Stories from the News – Episode 1

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become an NPR junkie. I listen to Morning Edition and All Things Considered almost every single day. I also recently discovered On the Media and listen to every week’s episode on iTunes, as well as NPR’s TED Talk podcast.

Beyond getting my daily dose of “what’s going on in the world” that way, I also get to hear interviews with authors who I never would have heard of otherwise, musicians whose music I don’t like but whose words inspire me, and series on topics that I wouldn’t be exposed to in my regular day-to-day life. Often, the stories I hear inspire me and give me ideas and things to think about. But what I don’t do often enough is write those ideas down.

Which brings me to the title of this post. Today I heard a piece that just sparked my mind and made me want to cry and laugh all at once. Whether or not a good piece of flash fiction will emerge from it is yet to be seen – but the important thing is, I’ll have recorded both the story that created a rush of feeling in me and I’ll have tried to write down some of what it made me think of. Here we go. The link below will bring you to the page with the NPR news story that I listened to. Below it is the piece of flash fiction that arose from it.

“The ‘Other Audubon’: A Family’s Passion”

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“It’s been days. I’m worried about her.”

“At least she’s taking exercise today. That’s something.”

“Yes, but she insisted on putting on her purple dress. The one she always said that he liked.”

“And so we mustn’t say anything about it. No, not another word. If we don’t talk about him, she’ll forget about him in time as well. The important thing is that she’s out of bed again. Hush now, dearest. I think I hear her coming downstairs.”

She’d been downstairs for a while already, listening at the door, clutching at the handle of her parasol. She bit the inside of her cheek and felt the blood pool in her mouth almost at once as the old wound opened again. Every night it closed up, and every day she found a way to worry it  open again. She wouldn’t complain about it to Mama, though, because then the doctor would come, and she was sick and tired of his patronizing eyes and the way he looked at her in her shift, nothing but her shift, whenever he was there.

“Are you ready, love?”

“Yes, Mama.”

They left the house by the back door. She wanted to go out into the fields, but Mama wouldn’t let her yet. She was too pale yet, she said, and too frail. Maybe when she got stronger, in a few days. Perhaps then. She regretted, now, the fuss she’d made, putting on the purple dress and staying in bed for days. She didn’t love him all that much, really, it wasn’t about him, it was about Mama and Papa trying to protect her all the time. She knew she was frail, she knew she was sickly and small and weak, and she hated it. She could never be passionately swept up by a man like the women in novels were, and she wanted so much to be a heroine at times. The closest she ever got to being a heroine was her fits of hysterical tears and the chokes she got afterwards, when she couldn’t breathe and they fetched the damned doctor.

A whistle sounded just as Mama tried to usher her inside and she looked back. It wasn’t him, which she knew was what Mama had feared. No, it was a bird, one of the beautiful Phoebes, and she could swear that it was winking at her, promising something. In a moment she would know what it was, if only Mama waited one more second – but no, she was ushered inside and whisked back into bed to have a bowl of broth so that she could get strong again.

Becalmed

A ship sails in the darkness. Only three people are aboard. The captain stands on the deck, watching the stars’ reflection in the calm waters that lie beyond the ripples that the ships rocking movement is creating. She sends an arm out, wishing she could touch them – the reflections, not the stars. The stars are too far away. They’re intangible and require faith. The little specks on the water, however, are as real to the captain as the silver streaks that she sees during the day and knows to be fish.

Her first mate lies stretched out in her cabin below. It is not her watch yet. The captain will wake her when she’s needed, she has no doubt about that. But she cannot sleep, even though it’s almost impossible, making a ship work smoothly with only a captain to guide her and a half-mad, broken-down sailor to aid her. She worries about the following day and wonders whether the winds will finally rise and help them. She’s heard horror stories before about becalmed ships, but she never thought that it would be so incredibly frightening to be on one. The absence of any certainty is eating away at her: she knows not when the winds will rise, she knows not when she will see land again, she knows not whether she will live to touch her loved ones again. There is enough food to last a while, but the water has begun to seem a lot less plentiful than it had a week ago when the winds disappeared.

The lone sailor, a simpleton to begin with and driven almost out of her wits by the plague that destroyed the rest of the once large crew, rocks back and forth in her hammock in the large, empty room that she shared, until two weeks ago, with many others. The ropes creak comfortingly and she hums their notes as she swings, trying to lull herself into comfort. She has had no joy beyond the wooden planks of this ship; it is the one and only place she has ever found camaraderie. It’s almost all gone now, and she clings to the memories of what she had and tries to forget the sight of her fellow sailors in their death throes.

The wind doesn’t pick up. There is no hope yet for the three aboard the ship. But all three are human, and so they cannot help hoping anyway.

Thoughts on Genius

Disclaimer: Forgive me for the pompous and maybe too flowery nature of this post. I’ve been reading Michael Cunningham and Virginia Woolf and I wanted to try my hand at writing something like this, trying to articulate my thoughts with more than my usual drivel of words. Forgive me, again, if I sound obnoxious, and if I do, believe me, I won’t force any such thing upon you again.

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If there is a feeling that accompanies the witness of genius, surely it is awe. Seeing a great masterpiece of art, listening to incredible and unbelievable music, or turning the pages of a book where words, simply words written one after the other, convey the genius of the author – these experiences all come hand in hand with mixed emotions, and at their center, awe.

Somehow, genius seems to give one both the feeling of great insignificance and great community. At one and the same time, one feels tiny compared to this piece of majesty and beauty that touches one’s senses, but also part of a vast body of all the others who have appreciated and seen and felt what one has felt. The illogical nature of this emotion – for if one is small, how can one be large at the same time? – goes hand in hand with genius, which is something, I believe, that no one, not even its possessor, can fully understand. We can understand aspects of it, appreciate parts and facets of it, but never the whole. Perhaps we could gain a full picture of the nature of genius if we collected each and every person’s idea of what the piece, be it a painting, a piece of music or a novel, conveys, we might reach a whole in which we understand both what the genius meant to pass on to us and also what he or she didn’t, what we understand, we who are the vast organism that at one moment in time seem to exist only to appreciate the piece.

There is genius that is cold, calculated and smooth, the results of which would be cold and calculated too if only we didn’t have the need to insert emotion into everything. To this kind of genius we give our own thoughts and feelings, the stirrings in our bellies and the pictures that flash across our minds. We exalt something we may not understand, but why shouldn’t we do so when something has this quality that is so hard to define – genius?

Then there is genius that gushes with more emotion, more heart and soul that we can take in a single view, a single read, a single hearing. To this genius we may do a damage as we try to reign in our emotions and control them, simplify them, understand them. Maybe we shouldn’t try to do so, though, for maybe it is this genius most of all that we ought not to try and understand – maybe it is this genius that we ought to let take us for a ride, whirl us around without apparent, obvious sense and comprehension. Maybe swimming in the place where all emotions stem from, somewhere deep in the soul, is good for us, once in a while.

 

Tamer and Tamed

Lara let the snake coil around her neck, slithering over her shoulders and looping itself once, twice, until its head was comfortably level with her eyes. The effect was ominous, and it seemed to Barriana that Lara could see out of the snake’s eyes as well as her own. She couldn’t hope to stare the both of them down, and shook her head.

“No. Can’t do it, love. Sorry.”

Lara’s eyes flashed and the snake hissed, moving so its scales flashed in the poor lighting, showing off its poisonous green color. The Tamer stood perfectly still, lips pursed. She couldn’t believe her ears. Having brought Barriana  this far, and to hear her say this? That she couldn’t? Lara couldn’t think of a worse insult.

“Don’t you ever call me that again. You’re finished, you hear me? You’ll never be a Tamer, and what’s worse is you won’t be under my protection anymore. I’ll have my friends chase you to the end of the earth if you ever try to come near me again. You hear me? Do you hear me?!” Lara realized her voice was rising in pitch, getting out of control. She couldn’t have that. She stopped, took a breath, and stroked the snake softly on the head with one long, brown finger. “Out,” she commanded coolly.

Barriana took one last agonizing look at her, at the magnificent, iridescent and beautifully dangerous Lara. She turned deliberately, completely, and wondered if the snake would attack her. The nape of her neck prickled with Lara’s furious gaze – it almost burned with its intensity. But there were no fangs sunken in her flesh, no claws flashing out, no weight bearing her to the ground. So she walked. She took one step, then another, and another. She didn’t allow herself to look back, because she knew that if she did, she’d return to the Tamer and to the Tamer’s life. She couldn’t do that. It had gone too far.

When she got far enough down the tunnel that led out of Lara’s cavern, she started to run. Not knowing how much time she had, nor where she could flee to, she knew this much – Lara wasn’t the kind to forgive and forget. She’d ruin Barriana’s life if she could – and if not for the betrayal she could have done so at any moment out of sheer meanness or spite. That was Lara, alright. Barriana ran on, emerging into air as humid as the tunnel had been, and not much cooler. She took a moment to steady her breath, and then used one of the talents she’d learned from Lara – climbing up a tree, she began to swing from branch to branch, jumping and landing as lightly as she could where she couldn’t get a good grip with her hands. It would take her hours to traverse the humid jungle Lara called home, but every inch away was a bit of her soul that she got to keep to herself.

Barriana fled, using every bit of willpower and strength to keep going. But secretly, a nasty little part of brain wanted to get caught.

Dorothy

It’s a well known fact that if you drop a piece of buttered toast, it will land with the butter side down. Dorothy stared at her toast, lying there on her new, pristine white carpet and felt her world collapse around her. It had been one of those days, and her clumsiness at dropping the toast had been the last straw. If she could have seen her face in that moment, she would have been shocked, and maybe even annoyed. Her face had fallen, gone into a look of deep grief, and suddenly looked twenty years older.

She had to remind herself, every morning, that there were days like this. Days where everything went wrong and it felt as if every single mistake, misstep or blunder were the equivalent of accidentally setting off an atomic bomb.

Dorothy crumpled to the floor, and sat sobbing over her piece of toast. She knew she’d wake up fine the next morning. And she knew that her day, like every day, would end like this. Crying.

Mute Anna

Anna wept silently. Where once she screamed, now she was calm, tears dripping down her cheeks without a sound. She had gone away for a time, or, at the least, had slept like a morbid version of a Sleeping Beauty. However an equally morbid prince must have come to her without her knowing it – he must have worked some sort of sourcery to awaken her from her restless, though long, sleep. She couldn’t remember a prince, but he must have been there. If she could have chosen freely for herself, she would sleep in the tower forever more, sparing the world her presence.

But Anna was awake again, and she couldn’t fall back asleep. In fact, the castle where she’d slept seemed to have disappeared without a trace, leaving a few dusty old stones lying around in a field of brown grass. She would stare at the forlorn heap and couldn’t even contemplate building the castle up again. It was too difficult. It was so much easier to simply sit on the grass and weep.

The silence irked Anna, though. She was used to being free, unfettered, unreserved, but something had changed – she knew not what – and she couldn’t make a sound anymore. She was so silent that she would throw stones around for the simple pleasure of hearing a noise and making sure that she hadn’t gone deaf. She hadn’t, though, she’d simply become mute. Each day that passed, however, brought her throat a slight ease and she felt that before long she may be able to make a squeak again – and then, ah, then! Then she would be able to resume her screams, the thing she relished in most. Anna couldn’t help it – she was a violent, ugly beast. But so beautiful as well, so beautiful that it would take an age to describe her beauty and charm.

Hidden Wish

There are wishes that are too dear to the heart to be able to give up. At the same time, however, these same wishes, because of being so dear, are often hidden or lied about or concealed even from their own wisher. Wishes like these are the ones that are important. The wisher conceals them from him or herself because he or she knows that facing the wish, trying to accomplish it, will only make it like all the other wishes before – it will be gloried, it will be striven for, it will be boasted of, but eventually it will fall to the wayside like a dusty old garment, too worn out to be of use to the traveler anymore.

These wishes stay close to the heart, and will unconsciously jump into the mind of the wisher and into his or her actions once in a while. The wisher, if sincere, will do all in their power to avoid the seriousness of the wish, will immediately laugh it off as a fancy, as a thing which can never be, while secretly wanting it so much that he or she would give up almost everything to be able to fulfill it.

Why is it that wishes brought to light are so often abandoned? One cannot presume to know – but what is certain, at least when it comes to this humble blogger’s opinion, is that the more serious one is about one’s wish, the more likely it is to be lost amongst the everyday. Better to supress and let it emerge on one with all the slowness of natural progress rather than force it upon and into one’s life with vulgar flashes of neon light.

Rosy Thoughts

“Plink-plink-plink”
The metal chimes of the pretty mobile touched each other lightly in the almost nonexistent breeze. Rosy stared sullenly at them with her ice-blue eyes. The sound always bothered her immensely. Why have wind chimes when there was never any wind? The air was always as still as a boulder in the summer, and Rosy hated it.
As if the tiny breath of wind had heard her thoughts, it ceased to make even the merest attempt at cooling the stifling room, and the plink-plink of the chimes stopped. Rosy shifted her position a little bit so her neck wouldn’t hurt as much, and settled down again, closing her eyes. She let out a long, slow breath.
If anyone were to look at her at that moment, they would see a beautiful, sleeping girl, her shortish hair spread around her face like a chocolate-colored halo, lips slightly open and face perfectly calm. Little would they know the turmoil of thoughts and internal conversations that went through the mind of this silent angel.
Rosy felt as if her mind was filled with a whole crowd of people.
The part of her that was a little bit wicked was saying “Keep pretending to be sick, what do you care? All that matters is that Mama and Papa keep paying attention to you.”
Then the sensible part of her would interrupt with “But you can’t go on like this forever, and once you do get up, you’ll have to deal with them.”
The self-pitying part would meekly put in “It makes me sad to think of that though… Can’t you just stay in bed and have them keep feeling sorry for their poor daughter? You are their poor daughter after all, and you are very sad and tired now.”
Wicked would interrupt with an eager “Yes, exactly, that’s exactly right!” but not long after that, Self-Loathing would rear its aggressive head and yell “You disgusting, wicked, ungrateful little fiend, how can you be doing such a thing? You make me sick, you know that? What you’re doing is just so wrong and pathetic that-”
Sensible would then try to sooth everyone with soft words, “Come now, that’s a bit harsh, but yes, you must stop this, Rosy, because it’s not going to help in the end and you know it, dear.”
Wicked-self-pitying-sensible-self-loathing Rosy snapped her eyes open once more. It was no use. No matter what she did, no matter how hard she tried to sleep and look properly sickly, she couldn’t shut out the stupid voices in her head, nagging her about what she was doing or not doing all day long. All Rosy wanted was her parents to stop fighting. They had stopped, for the past couple of days, and she knew it was because they were worried about her complete and utter collapse that led to her staying in bed all the time since. Rosy also knew that the moment she seemed to be feeling better her parents would resume their bickering and their harsh conversations, filled with grim words like “lawyers” and “bank account” and “custody” – words Rosy was thoroughly sick of.
So now instead of hearing her parents fighting, Rosy had to endure the bickering inside her head and try to deal with it. She often dreamed, when she got tired of fighting with herself, of a day in the future when she would feel fine and dandy about everything, a day when things would feel normal, no matter where her parents were. She knew  a day like that, a day where all this was behind her, was somewhere in the future. Rosy waited impatiently for that day. She wanted the present to be all over and done with.
Whenever she lapsed into that dream for too long though, her voices would pick up their arguments and she would sigh, adjust her position, and live in the now in her mind. Occasionally the wind-chimes would clink against each other, puncturing her thoughts, and giving her something fresh to be angry with, but the air always stopped moving soon, and the dead air of the summer would grip Rosy’s heart in a vice-like grip, and her thoughts would continue in their turmoil.

I have no clue where this came from. I started writing it months ago, completed it tonight. I don’t even know if I should call it a short story or not. It’s just… something.

Devil’s Yellow Shirt [A Short Story]

Despite some misgivings over it, and especially over its ending, I will post this story here and let the grand populace decide. Or the grand ten or so who actually care. I hope you enjoy!

Devil woke up one morning and lay in bed for a few minutes, savoring the feeling of his good mood. Eventually he got out of bed and decided to wear his yellow button-down shirt to work today. He was, after all, in a good mood, so why not celebrate it with some color?

Devil walked through the small corridor of his apartment and entered his equally small and narrow kitchen. He put some toast in the toaster and turned it on. Then he waited patiently for the toast to pop up, put the toast on a plate, buttered it at the table, and went on to munch it. When he was done, he carefully put his plate in the sink. He then went to wash his hands, face and neck, and to put on a pair of pants- something he had forgotten to do before.

Devil started every morning with this blissfully human routine. Then, every morning, he walked to the bus stop, and took the bus to work. Not many people in his office did the work as well or as joyfully as Devil did. Devil prided himself on his good work, as well as his line of work, one that he felt was particularly devilish. What Devil did was this: he looked at a lot of files of sick people, and figured out how to not get them the current financing they needed for their current malady, whatever that happened to be. Devil figured he was probably contributing to Hell a lot more now than he did when he was actually IN Hell. By not giving many people the financial help they needed, a good percentage of them would die due to the lack of help, and after all, there were many more people in Hell than in Heaven, so a good percentage of the dead people would end up in Hell.

Another thing Devil prided himself on, apart from being exceedingly good at his job, was his physical appearance. He did not have horns. Nor did he have a pointy tail or cloven hooves. He wasn’t even very red most of the time, except when he ate Indian food of course. Devil actually chose time and again to be squat, balding, round and clean cut. This gave him the overall appearance of being utterly harmless, something that amused Devil greatly all through the centuries.

Devil had ruled Hell ever since it had been created by the human mind. He hadn’t done very much in Hell after a while, because eventually there were so many people there, that he got to delegate most of his responsibilities to some of the ones who had been there long enough to know how everything worked. Today though, Devil had no idea what Hell looked like, because he hadn’t set foot in the place for some 300 years or so. He assumed that, were he to go back today, it would look very much like a shopping mall. A very large and particularly infuriating shopping mall.

The reason Devil left Hell all those years ago was the very simple fact of his name. A boy, no older than 10 or 11, had ended up in Hell, and Devil, while doing his routine check that everything was getting done, happened to have a chat with the boy. First he learned that the boy had killed his dog when he was 4, and that he had been sure that he would end up in Hell, which in face, was what made him end up in Hell. Then the boy had pointed out to Devil that if he spelled his name backwards it would be Lived. Of course Devil just patted the boy on the head and sent him off to play, but then he thought about it for a while. Then he thought about it a bit more and realized just how ironic that was. Because of course Devil had never lived. He had existed for what felt like forever, but he had never LIVED. Not like all the people who came to Hell had.

So Devil, who considered himself somewhat the adventurous type, decided to live. He went into the world for the first time, and created himself as Robert Livingston. Then he became James Livingston and then, for a while, Charlotte Livingston. Then he decided he’d much rather stay male, and kept changing his name and whereabouts for centuries. That way, he never had to deal with the same people for too long, and he didn’t have the problem of needing to die at some point. About two hundred years ago he started a tradition, something to make his leaving and moving about a bit more interesting. On his last day in a place, he would tell the person he most got along with in that place that he was Devil really. He enjoyed the different responses people gave him and how they changed over time. He got a lot of Perhaps-You-Should-Talk-To-The-Preacher-About-This responses, and a lot of Oh-Lord-What-Do-You-Mean-By-That responses. Mostly though, he got Ha-Ha-Then-Where-Are-Your-Horns responses.

This particular day, the yellow shirt day, was Devil’s last day in his current town. He felt sad about it, because he would have to move far away and change profession and name, because people were so easily traceable these days what with Google and all. Still, his good mood would not be ruined, and he would give himself a good last day.

He got to work, sat at his desk, and ruined people’s lives for a while. At 12:35 he decided to take his lunch break, and he asked his best friend in the office, Mort, to join him.

Devil and Mort got along splendidly ever since they realized that they both didn’t feel any guilt over what they were being paid to do. Devil had decided more than five years ago that Mort would be the one he would tell the truth to on the day of his departure. He knew that perhaps he should stop his silly game, most especially because of the rash promise he made to himself about a hundred years back. But Devil was addicted by now, he just HAD to see people’s reactions and then never see them again.

So Devil took Mort down to the cafeteria, and they both got strong coffees and big salads and even bigger bags of potato-chips. They sat down at a table and talked for a while about the weather, about politicians and about the crime rates. Once they’d both polished off their meals and burped and groaned for a while, Devil decided it was time.

‘Mort, buddy,’ Devil began. ‘Today’s my last day on the job.’

‘What? Why, what happened, Ned?’ Mort replied, taken off guard. He very much liked Devil, or Ned, and didn’t want to be the only guilt-free one in the office again.

‘My mother, she lives in Paris and she’s sick as a dog. I’ve got to go take care of her. Haven’t got a choice. My poor mother did everything for me,’ Devil spun his little stories completely at random each time he left. He enjoyed seeing what his human imagination would crop up with each time.

‘Ah, buddy, I’m sorry to hear that. Any idea when you’ll be back?’

‘Not a clue, old pal, not a clue. I can tell you one thing though,’ Devil paused and waited for Mort to say ‘What?’ which he obligingly did. ‘I can tell you something real weird. I’m Devil, Mort. No joke, old buddy, I’m really THE Devil. The one who supposedly tortures the damned and all that.’

Mort stared, and then he chortled, and then he said ‘Ha! If you’re the Devil, where are your horns, huh?’ and then he chortled some more.

Devil thought to himself, Damn, and then he regretted his promise. Devil was a man of his word, and even if the promise had been to himself, he had to follow it through.

‘Aw, Mort, why’d you have to go and say that? See, I made a little promise to myself. You know those ads online, the ones that blink all these colors so you notice them. The ones that say something like “You’re the millionth person to see this ad! That means YOU win a prize! Click the banner for more details!”?’

‘Yeah,’ Mort wasn’t quite following what was going on.

‘You know how whenever you see that you know for sure that it’s a lie and that you’re not the millionth on that site and you’ll only get a virus if you click on the banner?’ Devil pressed on.

‘Uh, yeah, but buddy, what has this got to do with-‘

‘Well, see,’ Devil interrupted the wary Mort. ‘You really are the millionth person who’s asked me that stupid question about the horns. And you know I’m a man of my word, Mort. And I made myself a little promise that on the day I’d hear the millionth person ask me that question, I’d give him a little prize. And the prize would be, I’d go back to Hell and I’d stop making that person a consort and friend of the Devil. So there you go, Mort. It’s too bad, I enjoyed being here. Goodbye.’

Devil then seemed to drift out of his yellow shirt, as if he turned into mist, and then the yellow shirt and his pants were just draped over the chair, and his shoes and socks lay on the floor.

Mort stared at the chair with the clothes on it. Then he looked around. Nobody else in the cafeteria seemed to have noticed what went on. That is, no one noticed that a person – the Devil? – seemed to have disappeared out of his clothing. Mort stood up and looked around again. Nobody took any notice of him still. He walked calmly up to his cubical in the office, sat down and thought for a moment.

He wondered what was better, the Devil being IN Hell or OUT of it. He decided that for him at least, it was good for the Devil to be IN Hell. When he got to Hell, he would at least have someone to play golf and have a nice chat with.

Mort thought for another minute, and then walked back to the cafeteria and took the yellow shirt from the chair Devil had been sitting in, which no one had touched yet. He thought to himself ‘At least I got a fine yellow shirt on this odd day’. That made him cheerful, and Mort whistled to himself about his free shirt all afternoon.

Normalcy in the Face of Grief

She stared around with her currently dull, sleepy eyes. She saw everyone around her, but also seemed to see through them, see their intentions. They all stared eagerly ahead, so intent on understanding, so intent on impressing, on seeing who was knowledgeable and who wasn’t. Eager, all so eager. She slowly shifted her gaze over them all. Why are they acting like this? She thought. What do they gain from it?

She was presently struck again with how much her grief distorted her perspective and views on life. Nothing seemed so important anymore. As long as you keep living, even in total numbness, what does it matter what your future holds? What does it even matter what the present holds? What’s the use of striving to greatness or even comfortable mediocrity? She didn’t care what would happen in her life anymore, as long as she kept living somehow.

This sprang to my mind at work today, and I quickly wrote down the words on my little pad of paper that I carry in my bag everywhere. Dramatic, perhaps, and quite depressing to tell the truth, but I just started thinking about writing this, so I did. I will resume my usual nonsensical posts on the morrow.