Shade: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

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

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

“Let him in,” he ordered tersely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even if I tried it wouldn’t work.”

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

“To offer you an end to our feud.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not interested.”

And you get the third shade. Entirely.”

That gave both Reish and the beast pause.

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

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

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

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

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

“That…is a distinct possibility.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gallan, please,” Reish pleaded.

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

The beast met his gaze. “Do it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Black and White

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On Thursday I wrote a story from the point of view of a plant, one that was being eaten by an animal. As one might expect, that animal was viewed in a very dim light. It was a destroyer, a killer, and therefore inherently evil. At the very end a part of that plant became autonomous and had a fantasy of growing bigger, more powerful, and then exacting vengeance on that animal.

But of course, had I written the story from the point of view of the animal, then it would have seen itself as doing no wrong. It ate some food, just as every creature does. It adhered to its basic nature. We people do just the same thing, so it would seem we shouldn’t be taking sides in nature.

Evil Things)

And yet we do. Certain animals and substance are considered inherently evil by us because they are known to do us harm. Snakes, bears, and poisons are bad. Bunnies, kittens, and vanilla are good. But from a more removed point of view, is there really anything more evil in a bear that eats people than in a kitten that eats mice?

It is our nature, and seemingly the nature of all creatures, to hate those that can cause it harm, and to love those that can benefit it. We can’t be blamed for having this instinct embedded in our DNA, it is essential to our basic survival. It is perfectly understandable for a person to say that they just don’t like large spiders.

But humans don’t stop at labeling animals and substances as evil, though. Some people are determined to be bad as well. As before, these tend to be people that by their very nature mean us harm. Whenever two nations are engaged in war, we always see both sides labeling one another as evil. This is understandable, even if misguided. The other nation is seen as a threat, capable of destroying you, so your self-preservation instincts kick in and you see them as subhuman.

But we don’t stop here either. Those that threaten us on an emotional or spiritual level are quickly labeled as well. If we hold something sacred or true, then it is genuinely painful for us to hear others disparage that thing. Why would that atheist say I’m wrong for believing in God? Or why would that Christian tell me that I’m a sinner? It can only be because they are evil.

Obviously somewhere along this spectrum we’ve crossed a line. Probably several lines, in fact. It is true that some things and people are bad for us and are worth avoiding, but that does not necessarily make them evil. The bear that wants to eat us is trying to preserve its own interests by doing something bad for us. Our boss that wants us to work through the weekend is trying to preserve her own interests by doing something bad for us. But these facts alone do not make them evil. And though we might be able to logically appreciate the invalidity of demonizing those we dislike, it is still a very difficult thing to stop doing.

Villains are Evil)

For this reason characters in a story are often portrayed as either “all-good” or “all-evil” as well. If a hero has flaws, they are minor and easily excused. If a villain has virtues, they are warped and twisted into something unnatural. It is unheard of for a story to finish by the hero convincing the villain of the error of his ways, and certainly not by coming to appreciate the villain’s point of view. The villain is fundamentally evil, after all, so rational reason would never be able to work on them.

Well, almost this is unheard of in a story.

Undertale was a game released in 2015 that on the surface might have appeared like any other RPG (role playing game). The world is quirky and humorous, but there are some definitely evil rogues that the player has to go and violently destroy. And if the player chooses to, they are allowed to play the game in exactly this way.

But there is also a “pacifist” version of the game where instead of destroying all those evil villains, you can instead befriend them, listen to their point of view, and finally help them to let go of their anger. They cease trying to destroy you, are no longer a threat, and thus are no longer perceived as evil.

When approached in this way the player wins by destroying the barriers between them and their enemies, rather than the persons themselves. One might assume that such a peaceful resolution might lack a necessary catharsis and make for a hollow ending, but actually the game was lauded by critics and consumers alike. But this isn’t to say that Undertale denies the existence of evil.

Is There Any Evil?)

While it is true that our society applies the label of evil too quickly, that doesn’t mean that evil doesn’t exist. Children see things in black-and-white, young adults start to see things as shades of gray, and then at full maturity one sees a dual nature: both black and white in the same being. Each of us have parts that are truly good and other parts that are truly evil.

In Undertale the villains are doing things that are truly evil, they knowingly hurt others for personal gain. But so do all of us, and still we know that there yet remains a goodness inside. The player is able to communicate to those parts of them that are good, and by so doing can bring an end to the evil behavior.

The reason that the classic story A Christmas Carol works is because Ebenezer Scrooge is truly a bad man, but one who also has a goodness inside. In the story’s opening pages we find it has been a long, long time since Scrooge has listened to that goodness, so long that he himself has forgotten that the part still exists. Over the course of the tale we travel back to witness the moments before he became a bitter old curmudgeon, a time where he was still divided between two natures. In that past Scrooge suffered a defeat to his worse nature, and then, like so many of us, assumed that the good part was dead and gone forever. This Christmas tale thankfully offers a more hopeful perspective in the end.

Evil Without, Evil Within)

Did you notice that we shifted from talking about evil in others to talking about evil within the self? As I said before, each of us have parts that are truly good and others that are truly evil. At different times, one or the other side will hold the reins of our behavior. So long as it is the more evil part that drives us, we will never be able to awaken the good in anyone else.

When the evil part of us that interacts with the evil parts of those around us, then we are in a state of war. When the evil part of one interacts with the good parts of others, then we are in a state of abuse. The only path to peace is for our good parts to find their way past the evil to touch the good in others.

In Les Miserables we meet a convict name Jean Valjean, and a prostitute named Fantine. Each of them is deeply ashamed of the things that they have done, each tends to view themselves as evil. However the two of them do not meet while both are at their lowest points. Indeed, if they did their interaction would most certainly have been destructive to each. Thankfully, Jean Valjean has the good part inside of him awakened and is redefined by it before he meets Fantine. In that moment he sidesteps the bitter-for-losing-her-employment part of her, he sees past the self-hatred-for-being-a-prostitute part of her, and instead he reaches the mother part at her core. In Fantine’s last moments she becomes good again by having had her goodness touched by the goodness of another. Jean Valjean is only able to do this because he once had his own goodness touched by another as well.

Hope in the End)

Undertale, A Christmas Carol, and Les Miserables all give a message of hope for humanity. Each of them allows that evil is real and that it is the enemy to our nature, but each of them also suggests that evil can be overcome. We must overcome the evil in ourselves, though, before we can help others to do the same.

With my next short story I would like to explore this idea of seeing the good in an individual that is initially despised. I will introduce a character whose behavior is good in his own eyes, but bad in another’s. At first each character will consider their own perspective as being the source of truth, but by the end we’ll see if we can get them seeing more broadly. Come back on Thursday to see how that turns out.

The Storm: Part Two

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Part One

“Alright, I’m ready to go now,” Harry’s voice broke from the radio.

“I’ll pull forward until the line gets tight,” Oscar explained. “Then you throw your engine on and you give whatever you’ve got just to keep us level, understand? I’ll do the pulling and I’ll warn you for every turn, you just make sure you stay right behind me and maintain the tension.”

“Of course Oscar. And Oscar…thank you, I really didn’t think anyone was going to come for me.”

“Don’t mention it.” It wasn’t a polite deference. It was an order, and Oscar surprised himself at how much of a growl it came out with. He shook his head and pushed the throttle control forward. His engine churned back to life and his trawler lurched forward once more.

Oscar eased back a little, not wanting to hit tension on the rope too hard. A few yards more and he felt his vessel shudder from stem to stern and his beam groaned ominously. He didn’t hear anything break though, and a quick glance backwards showed the line running out straight and true to Harry’s boat.

“Alright,” Oscar called into the mic. “I’m going to bear a little starboard here. You keep going straight at first and let the rope just pull you into line.”

“I know, Oscar. I know.”

If you know so much then why are you the only one out here with a crippled engine? Oscar thought bitterly. Sure, bad luck hit them all, but it seemed to hit Harry a suspicious amount more than any of the other sailors.

Oscar turned the wheel and turned himself twenty degrees. This put him at a slant to the waves, and now they were beating like Poseidon’s drum against his hull, drenching his deck with their foaming spray. The air around him had gone from that deep gray to murky black, like he had submerged himself in an ink bottle. He had to squint to make out the faintest edges of the Broken Horn’s outline, soon he would have nothing to go by but his instruments. If they could only make it around the cape then they would be able to see the lighthouse and could flow up to it with the waves at their backs. But that prospect of getting around the Horn was enough to make Oscar grit his teeth in apprehension.

What had he been thinking? Was it so important to prove that he was not the sort to let another man be lost to the sea?

A reverberating whine sounded from behind and Oscar glanced over his shoulder to see Harry’s boat sliding starboard, pulling the rope down at an angle.

“I said stay straight!” he shouted into the mic.

“I’m trying!” Harry’s panicked voice shrieked back. “It’s just my motor can’t keep up! It’s too much!” Oscar bit his wrinkled lip and spun the wheel back to port. They could try a shallower angle into the waves.

15? He glanced back but the rope was still moving the wrong way, scraping across the corner of his deck.

10? Now the rope held almost steady, wavering back and forth.

8. And at last the rope moved back to center.

“I’ve got it!” Harry’s voice called in relief. But Oscar wasn’t relieved. At this shallower angle it would take more than twice as long to get across the cape, pushing deeper out into the heart of the sea and giving the storm that much longer to bring its full wrath upon them.

Oscar looked ahead into that ink. He barely saw each of the waves before they broke across him and his small vessel. Each one raised high above his cabin, tipping his boat skywards, then breaking across in a fury and leaving him in a sheer drop down the trough on the other side.

These were tense moments, ones where a sailor would grip his wheel tighter than he knew. Oscar’s eyes stared out, unblinking, each wave rolling into him a miniature trauma.

“I can’t do this,” he muttered in a voice that was barely audible. “I don’t have it in me anymore.”

“You don’t have a choice anymore,” he said back to himself.

A spasm crossed his face.

“I’m sorry James.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“Isn’t it? I let him go with Harry. I wasn’t there for him.”

Oscar had his wheel cranked as hard to port as possible, but was still losing ground. The waves were pushing him sideways, trying to get him broadside where they could swallow him all at once. His boat was sluggish in responding, likely due to the weight of water beginning to collect in its hold.

Oscar spat in frustration. Sometimes you had to tease the ocean into thinking it had won, sometimes you had to play along to catch it by surprise. And so as he crested the next wave he threw his wheel to the right. His boat swung easily, tipping to starboard as the water in its hold rushed to fill that side. His boat pitched down the sloping back of the wave and he swung the wheel back to port. With the aid of gravity and the momentum of the water rushing over to that side he found the extra push he needed to pull back into line.

“Oscar…” Harry’s voice was halting and unsure. “We’re far enough out. You could get around the cape if you turned now…if you weren’t towing me that is.”

“Well I am towing you Harry.”

“Oscar I knew it would be you who came for me. I just knew it would be. The sea knows I’ve done wrong by you…and it’s brought you here to make things right.”

“Harry, I’m not interested in talking. At all.”

“I lied to you Oscar.”

The next wave stretched up twice as big as any previous. They were definitely into the heart of the sea’s vast depths. Oscar let go of the mic, fastening both hands to the wheel and bracing for impact.

Harry continued. “James…did not forget to tie down a safety line when that storm caught us all those years ago. We both secured them as soon as we knew we were in trouble. Then we dashed around the boat trying to tie everything else down. I went up to the stern and he went aft. The boat just kept keeling side-to-side, each time seemed for sure it would be the one that threw us in the drink.”

A mighty crack sounded as one of the lines on Oscar’s boat snapped. He wasn’t sure which one it was, he didn’t check to see. Still Harry went on.

“Each wave swamped us, took our feet out from under and half drowned us. I was praying and cursing with what breath I had left. Made my way back to the mainmast and still kept throwing knots off and on at every turn.”

The next wave pushed hard against Oscar’s boat. He broke through its crest and his boat rolled on its starboard edge. Oscar flung his arms to the side, trying to maintain balance as the boat sought to right itself. A moment later and the towing rope jerked his boat back onto its hull with a thunderous crash.

Each of Harry’s words tore violently from the inside out. Yet the man continued. “Then the next wave washed over us, the biggest one yet. It was a froth. I couldn’t see. It seemed like an eternity but finally it washed away. I was facing towards the rear of the boat and…and I saw nothing. Just nothing. James… wasn’t there.”

A tide of water swept into the cabin and Oscar slipped to his knees. He still gripped the wheel, and unseeing tried to hold his way through the wave.

“I undid his safety line, Oscar. I–I don’t know how, but I did. Somehow in all my blundering I pulled it up with the other knots… I–I killed him!” Harry’s voice was shuddering heavily and his words gasped out between heavy sobs. “And ever since then I let you believe you lost your son because of his own mistake…” Harry’s voice was finally lost entirely in the screeching of the wind, a phantom screaming over all the sea.

Oscar’s eyes flowed steady streams. His mouth was open but silent, his whole body heaving empty air. He gripped the wheel tightest of all now, holding onto it for dear life.

When Harry’s voice came back it was stiller, muted by stony shock. “I undid the wrong lifeline that day Oscar. And fifteen years later I’m still waiting for someone to undo it for me because I’m too much a coward to do it myself… So why don’t you let me go now?”

Oscar’s heart beat inside him again. Beat like it would tear him right in two. His eyes were pointed towards the waves but he did not see them. They pounded over his boat and he did nothing. They pushed him, turned him, slow degree by slow degree they pointed him back to shore.

A faint light tore the night and shone right in Oscar’s eye.

“Sam,” he croaked. He lifted his left hand back to the wheel. He was surprised to realize it had been floating over the control to release the beam’s rope. How had it gotten there? Oscar adjusted his feet, planted himself firmly, and straightened his boat out for its final approach.

Now with the waves and the wind behind them they pounded forward with all the fury of the sea gods. The cape slid by them on the starboard side, just barely a safe distance to squeak by without tearing their hulls on the shoals.

Oscar didn’t touch the mic. Harry’s voice didn’t rise again from it.

Oscar’s boat moved straight past the docks. He didn’t have it in him to try and navigate a proper landing, indeed he had had nerve enough for one task only: the beach. His boat shuddered as it scraped across the turf, then it keeled to its starboard side. Oscar stumbled out of his berth, pitched over the railing and flopped onto the wet sand beneath. Still the wind roared and the rain pelted but he didn’t feel them. It didn’t even register as Harry’s boat crunched across the sand right next to him, almost crushing him with how near it came.

“Oscar!” a voice shouted out, Harry up on his deck. “Oscar, where are you?!”

Harry flung himself over his own railing and onto the sand, almost running straight into Oscar before he finally saw him there.

“Oscar, speak to me man!”

Another voice was calling out from the distance. Sam’s lantern swinging through the dark in their direction.

“Oscar?” Harry said softly, putting his hands under the man’s armpits and raising him to his feet.

“I–I don’t know what to do Harry,” Oscar finally mumbled out. “I just don’t know what happens now.”

A long silence.

“I don’t know either.”

A short silence.

“Oscar, let’s go talk to Sam. He’ll know what to do.”

“Alright, let’s go talk to Sam.”

Harry put Oscar’s arm around his shoulders, then they turned their backs to the sea and hobbled towards the swinging light.

 

This brings us to the conclusion of The Storm, and also to the end of our current series. As I explained a few posts ago, the theme for this series was that of “the chase.” In this story Oscar is chasing after a man missing in a storm, but more so he is chasing for closure and peace, though he himself does not know it.

I mentioned before posting this story that my ambition with it was to provide two chases. One that was linear and which could progress to a state of resolution, and another which was cyclical and never-ending.

At first there only appears to be the one cyclical chase, one of grief and resentment. Oscar is aching for the loss of his son. That ache leads him to despise both Harry and himself for the parts they played in that loss. Though he does not know it, he has been chasing for vengeance, but passively. He has not sought to kill Harry directly, but he harbors hate for him and at times wishes that the man would just meet an untimely end.

Then, in this story, he learns that Harry was even more culpable in his son’s death than he had realized, and is at last given the perfect opportunity to end that man. Rather than desecrate his son’s memory with a murder, though, he determines just to go home.

From my author’s perspective I would say that Oscar had not previously allowed himself to process his grief. Blocking that grief has been an abiding hate, one which has grown a husk over his hurt, like the barnacles clinging to his ship’s prow. He needed to be broken down so that he could get back to the raw and childlike bewilderment that he had buried beneath.

And so now the cycle of grief still remains for him, that chase will never fully end. The chase of hate, though, has at last been brought to its end.

 

But as I explained last week, all this characterization did not even exist in the original concept for The Storm. Oscar’s obstacles and the way he deals with them and what exactly goes on in his soul are all elements that would not have existed in the game that I originally intended this story to be.

Yet it still would have had a central character, that of the player. And my ultimate hope would have been that the experience would have served as a mirror to show the player where they were in their own journey with burdens of grief and hate.

In this way Oscar’s character may have turned out for one player to be someone tender and forgiving, and for another someone harsh and vengeful. Both manifestations of him would be as true as the person behind the controls.

In any case, this brings us to the end of this series. Next week we’ll be off to something entirely new. I look forward to seeing you then!

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? At the very end the story hints that the contrast of evil and good may find their roots both 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 suggest that 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 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 sufficiently illustrated the infinite possibilities of mixing and matching flavors in your 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!