The Last Duty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Once you must have had one.”

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

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

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

“The very same.”

“Do you have children then, wanderer?”

“Of a sort…once. Do you?”

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

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

“Ah.”

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

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

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

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

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

The hermit nodded gravely.

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

The wanderer took a sip, then continued.

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

“And yet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And yet?”

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

“And your people began prospering?”

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

“But he didn’t stay?”

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

“What did you do?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know what.”

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

“If you say so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You–still think to save them?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Leave me!”

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

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

“I don’t know, I don’t know…”

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

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

“It is the only right that is left!”

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

Several moments.

“Alright…I’ll tell you.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shade: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

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

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

“Let him in,” he ordered tersely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even if I tried it wouldn’t work.”

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

“To offer you an end to our feud.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not interested.”

And you get the third shade. Entirely.”

That gave both Reish and the beast pause.

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

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

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

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

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

“That…is a distinct possibility.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gallan, please,” Reish pleaded.

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

The beast met his gaze. “Do it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The Death of Simon Bowie

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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, in a haughty, superior sort of 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 feelings 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 rolled my eyes when I read that obituary title, sitting in my pew, waiting for the services to start. I should have stopped right there, but I didn’t. I kept reading, and as I did my hands started 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?

Jimmy spent his time slamming people’s faces, spitting in their mouths, and 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 as I read that obituary I started to wonder, were we really just going to sit here and pretend that we didn’t know the truth about what sort of person Jimmy really was?

I guess so. I sure wasn’t going to stand up and rock the boat.

I remember I felt guilty for feeling relieved. Relieved that my life’s biggest burden had just 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 wished that his family would move, or that he would get thrown into juvie, but never that he’d get killed.

So no, this was not the way I had wanted to be liberated, but liberated I still was. And as I sat there I couldn’t help thinking how 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 always said that every kid feels that way. Jimmy’s timely death proved that they were 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 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 had thought the words “I wish Jimmy would just die” from time-to-time, but when it actually happened it wasn’t what I had wanted at all. I wanted the idea of Jimmy to die, but not an actual 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.

I had always been told that I was supposed to be nice, no matter what, every kid gets told that. So I had always felt that Jimmy didn’t have any excuse for not being nice, no matter what went on in his home. None of us knew what abuse meant, except the kids who were actually facing that stuff. 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. But I do know enough to 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. I was shocked at how much time had already passed when I got the invitation to my 10-year High School Reunion. By that point I had a job, a wife, a child, and 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 points 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 over the years I had allowed myself to feel sympathy for who Jimmy was when he died, but I hadn’t 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.