

It turned on its stumpy legs, whinnied, lifted its large front hooves onto the Elder Tree, and stood as tall as it could. Then it felt its long snout into the recesses of the flower, and extended a long, flexible tongue to explore what it could not see. It felt about until it touched against one of the anthers, then it seized down and plucked it loose.

The Anther-child cried out in a shocking agony, a sound so harrowing that it was enough to disturb the reveries of its brothers and sisters. With eyes seeing properly for the first time they witnessed in horror as the captive brother was pulled up into the sky. They heard the death shrieks and crunching sounds on the other side of the petal walls, and then worst of all the total silence that followed.

They barely began to look about in confusion before the rushing sap from the flower’s filaments flooded their senses. It suppressed their fears and lull them back to a placid ignorance. That was its function: to numb the senses, still the mind, and invoke a deep and peaceful trance upon them all. One-by-one they flowed back into their swaying euphoria, their playful giggling, their blissful ignorance.

Another shriek broke the trance and a second sibling, this time a sister, was pulled away to her doom. Again they were soothed by their mother-flower, and again they were awoken when a third of their siblings was pulled to her doom. Five more times this occurred, and each time they awoke from their reverie for a longer and longer duration. They began to cry and stare about helplessly, looking for one to save them but finding no hero in their midst.

And so they reached out with hands and feet, grasping one another and pulling themselves into a communal ball, somehow hoping to find protection among their masses. They held one another close and quivered, but in their mutual comfort the trance was able to set in again. One-by-one they slipped into their fitful dreams, let go of one another, and swayed back into their previous positions.

This time there was no more disturbance. The Wolger was satiated for now, and so trundled off through the forest’s thick vegetation.

Although they slept, the Anther-children’s dreams were not so pleasant as they had ever been before. There were sudden stabs of fear and melancholy, nightmares that made their sleeping forms wince and shudder.

It was three days before the Wolger returned, but in their unconscious state it seemed more like an eternity. So much so that when the tongue invaded and plucked away another shrieking child they could hardly recollect that this sequence of events had already transpired before. It felt like trying to recall an event from a different lifetime, not so much remembered as just sensed. This sense that came upon them was in the form of a dread understanding, a knowledge that there was a pattern here, and soon it would be their time to be eaten, too.

They huddled together in their tight ball again, clutching each other as close as possible. In apprehension they watched as the long, gray tongue returned, just as they knew it would. It felt about in confusion, unable to find them at first. They were so tightly bound to one corner of the flower that they might have escaped, if not for their quivering cries. They were too ignorant to know that such sounds could give their position away, and so it was that the monstrous shape bore down on them, gripped their mass, and pulled until limbs broke and bodies split. With a great tearing seven anthers were carried away all at once. Of those that remained, most were broken and torn in one way or another, and so writhed on the ends of their stalks until they stilled forever, slumping lifelessly upon their spear-like filaments.

Only three Anther-children were left unscathed, two males and a female. They felt the numbing flow of the flower’s nutrients beginning to cloud their minds and they squinted their eyes and shook their heads, trying desperately to hold to the clarity of the moment. One of the males reached to his navel and gripped the filament with his thin fingers. He pulled, and as he did so he cried out in an agony. The stalk grew into his very flesh, and he would have to tear himself to pry it loose.

Still, at least the pain gave him a clearer grip on his senses. He dug his fingers into the body of the filament, and pressed outward in a long, consistent push. Slowly its fibers began to stretch and snap, breaking their hold on his body one-at-a-time. His brother and sister stared at him in horror. They made a weak effort to imitate him, but ceased once they tasted the agony that it involved. They looked at him with pitying eyes that slowly grew duller and duller until at last they fell back to sleep.

With a pop the Anther-child wrenched the last of the filament from his body and fell to the bed of the flower. His small body lost some of its luster, turning a dull white that was almost gray. He seized his knees to his chest as an irrepressible trembling and sobbing convulsed his body.

For the first time in his life he was deprived the sweetness of the flower’s nutrients. Above his head, on the tip of the broken filament, great drops of sap were accumulating like tears for the lost child. He had torn himself from his home and there could not be any reattaching. He was alone and naked in a world of fear.

There was a deep rustling sound all about him, and he stared about in confusion. For the first time he saw how it all began, how the petals shook and then how the long, gray tongue pierced into their sanctuary. The whole flower swayed backwards, and with no tether to hold him anymore he tumbled with it, falling against the back petals, tumbling through their folds, and then out into the open air. The last thing he saw of his home was how the tongue felt out his brother and sister and began to twist itself around their writhing figures.

Then a rush of color assaulted his eyes and he clapped his hands to his face. In blindness he hit the ground, bounced a few times, then finally came to a rest on his back amidst the grass. There was a snap and he opened his eyes to see the Wolger drop back to all four hooves in front of him.

Though he had never seen the outside world before, the child immediately understood that this large gray thing with its stubby legs, iron hooves, rounded flanks, watery eyes, and serpentine snout was a being, just as he was a being. And he knew, of course, that this being sought his destruction, though why he could not fathom. It simply seemed to be in its nature.

The Anther-child watched as the Wolger drew its tongue into its mouth and ground its teeth on his brother and sister, forever silencing their cries of pain and fear. He trembled and his fingers shriveled like dried reeds down to his palms.

By seeing his persecutor he also discerned that he might be seen himself, and he shrunk deeper into the tangle of grass he had fallen among. The Wolger did not see him, though, and having eaten its fill it turned about and waddled away through the thick brush of the forest.

The Anther-child sat petrified. Where before he and his siblings had been motionless in their tranquility, now he was made motionless by fear. What sort of world was this that had come and broken his old one?

Though that terrible gray thing was gone he now felt as though something else was present. A writhing and many-legged thing, one that was inside of him and trying to force its way out!

All at once his anguish burst from him in a torrent. His eyes freely streamed their tears, and he howled in an agony. He heaved and retched. Then his body expanded and tightly compressed. Glistening silver drops flushed out of every pore of his body and pooled on the ground. His body shrunk, deflated, went limp, and collapsed to the ground.

And still his body continued to ooze, every drop squeezed out of him in an agony. All that defined him excreted until nothing was left. Then, after all the moisture was out of him, he stopped crying. There simply was nothing within him left to mourn.

His body was dry now, shriveled. He trembled fitfully in the wind, and if a strong gust had struck him in that moment it would have broken his brittle form into pieces. His heart beat slower and slower, and finally came to a stop.

The vacuum was complete, and now he reached a withered hand and pressed it against the blade of the grass he rested on. He knew, instinctively to breath deeply and draw in from that plant. As he did so a new moisture began to flow into him, something greener and sturdier. Where before he had been soft and malleable his body began to form tough fibers. His webbed fingers fully detached, his formless face became more angular. He stood and he found he was a little taller, a little leaner.

His mind was altered, too. He understood this world better. That gray thing had been eating. Eating was common. There would be many that would wish to eat him. He must not let them. Perhaps one day, if he grew still larger and changed his nature, he might be able eat them instead.

Indeed he wanted to eat. And not out of hunger.

The Grass-child’s eyes flicked open, dark pupils set in pale green.

 

This was a very interesting piece to write. I conceived of it as I tried to think of a story that would be surreal, deeply rooted in an emotion that was hard to define, and might lodge itself in the reader’s mind for a long while. As I explained on Monday, sometimes emotions are impossible to explain, and better suited to be expressed in a narrative that summons the emotion within the reader. When an author is able to effectively craft this experience, then the reader will forever remember it whenever that emotion arises anew in regular life. The Anther-Child was meant to capture the sensation of lost innocence. The experience of hurt, confusion, and the resultant resentment that follows.

Interestingly, as soon as I finished it I immediately recognized that it actually has a very similar atmosphere and style to a previous piece of mine: Deep Forest. But whereas that piece was meditative and escalated to a moment of euphoria, this one was brooding and escalating to a moment of dark resolve. Both of them were meant as expressions of natural emotions, and both represent true states of mind. There is a natural hurt to this world, but also a natural wonder. It all depends on which one chooses to define themselves by.

Perhaps the character from Deep Forest and this Anther-child would make for a good protagonist and antagonist in a larger work. Really, though, I conceived of each one as a completely separate and individual project.

Another point of interest to me in this story is the nature of the Wolger. In stories we most often see things from a solitary point of view, where the good is good and the evil is evil. But in this story isn’t the Wolger just a creature adhering to its nature? I’d like to take a deeper look at this idea of how some stories cast characters into firm shades of black and white, while others try more nuanced approaches. Come back on Monday to read about that, and until then have a wonderful weekend!

Main Character Exit, Stage Right

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One of the most common metrics people use when deciding the quality of a story is how it makes them feel. A story that makes one feel more is considered better than a story that makes one feel less. Interestingly, we even appreciate the stories that make us feel deeply negative emotions. A tale that ends in tragedy instantly seems to have an air of greater maturity and significance about it.

Obviously the most efficient way to bring great sadness to a story is through the death of a main character. This can give your readers quite the shock as well, because stories often reflect life the way we feel it is “supposed to be.” The two lovers come together, evil is defeated, and peace reigns supreme. So when a wrench gets thrown into this happy formula and a main character leaves their artificial world prematurely, we feel pretty shaken up.

When dealing with such powerful elements, though, authors need to exercise the utmost of care. Any craftsman can tell you that a very powerful tool can accomplish very powerful things, but only when it is used in the right way.

In my opinion our core emotions, such as fear, love, joy, and grief are powerful, sacred things. Because of their power it is easy for us to get addicted to them, and we may start looking for artificial ways to produce them. Authors should not be so profane as to take advantage of such readers.

Authors should instead take great care that they do not activate these core emotions without meaningful intent. It is fine for a story to evoke powerful feelings if it has a worthy point to communicate in the process, otherwise the story is disrespecting the sanctity of these feelings, likely to make a quick buck.

 

Meaningful Character Death)

Therefore it is important that if a character is to die that it feels appropriate. A big frustration of mine is when a tale shoehorns in a character death simply to try and give itself an importance that has not been earned.

The 1950 film Cheaper by the Dozen features the antics of a family with twelve children. That family is quirky, to say the least, and much of the drama is based around their simultaneous love and embarrassment of one another. It’s a charming film, sprinkled with little provincial wisdoms throughout. “No person with inner dignity is ever embarrassed.” And then, at the end, the father suddenly dies.

Nothing in the film has been leading to this moment and nothing significant is obtained by it. Really it just feels like the story didn’t know how to end and figured a gut-punch was as good an option as any. Rather than landing with the intended gravity it instead just gives the film a disjointed experience.

An important writing rule you should live by is to never pen a plot point for the sole purpose of eliciting a specific emotion. You should never kill a character only to make the reader sad. When a character dies it should happen because it is fitting, because it is right for their arc, because it brings a satisfying closure to the whole.

Of course, for every rule there is also an exception. Consider the most classic sad story of them all: Romeo and Juliet. This story doubles the ante on most tragic endings by closing with the death of not just one, but two main characters! When we look for the narrative meaning to their deaths, though, we come up short. Their deaths seem senseless, the result of a mistake, and devoid of any point. And that, ironically, is the point. These deaths should not have happened, and that is the great tragedy of the story. When hatred kills love there is no closure or satisfaction to be found. Thus we are sad, but we are sad meaningfully.

 

Sacrifice)

If there is any plot device that can elicit a more powerful reaction than a tragic death, it must be the death that is also a sacrifice for some greater good. Sacrifice affects us on a level so deep that it seems to be sacred. We are moved by it, even if we do not fully understand why.

Once again, though, with such potent power there also comes a great risk of horrible misuse. The absolute worst way to employ sacrifice is to dilute it with overuse and cheap manipulation. Consider the stories that repeatedly pretend they are going to sacrifice a character so that the audience feels sad, only to flip the script at the last moment so that now the audience feels relieved at the character’s survival. It’s tawdry and manipulative.

Sadly, there are many stories that do exactly this. You need not look any further than comic book plots or old cowboy serials to find a deluge of this trick. The hero “dies” for their cause and everyone feels very, very sad. Then, suddenly, the hero comes back, and they were never dead at all. They were too tough to die, or too wily, or maybe just too lucky. As I said in my last post, this gimmick is one of my greatest pet peeves in stories. You might be forgiven for trying this once or twice, but stories ceaselessly repeat this stunt in a way that insults the intelligence of their audience.

This isn’t to say that a doomed character cannot be saved in a way that doesn’t feel cheap. A week ago I mentioned the Disney animated film Hercules for its portrayal of a hero fighting an uphill battle. This also happens to be a story where the main character intends to sacrifice himself but is saved by divine intervention, all while still respecting its audience’s intelligence.

You see Hercules only survives because he is sacrificing himself. His great dream is to be reinstated as a god, but is told that he cannot until he achieves the status of a “true hero.” Unsure of what that means, he continues along his way and ultimately comes to love a woman who dies and is taken to the underworld. He makes a deal with Hades to exchange his life for hers, fully intending to carry through with the bargain. It is that act of sacrifice, one which carries on right to the moment that the fates cut his thread of life, that defines him as a true hero. He becomes a god in the very moment of his demise and survives his own death. Not because he is tough, or wily, or lucky, but because he was willing to give his all for what is right.

Perhaps one of the greatest tales of sacrifice though is the one story I’ve mentioned more than any other on this blog. In A Tale of Two Cities Sydney Carton is hardly the character one would expect to be a martyr, he is a drunk and a cynic, a man of great potential that has squandered it all in purchase of misery and regret.

In the last chapters, though, he sees his chance to trade his life for that of the man he envies most, the man he feels he could have been. By carrying through with this sacrifice and bearing that man’s death it as though he has also earned his life. He becomes calm, confident, and content, and wishes for no more. In return for paying the ultimate price he reclaims not one, but two lives that day.

 

That idea of reclamation is truly at the heart of sacrifice, and stories can provide a duality of emotions by it. If a martyr wins the hearts of others through their own death then there can be triumph through defeat, and happiness in the same moment as sadness. That makes for a very fascinating narrative experience, and I’m going to try and capture it with my next short story. This Thursday I will post the first part of that story. That first portion will not include the actual act of sacrifice, but it will introduce us to the character that has been consigned to die for the greater good.

I’ll see you then.

The Heart of Something Wild: Part Two

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“Is it finally asleep?”

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

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

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

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

“About the challenge?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THUMP! THUMP!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pause.

“…on behalf of Paki, son of Jomo.”

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

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

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

“We’re past that now.”

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

“I do.”

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

Paki nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

THUMP!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

Just a Little Diametric Opposition

Yin_yang

Lately I’ve discovered a new favorite food condiment. It’s pepper jam. The combination of sweet and spicy, two flavors that usually stand in contrast to one another, is a very arresting experience. Each side of this pairing has to be kept in just the right balance, though, otherwise one side overwhelms the other and ruins the effect.

And just what is that effect? What is it about contrasting tastes that captivates our fascination and pleasure? To answer this I consider the wisdom of our friend Ishmael, in Moby Dick. “To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.”

If ever I eat something sweet, and nothing but sweet, soon enough the sweetness of it will be lost on me and the food becomes disinteresting. But when I eat something with contrast, let’s say a salted caramel, then I am constantly experiencing both the salt and the sweet at the same moment. I cannot become over-saturated with either because the other keeps it fresh and novel. By entertaining two tastes at once I am able to longer appreciate the depths of each.

This same principle holds true for writing as well. If we present our themes and characters to the audience and they are all very similar to one another, the reader will quickly become over-saturated and the work will feel flat. But by allowing multiple contrasting elements to occupy the same page the story will become textured and interesting. Over the last month I’ve been trying to do just that, writing stories that walked two lines at once, and with each story I tried to capture a different facet of contrast in writing.

To begin with I posted The Last Grasshopper, which dealt heavily with themes of birth and death, old and new. However the piece was meant to challenge the idea that these elements are actually the opposites we initially think them to be. These themes were presented against a backdrop of seasons changing continuously from one to another and then back again, suggesting that birth and death are not dichotomous from one another, but may actually be two points along a continuous spectrum. A spectrum that, in fact, cycles back on itself, meaning that neither of these two states is able to exist without the other.

In this way I was trying to echo an idea from one of my favorite stories of all time: L’homme qui Plantait des Arbres (The Man Who Planted Trees). In this tale we meet an old man who has spent his entire life planting seeds in a stark and barren wasteland. Over the course of years and then decades, an entire half century in all, this man sees his life work accumulate in massive and lush forests, an entire transformation of the surrounding climate, and a joy of life restored to the locals who live in that region. The situation at the beginning of the tale and at the end seem to belong to completely opposite worlds, and yet they occupy the same geographic space. The tale suggests that barrenness and lushness exist on the same continuum as one another, in fact they define the continuum, and traversal along it would not be possible without the presence of both. And that traversal is negotiated simply by the amount of steady, continual cultivation we are willing to commit to.

That challenge of continual good effort was examined more closely in my next story. Cursed presented a father and a son who both loved one another, and yet had a terrible rift due to their contrasting priorities. The father was trying to relieve the son of a moral burden, but prematurely, before the son was able to naturally overcome his own failings. The result was necessary conflict. They cannot avoid one another, they are father and son, but they cannot see eye-to-eye and so there is opposition. I meant for this to be a reflection of life experience, where we strive for good, but by necessity live a world with constant opposition to that good. We cannot simply divorce ourselves from all the evil, we just have to try to wrest something good out of an eternal battle.

I find a very similar sort of message in the John Steinbeck novella Of Mice and Men. Here we have men who hope. Though they have been beaten down before in life yet they must still hope because that is human nature. However there is no reason to assume that their hopes will be realized, and in the face of increasing opposition we start to feel that their “hopes” are actually only “wishes,” ones for which there will be no granting. The story ends tragically, a somber end that does not rest in the greener fields that were hoped for. Or does it? It seems the story suggests that the contrast of evil and good may find their roots in the world around us and the world that awaits after death. Perhaps here wishes get crushed, only to be granted afterwards.

That idea of solutions that come outside of the box was something I wanted to explore in my third story. In A Minute at a Time we again meet a father and son at odds with one another. It seems, again, that neither can find relief except for at the expense of the other. But then they relinquish their goals for a moment of honest vulnerability. They commiserate together and realize that at their core all they really need is one another. I meant to suggest that opposites can be resolved, and perhaps that resolution comes at a cost of letting them go.

Of course overcoming opposition at a cost is a very common theme to stories. Perhaps the evil of the world can be defeated, but what sacrifices are you willing to pay to accomplish that feat? The video game Alan Wake provided a meta commentary on this. In that story the titular character finds a dark story manifesting itself into the real world, establishing a plot of wanton destruction. As a writer, he is trying to redirect the arc of that story, a feat that was previously attempted unsuccessfully by a poet, Thomas Zane. As Alan Wake explains, Thomas Zane failed because he tried to rewrite the ending of the story to be bright and cheerful at no cost. As Alan says: “There’s light, and there’s darkness. Cause and effect. There’s guilt and there’s atonement. But the scales always need to balance. Everything has a price. That’s where Zane had gone wrong. There’s a long journey through the night back into the light.” He writes a new ending, one where his objective is obtained, but only at great cost, the loss of himself. The story accepts this offering, and thus ends things on a bittersweet note.

At this point I felt that things had gotten quite heavy. What’s more I didn’t want to leave things feeling like all this war of opposition had to always be so grim and unpleasant. The fact is most of us actively enjoy doing sacrificing for another’s happiness. And we often find that we have guidance and help in our long journeys of self improvement. Gifts from Daniel Bronn…and Jerry was meant to capture that more cheerful side of contrasts. Daniel is happy and kind, Jerry is jaded and reserved. Now in the first half of the story these two sides have been shown as being in opposition to one another. In fact that first half ends with Jerry planning to terminate his own employment to get away from the friction he is feeling.

Next week I’ll be completing that story, and in that second half we will see that like salt and caramel, the Daniel and Jerry can combine for something greater. Daniel, with his wealth and compassion, will provide the means for the charitable contributions. Jerry, with his experience on the rougher side of life, will be able to actually deliver the gifts with a needed dose of empathy and understanding. They’ll still be two very different men at the end, but that won’t be putting them in opposition any more. This is actually a theme I’ve explored before on this blog, in one of my very first stories: Scars and Soothing.

Hopefully this series of stories has been to illustrate the infinite possibilities of mixing and matching the many contrasting flavors of story-telling. Keep your stories interesting by putting them at odds with themselves. Give them tensions by establishing fundamental opposition. Give them nuance by suggesting those contrasts may not actually be so opposed to one another as originally believed.

I’ll see you next Thursday with the end of Gifts From Daniel Bronn…and Jerry. After that we’ll be finished with this bittersweet series, and on to something entirely new. I’m excited to see with you what the new year will bring!