Does What He Must

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“A man doesn’t do what he can. He does what he must.”

Those were the last words my father said to me before he left to fight in the great Civil War. He meant them by way of explaining why it was he had to go and leave our little farm and family, to fight for a cause he believed in.

It was the last time he said those words to me, but it was not the first. How he came by them, I do not know. For a man who lived as large as he, I would not be surprised to learn that he came up with them himself. In any case, they were his mantra all his days, a creed that he exemplified many times over.

My father showed the makings of a legend early in life, as early as the age of thirteen when he stood down old Hal Ritcher.

Hal Ritcher was the local drunk, a mean and spiteful man who led a life of profound disappointment and then punished all that were littler than him because of it. He was a particular nuisance to the children, and one day they caught his ire by playing too loudly in a nearby barn while he was trying to sleep off a hangover. He rushed out at them, brandishing a stick and screaming and cussing like the devil himself! He swore he’d see blood for their impertinence, then grabbed hold of the nearest one of them he could, poor, little Belle Sue.

Well my father wasn’t going to stand by to see her lashed, so he stepped forward and shouted at Hal Ritcher. Hal let her go and charged at my father with raised first. My father raised his own and in a flash laid Hal out flat with a single blow to the chin.

Now as I said my father was only thirteen years at the time, but all the children there said his blow rang like a hammer on an anvil! They wouldn’t have believed it possible if they hadn’t witnessed it with their own eyes.

“What did you hit him with?” one asked in awe.

“Just my hand.”

“But I didn’t think you could hit so hard.”

“Well neither did I. But I had to so I guess I just did. That’s how it is as a man, you know.”

“But you’re not a man, James,” Belle Sue frowned.

To which my father tossed the hair out of his eyes and grinned broadly at Hal Ritcher’s horizontal form. “Ain’t I, though?”

Five years later, when my father was eighteen, he attended a social party put on by the local cattle baron. After a great amount of coercion he had finally removed Belle Sue from the rest of the young men and was trying convince her to give him a kiss when a horrible shriek sounded from the fields.

One of the cattle hands had been giving the young children turns riding on his horse, when something spooked the critter and away it rushed with a small boy clinging on its back for dear life.

“Oh he’ll be killed!” a woman shrieked and a few of the ladies fainted straight away. Meanwhile the men bumbled about uselessly, calling for horses and ropes and all manner of things that wouldn’t arrive until it was much too late.

Not my father, though. He bounded out with steely determination, cutting through the property to the corner of the road where the bronco was sure to pass, reaching that junction at just the same moment as the steed. Somehow he leapt above its flashing hooves and threw his arm around its neck. Then he hauled down, running the creature’s head into the dust as he grabbed the poor boy off its back with his other hand.

I can only imagine the amazement that must have been on everyone’s face when my father came walking out of the cloud of dirt, the boy waving happily on his shoulder and the horse following sheepishly after.

“How’d you think to do that?” one of the cattle hands asked.

“I dunno,” my father said modestly. “I guess I just had to is all.”

Even Belle Sue threw up her hands in not-so-disappointed defeat. “Well, James, you’re a hero, now I supposed I’ll have to kiss you.” And she did just that.

That Belle Sue was quite a playful one, and I suppose you might have guessed already that the two of them got married. It was a long time before she relented and she led him on quite the chase, though she never had eyes for anyone else. The story of how they finally came together begins one day when a whole crowd of young men were gathered round her feet.

“When you going to stop playing your games and marry one of us?” they asked her.

“When I feel like it, I suppose,” she shrugged. “Seems you boys aren’t doing much to make me feel inclined that way, though.”

Boys?!

“Yes boys. And so I say until one of you proves your worth.”

“But how?”

“Hmmm…Oh I know! Haven’t any of you noticed that great, big lily growing on top of Heaven’s Peak? Now that’s the sort of flower a girl would love a man for! Honestly I can’t believe one of you hasn’t fetched it for me already, I’d say that I must have it.”

“On Heaven’s Peak?! That’s thirty feet of rock shooting straight up into the sky! Now how do you expect anyone to get up there to pick you a flower?”

“I’m sure I don’t know, I suppose only a man could manage it.”

Well that crowd of boys went away grumbling and she giggled to herself, never expecting anything to come of that conversation. But she hadn’t accounted for my father when he heard tell of what she said. Why he just walked away alone that same afternoon and came back before dark with that flower for her. Then the two of them had a quiet little conversation together in the gazebo, and when they came back they announced their engagement!

All my days growing up I heard her pester him to know how he had scaled that rock, but he never told his secret. He only ever said: “You said you must have it, so I had to get it.”

It was a happy home my siblings and I grew up in, at least for the first years while father was still there. I was only six when he left, as I said, to war. And as you might imagine, he quickly became a bona fide hero there, too. Soon he was made a Second Lieutenant and led a platoon of thirty men.

I met several of those men in the years after, and each told how when he first received his station he sat down with those men and promised that not a one of them would die on his watch. Though it might seem incredible, he delivered on that promise too, though they found themselves in many the tight spot during the war.

He managed that feat partly by his excellent training and marshaling of the men, and partly by taking on the most dangerous roles for himself, such as when they made their retreats and he would linger in the back to give the Johnny Rebs a target of his own hide to shoot at.

It was at one such retreat that they found themselves in a most dire strait. Their commanding officer had required them to dig their ditch with a cliff wall at their backs. When the bugle sounded retreat they knew they were all dead men. Though the wall could be scaled, it would be a slow process, and there was no chance that they would have it cleared before the enemy rushed into their trenches and picked them off like flies.

Well they all looked to my father in despair, but he just grit his teeth and said they all better get climbing then. One of them protested, said it would be better to die fighting than take such grim chances. My father swore again that not a one of them would die that day, except perhaps himself.

“C’mon now, Lieutenant,” one of them protested, “a slim chance is better than none. We’ll all run and see which one or two of us is lucky enough to escape. Not even you can hold back such a tide!”

“Maybe I can’t,” my father replied, “and yet I must.”

He ordered his men to retreat one last time, then stood at the lip of their ditch to welcome the enemy. As his men scrambled up the rock they heard the whooping and hollering of the foxes come for their prey. Though there was all manner of gunfire not a one of my father’s boys took a serious shot. Every now and again one of them would turn to see what went on below, and they saw my father bounding back and forth, cutting down the cowards who dared to aim at the backs of his men.

One man saw how my father took a shot himself, but still he went on. Another witnessed how he was skewered by a bayonet, but still he fought. A third said four men tackled him to the ground, but up he rose from their midst. Not a one of them saw exactly how or when he fell, but he must have at some point, though not until after his men were all safely away from that place.

And that was the last anyone knew of my father. Anyone but me.

While I wish I could say that I followed in his footsteps my whole life long, the truth is that growing up without him was hard. We lost our farm and home, we scrimped and scrounged our way through the rest of my childhood, and somewhere along the way I grew disheartened. I decided I had to find an easier way, a shortcut to happiness.

In short I fell in with some bad men, ones who weaned me off of the straight-and-narrow path that my mother had so painstakingly taught me to follow. At first it was drink, then gambling, then getting into fights in back alleys. I remember the day they brought me along for my first robbery. A part of me wondered how I had ever come to this, another part answered it had been coming for a long while now.

My posse promised it would be a quick holdup. No one was going to get hurt, and there was no chance of running into the law. Both of those statements were lies, for no sooner did our heist begin than it turned sideways. The man we were trying to rob resisted us, and the leader of our group, a fiery, short-tempered man, shot him dead on the spot. My shock didn’t even have a chance to set in before we heard the whole town erupting all around us. We tried to get out of there, but the law swept around on all sides and chased us towards a solitary barn.

I was the first to make the entrance, and as I turned to hold the door open for the rest of my gang I found that not a one of them still stood. Some were already laying dead in the street, the others were quickly getting that way. So I bolted that door shut and lay on the ground, trembling like a leaf.

“Hey you come out of there!” the Sheriff roared. ” And with your hands held high! I’ll give you thirty seconds to get sense and then we’ll unload on you!”

“I’ll fight them off,” I muttered, cocking my six-shooter. “Or I’ll grab a horse and escape. I’ll set fire to this barn and sneak out in the smoke. I’ll never let them take me alive–”

“Son.”

I turned in surprise, though I knew the voice so well that it did not frighten me. Standing at the end of a trough I saw my father, looking exactly the same as the day he rode out to war. He was viewing me with a sort of aching love, as if it hurt him to see me this way.

“Pa…what are you doing here?”

“Son, what are you?”

My face broke and I cried like the six-year-old I was when I lost him. “I’ve lost my way, Pa. I don’t know when or how, but I’m ashamed for you to see me like this.”

“I ain’t ashamed to see you, son. But you have done wrong, and it’s time to turn yourself in.”

“I can’t do it,” I gulped. “Once they brand me a thief and a killer that’s it! Even if they don’t hang me I’ll never escape the shadow of what I already done. I’m all alone now.”

My father nodded understandingly, but his face was firm. “You are alone, so long as you keep on this path you’ve been on. But if you turn son, if you turn right now, I’ll be in it. I promise.”

“…I would if I could. But I can’t.”

“A man doesn’t do what he can. He does what he must.”

Well that was that.

I took a few stabilizing breaths, then stood and took a few more.

“Alright, I’m coming out!” I shouted, throwing my gun out the window where the lawmen could see. I turned to look one last time at my father, and I almost asked how he was even able to be here like this. But then, I already knew his answer to that.

Raising up my hands, I walked out into the sun.

 

As I stated on Monday, my purpose with this was to create a piece that blended the elements of principle and example. I wanted it to be one part allegory, with archetypes that represented a core idea, and one part realism, with characters who were relatable.

Obviously the character of “the father” was a larger-than-life allegory. He is a flat character, one that is intended to only channel one personality trait: confidence. He always comes through, there’s nothing he can’t accomplish, he always knows exactly what to do and say.

The son, meanwhile, is a little more in-between. It wouldn’t be fair to say that he is entirely lifelike, as we simply do not have enough time with him to get a fully fleshed-out personality from him. Even so, in the short time that we do hear from him, he still shows a wide range emotions, including reverence, bitterness, fear, shame, and redemption.

His comment towards the end about how hard it was for him to live without a father is meant to jolt the reader out of the rose-tinted fairy tale and into a more somber reality. It’s meant to suggest that the idealized story of his father is nothing more than the perspective of a six-year-old boy who still believes his father could do no wrong. A perspective that he has maintained for the man who sired him, but lost for himself.

And that, ultimately, was the crux of my idea in marrying these two different perspectives. By laying them side-by-side and even having them overlap I meant to explore the way our view of the world changes as we age and mature. In some ways I believe our love for fairy tales is nothing more than a nostalgic longing for the simplicity of our childhood minds.

As I wrote this piece I realized I was writing “father” a lot, and reached a point where I thought someone ought to call the man by his name. It was at that point that I decided to add a little quirk to the story, something to give it personality. Do you know what I am referring to? I’ll talk a little bit more about it on Monday, as well as how to add indirect personality to stories and characters in general. I’ll see you then, and in the meantime have a wonderful weekend!

The Storm: Part One

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Oscar regarded the mounting storm behind him, then turned his attention back to the docks ahead. He was less than a quarter-mile out, and he’d be moored and warming his boots in Lenny’s Tavern within the hour. Younger fisherman were often frustrated when a storm arose sooner or heavier than the weather forecast had predicted, but old salts like Oscar knew that these things just happened from time-to-time. Today he had to cut his trip short and return empty handed, another day he would manage a double haul. Fate ebbed and flowed like that. If you waited long enough it evened out it time.

Usually.

Mostly.

If ever an auditor endeavored to tally the sum total of all the givings and takings of the ocean, they would no doubt find that the scales were tipped slightly in favor of the sea. It kept both the ledger and the terms, so who could be surprised that it pressed its advantage? Penny-by-penny a man found himself a little poorer each year for trying to live by it.

The locals knew this truth. They had even come up with a term for it, they called it the “slow toll.” When they spoke of a fisherman being weighed down by the “slow toll” they meant how he had begun to develop the same brooding brow and the same cynical sensibility that they all eventually came to. It was what the old fishermen meant when they said that the ocean had “etched its salt into their bones.”

But was that really so much worse than anywhere else in the world? Didn’t they say there were sharks in Wall Street, too? The world was just as askew wherever you went, the only difference was that the hustling and bustling metropolis sold you dreams while it robbed you blind. The ocean might be a thief, but at least it wasn’t a liar.

“The ocean doesn’t try to make a fool you,” the would say. “It makes no bones about it, the house will always win, same as anywhere else. Only the ocean has the decency to let you play for a while first, dries you out slow and regular.”

Usually.

Mostly.

Oscar knew better than most that in sudden, greedy moments the ocean took more than could ever be excused. At times he hated it for that.

That you, Oscar?

Oscar fumbled for the mouthpiece of his radio. “Yeah, Sam, it’s me.”

Any catch?

“A little, but I had to let it go. Woulda just spoiled during the storm.”

Sorry to hear that, Oscar.

“It all evens out.”

Sam was a good lighthouse keeper. Where some fisheries rotated whose turn it was to watch, all of the boat-owners in Brynnsdale contributed a part of their profits to put Sam up permanently. He knew all of the fishermen by name and could recognize them by their boats. Whenever they made a good haul he cheered for them, whenever they didn’t he gave just the right amount of sympathy without becoming pandering.

“Everyone in already?” Oscar asked. “I can make out Bart’s and Joe’s there.”

All in but Harry.

Oscar’s radio crackled static, signifying that Sam had released his mic button. Signifying that Sam had nothing more to say until Oscar spoke first.

Oscar sighed heavily, dropping his eyes from the lighthouse to his feet. He saw the way his legs swayed to the movements of the sea. He reached over and grabbed the mic.

“Do you know which way he went?”

Went for mackerel, around the cape. Probably why I haven’t been able to raise him.

“He woulda seen the storm coming even so.”

He woulda.

“He shoulda made it back far enough already that we’d see him now.”

He shoulda.

Crackling static again. Sam wouldn’t say it. He wasn’t the sort to try and tell people what they ought to do. He was the sort to let them decide it do it themselves. And what if Oscar said no? What if he said Harry was a fool for having gone around the cape even when it was just a low storm warning, and that if he was caught in a gale that was his affair? If Oscar said that Sam probably wouldn’t even hold it against him. Sam would know as well as anyone that Oscar had reasons enough for it.

“I suppose I better go after him,” Oscar rasped into the mic.

If you think that’s best. I won’t blink an eye until the two of you get back.

“I know you won’t, Sam.”

Oscar sighed once more and began to turn the wheel. Away from the safety of his berth he now swung back to face the rising storm. Where before he had only given those mounting clouds a cursory glance he now held them in serious scrutiny. The muddled gray of the sea was lost in the muddled gray of the low sky, the line between them only occasionally discernible when a fork of lightning split the void. The clouds were as whipped by the wind as the water was, all strayed out in longs wisps, yet so numerous as to crowd out the sun entirely.

As now he set his boat against the tide he felt the beat of the waves increase twofold beneath its prow. Those waves weren’t so tall that he had to worry about being tipped yet, and he turned his boat at a slight angle for a more direct line to the cape.

The Broken Horn it was called, and its rocky form was looked black as ink beneath the shrouds of fog. Intermittently Oscar pulled for his radio tried to raise Harry, but all to no avail. It really seemed the man was still around the rock, and if so then something must have certainly gone wrong.

It wasn’t the first time things had gone wrong in a storm for Harry.

Oscar adjusted his approach to steer well clear of the shore as he neared the Broken Horn. There were treacherous shoals that reached out from it, and the last thing he needed was to get stranded out here himself. That meant steering directly against the waves and that was proving to be a more difficult prospect now.

The wind was howling and the rain drove straight against the boat’s face. The waves looked black and came in like choppy spikes, trying to break anyone fool enough to be on them now. Oscar began to tip backwards and pitch forwards, moving in time to those waves. He kept a steady hand on the wheel, watching for when his craft started to stray to one side or another and righting it as quickly as possible. If he got turned sideways then the waves would swamp him in an instant.

If only fools willingly chose to ride in waves like these, then perhaps Oscar was a fool. For still the storm was not at its worse. He turned his motor up as far as he dared, trying to squeeze every possible yard out of every possible second and get himself out of this foment as soon as possible. Now and again he glanced sideways to the lump of the cape, gauging how soon he could turn back and cut across the front of it.

That front was nothing more than bleak cliffs with jagged edges. If a boat didn’t snag on the shoals then they were torn to shreds by the cliff. If Harry had run into trouble anywhere else Oscar probably would have left him to run aground, but here there was no “aground.”

Oscar spun the wheel and made his way around the point of the Broken Horn. His boat was the only white speck between the black abyss of the rock vaunting up into the sky and the black abyss of the water spinning below. Holding the wheel steady in one hand he grabbed the mic and began calling out into the storm.

“This is Last Horizon. Repeat, this is Last Horizon. Does anybody read me?”

Nothing.

“Last Horizon calling Broken Wing. Broken Wing do you hear me?”

A gust of wind picked up and Oscar let go of the mic as he used both hands to wrestle his boat back into its line. The gale subsided for a moment and he roared his frustration back into the mic.

Harry do you hear me?!

All at once the crackle of static changed to a small voice, timid and broken, yet tinged now with fresh hope.

“Yes, yes, Harry here. I see you Oscar, I see you! Bearing 80.”

Oscar looked to his right and barely made out the light outline of a boat against the pitch black sky.

“What’s your status, Harry?”

“Engine trouble. It’s barely turning at all. I can’t make it around the cape, just been tryin’ to hold steady for as long as I could. I was real scared there, Oscar.”

“Yeah, well I still am. Stay put there, Harry.”

Oscar opened up the throttle, making his away across the choppy tide. His little vessel churned forward, throwing up spray that covered his vision, offering only brief occasional glimpses in between of his progress.

“You gotta turn a little more windward, Harry,” he called into the mic. “I’m gonna come up on your starboard side and throw you a line. You be ready to catch it and then run like anything to get it through your bow cleat.”

“Will do.”

Harry glanced behind to his beam. He punched the release and dropped the net off of his line. Then he pulled the lever to let the rope out, and it slowly unfurled itself on the deck. He waited until he had about fifty feet of line and then locked it in place. As he did all this he came up closer and closer to Harry’s trawler.

“Alright now, Harry,” he called into the mic. “You ready!”

Harry didn’t respond, he was already out on his own deck, waving his arms so Oscar would see him. Oscar turned the throttle up again, pushing to just a little ahead of Harry’s boat. Then he locked the wheel in place and sprinted back to his rope. As quickly as only a weathered seaman could he coiled its end around his hand as he leapt to his port side. He barely made it there as his vessel slid backwards into line with the other, and with a mighty fling he arced the rope out into Harry’s waiting arms. Harry pulled his hands to his chest, securing the rope, then sprinted towards the front of his own boat to run it through his bow cleat.

Oscar dashed back to the wheel and spun it rapidly to make up for its drift. Now there was nothing but to wait for Harry to secure the rope, get back to his own wheel, and radio him that they were ready to go.

Then the true challenge would begin. Towing another boat was dangerous even in fair weather. One had to be able to maintain constant tension or else something would break from the intermittent slacking and tightening of the line. One had to be careful to maintain enough distance between the two boats so that the one behind didn’t come careening into the back of the other. One had to account for the fact that Oscar’s boat would be riding up the crest of one wave while Harry’s was down in the valley of the previous and vice versa. One had to be careful to stay in line, not letting the wind blow one boat off to an angle from the other. If that happened one or both might be pulled sideways into the drink.

There were many things that could go wrong, that probably would go wrong. For any other fishermen in their small town Oscar would have faced those dangers gladly. But for Harry? Well, evidently he would face them, but that was all.

And why was it Harry? Of all the men that could have been caught out here, why did it have to be the one he could never forgive?

Part Two

Last week I wrote about the narrative tool of the chase, which takes many different forms all throughout literature. Almost immediately in this story a form of chase begins. Oscar is racing out to rescue another seaman before the storm catches and drowns them both.

But the more we hear his dread about doing this, the more we understand that in his heart he is chasing into another storm, one he has otherwise always chased away from. Chasing into hurt and anger long suppressed. What he is really chasing for though is peace, even if he does not know it himself. And ironically that peace can only be found, if at all, in the heart of deepest conflict.

Next week I will post the second half of The Storm and in that his reasons for bitterness will become clear. An important element of storytelling is knowing when and how to reveal information to the reader. In this first half I have disclosed Oscar’s feelings, but not the reasons behind them. You may find it interesting to know that when I first conceived of The Storm I had not intended to communicate anything of Oscar’s feelings at all. Indeed it was an entirely different sort of experience I had in mind then. Come back on Monday when we’ll take a look at that original idea, and the pros and cons of the changes that I have made. Until then, have an excellent weekend!