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.