Firmly in the second half of the story now! Now comes the image of two ships tethered together, fighting their way through the storm. Now is the long, hard tow that wears them down until they finally break and the truth comes out. Obviously I want every part of my story to be executed well, but this segment in particular has a great deal that it needs to accomplish, and I will be paying close attention to anywhere that it is lapsing.
Oscar eased back a little. He didn’t want to hit tension on the rope too quickly and snap it. He watched as the last feet of slack pulled out of the line, and then his vessel shuddered from stem to stern and its boom groaned ominously. Nothing broke, though, and the boom gave a counter-groan as it settled into place.
“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 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, swiveling his stern twenty degrees. The most efficient route back home would be to make a wide turn right, continue until they were past the cape, then right again and back to the docks.
Of course making this turn meant that Oscar’s boat was now at a slant to the waves, and they were thundering against his hull and drenching his deck with their foaming spray. Oscar looked back-and-to-the right to see where the Broken Horn lay, but anything further than three hundred yards was shrouded in murky black, as if they had been submerged in an ink bottle, alone in their own, thick darkness.
A reverberating whine came from behind and Oscar saw Harry’s boat sliding to starboard, failing to keep up with the turn and pulling the rope at an angle.
“I said stay straight!” Oscar 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 would have to try a shallower angle into the waves, one that Harry’s waterlogged boat could handle.
He brought their angle-of-attack from forty-five degrees to thirty, then checked over his shoulder. No good, the rope was still moving the wrong way, scraping across the corner of his deck.
So he reduced down to twenty-five degrees and checked again. Still no. The rope wasn’t slipping anymore, it continually wavered back and forth, never settling.
Twenty degrees and at last the rope moved back to center.
“We’ve got it! We’ve got it!” Harry’s voice was flush with relief. Oscar wasn’t relieved, though. Far from it. At this shallower angle it would take more than twice as long to get past the cape, meaning they’d be spending twice as long in the heart of the sea.
Twice as long in the ink. The murky green glow from beneath the waves had extinguished, and somewhere beyond the clouds the last remnants of the sun had expired. All was pitch black now, and the men could barely see each wave before they were already upon it. And those waves had progressed from small hills to sheer mountains. Each yawned high above the sailors, tipping their boats skyward, then breaking across their bows in a fury. Then came the rapid drop down the trough on the other side. The wind seemed to shriek around their wheelhouses in every direction at once, and the rain pelted them sideways.
Well, they had arrived…. This was the full height of the storm’s intensity and they would be locked within this fearful epicenter all the way back to shore.
Oscar gripped his wheel with white knuckles, locked his knees in place, and stared ahead with unblinking eyes. Each successive wave was a new trauma heaped upon the last like an extra brick on his back.
This kept the same vein of how it was before, though with a good deal of fiddling throughout. Most of the changes were in the last paragraphs when I described the storm around them. A major critique from my first draft was how the escalation of that storm wasn’t very clear, and behind the scenes I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how to make a more intelligible progression out of it.
To that end I’ve decided that the storm is now at its strongest, and every point hereafter will be describing a different element or perspective of it. The escalation of danger now will be based upon their angle-of-attack and the damage to their boats. My hope is that by having a clear sense in my own head of what’s going on, that will come through in the written depiction of it.
Now I’m going to tackle a moment of introspection in Oscar, and this is one section I already know I want to make a few changes to.
“I can’t do this,” Oscar said hoarsely to himself. “I just don’t have it in me anymore.”
“I don’t think you have any choice in it anymore,” another side of him replied.
If at all possible, his weathered face grew even more wrinkly, his eyes shone with unshed saltwater.
“I should have quit after I lost James.”
“No,” his other side returned. “You should have quit before you lost your son.”
“I’m sorry,” his chest quivered and the tears finally dribbled down his cheeks. “I should never have trusted him to Harry.”
The original version of this conversation that Oscar has with himself was melodramatic and confusing. I felt it jumped from one statement to another with no obvious connection between them. I also felt it was obscure as tp who exactly “James” was.
But with this take on it there is a much clearer transition from not wanting to face great obstacles anymore to wishing he had quit before he lost his son. I had initially wondered about cutting the conversation entirely, but I think it is important to get across that Oscar’s son has died and that that loss is somehow connected to Harry, otherwise the later confession would come entirely out of the blue.
Next week I’ll be pulling the sailors even more through the wringer, come back as I try to maintain a clear line through it all!
“Billy’s really sick, isn’t he?” Tommy’s eyes were wide and shining with unshed tears.
“Yes, you know he’s sick,” James said. “We’ve been talking about that for more than a week now, haven’t we?”
“But I mean really sick. Like…he might not get better,” Tommy barely whispered the last words.
James squirmed uncomfortably, the common dilemma of a father who doesn’t want to be forthcoming.
“Everything will be fine,” he finally promised. “Whatever happens…everything will be just fine.”
Tommy looked far from convinced, but there was something in his father’s tone that let him know the matter was concluded. And so they completed their night-time ritual and he was left to fall asleep. His mind was racing, though, and it was nearly an hour before his dreams finally took him.
Strange dreams they were, too, where he was running through a field, searching for his missing dog. He kept on thinking he saw it’s steel-gray flank before him, but upon nearing it always found something else. “Billy!” he called. “Billy!” But no one answered.
Downstairs in the house, James gave their Siberian Husky a long, hard stare. The dog was laying flat on its belly, jaw resting on the carpet, but eyes open and lazily regarding their master. There was a deep wistfulness in those eyes, and it seemed to understand where James’s thoughts were. It was the father who broke the gaze first. He turned his back to the pet and went to the phone on the wall.
As he hung up at the end of his call Susan stepped into the room.
“Did you tell Tommy? Before he went to bed?”
“He’s going to be crushed.”
“He doesn’t need to know.”
The next morning Tommy came down the stairs and found the dog kennel empty.
“Billy?… Billy!” he called. “Billy!” He rushed from room to room, calling the dog’s name, but found nothing.
He ran out the front door, frantically looking up and down the street. Had the dog wandered off, sick and confused? Had his parents taken it without telling him?
“BILLY!” he shouted, his bare feet pattering down the sidewalk. He called the dog’s name, but he knew in his heart that there wouldn’t be any answer. Slowly he came to a stop, and felt the tears forming in his eyes.
The boy spun around and saw his mother coming out from working in the backyard.
“Mom! Where’s Billy?!”
“Get over here, you’re still in your pajamas! Your father took Billy to the vet this morning.”
“To put him down?” hot tears splashed down Tommy’s cheeks.
“No. I don’t–your father said it’ll be alright. He said you wait and see when he comes home.”
“How? Billy’s too old for the vet to do anything for him.”
“You’ll just have to wait and see, but come indoors.”
That evening James came home…alone. As soon as he opened the door to the house he found himself face-to-face with his son, accusation etched over the boy’s eyes.
“You’ve killed him!” Tommy declared.
“You took Billy to be put down!” Tommy teetered on the edge of losing all composure.
“No,” James said firmly. “They’re seeing to him now. I thought he’d be ready to bring back this afternoon but he’s not. He’ll be back tomorrow.”
Tommy squinted suspiciously at his father, but there wasn’t anything concrete to justify his doubts, so he merely trudged away, shaking his head.
Susan looked up from peeling carrots after the boy had left.
“Don’t you think he’s old enough to know the truth?” she asked. “Putting it off for today is only going to make things worse when we do have to tell him.”
“Actually, it’s all been arranged. I’ve been in contact with a kennel in Springdale. ‘Billy’ will be vaccinated and ready for his new home tonight.”
Susan did not match his smug smile.
“I don’t know, dear,” she said slowly. “I honestly feel like that’s just going to be worse.”
“Well you never had any pets growing up, you don’t know what it’s like. Trust me, will you?”
The next morning was the weekend, so both James and Susan were waiting for Tommy as he came down the stairs and saw Billy back in his kennel.
“What?!” he said in awe.
The dog stood tall and alert, his fur coat full and shiny like it hadn’t been in months.
“I told you to count on your old man!” James crowed.
“But–how?” Tommy asked. “He was just old, I thought. What can a vet do for just being old? I was afraid he–“
“Well that’s just the problem!” James interjected. “Dogs can smell fear, can’t they? Old Billy could feel how afraid you were, and that was just a whole other stress for him to deal with. Had him worried sick. I think spending some time away from all our fretting was the best medicine he could get! But what are you waiting for, boy? Come say hello to your old buddy!”
The dog craned its head up to look at its master, regarding him with curious eyes. It heard a movement ahead and saw the small boy drawing near with hand outstretched. Instantly a growl resonated in its throat.
“Billy?” Tommy asked and the dog barked loudly.
Tommy frowned and side-stepped to the shelf of doggie treats and toys.
“Look boy, a biscuit!” he held the treat aloft, then lobbed it over. It feel between the dog’s paws, and it glanced down, then locked eyes with Tommy again.
Tommy picked a clicker off the shelf and clicked it two times.
He clicked it two times once more.
“What’s happened, dad? He doesn’t remember me or anything!”
“Well…” James’s eyes roved as he sought to explain. “Can you blame him? He’s been through so much lately, hasn’t he? Not to mentioned being out of practice for the past few weeks. So yeah, maybe he’s a bit muddled and confused, but he’s still our boy, isn’t he?”
“Just give him some time. He’s got to get used to being well again, but everything will be right as rain soon, you’ll see.”
James happened to catch the look of concern in his wife’s face.
“You’ll see,” he repeated.
But over the rest of the morning there was no denying that Billy simply did not like Tommy. Did not like him one bit. The boy couldn’t come near without the dog starting to growl and bare his teeth.
Later that day Susan had the dog lay on its side and she petted it soothingly, while Tommy offered the dog a treat. The dog only snarled until Tommy placed the treat on the ground and backed away, then it lapped the biscuit up. But as soon as the snack was down the dog went back to fixing the boy once more with an imperious glare.
“But he was my friend!” Tommy wailed. “How come he isn’t my friend anymore? I want my Billy back, not this bully!”
“Let’s try and find something the three of us can do together,” Susan suggested. “Something distracting. Billy always loved going for his walks, didn’t he?”
“Do you think he still would? He seems to hate everything that he used to love before.”
But Billy did enjoy the walk. He even let Tommy walk alongside him without any growls, as he was too distracted by all the new scents and sounds to be mean.
“Can I have the leash, Mom?”
“Can I take him for his walk by myself tomorrow?”
“No, you’re too little.”
“But you always let me before. You said Billy could keep me safe.”
“Well…I think Billy still has to do some more getting used to you.”
James was present later that afternoon when Tommy tried to offer a treat to the dog again. Billy barked and Tommy dropped the treat in fright.
“No, Thomas,” James scolded as Billy lapped the treat up. “You’re teaching him that he can bully you and still get rewarded for it. We have to be tougher with him. If he doesn’t behave, he doesn’t get a treat. Grab another of those treats and let’s try this again.”
James crouched down by Billy, his arm across the dog’s back.
“Now bring that treat forward, and don’t act scared. He’ll never respect you if you act scared around him.”
“But he used to respect me.”
“Never mind what he used to do. This is how he is now. Bring the treat.”
Tommy started to extend the biscuit, and as expected Billy’s lips drew back over his lips and he started to growl. In a flash James had struck it across the nose, eliciting a small yelp.
“Don’t hit him!” Tommy cried.
“I know how to raise a dog. Now offer him the treat again.”
Another growl, another slap, another yelp.
This time James clamped his hand around Billy’s snout, forcing the dog to swallow his growl. The dog strained to leave, but James held him firmly in place, held him until the dog stopped straining.
“Good. Now pet him.”
“He’ll do nothing. I have him under control. Pet him around his collar and leave the treat at his feet.”
Tommy did so, then took a step back so that his father could release the dog.
“Not too far,” James instructed. “He still has to understand he only gets his treat when he lets you be near.”
Then he released the dog. Billy whimpered at James, eyes downcast and ashamed.
“You brought it on yourself,” James said sternly. “Now take your treat.”
Billy sniffed idly at the biscuit, and gave it a little lick.
“You see, Thomas? That’s how it’s going to be. We’ll have him in his place in no time.”
“But I don’t want him ‘in his place.’ This is mean. He never had to be put ‘in his place’ before, he was just a good dog already.”
“You don’t approve? Then I guess I’d better take him back to the kennel now,” and having said so, James made to grab the leash off the rack.
“What?!” Tommy exclaimed. “You’re going to get rid of him?”
“Why not? You don’t want him anymore.”
“I didn’t mean that! Please daddy, no! I’ll make him respect me, I promise.”
“Doesn’t it sound too mean, though?”
“No, it’s fine! I’ll do it. I promise!”
“Hmm…well I guess I’ll wait on it for now then. Why don’t you go play?”
Tommy scampered off, and James turned around to meet his wife’s frown.
“What? That was actual progress!”
The next morning Tommy came downstairs early, before either of his parents had awoken. Billy was still asleep as well, and hadn’t fully roused before Tommy already had the leash hooked up to his collar.
“Come on, ” Tommy said officiously, “we’re going for our walk.”
Billy gave a little snarl, but was still too groggy to do anything more.
“None of that! You’re going to respect me now, boy.”
A dangling treat and a tug on the leash and Billy reluctantly rose to his feet and plodded with the boy down the stairs. Once the two of them were outside the cool morning air woke the dog up fully, and it started walking along at a brisk pace.
“Attaboy!” Tommy said brightly. “I don’t know how you’ve forgotten so much, but you and I are best friends. And you’re gonna remember it.”
They came to a street corner and Billy made to turn.
“No Billy, you know we’re not allowed down there. Daddy and Mommy don’t want us anywhere near the rail yard.” He tugged the leash to guide Billy back, but the dog whipped back with a snap of its teeth.
“Billy, no!” Tommy said firmly. “I don’t want to be tough on you…but I will be until you agree to be friends with me again.”
A deep growl started to reverberate in Billy’s throat. Tommy thought about letting go of the leash, but he knew he just had to be tough. Knew he just had to push on until he finally got through to his beloved friend. He lifted his hand and slapped the dog across the nose.
And that was that.
James and Susan came down from their bedroom less than hour later.
“Tommy? Are you down here? Tommy?”
They saw the empty kennel, saw the leash missing on the rack. They each fixed the other with the same look of horror, bolted out the front door, and streaked down different roads.
“Tommy!” they called. “Tommy!” But no one answered.
“TOMMY!” they shouted, their bare feet thundering down the sidewalk. They called their son’s name, but they knew in their hearts that there wouldn’t be any answer.
On Monday I spoke about stories that repeat the same messages, or even the exact same lines, in order to reinforce or evolve a central idea. The very end of this story, of course, ended with the two parents searching for the boy that they would not find, and I used the exact same phrasing as when I wrote about Tommy looking for the dog that he also would never find.
And my hope is that this symmetry will hammer home the main theme of my story: searching for that which is lost, searching for that which cannot be found. Even after “Billy” has been restored back to Tommy, Tommy is still searching for his old friend. There is a dog before him that answers to the same name as before, but it is just a facade, the relationship is still missing. Sadly, Tommy is too young and naive to understand that the old relationship cannot be regained, for the beloved dog he is looking for is already dead.
But it isn’t just the true Billy that has been lost, Tommy has been lost as well. And Tommy was lost even before he took the dog out that fateful morning. By the loss of his pet, and by being the victim of deceit, his innocence has been taken from him. His parents, particularly his father, had already arranged his demise. By trying to protect him, they doomed him.
Which, of course, was written with a specific message to convey. This story is a statement that not being allowed to mourn the wound only creates a greater wounding. Hiding pain only makes it become worse, just as telling lies only increases the sin. The immoral comfort of today only ensures retribution for tomorrow.
I tried to prepare readers for that take-away, by first making it clear that the father’s approach to the whole situation–buying a new dog to replace the second–was wrong. By knowing his behavior was wrong, they could start asking themselves why. But how did I tell the audience that the father’s behavior was wrong? By making him do unpleasant things, such as be condescending to his wife and pompous to his son. In this way I signaled to the readers what their feelings towards him and his philosophies should be, even before the outcome of them was seen.
Is that manipulative? Maybe…but I think that question requires a deeper analysis than we have time for here. Let’s come back on Monday and reflect on this common pattern in story-telling and whether it is fair for a writer to employ it or not. I’ll see you then.
There is a classic folk rock song called Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin, and every time I hear it I have a lot of emotions stirred up inside me. The structure of the song is a story told through a series of snapshots, with the chorus being repeated between each chapter/verse. The person singing tells the part of a father who is so busy with business that he misses the birth and first steps of his own son. At the time he affirms that they will have time together someday, and takes comfort in the fact that his son is destined to be just like him. The same pattern repeats when the son is ten, and wants to play catch, but the dad is again too busy.
At this point the song takes a turn. The next snapshot is that of the boy having just graduated from college. The father is so proud of him, and wants to talk to him, but all the boy wants is the keys to the car. There will be time to catch up later, after all. And then comes the final chapter, where the father is now retired and has a bounty of time on his hands. He calls his son, expressing his desire to connect, and the now-adult son affirms his own desire to do so as well…if he could just find the time. And then the father realizes that the boy really did grow up to be just like him.
It is an emotional story all on its own, but the format of telling it through a song allows Harry Chapin to drive its themes even more deeply into the heart. Because, after all, songs have choruses and repeated lyrics, which Chapin cleverly utilizes to reinstate prior ideas, and even twist them.
Thus the the line
He’d say “I’m gonna be like you, dad”
“You know I’m gonna be like you”
in the first verse is full of pride and anticipation. It is the father relishing a son that will emanate all of his virtues. But when it returns at the end as
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me
it is overflowing with regret. It is the father realizing that his son instead inherited all of his flaws. And Chapin doesn’t have to spell things out for us in a blunt or heavy-handed way, he just repeats the same line under a new context, and the irony hits us like a ton of bricks.
Echoes of the Past)
This sort of repeated statement is utilized multiple times in the musical rendition of Les Miserables. An idea is sung in one song, and then later returns in another. However these restatements are not only used to twist an idea into something ironic, sometimes they are to give a fuller, more reinforced weight to the same idea.
Consider the song Valjean’s Soliloquy, in which the protagonist struggles to accept the grace that is being offered him. The cynicism in him says that there is too much hurt and sin in him to ever change, yet even so he feels the pull to be a new man. He concludes this song with the following words:
I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
As I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin
And so he concludes the life of a sinner and begins a new journey as a saint. It would already have been a powerful moment if left in isolation, but later it gets doubled down on by Javert. Javert is the man who has absolutely refused to let go of Valjean’s old sins. He feels a great need to prove that Valjean’s “new leaf” is nothing more than a con-artist sham. Javert is the embodiment of that same cynicism Valjean once held for himself, that there is too much sin for one to truly change.
But then, finally, Valjean manages to convince Javert. He has the opportunity to kill his old tormentor…and he sets him free instead. In the face of this Javert has to accept the reality that he is wrong. Valjean is not the scheming blackheart that Javert has tried to cast him as. This brings us to Javert’s Soliloquy, which ends in these words:
I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on!
And so he concludes the life of a condemner, and throws himself into the Seine. Just like the segment from Valjean, but twisted to condemnation instead of salvation. The reborn Valjean is simply too expansive a presence for pessimists and abusers to share in his world. His rise requires all the others to disappear into the shadows one way or the other, and the musical makes this message crystal clear by repeating its ideas under different contexts.
The Perfect Storm)
In my most recent story I also tried to implement repeated statements for amplified effect. My approach, however, was to create three different statements, one for each of my characters, which were then each repeated together at the end of the tale. Thus the final scene does not present any ideas that weren’t already given before, it just stacks them all together until they become an overwhelming chorus.
In Bartholomew we saw that he was pulling on his shipmates’ strings, goading them into violence when he provoked Julian into lashing out. That was immediately followed by us seeing how Julian was unafraid to resort to violence to silence his enemies and cover his sins. That was followed by us seeing how Captain Molley was reaching the limits of his temper, champing to execute his justice on Julian.
Each of those moments overlapped only briefly, but then, in the final moments, Bartholomew goads Julian into choosing sides, Julian feels himself teetering back towards violence, and Captain Molley starts poking old wounds rather than pacifying the situation. Every isolated voice is now reinforced by the others, and so the climatic fallout at last occurs.
With my next story I am going to take this tool of restating in a different way. I am going to try and replicate the example in Cat’s in the Cradle and Les Miserables, where an actual line is repeated verbatim (or close to verbatim), but under different contexts that give it entirely different meaning. But the two different meanings combine to make one, reinforced idea together. Come back on Thursday to see how that turns out.
It was the longest night of my life, and when at last I did fall asleep, my dreams were unlike anything I had ever experienced before. There was no narrative to them, no sequence of events that my dream-self walked through. There was only a single image, a single presence: that of a massive black orb covering the entire lower third of my vision, with a golden haze around its perimeter, and an empty grayness above.
And that orb was pulsating. It wasn’t a sound or a tremor, but every so often I felt a slight anxiety, which escalated into an undeniable foreboding, and then peaked as an all-consuming dread. And then it was gone, and I felt nothing, until the entire sequence returned a minute later.
And so it continued through the entire night, until all at once my eyes flew open, and I could not say whether it had been only a few moments that had passed, or entire weeks.
Mira was staring back at me, each of us bathed in the cool gray of morning. Both of us knew that it was time for us to go. We raised to our feet and made for the Slab Altar at the back of the Coventry. As we wove through the streets we were joined on all sides by the rest of the citizens, each being pulled by the same thread as us, each answering the same call. In the years since I have been made aware that throughout the entire Damocile Region, all citizens were drawing their eyes to the western horizon at this time, watching that line with intense fervor, not even knowing what it was they waited for.
By the time Mira and I came into the square the Priests were already making preparations before the altar. They had procured a massive metal table, which rested upon a pin that ran down its middle, so that the sheet could be either rotated up vertically or laid flat horizontally. Upon this table they had deposited the dried bracken that I and my compatriots had delivered, and four of them were crouched over the wood, moving the pieces about in a very deliberate, staccato fashion, as if in a trance. On occasion they would lift their hands off the table entirely, and flex their fingers in strange ways, as though there was an electricity crackling between their digits and the pieces of bracken.
I was not sure what the point of this was, but after fifteen minutes of them repeating the pattern I noticed that the ends of the dried bracken began to lift up towards their fingers when they lifted them from the table. Then, they touched the pieces again, moved them about, lifted their hands, and the wood raised still higher and began to sway. Over and over they repeated this process, and as they did so the bracken became more and more animated. Individual pieces of wood started to slowly fracture into splinters, then reassemble back into the whole when the Priests lowered their hands back down to the table.
I was so caught up with the process that I had not even realized that three more Priests had taken their old stance on the middle of the Slab Altar, and had begun the grim working of filling the last of the blood-quota. How many souls could be left, I wondered. Given how precise everything was in this place, I did not doubt that the number would be exact. One moment the Slab would lack a single drop of blood, the next it would be perfectly filled and no more.
“How much longer do you think this will go for?” I whispered down to fair Mira at my side.
“Not long,” she said distractedly. “No, not long at all left now.” Suddenly her eyes flashed and she came back fully to the moment. “Graye! Hold my hand!”
She spoke with such earnestness that I immediately took her palm in mine. She squeezed her fingers tightly around mine, as if terrified that I might slip away.
“It’ll be alright,” I said.
“It will be what it will be,” came her response.
“I–” before I could finish my words there came a loud crackling sound from up ahead, and looking forward I saw the Priests at the table now had an entire ball of splintered bracken trembling between their outstretched hands. The trembling was so severe that I thought for a moment that the wood was turning fluid. But it was only perfectly pulverized dust. The particles of bracken now flowed freely over one another, began spinning round in a tight circle, appearing more and more silver as they streamed faster and faster.
The Priests withdrew their hands and stepped back, but still the powdered bracken continued to twist and contort. It was moving entirely under its own power now. And all the while the methodical slice of the executioner’s blade hummed through the air behind it.
“It’ll be alright,” I said more earnestly to Mira.
“It doesn’t have to be,” she whispered.
“Yes, it does. Whatever follows, I will come for you. I will stay with you. It’ll be alright, we’ll be together. I promise.”
“Graye,” she shook her head sadly, “you have to–”
It was a high-pitched whine that distracted us this time. The bracken churned violently, oscillating at tremendous speeds until molten globs of it flung outwards, then slowed and flung back to the center mass. The Priests at the center of the Altar were repeating their movements at an exaggerated speed. The first one rambled exchanged words with the victim in a rush, the second scribbled the name furiously into his ledger, the third instinctively swung his blade even before the hammer touched his shoulder. And then, even before the victim had been fully consumed by the stone, the next subject began their approach.
And though it was morning, it seemed that the sun was setting. I looked up and saw that it still stood in the sky, but the light was draining from it. Strangely it was the portions of the sky that were furthest from it that still retained the memory of its illumination. Long shadows began to stretch over our congregation, dancing wildly as the light that cast them waned for the last time.
A dull throbbing resounded now from the molten bracken, and I realized that it was slowing. The mass came apart in a million fluid strands, each weaving one direction or the other, splitting and converging as they began to draw out a tapestry. It was a great circle, just as had been described to us by our host, when he recounted the first time my ancestors had brought bracken to these people’s ancestors. That circle was composed of so many parts, but each fitted together perfectly, so that they congealed into a single whole.
And down the center of that circle was the shaft. Not empty as it had appeared all those generations ago, but full and complete, with the last fibers flowing into place even now at the very center of the whole, doing so in perfect time with the last subjects making their way to the center of the Altar.
“I promise,” I clutched more firmly at Mira’s hand, though every I spoke word tasted false. “I promise we’ll be together. I’ll never let you go.”
“Graye.” She said it with such a tone of finality. “I said to you yesterday that you should take what gifts we transient souls can offer.” She stared firmly into my eyes. “But also, do not tear yourself by trying to hold onto that which can never stay.”
And then she drew her hand away from mine. I do not know how she managed it, for I had been gripping it in a fearful vise. Yet somehow, seemingly effortlessly, she pulled back. Then gave a sad sort of smile, said “goodbye,” and turned to walk away.
I remained dumbstruck, watched as she wove through the crowd, made her way with purpose towards the Slab Altar. Even then I did not understand, I suppose the reality of what was happening was too awful for my mind to accept. I did not comprehend what she was doing until she was but five paces from the Priests at the center, who were waiting for the next and final victim to come.
I mouthed the word “no” but no sound came out. Indeed, it seemed that all the air had been forcefully removed from my lungs. You might wonder that I did not fight to reach her and drag her back, but I could not. There were forces at play which I was powerless to resist. Somehow, I had always known that she was the one to fill the quota.
Mira did not speak to the first Priest, though, she did not have her name transcribed by the second, and she did not approach the third for the killing blow. As she had said the day prior, she was not like the rest of the Coventry. She was the keystone at the top, not subject to the rites and rituals of all those below.
Every eye fixed on her as she spread her hands out wide, giving a broad salute to the dread horizon. She turned to look at us and the last embers of light flit across her pale skin, making it seem as though her face was contorting between a thousand expressions every second, like she was mad, or possessed by innumerable demons.
Then, everything stopped. All the light rushed to one point, the one where she stood, and it illuminated her in perfect clarity. She appeared divine. And the rest of us were plunged into total black and ceased all movement and all noise. We were the vacuum now, and she was the only spot that existed in all the universe.
And though I was lost in the void, still her eyes were able to feel through the emptiness until they met mine. She stared straight at me, and gave that sad sort of smile again.
Then her body slammed to the ground in a single instant and pounded into nothingness! All that made her was expelled and consumed faster than I could even see. The entire surface of the Slab Altar flashed, and every Priest that stood upon it disintegrated into dust.
A dull roar emanated beneath our feet, pounded up through the earth and quaked us where we stood. There was a rushing feeling, as though we had all dropped into a free-fall. And to that “great beneath” to which we fell there came once more the rhythmic pulsation of doom. It grew in intensity and frequency, each new cycle overrunning the tail of the last. Though it made no noise, it became deafening. Though it made no pressure, it became crushing. My hands quaked over my face, trying to protect me from it, but it pulsated from within me as much as without.
On Monday I wrote about how stories introduce themes and remain consistent to them, providing a pleasant sense of closure and catharsis to the reader. But sometimes I feel you need to pull away from those themes, so that you can then return to them with real momentum. One of the reasons why I created the character of Mira was that the story had been so relentlessly bleak that I felt the ending might land to little effect. For a moment I needed to introduce a single bright spot, something to breathe hope back into Graye, all so that the ending could have its dour impact again.
Thus introducing her might have felt like it contradicted many of the themes that had preceded, but hopefully here at the end of her arc it all seems to fit once more. Perhaps a part of us wants the story to have a happy ending, but clearly it was never going to. Given what this story has been, this is the right way for it to finish.
Speaking of the ending, I want to circle back to the original intention I gave before starting this work, which was to strongly signal the ending before it came, and still have it land in a way that was novel and satisfying. I’d like to bring that focus back to the forefront as we prepare to see exactly how that ends plays out.
Because, though I have been anticipating an end to this story for a long while, really and truly I promise that the next entry in it will be the very last one. Raise the Black Sun is the longest piece that I have published on this blog by a considerable margin. Looking back, there are things that I am quite proud of in it, and there are things that I think are a bit off. Given how extensive a work it has been, I would like to dedicate the next post simply to examining it, as well as considering how I would approach it if I were ever to make it into a full-sized work.
“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!
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.
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.”
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.”
“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 shoulda made it back far enough already that we’d see him now.”
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?”
“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.”
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?
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!
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.
I had a dream that I was an explorer in a new land, traveling with a party of adventurers, all fair-haired, young, and beautiful. We were pioneers, pilgrims, fearlessly carving a new course through the world! I had the sense that we had traveled for a long while already, but that the real journey was only just now about to begin. For we were on a ledge overlooking a lush and green valley, and we were happily describing how we would go into this place, stake our claim, and forge our futures. One ambition would be succeeded by another until we would make this place shine as a beacon to the world, the star that dwelled on earth rather than the heavens above.
As the rest of our group continued with their enthusiasms I noticed a cave standing on the ledge a little bit back from the rest of us. Something deep was pulsating to me from there, and I found myself growing intensely curious. I informed my compatriots that I was going to see what was inside, and they cautioned me to hurry as they would not wait for long.
I entered the cave and found that it was not very deep at all. Just a few yards in and I came to its back, against which their lay a single, massive slab of onyx stone. It was from this stone that the pulsating rhythm emanated, a deeper frequency than I could actually hear, but which I could feel.
I was seized by a strange desire to possess the stone somehow. I reached to my side and drew my knife out, then proceeded to carve an image of myself into the rock. The stone was surprisingly soft, and easily received my image onto it. I was able to make my likeness with perfect ease, even down to some of the most minute details.
With a shock I realized I had been here in this cave for far longer than I had intended and I turned to rush back to my companions. But as I tried to move my legs I found that I could not. Glancing downwards I was shocked to find that my legs had changed, somehow they had been transfigured into motionless stone!
I tried to reach down, to pull my legs free of their earthy confines, but my arms would not extend down to them. I looked to my hands and they were as sculpted stone as well. As panic set in I tried to shout out for help, but no sound emerged from my mouth, for it was stone as well. I tried to look around for anything to save me, but my eyes would not shift, for they were stone as well. All of me was stone.
Though I could not move I was now somehow back on the ledge looking down into the valley. I was an immobile statue, yet still cognizant and aware. I saw my dear friends making their way down the path without me. They went into the valley and began to build their homes, their farms, their mills.
They developed and grew, they married one another, they had families and established a community. They were happy. They were successful. And not a one of them paused to wonder about me. Once every so often I saw one pause as if trying to remember something lost in the periphery, but then they would always shake their heads and go back about their day.
I wanted to cry. But rocks cannot cry.
I had a dream that I stood in a muddy field, grouped with a great mass of individuals who were carrying thick and long beams of wood to a far off destination. Every person was being assigned a single beam, their own personal cross to bear. They all received it, bore it on their shoulder, and then made their way with it down a grassy trail.
I received mine and felt the weight of it push me an inch down into the mud. It was about half as wide as a man, and long enough that its end dragged along the ground. I turned and began to follow the others, filing my way down that same long road. In time I became accustomed to the labor, and after shifting the beam around found a position that was stable. I peered ahead and saw that the way continued for quite a long while, round bends, up and down valleys, and at times the road would became narrow and pockmarked, though never entirely broken.
I made good progress, and even passed a few of the other journeyers along my way. I saw that the road would soon follow a hill that rose, curved right, and then dropped back down to our current level again. I had the realization that I could make better time by taking a shortcut through the field at the base of that hill, which would rejoin the road at the far end of the hill. And so I turned away from the main thoroughfare and ventured out over the unbroken ground.
At first the going was easier. The grass was less beaten down here and provided a firmer foundation for my heavy steps. As I continued, though, the grass became increasingly sparse and my feet began sinking into the soft earth. I had to pause and catch my breath as each step required extra effort to first dislodge from the vacuum of muck and mire.
I had extended about twenty yards out into the field before my first real misgivings began. The effort of lifting one foot out of the mud was driving the other a little deeper in return. Thus each step went further and further, and if that continued I soon wouldn’t be able to lift my way out of the mud at all. My beam was now slowing me like an anchor as well, its long end dragging through the soft earth with every step.
I began wondering about heading back the way I had come, but turning this my wooden keel seemed far more difficult than continuing, so I took a few more tentative steps. Perhaps I would find my way to a drier patch of ground soon?
But no, I had barely gone three paces more and I was already dropping all the way to my thighs. My last step never stopped sinking, it just kept descending slowly and so I floundered my legs, pumping them as if swimming upwards. It made it hard to keep my balance, especially with how the beam jostled and thudded across my back.
I lost my posture entirely and fell forwards. My hands flung out instinctively into the ground, the fingers splaying out to keep me stable.
There was a sense of dread growing that I refused to acknowledge. I had been stupid, but I was going to wriggle out of this and–
I realized that I was still continuing to sink. Even with all four of my limbs pressed into the ground the mud continued to crawl up my skin, cold and sinister.
“NO!” I commanded, feeling the panic setting in. The weight of the beam was just too much. Until now I had had a sense that I mustn’t lose it, but now that didn’t matter. It was pressing me down, burying me in this mire and I started rolling my shoulders, trying to dislodge it.
It would not move. It was planted too firmly in the soil.
I tried to duck down and roll out from underneath it, but it dropped with me and only pinned me still lower. The scent of the moist earth was filling my nostrils and I felt it crawling up along my belly and chest.
Just my neck and head remained above the earth. My arms and legs churned violently through the mud to no end.
The cold sludge crept up my neck. Closed across my chin. I could taste it.
My cry became a gurgle as the filth flowed its way into my mouth, and filled my vision with darkness.
I had a dream that I was at the bottom of a large crevice, a shaft in the rock that had plunged a few hundred feet down to where I stood. I had no knowledge in the dream of how I came to be here, but here I was and with no way out.
I did not even need to ascertain that there was no exit in this dream, somehow I knew it was so. There would be no scaling the rocky walls, no friend to lower me a rope. This was my world, though I was not discontent with that fact.
What was troubling to me, though, was the intense hunger that I was consumed with. These were no common hunger pang, either, they were sharper than any I have ever felt before. I felt that if I did not find any food soon I would collapse and perish.
Desperately I looked all about me for something to eat. At first I saw nothing, but then as I looked upwards I noticed an immense number of plump white birds roosting in the holes of the rock. They looked extremely fat and delicious, and I tried throwing stones to hit one of them. They were too quick for me, though, and too clever to ever stray far enough downwards where I might reach them with my hands.
In desperation I began rooting around in the dirt, looking for any mushrooms, and I was even considering trying to eat the moss that grew along the rock walls. Before I could, though, a single black vulture slowly wafted down the chasm and landed at my feet. It was a massive fowl, standing as high as my own waist. And in its beak it held one of those plump, white birds.
It looked me in the eye, then dropped the carcass at my feet, taking a half-step backwards as if to make clear that this was meant as an offering. It never took its eyes off of me, and there was something deeply unnerving in its look. There was a deep cunning in those eyes, a frightening intensity, and a hungry desire.
Even so, I wasn’t about to pass up my only opportunity for a proper meal, and so I cautiously lowered to a crouch, extended a single hand out, and took the gift. I never took my eyes off that vulture and it never took its off of me.
With our gazes still locked on one another I tore into the flesh of that white fowl and found it was ever more delicious than I had hoped. The meat was soft and succulent, and at the slightest pressure of my teeth it burst apart in a torrent of sweet flavors. Every succeeding morsel was the best I had ever tasted, and all too soon I held the last remaining bite of the meal between my fingertips.
Though I wanted to devour that morsel as well I knew I should be gracious, and so I placed it in front of the vulture that still waited at my feet. The vulture hissed, seized the piece and flung it to the side. Evidently it could not eat the flesh of the white birds itself, though it could catch them. With a sudden pity I realized it must be hungry as I.
The vulture hopped forward, extending its mouth out towards me expectantly. With that clarity that exists only in dreams I understood it meant for me to give it a bite of my own flesh. That was the meat that it could eat. Though that naturally gave me pause I knew that if I refused then the vulture would not bring me anymore food. And so I extended my arm and watched as it plunged its beak into my flesh. It tore off a chunk and swallowed the whole thing down at once, then happily flew away.
The next long while continued to pass like this. The vulture continued to bring me the birds, I ate them, and converted them into human flesh that the vulture could take from me. It was a horrible dependency we had for one another, I suppose, and yet I somehow found it deeply satisfying.
Unfortunately my ravenous appetite never was abated. Whenever I was not feasting I sat with my head turned upwards, waiting to feast. The vulture was a skilled hunter and soon learned to never cease in bringing me my next meal. At first I tried to ignore the fact that the number of those birds was beginning to diminish, but after only a matter of weeks I could not deny that my gluttony was driving us to ruin.
Where before every nook and cranny of the rocky walls had been overflowing with my winged dinners, now I could scarcely see so much as a feather in all that schism. The vulture struggled to find them, too, and more and more regularly it would come to me exhausted and empty-beaked. It would still approach me for its regularly-scheduled feeding, but I would kick at it and drive it away.
“You can never have anything from me until it you have made payment first!” I would shout at its retreating form.
When it did find food for me I now devoured the entire thing in haste and was left all the more dissatisfied for having tasted so little… with so long to go before I would eat again. I grew faint and weary, and took to sleeping while I waited for the vulture to return.
One time I awoke to see it looming before me, slowly approaching with that same sinister glint in its eye. It paused when it had seen that I had awoken, but after a moment continued forward again. I tried to lift my hand to shake my fist at it but I found my arm would not move. I tried to kick out at it but my leg refused to answer.
I glanced downwards and saw all of the vulture’s bite marks up and down my body. I realized it had systematically weakened my sinews, devoured my muscles, damaged my nerves. All to the point that I now lacked any power to fend it off. It was in that moment I realized my body was more the vulture’s than my own any more.
And still it came forward.
On Monday I mentioned that myths commonly abstract a story’s themes, which signals to the reader that its topics are universal principles rather than individual narratives. It’s important to do that early in the myth, so that the reader understands the proper frame of mind to read from.
In each of today’s piece my intention was to present a sequence of events that was too bizarre to be taken at face value. I did things like beginning each by saying it was a “dream,” I made strong use of supernatural events, I limited the use of character and plot, and I used a narrative voice that was emotionally distant from the intensity of the moments being described.
Most commonly when a reader picks up a new story the main driving question that pushes them through to the end is “what happens next?” But by utilizing these specific tactics I hoped to change that question into something more like “what is this about?” Thus the different experience presented in a myth has something to do with how the writer writes, but also in how a reader reads.
The other thing I wanted to accomplish with this piece was present the same theme in three different ways. There are shared elements between the details of each, such as a solitary central character and a setting based in nature, but what ties them together most strongly is the themes that they all share. Each features a character with initial promise, who encounters something new or strange (a slab of rock, an inviting field of mud, a vulture), and who ultimately loses their way. These are myths about losing one’s place, of being distracted from the right way, of being overwhelmed, and of being consigned to a destruction.
These are sobering ideas, and frankly myths often are. Even the ones that are happy tend to be happy with a heaviness. There just seems to be little point in engaging the reader’s intuition to teach a principle, unless it is a principle that carries some weight.
Before closing, I need to mention one other element shared in these stories: the way that each of them introduces the reader to a new idea and then asks them to follow the logical continuation of that novelty. In fact this is a tool of story-writing that I’ve been using in all of my pieces for this current series. Come back on Monday where we’ll examine this more fully, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
It was a bright Spring morning the day they brought the Sweet Bay tree into the open study area. It was a massive room, featuring thousands of square feet in open floor space, with another fifteen yards stretching vertically before being capped off by a wide glass ceiling that ran the whole length of it.
It was a multi-purpose room, one commonly scattered with tables and chairs for the University students to study at during the days, but all of which could be folded up and carted away with ease. It had played host to dances, career fairs, blood drives, charity auctions and more. Many-a-time it had been reserved for wedding receptions, and once had housed the funeral services when one of the Deans had passed way. A collapsible stage could be erected at one end for music and dance performances. It had seen debates, clubs, and religious ceremonies.
Of course the Sweet Bay tree did not yet know any of these things. It’s amazement as it was wheeled through the double doors was due simply to the sheer magnitude of the place. It was awed at the awesome grandeur on display, the architectural wonder of 400,000 cubic feet, all sustained without a single supporting pillar to break that space.
Somehow the artificiality of the room made it seem bigger. Naturally the tree was natively from the open outdoors, yet the openness there was too great to be appreciated. One does not marvel at a breadth unless one can see both ends of it, and so can comprehend it.
If the Sweet Bay tree felt honored to be put into a room so large, it swelled all the more with pride when it beheld the vessel the workers now lowered it into. A massive pot that lay a full twelve feet across and six feet deep! Perhaps the tree felt a little silly being so dwarfed by its home, but it knew this grand base had been selected with the intention that it would grow to fill it. It meant the workers intended this tree to become the central piece of the room’s ornamentation.
And so, after the workers had finished patting the soil around the tree’s roots, and threaded the water hose through a hole in the back of the pot, and added a layer of shredded bark as a skirt around its trunk, and then left for the rest of the days duties–then the tree unfurled itself and drank deeply from the soil and relished in a sense of fullness and fatness.
“Hello there,” a neighboring fern said. “Looks like they’ve given you the place of honor!”
“Why thank you,” the Sweet Bay tree returned graciously. “Yes, I am quite touched. It certainly is a thrill to come and visit you all. I only hope I’ll be able to measure up to everyone’s expectations.”
“I’m sure you will. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Sweet Bay tree number four on the Eastern side.”
“Eastern side of what?”
“Why the Eastern side of the Administration Building, of course, that’s where I’m stationed.”
“Oh…” the fern said awkwardly. “But aren’t you stationed here now?”
“Oh that’s very kind of you,” the Sweet Bay tree laughed. “I am, as I said, thrilled to come and visit. But I couldn’t possibly give up my station, I am an essential part of the tree-line there after all.”
“Well…” the fern started to say, but didn’t know how to politely end its sentence and so did not.
The conversation with the fern had made the Sweet Bay tree all the more anxious to measure up to the expectations that had been placed upon it. The last thing it wanted to hear was people tutting that it was a disappointment to the place.
Focusing its power inwards the tree began to will itself to new heights. To its delight it felt that the growth came quite easily. The tree was constantly sustained with a diet of nutrient-rich soil, regularly pruned to promote upward growth, and positioned under the glass ceiling so as to receive the most hours of bright sunlight possible.
In a matter of only a few years, which really is no time at all to a tree, the Sweet Bay had multiplied itself by many orders of magnitude, swelling to fill its pot and expanding to brush its uppermost leaves along the glass of the ceiling. Those higher branches would be trimmed, but it always grew them back as a statement to the workers that it was doing its part in the role they had given it.
The Sweet Bay was not at all disappointed for attention, either. It swelled with pride each time a new student entered the room and remarked on how that impressive tree stood supreme in all that space.
“I didn’t know you could grow a full-sized tree indoors!” they often said in awe, and the Sweet Bay tree smiled down at them from its lofty perch.
Almost every occasion held in the room now utilized it as the centerpiece of its decorations. Lights wound up its trunk on Christmas and fake coconuts hung from its branches for luaus. There were black shrouds whenever someone important died, white lace whenever someone got married, and pink ribbons for cancer awareness.
The Sweet Bay tree was very pleased to serve and no one questioned that it did its part well. Still, with every passing year it found itself more and more anxious to know what was happening to its home on the eastern side of the Administration Building.
Any time a new plant was brought in it would ask them if they knew that area of the college campus exterior. Most of the time they did not, having instead been brought from greenhouses and nurseries far removed from the University. One day, though, a young poplar was brought in that had been stationed just south of the Sweet Bay tree’s home.
“The Administration Building? Yes, I know it. Had a fine view of it from the Library where they kept me.”
“Oh wonderful!” the Sweet Bay tree sighed in relief. “Tell me, how are things there? I suspect Sweet Bay trees number three and number five are missing me terribly?”
“Sweet Bay trees number three and number five? I don’t believe I know them.”
“Oh, but of course you do. Why they must be nearly as tall me now. Probably not quite as tall, but nearly.”
“Were they near to the vinca?”
“No, the vinca is on the southern side. These were on the eastern.”
“Ah, that explains it. They tore up that whole side and paved it over with a new parking lot. I didn’t see it happen, but some of the older trees told me about it.”
“Yeah, the demand for parking has really gone up of late. Doesn’t look anything like it used to.”
“But I–I don’t understand. Why would they do that? It’s quite a waste seeing as they’ll just have to change everything back to how it was… so that they’ll be ready when they return me there.”
“I mean why pave over a lovely green lawn when you’re just going to have to put the lawn back sooner or later?”
“Well…I mean…” the poplar stumbled awkwardly to find a tactful way to explain itself. “Sweet Bay trees three and five are gone. You understand? Not transplanted elsewhere from what I heard…gone. So I don’t think they were planning to change things back to how they were again.”
“Oh, of course,” the Sweet Bay tree tutted as if explaining something basic to a child, and not at all concerned about the chopping up of its brethren. “I’m not too shocked that they won’t be coming back. You didn’t see them after all, but quite frankly they were never anything so special as me. That’s why they brought me over here to liven up the room for a bit after all. Because I was the best! So of course they’re going to want me come back there. And when I do come back, I don’t intend to be planted in an inch less of lawn!”
Despite the Sweet Bay tree’s show of confidence, it seemed to have been unnerved by something in that conversation with the young poplar. It began brooding and festering, wondering aloud why it was taking so long for the workers to return it to its station. It simply didn’t make sense!
The tree scolded those workers when they came to prune it and demanded answers from them, but of course they couldn’t understand any of that rustling. They just continued their regular work, making the Sweet Bay tree the perfect, beautiful centerpiece to this grand, impressive room.
Except that the room didn’t seem nearly so impressive to the tree as it once had. The Sweet Bay tree wasn’t nearly so small as when it had been brought in here, and it had long lost its sense of awe for the space. No doubt a large part of that had to do with being as tall as the entire room, for nothing seems so grand once you are able to fill an entire dimension of it. It would scratch its twigs along the glass canopy that defined the extent of its world, transparent enough to tease a world without limits beyond, but forever denying access to it. This room that had once been a throne was now nothing more than an ornate prison.
All the other plants learned not to broach the subject with the Sweet Bay tree. It was entirely unwilling to hear anything about being “replaced” or “forgotten.” And so they all stood silent as it rambled on about the warm summer breeze, the snowy blankets on the field, the buzzing of bees, the chirping of birds, the scurrying of chipmunks, the refreshing rain, the crunching of dead leaves, the flowery scents, the churning of the earth, and the taste of the wild wafting down from the nearby mountains.
One day a trimmed bush was brought into the room and placed right next to the Sweet Bay tree. As with all newcomers the tree swayed wistfully towards it and asked its tired, old question.
“Have you seen the Administration Building? Friend?”
“Hmm, well which one do you mean now? The old one or the new one?”
“Old one? What on earth do you mean?”
“Well they tore down that old one with the Library, didn’t they? Put up that new football stadium instead.”
“A… football stadium?”
“Yes, a sight to behold really! Thousands of tons of steel and stone splayed out over everything that used to be the Administration Building and the Library. With a massive parking garage hulking by its side, even. I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but it makes a place like this feel very small.”
“But…why would they do that? They’ll never be able to get things back to the way they were in time!” The Sweet Bay tree was swaying very laboriously now, as though it might faint from shock. “Where are they going to put me then? It just–it just doesn’t make any sense.”
The bush felt quite awkward and started to shrink back, but suddenly the Sweet Bay tree rounded on it with a sudden fury.
“You! Tell me! Have you heard any word of a new field for Sweet Bay trees? Any word of starting a grove for outdoor studying? Any mention of planting some trees to shore up the river’s edge?”
“I–no, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Has no one said when they’re going to take me out of this miserable place?!”
“You don’t…like it here?”
“It’s my prison!” The Sweet Bay tree fell to weeping. “But still I know they will get me out some day soon. They have to. They just can’t be leaving me here forever.”
For a moment the bush intended to avoid stating the obvious, just as every other plant had done. But then it felt it would be more cruel to leave the Sweet Bay tree hanging onto a vain hope.
“But…how will they get you out?”
“What’s that?” the tree snapped out of its self-pitying reverie.
“How would they even be able to get you out of this room?”
“The door, obviously! The same way I came in.”
“You don’t fit.”
“Well of course I–” a moment of horror swept across the tree. It had been staring down at the doors as it spoke. Down at them! They were so far beneath it, so distant, so small a matrix to pass through. Of course it had fit through them once when it had been a sapling. But now…now the only way out was in pieces.
“When did that happen?” the tree mumbled in shock. “Why did I just keep growing? Why didn’t I stop? What am I going to… what am I supposed to…. Wh–why?”
All the other plants in the room drew themselves as far away as their trunks and stems allowed, trying to grant the poor Sweet Bay tree a respectful moment of silence as its entire world collapsed.
I promised on Monday that I would try to write a story that began with its own ending. From the moment the Sweet Bay tree came into the room its story had reached its conclusion, and all that followed was merely waiting for it to realize that simple fact.
But of course, in this long ending there is also another story that is playing out. It isn’t the story of how the tree came to its final destination, it is the one of how it came to accept it. I wrote this story as an examination of a phenomenon I’ve noticed when people experience sudden, drastic changes to life.
These sharp turns occur in a single moment, and the course of our future is instantaneously changed. But then there is usually a considerable delay before our expectations shift to match up with that new destiny. In spite of all reason and sensibility, it can be very hard to let go of how we thought things were going to be.
I realize it is a strange thing we do, trying to represent very human notions with very non-human subjects. But anthropomorphized characters and allegory have been parts of story-telling since longer than the Tortoise and the Hare. On Monday I’d like to take a closer look into why we do this sort of abstraction. Have a wonderful weekend, and I’ll see you then.
One of the most common metrics people use when deciding the quality of a story is how it makes them feel. A story that makes one feel more is considered better than a story that makes one feel less. Interestingly, we even appreciate the stories that make us feel deeply negative emotions. A tale that ends in tragedy instantly seems to have an air of greater maturity and significance about it.
Obviously the most efficient way to bring great sadness to a story is through the death of a main character. This can give your readers quite the shock as well, because stories often reflect life the way we feel it is “supposed to be.” The two lovers come together, evil is defeated, and peace reigns supreme. So when a wrench gets thrown into this happy formula and a main character leaves their artificial world prematurely, we feel pretty shaken up.
When dealing with such powerful elements, though, authors need to exercise the utmost of care. Any craftsman can tell you that a very powerful tool can accomplish very powerful things, but only when it is used in the right way.
In my opinion our core emotions, such as fear, love, joy, and grief are powerful, sacred things. Because of their power it is easy for us to get addicted to them, and we may start looking for artificial ways to produce them. Authors should not be so profane as to take advantage of such readers.
Authors should instead take great care that they do not activate these core emotions without meaningful intent. It is fine for a story to evoke powerful feelings if it has a worthy point to communicate in the process, otherwise the story is disrespecting the sanctity of these feelings, likely to make a quick buck.
Meaningful Character Death)
Therefore it is important that if a character is to die that it feels appropriate. A big frustration of mine is when a tale shoehorns in a character death simply to try and give itself an importance that has not been earned.
The 1950 film Cheaper by the Dozen features the antics of a family with twelve children. That family is quirky, to say the least, and much of the drama is based around their simultaneous love and embarrassment of one another. It’s a charming film, sprinkled with little provincial wisdoms throughout. “No person with inner dignity is ever embarrassed.” And then, at the end, the father suddenly dies.
Nothing in the film has been leading to this moment and nothing significant is obtained by it. Really it just feels like the story didn’t know how to end and figured a gut-punch was as good an option as any. Rather than landing with the intended gravity it instead just gives the film a disjointed experience.
An important writing rule you should live by is to never pen a plot point for the sole purpose of eliciting a specific emotion. You should never kill a character only to make the reader sad. When a character dies it should happen because it is fitting, because it is right for their arc, because it brings a satisfying closure to the whole.
Of course, for every rule there is also an exception. Consider the most classic sad story of them all: Romeo and Juliet. This story doubles the ante on most tragic endings by closing with the death of not just one, but two main characters! When we look for the narrative meaning to their deaths, though, we come up short. Their deaths seem senseless, the result of a mistake, and devoid of any point. And that, ironically, is the point. These deaths should not have happened, and that is the great tragedy of the story. When hatred kills love there is no closure or satisfaction to be found. Thus we are sad, but we are sad meaningfully.
If there is any plot device that can elicit a more powerful reaction than a tragic death, it must be the death that is also a sacrifice for some greater good. Sacrifice affects us on a level so deep that it seems to be sacred. We are moved by it, even if we do not fully understand why.
Once again, though, with such potent power there also comes a great risk of horrible misuse. The absolute worst way to employ sacrifice is to dilute it with overuse and cheap manipulation. Consider the stories that repeatedly pretend they are going to sacrifice a character so that the audience feels sad, only to flip the script at the last moment so that now the audience feels relieved at the character’s survival. It’s tawdry and manipulative.
Sadly, there are many stories that do exactly this. You need not look any further than comic book plots or old cowboy serials to find a deluge of this trick. The hero “dies” for their cause and everyone feels very, very sad. Then, suddenly, the hero comes back, and they were never dead at all. They were too tough to die, or too wily, or maybe just too lucky. As I said in my last post, this gimmick is one of my greatest pet peeves in stories. You might be forgiven for trying this once or twice, but stories ceaselessly repeat this stunt in a way that insults the intelligence of their audience.
This isn’t to say that a doomed character cannot be saved in a way that doesn’t feel cheap. A week ago I mentioned the Disney animated film Hercules for its portrayal of a hero fighting an uphill battle. This also happens to be a story where the main character intends to sacrifice himself but is saved by divine intervention, all while still respecting its audience’s intelligence.
You see Hercules only survives because he is sacrificing himself. His great dream is to be reinstated as a god, but is told that he cannot until he achieves the status of a “true hero.” Unsure of what that means, he continues along his way and ultimately comes to love a woman who dies and is taken to the underworld. He makes a deal with Hades to exchange his life for hers, fully intending to carry through with the bargain. It is that act of sacrifice, one which carries on right to the moment that the fates cut his thread of life, that defines him as a true hero. He becomes a god in the very moment of his demise and survives his own death. Not because he is tough, or wily, or lucky, but because he was willing to give his all for what is right.
Perhaps one of the greatest tales of sacrifice though is the one story I’ve mentioned more than any other on this blog. In A Tale of Two Cities Sydney Carton is hardly the character one would expect to be a martyr, he is a drunk and a cynic, a man of great potential that has squandered it all in purchase of misery and regret.
In the last chapters, though, he sees his chance to trade his life for that of the man he envies most, the man he feels he could have been. By carrying through with this sacrifice and bearing that man’s death it as though he has also earned his life. He becomes calm, confident, and content, and wishes for no more. In return for paying the ultimate price he reclaims not one, but two lives that day.
That idea of reclamation is truly at the heart of sacrifice, and stories can provide a duality of emotions by it. If a martyr wins the hearts of others through their own death then there can be triumph through defeat, and happiness in the same moment as sadness. That makes for a very fascinating narrative experience, and I’m going to try and capture it with my next short story. This Thursday I will post the first part of that story. That first portion will not include the actual act of sacrifice, but it will introduce us to the character that has been consigned to die for the greater good.