“Please no!” Aylme moaned, but as she looked up to where the sling scraped over the bough she could see that the fibers of fabric were peeling apart more and more quickly. With lightning-fast reflexes she released the sling and threw her hands around Rolar. His head, arms, and chest had made it out of the hole so far, and she managed to catch him around the shoulders before gravity tried to pull him back down, dragging her along with.
“NO!” she screamed, kicking her feet out until they slammed against the other side of the hole. She gave a long, angry shout, but managed to hold Rolar in place. Then she grit her teeth and pushed with her legs and pulled with her arms, wresting him up and out of the hole, inch-by-inch.
“Please!” she pled, tears streaming down the side of her face. The soil was loose, and sliding out from under her, so she dug her heels in harder and arched her back to help guide Rolar’s limp form onto the surface. Fortunately, the more of him she got out of the hole, the more his weight could rest on the ground and the easier it became to hold him. A few more moments of struggle she had him free at last.
“I made it!” She panted, releasing her grip and turning over to her side. “I did it!”
But these last moments had been too chaotic for Aylme to notice the water-tendrils slowly creeping around the edge of the hole, feeling their way towards her struggling form. All at once they shot forward and pierced into Rolar and Aylme.
Her eyes burst open in shock!
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Cace exclaimed. Something had just gone very wrong in the Ether. The outside entity that was pressing against the system had just breached it somehow. Different modules started flickering like mad, as if lightning was surging through them! And not just any modules, either, it was primarily the ones that represented Rolar and Aylme! Aylme’s module was still putting up a fight, thrashing and twisting, trying to get free. Rolar’s module, however, remained catatonic, quickly being overrun by the void.
Cace trembled for a moment, but then a firm decision overtook his hesitation.
“I’m sorry,” he cried as he summoned the remaining submodules of the warden-beast and began assembling them into the missing places of Rolar. “I just don’t have a choice anymore.” With careful precision he placed the beast’s submodule for threat detection and emergency response in place of Rolar’s missing consciousness. Rolar was also missing some structural and motor capabilities, and into that void Cace placed the larva’s submodule for replicating its own form in a host. It would fill in all those missing parts.
Normally it would take a long while for the larva to do that, but Cace reached back to the circuit that he had been using to overclock Rolar’s healing submodule, and he routed it to the larva part instead. He cranked up the flow of power, causing the part to burst into overdrive. New instructions surged out of it, compiling new modules, and expanding them to fill every empty space that remained in Rolar in an instant.
Then, the Rolar system woke back up.
Of course, Cace could still only see the side of the ensuing struggle that the Ether showed him, but he could tell that Rolar’s system almost immediately began to thrash about, just as Aylme’s was, though with an astounding amount of vigor! So massive were the movements that Cace lost the ability to tell what was happening, all was a chaos of surging movements, firing signals, mounting pressure, the signs of two great tides surging against one another.
As Cace continued to watch the different sides of the battle started to stretch apart from one another, and he realized that Rolar was not fighting to destroy the outside entity, but only to retreat from its clutches. And though Rolar was moving with great strength, he was facing an awesome resistance. Then came a sudden, horrible sense of something breaking and tearing. Cace couldn’t tell what it was, but some sacrifice had been made. Rolar’s system managed to wrench free, but it had had to leave something behind!
Cace snapped his focus from left to right. What of Aylme?…
With a shock Cace realized that there wasn’t any Aylme. Somehow, in all that thrashing struggle, she had disappeared entirely from the system.
“No!” Cace looked frantically from one module to another, trying to see if he was overlooking her. Was she there, but fractured, like Rolar had been? Broken but salvageable? Hidden inside of another entity? But he already knew. There was no ambiguity in the Ether. If you knew what it was you were looking for, and it wasn’t immediately obvious…then it simply wasn’t there. Somehow, someway…she had been lost.
“NOOO!” Too devastated to be cautious, Cace pulled over one another of the remaining warden-beast modules, the one used for detecting things on the overworld, and he thrust it into himself. He’d had it with not being able to see what was going on in up above, and one way or another he was getting back.
The most strange sensation came over him. He no longer felt like a whole, but rather was conscious of being many separate parts all at once. Each of his submodules shifted and reoriented themselves, attaching to this foreign implant, or rerouting themselves to go around it. For brief moments each of his normal senses flickered off, recalibrated themselves, then came back on. Some the same as they had been before, some slightly changed, some drastically altered.
Most importantly, though, Cace felt his senses being flooded with input from both the Ether and the overworld. Just like when he had they had been fighting the warden-beast he was able to perceive both paradigms at the same moment. And being able to see the overworld above, he finally felt anchored enough to it again. He was able to detect its signal throbbing within him, and was able to shift into it as effortlessly as putting on a cloak.
Cace sat bolt upright in the grass where Aylme had left him. He was back.
“So it’s you,” a quiet voice sighed from a corner.
It was dark inside, with the only light spilling to the floor from a broken window on the right. The voice had come from just beyond that light, tucked into the gray of a corner. The drummer slowly made his way in that direction, until the form of a small toy took shape in the shadows. He came to a stop in the dusty light.
“Dancer?” he asked, squinting to see her better.
“Oh, but it is you. It must be.”
“No,” she returned more forcefully. “Whatever you came looking for, it isn’t here. It isn’t anywhere anymore.”
The figure’s head turned until it was pointed firmly away. “Toys break. It’s what they do.”
“Oh,” he said blankly, not really understanding.
“You should go on now.”
“Not without you! I came to–”
“To what?!” the head spun back to face him. Now the drummer’s eyes were adjusted enough to be really sure that it was the dancer…but her face was stained and cracked, and hot tears were flinging from her eyes. “You came thinking we could just go back to how things were before? That nothing that happened in between would matter? It doesn’t work like that!”
“What did happen?” he crouched down by her.
She raised her hand, as if to say something, but after nothing came out she made a noise of exasperation and let the limb drop.
“If you don’t understand I can’t explain it,” she finally shot out. “I didn’t realize you were still so stupid about–everything.”
The drummer looked down sadly at that. It had struck something in him. “Yes, I am still stupid,” he said flatly. “Everyone confuses me. They’ve tricked me over and over, and I should have realized it, but they were all so much smarter than I am. I still don’t understand most of what everyone’s saying.”
A look of pity flashed across her face. “I’m–sorry. They did that to me, too.”
“Did it make you mad? I felt very mad about it after a while.”
“A lot,” she croaked, tears now flowing like little streams.
He reached out and took her little fingers in his hand. She started to pull her hand away, but stopped with just the fingertips still touching.
“And then I did bad things because I was so mad,” she said between clenched teeth. “And that made me like them.”
“I’m sorry, dancer–”
“Don’t call me that!” she balled her other hand in a fist and pounded it on the ground. “I’m not a dancer anymore.”
“But why not?”
“Look!” she said angrily, thrusting her palms down towards her legs. The drummer looked, but saw nothing. And then he understood…they were gone.
“Oh no!” he cried.
“Now you get it, do you? I’m broken, drummer. You can keep on beating your batons, but there’s no more gallivanting down the road to a magical City for me. It’s over.”
The drummer wiped away his tears. “No, it’s alright. There’s something wonderful, I can fix and make things now! I can–”
“No!” she snapped, jabbing her finger at his face. “You have no right!”
“I’m trying to help!”
“And I’m telling you that you don’t get to! You. Left. ME!” She shot him a face full of fury, then threw herself to the opposite side and collapsed in shuddering sobs.
“I–” the drummer winced, not sure how to explain that she misunderstood.
“I–” it wasn’t his fault that everyone else had been so mean and delayed him.
He buried his face in his hands and the tears finally flowed out of him as freely as they were for the dancer. “It’s like you said, I’m still stupid. I get so mad because I was supposed to save you, but everyone tricked me and I was too stupid to see through it! I was supposed to, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t enough.”
And then no one said anything for quite a long while. They both just cradled their heads and mourned their wounds. Then, after a long while, they cradled one another and mourned the other’s hurt as well. And they were there for such a long time that the knight and the guards might have come to check on them, but they could hear that the two toys needed their time together.
“I–am glad to see you again,” the dancer said cautiously after they had both been quiet for a while. “I just wish it had been before things were too late.”
“Are they really too late?”
“I cannot walk. And I cannot have you trying to fix that. It would–I don’t know–it would be like saying being broken didn’t matter.”
“I see…” the drummer furrowed his brows thoughtfully, then raised them as a new suggestion occurred to him. “I could…carry you instead.”
“You’d get tired. I’d be a burden” the dancer said, but more importantly she did not say ‘no.’
“That’s my decision. And I think it’s okay for me to be burdened…seeing as I wasn’t there to stop you getting broken.”
The dancer bit her lip.
“Well…maybe you can carry me for a bit…if you want…”
The drummer rose to his knees and very gently slid one hand under the stumps that were all that remained of her legs. Then he put his other arm around her back, and she curled her own arm around his neck. At last he stood up, and together the two of them exited the building.
“Well,” the knight nodded to the drummer, “are we off to the road?”
“Yes,” the drummer said. “Off to the city at last.”
And so the five of them turned from the burned out village, and turned from the seedy town, and felt their way back onto the winding road. At long last they had found the way back towards the Great City. It would, of course, be a very, very long time before they found it, but that was alright.
Well, at long last we have come to the end of The Toymaker. On Monday I disclosed a great deal of how I first conceived of this story, and of how it evolved a great deal between that first conception and this final result. In the end, though, I feel that the story stayed true to its original intent, which was to be an examination of responsibility.
I believe that each one of us knows to be responsible for our mistakes, but we struggle to take ownership for the pains we never meant to cause. If there was no malicious intent, if it was just a mistake, if it was unavoidable due to circumstance, we tend to feel there is no need to say “I’m sorry.”
Perhaps we feel that those who are hurting want us to lie and say that it was all our fault. But really they just need us to hold their pain for a moment, to say that we appreciate the depth of their disappointment. They want a friend who is willing to sit in the hurt with them.
I feel very glad about what The Toymaker ended up becoming. I am still very interested in my original ideas for it, and perhaps I’ll still get around to telling that part of the story someday. Maybe some of its themes will bleed into my very next piece. I guess I’m really a lucky guy, I ended up getting two stories for the price of one!
For now it is time to start moving this latest series towards its close. Over the course of Shade, The Last Duty, and The Toymaker, I’ve been allowing myself to explore the same themes over and over, but each from a different perspective. I’d like to talk a little more about how writing is a way to explore every side of a debate, and how I’ve been doing just that for the last couple months. Come back on Monday to read about this, after which we will have one last story to conclude it all.
They say you can’t go home again. In my case that is most definitely true because, you see, the new owners blew it up!
True story. One Sunday they left for church, and while they were gone a gas line started leaking. The garage filled up with the gas until finally the vapor came in contact with some faulty wiring that ignited it…. And that was that.
There have been several times that I have wanted to retrace the steps of my childhood, and at least this one avenue for doing so is forever closed to me. Though, now that I think about it, even the parts of my childhood that didn’t burn down still feel just as cut off. I could walk the old, familiar streets of my youth, but I will not be the same boy that tread them once before. That experience is lost to memory alone.
Memory, nostalgia, the past. There is a sort of sad sweetness that accompanies us when we consider these words. We enjoy the ruminations at first, but inevitably they lead us to our losses. There are things we had back then which we will never have again: old friendships, innocence, an unbridled sense of wonder.
Even worse is the realization of the things we didn’t have, and now have lost the last opportunity for: apologies left unsaid, causes left unchampioned, joys left unclaimed.
Loss. And regret.
These are ponderous things to think about, and it comes as no surprise that many stories have sought to tackle this reality of human life. How Green Was My Valley is one achingly somber example. In this film and book we start with the main character Huw, who is living as a young boy in an idyllic Welsh village. His family are close, loving, and happy.
From there the threads are slowly unraveled. Though there are one or two greater tragedies, so much of the falling apart feels like the quiet, but persistent, erosion of time. In a word, life happens, and eventually the boy, now grown to a young man, cannot find the beautiful childhood home in the walls that surround him today. Though he has stayed ever-faithful, those moments have left of their own accord. He realizes the vanity of trying to hold onto that which cannot be held, and finally he, too, departs.
Much of that story rings true, and yet we often struggle with this sense of permanent loss. It seems that it is a core part of our nature to believe in reclamation. To believe that yes, something might be lost, but also that it can be restored, or at least replaced.
Some might say that this is merely idle dreaming, a lie that we tell ourselves to try and cope with our loss. But on the other hand, there is no shortage of prodigal sons that attest to a once-stained soul being made as clean as the day they were born.
Perhaps circumstances and moments are lost forever, but hearts and souls are not. The impermanence of the world can be real, and yet not discredit the enduring nature of heaven. Perhaps our great confusion arises simply from conflating these two places as one.
That is certainly the case in the Disney animated feature Hercules. Throughout this film, Hercules is forever hoping to return to his home with the gods. He left them long ago, and simply wishes to restore things back as they were. He attempts to achieve this by the accrual of worldly talent and fame.
In the end end, none of these efforts succeed. No matter of finite accomplishments will be able to add up to the infinite reward that he seeks. He has mistakenly assumed that the path back home depends on physical prowess. Fortunately, fate intervenes, and Hercules finds himself facing a situation where he can save another, but only at the loss of his own life. It is then, by surrendering himself to impermanence of the world, by subjecting himself to change, and decay, and death, that finally he overcomes them and becomes immortal.
There is a very spiritual message at the heart of this, one reflected in many world religions. Instead of feeling bad about the childhood home burning down, I can accept that those moments were lost to me already. And maybe if I stop worrying about the losses and the regrets I formed in that place, I’ll be able to rediscover the infinite, childlike soul. Like Hercules, I can go home, but only if I am looking for it within.
The Endless Pursuit)
And then begins the most difficult journey of all. For voyages into the soul do not come with well-placed markers and paved roads. It is rugged territory, and fraught with dangers.
That is not all. It is a long quest, too, the longest that there is. Because you see, chasing the infinite, childlike soul is like chasing a mirage. With each step you draw nearer…but then it slips farther on. Always. Hercules was able to walk it to the end, but he was a god. For we mere mortals it is unattainable.
So in this journey we stumble over a world forever in flux, hoping that when the last of that changeable terrain slips out from beneath our feet that we find ourselves treading water in the infinite.
There exist stories that explore this dynamic, too. Roverandom is a charming tale about a dog that just wants to find the wizard who turned him into a toy, and ask him to please change him back into a real dog. That’s it. And then the entire rest of the story is how that wizard keeps slipping further and further away. Roverandom finds himself on the moon, in a seaside cove, and deep beneath the sea, until one starts to believe that this journey will continue forever.
It is this sort of ever-slipping pursuit that I have tried to imbue in my story The Toymaker. Here a drummer chases after his first friend, a delicate dancer. But though he makes a valiant effort, he never seems to draw any nearer to her. Last week he was about to perform a daring raid on a high-security building, all in the hopes of finding more information on her whereabouts. As you might expect, all that he will really find is just another breadcrumb to follow.
But his journey is not in vain. With each effort he is growing as an individual. He is coming to recognize right from wrong, and friend from fiend. He is learning his own strengths, and using them to take a stand for what is right. Perhaps when he has finally plumbed the fullest depths of his soul, he will at last have the power to locate his missing friend.
“I am surprised that anyone would come to look for me in my little abode, I’m a man of little consequence.” The old hermit bumbled through his cupboards, looking for a second cup to pour some tea into. It was not an easy task, for he was not in the habit of keeping company in his humble home.
“That’s not true,” the wanderer smiled lightly. He pulled the heavy gloves off of his hands, and then fumbled with the strap around his chest, loosening it so that he could sit more comfortably. “Every man has his circle of influence.”
The hermit paused to look up at the water leaking down from above. The dried longleaf that thatched his roof had been sliding apart for years, leaving whole patches open to the starry sky.
“Well my circle leaks,” he said. “What does that tell you about my influence?”
“That you don’t mind the rain,” the wanderer’s grin widened.
“Oh so smart,” the hermit muttered under his breath. “Got an answer for everything.” Finally he produced two chipped, wooden mugs and a pot. He placed them on the small table, in the center of the one-room hut. He poured the tea and offered the drink to the wanderer who took it with thanks. It was very weak tea, essentially hot water with only the faintest traces of anything else. Indeed the strongest flavor was what seeped into it from the wood of the cup. The wanderer did not seem to mind.
“At least you have a home,” the wanderer said after a few moment’s silence. “I did once…perhaps one day I will again. But for now I remain a wanderer.”
“But there must be something that you wander for?”
“Yes,” the warrior nodded. “I do have a purpose.”
“Well I don’t have that. I would happily trade you home for purpose if my old bones were up to it.”
“Once you must have had one.”
“That’s private,” the hermit said sourly.
“No,” the wanderer said, still smiling in spite of his host’s prickliness. “No man’s purpose is a secret, because all men’s purpose is the same.”
“To their children,” the hermit had a tear in his eye.
“The very same.”
“Do you have children then, wanderer?”
“Of a sort…once. Do you?”
“I did. Once. Why do you say ‘of a sort.'”
“Well I had a people, and they were my children.”
“I provided for their needs, I gave them instruction, I protected them from evil. And though it pained me to do so, I have journeyed away from them when necessary…. To do for them what is necessary. Was I not a father, then?”
“I suppose. Though why are you not still?”
“I lead them no longer. Another does. But why are you not still a father? Surely the duty of a father extends past all things, even beyond the grave?”
“The grave, yes. But no, not all things–” the hermit looked down into his cup, anxious to escape the question. “You mentioned duty. And of a truth, you named many. But you never did mention how you…disciplined them.”
“Ah yes, the last duty, the one every father hopes to avoid. We all wish that by doing the others so well, we will have no need for that last. Is it not so?”
The hermit nodded gravely.
“Well, there was punishment from time to time in our little community. I gave to them their laws, after all, so I had to enforce them. Never was I cruel, though. Our punishments were chosen together. Five lashes for stealing bread, a night in the stocks for disorderly behavior, we all agreed that these were fair.”
The wanderer took a sip, then continued.
“It seemed enough. It encouraged them to choose their better natures. All were committed to the prosperity of one another, and it was only the occasional stray moment that needed to be curtailed…” the way the wanderer’s voice trailed off was telling.
“And yet something changed. Something. A monster, a demon, a–a something took their hearts and corrupted them. For the first time we had men who would cheat one another for their own advancement. Women who would falsely accuse one another to take their place. And still it got worse.”
The wanderer’s hands were shaking now. He set down the cup for fear of dropping it.
“I wouldn’t have believed it possible,” he continued, “but they even began to hurt one another for the pure pleasure of it. They had nothing to gain by it at all, they just wanted to see the other bleed.”
The wanderer paused again, and for a minute the hermit did not press him. But at last he couldn’t hold his peace.
“You said it was…something that turned them?”
“It was a man. The scourge of all these lands now. Surely even you have heard of him…”
“Azdenik,” the hermit did not speak the name so much as mouth it. “I know of the man.”
“And yet not a man. There is a dark magic in him, I have never seen one so able to seduce the innocent. Even I was enchanted with him when first he arrived in our village. And such promises he offers. You know of them?”
“Not promises,” the hermit shook his head darkly. “Exchanges. Little pieces of the soul you must give him…but he does not tell you that.”
“No, he does not. When at first he offered his little trinkets to us, his little charms and totems, we thought he was making a joke. How could his little idols make our fields double in yield, our clothes shine with greater luster, or our luck run more sweetly? How could such a clever, charismatic man expect us to believe such fantasies?”
“And yet my people took them. They winked at his stories in public, but in the dead of night they came to his door and crept back to their homes with his wares. I knew it was happening. Everyone did. Even then it gave me great unease. But I could not explain why, and so I felt I had no right to intervene.”
“And your people began prospering?”
“Yes. I told myself it was just a coincidence. That this man came and then my peoples’ crops began yielding more and more each week, who could believe the two were connected? But the crops were only increasing in the homes of the most naive and gullible, the very same ones I knew would have taken Azdenik’s offer. Eventually more and more of my people started seeing increases in their farms, and so I knew that even the more practical were beginning to be swayed. If he had stayed much longer, everyone would have had one of his totems.”
“But he didn’t stay?”
“No, that was his greatest trick of all. You see if everyone had gotten one of the totems there would have been on a level playing field. By leaving early he put a rift in our town. Now those that prospered had an unfair advantage. They started spending more lavishly, and all the shopkeepers raised prices so that they could share in the wealth, too. Of course that left all the farmers who didn’t have a totem out in the cold. Suddenly they were paupers, and not because of a lack of industry. Those people started to grow bitter. Bitter feelings became bitter thoughts. Bitter thoughts turned into bitter words. Bitter words incited bitter actions.”
“What did you do?”
“We had our laws still, and I enforced them. But they were no longer of any effect. Discipline only works when it awakens a man’s innate desire to do good, and it doesn’t accomplish anything to put a scornful man in the stocks.”
The hermit nodded, as though he understood something of this. “And then it’s easy to come down harder and harder on them. If they won’t awaken to remorse, perhaps they will to fear…”
“Aye. And then you aren’t their loving, guiding father anymore. You’re their vengeful taskmaster and they hate you for it.”
“Yes, you are not their father anymore,” the hermit nodded sadly. “The duties of the father can extend through the grave. But through hell?”
“Surely there must be something a father can do for a child even then,” the wanderer fought down his despair. “Do you not think so?”
“I don’t know what.”
“There must be. I know that there must be!”
“If you say so.”
A few moments of dark silence passed between the two, then the wanderer continued with his sorry tale.
“I only saw how complete my failure was when Azdenik returned. I could see in his eyes that he knew what had happened in his absence. He had counted on it. We were but a husk of the charming village when first he visited. He offered the survivors to join his band, to drink more fully from the power of his totems and follow him in conquest.
“I begged my people not to go. Reasoned with them, pleaded with them. Threatened them! But Azdenik was their father now, not me. They left me, every single one of them left me. Gone to break the innocence of other lands, gone to kill and plunder, gone and made me a wanderer without a home.”
“Terrible,” the hermit shook his head. “just terrible. Although…you said you had a purpose in your wandering?”
“Yes, to do my last duty to my children.”
The wanderer’s voice grew dark and very cold. He reached out and took another long, slow sip from his tea. “My children lost their innocence,” he whispered, “and I quest to reclaim it.”
“You–still think to save them?”
“All are innocent at birth. And all are innocent in the grave.”
“Oh,” the hermit groaned, and shook his head at the heaviness of that pronouncement. “Why have you come here, grim man?”
“I raised one army after another, eight times!” the wanderer stood upright and clenched his fists. “Each one I spent against Azdenik and his people–my people–and each time I alone crawled away from the bloody defeat. Now I know of a certainty that there is no breaking Azdenik so long as he holds those cursed totems!”
“Why have you come?” the hermit wept, holding his shaking head in his hands. “Why have you come?”
“To do what you would not, weak man!” the wanderer spat.
The wanderer turned rabid. He grabbed the hermit by the front of his frock, and pulled him up to his feet.
“Tell me what I need to know!” he snarled through clenched teeth. “Azdenik must have a weakness!”
“I don’t know, I don’t know…”
“No lies!” He threw the hermit against the wall, and the old man crumpled into a sobbing heap on the floor. The wanderer leaped on him, turned him over, and struck him across the face. “Tell me!”
“I c-can’t. I don’t know. It’s not right…”
“It is the only right that is left!”
“Why do you trouble me? Why should I know these things?”
“No man knows another like a father knows his child!”
“Ihave no child!” the hermit wailed. “Azdenik isn’t my son! My son was Geoffrey Braithwaite!”
“Yes. Good, good,” the wanderer’s eyes glinted and he panted like a predator closing in on his prey. “And you know how to kill Geoffrey Braithwaite.”
“Yes youdo!” He struck him again, then leaned in hungrily. “You do not wish to, but you do know what his weakness is. He must have one, and you know it. You can tell me how to kill him, and you know that when I do the monster he became will die as well. Don’t do it for me, old man, do it for your son. Do your last duty to him…. Let me give Geoffrey rest.”
Streams of tears ran down the hermit’s face. His mouth stood agape in silent wailing. “I never knew it would go so far,” he sobbed. “I should have smothered him when I could.”
“I will. I’ll do it for you. Tell me how. You know!”
“Alright…I’ll tell you.”
As I said on Monday, my entire intention with this story was to show a character that does what he has to, even though he feels condemned by that action. It’s not like this was ever going to end in a positive place!
At the start of this story the hermit seems innocent enough. He is polite, has basically good desires, and a few of his comments suggest that he has a strong sense of duty. This seems well and fine, but as we press towards the end we realize that there came in his life a moment of conflict between his good desires and his duty. He wished for the well-being of his wayward son (a good desire), and because of it denied an obligation to destroy him (his sense of duty). This crossing of the lines is even hinted at with a subtle line of dialogue: “it is the only right that is left.”
In the end he is persuaded, or perhaps we should say forced, to finally choose duty over child. Now let me make abundantly clear, this is not a resolution that I intend for the audience to be wholly on board with. My expectation is that the audience will be taken aback, and then call into question the logic with which the story concludes.
As I suggested on Monday, a story like this is intended to divide readers. Some of them might finally conclude that the hermit should never have relented, and some will say that he should. Some may say that he already failed long ago just by letting his son go astray. Some may say that that couldn’t have been helped.
Whatever conclusion a reader settles on, they will understand their own selves better for having made that determination. That is the entire point of a story like this: to dissatisfy the audience into a self-affirming decision.
This story does not end with an answer, only with a question. Namely, to what extent is a man responsible for what he has created? This has long been a query of literature, extending back as far as Frankenstein’s monster and even Oedipus. Come back next week when we’ll look more closely at this idea of a character’s responsibility. I’ll see you there on Monday.
“I didn’t know you ran with the Kerrie Cabal these days,” Gallan said coolly.
Reish shook his head. “By now you should know that there are no divisions among those that are marked.”
Gallan did know that. All these warring factions were merely a front. Behind their petty squabbles all the Strained had the same single entity pulling their strings. That entity let them go about their little wars to give the illusion of hope. It would comfort people, make them think that no one was too powerful, that they still had a chance to make something of themselves.
“I thought you would be elsewhere, Reish.”
“And I thought you would.” Speaking was hard for Reish, he only had half of a mouth to operate with, the other side was permanently held in a hateful scowl. “Go!” he hissed between gritted teeth. It was clear that the beast-side was trying to end their conversation, and he had to strain to keep speaking.
“I wish I could, but I still have promises to keep.”
“No. I relinquished you of that obligation long ago.”
“But I have not.”
Reish scowled and turned to the side, facing Gallan’s men. He raised two fingers and they were compressed even tighter against the earth, muffled groans of pain warbling through their compressed throats. Gallan wanted to help them. But Reish’s power could not be denied.
“Are you so insistent on seeing me killed, Gallan?”
“It wouldn’t be like that. I’d find another way.”
“Just like how it won’t be that way for these men?” Reish’s right arm snapped into the air and the men were instantly pounded into the dust, compressed so thin that they became a dark powder that blew away in the wind.
Gallan dropped his head and exhaled heavily. “They understood the risks. As do I.”
“Gallan, so many people want you to live,” Reish reached down and withdrew the metal blade from the burly man’s chest. “Is it so important that you die?”
“If that’s what you want…then yes.”
Gallan hadn’t expected that to strike a chord, but a sudden pang crossed the Reish-side of the face, his eye grew moist and he blinked a tear.
“I don’t get what I want, Gallan. It’s not up to me anymore, don’t you see that? I would like to–” The beast-side of the face hardened, and its stony flatness crept over, muzzling Reish.
“Come home?” Gallan suggested.
The Reish-beast pulled its hand back and drove the metal blade forward. Gallan closed his eyes, preparing for impact.
Instead, though, he felt the hooks catching right beneath his shins.
“No!” he cried out as he was wrenched off his feet and sent flying backwards through the air. Years ago Husk had insisted that Gallan leave a vial of blood back at their base. It was bound to his second-shade, and could be manipulated to recall him if there was ever a moment of insurmountable danger.
As Gallan was pulled through the air by unseen strands he saw Husk swinging down towards Reish, guns blazing. He was followed by an entire squad of elite units. It was a suicide mission, and all to give Gallan time to escape.
“Husk, how could you?” Gallan sobbed, but it was too late. “You promised.”
It was a somber day back at camp, and everyone was weighed down with an overwhelming sense of despair. Not only had Gallan and his team failed to retrieve the vaccines, and not only had they lost a dozen of their best men, but news got around that Reish himself had returned, and seemingly for the express purpose of bringing their little enterprise to an end.
No one criticized Gallan, no one claimed him that he had chosen wrong. But then, no one had said that he made the right call either. They didn’t say anything to him at all, not even to ask what they were supposed to do. They could see in his eyes that right now he felt just as lost as the rest of them.
He hated that they could see that weakness. Their entire community was only able to function because of their confidence in him, their hope that he would always find a way. Well what if this time he couldn’t? What if he didn’t find any answers for their fears?
Dask was probably correct that they would still follow out of loyalty…at least for a while. Eventually the doubts would increase, though, and one-by-one they would start vanishing into the night.
No, he would have to give them something more. What exactly, he didn’t know. It seemed like he had already given his all, but that simply wasn’t enough. He would have to find a way to give them more than himself.
Gallan sighed in his boardroom and shook his head. Was that a paradox? He had solved many problems that others had thought were too difficult. But this one wasn’t just difficult. It was truly impossible.
Because, at it’s root, it was based upon another impossible problem.
Fact #1: Reish and he were tethered together. They each shared the same extra shade, three souls divided between two bodies.
Fact #2: Reish had also given his body to the beast. He was a strange amalgamation of three souls in one body. It tore his heart in terrible ways, but it also gave him power unfathomable.
Fact #3: The community depended on Gallan’s powers to survive in an otherwise untenable world. But that power was corrupted, because it came from the same shade that Reish had access to. Reish had taken their gift and polluted it with the beast. Now every time Gallan called upon those powers he indirectly strengthened the beast as well.
And so the blessing of Gallan’s power was actually his curse. Everything he did for his people only propped up the opposition against them. Gallan knew that his people had hoped that the bigger world would just forget about them, that Gallan would lead them far away while everyone else burned themselves to the ground. He had never made them that promise himself, but he had never explained the folly of it to them either.
Because the beast would never let them be, not so long as Gallan remained tied to the same shade as Reish. While it was already far stronger than Gallan, it too was handicapped by this strange union, and it could only be fully unleashed when all of its ties had been severed. Thus it had always only been a matter of time before the beast came to collect, to finally capture the remnants of Reish’s soul, Gallan’s soul, and the third that they shared.
Gallan had always hoped to find some hidden solution before that time of reckoning came, a secret way out of this problem. But in his heart he had always known that these hopes were in vain. He did not have the power to kill the beast, and so the beast would have to kill him instead. It must know that he would never surrender his own soul to it, so it would have to appease itself with Reish and the third’s. And then Gallan wouldn’t be around to defend his people anymore. All of his promises to them would be broken.
Just like his promise to Reish.
Well, no, he technically hadn’t broken that yet, he simply had not fulfilled it. He had never been able to see any way of doing so, and so once again he had sat back, vainly hoping for a solution to an impossible problem.
It had been years ago, when they were both still youthful and full of hope. The darkness of the world had only just begun to cloud their innocence. Reish had been taken by a caravan of slave-traders and seen horrible things that scarred him. When at last he fought his way to freedom he had burned with a desire to fight these wrongs. He came to Gallan and insisted that the clans responsible for this abominable trade be brought to justice.
At first Gallan had agreed with him, and they had gone on several missions together. But bit-by-bit Gallan realized that Reish’s true motives had less to do with justice, and more to do with vengeance. It wasn’t about protecting the innocent, it was only about punishing the guilty. Reish was fueled by a rage, and it frightened Gallan.
Eventually Gallan told Reish that they two of them would have to part. Gallan would continue fighting for the oppressed, but on his own terms.
The two friends had parted amicably, even sorrowfully. Reish had admitted that there was a darkness in his heart and that he was afraid that he might indeed lose himself to it. But still he had to see this through.
Reish had asked Gallan for a promise.
“Yes, anything,” Gallan had said.
“Watch over me, will you? And if I fall too far, bring me back. Promise me that you’ll do whatever is necessary to reclaim the memory of what I once was.”
It was a very open-ended oath, but Gallan had agreed. Evidently Reish today only saw one way that it could still be fulfilled: for Gallan to put him eternally to rest. To kill him for the sake of the man he once was. It was the only way that Gallan could see, too, though he tried to deny it.
At one point it might have been possible to nurture Reish back to wholeness, but there was no way to coax the beast out of him now. It had rightful claim of Reish, for he had bound himself to it by many other terrible oaths. Those promises had to be maintained too, and the beast was due its soul. It would take Reish, it would kill Gallan, it would take the third soul that bound them together.
That third soul was deeply tainted already, and it had become a conduit by which Gallan felt the corrupting fear from the beast constantly. No wonder he was beginning to despair.
“Do you know what you’re going to do?”
Gallan hadn’t even noticed Dask entering the room. He wasn’t startled, though, he was too weighed down for that.
“Yes,” Gallan said softly. “But I do not know what the outcome of it will be. I do not know that at all.”
Dask nodded. “You’re going to try and kill him?”
Gallan laughed, but without mirth. “No. Perhaps that is what I should have done, but the opportunity for that is long since past. Every day my power is waning, and his grows. I couldn’t harm him now if I tried.”
If at all possible, Dask’s face became even more grim. “So…what is there to do then?”
“I am going to go and talk with him.”
“Talk with him?!” Dask said incredulously. “What good is that going to do?”
“I will make him an offer. I could be wrong…but I think he might accept it.”
“What is it?”
“That is my own matter. Just know that regardless of the outcome, I won’t be here to protect you anymore. So I’m putting you in charge, Dask, and you must do all that you can to bring these people to safety.”
“What?! We won’t stand a chance without you.”
Gallan leveled eyes with Dask and looked a dread earnestness into him.
“No, you won’t. So you had better run, Dask. Take everyone and leave. Get as far from this place as quickly as you can.”
Dask was saying words but Gallan didn’t hear them. Probably some form of protest from the look on his face. It didn’t matter. There was no more discussion to be had. Gallan pushed past him and out into the night. Somewhere in his musings he had decided what he had to do.
There yet remained one fact that seemed an anomaly to him, one sliver that remained in the dark. Today he had spoken with Reish, not the beast. Somehow a part of his friend was still locked up inside of there. That suggested something to him.
But what advantage could be made from exploiting that? He wasn’t sure, quite possibly none. Never mind that.
Gallan pushed through a door and exited the barracks. The pitch blackness of night hid the storm that he felt, an invisible wind and rain that swept him in a flurry of fitful gusts.
He didn’t mind it at all. It felt powerful and invigorating and it fueled his resolutions. When all outcomes were uncertain, all that remained was trying to set right the one thing he could. He would do that, and then the world would have to decide for itself what it wanted to be.
Staring up at the sky, Gallan let the water sting his eyes. Then he gave a mighty leap high into the air and disappeared into the black.
In my last post I spoke at some length about the presence of violence in a story, and how it is often used to represent an underlying conflict. In this section I tried to focus directly on that conflict, and my hope is that it runs deep enough to warrant the violence that preceded it. This story is about a bleak and hopeless situation, and it only stands to reason that this darkness would result in war and death.
Of course in an epic with a happy ending, eventually that conflict would be resolved, and naturally the violence would end as well. And at that point, when there is no more conflict or war, the story ends. Because, as I said last week, all the things an author wants to say in their story, is said within the conflict. Teaching morals in a monotony of peace just isn’t effective.
I do realize, of course, that in this post I utilized a great deal of exposition. Gallan’s knot needed was quite complex and tangled, and I chose to communicate it without dialogue or action. This obviously contradicts the famous literary injunction to show, not tell. Essentially all that I did in this post was “telling.”
“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!
It’s always interesting to meet an old friend after years apart. Sometimes the person has changed entirely, and it feels like you’re new acquaintances all over again, meeting for the very first time. You’re trying to figure out who this person has transformed into, and perhaps a bit sad that the old friend is gone forever. One of the most common fears we have is the fear of change after all.
But at the same time, the worst fate I could think of is to have a life of never changing or evolving. I wouldn’t want a friend, someone that I care about, to be trapped in some sort of Peter Pan situation of never progressing. I would rather want for each of us to be moving forward to bigger and better things, improving ourselves and making accomplishments that we can be proud of. It’s been said that the day you stop learning is the day you start dying after all.
I remember the first time my family moved. I was about fifteen and I felt deeply divided between excitement for the new possibilities, and sorrow at the loss of all I had known. Having conflicting feelings for the same situation is inherently interesting, and naturally invites creative exploration. No wonder then that the idea of “change” has always been so central to literature.
Stories have long dedicated themselves to examining the phenomenon of change from every possible angle. There are stories where the change is quiet and subtle. Consider the novel Mrs. Dalloway, where Richard decides that he wants to tell his wife that he loves her, though it has been years since he has done so. And then, of course, there are times when the change is quite sudden and dramatic, such as from the very same novel when Septimus decides he will die rather than surrender his private soul.
Most stories are a combination of both subtle and dramatic changes, but obviously the latter grab our attention more. Dramatic changes can be recognized as the momentous occasions which serve as inflection points to the entire narrative, the bends in the river that shape the way it flows.
But we can limit our scope even further. There is a subcategory of changes in literature where one character ceases to be the person that they were, and thus becomes someone else. This sort of total transformation can be found in even the most ancient of fairy tales and religious texts, across all different cultures, and in a great number of stories of today.
It is interesting to note that these sorts of rebirths are very often composed with the exact same symbols and forms as one another. It seems that deep in our psyche we all believe that transformations such as these tend to come with specific trappings. There are four of them in all: an element of a loss, a calling, a mask, and a return.
Loss is inherent in transformation. Subtle changes might allow for a character to remain essentially the same, but transformation demands that something is let go. For every butterfly that emerges from a chrysalis there must come first the loss of a caterpillar. The loss is always something very significant too, something that is often taken against the main character’s wishes
Think of Luke Skywalker, Simba, and Bruce Wayne. Each lose their parent figures at the beginning of their tales. Edmond Dantes loses his freedom after being wrongfully accused. Paul, the Apostle, loses his sight on the road to Damascus.
Growth through pain seems to be one of the universal truths of our world, so it makes sense that it would accompany the transformations we write into our stories. For a character to have space for their new identity, then something about their current identity has to be taken out first. Now there is a hole inside of them, and what follows depends on how that hole is handled.
If the hole remains vacant then the character becomes a hollow shell of who they once were, an old husk that never recovers from their wounds. If it is filled with bitterness then they become a villain, broken and shaped by a cruel world. If it is filled with something noble, then they become the hero. It will only be filled with something noble, though, if that something noble calls out to them.
It is always right when our character hits bottom that something comes along to call them to something higher. This is one of the few times in a story where perfect timing will not be accused of being a coincidence. This isn’t dumb luck, you see, this is fate. The loss only happened because the calling was coming, or else the calling only came because the loss summoned it. Either way readers naturally accept that there is a cause-and-effect relationship here, and so they do not question the convenience of it.
And so Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke to learn the ways of the Force, the ghost of Simba’s Father reminds him of who he once was, Bruce Wayne commits himself to fighting injustice, Edmond is given both an education and a secret by Faria, and Paul hears the voice of the Lord.
The presence of callings in our lives means that our loss is not merely suffering for suffering’s sake. It suggests that our pain might be happening for a reason, that there is a purpose to it all. It takes the pessimism out of the pain and gives us hope for a healing.
As I mentioned above, the character that does not find their calling grows cold and cynical, they come to see the world as a place of random chance and inherent injustice. However there is also the possibility that the calling did come, but it was ignored. The calling will never be to do something easy, it has to require an entirely new way of life after all.
To the character willing to answer the call things will never be the same again. The calling shrouds that sufferer in some new, and now the transformation truly begins.
In real life it is commonly observed that after one has gone through an experience of personal transformation they somehow now “look different.” Exactly what has changed might be hard to pin down: a light in the eyes perhaps, a glow in the face, a subtle altering of the complexion. Some sort of ethereal mask seems to have lowered over their face, a change that is sensed more than seen.
In stories these changes are usually made far more explicit. Luke dons the robes and weapon of a Jedi Knight, Simba grows into an adult with a full mane, Bruce Wayne crafts a cape and cowl, Edmond assumes the title of a Count, and Saul begins to call himself Paul. They all now have a new identity, an image, or a name. It is something that makes their change tangible and quantifiable. Other characters and the audience can see the difference in them and know they are dealing with someone new.
We humans are remarkably capable of perceiving things that are invisible, imaginary, and internal. Even so, we usually seek for ways to bring physical representation to them all. We have our crucifixes, our sobriety chips, our gold medals, our college diplomas, and our wedding rings. None of these add directly to our faith, our strength, our intelligence, or our commitment, but they can be useful as reminders of them. Sometimes people fail to use their greater strength simply because they forget that they even have it. Similarly a hero in story often uses their mask to remind themselves of their new identity, and to steel their fortitude whenever the validity of their calling is challenged.
Finally, the full effect of a transformation can only be fully appreciated after the character is compared to what they were before. This might be as simple as having them come home to their humble beginnings for all their old friends to gape in awe at them, or else it might be to revisit an old temptation that they previously succumbed to. Either way the change is made evident in how the familiar situation now has an unfamiliar outcome.
Luke saves the friends that initially thought so little of him, Simba goes home to face the uncle that drove him away, Bruce brings justice to the man who unjustly killed his parents, Edmond exacts both revenge and mercy upon those who misused him, Paul joins the disciples and suffers the same way he once made them suffer.
It is the return that proves to us that the change is real. Until we are put back into the same scenario we might believe that it is only our surroundings which have been altered, and not our core natures. Returning to the same state, then, is the control which proves the transformation has been internal and not external. We truly are something new.
Thus far in Power Suit Racing I have incorporated the first phases of transformation in Taki’s tale. It began with him losing the love of his life, and with it his entire sense of purpose and identity. He wandered with a hole, unsure of his identity when he heard a voice calling out with an invitation. That invitation was to pursue a new venture, one that non-coincidentally involved donning a suit which altered his appearance.
But as we’ll see in my next post, sometimes when one puts on the garb of the future they find it doesn’t quite fit yet. Thursday’s entry will show the process by which he is able to fill the measure of this new person that he is becoming. And then, a week later, we will see the return where he will be compared to the person he used to be. I’ll see you then.
This last Thursday I suggested that loss is an integral component of most stories. It certainly has been central to each short piece that I’ve written for this current series. The reason for the prevalence of loss in storytelling is quite straightforward. With rare exception, a story is about a journey. The journey, in fact, is the story. And for there to be a journey, then necessarily there must be the character in one place and an objective that they are currently deprived of in another. For if the character and the objective were already in the same place, there would be no journey to obtain it, and consequently no story.
Note that the word “place” here may designate actual physical locations with a distance between the character and their goal. However it may also mean two different emotional states, or spiritual states, or moral states, or any other medium with a distance between two points. Hamlet isn’t removed by physical space from the better state of having avenged his father, but he is lacking in courage and confidence.
And so then comes the question of why is the main character so distant from their goal? To that there is usually one of two answers: either they have never possessed it, and so must obtain it for the first time, or else they had it once and now they have lost it, and so must work to regain it. Certainly there are examples in literature of the first, but I would argue it is the second approach that gets written more commonly. Why? Simply because of the stronger catharsis that exists in a tale of loss and regaining.
If a person in a story begins by possessing something, it generally means that they should have that something. For it to be taken from them then, even if by their own folly, means that things are not right any more. That sense of wrongness provides a natural tension and conflict, and the hope that things will be made right provides a natural hook to draw the reader through to a happy end.
There is also the psychological importance in this notion of loss and recovery. We all have had times when we lost something which meant a great deal to us. Specifically something of a spiritual nature, such as our innocence, our hope, or our beliefs. We feel incomplete to live without those elements, but also are intimidated by the odyssey it would take to reclaim them. And so we choose between living the story (the journey) of our life, or else living forever afterwards as a broken person.
Clearly writing loss into a story means dealing with some weighty themes, then, and it deserves great care. There are a few different ways to approach the subject, let’s take a brief look at a few of them.
Lost by the Hero’s Failure)
One of the most classic uses of loss in a story, is that of the hero possessing some great gift that they are unworthy of. Perhaps they were given it by another, or came by it through pure happenstance. Because they do not respect the significance of their gift they are careless, and by that carelessness they lose it. Often they lose it to the villain, who will use that gift for something evil.
Here the reader understands that they deserved to lose their gift because they were unworthy of it, but still believes that they should become worthy now, and then they should regain the gift. We tend to be very forgiving to the characters of a story, always willing to grant them a second chance.
The connection this type story of story has to the human experience is obvious. All the time we make mistakes, all the time we lose things as the consequences of those mistakes. And even after all that, we hope to have a second chance, an opportunity to do it better the next time.
You see this sort of story in the classic fairy tale Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. Aladdin is a roguish scamp who comes across a jinni of immense power entirely by accident. Though he uses it to acquire the fame, fortune, and wife he desires, he has not done anything to actually earn any of these gifts.
A sorcerer manages to steal away that jinni, and does so because of a lapse of care on Aladdin and his wife’s part. Now the true journey begins. Without being able to rely on his previous source of strength, now Aladdin must make use of all his own determination and cunning to recapture that which had once been his and restore peace back to the land.
I also incorporated the hero’s foolish loss into my short story Phisherman. Here we actually meet our main character after the misplacing of his great gift, that of his own innocence. He is a man incomplete, perverting his great talents, and living far beneath his potential.
He isn’t doing anything to reclaim that which was lost, either. Instead he has tried to fill that hole in his soul with a carefully-constructed facade to hide behind. This story then illustrates that sometimes there is a second loss needed, a loss of pride and false persona. This second loss we do get to see, and it returns him to the place of his original wounding. Now again he has a chance to commit himself to the better journey of reclaiming his soul.
Lost by Circumstance)
Opposite to this first type of story is the one where the main character loses all, but due to no fault of their own. Usually in these stories the main character still only held their great gift by happenstance. They received these things easily, and now they have lost them easily.
When someone has obtained something without effort, we tend to feel they do not truly possess it. They have it, but they do not own it. Thus the journey of the hero to regain what was lost is really the journey of their earning it for the first time. This time what is regained will really be theirs. They understand the worth of the thing for having had to work for it, and they have the power now to ensure it will not be lost again.
This is obviously closely related to the first type of loss-story we examined, and its connection to our human experience is a sister-experience to the former. When something is taken from us by another it represents an injustice, a wounding that we did not deserve. But we only endure the loss because we do not possess the strength to prevent it. And so it is the obtaining of that strength that now becomes the journey. We have to put in the work to find our nerve, our determination, our confidence. Then, at last, we march forward to claim what was rightfully ours. This makes us not only the possessor once more, but now and forever the protector as well.
A wonderful example of a hero that loses everything at no fault of his own can be found in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. This story begins with a happy family brought to sudden ruin with the dual blow of financial ruin and the death of the father. The tranquil peace they had enjoyed is taken away, and it is up to Nicholas Nickleby to win it back. It’s a long and hard road, with many life lessons along the way. Finally, though, the family is restored to the happiness they once had, as well as expanded into something greater. And that felicity having being recaptured, it won’t be taken away again.
In The Sweet Bay Tree I made use of a character that begins as something of a parallel to Nicholas Nickleby. That character is a tree that begins its life in a happy field, surrounded by friends and family. Later it is transported away and forever loses all that it had had before.
Here the similarities diverge, though, because in my story there is no restitution for the tree. There were a few reasons for this, one of which was to give the story a cautionary message. In my story the tree refuses for the longest while to even accept that it has lost anything, and so does nothing to try and correct the matter. The fact is that nothing can be regained until we are first willing to accept that it has been lost. There are those who are far from home and ever will be simply because they refuse to admit it.
This leads to a third archetype for loss in stories, which is that of a loss that is has no regaining. These are our tragedies, the tales that caution us of permanent consequences. Perhaps in an afterlife there can always be hope for a restitution, but here on earth some doors shut forever.
These stories can actually go both ways in regards to whether the hero initially possessed that which was lost or not. In Annie Hall our main man Alvie never really possessed Annie, after all. If anything that’s his “problem” throughout the film. In a relationship you may use words and phrases like “I belong to you,” but in reality it is a tenuous contract that might slip from your fingers whether you want it to or not. And once it is gone, there is little chance of its being regained.
Then, of course, there is the hero who really does possess the gift as his own, and that makes his loss of it all the more tragic. In the Old Testament the Israelites demanded a king, and Saul was chosen to lead them. At the time of his anointing he was given wonderful promises, including one that his line would rule over Israel forever.
Over the years, however, Saul’s pride began to get in his own way, and it led him to claim more than he had a right to. As a result his promises were rescinded, he died violently in battle along with three of his sons, and the kingdom ultimately fell to another. There isn’t any more permanent of a loss than that, and one that tragically never had to be.
My story that incorporated themes of permanent loss was Three Variations on a Theme. Here we have three miniature tales, the first two of which fall under that template of a man losing all due to his own hubris. In each of these the main character would have been fine, they would have had everything that they set out to have, if only they had proceeded with their plan as intended. But they wavered, and they lost all.
The third of these allegories was more along the lines of losing that which you never possessed. Here a starving man trades his body for temporary satisfaction, but this particular story doesn’t suggest a reasonable alternative. It seems more or less that he was fated to fall, that some tragedies may be unavoidable.
Lost Forever…Something New to Follow)
But what about loss in Network Down? I know that of all the entries in this series this last story has been more focused on entertainment than on somber musings, but even a more punchy story can still have its moments of loss. That is the destiny I have in store for Kevyn, but that loss will follow a somewhat different pattern than any of the ones mentioned above.
In some tales the hero loses something, and loses it permanently, but through this loss they find that the way is left open for something new to to take its place. Perhaps that new something is better, perhaps it is worse. But it is something new, and most often it is something that redefines the character entirely.
On Thursday I’ll post the second half of Kevyn’s story, and in it he will permanently trade his current life for another. In his case it is a trade he would normally never consider, but as you have already seen he is in moments of great duress. Ideal or not, it will be a decision that he consciously wills for himself, preferring it to all other forms of loss he could otherwise endure. Come back on Thursday to see how that works for him.
Well, here we are in a new series. Usually I try to make each series distinct from the one before, and thus avoid building off of any prior ideas. This is going to be the exception, though, because last series I made a post that I have a bit more to say on. Specifically it was my post just a week ago about how every author seems to have a distinctive style. In that post I suggested that if each writer were to examine their own style they would probably find that it had naturally emerged as an extension of their own personality.
I still agree with those thoughts, but realized that many authors are actively trying to change their style. Perhaps they want to branch out and try new things, or they want to be more marketable, or maybe they want the prestige of being a versatile author.
Personally I do think it can be very positive to spread one’s wings and expand, though not necessarily for all of those reasons listed above. In fact I think authors can run the risk of killing their passion for writing if they push themselves too hard to change and for the wrong reasons.
I’m concerned that the most common motivation people have for changing up their craft is a fear of what other people think of them. This fear can manifest in couple of ways. Perhaps the author feels that writers who shift effortlessly between many different styles are more impressive than one who only writes in one, or perhaps they think their work will sell better if it is in a different genre. With these fears an author can feel pressured to redefine themselves over and over, changing with every shift of society.
Holding ourselves to such expectations can never be healthy. It’s exhausting and will inevitable lead sooner or later into writing things that we really don’t care about. With this mentality writing truly becomes just a “job” and not a work of passion. And what of the outcome? Perhaps one can learn to write something different, but that does not inherently mean that it is better.
Even a dream can be made into a drudgery, and nothing is more dulling than slaving away over a script you don’t care for. I’m all for writing things out of your comfort zone as an exercise, and even for emulating an entirely different voice in a new novel. But if you’re going to be dedicating a significant portion of your life to doing this work, you had better make sure it will be in a genre that you love.
But what if it’s not about pleasing a crowd? What if it’s sincerely just trying to become the best author one can be? What if the author is afraid that they have stopped growing and they want to take their craft to the next level?
Well, to be clear, experimentation and exploration are obviously essential to becoming a confident author. Every person who wants to author a story needs to be expanding their scope every day. They need to practice and exercise their skills, making sure every tool in already in their belt is kept sharp, and trying to add new tools wherever they can. I think most people would say that developing one’s skillset is the single most important thing one can do to become a professional writer.
I, however, would say it is only the second most important. It’s a very big second, but still second.
First and foremost comes living a full and complete life. Extensive skills, fancy prose, hours of writing prompts… these are ways of putting those tools into your belt. But tools do not craft a masterpiece, the artist that wields them does. More than these you need to find things in life you are deeply moved by, so that you will know by experience how to touch a reader’s heart. You need to experience the full depth of real-life relationships, so that you will know how to write a convincing relationship. You need to go through a soul-crushing disappointment, so you will know how to pen a heartbreaking tragedy.
One of the classic elements I love most in a good martial arts film is that raw talent is only of use after one is grounded and centered. You see this in The Karate Kid, Ip Man, and even Cinderella Man. Other warriors in those stories might have greater raw strength, but the heroes triumph because their foundation is based on living a life that matters.
If you want to be the best author you can be, then you need to find out what real love is, what real loss is, what hopes and dreams and doubts and failures are made up of. You need to hurt, and you need to be healed. You need to understand yourself, and then you need to be mystified by yourself.
No author should want to stay the same for their entire career, but they needn’t worry about that if they are living a deep and meaningful life. Part of living life to the fullest means constantly changing and improving. It means not sitting back in complacent idleness, but rather growing and expanding as a person.
As I mentioned in my earlier post, my own particular style has changed as my patterns of life naturally evolved through education, physical exercise, and spiritual searching. I didn’t have to try to alter my form of storytelling, it just did so naturally as an extension of who I am.
When growth as a writer is based first on personal development and second on developing skill, I think you’ll find your improvement will outstrip any other method. This has certainly been the case for me.
Whenever I want to take my writing to the next level, my first question is “what can I do to improve myself as a person?” And if I successfully become a person that I respect more, then I always find that my writing is more satisfying as well.
A Real-Life Example)
Obviously many life changes come unexpectedly, and it is impossible to tell exactly how they will color our writing style. This means that while we hope to improve in our craft, we may not know in which way we will do so.
When Brunelleschi lost the commission to design the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery in 1401 he also lost any future as a sculptor in Florence. His entire trajectory had been crushed in a moment, and he knew it was time for some deep soul-searching. So he went away to Rome, and there among the marvels of antiquity he found an abiding fascination in the ancient ruins that he found there. He started uncovering principles of architecture that had been forgotten to the ages, secrets of a bygone era, and even found ways to improve on them.
Eventually Brunelleschi did return to Florence, but not as a sculptor. Instead of crafting a pair of mere doors, he was commissioned to erect an architectural masterpiece. His dome on the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral showcased principles of balance and support that were entirely unheard of, and the structure still stands today as a prominent figure of the Florentine skyline.
The important thing, though, is that while his shift in life was quite radical, it was not a brash reaction to public opinion. Perhaps it was losing a commission that began his journey of self-discovery, but he dedicated 39 years of honing his craft between that failure and his later monumental success. This was no brief flight of fancy, this was a man improving himself over a lifetime of effort. As best we know, Brunelleschi died a content man. A man who had lived richly, and then created beautifully.
By all means each of us should test the limits of our comfort zone regularly. These exercises will expand our skillset, and may even lead to discovering new passions, such as architecture to Brunelleschi.
Generally, though, I always like to approach these sorts of exercises without any expectation, I simply allow the experience to be what it will be, take the good that it offers me, and move on with my work. And that’s exactly what I am going to be doing with my next project. On Thursday I will post the first part of a story that is intentionally as far removed from my usual style as possible. Where normally I fall into the pattern of slow and fantastical allegory, here I am going to strive for a realistic setting, some biting cynicism, and a chatty-conversational narrator. Come back then to see how it turns out.
Kara lifted the doll and cupped its face between her hands with intense earnestness. “Tico, the light locket is the most important thing forever,” she proclaimed with grave severity, adding a scowl and a nod to really drive the point home.
Tico’s painted eyes flickered and came to life as he awoke to a world that was a chubby little face framed in dark curls. He adopted her scowl and nodded in return. “Most important” he echoed, the tiny little bells on the ends of his jester’s hat tinkling softly.
“Good,” she approved of his understanding. Then, feeling the plot needed to be thickened, she added “we have to keep it safe with us no matter what happens.”
“Oh,” he said thoughtfully. “Is someone trying to take it, then?”
She seemed surprised by the question, and a look of worry passed over her face at the thought. “I don’t know, we’d better go check.” Tucking him under her arm she rushed out the door and down a hallway.
“Oh my,” he exclaimed, trying to make sense of the rapid changes in sensation he was experiencing.
“Don’t worry,” she told him.
She rounded another corner, sprinted to another room, and finally skidded to a halt. “Look, we’re here now.”
“A mountain,” she breathed in awe, and even as she said it he realized it was so obvious that it embarrassed him to have had to ask.
“What’s a mountain?”
“Up now, quick!” and without another word she flung him through the air in a long arc. With a flop he landed on top of a cabinet.
“Oh, so this is a mountain,” he said, feeling the cheap, grainy wood.
“Yes. Now you have to watch while I look for the locket.”
Tico was realizing that these high places had a tendency to make one very nervous, but he didn’t want to disappoint the girl, so he pushed that nervousness from his mind and dutifully looked about in every direction. Seeing nothing he turned and called down to the girl “What am I watching for?”
“You have to watch for the Gleer!” she hissed back ominously.
“The Gleer?” he repeated, feeling a little tremble of fear. “What’s that?”
“A big, big monster.”
“Oh, I think we should go.”
“But you have to find the locket first!”
“I thought you were looking for the locket.”
“No, now I’m watching you and you have to find it.”
“Oh. Okay… is this it?” he held aloft a lost penny.
“Ummmm…” she cocked her head thoughtfully before enthusiastically declaring “Sure!”
“Oh good. Now get me down from here.”
“You have to jump, I’ll catch you.”
“That doesn’t sound like a good plan.”
“It’s good. You have to jump, then you’ll be down.”
“It doesn’t sound like a good plan for me.”
“It’s good. I’ll catch you.”
He flailed out his little arms and tumbled over the edge, turning round and round as he fell until he hit her hands and bounced off onto the ground. “You said you’d catch me!” he wailed.
“And then I put you on the ground.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. You’re okay now.”
“At least we got the locket.”
“Yes, very good,” she praised him. “Now you hold it and don’t ever lose it.”
Tico nodded solemnly, but before he could utter another word they were interrupted by a horrible sound; it was approaching them from the floor below with raised and sharp tones, ones that sounded like fear mistaken for anger. Something about it pierced the two of them straight to their cores.
“Ohhhh!” Tico trembled. “Is that the Gleer?!”
Kara didn’t answer, instead flashing her eyes at him and urging “Come on!” She pulled him close to her bosom and rushed back to her room, closing the door behind. She threw Tico onto her bed and he lay there panting for a bit before thinking to make sure he hadn’t lost the locket in his fright. It was still there and he tucked it safely behind a seam in his breast, then he closed his eyes and just rested from all the excitement.
The door was opening and Kara returned holding a large something in her arms.
“Oh, hello,” Tico said, dropping the pencil he had been trying to balance on his little palm. He started towards her but then paused in wonderment of what she was carrying. “What’s that?”
“A present, I guess,” Kara said offhandedly.
“No, what is it,” Tico asked again, approaching the thing cautiously and craning his neck to look around its side.
“A rabbit. Mommy gave me this, just like when she gave me you.”
“Mommy gave me?” Tico repeated very slowly, not understanding the words in the slightest.
“Never mind, I forget you don’t remember things.”
“I remember the light locket!” Tico threw out his chest proudly.
“The light locket,” Tico repeated, a little hurt that she didn’t recall. “I got it on the mountain.”
“Oh right, that was a long time ago.”
“Ah…is long time yesterday or tomorrow? I get mixed up on those.”
Kara just shook her head, she had tried explaining time to Tico before but it just wasn’t in his nature to understand.
“So what do we do now?” he gestured to the rabbit.
She turned the large stuffed creature to face her and sat down on the bed next to Tico with a light frown. “He looks a little suspicious.”
She smiled at him. “Well, I guess his eyes are a little bit. See how they’re all crossways?”
“Yes, I had been about to point that out… Does he have a name?”
“Well of course he does… He’s Barty.”
At that Barty’s glassy eyes flashed with life and he looked the two of them over curiously. “Hello there,” he said smoothly.
“Hello Barty,” Kara said. She glanced around trying to think of a game for them to play. “Did you want to help us find the secret book?”
“Sure, that sounds like fun!” Barty nodded enthusiastically.
“What is the secret book?” Tico asked.
“Well, obviously a book full of secrets” Barty answered before Kara could, which Tico found a bit presumptuous, or at least he would have if he knew that word. “And it tells us all the things hidden in the world.”
Kara stood up quickly. “Well first we have to go to the dark cave where the book is kept.”
“What about him?” Tico cautioned, pointing to Barty. “He looks ‘spicious, remember?”
“Hmm, good point. How do we know you’re on our side Barty?”
“Why wouldn’t I be? And I’m not actually bad, you know, just a little mischievous,” he grinned broadly. “But I can always just be mischievous for you, and that could be quite useful.”
Tico looked to Kara and she grinned approvingly. Kara knew more than him, so that was enough to put his fears to rest.
With that settled, Kara scooped Tico and Barty up in her arms and strode out of the room. “Now off to the cave. Be sure to pack your flashlights because it is very dark in there.”
“Is the cave where we were stuck and got in trouble?”
“No, Tico, that was the car trunk.”
“Oh, let’s not go there again.”
“No, we won’t.”
“Excuse me, you two,” Barty chimed in, “but I haven’t got any flashlight.”
“I have one!” Tico said proudly. “I keep it here in my pocket.”
“Well if ever I get a flashlight and pocket I’ll be sure to keep them together.”
“Tico, when did you get a flashlight?” Kara asked skeptically.
“I…well maybe I didn’t. Oh no, it was just a string.”
“Oh well, I guess we’ll do it without flashlights then.”
“Perhaps our next adventure could be to find some flashlights,” Barty suggested.
“Good idea,” Kara nodded as she pulled a sliding door open and entered a closet. “Well we’re here now, but the book is hidden on that ledge up high.”
“The things we want are always up high,” Tico observed glumly.
“Maybe Barty can get it for us this time? I’m sure he could hop all the way up!”
Barty looked sheepishly back at them. “Well, you would think so, being a rabbit and all, but you see they didn’t actually make me with any knees.”
“Do I have knees?” Tico wondered aloud.
“Oh dear,” he muttered, realizing this meant he would be the one doing the climbing.
“It’s okay, if you fall I can catch you on my belly,” Barty offered. “They did at least give me a big, poofy one of those.”
While Tico would never admit it to Kara, Barty’s belly did appear to be a safer catcher than her hands, so he nodded and began his ascent to the ledge. It didn’t take long for him to reach the top, he had had lots of practice in this sort of thing from before. The next bit of finding things, though, was the part he wasn’t so good at. He found it required knowing what things were.
“Is this the book?” he held an item aloft.
“No. That’s a flashlight.”
“Oh, I’ll put it back then.”
“No! We may need that later,” Barty interjected.
“Oh right. Here you go.”
“…Oof! Perhaps my tummy isn’t as soft as I thought.”
“Never mind, Tico,” Kara hissed. “Find the book.”
“Well what does it look like?”
“Kind of like a journal.”
“What does that look like?”
“Oh that’s it right there! Your hand is on it… No, your left one… That’s not your left… Yes, there! Throw it down.”
Tico tried to throw the book, but he forgot to let go and so he came tumbling down with it and landed on Barty’s belly in a not-so-poofy way.
“Well done!” Kara exclaimed, picking the book-journal up and looking it over. Barty and Tico shook hands and were about to congratulate each other when Kara suddenly cocked her head and peered around the corner. “Wait!” she hissed. “I see something coming.”
Tico swallowed cotton. Of late it seemed that each of their quests was becoming more and more dangerous than the last, somehow always ending in a terrible chase. It amazed him that Kara could always laugh at the reckless peril that would ensue, and Tico admired that she could be so brave. He certainly was not. Indeed, if it weren’t for his great love for her, he didn’t think he would have had the courage to face these terrors again.
“Is it the Gleer?” Tico quavered. The Gleer had ever remained the most ominous foe they had faced, even now much of it was shrouded in complete mystery.
“It’s his dogs,” Kara called. “Which means he won’t be far behind!”
Tico had already started running the opposite direction, but he was slow and therefore grateful when she snatched him up alongside of Barty and the book, sprinting them away from the room. From his perch against Kara’s shoulder Tico allowed himself a peek behind them and saw a wave of pitch-black dogs contracting and then ferociously leaping after them.
“Ohhh, they’re getting closer…” he moaned.
“Do we have anything to throw at them?” Barty asked from the other shoulder, trying to be helpful.
“We have the book, but we can’t give that up,” Kara said resolutely, rounding a corner and bolting down the hall.
“And the flashlight,” Tico added, watching as the dogs swung around the corner on long arms like monkeys, then shifted back to their terrible bounding.
“We need that for later!” Barty protested. “Besides, it’s much too small to do any good.”
“Not if you turn it on!” Kara shouted. “They’re dark-dogs, the light will block them. Do it!”
Once Kara gave an order there was never any more arguing, so Barty turned the flashlight on and threw it behind Kara’s heels. His aim was true and the beam cut across the entire length of the hall. The dogs in front tried screeching to a halt, but the ones behind collided with them and pushed them forwards into the beam. Whatever dogs touched the light instantly turned into a dog-shaped cloud of dust that hung in the air for a moment and then tumbled to the ground. As the dust began to fall, dense and thick, the beam of light was blocked and broken in places, allowing a few of the next wave of dogs to slip by.
“They’re still coming!” Tico announced.
“Don’t worry, we’re almost to our room,” Kara replied with grim determination. She threw out her hand, reaching for her doorknob as the frontmost dogs began nipping at her ankles. The tension was too much for Tico and he covered his eyes as he heard snarls, champing teeth, then the swinging of a door, and finally a great slam of it shutting. He realized he had been holding his breath and he allowed himself a gasp of relief. Nothing evil could enter their bedroom, that was the rule.
Kara panted, catching her breath too, and Barty slid down to the floor where he plopped down in exhaustion. Tico felt a need for something peaceful, so he leapt up onto the bed and from there to the window sill, staring out at the world on the other side.
“Did you want to play a game together?” Barty asked as he approached Tico by the window.
“It’s more fun with Kara.”
“Well Kara’s been gone a long while.”
“Will she be back soon then?”
“I don’t know. Tico why do you always assume I know these things?” Barty sighed, placing a paw on his old friend’s shoulder.
“You know a lot of things.”
“I know more things than you, but I don’t really understand more. Does that make sense? No, of course not. Never mind, Tico, it doesn’t matter.”
They both turned at the sound of the doorknob turning. From the very start the two of them knew something was wrong. Where Kara usually would bound into the room and whisk them into her loving arms she instead entered slowly, as if in a daze. Without even acknowledging the stuffed toys she hovered over to her bed and lowered herself onto it, eyes shining and out-of-focus. Then she crumpled into a small ball and began sobbing uncontrollably.
Tico looked to Barty, but it was clear he had no answers to give. Never had they seen Kara this way and it seemed wrong to break the silence of her grief. Kara turned onto her side and they saw tears running down her cheeks, her mouth agape but no sound emerging as her whole body shook. By instinct Tico slid down from the window sill and hurried over to the bed. He squeezed himself between her arm and body and gave her a close embrace. Barty followed after and leaned his head against her arm.
Kara gave a shuddering breath and pulled Tico tight. He had been held and hugged by her many times, but he had never felt her like this. There was a fear and a desperate need in her embrace that frightened him. Her squeeze was becoming unbearably tight now and her nails were starting to dig in him painfully.
Tico gasped and felt a tension mounting so strongly it seemed tangible, like a crescendoing bass or a smothering vapor. He half thought he saw the eyes of the Gleer illuminating in the dark corner of the room as a mouth of needles began opening wide.
The Gleer emerged with a look of hatred washed over its face and its claw-like hands vised on their sides as it drew them towards its maw.
Tico’s eyes snapped open and he was staring Kara in the face. There were still marks scorched down her cheeks, but for now the tears had ceased falling. Where before her face had been in agony it now held a simple sadness, sadness at the very sight of her friends. Tico thought he must say something, but as he opened his mouth she sat upright and raised herself to her feet, gently picking her two stuffed toys up by their arms. They dangled loosely from her grip as she shuffled out of the room, and the two of them twisted to look at one another. As Tico saw his own fright reflected in his friend he realized that Barty truly didn’t understand any better than he did.
They had reached their destination and here Kara raised them to look them in the eyes one last time, with that same pained expression. Was it regret? “Kara, I am…” Tico began, but was interrupted as she abruptly dropped the two of them into the garbage and closed the lid firmly. “…scared” he finished.
As I said in my post on Monday, there is a common tendency to love a story when you first conceive of it, later become embarrassed by how poor it is, and later again realize that you still are in love with its initial ideas, you just need to find a better way to express them. This story about a girl and her toy jester was one I first came up with eight years ago, though it looked quite different then. In that version the girl lives in London during World War Two, and is playing with her jester doll for a little bit when an air raid siren goes off. Her parents come rushing in to take her to a bunker, and in their haste she loses her grip on the doll. He tries to chase after them but can’t keep up. The bomb hits and knocks the jester to his feet, after which he finds himself in a world transformed, one full of the rubble and decimation that had once been their home town. Through it all he has no understanding of the death and destruction on display, he is so innocent and ignorant that bodies and broken homes are mere vague abstractions to him. When at last he finds his girl lying and never waking the reality of the situation begins to slowly set in. He curls up in her arms and just lays there to await forever.
Certainly it was a very dreary story, I find it interesting that I thought of it in the same year as another, far more lighthearted story of a young girl: Caterpillars. As I’ve looked at this original version I’ve found that it just seems a bit over-the-top. Sometimes when things are too tragic they seem less so simply because they go beyond comprehension. And yet I found myself still fascinated with the idea of a toy that not only behaved like a child, but that literally represented that child’s innocence, and then experienced the loss of such things.
As I asked myself what was a better way to depict those ideas, I realized that the doll should never gain any sort of understanding. The doll is ignorance, and while people themselves may change ignorance does not. And that unchanging nature of the doll but changing nature of the girl led to the notion that there needed to be a parting of the ways between the two of them, a sort of “where I’m going you can’t follow. Literally can’t by your very nature.” I did feel that the imagery of death was still important for the story, for I view the childhood loss of innocence as a form of death in that something is lost which will never be regained in this life. With that idea I realized the obvious parallel of the death of innocence in a girl coinciding with her learning the concept of death through the loss of a parent. At last I knew how to write this story.
And so now you have the story of the story. I do like this version a great deal more than the previous one, I feel that a lot more thoughtful introspection went into it this time around instead of just trying to cram sad things in for the sake of being sad. I don’t know if in the long run I’ll end up being totally satisfied with the story as it is now, or if I’ll feel there is still something left uncaptured. As I read over it now I have to admit that the work was rushed to meet today’s deadline and I think that shows.
At this point it is nearly time to conclude the series of dream/imagination-themed stories we’ve been exploring for the last month, but before doing so I want to talk a little bit about how I’ve tried to use each of these more ethereal titles to put a different kind of subject in focus. These stories have, in turn, prioritized the reader, the character, the community, and the abstract. I’ll discuss these in greater detail in my post on Monday, and then finish with one last meditative story that prioritizes the world. I’ll see you then.