The Storm: Part Two

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Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know, Oscar. I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A spasm crossed his face.

“I’m sorry James.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

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

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

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

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

“Well I am towing you Harry.”

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

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

“I lied to you Oscar.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oscar, speak to me man!”

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

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

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

A long silence.

“I don’t know either.”

A short silence.

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

“Alright, let’s go talk to Sam.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Storm: Part One

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

Usually.

Mostly.

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

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

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

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

Usually.

Mostly.

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

That you, Oscar?

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

Any catch?

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

Sorry to hear that, Oscar.

“It all evens out.”

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

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

All in but Harry.

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

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

“Do you know which way he went?”

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

“He woulda seen the storm coming even so.”

He woulda.

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

He shoulda.

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

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

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

“I know you won’t, Sam.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

Harry do you hear me?!

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

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

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

“What’s your status, Harry?”

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

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

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

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

“Will do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part One

 

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!

Lost and Found

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The Catharsis of Losing and Finding)

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.

 

Lost Forever)

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.

 

Three Variations on a Theme

environment leaves light mud
Photo by Christopher Gawel on Pexels.com

The Stone)

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.

 

The Mud)

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.

“No! NO!”

The cold sludge crept up my neck. Closed across my chin. I could taste it.

“NOOOOO–”

My cry became a gurgle as the filth flowed its way into my mouth, and filled my vision with darkness.

 

The Vulture)

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!

The Sweet Bay Tree

photography of tree
Photo by Yugal Srivastava on Pexels.com

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.”

“They…what?!”

“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.”

“How’s that?”

“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!”

“Ah…well…alright then!”

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.

Main Character Exit, Stage Right

burial cemetery countryside cross
Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

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.

 

Sacrifice)

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.

I’ll see you then.

The Heart of Something Wild: Part Two

photo of forest with fog
Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

“Is it finally asleep?”

Khalil spun around in surprise and found Paki peering into the hut, his eyes locked on Urafiki.

“Yes,” Khalil grinned. “It is soothed, well fed, and resting. It will not eat you today.”

“I am grateful” Paki laughed back as he stepped fully into the home. “Am I disturbing you now?”

“No, Paki, in fact I’ve wanted to speak with you.”

“About the challenge?”

“Yes.”

Paki shook his head. “I do not see why you are so hesitant about it. Who else would you have stand with you? I am the finest warrior in all of the camp, everyone says so.”

“I would say so, too,” Khalil sighed. “But I would also say that one man against two makes for difficult odds. By that I mean no slight to you.”

Paki waved dismissively. “Did you not hear how I fought two Oroko at once in their last raid?” He folded his arms impressively and assumed the boastful stance he always used when recounting battlefield glories. “I used my disadvantage to my advantage. You see, I let one of them–”

“Stab you in the arm so that you could reel him in with your other hand,” Khalil finished. “And then you could dispatch of the other in one-on-one combat. Yes, I know the story, Paki…. Everyone in the camp knows the story, just as everyone in the camp knows how you fight. Abasi has even sparred with you!”

“And I have sparred with him!” Paki added forcefully, frowning at the stings to his pride. “You really believe that I could not defend you?”

“You would protect me too well! Even if it cost you your own life.”

Paki nodded slowly, his frown turning into contemplation. “I see now. And you are right, there is a great risk in this.” He nodded his head in deep thought, then spoke with conviction. “But…this is also what is right. You being our chief is right. Protecting my friend is right. This is the honorable fight for me, and it is the natural order of things that that which is honorable comes with great risk. All the more glory that follows it as well.” This last part he added with a broad smile. “I do wish to earn my calling as head warrior after all.”

Khalil grimaced and shook his head. “Is it right for me to be chief, though? Suppose you could defeat Abasi and whomever he chooses for his companion, what would happen then? Abasi has raised great support these past months, and his death would not be taken well. It could mean civil war for our tribe.”

“And what of us who support you? If you were to fall we would rebel against this coup.” Paki made a spitting noise, but did not actually desecrate the floor of his friend’s hut.

“If you did then you would be rebelling against me, as well!” Khalil snapped and fully spat on the ground. “I am going to ask–I am going to order–all those loyal to me to accept what I have already accepted. We must choose the better compromise here, and the better is that I die quickly and the tribe loses neither its best warrior nor its unity.”

“And serve Abasi? The man is a fool!” Tears were forming in Paki’s eyes. It was impossible to tell if they were of sorrow or anger.

“He will need all of the help you can provide,” Khalil admitted, “I need you to be there for him.”

Paki did not respond, he only hung his head downwards with his eyes closed, tears seeping from them.

“Paki I am now a chief, and though my legacy may be short, let me at least have this one choice to do what is right for the tribe. And for you.” He stepped forward and raised his hand to place it on Paki’s shoulder. But Paki heaved backwards and out of reach, staring up at Khalil with a deep wound. He held the gaze for a moment and sniffed angrily, then stormed out of the hut without another word.

Khalil’s hand was still suspended in the air, but slowly he closed the fingers into a fist and turned back. He was surprised to see Urafiki awake, watching him from the basket. Urafiki was making a low growl in its throat, and its eyes were narrowed. Those eyes were not on Khalil, though, but on Paki’s retreating back.

*

The moon had already begun waning when Paki and Khalil returned to the camp, and now it seemed to shrink more quickly than usual with every passing day. Khalil had tried to catch Abasi’s eye a few times to see what lurked within, but the warrior was steadfastly avoiding him at all times. Khalil supposed that was gracious of Abasi, better to be ignored by him than to be publicly taunted.

More unpleasant was the fact that Paki was now avoiding him, too. When they had their feasts Paki would come for food and then carry it back to his hut. When they held their councils Paki would stare ceaselessly at the ground and never speak a word. The thought had occurred to Khalil that as chief he could demand Paki and Abasi to acknowledge his presence, but what would be the point of that? To satiate his pride? He would be gone before long anyway.

As promised, Khalil held a private meeting with the elders and warriors he knew to be most sympathetic to his cause. He thanked them for their support and then ordered them to respect the rituals and traditions of the tribe. If he was to fall, then preserving the community was what mattered most. Some of them tried to argue, but he merely held up his hand and revealed his intention to face the challenge unaided. The significance of that was clear. He would die, and if Khalil was no longer around for them to rally behind, then it would be hard to justify any rebellion.

Those supporters now avoided making eye contact with Khalil as well. Pleasantries would have sounded too hollow, so numb silence prevailed instead. When Khalil felt the loneliness become overwhelming him he would go back to his hut and be with Urafiki. Though their time together had been short, they had already developed a close bond. Khalil made a collar-restraint so that the creature would not be able to bite him when applying the poultice to its wounds. When it came time for the next application of the salve, though, he found himself hesitating to put the restraint on his friend.

Urafiki’s biting him was not unjustified from the creature’s perspective. How could it understand that he meant it goodwill with the stinging cure? If anything Urafiki was being quite forgiving, and it felt wrong to therefore suppress it. And so Khalil tossed the wood and string contraption to the side and administered the poultice to Urafiki’s hurt while bracing for the bite. It didn’t come. Urafiki raised itself up and hissed, but never latched onto Khalil’s arm as before. All following treatments followed this same pattern and soon Urafiki’s condition was markedly improved.

After a week the creature began to move around the floor of the hut, crawling on four legs like a dog. With the finger-like claws on its hands it could climb up onto Khalil’s table and cot, and at times would also raise up on its back legs. It could stretch up to three times its regular height, and in doing so revealed a long, spindly body beneath the bat-like wings that stretched between its joints.

Khalil had found the creature to be playful, its favorite activity being play-fighting with him. Generally this was initiated as he was ambling about the hut and Urafiki would bowl into his legs from behind, knocking him to the ground. In a flash Urafiki would move up to his chest and neck and hiss menacingly, pausing to let him grip it and throw it to the side. Then it would circle about and make another lunge.

Khalil was grateful that the creature did not try to venture out of his hut, any camp members who had caught a glimpse of Urafiki in his home had all hurried away, disturbed by its strange and somewhat sinister appearance. As such Khalil knew that the creature would have to return to the wild, and so it was that on the afternoon preceding the new moon he lifted Urafiki into his arms and hobbled out of the camp’s clearing, looking for a quiet clump of trees to meditate under.

“You won’t be able to stay here anymore,” he said while stroking Urafiki. “You have your strength back and now you must leave. I hope things go better for you than before?”

Khalil found a quiet corner of the jungle, and knelt down to meditate and pray. As he did, Urafiki paced around him like a sentinel. Khalil quieted his mind and connected with his core. As he did so, he was unsurprised to find a well of fear and sorrow bursting out over him. He had done well in repressing it these past days, but this consignment to death went too strongly against all his basic instincts. Khalil did not try to fight the torrent of tears and shaking, letting them roll over him in one successive wave after another. With each one he collapsed more and more until he was laying prone on the ground, fatigued by the surging emotions. The did not engulf him, though, rather they expressed themselves and then moved on. As their ripples slowly diminished he at last felt the quiet peace of their absence. There simply was not any capacity to grieve left in him.

THUMP! THUMP!

The beating of the drum back at camp signaled that the sun had just begun to dip between the horizon. All challenges to the chief were to be made before it had set completely, and it was Khalil’s duty to be there to receive them. Wiping his face with the back of his hand he rose to his feet and staggered back towards camp.

Urafiki instinctively followed but Khalil shook his hand at it with a loud “Shah!” and it halted. It did not retreat though, only paused and transfixed with eyes of confusion.

“Live a long and happy life, my friend,” Khalil bowed, then continued his walk to the center of camp.

Here the beginnings of a bonfire were crackling and the tribe members were trickling one-by-one into the circle of its glow. Khalil nodded to the priest beating on the drum, and stood at attention on the circular rug at the head of the gathering. Already he could see a ripple moving through the crowd and Abasi emerged from their depths to approach him. Khalil closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, then looked to the man and nodded.

“Great chief,” Abasi saluted him, bowing low and then rising. “Though your rule has been brief it has been gracious. I want it to be known that I have no disrespect for your character.”

Khalil nodded blandly. Abasi meant no offense but he was come to kill him? What was he supposed to say to that?

“Even so,” Abasi continued, “may all the tribe bear witness that I come to deliver a challenge to Khalil, son of Kibali…”

A pause.

“…on behalf of Paki, son of Jomo.”

There was another stir in the crowd as a second figure emerged from their midst. Paki was covered in full war paints and carrying two war clubs on his shoulder. On one end of them was the heavy cudgel, the other end was whittled down to a vicious point. Paki strode up to Khalil, meeting his gaze for the first time in days with harshly intent eyes. He held out one of the clubs to Abasi and gave only the shallowest of nods to Khalil.

“I challenge your right as ruler of this tribe,” he murmured in a low whisper.

Khalil was taken aback, but kept the surprise from his face. “Is this an honorable fight, too, Paki?” he asked coolly.

“We’re past that now.”

“Paki, son of Jomo,” the priest with the drum chimed in. “You have challenged our chief, and so there must be a blood duel. You cannot withdraw until one of you lies dead. You understand?”

“I do.”

“And you have chosen Abasi as your companion in this challenge?”

Paki nodded.

“Khalil, son of Kibali, you have been challenged. Who will fight as your companion?”

Khalil shook his head. “None stand with me.”

The priest sighed. “So be it.” He waved to the other priests and they spaced themselves out, pressing the crowd back to form an open circle with the bonfire at its center. Paki and Abasi backed away to one side of the circle and Khalil turned to another of the priest’s who had retrieved a war club for him.

“When I strike the drum the challenge will begin,” the first priest announced.

Khalil looked to Paki first, and then Abasi. Abasi must have known that the tribe would more willingly fall into line behind Paki, and he would still receive a promotion for his loyalty, probably be made head warrior. It made sense. And yet…. though it was a clever and rational betrayal on Paki’s part…it was still a betrayal.

THUMP!

Abasi and Paki advanced at him from either direction, Abasi hanging back slightly to allow Paki the honor of the kill. Khalil stood motionless, letting them advance. As Paki’s figure loomed nearer though he found himself gripping the handle of the club he had been given.

Paki stepped into a charge and raised his war club high. Khalil’s heart skipped a beat. Not out of fear, but of anger. He moved so suddenly he caught himself by surprise, swinging up in answer to Paki’s challenge. Paki was caught off guard by the motion and barely managed to transition his own attack into a block. He did not fully deflect Khalil’s blow, instead diverting it to his shoulder, where it connected with a cracking thud.

Paki roared in anger, easily ducked under Khalil’s next swing, and then swept Khalil’s legs out from under him. The world turned on its side and Khalil fell onto his back, hard. He was winded and dazed, and unable to hold onto his club as Abasi kicked it out of his grasp. Above him Paki was turning his own club over, pointing the sharp end down towards Khalil’s heart. Paki looked upwards, giving a war cry as he plunged the weapon downwards.

It never connected. To Khalil’s surprise a white blur streaked through the air and wrapped itself around Paki’s head. The warrior shrieked in surprise and lurched backwards, trying to grapple the blanket that had secured itself to his face. Suddenly he stopped his struggling, instead raising himself higher and higher, clear up onto his tiptoes, his hands limp at his side. It seemed as though he were in a trance, then suddenly the spell was broken and he collapsed down to the ground, dead. The white “something” spun off from Paki’s face and revealed itself to be Urafiki.

Khalil staggered back up to his feet as Urafiki slowly raised up onto its back legs, its arms dangling a few inches off the ground. It was hissing menacingly, with ears flattened back against the skull and mandibles were drawn back to reveal its gaping mouth. Its eyes were wide and bloodshot, staring intently as Abasi.

Abasi was clearly unnerved, backing away as Urafiki sidled side-to-side before lunging forward at him.

“No!” Khalil cried, lurching to the side just in time to intercept the creature. He wrapped his arms around the beast, but it was manic, scrabbling up and over his shoulder. Khalil fumbled at his waist, pulling out a knife and stabbing the creature in the side. Urafiki cried in pain and dug a claw into Khalil’s arm.

“Just stop!” Khalil ordered, but the creature was filled with the bloodlust and continued to writhe after Abasi. Khalil drew out the knife and plunged it again, rewarded with another gouge from the creature’s claw, this time in the side of his neck.

Urafiki gave a confused cry, but lurched once more for Abasi.

“I’m sorry,” Khalil gasped, finally burying the knife in Urafiki’s heart. The creature seized up in his arms, going rigid and then slowly limp. Khalil looked into its eyes, wild and wondering, then fading into emptiness.

***

 

As I mentioned in an earlier post about communication, it is essential for the audience to feel connected to the character so that they may share in the emotions they are feeling. I would imagine, and intend, that most readers will feel sorrier for Urafiki’s loss than Paki’s. In the bigger scheme of things that might seem unbalanced, given that Khalil and Paki have shared an entire life together, but the audience did not personally experience that history. Instead our window has spent more time on Khalil and Urafiki’s relationship and it has been a more positive one as well. Therefore I am able to steer the reader to giving that loss the far greater weight.

On Monday I also wrote about the concept of characters and plotlines subverting the reader’s expectations with a surprising reveal. I suggested in that post that usually a character’s actions are telegraphed well in advance so that their shifts and turns are expected. Paki’s betrayal would fall under that category, as I first show him being greatly distressed and then removed from Khalil.

Urafiki’s sudden involvement may not have come as too much of a surprise either, most readers probably assumed that the creature was going to get involved in the ending somehow. My hope, though, was that Khalil then slaying Urafiki would come as a shock. Urafiki was his friend and Abasi was his enemy, so it seems counterintuitive for him to do that. However I have tried to establish a trait that Khalil honors duty above friendship, and so hopefully it will still feel honest.

I also hope that Khalil’s surviving the challenge feels earned. Obviously I set him up as the underdog, and therefore needed him to come out of the ordeal by more unconventional means. That’s a common theme to stories, the hero who somehow manages to best the insurmountable challenge. I’d like to spend some time exploring that idea this next Monday.

Then, on Thursday, we’ll have the third and final piece of The Heart of Something Wild I’ve been working on this story right up to the final minute, and still felt that the closing segment needs to feel less rushed. Come back in a week to read that conclusion.