A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 30 – A Horseman in the Sky

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day thirty – A Horseman in the Sky, by Ambrose Bierce

Read it online here:

A Horseman in the Sky

When I think of Ambrose Bierce, I think of carefully written, exquisitely detailed military stories – with the wild addition of fanciful magic realism. I suppose that, today, well over a century after he lived and wrote, his most well-known tale, An Occurence at Owl Street Bridge, fits that description.

He also wrote The Devil’s Dictionary – which is a little dated today – but is still valid in its bitter satire on life and its foibles.

To wit:
From The Devil’s Dictionary”

LIFE, n. A spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay. We live in daily apprehension of its loss; yet when lost it is not missed. The question, “Is life worth living?” has been much discussed; particularly by those who think it is not, many of whom have written at great length in support of their view and by careful observance of the laws of health enjoyed for long terms of years the honors of successful controversy.

“Life’s not worth living, and that’s the truth,”
Carelessly caroled the golden youth.
In manhood still he maintained that view
And held it more strongly the older he grew.
When kicked by a jackass at eighty-three,
“Go fetch me a surgeon at once!” cried he.
—Han Soper

or, from the “S”:

SAUCE, n. The one infallible sign of civilization and enlightenment. A people with no sauces has one thousand vices; a people with one sauce has only nine hundred and ninety-nine. For every sauce invented and accepted a vice is renounced and forgiven.

(this is a fact that I agree with)

There is much to say about today’s short and simple story… but I want to point out one simple aspect. The story has, among other things, a surprise or twist ending.

This sort of story is hard to pull off. A successful surprise ending really has to be no surprise at all – at least no surprise after you have read it. Though you should not be able to see it coming, after it has passed you have to realize that things could not be any other way.

Bierce does all this in today’s. Through careful manipulation of point of view, time shifting, and judicious information release by the omniscient narrator the ending is concealed until the end, yet is foreshadowed to the extent that the reader knows that no other plot direction would be possible.

That’s especially tricky because this is the most common and hoary of all twist endings, still being done to this day.

Hope I didn’t ruin it for you. It’s still a cool story.

For an instant Druse had a strange, half-defined feeling that he had slept to the end of the war and was looking upon a noble work of art reared upon that eminence to commemorate the deeds of an heroic past of which he had been an inglorious part. The feeling was dispelled by a slight movement of the group: the horse, without moving its feet, had drawn its body slightly backward from the verge; the man remained immobile as before. Broad awake and keenly alive to the significance of the situation, Druse now brought the butt of his rifle against his cheek by cautiously pushing the barrel forward through the bushes, cocked the piece, and glancing through the sights covered a vital spot of the horseman’s breast. A touch upon the trigger and all would have been well with Carter Druse. At that instant the horseman turned his head and looked in the direction of his concealed foeman–seemed to look into his very face, into his eyes, into his brave, compassionate heart.

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A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 29 – Catskin

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day twenty-nine – Catskin, by Kelly Link

Read it online here:

Catskin

I have been a big fan of Kelly Link for most of this century after discovering a glowing review of her collection Stranger Things Happen in Salon Magazine.

She writes in a style of updated, modern fairy tales – swimming in tides of shifting reality. These are not children’s stories, however, they are unremittingly shocking, violent, and sometimes surprisingly sexually explicit.

But like all the best fairy tales and ancient folk stories they are emotionally true and tell of longing and loss that we all feel, even if we aren’t aware of it (until we read the story).

Today’s story, Catskin, is from her second collection Magic for Beginners. It is a long tale of what happens when you poison a witch (which, by the way, you should never do).

Go out right now and buy her books. And while you are looking or waiting for them to come to you in the mail, you can go and download Stranger Things Happen (and some other stuff) for your device. I love the fact that she does this – and love even more that it doesn’t seem to hurt her sales.

Now, since witches cannot have children in the usual way — their wombs are full of straw or bricks or stones, and when they give birth, they give birth to rabbits, kittens, tadpoles, houses, silk dresses, and yet even witches must have heirs, even witches wish to be mothers — the witch had acquired her children by other means: she had stolen or bought or made them.

She’d had a passion for children with a certain color of red hair. Twins she had never been able to abide (they were the wrong kind of magic) although she’d sometimes attempted to match up sets of children, as though she had been putting together a chess set, and not a family. If you were to say a witch’s chess set, instead of a witch’s family, there would be some truth in that. Perhaps this is true of other families as well.

One girl she had grown like a cyst, upon her thigh. Other children she had made out of things in her garden, or bits of trash that the cats brought her: aluminum foil with strings of chicken fat still crusted to it, broken television sets, cardboard boxes that the neighbors had thrown out. She had always been a thrifty witch.

Some of these children had run away and others had died. Some of them she had simply misplaced, or accidentally left behind on buses. It is to be hoped that these children were later adopted into good homes, or reunited with their natural parents. If you are looking for a happy ending in this story, then perhaps you should stop reading here and picture these children, these parents, their reunions.

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 28 – The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day twemtu eight – The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis, by Karen Russell
Read it online here:

The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis

I have written about a movie I saw once, in the theater… Limbo, directed by John Sayles. An excellent film, and one you have to see – but I have a warning. At the end, most of the (few) people in the theater stood up and screamed at the screen. They were furious at the ending of the movie. I chuckled a bit – there is no other way the movie could end… and there is that title, what do they expect?

Today’s story The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis, shares one characteristic with Limbo. It sets up a mystery – and then sort of refuses to solve it. It’s frustrating if you are used to popular pleasing paint-by-number fiction, but there is really no other way for it to tell its story.

It’s a long-form short story, bordering on a novella. It needs this space to set up the characters of four urban bullies – a gang of thugs that, seen from their own points of view, aren’t as awful as they seem to everybody else. Though inside their own heads… at least the narrator, they are beginning to suspect that their place in the universe isn’t as inevitable or necessary as they had convinced themselves.

Then a mysterious scarecrow shows up tied to a tree in their own private universe, a wooded spot inside a run-down park in their urban wasteland of Anthem, New Jersey. Something about the scarecrow looks familiar… and when they figure that out a series of discoveries, unveilings, and violent reactions pull the four down a frightening path to… something.

Really good, worth the work to read.

Enjoy.

The central acres of Friendship Park were filled with pines and spruce and squirrels that chittered some charming bullshit at you, up on their hind legs begging for a handout. They lived in the trash cans and had the wide-eyed, innocent look and threadbare fur of child junkies. Had they wised up, our squirrels might have mugged us and used our wallets to buy train tickets to the national park an hour north of Anthem’s depressed downtown.

What I learned this week, June 27, 2014

Fit to be tied

After over five decades – I learn that I have been doing it wrong. Why didn’t someone tell me sooner? BTW – it works.

The Best Way To Tie Your Running Shoes


Magazine Street, New Orleans

Magazine Street, New Orleans

How the Bicycle Paved the Way for Women’s Rights

Stylish bike rider, French Quarter, New Orleans

Stylish bike rider, French Quarter, New Orleans


Time Exposure, Night, Downtown Dallas, Ross and Olive

Time Exposure, Night, Downtown Dallas, Ross and Olive

The Speed Of Light Might Be Wrong

Time Exposure, Night, Downtown Dallas, Ross and Pearl

Time Exposure, Night, Downtown Dallas, Ross and Pearl



Kindle

Call Me Ishmael

No Passport Required: 5 Reads to Take You Around the World


Two Shark Tacos on the left, and two Mystery (Iguana) tacos on the right.

Two Shark Tacos on the left, and two Mystery (Iguana) tacos on the right.

Dallas’ 9 Best Tacos


Deep Ellum Brewing Company - Dallas Blonde

Deep Ellum Brewing Company – Dallas Blonde

25 Of The Most Amazing Craft Beer Names You’ll Ever See


Spring Creek Natural Area.

Spring Creek Natural Area.

Photos: Coffee by bike


I-345 near downtown Dallas

I-345 near downtown Dallas

Why the fate of a Dallas highway matters to Texas


Bike Friendly Cedars and Aurora Ciclovia

Bike Friendly Cedars and Aurora Ciclovia

Dallas neighbors open small urban park


Jordan-Gonzalez-Image

Daily Discovery: Jordan Gonzalez, “Vagabond”

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 27 – Cathay

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day twenty-seven – Cathay, by Steven Millhauser

Read it online here:

Cathay

After I read the story I found that Cathay is an alternate name for China in English. I wish I hadn’t learned that – the amazing world of the story should remain mysterious and shrouded – to tie it to a real place seems to dull the gleaming magic a little.

But this is a minor thing. It is still a place where golden mechanical birds sing as beautifully as real, where women have tiny paintings on their eyelids and elsewhere, and floating islands might be breeding.

In Millhauser’s Cathay the emperor’s concubines are so beautiful and artfully decked out they can’t even be gazed upon by normal men. All that do spend the rest of their lives wracked by tormented longing… which, I suppose puts them in the same state as the rest of us.

It’s an enchanted travelog to a plane of the imagination that ends with a battle of magicians and living statues.

A place of pure fancy.

So much the sadness.

YEARNING

There are Fifty-four Steps of Love, of which the fifth is Yearning. There are seventeen degrees of Yearning, through all of which the lover must pass before reaching the sixth step, which is Restlessness.

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 26 – In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day twenty-six – In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, by Amy Hempel.

Read it online here:

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried

Amy Hempel is one of only a few writers that work exclusively in short stories or other minimalist pieces. I like that. There is truth in brevity. There is efficiency in conciseness. There is power in knowing you don’t have the space to wander around.

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried is the very first story she ever wrote. It came from Gordon Lish’s famous writing workshop – apparently in response to the prompt, write about “the ineffable, the despicable, the thing you will never live down.”

I don’t know about writing workshops (I suppose you can learn a lot – but it doesn’t take away the need to write for ten thousand hours) or about writing prompts (an icebreaker or maybe a handy crutch at best) – but this is one hell of a first story.

It’s definitely something that would be impossible to live down (although it’s something any of us would be capable of doing). How do you ask forgiveness of someone that isn’t alive any more? And who else would your really have to ask?

“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said. “Make it useless stuff or skip it.”

I began. I told her insects fly through rain, missing every drop, never getting wet. I told her no one in America owned a tape recorder before Bing Crosby did. I told her the shape of the moon is like a banana—you see it looking full, you’re seeing it end-on.

The camera made me self-conscious and I stopped. It was trained on us from a ceiling mount—the kind of camera banks use to photograph robbers. It played us to the nurses down the hall in Intensive Care.

“Go on, girl,” she said. “You get used to it.”

I had my audience. I went on. Did she know that Tammy Wynette had changed her tune? Really. That now she sings “Stand by Your Friends”? That Paul Anka did it too, I said. Does “You’re Having Our Baby.” That he got sick of all that feminist bitching.

“What else?” she said. “Have you got something else?”

Oh, yes.

For her I would always have something else.

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 25 – The Half-Skinned Steer

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day twenty five – The Half-Skinned Steer, by E. Annie Proulx

Read it online here:

The Half-Skinned Steer

I know Annie Proulx from The Shipping News – that wonderful novel about icy cold and family history. I knew that she wrote about the West, though. I knew that she wrote about Wyoming. Once I had a book of her stories – Close Range… I think it was, checked out but never was able to crack the cover.

So I was happy to find The Half-Skinned Steer online and an excuse to take the time to read it. It’s the lead story in the Close Range collection (which includes the better known Brokeback Mountain).

The Half-Skinned Steer is a story smeared across a long swath of time that winds around a timeless country. It is an illustration that you can take the boy off the ranch (a life so isolated and strange that the young man’s introduction to the mysteries of sex are from finding anatomically symbolic rock paintings done by ancient natives) but even after eighty years and a life riding an exercise bicycle in Massachusetts – you can’t take the ranch out of the boy.

It’s a rough, horrific story – about a rough and horrific life on a rough and beautiful land. But it’s told in language so languid and exacting that the snow, blood, and rock jump right off the page.

Pretty good stuff.

He dreamed that he was in the ranch house but all the furniture had been removed from the rooms and in the yard troops in dirty white uniforms fought. The concussive reports of huge guns were breaking the window glass and forcing the floorboards apart, so that he had to walk on the joists. Below the disintegrating floors he saw galvanized tubs filled with dark, coagulated fluid.