A life of integrity is the most fundamental source of personal worth. -Stephen Covey
While sorting through old notes for a novel-in-progress, I encountered a tattered-edged piece of construction paper covered in hasty script, portions scribbled out or marked through. It is a writing warm-up assigned in a former writing group. I don’t recall the specific list of words or themes we were required to incorporate; however, given a few word and phrases that I would not normally use together i.e. unicorn and Don Corleone, I can guess.
We’d create eclectic lists of items, names, story elements, etc., and then we’d write furiously for, say, fifteen minutes. Our goal was to create a scene or a complete story within those limits.
I rarely met the goal, although tantalizing ideas might arise from the unexpected mix of elements.
The one written on construction paper is almost a complete flash fiction, and the ending line is an unconscious reflection of my own childhood (and grownup) feelings of being value-less and a failure.
“Little Johnny!” Mrs. Callahan called from the apartment window and pointed toward the playground. “Yer kid’s stuck again!”
Johnny was no longer the neighborhood wimp, but he was still saddled with a nickname no self-respecting fortysomething would answer to, unless he was gangster for Don Corleone.
Sighing, he veered from the sidewalk and jogged toward the weathered playground equipment. The colors had faded on the plastic slides, and the paint was chipping off the swingsets.
“Lily!” he called. “Lily, it’s Daddy!”
A muffled sniffle betrayed his daughter’s hiding place. He crossed the spongy woodchips and rapped his knuckles gently against the plastic tunnel that linked two halves of the play fort.
“Are you hurt?”
“I’ll get out by myself!”
Lily, unfortunate child, was as plump as he had been at her age. Why she insisted on playing in this tunnel, he did not know. It was as if she refused to acknowledge the impossible physics. Her girth would never sausage its way to the other side, but she seemed determined to make the tunnel conform to her dimensions.
His heart ached for her. If only her beloved fairy tales were true — “Oh, look! A unicorn has come to grant a wish to a pure-hearted little girl!” — except that his wish for her wouldn’t be the ability to traverse the tunnel but to see her own worth.
Here’s my would-be entry, exactly 200 words (title included), but sans any critical feedback, so maybe it’s a good thing I mistook the date:
I Lay Me Down
Two by two.
I almost expect to hear Dad holler at me for handing him the wrong lumber: “Two-by-four! We’re buildin’ a house, not a table.”
He was murdered last year. Suspect’s alibi was hinky, but witnesses were sketchy and the jury couldn’t agree.
Two by two is how graves are laid out in the Bellingham family plot. The newer portion is marked by clusters of four stones each, as if pairs of family members pushed their beds together, headboard to headboard, for an eternal sleepover. In the older acreage, graves are tombs capped with stone carvings, as if the Bellingham ancestors aspired to interment at Westminster Abbey.
A new grave has been dug among the elders, and its coffin-length cap lies waiting outside the rope barrier. I toss the shovel onto the grass then hop out of the shallow hole awaiting the concrete casement that will hold the remains of Miss Clarise, aged 103. I beat dirt from my clothes and breathe an apology for the indignity of placing below her an unwelcome gravefellow.
I return the shovel to the shed, and study a knoll above the cemetery.
A good place for a picnic table.
It’s been a long while since I wrote flash fiction, and this piece may not win any contests, but it’s a good exercise in loosening up a long-unused creative muscle.
I’ll be posting some short stories to Kindle in the coming days and weeks, and they’ll be around .99 or so, and will cover a variety of genres.
The first is “Awake”, a romance in brief — in house robe and slippers, to be more precise — told from the perspective of Cale, a photographer who’s not sure he has what it takes, and Penn, a writer and long-time friend who talks in her sleep. It’s a quiet little tale, but it’s inspired by real people, a real dog, and a dream.
Click on the image below to order the story. Enjoy!
Below is a piece of flash fiction written during tonight’s writers meeting. What a blast!
Each person contributed a portion of the premise: An eccentric millionaire lives in the basement of an apartment building, makes duct tape wallets for a hobby, always wears sunglasses (even indoors and at night), looks like an old grandmother, and makes rock-hard cookies.
We had about twenty minutes or so to create our masterpieces. The resulting stories were all over the place, from outright comedies to dark histories.
Mine falls more toward the comedic side. I forgot the duct tape wallets, but included an homage to Tim Hawkins. Enjoy!
What Big Teeth You Have
I settle the sunglasses on my face and shuffle up the basement steps, rock music growing louder as I near the door leading to the lobby. In my pockets are the cookies I made earlier–hard enough to break a tooth. Or a young punk’s skull.
I unlatch the door and step into the hallway, the muted lights still blinding even through the dark lenses, and I blink, orienting myself. Music–if it can be called that–booms along the corridor and echoes in the lobby.
This is a nice place. Grandaddy built it as a luxury hotel, Uncle turned it into penthouses, and I inherited it after a family– Well, let’s just call it a domestic dispute.
Or a blood feud, if the absolute truth must be told.
Teenagers, the spoiled progeny of wealthy parents, pass around bottles of brandy and single-malt, drape themselves over furniture created by Fifth Avenue clothing designers, or dance to the jungle beats reverberating from the sound system stacked discreetly behind a potted acacia tree in one corner.
I put a hand into the pocket of my housedress and pull out a handful of cookies. “Pardon me,” but my voice is drowned by a howling note that pierces my skull even as it calls to my ancient blood. My ears twitch under the white hair holding them close to my head, and a bristle of hair stands upright along my spine.
Now, now, you mustn’t hurt them, but the cookies are already airborne, hitting their marks with greater accuracy than one might expect from a shaky little old woman like me.
The kids flinch and curse and look around. Blood trickles down one pup’s head, filling the air with its sharp metallic tang.
I’ve been missing in action, out of touch with much of the rest of my life, rarely leaving the house but wandering it when I wasn’t occupying a corner of it, head down, writing a short story for a contest.
Yes. I abandoned everything else for a contest. And what a frustrating, enlightening, depressing, wonderful, horrible, encouraging few weeks these have been.
Writing a short story within determined parameters — word count, genre, deadline, etc. — can seem daunting or constrictive, but I like the challenge. It forces me to write differently than I do for a novel or for my own pleasure. On my own, I can take my time, let the story unravel as it wills, at its own pace and down whatever rabbit trails it wishes to explore. Those, after all, can be revised later, and there’s no rush. For a contest, however, there’s a set time and a set limit, and I must create something that plays well inside that fence.
This short story was harder to write than the two novels I’m currently revising or completing. There were times in the past four or five weeks when I thought, “It’s just a contest. It doesn’t mean anything. Why work so hard when there are other projects that need tending? This is a waste of time.”
But I couldn’t stop.
It’s an illness.
It’s aqua vitae.
For non-writers, let me explain writing.
It isn’t glamorous. There are no beach chairs and mojitos involved. There is a lot of hard work and head-desking and pleas for help from passing family members who really don’t know how to solve the plot hole, they’re just on their way to the kitchen, thankyouverymuch.
It isn’t all inspiration and grand eloquence. There is a whole lotta literary crap thrown down that must then be turned over and worked into the soil of verbiage until words come alive and a story grows. And then the branches must be tended, trimmed, shaped. That’s called editing. The shrubbery doesn’t need to take over the yard or overshadow the trees. It needs to be its own thing, and thats what revision/editing achieves. Writing is an ugly business — until it’s beautiful.
It isn’t holding a quill pen and gazing soulfully at the sky, although you’re free to do that if it helps. There is a lot of gazing at the sky, though, or at any nearby object or activity that has nothing to do with one’s story. Sometimes, one stares at strangers in airports without realizing one’s mind is centuries in the past while one’s blank stare is pinioning a hapless fellow traveler.
It isn’t neatly packaged in a daily routine. It is often elusive. If I stare at the computer screen or the blank notebook page for too long without writing, something must change. Words or ideas must sometimes be approached at an oblique angle, as if I were catching rabbits, so I do something to set them at ease – play solitaire, watch a TV show, read a book, take a walk, do laundry, take photos at the park, do research — and let the literary rabbits nibble grass or go about their business until they wander into my snare. Or within pouncing distance. (Sometimes I’m the crafty hunter, sometimes I’m his dopey, eager dog.)
It isn’tjust writing what you know. It is researching to learn something you didn’t know, and then writing about it. Writing can feel a lot like perpetual homework. I’m doing now the kind of work I avoided in school. How weird is that? But research can lead to unexpected discoveries, friendships, trips, and new stories. I did more research for the short story than I’ve done for the most recent novel, and in the process learned a lot about Japanese history and how apple trees were introduced to the country. Boring? Trivial? To some. For me, however, it flung wide the doors of imagination.
It isn’t all book signings, seminar speeches, televised interviews, or drinking coffee while looking hip at the local diner. It is being unafraid to call oneself a writer, being dedicated to one’s craft, and passing one’s wisdom to the next crop of writers.
Now that the short story has been sent to the contest, I’ve turned toward proofing a galley for another writer, and then I’ll be revising a novel, learning about e-book formatting, and maybe reviewing a few more books. Because, y’know, homework.
Written for a contest several years ago, this story was also partly the result of a dare among fellow writers: who could write the best romance? According the strangers and friends alike, my name sounds like that of a romance writer.
Unfortunately, I write more in the fantasy / adventure vein, and romance among characters is difficult for me to write well. This time, however, was one of those rare instances when the story wrote itself.
Enjoy! And if you don’t, well, an honest critique is always welcome. It’s how I learn and improve.
By Honor Bound
She does not kneel. She does not bow her head. She does not utter frightened allegiance. She does not beg. She could be one of the Northwomen, strong, proud.
Bearskin cloak broadening his shoulders, the chieftain strides forward.
She does not flinch.
He strikes her with the back of his hand.
Her head snaps sideways. She almost stumbles but she stands, chin up, eyes defiant. Touching the red trickle running from her mouth, she licks the blood from her fingertip.
Watching from a short distance, Soren feels a surge of lust.
He smiles at his father’s frustration. The chieftain towers over her, his fists clasping and unclasping as if clutching for stolen power; in silence, she robs Asgard of control.
Long waves of honey-brown hair hang down her back and over her shoulders, falling past her hips. Despite the bruise blackening her cheek and jaw, her skin glows golden. She is accustomed to the sun. Through the tight-fitting sleeves of her silken kirtle, her arms show the sculpting of one to whom physical labor is not unknown. She is not the usual prize.
At her feet lays the pierced, bloody body of her betrothed, a fine-clad stripling with more heart than skill. Soren feels little pity for him. Better to die in glory, sword in hand, than to die slowly in the shadow of a woman stronger than he.
The chieftain growls an order, and men bind her hands behind her. “Put her on a horse!”
“On whose horse, Asgard?” one warrior asks. “We lost no men this day.”
A wicked eyebrow cocked, the chieftain grins. “Choose.”
Fighting, immediate and brutal, breaks out around her. She will belong to the man with whom she rides, as his slave or his wife.
“Soren? Have you no desire for her?” Asgard asks. “A woman in need of breaking?”
Soren considers her calm face and uncowed posture. “Not broken. Won.”
Asgard grunts. “Then win her. And bring the blood.”
Soren dismounts his sturdy north-bred horse and strides through the fray. Fools! To fight but leave the prize unguarded.
He hoists her over his shoulder like a sack of grain, and takes her to the only building still standing in the ruined village—a hut clinging to the hillside like a goat clinging to a mountain.
The fighting fades. A hush follows. He knows the men watch.
Kicking shut the door, he stands her on her feet, cuts her bonds then crosses his arms, studying her in the dim light sifting through cracks in the hovel walls.
Hands at her sides, she again defies the expected, not rubbing her wrists where the rope chafed them, and breathes in quiet evenness beneath the fitted silk of the kirtle. Gray-green eyes, the color of the sea under a stormy sky, gaze at him with unnerving steadiness. A plain leather belt girds her hips, the tongue of it falling between her thighs, a suggestive circumstance that stirs him once more.
Won. Not forced.
“I am Soren.” He is irritated at the unsettled feeling in his stomach. “Asgard, my father, gives you to me.”
“My betrothed is dead”—her voice as detached from emotion as the sun from the earth— “I belong to no one, nor do I give myself to any man.”
“Pride will not save you.” Soren uncrosses his arms and steps forward. Her posture makes her appear taller than she is; the top of her head does not even meet his chin.
He fumbles to find his argument. “Those men will take what you will not give, and your pride will diminish with each taking until the woman you are now will not know the woman you will become.”
Her smile, small though it is, curves full lips into rosy sarcasm. “The barbarian speaks with gilded tongue. If more of your kind wielded such skill with words, your wives would come more willingly to bed.”
He speaks more mockery than truth. “We take them fierce, and breed strong sons.”
“Who yields the strength?” Sea eyes glitter with battle. “The forceful fathers, or the long-suffering mothers? The wind howls against the mountain, but gentle rain carves the stones.”
He reaches for her. She spits in his face.
Dragging a finger through the warm spittle running into his beard, he places it into his mouth with deliberate mockery.
Her lip curls.
“Highness,” he wipes his face with a battle-stained sleeve, “there is only one way out of this hut. Only one way my honor remains unchallenged. Only one way your pride remains untouched.”
Fear crosses her face for the first time since the body of her beloved was tossed at her feet. As if to calm her fluttering heart, she raises a hand to the low neck of her kirtle—and draws a knife.
He flings up his forearm, hears the blade drag across the leather vambrace then twists the knife from her grasp. Hand to her throat, he pushes her back against the center post of the hut.
Her nostrils flare, her eyes narrow. Her pulse is warm beneath his palm.
“Clever, highness, but now what will you use? Teeth? Claws? Kicks? Those have never prevented me before.”
The shadow of sorrow behind the contempt in her eyes, and the slenderness of her throat beneath his broad hand, checks his anger. He nods toward a stool in the center of the floor and releases her.
Back as straight as a ship’s mast, she sits, smoothing the kirtle over her knees, turning the tongue of the girdle so that it drapes at her side.
Tapping the knife against his leg, he leans against the crude stone chimney. “The coastal kings are known for their prim ways. Oh, they have their secret lovers, but they have their public queens. And great price is placed on the purity of those queens.”
He pauses, searching her face for understanding. There is only hatred.
“You are pure, else no marriage contract would have been sealed between your father and that of your beloved.”
“Beck is not—was not—my beloved.” Her hands clench on her lap. “He was more brother than lover. He was kind. Brave.” Grief does not overcome her. Lifting her chin, she looks up at him, devoid of tears. “No matter what you do to me, Beck will be avenged.”
The man who wins her will never truly be the conqueror. Yet desire flames in him. He must have her.
“My father requires proof your defenses are breached, highness. Either you give yourself willingly, and I present the blood to Asgard, or I take you by force, and still present the blood to Asgard.”
She seems not to hear, her eyes thoughtful where once they were angry. “How is it you speak so well? You could almost be a noble in my father’s court.”
“Osric and his court are dead.”
“I am aware of my loss.”
How can she sit there, so calm and controlled, while everyone she knew or loved lays dead in the ruined streets?
A wild horse, anger gallops through him. He reins it in, slowing and deepening each breath. Whether angry at her stillness or at what was stolen from her, he refuses to surmise. Such thoughts are not for warriors.
“My mother was, like you, the daughter of a coastal king. It is her speech you recognize.“
“Did your father love your mother?”
“He named her wife.” The tendons in his neck tighten. “You seek to turn the point, highness, but—“
“Why did he give you me?”
“Perhaps you remind him of her.”
“Then why not take me himself?”
“He has women enough.”
“Will you strike me as he did?”
Soren shoves the knife into his belt and yanks her up from the stool. “You are mine.” He bends until their faces are a breath apart. “If you shame me today, I will shame you every day hereafter.”
“Gone is the silver speech,” she murmurs. “Without it, bedding will be an empty thing. For us both.”
“If words are what you want, I’ve words aplenty.”
She tugs at his belt. His body responds, hot and urgent. He reaches for her other arm to draw her to him.
Steel taps his chin. She holds the knife to his throat.
Slowly, he releases her and steps backward.
“I care not for your honor or your shame.” She retreats, placing only a wall of air between them, for he stands before the door.
Fury wars with lust. He says through clenched teeth, “You will regret those words, highness, after my father’s men have had you. Many times.” He forces a smile. “Drop the blade. Take pleasure in the inevitable.”
“It is you who will regret.” Her knife does not waver. “If I do this thing, none of the coastal kings will ransom me.”
“No ransom will be asked.”
The knife tips in her slackening fingers.
“Even if Asgard sought treasure through ransom,” he draws his war-sword from its battered leather sheath, “what is your knife to this?”
He burns, wanting her to come willingly to him, but his persuasions are at an end.
“You are a harsh suitor, Soren Asgardson.” She turns the blade toward her breast.
A chill stabs him. No warrior contemplates self-murder, for the soul is then doomed to wander forever, a dark haunt without hope of peace.
He leaps forward, sword thudding to the floor as he reaches both hands for the knife. Its tip scrapes her skin before he wrests it from her. He flings it to the floor. It lands with a clatter, crosswise to the sword.
She stares at him in unspoken combat. Soren gives way first, unable to batter against the despair in the sea-colored eyes.
“This takes too much time.” His words are sharp. “My father’s men expect to hear your cries by now. Or see me return with you across my shoulder, tamed into submission. They already question my honor.”
“If I do what you ask, do you swear to be kind to me from this day onward?”
He stares at her. Kind?
“Will you protect me from all others, and treat me as you might one of your own women? With the dignity accorded their strength?”
He sees again the black bruise left by Asgard’s hand, feels emotion he cannot name.
“Will you call me by name?”
“You swear to all of it?”
Voice hoarse, he replies, “Yes, high—“
Her name on his lips both disturbs and pleases him. Some captives fight, some go limp. The latter he does not want, and the former are often too much trouble. But this one grants him a gift that is already his by right, and gives it so humbly he is undone.
His body clamors for satisfaction; his self craves her esteem. To have the admiration of a strong woman only adds to the honor of a man, for her strength girds his.
Kneeling, he grabs the knife and draws the blade across his upper arm, where his sleeve hides the wound, and lets blood drip onto a dirty blanket crumpled on the broken-down bed.
“This will be Asgard’s proof.” He keeps his gaze on the blanket.
Rowena kneels, taking the knife from him, the touch of her fingers sending lightning bolts along his skin. Slicing off a piece of her kirtle, she binds the cut and pulls down his sleeve to cover the bandage. Only then does he look at her.
Her eyes watching his, she slides the knife back into her bodice.
He can scarce draw breath.
Leaning forward, enveloping him in her honey-colored hair, she takes his face in her hands and kisses him.
The kiss soft, her lips softer, when she withdraws, he is lost.
After a long gaze-locked moment, she takes the bloodstained blanket. “Honor what you swore, Soren Asgardson”—she hands him the war-sword as if she is already a wife preparing her husband for battle—“and your bed will never be cold.”