My Baen Award-winning story, “Dear Ammi“, is now live on the site! Please check it out if you like space heroics, self-sacrifice, and sarcasm. (It does have some shooty-shooty stuff so if you may not be in the headspace to deal with that this week, keep that in mind before clicking over.) I’m so glad this story is finally out there in the world!,
I haven’t posted any writing here for a while, so let’s remedy that. I wrote this a while back — not so much a fairy tale retelling as just a telling. It’s fun to take the old toys out of the box and play with them once in a while.
The storybooks rarely record the day jobs.
O’Donnachú is a fisherman. This defines him, first and foremost: the rope calluses on his hands, the dried film of salt on his face and clothes. His little house and his workshop next door overlook the gray and shuddering sea, and it is all he has ever known. The boat was his father’s – is his father’s, still, in whatever part of O’Donnachú is still a small, frightened boy clinging to the side as the little currach rolls over vast, implacable waves. He was a fisherman for ten years before he pulled the woman out of the water. He went on being a fisherman during their lives together, and will certainly still do so now that she is gone. This is a throwaway in the stories, though – who else but a fisherman should pull such a creature in with his nets? In later years, when he catches snippets of his own story being traded between young men in the ale house, when he hears that his tale has been set to paper by a man he has never met, in words he has never learned to cipher, he will always wonder at this: that it should be rendered so small, this most important part of his life.
Another flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig’s blog; this one was another mash-up challenge, and I wound up rolling for a combo of Mad Max and The Martian. Not sure there’s enough sciencing-the-shit-out-of-anything to get me close enough to the latter here, but here it is in any case:
Safe Places, Far Away
Halfway down the hill out of Pacific Heights, Elena hears the screams from the Marina District.
The rain muffles the sounds. She has to stop and listen for a moment to convince herself it’s real. Through the stifling fog, the shattered windows of Pacific Heights look down on her. The blackened facades are grim after the firestorm that tore through during last year’s earthquake. Not yet, she begs the gray clouds overhead. It’s not ready yet. I’m not ready yet!
The gray clouds don’t care about Elena anymore than the wreckage of Pacific Heights does. Another scream rips through the rain.
Elena’s rubber flip-flops slap the cement. She’s getting too old to run this way, can feel every blow in her knees. Her ankles scream as she tries to keep purchase on the wet asphalt. She’ll have to find better shoes soon, but she’s had other scavenging priorities. Those priorities are currently banging against her ribs with every step. She pulls her threadbare jacket closed around the canvas bag, and puts her head down against the rain.
Under her arms and on her back, sweat stings, distinct from the hot rain trickling down the back of her neck and dripping from her chin. She stops to scale a gnarled but sturdy-looking tree. The pirates are in the algae fields at the fringes of the Marina District. They must be hungry; algae is a far cry from their usual loot of gasoline and functional electronics. Might be that the islanders have made fishing the bay a more difficult prospect for the pirates these days? In any case, no point in trying to go home the usual way. That would put her right in the pirates’ line of view as they cut their way through the aquaculture storehouses. Especially if they hit the freshwater tanks too. And if they head farther upcity …
Elena drops to the ground and cuts between two sets of shuttered rowhouses.
Maybe it was stupid not to bring the whole array with her, instead of leaving it in the safe place to await her return. But the pieces she’s already collected are heavy, and carting all that junk around the city makes her slow. Vulnerable. Pirates aren’t the only ones to watch out for in San Francisco these days. Elena should carry a weapon when she goes out, but her fingers curl into a fist at the thought of touching a gun. Even a knife. Some things aren’t worth the price.
It’s a tight squeeze through the broken gate on the other end of the alley, but Elena makes it. She has to reach back through to grab the rubber flip-flop caught on the chain-links, and as soon as she crams it back on her foot she’s moving again through quiet, watchful streets.
When Elena was a kid, her mom told her that a million people had lived in the city once, back in the Old World. A million! Million is a number for fish in the sea, for stars in the sky. Elena can count the number of people she spots during a trip out into the city on one hand. The closest thing to a crowd to be had is whatever shift crew is currently working in the algae fields. Elena spares a throb of pity for the unlucky crew down there today. That could have been her, easily enough, another day. Everyone who stays in the city takes their turns at the algae field. If they want to feed their families.
There are other ways of life out there, but Elena doesn’t know of many. She’s heard stories of fishing rafts out there on the ocean, new homes hollowed out of the husks of old aircraft carriers. But the open-sea pirates are far worse than the ragtag crew that haunts San Francisco Bay.
There’s farming, if you go far enough north. Up in southern Canada it’s warm enough in the winter and cool enough in the summer to grow wheat and corn and enough other things to fill a belly. Not here, though. Only brown grass grows in the cracks in the city’s cement, and if you go out of town the dirt blows dry across the highway.
And of course, there are the islanders. You can see Alcatraz from the hill, from the roof of Elena’s safe place too. It didn’t take much to convert that place into a fortress, and the islanders armed it with the torpedoes and ships from Yerba Buena. Once, hard at work in the algae field, Elena looked up just in time to catch a seaplane’s arc through the sky overhead. That was just the one time, though — too much precious fuel for a flight like that. Still, the islanders had the munitions to keep their home and their fishing boats safe from pirates.
Now Elena hope they’ll do the same for the city.
She cradles the bag inside her jacket. In there, she holds the last parts she needed to turn the metal husk in her safe place into a working radio. “There are things a girl should know besides how to rake algae,” her mother had always said. Elena doesn’t know if she was an engineer or a mechanic in the Old World, or if she was just a hobbyist. But she knows that there are ways to solve problems that don’t require violence and bloodshed. And she knows there are still people out there in the New World who would see the value in the old ways too, if they could be shown. Some of the old ways. Or maybe the islanders would be interested in someone who could do so much with so little? Elena tries to picture life behind the high walls of Alcatraz, but comes up empty-handed.
She shakes herself. If she hurries, she can alert the islanders today — tell them the pirates were away from their boats, raiding in the city. If they were raiding for food, they might yet come deep into the city. More time for the islanders to close in. More time to clean up the scourge of the bay for good. Or at least until someone else comes in to fill that vacuum. Elena will take what she can get.
She ducks her head out into a wide street. Her heart thunders in her chest, and her legs shake underneath her. She doesn’t see anyone, but she can spy a plume of smoke down close to the water. She hears shouting again, and the occasional crackle of gunfire. The pirates coming upcity also means that the safe places, the ones far away from the fuel tanks, might not be as safe as usual. Elena wipes rain out of her eyes, suck down a deep shuddering breath, and takes off across the empty street.
The impact knocks her sideways.
All the breath crashes out of her. She curls around herself, whooping for breath. No. No time for that. She pushes up to one elbow to see what struck her. If it had been a raider, she would be dead by now.
The kid can’t be more than twenty, all mismatched angles from his thatch of orange hair to his flat thin-lipped mouth to his long skinny arms and legs. Only the barrel of the gun in his shaking hands traces a perfect curve. “Gimme the stuff,” he says.
“I don’t have anything valuable on me,” Elena says. Only half a lie. The last parts of her radio won’t be of any worth to this boy, only to her. “Just calm down.”
“I can see the bag under your jacket!” His voice leaps in volume and cracks under the strain. Elena rolls her eyes toward the bay. Mustn’t attract notice now. So close–
Her attention is misplaced. He lunges toward her and grabs the bag. The strap is looped around her neck, inside the jacket. She screams in pain as much as anger as he yanks on the bag and pulls her head. Her arm slashes wildly at his face. He grunts, staggers back. A clatter of metal on pavement.
The strap breaks.
Elena’s head falls backward, or the pavement leaps up to meet her. Stars dance in front of her. On her knees she struggles after the boy, but he regains his balance and darts off. A broken window swallows him up, and Elena will never find him now.
Her hand falls on something on the sidewalk. Something metal.
A flash of hope. Her fingers close convulsively around it, and then she realizes what it is she’s holding. Not radio parts: a gun.
No! Never that. She raises it to fling it as far from herself as she can, then realizes: not just any gun. What she’s holding is a flare gun.
She laughs, hysterically and much too loudly, rocking back and forth in the street. When she can, she drags herself to her knees, then to her feet. She still has a ways to go.
It used to be a school once, or so Elena’s mother said, once upon a time, the way all stories go. Now it’s Elena’s home. A few other families have laid their claims here too. Bill Clapton throws down the ladder when Elena signals, and pulls it up quickly behind him. The rain has cleared up, so the ladder isn’t as slippery as it can be. “Raiders in the city,” he says, and she nods curtly.
The lower staircases have all been removed, but Elena’s burning legs pump their way up the maintenance staircase from the second story to the third, and then up onto the roof. She draws the gun from inside her jacket.
She turns, sees Sebastian kneeling just against the edge of the roof. He’s always up here, or lurking in the empty rooms on the third floor. The other children, they play in the long echoing hallways, but not Sebastian. He’s alone so much.
And he’s not looking at her, but at what’s in her hands. And he’s not seeing this gun, but another one.
“Oh, baby,” she says. “No, sweetheart, it’s not like Papa. I’m not going to–” She can’t say it. He’s already covering his eyes. Beneath his t-shirt, his shoulders shake. “No, mijito, not your eyes this time, my heart. Cover your ears.”
He obeys, but he still can’t look at her. She wonders if he will ever be able to look at anyone else again, or if he will always haunt the upstairs corridors like a brown little ghost, like the ghost of his father. She looks out across the bay, at the silent walls of the island, and points the flare skyward. On the trigger, her finger spasms, and the flare paints a pink wound across the sky, curving outward toward Alcatraz.
To Elena, it looks like a question mark.
For this week’s Terribleminds flash fiction challenge, which involved starting a story using a title selected from a list of randomly-generated options. I went with “The Crow of Nine-World”, because coming up with something that “Nine-World” could seemed like an interesting problem to be solved.
“The Crow of Nine-World”
The sandpiper was only from One-World, but he had enough questions to fill up all the nine worlds and more.
There were nine worlds exactly, for birds have no need for numbers more than nine, which is the number of talons on both feet plus one, which is a vast quantity of worms or eggs or crusts of bread. The One-World, where the sandpiper had hatched and grown to the fullness of life, was the world of sands and shorelines, and it was warm and bright in the summer and cool and gray in the winter, and the sandpiper loved it.
But he thought he might also love to live in the Two-World where the wind played in the soft tall grasses, or higher yet in the Five-World where other birds built their nests in the waiting branches of gentle young trees. He did not dare to aspire to the Six-World, that of the tallest and wisest trees, nor yet to the Nine-World high up on the mountain. But he wondered: why must the birds be divided so, from shore to grassland to the great heights of the mountaintops?
And he wondered too why the sun sank always into nearly the same place in the ocean while the moon and stars wandered across the sky, and he wondered too where the secret tunnel under the water was that the sun could slip under the land to roll up into the sky come each dawn. And he wondered why the cat shredded birds into feathers and ligament, why the fox must make his meal of a bird’s lifeblood, why the man should wish to shoot a bird down from the sky and not even watch to see where it fell.
The others of the One-World, the pipers and plovers and tall wading birds, they did not know the answers to his questions. And so the sandpiper wondered if he might ask the crow of Nine-World, he who sat atop the highest peaks, and who saw all the world from the dawn’s first light to pink-fingered dusk, if such a bird held the answers he sought. And a question of this kind could not be answered with wondering, but only with doing, and so one summer night when the stars hung low and bright over the beach, the sandpiper flicked up his wings and took flight.
He flew over the Two-World, though the wind in the grass sang sweetly and the red-winged blackbirds trilled so merrily in answer. And he flew over the Three-World, where the robins and catbirds tucked their nests snugly into the warm embrace of bush and shrub. He stopped beside the Four-World, by the still waters of a pond fed generously by a sweet-watered stream, for the familiar whisper of water on shore comforted him even as the differences chilled him: the too-close roof of overlapping tree branches, the smallness of it all. But the birdfolk of the Four-World, the ducks and herons, they spoke kindly to him and welcomed him as much as the soft voice of the water did (though their accent fell strange on his ears).
The folk of the Four-World knew no more of the answers to the sandpiper’s questions than his kin in the One-World did. “We’ve often wondered the same,” they said sadly, and a little wistfully. But when he told them he wished to visit the Nine-World and ask the crow who lived there, they bobbed their heads and flicked their wings in encouragement. The crow was wise, they said, and this buoyed him up during his rest there in the Four-World. But when the morning pushed its way through the tree-tops and the sandpiper took wing once more, he wondered a new question: if the crow of Nine-World was so wise, why had none of the Four-World folk ever gone themselves to ask him their questions?
The Five-World full of young green trees and the Six-World with their older, shrewder cousins coasted by, so far below that the sandpiper’s wings left no shadow on their leaves. He flew quickly past the Seven-World where braver birds build their homes in the structures of mankind, and up into the Eight-World itself. No bird lives in the Eight-World, the very skies themselves, but it is their privilege to visit from time to time, and the sandpiper tipped his wings in greeting to a flock of starlings that swirled through the air on the back of the wind.
And then the Nine-World loomed up before him. Wondering fell away, and there was nothing left in the sandpiper but determination.
The crow was not hard to find. His kind never are, when they are being sought. The sandpiper landed some yards back from him and approached slowly, his wings spread wind behind him in deference. “Nine-World Crow,” he said, “I come to you for answers.”
The crow’s feathers were as black as night. Not the sweet starry night that shone over the shores of the sandpiper’s home, but a night very far away from home, from the memory of light. “Ask,” he said, and his croak was as old and as serrated as the rock on which he’d made his home.
It was not, perhaps, the greeting the sandpiper had hoped for, but he dipped his bow lower and asked. “Why, o Crow, do the pipers and plovers live down in the sand, while you live high on the mountain and our other kin are scattered to every corner of the earth and sea and sky in between?”
“Thus were they made,” said the crow, and silence like a kingfisher’s strike, like the sharp knives of men, stretched between him and the sandpiper.
The sandpiper did not like the crow’s answer, but the sandpiper had come so far and could not turn now, not with all the questions he had still churning in between the pebbles in his gizzard. He asked the crow why the sun never strayed from its course – “thus was it made” – and why the moon and stars were braver to move so far afield – “thus were they made”. He asked why the fox’s sharp teeth tormented his kin – “thus was he made” — and how the sun could slide beneath the land without burning it to embers – “thus was it made”.
And with each answer, the unanswered questions thrashed inside the sandpiper, and with each answer the crow’s croak was as unwavering as the first. And when the sandpiper asked, “Why is it the bird’s lot to be torn and sliced and devoured and slain?” he knew what answer was forthcoming.
But then, the crow looked at him for the first time, and for a moment the sandpiper felt a shiver of hope. And the crow said, “Thus were we made, you and I, thus ever so.”
And the sandpiper fell upon the crown, and with his long sharp beak he pierced him, again and again he pierced deeply into the thin old flesh. And when he was done, and he stepped back, aghast, he could see that the feathers of the raven were not night-black, or not only so. Beneath the gore, he could see now that in their darkness they contained all the colors of the world, the emerald green of leaves in summer, the royal purple of a winter sunset, the gleam of sun on the water.
And there was more, too, to the terse answers the crow had offered. It was true that things were made to be what they are, but what a destiny that unfurled before them: he thought now of the graceful cant of the starling’s wing in flight and saw how good it was that the starling was privileged to the Eight-World so often. And he saw too the duck’s webbed feet, the oil painted on to a piper’s feathers, that fitted them so gently in the watery worlds to which they were born, each to each. He looked down over the mountainside, down over each of the nine worlds, and he saw the beauty in them each.
But from his high vantage he could see too the suffering and sorrow that had led him on his quest. He saw the constellation of cardinal feathers thrown into the air by a cat’s sharp claws. He heard the cries of pain of a dying duck trapped beneath a dog’s slavering jowls. He saw each bird that fell to the earth, never to visit the Eight-World again, and this was not beautiful at all. It simply was, was the only question and the answer to itself all at once.
He raised his head up, and crowed once in mourning. Not a sandpiper’s friendly pip, but a rusty croak. A sound that shook the mountain, but went no further. No; to hear his voice, to have the satisfaction of his terrible knowledge, his kin would have to come to him.
Perhaps one of them would be worthy of it.
The most important thing you can do as a writer is, of course, to write.
But that’s not the only important thing. There is a lot to be said for the act of shutting down the laptop, closing the notebook, and just staring off into the middle distance.
It’s not intuitive to me that I need time, sometimes, just to think. Unless my fingers are moving, I don’t feel like I’m doing something. I need to be typing to feel like I’m making forward progress; but if there’s a problem that hasn’t really been solved, hacking away at it via keyboard doesn’t get me anywhere. Not anywhere worth visiting, at least.
I have less working time every day; my kids turned 2 last November and they’re napping less and waking up earlier each morning. They’re getting better at entertaining themselves as they get older, sure, but they’re also two and they’re busy and noisy and the amount of work I can get done while Daniel Tiger is on or while blocks are being stacked and gleefully knocked down is just not as much as I can get done while those little nuggets are sacked out for a three-hour nap. That’s just math.
And the first casualty was, not surprisingly, my staring-off-into-space time. I can hack out a chapter while having Mega-Blocks piled on my head, but it’s a lot harder to focus in on a problem that needs solving, to sit quietly and move the pieces of a story around in my head. To ruminate until a story germinates.
But today I did something I don’t usually do: on my visit to the gym, I skipped my usual intense exercise class (too sore from yesterday’s class! Two weeks of Christmas break and a bonus Christmas cold did a number on me) and hit the elliptical for half an hour instead.
And something happened with thirty minutes of zoning out stretching in front of me with nothing but a so-familiar-as-to-not-be-there backdrop of 80’s rock to accompany it. The something that happened was: my mind had time and peace to wander in. WIPs popped into my head. I solved problems. I had Ideas.
It’s sad to sacrifice my workout class, at least a few times a week, but to have a few minutes a week where my brain can happily graze in fictional pastures? Worth it. There are things I can’t accomplish with any amount of time at a keyboard, and my kids aren’t getting any quieter as they get bigger.
And hey — a little extra cardio probably won’t kill me, either …