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It's been a long time since I wrote any fiction, so this is an exercise more than anything: physio for the imagination. A ten-minute story that assembled itself while I was in the shower.

I did not explain about freezers, but somehow the rumour reached the snow-person )

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Audio version of this post here.

Crossposted from Dreamwidth (http://radiantfracture.dreamwidth.org/3110.html), where there are comment count unavailable comments. Comments either place are great.
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So I was thinking about why the last story felt kind of limp.

First I thought it was the length, but I think actually it's not a formal issue -- not the thing that's bothering me, anyway. It's the emotional content--it wants. I think probably a story shouldn't want anything (or shouldn't appear to.) It should present something, and leave you to feel how you feel. Hopefully really bad.

So maybe this, written over lunch, gets a little closer to what I wanted to do with the previous story. )


(901 words)
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Last Day

He was reading Les Liaisons Dangereuses under a tree when the aliens landed. He didn't look up, and eventually they went away. He heard the cries of alarm and surprise, and distantly assumed it had something to do with a dog or a frisbee. One ship hovered for a good half-hour. He thought a cloud was passing over.

When it left and the sun shone out, he let the book drift to his chest and sat musing in the warmth, pondering vaguely on a feminine-inflected danger, a dangereuse, and trying to remember the masculine form. From there he drifted to regret about not keeping up his high-school French, to regret in general, nostalgia, wishes for one's self as a child, and how these wishes transfer to one's own children. Then it was time to go back to work.

The park was next to the oatmeal and saffron buildings that housed his office. He'd taken a long lunch, but it was the last day before his vacation started, and things were as quiet and dozy inside as out. The temp receptionist was playing idly with the phone in a patch of sunlight. Suzanne and Mike were arguing companionably in Suzanne's office, the one with the better view. The repair guy from the copier company was tinkering. That seemed to be the whole population.

He sat down at his desk and sorted papers. Most of it had to do with people he hadn't heard back from because they were away on vacation themselves. By the time he returned, they'd be back, panicking from all that rest, and demanding to know the state of their files. He looked forward to this with ironic affection for humanity. He could afford to, with two empty weeks ahead of him. He sorted out several piles and labeled them with sticky notes.

He printed off his notes for Suzanne and carried them in to her. She thanked him abstractly and set them down in a pile of receipts. He knew she'd lose them, and this too made him smile.

He went back to his office and reviewed his email, thinking that in terms of an epistolary novel like Liaisons, blogging and its comments function worked much better than email, because at least a little bit of editing went into blogs. Still, he couldn't help reading extra narrative into his long exchange with Simon at the printing company about the logo.

"Hmh." he said, halfway between a sigh and a yawn. He set his autoreply, writing in a small joke that in two weeks the recipients would be very sick of.

He slapped his thighs in satisfaction, felt silly, and slapped them again ironically. He got up. He looked out the window. The alien ships were hovering just above eye level. They looked like a picnic of silver plates. He frowned. There was something unsatisfying about their size. Too large or too small.

He went back to Suzanne's office. She and Mike were contemplating the view.

"Is it a publicity thing?" he asked them.
"We were just saying." said Suzanne.
"Whose is it?"
She shrugged.
"It's not bad." said Mike.
He shrugged. "Yeah... it's a little simple."
"The best ideas are simple." said Mike. It was a paraphrase of his much longer email signature.
"Yeah." he said. "Well, I'm gonna head."
"This is your last day, right?"
"Before vacation." All three made faint laughing noises.
"Yeah." said Mike. "I didn't mean on earth or anything." He was writing something into his palm pilot.
"Yeah. So... see you guys."
"Yeah." said Suzanne. "Enjoy the trip."
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The ex-co-con asked after my cherry tree the other day, when it was still only spotted with blossoms, as though they'd blown there randomly from another tree. A day or two later, I noticed it was covered with dark-pink buds. Today it's in full pink cotton candy blossom, which makes me feel both nostalgic and slightly nauseous.

Yesterday on the coffee break (my new job has a coffee break. With coffee. And milk. And sugar cubes. For free.) I was sitting at the table between the head curator / general boss and the staff curmudgeon, who were discussing, um, some artists I didn't know anything about. English ones. And then Russian, I think. And then a contemporary painter, Freud, who I actually had vaguely heard of. And then the head curator said, "Wonderful texture on his canvases, Freud."

Dear dog, children. I work at a place where they talk about brushwork on their coffee breaks.

I only wish I could keep up.

I am going a little bit mad with the extra-long workdays. It's only for a few days, and it's not exactly a terrible burden, but I'm still too tired when I get home to do much other than watch Buffy and wish I were writing. I'm one of those people that if they don't write in a day, thinks, "What if I died tomorrow? I'd feel like such an idiot."

So I'm tightening up on enforcing the write-every-day rule, and in aid of that, I present a ten-minute timed writing. Not exactly a story. More of a Snippet.

cell phones )

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I've finished The Eye in the Door. I think I'll probably have to buy the series at some point. You know. When I'm Rich.

Books, formative and otherwise )

I'm including last night's bit of timed writing, for your potential entertainment. Hmm, it's sort of roughly depression-era struggling family saga material. Probably residue from reading Grapes of Wrath. No fantasy elements, although I think the poor bastards could use some. And having said that, now I want to put some in. Feel free to suggest What Should Happen.

Ten-minute tale: Triptych )

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Everyone knows that the ahhhtist feeds on beauty alone; if that beauty happens to come in the form of roasted-garlic potato soup, as it did repeatedly for me this weekend, so much the better.

Friday, Bee (not a Honey Bee, exactly, though sweet, nor yet a Spelling Bee, though well-read; a Queen Bee in spirit, but of a more democratic bent; in this circumstance, a Wine Jelly and Chocolate Chip Cookie Bee) came by with bagels (I am trying so hard not to be alliterative and failing so badly) and an array of other delicacies to feed my, er, soul. (But I *do* find the soul is very well-satisfied by milk chocolate. I really do. Dark chocolate is delicious, but it is more of an intellectual substance; or, say, a spiritual *challenge* rather than comfort. Dark chocolate makes me feel bleak and noble.)

Saturday Grumpy Bastard repeated his Hell and Gone feat and we drove out to Bee's Mum's pottery studio for her yearly craft fair. The studio is a gorgeously rambling shake-covered being (surely not just a building) heated by a central woodstove, on which they brewed hot apple cider. Off to one side is the hobbity (or -- more playful -- Barbapapa-y) outdoor kiln. Windows in the downstairs studio framed views of mist-filled trees. Upstairs was the show-room, with slanted attic ceiling and not only Bee's Mum's work, but that of her students as well, and some lovely knobbly-yarn scarves by a Young Artist arcanely connected with Bee. Bee's Mum makes gigantic teapots in the shape of rhinoceri. Everyone else pretty much made bowls, but they were terribly nice bowls.

And if you had gone, you too could have had a marvel of a little pottery cup to take home, for everyone who had cider got to take their cup home. Mine is speckly blue, and I believe G.B.'s had a glossy blue-green glaze. I wandered around repeating "This is wonderful!" every few minutes, and people were in such a good mood that no one hit me with anything heavy (and there were lots of heavy things about.) G.B. more sensibly got a scarf. (The latest incarnation of the Eternal Scarf, but that is not my story to tell.)

Today I spent most of the day doing housework and ironing anything that would lie flat long enough. Tomorrow morning I go for my job interview, and as Caro-mi-caro says, we know not what outcome to pray for. Pray anyway, children. Pray very hard. Every time a bell rings, some poor sod has to answer the phone.

* * * * *

I read the following fragment to Grumpy Bastard last night, after much fretting about whether it was Too Trivial for Words. He pronounced it just trivial enough to suit words very well, but he was annoyed that it was unfinished. I thought I'd finish it today, but unless I stay up all night to do it, no. Since my time is so uncertain just now, I thought I'd post what I had.

I know you've often thought, as I have, that the real problem with A Midsummer Night's Dream is not its lack of narrative momentum, or its excessively prolonged denouement, but its insufficient levels of Gay.

I watched a recent movie of MND in pieces over the last few days. The casting was terrible. (I heart Stanley Tucci, but Puck?) The staging was awkward. (Titiana jumped around magically through the art of poorly cut film.) They used Received Standard Shakespeare Delivery, which means that you can garble your lines completely so long as you emote a lot. And Callista Flockhart... tried.

Still, lots of running around after the wrong person, and I kept thinking that it would be fun to write one of those love-potion-confused-identity comedies, but with more Gay, since that allows for so many more degrees of misunderstanding. (I think we are all agreed that the crossdressing in Twelfth Night is essential to happiness.) (Do we think MND is stronger than TN? I suppose we do. But think how much better it would be with more crossdressing.)

So, then, a midsummer night's ten-minute story. This lumpy little cake is also flavoured by C.S. Lewis, since I just re-read The Magician's Nephew courtesy of Grumpy Bastard, and by Jane Austen, since when I can't think of anything else to do I just copy Jane. Oh, and everyone has made-up fantasy-style names, but I wonder now if it might not be more fun to use the MND ones.

(Apologies to Grumpy Bastard if the horses behave unrealistically for the sake of the narrative.)

never did run smooth

By noon, the wedding site was a shambles. )
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Jack met the fairy king out walking -- the king was walking. Jack was floating down the river clinging to a plank. A few moments before, the plank had been part of a bridge, with no thought whatever of striking out on its own as a boat or some kind of smallish barge. Jack and the plank were doing their best in a bad situation, but neither one was giving the other very much support.

The king and the sinking man exchanged pleasantries -- one ought always to be polite to a fairy, even in awkward circumstances -- and eventually the king grew tired of trotting alongside the plank and offered to rescue the man if he liked. Jack acknowledged that he wouldn't mind.

The fairy king took him home -- the king's home, not Jack's. He took him to a sumptuous chamber and gave him restorative wines. Jack slept on a bed of goosedown and silk, and woke much refreshed. In the morning, he purposed to leave.

"Oh, no, you can't stay only one night in Faerie." said the king. "It's against the rules." I don't know why he used the Latin spelling for the place and the English one for the people. He just did.

So Jack stayed for three days -- three days in fairy/Faerie time, which turned out to be exactly nine days in the mortal world. Everyone at home thought he'd drowned in the freak flood that washed out the bridge. They were very glad to see him, although they made a fair amount of fun of him as well, for getting carried off by such a small river, and for not even managing to get killed.

Not-killed Jack, as they came to call him, grew a little tired of this, and one day he thought he'd get himself into a tight spot and see if the fairy king would come and rescue him again.

His efforts weren't immediately successful. He was almost gored to death by a bull -- or anyway he was fairly sure that's what it was trying to do. He picked a bar fight and ended up with only minor injuries and a debt for the price of fifteen chairs and an heirloom soup tureen.

Finally, his habit of teetering over steep cliffs murmuring "Help" nearly did him in. While turning to leave in disappointment, he tripped on a stone and fell backwards into the canyon. His nemesis the river had been cutting it for centuries, and it was very deep, with some quite pointy bits at the bottom.

Jack howled all the way down, and at the bottom the fairy king caught him, not with a net of cobweb or a single thread of silk, but in his own -- surprisingly wiry -- arms.

"You have a talent for mischance." said the king. "I could find that useful." And they agreed that Jack would visit for another three days while the fairies tried to distill a liquor of ill-judgement and bad timing from his tears. Since he was happy to be there, they had primarily to work with tears of laughter at the antics of some of the smaller brownies and imps, and the results, although interesting, were unpredictable.

Jack was surprised to find on his return to the mortal world that he had been gone, not for nine days, but for eighty-one; that his funeral had been held, a marker for his absent remains raised, and his sweetheart become engaged to a blacksmith.

"Three months?" he said indignantly.
"Life goes on." she said. "You can't stop it. How long would have satisfied you?"
It was a fair question. After some reflection, he said, "Two years."
"Hmm." she said.

After that, they called him Keep-on-Living Jack, and viewed him with awe, although he did get some ribbing for losing his sweetheart to the blacksmith. (This was a perfectly pleasant man who never had an unkind word for anyone. Jack could not help liking him, which blunted his resentment -- a poignant frustration my readers may have experienced themselves.)

Two visits to Faerie leave no taste for mortal things, at least not if you haven't been enslaved for a hundred years under a hill or changed into a tortoise. In Faerie, Jack was a lucky mortal, whereas in the mortal world his mischances depressed him. Which was quite the wrong way to think about it, but people are like that.

He didn't like his chances over another cliff, so he decided to take a different sort of risk -- one for his soul. He walked out to a crossroads, where the gibbets hang and the suicides are buried, and he spat three times on the ground. Death appeared, looking surprised and not all that fierce. He'd been in the middle of losing an argument with his sister. He governed death, and she governed death-in-life, and they were forever fighting about semantics.

Gruffly, rather than fearsomely, Death asked Jack what he wanted.
"I want to go back to Faerie," said Jack, "And I seem to have to risk death to do it. Will you play a game with me for my immortal soul?"
"Yes, all right." said Death. He didn't feel like going back to the underworld and arguing about the sailors anymore.

Unfortunately, they didn't know the same games, or had contradictory rules for them, so they settled on hide-and-go-seek. Jack was crouched behind a gorse-bush, snickering, when the king of Faerie whisked him off to the Other Lands, "In the nick of time," as he insisted when Jack pointed out sulkily that he'd been winning.
"Nobody beats death." said the fairy. "He was toying with you."

This disagreement marred the first of the three days somewhat, but by the second, the wine and perfumes, songs and tales of Faerie had won him again, and it was with real sorrow that he cut short an impromptu lute lesson on the third day to be sent home -- or rather back to the crossroads, where Death had long ago given up trying to find him and taken the soul of a rabbit instead. It proved a general favorite among the dead, and became a special pet of his sister's.

Our hero noticed that in his absence (something like a year, he guessed) the crossroads had taken on quite another character. The roads were paved, for one thing, with even yellow stones and high curbs, and there was a new gibbet with a fresh coat of paint. These improvements struck him as he walked home; as indeed a wagon of strangely light design nearly did, jouncing past him while he lingered, lost in observation, in the middle of the road. The driver cursed him as someone-he-hadn't-heard-of's son, and sailed on.

He was more surprised to find when he got home that not a year, but about eighteen years, had passed. His parents were dead. His sweetheart had three sons almost grown, and charming worry lines about her eyes and smile lines about her mouth.

"You look just like a silly boy I once knew," she said when she saw him. He tried to smile.

Jack had aged only three days, of course, and those who believed he was himself called him Deathless Jack. Everyone was a little uncomfortable with him, whether they believed him a liar, a madman, a distant cousin, or a person of eccentric habits. They made nervous jokes about cheating Death and were relieved when he went away.

Life seemed dreary. His old friends, who three days ago he'd laughed and caroused with, thought only of family and farming. The people his own age, who had been two and three years old when he left, seemed strangely trivial to him, as if some part of him had lived out the missing years.

Finally, he met a woman who made things seem sensible again. She'd been an awkward thirteen-year-old when he left, one of those young people unnerving in their excess of energy. She was thirty-one now, and her nervousness had become a calm humour. She liked him, and she didn't seem to care very much about the eighteen missing years.

They married. Her presence was a bridge between him and his old friends; the two of them were just a younger couple among the others. He began to fit back into things.

Some years passed peacefully. They had a daughter, and then a son, and another daughter. His mind was taken up with family and farming, though he liked still to tell fairy tales when the mood was on him.

One day, Jack was crossing the new bridge over the chortling river. Looking down, he saw a fish dart through his reflection. Its scales shone like gold and silver. On a sudden impulse, he leaned after it, and managed to catch it by the tail. It was terribly cold, and did seem to be made of precious metal, with glittering rubies set in a band about its middle.

He was just thinking he would take it home to amaze his children when it leapt from his hands and struck him across the face with its tail. He fell back, startled, and tumbled into the current. The river wasn't deep enough at this time of year to carry him away; but in the fall his head knocked a stone, and his face slid under the water.

He swam up from unconsciousness with an aching head, straining at the darkness behind his eyelids. When he opened his eyes, it was just the same, only the fairy king was there.

"Saved you again there, I think." said the fairy king. "I shouldn't have -- three visits to Faerie is the most any mortal is allowed -- but I've always liked you, Jack."
"Are we in Faerie, then?" asked Jack. "It looks different." They stood on some hard surface, but it was indistiguishable from the murky void around them.

"Well, we're on the borderlands, since I couldn't bring you entirely inside the gates, but -- yes, more or less." The king scuffed the nothingness with his toe. "I've been meaning to do something with this bit of the realm." he explained. "But I haven't had time."

"Thank you for saving me," said Jack, "But I wasn't planning on a visit to Faerie today, and I've a lot of work to do. Can you send me back?"
"Oh, yes, of course." said the King. "Not for three days, of course."
"But the farm--" Jack stopped speaking abruptly. They stood in awkward silence for a long time. The fairy king cleared his throat.

Eventually Jack spoke again. "How much time will have passed when I go back?" he asked, with difficulty.
"A bit more than last time." said the fairy king.
"How many years? Fifty?" Jack swallowed. "One hundred?"
"Oh," said the king lightly, "Well, give or take a few years... something like one hundred and eighteen thousand years?"
"What?" said Jack.
He was looking at the king's clothes.
The king looked down at himself. He wore a gold and silver tunic with a belt of rubies. He cleared his throat again.
"If we hurry," he said, "We can be back to my palace in time for the feast."
"I thought a mortal could only enter Faerie three times." said Jack hoarsely.
"Well," said the king. "More or less."
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Well, early evening of, anyway. Here's a short Tale of Magic for you. Maybe even of Magick, if we're all feeling that pretentious.

(Points to E. at work. I told her my (deeply, if briefly, held) theory that a better past tense of "pretend" than the cumbersome "pretended" was "pretent", and she pointed out that it also formed a tidier root for "pretentious". Let us award her the Hooked on Phonics Tidying Up the Language plaque for September.)

Right, the story. Let's call it... um...

The Examination

"Like becomes like," said the examiners together.
"Like becomes like," I answered, numb to the usual pleasures of ritual.

The examiners were certainly alike, and could have been transformed one into the other without anyone, possibly including themselves, taking notice. They say that's true -- the more you transform things, move them through possibility according to their characteristics, the more nondescript you become.

They showed me the transformation exercise.
"That's all?" I said, surprised. The three shifted. A smile, a frown, a cough.
"That's all." said one of them.

I looked at the two cups. This, after all my study? Endless listing of analogies and similes. Taking random things from a sack and likening them as quickly as possible. Sorting and resorting endless nearly identical buttons. Find their differences, so that similarity wouldn't obscure likeness.

Two cups. One of blue glass, shuddering with ribbons of light cast up the river. The other (no, not other -- the same, the equal) a grey mug of indifferent manufacture, lumpy, badly glazed, unappealing.

Their only real difference was their Final Shape -- the glass cup had none, but the mug was a ring, the hole through the handle defining it, limiting the changes it could make. So. Logically, you change along the path of least resistance. It preserves energy. I thought briefly of doing it the hard way to impress them, but the rule won out.

I fixed my eyes on the glass cup, holding the clay in my mind. It gave way easily, growing thicker, shorter, becoming opaque. That handle. I split the cup's side along a thread of weakness in the glass. It folded back, lips parting to speak, petals, pages. Bent forward in a spout, a beak, a tube, an arc, then, touching, only a handle. The glass flowed into itself. I shivered. A hole appeared along the flaw in the wall of the new mug, where I'd encouraged division. I struggled to seal it. I thought of soft things, sticky things, things glad to join, but I could tell I was losing. I let go. Left the eye-shaped hole under the handle. It was a magic test, not a pottery competition.

I sat back, stretching out my neck, shaking my shoulders. I glanced up at the examiners. They'd been nothing to me while I worked: scenery. Now they moved into slow life, like unliving things animated by magic.

Together, they peered down at the table. There was a silence.

"No good?" I said cheerfully. I thought I'd done quite well. The new mug didn't look exactly like the old. It was almost a caricature of its ugliness, like a cup made out of a toad's carcass. And there was the hole.

An examiner cleared her throat. The cougher. "No, it's not that." she said. "It was a very good showing for your level." She looked towards the others, perplexed.

The frowner frowned. "It's just," he said, "Usually people turn the clay into glass."

I looked down at my two ugly cups. A flush of humiliation spread up my neck, into my face.

"It doesn't matter," said the smiler, smiling. "It's a skills test, and you did very well."

I ignored her. I knew what test I'd failed, though none of us had known it was being set. Other people knew enough to turn the ugly into the beautiful. I was a manufacturer of ugliness.
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He had that noble selflessness of a man who cares for no one but himself.

--Derek Marlowe, A Dandy in Aspic

A Dandy in Aspic began to fall apart shortly after I purchased it for $1, or 2$, (I am not entirely clear on this point) at the pleasingly cluttered used bookstore in Gibsons. I've been going there since I was a child and we were Summer People here. Now my parents are, well, what are they? Not locals. I suppose they're part of the latest wave of monstrously destructive gentrification. But, you know, nice.

This bookstore is where I first bought Dune, which I read, and Dune Messiah, which I did not finish. It is not the store where I bought my lost/loaned/stolen and much lamented copy of Tides of Lust by Samuel Delaney (I don't know him well enough to call him Chip.) This book, because some of its obscenity contravened laws created to protect you and I and our vulnerable loved ones from Fearful Notions, had to be rewritten and was re-released under a different title. I had the original. I bought it in a bookstore over a craft shop that sold local artisans' work, including tooled leather vests and, if I recall correctly, tooled leather halter tops. The bookstore has been replaced by a boutique kitchen shop, or I should say, shoppe. Damn gentrification.

Anyway, I try very hard not to be a collector-- I buy things to use and enjoy and ruin, not to put in plastic bags and pray for profit on. But the loss of Tides, and the bookshop, and innocence and obscenity, will ride with me on my Harley of Life as one of my great, or anyway favorite, regrets.

More of a Vespa of Life really.

I'm on the Sunshine Coast, for any who are confused, visiting my parents in their new house. They've just moved down, and I've come to visit and entirely failed to bring them a housewarming gift. I thought of it as I was walking past the gift shop on my way off the ferry, but I was being picked up (by a family friend, not the other kind of picked up) and I had to go, or they probably would have got a Zen Candle (TM).

Anyway, because I'm still looking for something that will let me read it all the way through, and because apparently the thing I do when moving is obsessively buy books, I got the Dandy and a fantasy novel by Diana Wynne-Jones, because Neil Gaiman speaks highly of her. Although I've noticed he speaks highly of a lot of people. Perhaps he is a Genuinely Nice Person. It's my morning routine, along with coffee and writing; read Neil, read The Good Doctor, sometimes check out Making Light or Nick Mamatas (whose book, in an act of fiscal suicide, I ordered from Munro's -- and by the way, Munro's has an awesome website. Check it.)

* * * * * *

Speaking of writing, here is a little exercise I did on the ferry. See if you can figure it out.

Wilt, Wane, Wail: A Tale

At the inn (The White Hind in Wex Lane), all in a wan daze, Delia went-- laid in ale and tended the hind. It lived in a vale at the lawn-end.

Delia had a hale, tan hand and a white, wilted hand, hexed when a jilted Neddie Wattle dealt with the vile Thane Vexhall. The deal: wealth and health for a thieved hex and a wild tale.

In the dell, Neddie and the Thane waited, while the hind ate teaweed. The hand went dead. Neddie went waxen. "The deal--"

"A hand."

"Wedded!"

"Will he whine and wail?" Vexhall lilted. "Neddie. What avail?"

Neddie waxed, vexed, at the tall thane.

"Well... wait." Thane Vexhall lit a weed-wand. "I lie. It will heal. I dealt with a thin, vain wit. He wanted wealth. And I, I welted him, head, hand, and heel."

"What healed it?"

The white hind let Vexhall halt and hold it.

"Death."

"He died?"

"He did."

"Will I?" Neddie waited. Vexhall let it lie.

"Will I?"

"All die." Then Vexhall and the hind went with the wild new wind.

The hind wended in at dawn. At the next dawn, it died. While Neddie waned, Delia tilled the teaweed and waited. He died. The hand waxed anew.

At the inn, the Hale Thane, with a tan ale in hand, Delia will tell the tale.

* * * * *

No, it's not supposed to rhyme, necessarily, although the limitations do impose an interesting assonance that becomes rhythmic, or begs rhythm.

See, I was doing this word puzzle in my Variety Puzzle Book. It was a little chart you had to fill letters into so that they spelled words no matter which way you traced through the chart. The words were WARP, WARE, WANE, WAND, WIND, WINE, WILD, and WILT. This is an evocative, shivery sort of set of words, and I thought, why not put them all in a story, as an exercise? And then I thought, or what about writing a story that only allows a certain set of letters?

I wanted to use those words (I didn't use warp or ware-- see below), so I decided I'd use the letters from the puzzle, plus, arbitrarily, enough to make up half the alphabet.

Then I realized that I was making it too easy, because the letters were the most commonly used ones in the alphabet. I still wanted to keep the word list, so I left in T, L, E, N, D, A, I, and the less common W, but I gave up P and S. I nicked H because I really wanted to know I'd be able to use 'THE' -- you can't get even vaguely naturalistic writing in English without it -- and made myself take X, Z, V and J as punishment, sort of like an extra bad Scrabble tray. With the stipulation that I actually had to use them.

It's quite possible that I slipped up --s and f, particularly, kept wanting to creep in, so if you find an error, please let me know, and I'll amend.

Anyway, this isn't the story I thought I'd get out of WARP, WARE, WANE, and the rest, if I had all my letters to work with. (I really missed s.) Maybe I'll write that one and post it next.And if you're very good children, I'll include a really, really long, explanation of how I wrote it, with elaborate theoretical ramparts and great cannons of mind-bogglingly dull structural commentary.

I was talking to grumpy_bastard about this the other day, over the most amazing coffee cake ever made (not too moist, not too dry!) and Marlboros-- how much we like puzzle-stories, stories that are not just narration but elaborate structural riddles that need to be decoded. He said he always hated story problems because the stories weren't good enough.

--rf

...Yes, I know, there's a sort of temporal flaw in the story. I'll try to work out a better sequence. With no s,q,u or c. An eene.

...Smoking is bad, and cigarettes are evil, and Phillip Morris is the devils' own backside, and Marlboros really do taste better than just about anything. And those were the super ultra pansy lights. Thanks, grumpy bastard.

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Aren't I posty lately. Today I walked down to the farmer's market. It's got nothing on the Moss St. Market in Victoria, but it solves the lone drawback of going to the park-- usually there's no coffee, but the market has a whole coffee van. They even do Blended Coffee Drinks.

I sat down with my back against a log (all the tables were taken up by some kind of party, or anyway some people with balloons,) and read with my book on my knees, which was reasonably comfortable, although I did manage to cough latte all over Einstein's special theory of relativity.

I walked a massive amount more, and then I came home and did a little bit of packing. (The co-conspirator is a god at fitting things into boxes that you didn't think would go.) We had fun going through our massive mug collection deciding which to keep. (Anyone in need of drinking vessels?)

Then I finished this story, which was still missing some patches when the ten-minute draft was done. So, technically it's not a pure ten-minute story, but I can't imagine anyone but me caring at all. It's going to lose a bit of its clever formatting, I'm afraid.

Forgery

He noticed me shoplifting and decided he'd recruit me for his 'team'. I never pointed out that being caught wasn't much of a credential. I was too flattered. He was two years younger than me, and it took a lot of imagination to think of him as my crime boss, but I did my best.

"Here's what you do. You find a place up for rent where the people are still living. You make an appointment to view it, and you use the appointment to case the joint." He actually said case the joint, without irony. I was annoyed with his self-assurance. He'd done exactly two B&E's, both under the guidance of his older brother, and one was to a car. He was full of stories of other people’s feats. An expert on means of entry and undetectable theft. A whole mythology gleaned from movies, books, comics, urban legend, and his brother's friends. They were all equal currency to him, as real as a car stereo or bicycle.

"But won't they be suspicious?"

"How many people go see a house for rent?"

"In this market?"

"You still look like a student. Nobody suspects students."

I'd been a student for six months, almost a year ago. Art history. After six months, I ran out of money and attention. I kept falling asleep during the slide shows. I'd wake on a word: Fanon, Giotto, fresco, happening, gaze. My dreams were full of works my brain grew out of the half-heard narratives of the teacher. Looking up the real works afterwards was always disorienting because they didn’t look anything like what I thought I'd seen.

But my accomplice was right; I still had a backpack, and I knew how to wear it. My school clothes were the worse for wear, but I could pass for a nice middle-class kid in a poverty chic phase.

He was building a team, but there were only ever him and me. Every part of me except my ego and my imagination knew he was full of shit. But I needed the money, and more than that, I wanted it, as proof that dropping out wasn't a failure of mine, but just a change of venue for developing my talents which, I hoped, would turn out to be for theft and deception.

I looked through the papers. What kind of place attracted someone with a $1500+ bike? A notebook computer? A really good stereo? 2 br, upr lvl, ns/np? Brt, airy 1 br in hrtg hs, w/d? 3 br, hwd flr, 5 appl, $1100 + utils?

Must-see bach, 12-ft clgs, hwd flr, chrctr hs.

I did have a job. I was a clerk in a store that sold only objects with cats on them. It did surprisingly well. I earned exactly enough to pay my rent and my utilities, with enough left over to make it almost but not quite through one week out of two. Hence, robbery. Not much of a justification, I know, considering the reasons other people have. But theft was a good job for me– ideally done in private, and less publically embarrassing than other options.

I got the job based not on my resume, which was almost entirely fiction, but on my six months of art theory. The cat store owner was impressed with that, and often asked my opinion of the aesthetic merit of new product lines. I did my best.

The house was arts and crafts with an unfortunate 70's update. Like the great Empress herself, it was sinking into the ground, but cheerfully, the ship's doomed musicians playing show tunes instead of hymns.

A sign on a stick, as for a garage sale, at the end of the drive. The door was open. I looked in. The first door off the entranceway had a sign taped to the frame: yes, this one. I hated moments of opportunity like that. Clearly the thing to do would be to grab what I could right then and leave, but I've always found it difficult to change my plans at the last minute. I went in hesitantly, calling sotto voce, not sure who to pretend to be.

It was a huge room, made cavernous by the promised ceiling (plaster medallion, empty socket.) The space was an open envelope, a rectangle with the front windows angled out into a huge bay window. One small pane had been knocked out and taped over with brown paper.

The kitchen was just a strip of counter along the back wall, and was full of painter's odds and ends– sprung brushes, rolls of canvas, jars of murky liquid, and pots and tubes and bottles of paint. Stacked up into walls, tumbled like gravel into slumps of multicolored debris. There was a paint-spattered fridge. Over the counter and sink, all one piece of ancient, chipped porcelain, was a set of rough shelves, which seemed to be all of the built-in storage.

The walls were battered, but it didn't matter. It would take you a long time to notice their shabbiness, since they were covered with paintings.

The art was like this: Meticulously detailed but oddly distorted figures bending around invisible objects against a background blurred by motion. For example: a woman perched in empty space, but hunched against the edge of the canvas, with one tiny perfect red chair in the far corner, as though she’d suddenly shot up to the ceiling.

Or their opposite: murky or incomplete or absent people outlined where the background stopped. A photorealistic gas station sans attendant, abandoned shadow still falling across the pumps. The paint looked slick from a distance, but close to, I could see that it was a shiny coating over chunks of rough paint, like a mosaic. Lichtenstein, Warhol, Schiele, and, oh, no, not Van Gogh.

"I'm personal, rather than avant-garde." said the artist behind me. "I’m not heading any movements, as you can see." I turned around. I looked at his face, then immediately at his feet. He was barefoot. As he stepped past me, I could see how dirty his soles were, and how the back hem of his jeans was worn away from being stepped on.

I looked back at the art. He told the truth; you wouldn't call it work of genius. But I liked it. I more than liked it. There was a blank space in my chest the shape of this room, unsuspected until now, and I could hardly breathe for the vacuum.

"I've been using the space as a studio, obviously."

"Do you live in the building?"

"Yes, upstairs. There’s a flat across the hall from mine, then this one and the one behind it, and two in the basement. To be honest, I own the house." he said this with an air of humble surprise. "My flat is in the back, and it has lovely western light in the afternoons, but this is the best morning light, because of these windows. Upstairs is a bit dark and dormer-y. So I paint down here in the mornings. Still, you can only sacrifice for art for so long. Now art must sacrifice for me. I'd take all these down, of course." he waved at the walls.

"Oh, don't!" I blurted, then shuddered with embarrassment.

He looked pleased. "Well, you could decide to keep them, if you wanted." he said.

"Did you do all of them in pairs?"

He produced a new being-pleased-with-me expression. "That's great." He said. "Most people don't get that. Yes. Each one has its partner. Um, this is the bathroom, here." An aqua room, walls and elderly fixtures the same drowning blue-green-blue-green. The eye calculated but could not settle on one or the other.

There was a painting in the bathroom. He made a noise of chagrin when he saw it, and pushed past me to grab the frame. "Sorry, thought I got rid of that." He hauled it through the doorway. "I keep trying and failing to throw it out."

It was another portrait. It was half-finished, but not in the deliberate way of the hanging work. The form was roughed-in with red streaks on a background of false starts, all the shades badly matched. The figure was limp, without the tension of the other subjects.

He let me look at it for a moment, and then he turned it to the wall. "I loved him." he said. "That's why it's so bad." He fussed with balancing the painting, watching me out of the corner of his eye. He brushed some dust from the figure’s empty cheek. My face burned. My stomach turned to ice. "Don't let anyone tell you great passion leads to great art." he added. "My best sitter was someone I hated." He crossed to the sink to wash his hands, as though touching the painting had stained them. "Mind you," he called over the running water, "I still ended up sleeping with him." The water stopped. "At least I got a good price for the set. Ah, that wouldn't be an issue, would it?" He dried his hands on his thighs.

"That you sold them?"

He laughed. "No. Well. Good." He gave me a look. Sidelong, laughing, a light there that could be switched off instantly. I knew it; I had a look like that myself, though I didn't use it very often. I took a deep breath.

"Look, I'm lying to you." I said quickly, to get it all out while I was too surprised to stop myself. "I can't rent this place. I'm only," I stopped short, wondering if the paintings were valuable. "I can't afford it."

His expression clouded briefly, then cleared, and his eyes were kind. "It is quite a space. I did a couple of shows here, and, uh, I think they liked the house as much as the art. Anyway, I got a couple of offers on it." He looked around, up at the ceiling, as if he'd lost something up there.

"Out of curiosity," he said, "What's your, uh, what are you paying now?"

I told him. He made a face. "Yeah, exactly." I said. "So, um, thanks." I smiled brightly. I smiled for too long, and my face started to twitch.

How did my accomplice do this? Right. He didn't. How could anyone? Anonymously, in the dark, yes, sure, that was just modified shopping. But a confidence game, face to face, a swindle– how could you look at someone, his aging-cupid's smile, the brush-callous and paint-crust on his hands, the worn edges of his jeans and ropy muscles of his feet, and then steal from him?

"Oh, God, don't." he said. I jerked my head up, horrified. "Don't look so ashamed." he said earnestly. "You're making me feel desperate. It's not your fault if you don’t have the money, is it?"

I shrugged.

"Look," he said slowly, "You like this place, don't you?"

"I love it." I told his hands.

"And you like the art."

"I love it." I said, with the same conviction, to his chin.

"That should be worth something, shouldn't it?" he compressed his lips. It made him look almost grim. His eyes were calculating something in the space between us. The exact dollar value of artistic appreciation?

"I tell you what." he said. "What hours do you work?"

"Oh, uh, eight 'til four-thirty?"

"Perfect." He looked relieved. "Then I'll make you a deal. It's actually selfish on my part. I need the money, but I'd rather have someone I can stand in the house. If you don't mind my coming in here to paint while you’re gone in the mornings, you can have the place for what you can afford." He grinned like the mastermind of a great conspiracy. "I can store my materials upstairs, but I'll leave the paintings up, if you like."

I managed to look at him directly. His seamed Botticelli face, his curling, tousled hair. We looked at each other. "I would like." I said.

"And would you like to live here?"

I hesitated. I opened my mouth to speak.

Then one of three things happened. I'll tell you about those, but first I'll tell you what I did afterwards.

I met my accomplice at his brother’s house. He was sitting on the back deck, reading a comic book and drinking hard lemonade through a straw.

"This guy is a genius." he showed me the comic.

"Pretty good." I said. It was.

"You check out the place?"

"Yeah."

"Anything good?"

"Nah," I said carefully, "Just a bunch of crappy paintings." My throat caught, but I knew I had to hide my treasure under as much dirt as possible. "No computer or bike or anything."

"Crap." he said.

So we went up to the college and popped bike locks instead. Riding home with him in the dark, pedaling meditatively down the big hill in the breeze of our momentum, it seemed to me that all the darkness was a moving, purposeful substance. I realized that the people in the artist’s canvases were sitting on invisible bicycles, driving invisible cars, slung over lost horses, all frozen in the act of trying to get somewhere. Away.

Here are the three things that could have happened.

The first thing that could have happened was that I thanked him. Said I'd have to think about it. Left him with a false name and number. Waited. Came back a couple of weeks later with my accomplice, because we hadn't come up with a better plan, and took everything remotely saleable. We probably kicked over some of the paintings stacked against the wall. I'd already said it was no good, and looking at it made me angry. All those failed getaways.

If this is what happened, then I took the money in his dresser drawer and his cheap stereo, and on the way out I stuffed my pockets with jars of paint. I took them home and set them out on a shelf above my sink, the way he did. I set them out haphazardly, but when I was done, the pigments shone like jewels through their glass and plastic casings. I never used the paints, or even looked at them closely. Eventually I threw them out.

If this is what happened, then we weren't caught, though I often dreamed that we were. There would be a drawn-out incoherent chase sequence, then being discovered, forced to apologize, and made to give restitution. From this dream, I always woke up relieved and happy, until I realized it wasn't true.

The second thing that might have happened was that I said,

"Yes."

And then he said,

"I should tell you that I'm a forger."

And told me one of three stories.

First, that he made copies of famous artworks for schools and interactive museum displays.

Second, that he'd been a real forger, and been caught, and gone to prison; and now he did his own work, which he loved, but could never show in a real gallery, or sell through a real dealer, because no one would ever forgive him. "Forgery," he said, "Was like– you know that amusement-park ride where you're in a little cage on a long arm and you go way up in the air and you know you’re going to fall, but you don't? Only I did."

Or, third, this story:

"There's a woman I know, a rich woman, who took a watercolour course in Tuscany. She came back, and of course, her friends were clamouring to see the art. She was coy about it, but finally she told them she'd put on a show in her enormous living room (well, I think she called it a great room. But the TV was in there.)

"She came to me in tears, saying she'd been cheated. She'd paid all this money for a painting tour in Italy, and look at the result. She showed me her watercolours. She had good judgement in at least one thing– they were awful. I tried to explain that she couldn't buy talent. Then I realized that she wanted to buy mine.

"I looked a few things up on the web, but mostly I worked from a book of postcards I found at the dollar store. It was my best work. I created everthing from her first, hesitant sketches, to her notes about the position of the sun, to her final confident works. I developed an entirely new style as her– little dot-dash gestures that I liked very much.

"I thought she might not like all that realism, but she was thrilled. It was exactly what she wanted. The story of her talent blossoming under perfect light."

And just as I'd betray him to my accomplice, I betrayed my accomplice to him, and told him how he wanted to be a criminal mastermind, and how he always said "B&E" like "beanie." He was delighted. He insisted that the three of us have dinner to celebrate my moving in.

I didn't tell my accomplice that the artist was our erstwhile victim, and I didn't tell the artist that I'd been sent to case the joint. My old accomplice was overwhelmed by the paintings. At first he was timid, then combative, then elated. He told the artist all his best stories over beers that night, and their enchantment was mutual. A long time later, they ended up creating a comic book together, based on one's paintings and the other's stories. It did quite well for an independent publication. "My work was always so narrative anyway." said the artist.

If this is what happened, then about two months into my tenancy, the artist asked me to pose for him. He wouldn't show me the canvases while he was working, but one day I came home and the paintings were standing together against the window.

The first was a close likeness, except the eyes were cartoonishly huge, curious and alarmed. My head was turned, everything about my posture and face expressive of surprise and fear. There was something comically obscene in how I was hunched over, my hands extended towards an absent, forbidden thing.

The other was a landscape like you might find in a children's illustration, simplified, pretty, a green hill, a blue sky, a smiling sun, and my absence; I was cut right out of the painting. Grommets and wire kept the outline in its shape.

I knew he'd seen I was a thief, or what else was my image's alarm and then total absence about? And I knew he loved me, or he couldn't have made such mediocre art.

Later that day he came back to ask me upstairs for dinner and wine, and then he asked me, very humbly, to bed. And in bed, his arm curled under my head (before he moved it because it was getting numb,) he said that from now on he was going to call me Beanie, and there was nothing I could do about it. And he did, that night, and in the morning, and all the mornings after that.

The last thing that might have happened was this. That when we looked at each other, I opened my mouth a little, and he opened his mouth a little, and something in us rushed together.

Then we kissed, and kissed again, and then were kissing, roughly, laughing, letting ourselves fall, rolling together on the creaking floor. Stripping off our clothes, gasping, clutching each other, hands working, legs colliding, locking. Making each other shout, sigh, curse. Coming, the one square of shade from the broken pane falling over his shoulder like a tattoo.

Then dressing again, still laughing, but the laughter breaking somehow, losing its joy, becoming awkward. Eyes appraising each other differently, now. Becoming clear to both of us that I would not give a clear answer to his offer, and he would not repeat it.

And that was that. Whatever future we had begun with our hesitant generosity was compressed into fifteen minutes and over. As completely as if a whole affair had played itself through.

If this is what happened, we exchanged thank-yous and phone numbers. Mine was fake. His could have been. I never checked. Even if it was fake, I could have gotten it from the ad if I'd really wanted to.

But none of that is happening right now. I am on the stolen bike, flying through a wakeful darkness. My momentum sings me down the hill. In a minute, I'll look back over my shoulder so that I can make a turn, and when I do, I'll remember what happened, and I'll know what's going to happen.

When I'm brave enough, I'll turn. For now, I'm staying here in this moment, on this bike, in motion.

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I thought I was going to write a story about a magic house the other day, but I wrote this instead. I note that I have not posted the remainder of Poo School, but I just can’t get excited enough about it to bother.

Instead, I present another ten-minute story. Same format: one writing session and one redraft while entering the text. I need another name for these, though, since this one took probably two hours all told.

-rf

Dream Devices

It’s a neurological condition. I can’t dream. Or, I do have dreams, but not as many as other people, and I never remember them. I’ve known no frustration greater than being woken by a researcher and told that I was dreaming a dream I can’t remember.

Usually my mind just staggers obsessively through the events of the day, a kind of semiconscious brooding doze. And I snore.

I’m supposed to wake up midway through the night to give my brain a chance to restart the dreaming process. Sometimes I can’t get back to sleep-- adding insomnia to injury.

So one early morning in April, the first intimations of sunrise dulling the stars, I was watching the tail end of the TV loop, that wasteland between three and six, which has improved considerably over the last decade, but still can’t even kindly be called "good."

I watched an antique cop drama with lurid hair, then part of a film on the Family Values network with all the Lord-in-vain dubbed out, and then I descended to the level of reruns of children’s shows, since it was that or This Old House.

Apparently insomniac children like to relive the greatest moments of Inventions! Super Crafty Kids on the FunTimes channel. (I note that a possible acronym for Inventions! Super Crafty Kids is I-SuCK.)

It was hosted by two former child actors in spandex superhero outfits, one showing a paintbrush, the other a musical note– (they must reek – is the show too cheap for breathable microfibre?) They demonstrated how to make ugly things out of popsicle sticks while narrating each step in shrilly cheerful voices.

I switched off the sound and put the Spanish captioning on for practise. The words formed along the bottom of the screen, obscuring those busy, eager hands.

An English phrase drifted by, finned with quotation marks: "Dream Machine." I sat forward. The silence, and the effort of translation, gave the show what I thought of as a dreamlike quality. Or, more precisely, a vision, not quite parsable, and irreducible.

The "machine" was essentially a mobile, made of yarn and popsicle sticks and paper, but it was clever, too. It looked like a hot-air balloon, and if you blew on it or put it in a breeze, it spun. (Or it was supposed to. Paintbrush Lad’s just drooped to one side sadly, trembling, as if afraid of his Super Breath.)

It made me wonder if someone somewhere was having a joke, since the finished artifact was reminiscent in some ways of various devices intended to induce "drug-free hallucinations," which I have ordered over the years in an effort to experience the dream state.

I didn’t have popsicle sticks, but I had chopsticks, red garden twine for yarn, and plenty of late-night take-out receipts to hole-punch and tie in the round for the panels of the spinning balloon. The result was not exactly artistic, but I hung it above my bed, pleased at having produced something out of one of my long empty nights.

I lay down under it, looking up through the paper skeleton. I blew a current of air towards it, but my breath didn’t seem to reach, although it activated an early mosquito, which began noisily haunting my face. I got up and stomped around waving a book until I killed it or it got bored and left.

I lay down again and shut my eyes. I rested like that until I realized wearily that I wasn’t going to sleep after all. I opened my eyes. The room was murky, distorted by my fatigue. The dream machine was turning slowly.

I stared at it. There’s no breeze, I thought. Then, why can’t I focus on it properly? And then, with growing wonder, I’m dreaming.

Which woke me up. But I carried that dream with me all day, close against my chest like a small cherished animal. My sleeping mind had dared to leap out into hypothesis. It was a dull dream, but it was mine.

I was terrified the experience would never repeat itself. I would have said, before, that remembering even one dream would satisfy me. Now I know that one of anything only makes me greedy.

The next night I kept peering at the machine through half-closed eyes, trying to recreate that confused vision. I saw the cage of my own lashes, and the red logos of the restaurants repeated around the circle.

I retreated into familiar paths of rehearsal and teeth-grinding.

Towards dawn, I opened my eyes. There was a woman standing next to my bed. I startled back. Her face was at once familiar and unknown. Solemn, accusatory. I was afraid.

My breath rushed in. I opened my eyes for real. Another dream!

I began to introduce my dreams casually into conversation at work.

"You ever have that dream where you think you’re waking up, but actually you’re still asleep?"

"Yeah."

The rush of finally understanding a shared human experience. "Me too!" Pride and awe in my voice. Then, because more seemed to be expected, "Isn’t it weird?"

"...yeah."

I became superstitious about the device. My conscious mind believed it was a placebo, a suggestion, not a magic device whose instructions had been broadcast to me over the television, but on behalf of my subconscious, I kept it up very carefully anyway. I dusted it, fixed its balance, made sure it could spin freely.

My dreaming mind branched out. I dreamed of turning on the TV and not being able to get sound. I dreamed of being in the kitchen. I experienced that unnerving dream when you’re about to urinate and then you realize you’re only dreaming that you’re in the bathroom. Then you wake up and go down the hall to the bathroom, and it’s much colder than in the dream. (Right?)

During one of these, realizing I was dreaming, I made a great effort and turned myself to look in the bathroom mirror. The face in the deep silver pool was mine, but wrong.

Waking up with an aching bladder, I stumbled into the bathroom. On the way back, I looked at myself in the real mirror. It was none too clean, but I saw the difference. The face in the dream was mine as it had been when I was a child of eleven or twelve.

"Do you ever dream of yourself as younger than you are?" I asked the woman form the cubicle next to mine at work.

"I read someplace that you only do that when you’ve had some big trauma." she said cheerfully.

It was like having all the dreams I should have had all through my life, jumbled, out of order– blurry infant dreams, scary childhood nightmares, adolescent wet dreams.

One morning I woke afraid, unable to shake the idea that I’d been dreaming a dream from old age, a memory dream patched out of fragments of things that hadn’t happened to me yet. A dream from the future.

If all our actions, from a sneeze to a home run, are already implied by the original math of the universe, then all our dreams are there, too, carried in us like a fiddlehead in the heart of a fern, like the dream of a human being lies inside the pinpoint egg cell.

I had seen by this point that you can dream anything– a flying lion, a talking corpse– and it doesn’t have to be true or even possible. But I couldn’t get rid of the idea. I had more of these dreams. Not every night– just often enough that I became a little afraid to fall asleep, which upset me.

They weren’t prophecies. I didn’t see lottery numbers or headlines. They were the garble of memory and hallucination that is the recipe of dreams, but there was something in them that I recognized as mine, a part of a self I hadn’t become yet.

Unknown faces kindled gasping sorrow in me, stirred fear, brought regret. I’d wake weeping. Or, once, laughing. From a dream of roses. I still don’t know why it was so funny.

One day, I saw the woman from my early dream, her morose face reflected suddenly in a bookstore window. I turned to her, and she smiled. She was radiant; the opposite of my dream. I thought, one day I’ll see that expression on her face, that grim accusation, but I was compelled to find out how it got there. It colours our friendship a little, this waiting.

Another dream happened only once. There have been no others like it. It was a fitful dream, of running, falling, half-waking, thrashing in bed, running again. Then falling suddenly backwards, struck in the chest by an invisible hand. Frozen on my back, unable to move, unable to draw breath. Knowing I needed to wake myself up, but unable to do so. Then, as suddenly, perfectly awake, in a silent room.

But not quite that. In between, in the tiny moment before waking, the smallest possible segement of time the human body can measure, a terrible silence. An absence. A not-being deeper than dreamless sleep. Too brief almost to register, and at the same time, infinitely long.

I tell tolerant friends about my funny nightmares and my eerie sex dreams. I tell no one about this dream.

I think it is the last dream I am supposed to have. I think it's the dream I have when I am dying. I don’t know what it means that I have already dreamed it. Does it change my death? Will it be empty and dreamless as my past? Or will the dream come back again? Will I recognize it as it begins, and know that I am about to die? Will I be afraid?

I thought of taking down the dream machine, but I’ve already seen what I would have wanted to protect myself from.

My dreams are still sweet to me, although I am beginning to take them for granted the way that other people do-- to resent nightmares and treat fractured narratives as puzzles from my day-to-day life. I do not see them each as an infinite gift from my sleeping brain. It holds all dreams, and also the end of all dreaming. I might be able to end the dreams myself, artificially, by taking down the machine-- removing the suggestion. Silencing the unconscious. But I won’t be able to make myself forget.

--the end

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A propos of nothing in particular:

"Every fight is the intersection of two stories," –Narrator, The Last Round

* * * * * *

Again, this is more like a half-hour story. The tone has been inflected by my consuming large quantities of IF*, which I am able to download to my palm pilot. So if the story seems to consist of a long string of descriptions of locations, objects, and oddly static people, that is a combination of my natural writing tendency and my current adventureading material.

I think it also has a certain Vintage flavour – not the excellent publishing house, but the heigh-ho arm-punching style of early-to-mid-era speculative fiction. Which is not my Usual Thing at all.

Are other writers this malleable when it comes to what they read? I feel like the text inhabits me, like I incarnate it while I'm reading it and for a few hours (or days) afterwards. The voice enters my voice -- it doesn't take over, but it definitely changes it. Sometimes I feed good writing into my brain, like putting --

My Dog, does anyone remember the Bugs Bunny storybook where he tries to get the machine to make him a carrot? By feeding it all kinds of objects with the right characteristics -- right shape, right color, and so on?

Like that.

-rf

*IF = Interactive Fiction. See Previous Entries

(*Note - this will be a fragment until I get the rest of it up, later tonight or tomorrow.)

Dr. Enderby’s School of Thought

(informally: "Poo School")

Shit can tell you a lot about the past, but I never thought of using it to predict the future until I went to Dr. Enderby’s school.

It’s too bad he founded the school in 1968. It was, still is, a series of overlapping stucco boxes with tiny, oddly-placed windows, narrow corridors, and depressing dark brick in every classroom. Studying there was like attending classes in a vacated sewer. Or maybe that’s the shit talking. A hundred years earlier or later and someone’s idea of functionality might have included comfort, pleasure, or the actual purpose of the rooms.

The teachers also seemed to have been built in the same era and never updated. Mr. Anders had shaggy collar-length hair, a moustache shaped like a furry brown staple, and tinted glasses. His assistant Norman looked ordinary enough, except that he always wore a tweed jacket. This suited him, but made him seem anachronistic, a space-traveller using old broadcasts who hasn’t yet discovered his error. When he stood next to Dr. Anders, he seemed like a cutting from the larger plant.

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The first part of the forty-five-minute tale. As it is a longer story and therefore More Serious, I had a harder time deciding on the title. So, provisionally, this is


My Mother's Table


Part I


My mother said she had a full set of good dishes once, but she didn't say how many that would have been. I knew a plate got broken at her wedding, and no one ever 'fessed up to it; and I myself had chipped a bowl at the age of four when I dropped a live frog into it. The frog knocked over the bowl while leaping out again. Still, we seemed to have seventeen of nearly everything, and everyone knows a full set is an even number, although I don't know why that is. Some kind of superstition, probably.


The dishes came out twice a year. My mother had four sisters, scattered across the prairies, and each of them took it in turn to cook for one holiday meal. As the youngest, considered the flightiest, my mother had Valentine’s Day – not a proper holiday at all. She set a good table; but it was not a meal we put our whole selves into. By silent consensus between her and I, that was Midsummer’s Eve.


That meal required a bigger table even than the massive one in dining room with all its leaves in. The barn stood unused (we sold furniture, not crops), and a storm had blown off one of its doors. This door, usually propped inside, my mother and I dragged across the yard to set upon two wooden trestles of uncertain origin, out in the middle of the deep-grass field, all burned golden by the summer sun.


This table was far from an object of beauty until my mother set to work on it. First she threw her heavy linen cloth over it, just long enough to cover the whole surface. Over that, the crocheted lace runner, with accents of tiny green leaves and pink rosebuds.


At each setting, with the bowls, the plates, the good old silverware with the monograms on the back, the starched napkins, and the porcelain teacups, we set out stones as though they were place cards. Citrine, like petrified marmalade. Tiny garnets from the river, kept in a doll’s cup so that they didn’t get lost. Hematite, which bleeds red if you cut it. Smoky quartz. Serpentine, which I always laid out in an S-curve, although it wasn’t strictly necessary.


My father always arranged to be in town on Midsummer’s Day. If his excuse fell through, he would sit inside reading the paper all day, even on the brightest day, and ignore us as we rushed about getting things ready. He affected to believe it was all a game for my benefit, but I knew better. My mother made is clear that it was an honor to participate, not a right, and that none of this was for me.


To finish the table, instead of food, my mother would set out the cards she’d spent the last few days meticulously copying from magazine illustrations. They showed that year’s grandest summer foods. I remember a roast beef with a lurid pink interior that probably contributed to my later vegetarianism, and a gelatin mold in the shape of a castle, with fruit suspended within. She carefully shaded and indicated the various transparencies of the gelatin.



Part II [Added later]



We leaned the cards up against the table ornaments, bowls of flowers and china candlesticks. Then we sat down on the slope of the little hill beside the table and waited.

To while away the time, while she picked splinters out of her hands, my mother would tell me fairy tales. Traditional, non-threatening stories that no school teacher could have disapproved of my Hearing at Home. The Three Bears. Red Riding Hood, without anyone getting eaten. The Three Little Pigs, sans boiled wolf.

Should a neighbor come to call during our vigil, my mother would say that she was giving her good things their yearly 'airing-out.'

At dusk, when the stars came out, it was as if the world and my mother gave a sigh, and we started on the task of bringing everything back inside, shaking it out and washing it, putting it away. She burnt the cards in the fireplace, unless the drawings particularly pleased her, and she put them in her recipe book.

The year I turned eleven, just coming into awareness that there was a world beyond our house, our town, and the limitless prairie, my mother had a miscarriage. I didn't know about it until years afterwards, when I read her diary-- at her request, ‘to see if there was anything in it.' She'd been asked to submit to a collection of rural women's writings. Mostly, I think, because she was an inveterate contributor to the school's yearly cookbook fund-raising project. Also, since she occasionally participated in local productions of things like The King and I, she was considered ‘artistic.'

That year, I saw with alarm that she was making no preparations for the midsummer banquet. She did the minimum to keep our lives more or less in order, and spent the rest of her time in bed. She hardly smiled, and when I asked her to tell me stories, she said she couldn't think of any. I dared not hint about the table. Yet this year, on the brink of puberty, I longed more than ever for the familiar childish ritual.

Midsummer's Day came. I waited through breakfast, but she gave no sign. I followed her around the house, as silent as she. Finally, tired of having her child dog her heels, she sent me outside to play.

It was clear I had to take matters into my own hands. I could not move the barn door table myself, so I sent to my father. When I explained my request, he looked surprised, then sad, then annoyed.

"That's foolishness." he said. "I want no part of that."

"But she's so sad." I said. And then I was afraid, for I'd never seen my father with tears in his eyes before. Nor ever did again, until she died.

"All right." he said, getting up from his desk. "Let's see what we can do."

He set up the table, and even helped me lay out the dishes. We had to do without some things we couldn't find. I put pebbles at all the plates and hoped the guests would know what was meant by them. I took some of last year's cards out of the recipe book, and supplemented with my own awkward drawings.

When the table was set, my father went inside. I waited, picking splinters out of my hands, and thinking of nothing at all.

My father came out at lunchtime to call me in, but I said I'd rather eat outside, and he let me, coming back for my plate without having to be asked.

The long summer afternoon began to turn to evening. I was just thinking that after all, some other game might be more fun, when I heard music.

A rattling and clanking and ringing like a bell came on the wind, growing closer but never coming clearer. Until it was suddenly just the noise of an old engine and a bad muffler, and a beat-up pickup truck, held together by baling wire, pulled up the long dusty driveway.

It didn't go right up to the house; instead it stopped about even with me and my table. Someone got out the driver's door and came around the front of the truck. He had a long cowhand's coat on, too warm for the weather and wrong for summer work. His broad hat was pulled down over his eyes.

He came swinging through the tall grass, right up to the table. He looked it over, and he looked down at me.

"Is this your table?" his voice was hoarse.

"It's my mother's." I said nervously.

"Where is she?"

"She won't come outside. She's sad."

He nodded. His gaze went back to the table. He walked up to it. He reached out to the card that showed a decanter of wine. His coat masked my view, so I couldn't see quite how he did it, but when he pulled his hand back, he was holding the decanter, and he poured himself a glass. He set down the decanter; it stood there on the table, cut glass sides glittering.

He tasted the wine, made a face. "It's sweet." he said, looking down at me. I blushed, since I had always imagined the wine in the picture to taste like cherry Kool-Aid.

He drank it anyway, and poured himself another. Then he walked the length of the table, pulling the lids off of trays suddenly steaming, opening bottles that caught and refracted the late sunlight across the table. The rich smell of meat rose into the air.

The wind stirred the grass. I looked; from in between the stalks, small people were coming, wispy and dry as grass themselves. And some round and furry as mice, and some broad and blue like the sky. They smiled at me. I did not quite like their smiles.

They took their places at the table, and somehow, although they were so many, there was a seat for each of them. His place was at the head, and he sat down. That left the place at the foot for me. I'd never sat at the table, but I did now. I felt like Cinderella, if she'd had to go to dinner still in her rags; or Alice, if she wasn't entirely sure what have you for tea meant.

My chair was woven of grass-stalks and framed in golden wood, and seemed always to have been standing there, invisible against the prairie. His was a high carved chair, set with blue stones the shape of sky-scraps showing through a field. Or they were spaces in the carving. Or there was no chair at all.

We ate and drank. I was nervous, at first, but the paper food was good, and I served myself many helpings. They got rather drunk on my sugary wine.

By the time we were finished, night had fallen. Along the western horizon, a line of umber was still retreating, but above us stars were showing in an indigo archway.

The decanters were empty; the plates carried nothing but bones and memory. The guests were mostly asleep, or giggling under the table.

He stood up, his great coat shifting like wings. "I can't stay any longer." he said.

"She always sets the table for you." Who else could it have been for?

"She should have known," he said. "I couldn't have come if I'd wanted to." He paused. "And I didn't want to." Stepping back, he made a funny formal bow. "I should go."

"But she's so sad. Can't you help her? Isn't that why she wanted you to come?"

He might have smiled.

"Your mother is a practical woman. She wanted something I had. That's all." When my father said she was practical, he meant it as a compliment. This didn't seem complimentary at all.

"You're wrong." I said, defending her against I didn't know what. "She's just-- sad." That seemed to be the magic word with my father, and maybe with him. "And if you could make her happy, I don't see why you won't, unless you're just mean."

He was silent. His shadowed eyes contemplated me. I felt suddenly small and afraid.

"You make a good argument." was all he said. He looked over his shoulder at the house. "All right." He took something out of his pocket. "I think this is what she wants." he handed it to me. "But tell her..." he hesitated. "You're the very image of her." he said. "Tell her she's got debts of her own." Then he turned, coat furling, and walked back to his truck. I heard laughter behind me; when I looked, I saw the last of the guests, walking out through the archway of stars.

I heard my name.

My mother was standing in the back doorway, framed in a box of light. When she saw the truck pulling away, she called to me frantically.

"I'm here." I said.

She ran out into the yard in her bare feet and threw her arms around me. Her hair was tangled and unwashed, her face grubby with tears. It was wonderful to be held by her.

"Who was that man? What did he want? Was he looking for antiques?"

"He came for dinner." I said. She let go of me, stared at me from arm's length. "What do you mean?"

She followed my gaze to the table. With a cry, she leapt up and dashed towards it. She stared at the debris of the meal. She turned west. The truck could just be seen, rattling down the crossroad towards the moon. She ran a few steps towards the road, then towards the house, then our car.

She threw herself on the ground beside the table and wept.

When she looked up, her face was wild in the moonlight, and she began to tell me a story. A fairy tale, but not one any teacher would have approved of. There was a princess and a prince, but that was where the familiarity ended. It was terrifying, full of death and nameless threat. I didn't want to hear it, but I couldn't shut it out. It had a terrible, unhappy ending. When she had told it, she was silent for a long time.

I wanted to speak, to quiet the sound of that tale still sounding in my ears. I remembered the gift. "He left something for you." I said. "Well, I asked him for it. I think I was rude." I admitted.

She stared again, and I was afraid of her. I held out the gift. She snatched it away from me, examining it eagerly. It was a piece of yellow agate, carved into the shape of a sleeping child. She peered at it for a long time, and then she did a strange thing; she put it into her mouth and swallowed it. I looked away and pretended I hadn't seen her.

In a moment, she got up, dusting herself off. "It's late." she said. "Time you were in bed." She seemed calmer. "We'll clean all this up in the morning. Your father will help."

And he did, without complaint. He did not remark on the acquisition of several new items of glassware and silver serving-dishes; nor did he raise any protest when mother asserted that she wanted to sell off all her old things in the shop. He gave her the choice of the other dishes in our stock. She chose some pretty fluted-edged ones with cornflowers, a set of twenty-four with very good provenance. I think my father was sorry not to be able to sell them; but since she only ever used them inside, he was pleased.

My younger brother was born that spring, just about the equinox. He was the image of my mother, just like me. The mother he knew was merrier than mine– less dreamy, more attentive, but almost resolutely so, as if she were staving off unwelcome thoughts with ceaseless action. She was famous in town for the costumes and sets she deigned to design for local theatre productions, although she always mocked the actors over our dinner table. She was famous in the extended family for the elaborate Hallowe'en costumes and the astonishing theme birthday parties, and for upsetting the balance of things by demanding a holiday dinner with more responsibility.

She'd always had a knack for a good find, and as we got older, she went more often with father on his scouting trips, coming back with stories of her triumphs in barns and back parlours. She would take us anywhere we asked; skating, birding, rafting on the river. But she kept us all inside on Midsummer's Night.

THE END
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The first is a proper tmt, written in almost exactly ten minutes. The second is a bit of a cheat, since it got more involved and ended up being more like the forty-five-minute tale. It follows my self-imposed rules in other respects, in that it was written all at one go (although not quite sequentially) and was revised only once, during the copying-out process, without changing any major plot elements.

I don't have time to post both here right now, and the second is so long that it probably would work better as a separate entry. I am off to the Art Gallery, to use the membership my co-conspirator so delightfully acquired, and to spend time with a gaggle of the sort of people who like to wander around peering at pictures and other artifacts of imagination. Very Excited.

As to the story, well, you can tell already, I think, that I like Boxes with Things Inside.

So here, for your, well, really, my pleasure, is

The Hologram Box

I found it while I was looking for something else, which is often how I find things which are important enough that I would never think to look for them.

Forty years ago, it must have been a neat little piece of technology. A hologram box, cheap enough to give out at a children's party, which is how I received it, at the age of ten. Now it's like a pressed-tin truck, an odd relic of old manufacturing techniques. It seems somehow like it's made of the wrong materials -- green plastic, silicon.

The box is about an inch square, and a little shallower. The lid projects an unremarkable hologram of a rolling wave, only slightly elevated from the surface. When you open it, you see a miniature seascape inside -- a little beach, a little tide washing up against it. If you tilt the box, you can move the tide out or in. You can't pour out the hologrammatic water or sand. I tried often enough.

I often climbed into that box in my mind. When I was in trouble, when I did poorly at school. When we moved away from all my friends and enemies to the moon, to live under a silver dome with artificial air and weather. My little hologram comforted me, a world within a world. And of course the colony was like a larger box, in those days when we still thought terraforming was an exercise of astonishing power and skill.

The earth itself, though bounded by an atmosphere and not a plastic wall, easily cracked and certainly subject to spillage, is also a box. Now we can tilt it this way and that, spin it backwards, create as many new boxes as we want.

But I never wanted to know how to make or control the box. I only ever wanted to crawl inside and then forget it was there, except for the sense of safety its smallness gave, a world bounded, finite, comprehensible. There are no boxes like that any more. Maybe I am the only one who still wants one.

----

-rf

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Today I made postcards and wrote stories.

I have spoken often enough in this journal before about my minor addiction to playing games on the palm pilot. I like it for taking me away from the moment -- my moments are a little bit burdensome these days and I like to miss some of them -- and involving me in, if not quite a story, at least a set of actions with sequences and outcomes.

A little bit of this before bed is all right; no worse than a glass of wine, say, or whatever else you choose to do to get off to sleep. But I don't like how much time it can take up out of the rest of my day.

Today I took the average time one of the longer games takes (10 minutes) and set myself a task instead; to write a full story, beginning, middle, and end, in ten minutes, echoing the structure of the game.

Below are the first two stories. I would also include one of the postcards, but I don't have a scan. They are all in that fairly recognizable Art Student Collage style, so if you imagine one you'll probably be pretty accurate.

If you give me your address, and ask me for one, I may send one to you; and if you are very lucky I will write a Postcard Story on the back, which I believe means a story of 100 words or less.

The stories are slightly redrafted from the original as I type them in, but I didn't change the overall structure of either one, since that would be cheating. You can see from the first story that I got caught by my own restrictions. I did a little better with the second; but I'm really more of a mood-setter than a get-to-the-action writer, so it's a challenge.

I think you can tell from the titles what genre and quality of story they are...

1. The Ice Stones of Ixos

The principle drug of the Ixian peninsula is Quicksilver. I travel back and forth from island to island, and sometimes ship to ship, selling and trading. (I do not buy.) This is all, of course, illegal, but almost everything is, somewhere.

One month I transacted business every day without once touching land; in fact I had to, since we were en route to Ixos, the farthest island of the North Ocean, and there was nowhere to put into shore.

There was plenty of trade to be done on the water. We passed the floating raft-city of Aiw, towed by the vast machines of lost technologies that move them on ancient and prescribed routes through the ocean.

The northlands are a bitter cold and miserable place, and Ixos is the bitterest of all. But they have Ice -- not ordinary ice, available in surplus all through the North Ocean, but Icestone, transparent, harder than anything in the world.

So we did a profitable month at sea, dealing with all the ships hurrying as far away from Ixos as they possibly could, and happy to trade lesser diamonds for lesser mixtures, the chance of a Quicksilver escape from the stony memories of the place.

You can't just dig up diamonds on Ixos, and you can't just ask for them either. They are one of the few independent islands left. The forbidding cliffs of the place make it difficult to besiege, but it's the secret of Ixos that prevents some larger power from making it into their monarch's personal jewellery box.

In fine, nobody knows where the stones come from. Not from the dull grey cliffs, not from the mountains. Some say they can distill stones out of seawater, like salt, but I've never credited those rumours.

We went to the taverns, the trade-halls, the markets; we saw a few dull stones made into necklaces and the like, but nothing worth what we had to trade. So we went home. The end.

2. The Mysterious Box

I should be kept out of junk-shops. I should spend my money on groceries, on clothes, I should give it away rather than buy the things I get at Madelaine's Antique Curiositorium. Instead I buy things like the blue box, and I can't even bring myself to be sorry about it, despite everything that has happened.

This box was made of lacquered wood, hard as metal, in an unusual shade of deep blue, with six drawers that had no pulls. Instead they sprang open -- somewhat alarmingly -- at the touch of a catch. What made the box interesting was that the catch on each drawer sprang, not the drawer itself, but one of its neighbors.

At first this mystified me, but one day, springing them each in turn, I saw the sequence. Each catch took the form of a small figure, cast in silver, in oddly flattened perspective: a flea, a mouse, a rat, a dog, a wolf, and a hand.

You can see the logic. Mouse kills flea, rat kills mouse, and so on. I had some trouble distinguishing the mouse from the rat, and the dog from the wolf, at first, and referred to the larger forms as 'big mouse' and 'mean dog,' but a friend suggested the more sensible alternative.

What was in the drawers? I'm coming to that. In fact, that was what led me back to the junk shop, to find out if the proprietor had meant to sell me, along with the box, its contents, including thirty thousand yen and a drycleaning slip made out to a Harold Tewksbury. While she was examining my small pile of contraband, her glasses on the end of her nose, I happened to mention I'd figured out the puzzle of the latches. When I explained them to her, she roared with laughter.

"Oh, dear," she said, "That's not right at all. Don't you know that the only way to cure lycanthropy is to feed the person the hand of the one who bit them? And then, you know, if you want to get rid of a dog-spirit, like in The Hound of the Baskervilles," which was a hoax, but never mind, "You can take the wolfskin, left over when the person changes back, and throw it over the spirit, and then it'll take solid form and you can kill it."

This didn't sound like an improvement to me, but I kept quiet. "Then again, when you've killed the spirit, it will vanish all but its teeth, and these you can use,"

"To scare off rat spirits?" I suggested.

"No, dearie, you use a cat for that. No, but if you wear them -- around your neck, not in your mouth -- you can talk to anything with fur or four legs, including the rats. And of course, rats are the only other beasts that the mice, so fearful yet so wise, will truck with.

"You can ask the rats how to find the Mouse King's hoard. And if you find that, you find him, since he never leaves his treasure. And, well, the Mouse King is the only one who knows where to find the Flea Who Lives Forever."

I thought my explanation was tidier, and that hers borrowed too much from The Nutcracker, but I thanked her for the story (which you should always do, even for one you didn't want) and departed. I left her the drycleaning slip, but not the money.

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