Just a Little Diametric Opposition

Yin_yang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Minute at a Time

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Christopher slowly cracked the door open, taking a peek into his son’s bedroom. Heavy curtains shaded the room in a perpetual dusk, and it took his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. His hopes of finding the child fast asleep quickly faded as he instead made out the silhouette of the little two-year-old sitting upright on his bed, clawing at the tube running into his nose.

“I don’t like it!” Teddy squawked in frustration as he caught sight of his father.

“I know, Ted, I know,” Christopher muttered, quickly closing the distance to his son and gently pulling his chubby hands down from his face. “I don’t like it either.” He tutted sympathetically at the red marks on the cheek where Teddy has successfully pried the tape loose. “Here, let me fix this.”

“No! Take it off!” the child squirmed, trying to fight Christopher off as he realigned the tube and taped it back into place.

“Don’t you remember what we said about this?” Christopher asked, his voice strained by the ongoing struggle. “We know it’s really, really hard. But this is so important because this is how you get your medicine. If you don’t get your medicine you’re going to be really sick like before. Understand?”

Teddy did not understand. He only became more agitated and began to lunge for the side of the bed, trying to get away from his father. “Let me go!” he whined.

“If you can’t sleep you don’t have to,” Christopher conceded.

Naps with Teddy were hit or miss these days. When he was able to sleep things were so much better. Sleep was the one time that he was free from the otherwise constant aches and pains, even if only for a short time. On the other hand, not being able to sleep meant that those aches and pains would now be compounded with general crankiness. The little boy might escalate in frustration for hours until sheer exhaustion would finally force him to lose consciousness. It looked like this afternoon was going to be one of the hard ones.

“Let’s try and eat some food, then,” Christopher suggested. Teddy had refused to eat any lunch before his nap.

“No,” Teddy shook his head as Christopher scooped him into his arms. “It’s ouchie.” By way of explanation he wrapped his hands around his throat.

“We’ll get some formula, then, something that isn’t too rough on you.”

Teddy didn’t protest, but he gave a small whimper of dissatisfaction. They made their way to the kitchen, and once there Christopher put his son down in a chair and began preparing the bottle. The child whimpered louder and rubbed his eyes slowly, but he was too tired to try and move from the spot.

“I want Mommy,” Teddy finally moaned.

“I know, buddy, I know,” Christopher sighed. “Mommy pulled the midday shift for today, though,” he explained before realizing his son wouldn’t understand. “Mommy had to do some extra work.”

“No,” Teddy shook his head.

“It’s important. So we can pay for your medicine.”

“No more medicine,” the toddler started clawing at his tube again.

“Hey, hey, don’t do that!” Christopher chided in exasperation. He spun the lid onto the bottle and rushed over to stop Teddy. “Kiddo, c’mon…”

Another brief struggle ensued as Christopher resettled the tube again. He tried to think of how to explain these things to his son, not for the first time. After a moment he shook his head in defeat, not for the first time. How was a toddler to understand having to hurt for his own greater good? A toddler shouldn’t have to understand those sorts of things. “Teddy I know you don’t want to have your medicine. But Mommy and Daddy need you to have it.”

“Why?” Teddy croaked.

“Just because we need you to.” Christopher stroked his son’s hair. “And we also need you to trust us. We need you to do this just because we love you.”

Teddy grimaced, and squirmed to get away from his father’s affection, too grumpy to accept that kindness right now. So Christopher grabbed the bottle instead. “Here, try this,” Christopher placed the nipple into his son’s mouth, where it hung loosely as Teddy just gave his father a withering look. “Don’t you want to try to drink some?”

“It’s ouchie,” Teddy merely repeated, tapping his throat lightly.

Christopher hung his head in defeat. The child didn’t go into a tantrum, he didn’t scream, and he didn’t throw anything. His eyes just started welling up with tears until he blinked and they gushed down his cheeks, a whimpering cry quivering from his lips.

Christopher felt the tension in him break and he started to cry as well. He knelt down on the floor and wrapped his hands around Teddy’s legs, clasping them behind his bottom, holding him ever so gently yet with such fervent intent.

“I’m—I’m sorry, Teddy,” Christopher gulped out. “I’m just so sorry.”

For a sweet, bitter moment they just rested there, breaking the silence only with the soft sound of their mutual sobs. Every now and then Christopher would look in his son’s eye and briefly reaffirm the difficulty of the situation.

“It’s really hard. Isn’t it, Teddy?” he’d say and Teddy would nod sadly and say “Yeah.”

“You don’t like doing this, do you?” he’d say and Teddy would shake his head and say “No.”

“You just want to be all better right now, huh?” he’d say and Teddy would nod again and say “Yes, daddy.”

As the tears started to slow down one last thing broke in Christopher and behind a fresh curtain of tears he muttered. “I wanted to never let something like this happen to you, Ted. I’m sorry.”

Teddy didn’t say anything, but he looked at his father intently, and as he did so his eyes stopped watering. Finally he raised the bottle back to his lips and took a few deep gulps from its contents.

“Good boy,” Christopher smiled, wiping away both of their tears. “You want to read a book?”

Teddy nodded and Christopher scooped him back up. Together they moved over to the living room bookcase, and selected a favorite story, one about an anthropomorphic boat. Christopher sat down on the nearby couch, Teddy on his lap, opened the book and began to read.

At five pages in Christopher noticed that Teddy had stopped sucking from the bottle and when he glanced down he found that the child was asleep. Christopher sighed contentedly, closed the book, and reclined more fully into the couch.

He began gently stroking his son’s back and he looked upwards, mouthing a silent prayer of thanks. Things were still hard and in only an hour the struggle would start all over again. But for now, this was enough.

*

As I mentioned on Monday, our nature is such that we give and take influence to and from those we are closest with. We are defined at least in part by where others’ shadows intersect with our own. In this story I tried to present a father and son that are hurting together. Though their specific roles in their shared challenge are different, they still do share that challenge. When one of them hurts, both of them feel it.

Also note how this story is presented in contrast to the short piece from last week. In both cases we began with a father trying to connect with a son. In this one, as in Cursed, the father is trying to give something to the child. Ekal was trying to give his son moral strength and Christopher was trying to give his son understanding. In both cases the son was not able to receive it. The difference here is that then Christopher transitions into taking, allowing himself to empathize for a moment with his son’s pain instead. Many relationships struggle when both parties are trying to actively push their influence on one another, never stopping to receive back in turn. We know that to converse is to exchange words in a back-and-forth discourse, but sometimes we forget to do the same with our emotions and empathy.

If there was a single word I would use to describe this short piece it would be “need.” Both Christopher and Teddy are coming into the situation with their own needs. At first they don’t even know what those needs are, and have to dig a little deeper to find what truly resonates. Character needs are obviously a huge consideration when sitting down to author a story, and I’m going to take some time next week to delve further into it. We’ll look more closely at the needs presented in this short story, and then consider ways other classic stories have incorporated their characters’ needs in a nuanced and meaningful manner. I’ll see you on Monday for that post!

Following Footsteps

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Children tend to look like their parents. You’ve probably noticed this. Not only that, but they tend to act like them, too. For most of my life I merely attributed that to developmental nurturing, I assumed that people just tended to become like those they spent most of their time around. Undoubtedly that is true to a great degree, but it was remarkable to me when my wife and I first met our son how many of our personality traits and temperaments he already possessed, even before he could have learned them from us through direct experience.

I guess that makes sense. Why would we assume that the only things we pass on through our heredity are the physical attributes like facial structure and eye color? And so I believe that people have both a spark of individuality that is all their own, and then are added upon by all the people that are most important in their lives.

 

Projections)

This is an important consideration in crafting a character for a story. I’m sure you’ve heard that it is that each character in your story must have their own voice, their own characterizations, to be unique and distinct from one another. That is generally good advice, but we also shouldn’t t force them to be different just for the sake of being different. If your story includes two characters that are closely tied to one another, either by family relation, or years of association, it will feel more honest for them to share personality traits that they have projected onto one another. If one character is a descendant of another, ask yourself what characteristics they might have inherited from their forebearers.

There is an excellent example of this in the Lord of the Rings with the characterization of Aragorn. I’m specifically referring to the film adaptation here, as his character is one area where the film improved on the book. Aragorn is supposed to be a king, but he has removed himself from that path because he is haunted by the idea of failure. Why? Well among his ancestry there was a former king who was guilty a great betrayal, one which plunged the world into its current sea of darkness.

Aragorn says of the matter, “The same blood flows in my veins. The same weakness.” It is clear he is not expressing a hypothesis, a mere assumption that weakness probably exists in him, rather the conviction in his voice suggests that he has personally had moments of being weak, of failing, of shunning his duty. And when in his introspection he has tried to identify why he is so flawed he has recognized this as his inheritance from his ancestor. Thus he fears making the same mistakes as those that went before, and ironically, it is in his running from his title that he self-fulfills his own fears of failing to measure up. He makes himself more into the image of his forefather by trying to avoid that very thing.

This is a wonderfully rich character, and all by delving into some soulful examinations on what has made this man and who it was that did that making.

 

Second Parents)

Of course not all those that mold us are of our direct lineage. In our infancy and early childhood our parents and other direct family members are undoubtedly our greatest influence, but as we venture out into the world those initial personality traits start to get bent my new interactions. We have our mentors and friends, neighbors and coworkers. All of them rub off on us and can even forever alter the character we first began as. For better and for worse.

Typically when we use expressions like “he was a second father to me” or “she took me in like I was her own child” we often are referring to this sort of influence. We perceive that some person has remade us to be more like they are, and we signify this by assigning them a secondary-parent title. I’m not sure if there is anyone who doesn’t have these remaking characters in their lives, and it is a fascinating phenomenon to draw on in our stories.

In Les Miserables we have a harsh and fearful man in the form of Jean Valjean. He is a former convict and under the strict French regime he will always be a convict. Born in poverty and defined by his background to never amount to much. He fills that role well, even going so far as to beat and rob a priest whose only crime was showing him kindness.

When that priest responds to that cruelty with only greater kindness Jean Valjean is deeply moved and ultimately transformed. He has a moment of conflict between this new influence and this new impressions that has been made on him, then he ultimately allows himself to be remade in the likeness of that priest. He becomes devout, self-sacrificing, and generous, completely unrecognizable from the man of his origins.

 

Competing Voices)

It is very clever of Jean Valjean to have that moment of conflict between the two voices within him. After all, we do not typically emulate only one single persona in our lives either. We are mixed beings with a plethora of influences chattering within us. Some people even describe how those voices take the actual sound of a person that they know: a mother, a friend, a coworker. Those voices might disagree with each other, even argue. When a decision is difficult to make, we might remain at a standstill until we are able to identify which of all these competing voices really represents our own true self. Not all influences are good, after all, and at some point we have to prune ourselves to the person we really want to be.

Where do we find examples of this in stories? Actually we find them once more with Aragorn and Jean Valjean.

Aragorn is afraid of his heritage and own personal weakness. However that is not all that defines him. One mentor’s voice, that of Elrond, urges him to “Put aside the ranger. Become who you were born to be.” Elrond’s advice is able to strike a chord in Aragon, in no small part due to the fact that Elrond is literally a second father to him. When Aragorn’s birth father died it was Elrond who raised him as a son, and so has imprinted in the man a sense of wisdom and power. This is actually an element of the character that is better defined in the book than in the film, and is critical to understanding how and why Aragon is able to answer that call and evolve into something greater.

Jean Valjean, meanwhile, is not entirely in the clear after defeats his previous persona and turns over a new life. Throughout the rest of the tale he is haunted by the cruel guard that was set over him during his many years in prison: Javert. Javert is a manifestation of the voice in Jean Valjean that would pull him back to his former self, who tells him he can never be anything more than a convict. Javert tries to persuade Jean Valjean of this many times, and at times it is clear that Valjean is almost convinced by his arguments. It is only by constantly reaffirming his newness of soul that Valjean is able to hold onto his better life until the very end.

 

In conclusion, as we define the characters of our stories we ought to consider not only how they behave but also why they do so. What was their personality originally? How was that personality built on through nurturing influence? How was that then challenged by external influences? How are they, in turn, influencing others? For indeed, we cannot view influence as flowing one way only.

Parents, mentors, and friends may mold a man or woman, but they will also be molded in turn by that same individual. That’s a notion that deserves a little more elaboration, and on Thursday I will post a story that highlights this concept. Where my previous story gave a tragic tale of a father unable to connect with his son, this next one will portray a father who successfully gives to his child, but also receives from him as well. I hope to see you then.

Cursed

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Talce had gray, reflective eyes, devoid of any perceivable irises. Indeed they appeared less like eyes than polished, metal balls that had been inserted into his sockets. Those eyes had been the greatest source of shame to him all his days. They were the sign of the terrible curse and burden which he bore, that of being a life-taker. From his early youth he had learned to walk with his head perpetually bowed downwards, hiding those eyes from those who passed him by. It simply was not pleasant to witness the way people would recoil in revulsion and fear whenever they saw his face.

And there was certainly great fear in them, it was the root that lurked behind all of the hatred the villagers showed to him. That was a hard thing to be responsible for, and yet, he was also greatly indebted to it. For it was only that fear which held the local villagers in check, preventing them from outright cornering and killing him. The definition of a life-taker was, as the name implied, that he could instantly snuff out any creature’s life with no more than a blink of those shining eyes. And so it was with good reason that the people feared him, shunned him, ignored him, and anonymously tormented him… but never would they dare face him in open hostility.

Of course he had never actually done something so horrible as exerting his power on another…. Except once. While in his youth he had been chased down an alley by a massive and furious dog. Though he had not seen where it had come from, it had surely been been set on him by the village boys. No doubt they saw it as an opportunity to enjoy either of two potential outcomes. Perhaps, if they were lucky, they would rid themselves of him once and for all in a tragic “accident.” If not, they would finally be able to catch a glimpse of that terrible power he held. For though they hated what he could do, he knew they were also in awe of it.

Well, whichever dark corner they may have been watching him from, they got their wish. Backed against a wall, with his heart thumping in his chest, he had felt himself what the fear of death was like. Though he had never unleashed his shade he had always known by instinct how to do so. It was a reflex in him as basic as breathing. It had taken less than a moment, a single rush of a dark mist, and the dog moved no more.

There was a common misconception that life-takers’ eyes did not function as those in other people, simply because of how featureless those eyes appeared to be. But they could see, and they could cry. Talce had cried in that moment. Not because of his fear of the dog, but because of the fear of himself.

He was crying again, years later. His head was bowed at this time, too, even though he was in the presence of the one man that had never shunned him.

“Son, look to me” Ekal’s voice croaked from the bed, reaching down to the young man’s chin and turning his face upwards. “Let us see each other this one last time.” Ekal had been about to say something more, but then his face was contorted by another spasm of pain.

A spasm of empathy crossed Talce’s face as well.

“Talce, we do not have long,” Ekal gasped out when the agony had finally subsided. “Give me your hand,” he extended his palm outwards.

Talce did not respond to his father’s request. Instead he looked downwards again. “Who did this?” his voice was barely a whisper, and even so it quavered with seething rage.

Ekal’s face contorted once more, though this time not because of the physical pain. “Talce, do not dwell on this,” he pleaded earnestly. “What is done is done. All that matters now is your liberation.” He thrust his open palm out more urgently to his son.

There was only one way by which a person could be rid of their curse. They could relinquish it to a willing soul, one that was crossing from this life to the next. No ordinary person would offer to carry any sort of curse into the eternities, let alone the burden of a life-taker. Ekal, however, was no ordinary person. And the townspeople knew it. The logic had been simple: mortally wound the old man and let him take the hated curse to his grave.

“Malkil. Tohvy. Harras. Banu.” Talce spat out the names. He had noticed them awkwardly watching from across the street when he had entered the home. Quite likely they were the same men who years earlier had set the dog after him, now emboldened by both age and drink. “Was it them?”

“It was fools!” Ekal shouted back, raising himself on his elbow at great effort. “Worth less than the thoughts you’ve already given them.”

“You think they will spare me once they no longer fear me?! That they will welcome me with open arms after all these years?”

“No,” Ekal sighed. “You will have to run.”

Talce shook his head bitterly. “And leave you unavenged? My own father?”

Ekal tried to keep himself propped upwards, but his arm began to shake and he was about to fall back onto the cot. Talce instinctively threw his hands around his father’s head to lower it down gently. For the cot was thin, and the wood underneath it was hard. Ekal smiled at him, even through his pain.

“Please, son,” he said kindly. “Listen to me. You are a good son and I wish you to always be so. This thing you consider…it simply is not worth the risk.”

“I know they’ll be laying in wait for me,” Talce nodded. “Clearly they meant for tonight to be the end, one way or another. I wouldn’t fall for their trap, though. They’re fools, just as you say.” He nodded again. “This I can do, father.”

“I know it,” Ekal breathed, but there was a tremble of horror in his voice.

Talce felt himself a tremor in himself echoing with his father’s timbre. It was that same fear of self gnawing as it had that day in the alley with the dog. But over that another voice was raging.

“And what of it?!” Talce snapped. “There’s a justice in this. They brought it on themselves!” He blinked back angry tears. “You are my father! It is because of my respect for you that I must–”

“No!” Ekal interrupted firmly. Even angrily. “If you have any respect for me at all you will let this go!” He extended his palm again, reaching to find his son’s hand. But subconsciously Talce had closed his own hands into tight fists. “What kindness do you do me by losing your soul?” Ekal reproved. “If once you are willing to kill to get what you want, then where does that end?”

Talce scowled and looked away. He knew what his father meant. The men’s families and friends, the entire village, they would not tolerate a life-taker willing to unleash his curse. Not even in a cause of “justice.” What would he do when they raised up against him, too? Just let them kill him? Never. If anything, the few men who had beaten his father were only carrying out the will of the entire village, the surface manifestation of all that lied beneath. He could snuff out every life in this town and never once spill a drop of innocent blood.

For as featureless as a life-taker’s eyes were said to be, Ekal had still seen and understood the shadow that had passed across his son’s face with those latest thoughts. For the first time in his life, Talce saw the same horror in his father’s face that the townspeople had always reserved for him.

“Please,” the old man whimpered, his eyes fluttering with the strain of staying open. “They’ve already taken me. Please don’t let them take my son! Please, no.” Unable to extend his hand any longer Ekal merely laid it flat on his side, the fingers quivering for the feel of his child.

The loving plea swayed Talce for a moment. But the more he felt moved by the love of his father the more his corresponding hate for those that would killed the man swelled within him. All his life he had lacked the self-control and depth of character to shoulder this burden on his own. He did not have the mastery in himself to not use this power. He knew it and his father knew it. It was as much as love for his son as fear for him that made Ekal wish to unburden him. He was not ready for that father to leave him, yet leaving he was.

Hot tears rolled down Talce’s cheeks and splashed on the dying man’s covers. “I really wish that I could,” he strained out through gritted teeth. “I really do.” A strange guttural growl echoed from his throat, the strain of his very soul rending in two.

Taking their lives would just be so easy. So effortless. As easy as blinking his eyes.

Ekal’s eyes had closed, but his lips continued to shudder. “Talce, no” he moaned weakly. “No, Talce. Talce…” His hand groped in the dark, reaching but not finding.

Much as he hated himself for it, Talce could not be with his father like this. He could not bear the look of disappointment in his face and the piteous pleading noises. The brokenness. He turned his back and hardened his heart, striding out of the room, to the main entrance, and out into the street. He was already raising that dark mist, the shade that was his only remaining companion. They wouldn’t have a chance.

***

A common source of conflict and disappointment in our lives is nothing more than our expectations not being met. On Monday I discussed the rift we see between parents and their children, and I would argue a great deal of that divide comes from just these sorts of expectations not being met. Children begin life holding their parents in the highest regard, and at some point are disappointed to learn that they are not as perfect as at first believed. Parents disappoint themselves with their own failings, and are disappointed when their children choose something other than what they had intended for them.

Also, sometimes closer to the heart than even family love is personal pride, and when this is the case working out problems together is sidelined for championing one’s own desires. These were the sorts of things I wanted to emulate in today’s story. Talce truly does love his father, but he loves him on his own terms, not on his father’s. Further, he is a disappointment to himself, and has come to believe in his villager’s perspective of him, rather than Ekal’s. As such he is does not feel capable of meeting the loftier expectations, and rather assumes the more base role that he knows he can fill.

I’ve wanted to do a scene that could serve as the origin for a villain and I thought this would be an interesting way to do it. It’s an approach for such a character that feels more honest to me. Perhaps I’ll have to integrate Talce into some larger story at some point.

Now, though, I’d like to spend a little bit more time on these ideas of projected expectations, filling roles, and the nature of father and mother figures in literature. To sum it all up, I want to look at what how we are defined by others, and how that is reflected in literature. Come back next week when we’ll see what we find.

Revenger of Blood

flock of white birds photo during sunset
Photo by Adam Grabek on Pexels.com

In ancient Jewish society there existed a unique law to deal with the accidental killing of another. The man that was guilty of the manslaughter was permitted to flee to a City of Refuge, an asylum where none was permitted to do him any harm. If that man ever strayed from his City of Refuge, though, he would be at the mercy of the Revenger of Blood. This Revenger of Blood was a man that had been given the right and duty to slay the killer should he encounter him abroad.

In the last year of the reign of Herod the Great, King of Judea, there lived a man of Hebron named Elkanah, a wealthy and powerful man, known abroad as honorable and pious. To this man came Omri, a servant of Elkanah’s uncle…

“Did he say for what purpose he came?” Elkanah asked his attendant, Hoshea. Hoshea shuffled behind his master as he moved about his court, attending to all matters of business before the end of day.

“No,” Hoshea replied. “But he did suggest that his matters were urgent, and there was a graveness about him.”

Elkanah nodded as he stepped up to a pedestal where one of the local merchants stood. The merchant pulled up a ledger and laid it on the pedestal. As Elkanah reviewed the record, he motioned to another nearby servant to bring him his own record as well, and the two were laid side-by-side for comparison.

“I am nearly finished here, go and fetch him. Also, invite him to stay with us for the Sabbath afterwards.”

Hoshea made to leave but Elkanah held up a hand to stop him. “And then fetch the money purse and buy for sacrifices before sundown.”

Elkanah turned back to the records, gave them one last analysis, then turned to the merchant and asked “Are we satisfied?” The merchant nodded, and now laid their contract on the pedestal instead. Elkanah motioned to another servant who brought them a reed pen and in turn they signed the bottom of the paper.

Elkanah nodded to the merchant and his associates, who made their way out of the room, passing by Hoshea as he returned with a short and rotund man in tow. The man appeared nervous and pulled his cap into fidgety hands as he entered the room.

“Peace be unto thee,” the man saluted as he approached Elkanah. “Thine greatness and goodness are known for miles, Rabbi, I am thine servant, Omri.” Then he bowed himself to the ground.

Elkanah lifted the man up and clapped his shoulders. “I am glad to see thee, Omri. Will you stay with us for dinner that we may discuss your matters in comfort?”

“I am honored,” Omri inclined his head in another slight bow. “But if thou wilt be gracious, I am weighed by a somber business and would be relieved of my duty.”

“Very well.”

“As thou knowest, I am the servant of Hiram, thine father’s brother. Ever since that tragic accident with thine father, Hiram has sent servants from time to time to discover the movements of thy father’s killer. He does this tirelessly as his duty to thine father.”

Elkanah nodded. “Hiram is an honorable man, by all accounts that I have heard.” His gaze strayed slightly to the side where Hoshea was now drawing a measure of gold and silver from the money chest and placing it into his bag.

Elkanah motioned a pause to Omri, then turned and called “Hoshea, come here.” When the man drew near Elkanah reached into the money bag and pulled out a coin that was faded and pockmarked. “We do not use this coin for purchasing sacrifice, Hoshea.”

Hoshea shrugged. “The markings are still legible. It is permitted.”

Elkanah smiled, but his voice was firm. “There is that which is permitted, and that which is sublime. Go and replace the coin.” Then he turned back to Omri.

Omri gave another slight bow, and then continued. “At all times thine father’s killer, a youth named Talmai, has remained in his asylum in the city of Shechem, never once abandoning his refuge. Yet three nights past, my master received word that Talmai’s father, an elder in Jerusalem named Anah, lies dying on his bed and calling for his son. It is known that messengers are bearing this news to Talmai, and there are those that say Talmai loves his father dearly and will not fail to answer the call.”

Elkanah somberly turned his back to Omri, bowing his head in deep contemplation. “And your master calls on me to fulfill my duty as the Revenger of Blood upon this young man’s head.” He face grew paler by the moment and the tips of his fingers quivered slightly. “Though I have never harmed any man at any time.”

“If you will permit me…” Omri began tentatively. Elkanah made no effort to suppress him so he continued. “There is no joy in this work before you, and there are none that envy thine station. But the way of duty requires of us to do that which is just, no matter how it aches our conscience. Such was the lot you chose when thou accepted the station of Revenger.”

“Never did I expect this youth to abandon the safety of his refuge.” Elkanah turned his head upwards, but closed his eyes against the light. “But truly, it was my duty to accept the station… I will do that which I have pledged,” he finally determined. “Go and tell thine master. I will take my journey to the northern entrance of Jerusalem; there I and my servants will lay in wait for the man, and take him while he is yet on the road.”

Omri bowed. “I thank thee, my lord. God be with thee.”

“In this?” Elkanah whispered to himself, after Omri had left the room.

*

Elkanah stood atop a rocky outcropping, one that overlooked the road to Jerusalem eight cubits below. Ahead of him the road emerged from a distant crevice and passed through a wide plain before turning beneath his feet. The moon was only half full, and this portion of the path was the only stretch that was well illuminated in all the region, though his position was further lightened by two torches on either side.

From his perch, Elkanah and the small group of men with him saw his servant Hoshea running down that dusty road towards them. He closed his eyes and sighed, knowing that such speed could only foretell that he had been successful in discovering the man Talmai. Hoshea reached the bend in the road and made his way around to the back of the rocky outcropping, where its sloping side led him up to where Elkanah stood.

“Master—” Hoshea panted as he stepped into the light of the torches. Elkanah held up a hand, silencing his servant until he had had a chance to regain his breath. Hoshea paused to take a few, long and deliberate breaths, then nodded. “Master, I have been and seen, and the report of Hiram’s servants is true. The four men come and one of them is tall with ruddy cheeks and dark, curly hair, the same as how Talmai is described to be. They will be at this place within the hour.”

“Are they armed?”

“No, they are not.”

That surprised Elkanah, but he nodded and turned to one of the men standing at his side. “Now Uzziel, take thine men and conceal them among the trees both before and after this bend in the road. Then thou and two that thou choosest wait in the road, without weapons that thou may appear peaceful. When the four men are drawn near to thee, hail them and say ‘Art thou Talmai?’ and they will say ‘Nay, we know not of whom thou speak.’ Then say thee ‘But we know thou art Talmai, and we are messengers from thy father, come to bear news that he has died this very day.’ Then the man will not be able to compose himself and will begin weeping. Thus we will have confirmation of his identity, and then call to thine men and they shall catch the man and bring him here to me.”

“It is well said,” Uzziel approved, then he turned to his men and they all departed with him until Hoshea and Elkanah were alone on their perch. Elkanah motioned to Hoshea and they doused both of the torches, then turned to face the road and began their wait.

Elkanah could feel his heart pounding in his chest, its every beat protesting the moment coming. He ran his hand along the hilt of the ceremonial sword at his side, a weapon that had only been ornamental in his house. For a moment he looked heavenward and silently prayed for strength, though partway through that request changed to a petition for understanding why these events had come to him.

The minutes slid by slowly, and the initial tension slowly relaxed. One-by-one Uzziel’s guards down below settled into seated positions, and then Hoshea did the same. It was just as Elkanah himself began to bend his knees that four dark figures came into view, travelers emerging from the shadow of the crevice in the distance. A muted call from Uzziel and the guards in the trees crouched deeper into their grass, while Uzziel and the two men he had chosen rose to their feet and stood conspicuously on the side of the road. Up above, Elkanah and Hoshea lay on their stomachs so that their silhouettes would not be visible to their quarry, and watched to see what transpired.

With the scent of dust filling his nose, Elkanah peered at the dark figures as they drew nearer and nearer. The more he tried to stifle his breath the more ragged it wheezed out of him. After a moment he reminded himself the men below would not be able to hear his breath and he let it out, long and heavy. He found himself wondering which of the four approaching men was Talmai. Which was the one that did not know he was now taking his final walk and breathing his final breaths?

The men passed by the first set of trees where Uzziel’s guards were hid, and passed on without perceiving the threat behind them. As they started towards the bend in the road and caught sight of Uzziel and his companions there was a noticeable slowing of their steps. Even so they came forward, no doubt not wanting to betray their anxieties.

From up above Elkanah could not hear the words spoken between Uzziel and the four travelers, but after a few exchanges between them he saw the third of them draw his hands up to his face and begin wailing so loudly that Elkanah could hear it clearly. Uzziel cried out and at the same moment seized on the weeping man, dragging him down to the ground. Talmai’s associates leapt upon the two strugglers, trying to pry them apart, and Uzziel’s associates leapt upon them in turn. There was a moment of complete confusion, but then the armed guards had rushed in from the trees and at sword point took each of the travelers by their arms and held them still.

Elkanah could not hear the words that Uzziel threatened to Talmai’s three companions, but they must have been compelling for at his word they were released and ran off into the night without a single glance back. With only Talmai remaining in their grip, Uzziel and his men made the march towards the sloping side of the overlooking rock and Elkanah and Hoshea rose to their feet and rekindled the torches. At first Elkanah faced towards the approaching men, but as they drew towards the light he found he could not face his captive and so he turned his back to them.

He listened as at Uzziel’s command the guards moved into an enclosing circle around the crown of the rock, preventing any escape for their captive. Then there was the thud of the young man being dropped to the ground behind Elkanah, from which point a faint sobbing arose.

“He is here, Master,” Uzziel’s voice announced unnecessarily, Elkanah nodded but still did not turn.

“Talmai,” Elkanah breathed out. “Thou knowest who I am?”

The sobbing continued for a moment longer, then was gulped down and replaced with a quavering timbre. “I was told that the man I slew had a son. And that he had taken upon himself the role of the Revenger of Blood.”

Elkanah nodded bitterly. “Why, then, wouldst thou leave thine City of Refuge?”

“If thou knew where to find me, thou knowest why I came. No matter the risk, I had my duty to perform.”

“Indeed, a father is worth a man’s life,” Elkanah agreed, finally turning round to see his prey. Talmai was young, not yet thirty, with a gentle, open face. As much pause as Elkanah had already felt, it only deepened now.

Talmai looked despondently into Elkanah’s eyes, but his expression softened as he saw the hesitation in him. “Thou art the master here I perceive,” he spoke up. “There is none to force thine hand in this thing.”

“There is the law.”

“The law allows thee to take mine life, but it does not require it.”

“It is written an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It was wrong for my father to die, even by an accident. This offense deserves a balance.”

“I do not deny what is deserved, yet still thou hast a choice. Why dost thy choose so?”

Elkanah called on his determination and hardened his face. “I am an honorable man, and I ever do my duty, whether it is my pleasure or not.” He gripped the handle of his sword and at last drew out its full length.

“It is also written thou shalt not kill.”

“In this case…it is permitted.”

Elkanah was in the act of stepping forward, but his own echo gave him pause. He looked over to Hoshea who grimaced at him meaningfully. Closing his eyes he tried to find his center within. He whispered so silently that none other could hear: “Is it blasphemy to want more than the law?”

He looked down to his hand, to the sword in it. He looked to his other hand, to its open palm. “Perhaps you are right, Talmai,” he finally said. “Perhaps within rightfulness itself there yet remains a choice to make.” He dropped the sword to the ground with a ringing clatter.

“Let him go,” Elkanah heard himself speak.

“Master?” Uzziel asked.

“Let the prisoner go,” Elkanah said forcefully and looked Uzziel in the eye. “He is free of the law today.”

Talmai’s face dropped into the earth and he sobbed the loudest yet. Though the guards stood apart from him he remained unable to move as his whole body convulsed with emotion. With Hoshea’s help, Elkanah also sunk to the ground, faint and weak from the release of so much tension.

“What are we to say to Hiram?” Hoshea asked him.

Elkanah thought, then finally replied. “We will say we found another law, a new star to follow.”

***

I mentioned on Monday that I was a bit uncertain about coming up with some good examples of multilayered dialogue in today’s story. Ultimately there was more I had wanted to accomplish in that respect than I was able to, but still there are a few instances of it here, hopefully enough to illustrate the idea sufficiently.

Beginning with the most subtle, there is symbolism and imagery, such as Elkanah being elevated above the men traveling their journey and then standing in judgment of and ultimately setting Talmai free. All of this is meant to be a parallel to the hope that there is a God above, one who is watching us travel through life, judging us, and offering mercy that we do not deserve.

Then, of course, there are a couple hints meant for the audience alone. For example, in the introduction we are told the story takes place mere years before the birth of Jesus Christ. That, and the mentioning of following a new star are obviously meant to be indicators of the approaching “new law” that Elkanah ultimately chooses to follow.

Omri’s line “but the way of duty requires of us to do that which is just, no matter how it aches our conscience” is also meant to carry a deeper meaning. On its surface it might sound noble and self-sacrificing, but the more we think about it the more it doesn’t sit right with us. Eventually it becomes clear that his definition is, in fact, exactly wrong.

The most obvious use of a dual meaning, though, is of course the echoing of the phrase “it is permitted.” Elkanah pronouncing this as justification for killing Talmai is a callback to the earlier conversation between himself and Hoshea, where he taught that there is a permitted way, but also a more sublime way, and we ought to follow the latter.

What I particularly like about this is that in the end it is Elkanah’s owns words that convince him of what he ought to do, and his words alone. When it comes down to it, every decision that we make is only done by our own inner persuasion. We must find all our answers inside, and indeed there is a theme in stories of conflict being resolved only when the hero is able to identify his or her true self to guide them. There is a lot of wisdom in that theme when done properly. Come back on Monday where we will look at this concept in greater detail, as well as how the theme has been utilized in each of the short stories of my current short story series. I’ll see you then.