Boat of Three: Part Three

body of water and sand
Photo by Ion Ceban @ionelceban on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two

And so began the long tedium. Each man took his rest, the others continued rowing during the interim, and then all progressed forward as quickly as they could. Though each of them knew that the island could not possibly appear during these first days, still they could not help but gaze along the horizon, watching for any shadow where the sky met the sea.

And they saw nothing. Always nothing. Again, this was only to be expected, yet even so it began to weigh on their hearts like a stone. Every additional hour that the horizon remained stubbornly unchanging, the more impossible it seemed that it could ever be otherwise. Indeed one started to wonder whether such things as land and ports and the country of one’s childhood had ever truly existed. It almost seemed more likely that all their lives had been spent in this eternal sea, and they had only ever dreamed the existence of soil and grass and trees.

But then, a part of the mind would refuse that resignment. Then they would be taken by a flurry of fits, their limbs twitching violently, them pivoting about in their seats, and only barely stopping short of throwing themselves into the water.

“Calm down, man!” Captain Molley would shout.

“I can’t–I can’t help it!” Julian would cry. “It’s–it’s claustrophobia. I have to get it our or I’ll go mad!”

“Claustrophobia?” Bartholomew asked dryly. “Out here in the middle of the ocean?”

“It’s a claustrophobia within!”

And so it was. It was the part of the soul that dared hope feeling the grips of despair crowding around it, smothering it, burying it in the grave. And it would whimper and it would protest, and then, just when it was about to be extinguished, it would thrash about violently and refuse to go down.

“Laugh all you want, Briggs,” Julian shot back. “You don’t seem to think it so funny when the fits grab you!”

And so they did. At times they even came over Captain Molley, though usually he suppressed them to only a twitching of the eye or the trembling of the hand.

When the men weren’t having fits, they would sometimes suddenly leap to their feet, shield their eyes, and scan all the harder along the horizon. As if believing that if they could just stare hard enough, then they would will their refuge into existence.

Worst of all, on occasion they really did see something, and had a moment of pure joy, only to realize that they were mistaken.

“There! Over there!”

“It’s the shadow of that cloud.”

“But this! Over here!”

“A breaching whale.”

And so it continued until Julian finally saw a dark mark that could not be denied.

“It’s land!” he breathed. “As I live and breathe, I swear it! It really is land this time.”

“But–it can’t be, Bartholomew protested with a nervous lick of his lips. “We aren’t far enough.”

“You had it wrong. Hard to tell distances in a ship compared to rowing. We got there sooner that you thought.”

Captain Molley said slowly shielded his eyes, staring out at the dark spot in the distance. “I think it is land.”

His words went through the other two men like a bolt of lightning. He was, by far, the most grounded of them, and if even he could see the feature, then surely it wasn’t just another mirage!

“But it is very small,” he sighed. “Probably just a sandbar.”

“Bartholomew said it was a small island,” Julian suggested enthusiastically.

“Not that small,” Bartholomew shook his head. “No, that isn’t our cove, but it might be something else. Even if it is just a sandbar, then perhaps there’s a larger breach somewhere near by.”

“That’s our best chance,” Captain Molley agreed. “Just make sure you don’t run us into any shallow reefs. We haven’t the strength to be dragging this boat over shoals.”

Yet in this moment they found strength that they didn’t know they still had. All of them, even Captain Molley, began to row with a fervor.

Julian, in the front, leaned forward, eyes fixed unblinkingly on the distant mark. He watched for it to grow larger and larger, and his expression grew dourer and dourer as it did not. Rather it felt as if the closer they got, the smaller it became, and the hopes of finding trees and shade and food and fresh water began to be crushed in him.

Captain Molley, in the back, didn’t watch the nearing shore at all. He knew it would not be a place for refuge. Instead he looked beyond, scanning for any sign of a larger landmass yet to come. But he saw no birds taking wing, saw no dark smudge on the horizon, saw no change in the color of the water. He quietly resigned himself to the knowledge that there was nothing else here.

Bartholomew, meanwhile, was entirely absorbed with his two companions. His eyes flitted forward towards Julian, back to the Captain, trying to read their expressions. Were they dejected? Were they angry? He knew that he was still the odd one out in this crew, the one most likely to be targeted if violence broke out. And there was no telling what would break out when men grew desperate.

And then, at last, the ship scraped sand and Julian flung himself over the edge. Bartholomew and Captain Molley followed more reservedly.

The sandbar barely even lifted itself above the water level. Their feet splashed in the water, then squelched along the damp shoreline. Not a single plant grew in the eight feet of bare earth, and then everything gave way back to the water.

“There must be–somewhere else out there–” Julian pirouetted to look in every direction for another breach of land.

“There’s nothing,” Captain Molley said with finality.

“No,” Julian gasped, and clenched his fists while salty tears flowed to his scraggly beard.

“The pirate’s cove is so valuable a secret because it is the only one like it in the entire sector,” Bartholomew stressed. “That’s the one we have to watch out for, and when I see it, I will know it.”

Julian rounded on him like a wounded animal. “Is there really any cove?!”

“What? Of course! So because there wasn’t anything here…that has you thinking that I’m lying?”

Something about that answer stirred Captain Molley the wrong way. “Bartholomew,” he said slowly, “these are not uncharted waters, you know. The trade line is a profitable course, it has been sailed by many ships, at many variations. It seems a strange thing that this cove of yours would have escaped their net.”

“Aye, well, like I said, not worth the ink. Maybe it was seen–once or twice–but no one would have thought anything of it.”

“Not even if they saw one of your pirate ships docked against it?”

“It’s not like we stay there very long. And when we do dock we have a little inlet that we hide the boat in. You could barely make it out in the shadows.”

He said it all with such a refined clarity and confidence. His voice suggested that he was entirely unconcerned with this line of interrogation, yet his eyes shifted about from one man to the other, constantly calculating the situation.

“Let’s leave him here,” Julian moaned to Captain Molley. “You’ve said it yourself, you don’t trust him and I don’t either. Aren’t things bad enough as they are, without worrying about him taking us on some random goose chase?”

“Why would I being lying to you?!” Bartholomew protested. “It doesn’t do anything for me! If the cove didn’t exist it would have been in my own best interest to keep rowing up the trade route, too!”

“No, because you know we’d turn you in as a pirate, and they’d send you to the noose!”

“In which case I would still live longer and die more quickly than suffering out here at sea!”

“No one is being left behind,” Captain Molley stressed. “We’ve had to leave behind too many already.”

And he said nothing more on the matter, he just turned and made his way back to the boat. As he lifted himself into the vessel he gave a sudden groan, and his hand flew to his side. Almost immediately he righted himself, and glanced over his shoulder to see if the other two had noticed. Julian’s eyes were on him, but as soon as he saw Captain Molley noticing his gaze he looked away. Bartholomew was already staring off at a distant cloud, and seemed entirely oblivious to anything that had happened. Perhaps too oblivious to be believed.

The men pushed off and continued forward with their zigzag course. Julian and Captain Molley still did not trust Bartholomew, but they had no alternative path to follow. In the end, even a doubtful hope from him was their best hope.

A few hours later Captain Molley took his turn to rest, and Julian and Bartholomew were left rowing on their own.

“So…” Bartholomew ventured, after he was sure that the captain was no longer conscious. “Where were you hiding during our battle?”

“What?” Julian snapped.

“When me and my crew was fighting with yours. How’d you make it out alive? Where were you hiding?”

“I wasn’t hiding, I was in the rigging with my mates, getting up a bit of canvas that your grapeshot had snapped the lines of. The sail was just billowing about, messing up all of Captain’s maneuverings.”

“Ah, but why are you still here then, but your mates who were helping you in the rigging are not?”

“Their misfortune. Why? Where were you?”

“By the time our captain said to board I already knew the cause was lost. So when I found a moment, I ducked down with the barrels on our ship. Barely made it off in time before your Captain sunk her.”

“So you’re a coward.”

“That’s right. But at least I’m willing to admit it, unlike you.”

“Why I’ve never done anything yellow in my life! I’ve never even–never even–well I’ve never done anything cowardly at all, and that’s all there is to it!”

Bartholomew laughed coldly. “Let me give you some free advice, Julian. There’s a right way and a wrong way to tell lies. When you lied about desperately trying to save your ship up in the rigging, that was very good. But that bit about never doing anything cowardly? Please.”

“If you were smart, you’d just be quiet now!”

“And here’s the difference. A man can tell lies, but he has to know that he’s lying. He has to be honest enough with himself to know what he’s being dishonest about. You knew you were lying about why you were up in the rigging, and so you said it very carefully. Said it like you’ve been rehearsing it in your mind. But your testimony for never doing anything cowardly? You’ve convinced yourself that that’s actually true, so you try to speak from the heart…but the heart betrays you and chokes the words up.”

Julian looked daggers back at Bartholomew, then his eyes flicked past him to Captain Molley–only for an instant–and back again.

“Don’t worry, he’s still asleep,” Bartholomew smiled. “You know that he knows, don’t you? And that scares you. Well it should. You know he’s just keeping us alive now to finish his righteous duty, but if we ever make it ashore he’ll turn me over for being a pirate, and you for being a deserter.”

“Stop speaking…or I’ll kill you,” Julian turned his back on Bartholomew.

“So yes, Julian. I’m a coward and a liar, but at least I’m honestly and boldly so. You’re a coward and a liar, too, but you’re too yellow to be honest about it.”

Julian whipped back around, oar swinging through the air. It caught Bartholomew right in the head, and the pirate fell into the bottom of the boat with a sickening crack!

Part Four
Part Five

On Monday I spoke about characters who keep some of their information close to the chest, not even divulging their secrets to the reader. I mentioned that a major reason for this is to create suspense in the story, as the knowledge that there are untold secrets often builds anxiety in the reader.

In this story we have several layers of secrets. First there are secrets that characters are trying to maintain, but failing utterly to do so. Consider the fact that Captain Molley is trying to conceal his wound, not wanting to betray a weakness to the other men. The audience knows what he is doing and so do the other men, but the fact that no one is talking about it makes it an area of tension between them.

A slightly deeper secret has been what Julian was up to during the pirate’s attack. Bartholomew is accusing him of hiding while his own crew was murdered down below. This accusation may not have occurred to the audience before Bartholomew suggested it, but hopefully it provides a clarifying insight to Julian’s behavior. In any case, the audience should certainly be skeptical of him now.

And then, of course, is the secret of whether the pirate’s cove really does exist or not. Bartholomew is untrustworthy, which colors everything he says as suspect, but that doesn’t have to mean that everything he claims is false. What will become of this tenuous alliance if the men find it? What will become of them if they do not? By not letting the audience know whether the island can possibly be found or not, they can’t anticipate how things are going to fall out in the end. This is my pivotal secret meant to build up tension and uncertainty in the audience.

Something else I want to touch on is how Julian’s attack at the end of today’s piece has him firmly pinned down as the villain of this tale, if he wasn’t already. Even though he isn’t the pirate, he has been the most shiftless and toxic of all three characters. Yet Bartholomew is certainly not a “good man,” and has probably done even worse things than Julian.

With my next post I’d like to take into consideration what it is that makes a character likable or not, and how to win audiences over to the side you want them to support. We’ll see how I have implemented these patterns in Boat of Three on Monday. See you there!

Raise the Black Sun: Part Four

aerial view of landscape
Photo by Mengliu Di on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

I do not know why I did not abandon my post then. I cannot say that I held some glimmer of hope that was absent in the others. I suppose that men simply take despair down different roads. I saw no relief in abandoning this world, I suppose I assumed that our misery was of a more eternal nature, and thus could not be escaped so cheaply.

The next day six more left their post.

Things started to become very difficult now. At this point we had only been one week from the end of our circuit, but that had been assuming we could carry the wagons in one trip. Now our hands were so few that we would have to carry half of our wares a day’s journey, leave them, travel a day back to the second half, and then spend a third day dragging them up to the first half. One week had just become three.

Not only that, but we would have to leave some of our number to guard each part of the caravan when it was split up. At one point there would be a group waiting guard over the front-half of the wagon, a group waiting guard over the back-half, and a third group walking the space in between. And given the straits we found ourselves in, there was no telling but whether one of those groups would entirely abandon their post and the other two would not know it.

And that, of course, is exactly what happened. It occurred one time when I was in the party guarding the back-half. Taft, Kintil, Po’Lago, and Birrits were supposed to come back and help us carry our load up to the front-half. We were only supposed to wait for them two days. After four we finally concluded that they wouldn’t ever be coming.

It takes a minimum of three men to push a single wagon, and there were only five of us present now. Thus we could only push one wagon on our own, and we had three of them to move. We didn’t dare split our group once more, so all five of us set out with one wagon, entrusting the other two carriages to the fates. That was simply how things had to work out now.

Halfway through our journey we passed the bodies of Taft, Kintil, Po’Lago, and Birrits, sprawled out unceremoniously five paces off of the main road, each in their own direction. Shortly after that we met two of the members of the front-party coming back to see if we still lived. Obviously everyone else of their group had also surrendered to the bleakness.

At first we just stared at each other. They at us and we at they. Without words we all understood. Seven survivors meant two wagons at a time. Six wagons in all. A day’s journey, a day’s back, a day’s journey, a day’s back, a day’s journey…all to make one day forward overall. Now we had more than a month remaining in our journey. It wasn’t as if the Job knew or cared about the change in capacity, we still had to fulfill our orders or perish for our betrayal.

And right then, every one of us was wondering if it wasn’t better to perish now. Surely with five weeks we were doomed to fail already, so why prolong the inevitable? Why not die with as little suffering as we could and see if things were any better in the afterlife? Perhaps we had been the fools to not quit earlier when our companions did.

And then Ro’Kano looked me right in the eye and let himself break. His eyes filled with months of unshed tears. We were of the age that to show our fears and brokenness was a great shame, but finally he couldn’t care about that anymore, and so spilled all his shame right down his cheeks and onto his boots.

And seeing that, I could not help but weep myself. And then all the other joined as well. All seven of us heaved out our agonies, exhaled our pain, baptized each other in our rivers of sadness.

It was the only thing that could have saved us. We could not have lived a moment longer with our hearts so locked.

Without another word we all took our place alongside the wagon and began to push it forward. We remained sad as ever, but we were not sad alone anymore.

We moved our wagons forward day-by-day. Every so often one of us would break down and weep once more, then all of us would weep, then we would dry our eyes and continue forward. We took the wagons two-at-a-time and proceeded together. We did not dare dividing our numbers anymore, we needed each other. We just had to take two wagons alone and leave all the others unprotected on the side of the road. It wasn’t as if these roads were very populated anyway. Surface roads never are as a general rule, and all the more so in regions such as these.

Though it took an age, we made our next two deliveries without incident. They were to mean villages, filled with gaunt souls that had been flung out from ordinary society and left to unify over their peculiarities. In fact, they were so destitute that they lived upon the surface level, with all their homes naked under the sun, right where we could see. But they did not crawl out of those holes to see what wares we brought to them, they just peeked out from half-closed doors and half-drawn curtains while their nervous magistrate concluded the business as quickly as possible and sent us back on our way.

“We’re coming to the end of the world,” Nanth said after we left the second of these outposts. It was the perfect summation for what we all were feeling. These were barren wastelands on the surface level, and forsaken societies down below. Both space and humanity seemed to be growing thinner and thinner, signaling the end of all the world.

We did not know how literal the truth of this was. What we did know was that we were down to our last delivery: Graymore Coventry. This meant we had only two wagons remaining, and once again were able to push forward without doubling back for the rest of our load.

Knowing this, we kept our eyes ever fixed on the horizon, scraping its line for any sign of our final destination. In this region all the landscape was perfectly flat and gray, so any promontory would be immediately noticed. There was hardly even any loose gravel upon the rock. It was so pristine and flat that it seemed almost to be made of metal. We could see for miles, and thus we expected to see our destination at every moment.

It was Bayhu who did at first. He pointed out the place where he saw a single, solitary bump along the line where sky met ground. None of the rest of us could make anything out, but as we continued pressing forward we were able to verify his claim one-by-one.

Then a must peculiar sensation occurred. For not ten minutes later the bump had grown twelvefold in size and we were able to start making out individual towers and spires. And though it had grown so much within our view, still it seemed perched upon the very farthest extent of the horizon. It gave us the dizzying impression that it was yet a very great way off, yet at the same time rushing up to meet us.

“Why it must be massive,” Zolar breathed. “To already appear this large, yet still be so many miles away.”

And still the illusion continued. Five minutes later and we were counting individual windows along the tower walls, and guard posts along the bulwarks.

“But I can hear voices,” Moal scratched his head, “the voices of a city close by. It truly must be right before us…then why can we not see anything past it?”

Though we saw the road winding up to the Coventry’s gates, we took a diversion, and proceeded around the edge of the city walls. We simply had to see what defined the horizon beyond this last element of the skyline.

“Going round for a look?” an amused voice called down to us, and peering up we met the face of a guard looking over the edge of the ramparts. It was a very strange experience, looking up at a city. Evidently the entire Coventry was also built upon the surface level, just as the lowly villages preceding it had been. This was very odd, given that the size and quality of it suggested that it was not a lack of resources that had kept them from burrowing down to safer ground.

But I digress. As mentioned before, the man had said “Going round for a look?”

“Yes,” I replied. “It’s just–we don’t know–”

“Not to worry,” he said. “We don’t have many visitors here at the Coventry, but whenever we do they are just as puzzled as you. You aren’t the first to go around to settle your senses.”

“But what is it that’s going on?”

“Better for you to see. You won’t believe me if I just tell you.”

“Alright then.”

“You see over there where the walls recede? Just past the old, crumbling tower?… Yes, just around that corner you should find a little footpath to follow. Just keep to that and be sure you stop when it stops! You don’t want to be falling in.”

“Falling into what?”

“Alright, off you go, then. I’ll still be here when you return.”

He was clearly done speaking with us, so there wasn’t anything for it but to follow his instructions and continue on ahead. We pushed our wagons along the city’s edge, just far enough from the walls to keep our wheels clear of any skirting rubble. Upon rounding the corner in the wall, we found the footpath, exactly as the man had described, no doubt formed by the feet of all the passerby who had sought to satiate the same curiosity that we now held.

It was another three-quarters of an hour before we finally cleared the last of the city walls. It became apparent that the Coventry was generally triangular in shape, the outer point of it facing in the direction we had approached, and the base facing in the way of our mystery. This meant that the sloping wall beside us obstructed most of what lay behind. What degrees we could see of the horizon still seemed a paradox, though. We could only make out the landscape that ran level with the back wall of the Coventry, and then nothing beyond. We stopped trying to make sense of it, we just kept pressing on, convinced that answers would only be found at the edge of the walls.

And so it was. Just as we passed the last section of the city, so too the footpath came to its sudden stop, and so too all the ground ceased before us. It was like when one comes over the summit of a hill, and only upon cresting the very top being is able to perceive the backside of the slope running beyond. Only the difference was that there was no backside, and no sloping beyond. We had reached the summit, the edge, the very horizon…and only pure blackness stretched before us.

“What is it?” I furrowed by brow as I craned my neck over the lip and tried to focus my eyes on the blackness, tried to tell what it was all made of. And as I looked downwards, and puzzled as to what I saw, I sharply realized that what I saw was empty infinity. There was no great, black object, no other side to a chasm, no floor far down below…there was nothing.

I flung myself backwards with a cry and fell to the earth. My heart raced, and I gasped for breath. There, as I lay on my back, I saw how the fringe of the Coventry descended right over the edge of the horizon, and into that abyss. It truly was the very edge of humanity.

We had come to the end of the universe.

Well…I suppose at this time I should pause and admit what has surely already occurred to you. It was not the end of the universe that we had discovered, merely the furthest limit of our arm in the Kolv Mass. But, of course, this was long before we had discovered True Groundscape or even the Outer Networks. At that time, to us as we were then, this was the edge of all eternity. And who knows…perhaps it truly was. For who can tell if anything unseen ever existed before it was found. Perhaps we make things in the looking for them.

In any case, after we had all gathered our wits, we shook our heads in mutual awe and made our way back to the main entrance to the Coventry. As we neared it we heard the salutation of our friend, the guard.

“Quite a shock, isn’t it?” he smiled.

“Yes,” Moal nodded. “I did not know that man had discovered the world’s end. Have you lowered anything down the side?”

The man scratched his thin, for surely he knew far more than we had capacity to receive, and had to consider how to explain things in a way that we could understand.

“There have been…many experiments,” he said, “and we have gleaned many secrets of the void since far-flung antiquity. I dare say you are already acquainted with the sacrifices that are performed here at our Coventry?”

“Of course.”

“Yes, for some reason that aspect of our work is storied abroad, but never the nature of the Void. And we know that all the world looks askance at our sacrifices, because they simply cannot be understood without the knowledge of the Void. The science of the two is one and the same, and neither can be properly contemplated alone. But come in through the gate now and you will find answers…. Or at the very least more questions.”

Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven

 

On Monday I promised that our Treksmen would discover another of the unexplained wrinkles in their world: that of the Void at the end of their world. A lot more questions are raised by this discovery, but the final line given by the guard is a hint to the reader that they are not about to find all the answers. Our Treksmen are going to be educated, but they are not going to obtain understanding. In this story, the more that is learned, the more unknowns are uncovered.

This a central theme to my tale. It is a story of finite beings dealing with the infinite. The people of Graymore Coventry have studied the cosmos, and by their research have discovered genuine patterns of cause and effect. But they are dealing with matters that are beyond them, and through their experiments are inadvertently bringing forth all manner of unforeseen consequences. They are pulling at the string, and all that is connected to the other end must come forward as a result, not all of which is desired.

Before we come to that end of the string, though, I want to examine a pacing pattern that I’ve enjoyed using in Raise the Black Sun. It is a diamond pattern, one of expanding and contracting scope, going broad and then going narrow. Come back on Monday where we’ll look at this technique in greater detail, and also explore some famous examples of it.

Raise the Black Sun: Part Three

grayscale photography of vulture
Photo by Ric Rodrigues on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two

It occurred on a day when I was deep in thought about those three Treksmen who had been in line behind Yanni. Bil-Lyew, Zafrast, and Obasi. Why had they had been able to witness Yanni’s death and quit this dread journey before it was too late while I had not? Why had I stood immediately before Yanni and not immediately after? I had been the very last Treksman to get through the Pledge and be chained to this doomed venture.

“This was always to be your fate,” I whispered to yourself. “Perhaps all of us walking here were chosen. But you, Graye, you were chosen especially.”

Why, though? I was of absolutely no consequence. Did I have a special part to play? That seemed unlikely. There was nothing that I was likely to do which my companions were any less likely to do themselves. Perhaps I was guilty of some special sin that I had forgotten and had to be punished for?

Of course, I had sinned, I do not deny as much, but more than Bil-Lyew? More than Zafrast? Certainly I couldn’t have sinned more than Obasi had!

“It doesn’t matter,” I sighed to myself. “Who are you to question the turning of the wheel? Your fate awaits you at Graymore and that’s all there is to it.”

“No, your fate is with me,” a silky voice called out. I looked up and looked about, unable to see any who it was that had spoken.

“Who’s there?” I asked.

“See me,” the voice came back, soft but earnest, and definitely female.

My mind imagined a person to which such a voice might belong, and all at once I saw the very likeness before me, standing just off the side of the road. She was incredibly pale, with a tall and thin face, perhaps the most beautiful and enchanting I had ever seen. Her hair was deepest black, and I could not tell how long it was, for its color perfectly blended in with her clothing, which swathed around her tightly, all the way to the top of her neck.

“What are you?” I asked the phantom. I felt an intense desire to understand her, for everything about her was a complete enigma to me. The more I stared upon her, the more unsure of anything else I seemed to be. All the world slipped out of my periphery and there was only her, but even she was still somewhat out of my focus.

“I am the fate that has been chosen for you.”

“To love you?”

“Or to fall to me. Whichever you would choose.”

Both sounded rapturous to me.

“But what of Graymore Coventry?” I asked. “It has already claimed me. I cannot turn away from it or I will die like Yanni.”

“Die to me. I may yet rennervate you. Thus you will give full due to your pledge, and yet achieve a second fate.”

“Die to you?”

“Yes, give yourself over.” Her eyes flashed brightly and she seemed to draw nearer, though she didn’t walk a single step towards me. She did raise her hands, though, and as she did the wide sleeves fell back and laid bare her ivory arms. Carved marble they seemed to me, and one of them was raised to caress, the other to strike. All my heart thumped with desire to drop to my knees, lean against her bosom, and feel which one she would lay upon me.

The more I spoke with more, the more I focused on her, the more she seemed to take definition, the more real she seemed to be. I felt like she could be entirely real if I wanted. I just had to believe wholly in her and she would be.

One of my last fingertips left the handle of the wagon, and my heart thumped painfully.

What?

I looked down to my side. Now only the two small fingers on my right hand remained touching the wood. I had been letting go without even realizing it. Of course a Treksman can let go of his handle as the need permits, but the Job knew our hearts, knew that I was  not just letting go as a matter of course. I was letting go to abandon my station, and it was about to claim my life for that betrayal.

See me!” the woman exhaled sharply. My eyes snapped to her and I saw the utmost ferocity in her eyes. But what was that ferocity? Was it anger for my hesitation, or desperation that I give my love to her? The uncertainty of her seared my heart with greatest desire.

Thump!

My eyes shot back to my hand, where now only the smallest finger remaining to task.

You must–

“What are you?” I interrupted her.

“All that you desire, all that you fear.” I mouthed the words with her even as she said them.

“The two are one and the same” the voice continued, but now I became aware that it was my voice speaking. My voice and someone else’s. But not the woman’s. Another woman’s. Another woman that was yet unseen.

I was just as confused at this realization as you might imagine, but strange as those words are to write and strange as they were to feel, somehow I knew they were true. I realized that there had been some sort of trance, one that had linked me with another person that I could not see, and by our unison this phantom woman that I did perceive was given voice and thought.

I felt a sensation like waking up, the gray of my periphery began to be washed again in color, and I saw anew my caravan and my companions. All the seven who had been conscious with me had all come to a halt. Four of them were staring off in their own trances and muttering their own nonsenses. The other three lay dead.

There wasn’t a single mark upon them, each had fallen just outside the reach of their wagon handles, no doubt having forsaken them in just the same manner that I had been about to.

Out of the corner of my eye I could still see the strange woman, but she was far less defined than before. Indeed with every passing moment where I did not believe in her, she seemed to be become more and more unmade.

“What do you mean?” Boril’s voice rang out, and my eyes snapped to him, three wagons ahead of me. He, too, was staring off into nothingness, and his tone was shrill and vehement, like he was trying to hide his fear. “If my own hand is not my own, then what would it be?!” He mouthed an answer to that, I did not hear what, but his eyes went wide at the message that it conveyed.

“No!” Boril said disbelievingly, and looked down at his hand, which appeared absolutely ordinary to me. But his face contorted in horror and he flexed his fingers in an erratic, painful-looking way. “Get it off! Get it off!” he shrieked, fumbling with his other hand for the cutlass at his side. And as he did so I saw that his hand was beginning to shift. It was starting to turn black, with the hairs on its back standing on end and elongating, and the fingers starting to move with the scuttling rhythm of spider-legs.

“Boril! No!” I shouted, rushing forward and catching the arm that held the cutlass, just as he raised it to to chop off his own limb…or whatever he had been bewitched into thinking it had become.

Bewitched! I thought. That’s it.

Boril struggled against my grip and I heaved backwards, pulling him to the ground with me, continuing to wrestle his arm and shouting at him that his hand was perfectly fine. It took a great deal of shouting for him to hear me over whatever voice echoed in his head, but at last he seemed to see that what I told him was so. For the more I told him that his arm was fine, the more he seemed to doubt whatever he had seen previously, and the more his hand truly came back to its ordinary form. Once he stilled himself I let go, and sprang to my feet, eyes glancing about madly for our foe.

“Where are you witch!” I demanded. “I do not believe in your spells anymore!”

Two arms, thin and bony, wrapped themselves around my neck from behind. There was a surprising strength to them, and they pulled me firmly against the shoulders of a lithe and wiry woman.

“To live without belief is to live without air,” she hissed as her forearms contracted against my throat and began to choke the life out of me.

“Boril–” I gasped, reaching my fingers out to him. But to my dismay he was once again staring at some unseen phantom, once more caught up in his delusions.

The witch tightened her grip further, and the blood was cut off from my head. I was getting dizzy, and starting to lose my focus.

“Fool,” she simpered sweetly. “You do not have to believe me to still be under my power. You might have had anything you wanted in your final moments, your ignorance gave you every possibility. But now you know, and so you die, powerless. You ought to have believed.”

Darkness was crowding around my eyes, and I was about to concede to my fate…but then, I realized that this was most certainly not my fate. My fate was to go to Graymore Coventry and there lose my soul.

The witch was wrong. I believed all too strongly.

With the last of my strength I flung my fist backwards. With my fingers having grown numb it was not difficult to convince myself that they held steel. And having convinced myself of that, it became true.

I heard a terrible shriek. It seemed distant and faint, and then rushed forward at tremendous speed until it echoed right beside me. At the same time the pressure on my neck laxed and I gulped down cold air.

Behind me the witch writhed in her death agonies. Only a few moments more and her last grip on life broke, and with it all traces of her bewitchments dispersed. Even the knife I had conjured by her own magicks to stab her.

“Get up, Boril,” I wheezed out. He was still kneeling on the ground, snapping his neck about in every direction, faced painted with utter confusion.

Of the eight of us who had been keeping watch, three had died before I came to my senses, and another one during my fight with the witch. Only four of us remained, and we of course had to wake all the others. This path was too treacherous, and though it was an agony to remain awake, we could not dare proceed with partial strength. We must all press forward together, dejected as we were.

We were thirty then.

It seemed a wise choice at the time, but it brought us to the worst adversary we had faced yet: our own broken hearts. For though I had felt dejected during all the time I had kept watch with the seven others, we had been few enough that I scarcely caught sight of their faces. Now, though, at every turn of the road, at every lifting of a wagon wheel out of a rut, at every stop to setup camp…at each of these moments I was required to stare into their gaunt and hopeless visages. And then what despair I had started to feel in myself was only pressed deeper.

For when one is full of sorrow alone, one might yet take comfort in the thought that there is still light and good elsewhere in the world. But when all one sees is the same bleakness in others, it becomes easy to believe that this is how it is everywhere, and forever will be.

If I could have believed that my memories of laughing children and playful men and charming women were true, that they were not but dreams, then I would have been encouraged in the burden I had to bear. Then I might have told myself that the innocent parts of the world were still able to live and laugh and love because I bore the trial for them. I would have thought to myself that there was a certain taxing of darkness that had to weigh on the world, and if enough martyrs took it on them then the rest of the world would still be free to feel the joy, and I would feel a quiet pride in facilitating that.

Instead, these encouraging theories were squashed out by the darkness that crammed in from my fellows. Our bleakness seemed too infinite to believe that it did not reach into every corner of the universe. Each one of us silently took our heartache and heaped it upon each other, multiplying our woes again and again, until it became exponential, and each new day was a hundredfold more painful to bear than the last.

I would rather be consigned to my doom alone than to have been put in this company of the damned.

Bahnu was the first to give in to the despair totally. One day he simply let go of his handle, took four steps off of the road, and then died for abandoning his contract. He didn’t say a word through the whole process. He just left.

The next day Ra-Toew and Sinfarro walked away. Not together, each at different hours and in different directions.

The next day was three more. The next it was four.

We were twenty then.

Regular practice is for the caravan to return with all of their empty wagons at the end of their journey. But we now lacked enough hands to push them all, and so the unpacked vehicles were left behind, a pile of empty vessels, laid out haphazardly beneath the cold sun.

Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven

 

On Monday I discussed the way that a story reflects the thoughts and feelings of its writer. The more that I’ve written stories on this blog, the more I’ve realized how difficult it is to write a lie.

You can project anything in a statement on social media, you can say the words when looking another person in the face, you can pretend something in any of the usual forms of communication. But, as I say, it is a very difficult thing to tell a story that you don’t believe in.

For even if you force yourself to write dialogue and themes that state the lie, you still betray yourself by how hollow your work will feel. Those that are perceptive will read it and say “your heart clearly wasn’t in this.”

I don’t believe that this is exclusive to writing stories, either. I believe it applies to all of creativity. The thing we make cannot come alive unless it is true to us. Just try to play a rousing ballad on the guitar while inside your heart yearns for a a tragic melody on violin. The right notes might be played, but they just won’t resonate.

Publishing this piece was fairly unsettling for me then, because it is quite true to my own recent experiences. The themes of despair and hopelessness are ones drawn from a very personal space.

For this and other reasons, I have wondered if I ought to have made this blog private. But whether I should have or not, the fact is that now I have already become comfortable with sharing myself in this way. I feel that those who care enough to read my work have earned the right to know me sincerely.

I am well aware that I don’t talk about myself personally on here very much. While other blogs detail their homes, their families, their day-to-day experiences, I share myself in a different way. You may not always know what is going on in my life, but you do see what is playing out in my heart. This blog is really just a personal journal, only one that logs its daily entries through story.

Shade: Part Three

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

Part One
Part Two

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

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

“Let him in,” he ordered tersely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even if I tried it wouldn’t work.”

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

“To offer you an end to our feud.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not interested.”

And you get the third shade. Entirely.”

That gave both Reish and the beast pause.

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

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

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

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

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

“That…is a distinct possibility.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gallan, please,” Reish pleaded.

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

The beast met his gaze. “Do it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The Sweet Bay Tree

photography of tree
Photo by Yugal Srivastava on Pexels.com

It was a bright Spring morning the day they brought the Sweet Bay tree into the open study area. It was a massive room, featuring thousands of square feet in open floor space, with another fifteen yards stretching vertically before being capped off by a wide glass ceiling that ran the whole length of it.

It was a multi-purpose room, one commonly scattered with tables and chairs for the University students to study at during the days, but all of which could be folded up and carted away with ease. It had played host to dances, career fairs, blood drives, charity auctions and more. Many-a-time it had been reserved for wedding receptions, and once had housed the funeral services when one of the Deans had passed way. A collapsible stage could be erected at one end for music and dance performances. It had seen debates, clubs, and religious ceremonies.

Of course the Sweet Bay tree did not yet know any of these things. It’s amazement as it was wheeled through the double doors was due simply to the sheer magnitude of the place. It was awed at the awesome grandeur on display, the architectural wonder of 400,000 cubic feet, all sustained without a single supporting pillar to break that space.

Somehow the artificiality of the room made it seem bigger. Naturally the tree was natively from the open outdoors, yet the openness there was too great to be appreciated. One does not marvel at a breadth unless one can see both ends of it, and so can comprehend it.

If the Sweet Bay tree felt honored to be put into a room so large, it swelled all the more with pride when it beheld the vessel the workers now lowered it into. A massive pot that lay a full twelve feet across and six feet deep! Perhaps the tree felt a little silly being so dwarfed by its home, but it knew this grand base had been selected with the intention that it would grow to fill it. It meant the workers intended this tree to become the central piece of the room’s ornamentation.

And so, after the workers had finished patting the soil around the tree’s roots, and threaded the water hose through a hole in the back of the pot, and added a layer of shredded bark as a skirt around its trunk, and then left for the rest of the days duties–then the tree unfurled itself and drank deeply from the soil and relished in a sense of fullness and fatness.

“Hello there,” a neighboring fern said. “Looks like they’ve given you the place of honor!”

“Why thank you,” the Sweet Bay tree returned graciously. “Yes, I am quite touched. It certainly is a thrill to come and visit you all. I only hope I’ll be able to measure up to everyone’s expectations.”

“I’m sure you will. What’s your name, by the way?”

“Sweet Bay tree number four on the Eastern side.”

“Eastern side of what?”

“Why the Eastern side of the Administration Building, of course, that’s where I’m stationed.”

“Oh…” the fern said awkwardly. “But aren’t you stationed here now?”

“Oh that’s very kind of you,” the Sweet Bay tree laughed. “I am, as I said, thrilled to come and visit. But I couldn’t possibly give up my station, I am an essential part of the tree-line there after all.”

“Well…” the fern started to say, but didn’t know how to politely end its sentence and so did not.

The conversation with the fern had made the Sweet Bay tree all the more anxious to measure up to the expectations that had been placed upon it. The last thing it wanted to hear was people tutting that it was a disappointment to the place.

Focusing its power inwards the tree began to will itself to new heights. To its delight it felt that the growth came quite easily. The tree was constantly sustained with a diet of nutrient-rich soil, regularly pruned to promote upward growth, and positioned under the glass ceiling so as to receive the most hours of bright sunlight possible.

In a matter of only a few years, which really is no time at all to a tree, the Sweet Bay had multiplied itself by many orders of magnitude, swelling to fill its pot and expanding to brush its uppermost leaves along the glass of  the ceiling. Those higher branches would be trimmed, but it always grew them back as a statement to the workers that it was doing its part in the role they had given it.

The Sweet Bay was not at all disappointed for attention, either. It swelled with pride each time a new student entered the room and remarked on how that impressive tree stood supreme in all that space.

“I didn’t know you could grow a full-sized tree indoors!” they often said in awe, and the Sweet Bay tree smiled down at them from its lofty perch.

Almost every occasion held in the room now utilized it as the centerpiece of its decorations. Lights wound up its trunk on Christmas and fake coconuts hung from its branches for luaus. There were black shrouds whenever someone important died, white lace whenever someone got married, and pink ribbons for cancer awareness.

The Sweet Bay tree was very pleased to serve and no one questioned that it did its part well. Still, with every passing year it found itself more and more anxious to know what was happening to its home on the eastern side of the Administration Building.

Any time a new plant was brought in it would ask them if they knew that area of the college campus exterior. Most of the time they did not, having instead been brought from greenhouses and nurseries far removed from the University. One day, though, a young poplar was brought in that had been stationed just south of the Sweet Bay tree’s home.

“The Administration Building? Yes, I know it. Had a fine view of it from the Library where they kept me.”

“Oh wonderful!” the Sweet Bay tree sighed in relief. “Tell me, how are things there? I suspect Sweet Bay trees number three and number five are missing me terribly?”

“Sweet Bay trees number three and number five? I don’t believe I know them.”

“Oh, but of course you do. Why they must be nearly as tall me now. Probably not quite as tall, but nearly.”

“Were they near to the vinca?”

“No, the vinca is on the southern side. These were on the eastern.”

“Ah, that explains it. They tore up that whole side and paved it over with a new parking lot. I didn’t see it happen, but some of the older trees told me about it.”

“They…what?!”

“Yeah, the demand for parking has really gone up of late. Doesn’t look anything like it used to.”

“But I–I don’t understand. Why would they do that? It’s quite a waste seeing as they’ll just have to change everything back to how it was… so that they’ll be ready when they return me there.”

“How’s that?”

“I mean why pave over a lovely green lawn when you’re just going to have to put the lawn back sooner or later?”

“Well…I mean…” the poplar stumbled awkwardly to find a tactful way to explain itself. “Sweet Bay trees three and five are gone. You understand? Not transplanted elsewhere from what I heard…gone. So I don’t think they were planning to change things back to how they were again.”

“Oh, of course,” the Sweet Bay tree tutted as if explaining something basic to a child, and not at all concerned about the chopping up of its brethren. “I’m not too shocked that they won’t be coming back. You didn’t see them after all, but quite frankly they were never anything so special as me. That’s why they brought me over here to liven up the room for a bit after all. Because I was the best! So of course they’re going to want me come back there. And when I do come back, I don’t intend to be planted in an inch less of lawn!”

“Ah…well…alright then!”

Despite the Sweet Bay tree’s show of confidence, it seemed to have been unnerved by something in that conversation with the young poplar. It began brooding and festering, wondering aloud why it was taking so long for the workers to return it to its station. It simply didn’t make sense!

The tree scolded those workers when they came to prune it and demanded answers from them, but of course they couldn’t understand any of that rustling. They just continued their regular work, making the Sweet Bay tree the perfect, beautiful centerpiece to this grand, impressive room.

Except that the room didn’t seem nearly so impressive to the tree as it once had. The Sweet Bay tree wasn’t nearly so small as when it had been brought in here, and it had long lost its sense of awe for the space. No doubt a large part of that had to do with being as tall as the entire room, for nothing seems so grand once you are able to fill an entire dimension of it. It would scratch its twigs along the glass canopy that defined the extent of its world, transparent enough to tease a world without limits beyond, but forever denying access to it. This room that had once been a throne was now nothing more than an ornate prison.

All the other plants learned not to broach the subject with the Sweet Bay tree. It was entirely unwilling to hear anything about being “replaced” or “forgotten.” And so they all stood silent as it rambled on about the warm summer breeze, the snowy blankets on the field, the buzzing of bees, the chirping of birds, the scurrying of chipmunks, the refreshing rain, the crunching of dead leaves, the flowery scents, the churning of the earth, and the taste of the wild wafting down from the nearby mountains.

One day a trimmed bush was brought into the room and placed right next to the Sweet Bay tree. As with all newcomers the tree swayed wistfully towards it and asked its tired, old question.

“Have you seen the Administration Building? Friend?”

“Hmm, well which one do you mean now? The old one or the new one?”

“Old one? What on earth do you mean?”

“Well they tore down that old one with the Library, didn’t they? Put up that new football stadium instead.”

“A… football stadium?”

“Yes, a sight to behold really! Thousands of tons of steel and stone splayed out over everything that used to be the Administration Building and the Library. With a massive parking garage hulking by its side, even. I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but it makes a place like this feel very small.”

“But…why would they do that? They’ll never be able to get things back to the way they were in time!” The Sweet Bay tree was swaying very laboriously now, as though it might faint from shock. “Where are they going to put me then? It just–it just doesn’t make any sense.”

The bush felt quite awkward and started to shrink back, but suddenly the Sweet Bay tree rounded on it with a sudden fury.

“You! Tell me! Have you heard any word of a new field for Sweet Bay trees? Any word of starting a grove for outdoor studying? Any mention of planting some trees to shore up the river’s edge?”

“I–no, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Has no one said when they’re going to take me out of this miserable place?!”

“You don’t…like it here?”

“It’s my prison!” The Sweet Bay tree fell to weeping. “But still I know they will get me out some day soon. They have to. They just can’t be leaving me here forever.”

For a moment the bush intended to avoid stating the obvious, just as every other plant had done. But then it felt it would be more cruel to leave the Sweet Bay tree hanging onto a vain hope.

“But…how will they get you out?”

“What’s that?” the tree snapped out of its self-pitying reverie.

“How would they even be able to get you out of this room?”

“The door, obviously! The same way I came in.”

“You don’t fit.”

“Well of course I–” a moment of horror swept across the tree. It had been staring down at the doors as it spoke. Down at them! They were so far beneath it, so distant, so small a matrix to pass through. Of course it had fit through them once when it had been a sapling. But now…now the only way out was in pieces.

“When did that happen?” the tree mumbled in shock. “Why did I just keep growing? Why didn’t I stop? What am I going to… what am I supposed to…. Wh–why?”

All the other plants in the room drew themselves as far away as their trunks and stems allowed, trying to grant the poor Sweet Bay tree a respectful moment of silence as its entire world collapsed.

***

I promised on Monday that I would try to write a story that began with its own ending. From the moment the Sweet Bay tree came into the room its story had reached its conclusion, and all that followed was merely waiting for it to realize that simple fact.

But of course, in this long ending there is also another story that is playing out. It isn’t the story of how the tree came to its final destination, it is the one of how it came to accept it. I wrote this story as an examination of a phenomenon I’ve noticed when people experience sudden, drastic changes to life.

These sharp turns occur in a single moment, and the course of our future is instantaneously changed. But then there is usually a considerable delay before our expectations shift to match up with that new destiny. In spite of all reason and sensibility, it can be very hard to let  go of how we thought things were going to be.

I realize it is a strange thing we do, trying to represent very human notions with very non-human subjects. But anthropomorphized characters and allegory have been parts of story-telling since longer than the Tortoise and the Hare. On Monday I’d like to take a closer look into why we do this sort of abstraction. Have a wonderful weekend, and I’ll see you then.