“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
― Neil Gaiman, Coraline
from Every Day Fiction
For he had no typewriter ribbon left and only fifty sheets of paper and he counted on the stabbing imprint of the keys to make an impression like a branding, and when he had used the fifty sheets, front and back, he would start again, typing over what he had already impressed upon the page.
—- Jeff VanderMeer, The Strange Bird
Back in the olden days, the days when we did things, I would go to a book club in a bookstore on the other side of town and join a group that would read the same book and discuss it. It seems so long ago.
One book we read was Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts. I really can’t say I enjoyed the book – it was too, too difficult to read. I looked forward to the discussion. I was curious about what everybody thought – but the thoughts were jumbled. I asked, at the end of the evening, “Would anyone here have finished this book on their own – without the pressure of having book club?” The answer was a resounding NO.
Though I won’t say the book was enjoyable, it was interesting… and it was… haunting is the best I can come up with.
And when I came across an online short story written by VanderMeer – The Situation – I read it and wrote about it. It was another fabulous story but told in a more conventional way – not too difficult to get through.
And then… well, there’s this thing I do. I always like to have some short books laying around – something to read when I don’t have very much time, energy, or patience. What I do is I walk down the aisles of the library in the fiction section simply looking at the physical books. Then I pull the small and slim volumes out and see if they are something I might be interested in. This, again, was back in the olden days when there were libraries.
The last book like that I checked out – I looked at it and, surprise, it was another by Jeff VanderMeer – a short novel, novela really, called The Strange Bird.
And it, again was in a different style. It was a straightforward (though bizarre) tale told as a hero’s journey – like The Odyssey, or The Alchemist, or The Hobbit, or something like that. The protagonist is the eponymous “Strange Bird” – a creature that may have started out as a bird but had been manipulated in a horrific futuristic bio-tech lab – bits added from many different animals… and humans… fantastic properties and abilities… until what was left was an intelligent, damaged, powerful, fearful, beautiful, hurt and most of all – unique thing – the Strange Bird:
In the lab, so many of the scientists had said, “forgive me” or “I am so sorry” before doing something irrevocable to the animals in their cages. Because they felt they had the right. Because the situation was extreme and the world was dying. So they had gone on doing the same things that had destroyed the world, to save it. Even a Strange Bird perched on a palm tree on an artificial island with a moat full of hungry crocodiles below could understand the problem with that logic.
—- Jeff VanderMeer, The Strange Bird
Even though the styles are varied – the Strange Bird is a “Borne” novel and The Situation is a “Borne” novela and The Dead Astronauts is another “Borne” novel. They are set in a fantastic world established in the linchpin novel Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. This is a dystopian earth destroyed by the experiments conducted by The Company – a giant biotech conglomerate. The blasted world is left with the few remaining humans battling for survival with the genetic monsters created by The Company – now escaped and running amok.
There are characters and locations shared (though often at different times – different stages of their lives) – Charlie X, Rachel and her lover Wick (who sells drugs in the form of customized beetles that produce memories when shoved in one’s ear), the Balcony Cliffs, and especially the giant flying killer bear, Mord. Borne himself(herself? itself?) is mentioned briefly in The Strange Bird.
So, now, what choice do I have? I picked up a copy of Borne – will read it next.
The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. 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 xx – Forty-Four Goats, by Simon Harris
Read it online here:
Forty-Four Goats (page 2 of the PDF)
Flash Fiction. Longer than 140 characters – more than a tweet, but something that only takes about two minutes or so to read. Something impossibly short that still tells a story.
The only way to tell a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end in that short of a time – in those few words – is to tell a story with mystery. The author has to use what’s not there as a storytelling tool, because when there isn’t much – there is a lot that isn’t there.
Today’s little snippet, Forty-Four Goats tells a story, complete with several unsolved mysteries at the end. It’s a good use of a precious two minutes.
I always carry a notebook and a selection of fountain pens around with me. I would fill Moleskines up too fast, and could not afford them, so I carry Staples Bagasse composition books that I buy by the stack when they are on sale.
A writing teacher once said that ideas float around in the air like little feathers. If you don’t grab it and write it down right away, it will float away on the breeze. Somebody else will catch your idea. That makes sense – many times I’ve recognized something in print that had floated through my head untouched sometime in the recent past. My idea had escaped and been captured, pinned down on paper, by somebody else. He also said not to safe your ideas – don’t be cheap with them – but go ahead and use them as soon as you can. No matter how brilliant you think they are, there will be more to take their place – and these will be better.
So I work hard at grabbing whatever is at hand, usually my notebook, when the ideas come to me and scribble away. These can take a lot of forms – but today I’m talking about little scenes, what I call snippets. These are not fully formed stories or even coherent scenes, but little pieces of story, culled from experience, memory, and mysterious imagination – all mixed together.
These appear in my head, I write them down, and maybe I’ll use them in a story someday. But, for no reason at all, I think I’ll type a few of them down here.
Keep in mind these are completely raw first drafts – they should not be read by the public, not yet, but it is what it is.
Today, I have four. Two each started by two single objects – shopping carts and bamboo.
Men with a hacksaw
I am not generally afraid, even in the big city, and I have spent a lot of time running on the Crosstown Trail without any real fear. But there was that one day, cold and drizzly, with a thick fog rolling in, when I was out there by myself and I began to get a little worried. I came around that bend, you know where it is, where it runs through all that thick brush. It’s like a green tunnel and even though it’s in the middle of the city, it is so quiet and dark it feels like you are out in the middle of nowhere. That’s why I like it so much. But that day…
There were these two guys walking along. They were young and fit, muscular, and menacing. I immediately saw them, luckily before they saw me. They were walking off the trail and when I saw them they were looking into the woods and gesturing. They were looking intently, like they were seeking something or someone. But what really caught my eye is that one of them was carrying a hacksaw – a big, heavy one. It looked like an odd but effective weapon and I realized they were going after something they had spotted in the brush.
I felt my heart skip and a knot pop into my belly and I immediately jumped off of the trail and slid down into this little ditch where they could not see me. Before I left the condo I had decided to leave my phone to charge and so I didn’t have it with me. I hugged the damp, cold earth on the side of the ditch, hoping the two men didn’t see where I was hiding.
I could hear them talking excitedly, but the fog damped the sound and I couldn’t understand. Then, I heard the sawing. It was loud and hollow sounding and my heart kept beating faster and faster. I didn’t hear any screams, so their victim must be dead already. My mind raced with horror as the awful sound kept going. There would be a pause every now and then, and I could hear the men babbling, then it would start back up.
I was about to go crazy with panic when the sawing finally stopped. But then, to my horror, I could hear the footsteps of the men as they walked off and I realized they were going down the trail right towards the spot where I was hidden. When they reached my location, they could look down into the ditch right at me.
As they approached I gathered my feet underneath myself and tried to brace my crouch. My only hope of escape if they saw me was to spring up onto the trail and bolt away as fast as I could. I am a strong runner and hopefully, with the element of surprise, I could escape.
The second I completed my preparations, they were upon me. Now that they were closer, I could understand what they were saying and as I tensed, I heard.
“Oh, these are just perfect.”
“Yes, we can coat them with urethane, not the glossy stuff, it’ll look cheap.”
“And they’ll support the shelves and will have just the look we want.”
I looked up and there the two were. One still had his saw and the other was carrying a load of bamboo under his arms. I remembered, there was a grove of bamboo around the corner… they were cutting bamboo for bookshelves.
There was a loud clatter as the bamboo hit the concrete trail. They had seen me. I was covered with mud and loose leaves from my slide down and must had scared the two men to death to find me crouched in the ditch like that.
There was nothing for me to do but to go on with my plan. I sprung out, stumbled a bit, then picked up speed. I could hear one man screaming as I ran as fast as I could. I looked over my shoulder and saw the other one sprinting to the blue-lighted emergency phone a few feet back down the trail. Why hadn’t I thought about that.
I doubled my speed. Now, instead of racing the two men with the saw, I was trying to get out of there before the cops arrived. I didn’t want to have to explain all that.
There is a grove of bamboo off to the side, across a narrow grassy lot, on Peter Scranton’s drive to work. He looked at that bamboo twice a day, about three hundred days a year for fifteen years. “That’s what, about nine thousand times,” Pete said to himself.
Pete had read a book about gardening and the author strongly discouraged planting bamboo because of its unstoppable fecundity and tendency to spread. Once it was in the ground, it was impossible to stop.
The stand that Pete saw would advance a little across the vacant lot, but then retreat. Pete would see bright yellow shoots sprout up with amazing speed. These would always disappear in a few days. Someone unseen was hacking the vegetation back.
One day his car blew a head gasket in a cold rain – rapidly clattering to a steaming stop. He was so discouraged he found himself abandoning the useless old wreck and striding across the little vacant lot. When he reached the familiar stand of bamboo he pushed the strong but yielding stalks apart and buried himself.
He watched his car being towed away and his wife and coworkers walking along the road as he peered out of the thick bamboo. After a day, nobody came by any more, though he saw someone he didn’t know stop and nail a poster with a photograph printed on it on a nearby wooden power pole. He supposed it was a picture of himself, though he didn’t recognize it.
When he was thirsty he found he could bent the bamboo stalks and get a little water to run into his mouth. After the first day he was hungry, but after three days the hunger left him. He watched the new shoots come up in the lot and when the workmen came to cut them back they spotted him lurching around back in the grove, making the bamboo sway, even though there was no breeze.
They had to cut most of the grove down to flush him out. They took Pete away for observation.
Within a season, the bamboo had grown back. You couldn’t tell that anything had happened there.
Next… Shopping Carts
Carts in the Pond
Sometimes, when the weather was warm, he liked to sit beside this little pond in a park near his house. The bank all around the pond was steep but there was a spot where a tree had died and left a flat area ringed by a rock wall that was a particularly comfortable place to sit.
He was sitting there looking across the pond where a sidewalk ran when he spotted a couple of teenagers pushing a shopping cart. There was a grocery store a block away and he could see a single shopping bag in the center of the cart. When they reached the middle of the part of the sidewalk that ran along the pond, one kid reached into the cart and pulled out the bag. The other simply turned the metal cart and pushed it down the steep bank where it hit the water and with a soft hiss, quickly sank beneath the surface. Once it was gone the two kids kept walking, now carrying the bag in their hands. It didn’t look very big.
He was upset at this. He knew the grocery store was losing money and would soon close. The neighborhood would be hurt by the lack of shopping and the image of the big empty box on the corner, the vacant parking lot. Those carts were expensive and those kids were one reason nothing good ever lasted any more.
He thought about yelling something, but they were too far away. He couldn’t even chase them. By the time he rounded the pond they would be long gone. They were too far away for him to even recognize who they were – if he saw them again, he wouldn’t even know it.
So he sat there for a little longer and then walked home. He never went back to the pond again, preferring to stay home and watch television.
Racing With the Wind
Roger and Annette had to rush to the van from the basketball court. Annette ran with her oldest daughter’s hand in her own while Roger carried their young son, barely more than a toddler, in his arms. A huge black angry cloud was building rapidly to the west and the boiling thunderstorm was beginning to kick up a cold fast wind.
As they piled into the van the humid heat of the Texas summer was shoved aside by a blast of cold storm outflow air. The second they settled in, locking the toddler into his car seat and making sure the girl had her belt fastened the wind rose to a howling gale. Dust and leaves rose in a shooting cloud and the van rocked from the power of the wind.
To watch their daughter’s game they had had to park across the street in the lot of a small shopping center. It was anchored by a big hardware store and the wind suddenly began grabbing the hundred shopping carts piled out front and sent them shooting across the lot like rockets, right toward Roger and Annette’s van.
They flew in a wheeled phalanx, upright and racing, some swerving a bit due to a wonky wheel, but most moving with amazing speed. Roger and Annette could do nothing but watch them come. Most were driving in rumbling mass to the south of the van, where they watched them pass, hit the curb, and then tumble out into the street.
A few veered to the left and came close to the van, but thanks to a lucky act of providence, none actually hit them, although some only missed by inches. Roger, Annette, and their daughter sat there helpless, and felt a great relief when the sudden windstorm died down and was replaced by fat, pelting rain. They felt very lucky they had not been hit, though it only would have been a little dent at the worst.
The toddler, of course, thought the whole thing was a blast and laughed as hard as he could as he watched the shopping carts fly by.
A few months ago I had a phrase get stuck in my head – “I was so tired I could barely sneer.” To get it out I had to sit down and write something from it.
I was so tired I could barely sneer; let alone lean back and kick that worthless loser in the balls – which is what I wanted to do.
“What’chew drinkin’ ma’am.” he said. “On me,” he said.
I turned away from the loser to face directly at the bartender and asked, “What do you have in Single Malt?”
“Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glenrothes…”
“You like the Glens,” I said.
The Bartender continued without hesitation. “Glengoyne, Speyside, Knockando, Cragganmore, Dallas Dhu, Loch Lomond, and Glenturret.”
“No Balmorhea?” I said. I always like to have an ace in the hole, something I knew he wouldn’t stock. There is no Balmorhea Single Malt Scotch. Balmorhea is a little town in West Texas.
“No, sorry ma’am. I’ll ask our distributor if he carries it next time I place an order.”
“You do that,” I said and gave him my favorite derisive squint. Have to always keep one up on the help. “In that case I’ll have a Glenrothes, neat, and put it on his tab.” I gestured at the mirror above the bar but when I looked, the guy was gone.
“Oh…,” I said.
“On his tab,” the bartender repeated, and reached for the bottle. I glanced at the shelf, at the bottle he was grabbing, to make sure the bartender wasn’t trying to rip me off and noticed a long glass case mounted under the shelf. On the outside it said, “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS.” Inside the case was a baseball bat… but… the funniest thing… the little knob on the end was gone and the thin part, where you grab, was sharpened into a point.
“And I’ll have a Bloody Mary,” a voice behind me said. Surprised, I spun and the guy was back again.
“Of course you will,” said the bartender, “On your tab?”
The loser didn’t say anything more; he simply stared at me while the bartender poured the tomato juice. He was tall, skinny to the point of being gaunt, graying hair, dressed like he had bought tacky clothes from the sixties – plaid pants and a striped collarless blazer, a mix of every color never seen in nature. He looked like he thought he was the king of polyester. They looked stale, a little wrinkled, like they had been slept in. I imagined those clothes hanging on racks at Goodwill for fifty years, until this idiot comes in and, “Has to have that outfit.”
The bartender reached out to hand him his drink and he took it right in front of my face. The guy had long fingernails, but at least they were carefully sculpted and clean. The skin on his hands and on his face was impossibly pale, almost translucent, like you could almost see the blood vessels pulsing underneath, but his lips were bright red, I thought he might even be wearing lipstick. Uggh!
Thank God, though, the only thing the guy said was, “Enjoy your drink,” and, before I had a chance to decide whether to say thank you or not, he turned and disappeared into the murk at the back of the bar.
Like I said, I was exhausted, so I was glad to get to sit there and try and enjoy my drink.
“Wow,” I said, “Who was that guy?”
“Never seen him in here before.”
“He always comes in late.”
I nodded. That’s why I had never seen the loser – I was at the bar a lot later than usual. At the most I stopped by for a simple tip on the way home; I liked to watch the sunset from my treadmill on the balcony. But the board meeting today had run long. It was worth it. The idiot bastards. I had to smile; I couldn’t help myself. I had been working the angles for months setting everything up and it had gone down, well, without a hitch.
“Long day?” the bartender asked.
“Oh, yeah. I’m beat.”
“That’s funny, you look a bit like the cat that ate the canary.”
“You have no idea,” I said. Damn Bartenders. They notice everything. Time to retreat, don’t want him to get the upper hand.
“Little girl’s room?”
“Down the long hall at the back, last door on the right.”
Of course I knew where the bathroom was. I don’t know why I asked. Maybe I wanted a way to let him know where I was going without saying it aloud.
When I came out of the can I noticed a shape blocking the hallway. It was tough to see; it was dark back there, and very smoky. Cramped. I didn’t like it one bit.
“Did you like your single malt?”
Oh, Christ. It was the loser. I felt a bit of panic – he had me trapped back there. But as I approached he moved to the side and pushed himself up against the wall to let me pass. He was so thin, he seemed almost to disappear into the paneling.
“Did you like your bloody Mary?” I asked back, with as much derision as I could. He only chuckled a bit.
“It was alright,” he said. “For starters.”
What the hell did he mean by that? I pushed past him, angling to the side, facing that lime green shiny fabric when I felt a hand on my shoulder, stopping me. His touch was bitter cold – at the time I thought he must have been holding an iced drink. The loser bent close. For a second I thought the bastard was going to try and kiss me. I was way too worn out for that kind of crap.
But of course he didn’t. He held me with preternatural strength, bent my head back, and pushed his long sharp teeth into the arteries in my neck.
“And that’s how it began. In a bar exactly like this one. I’m not tired any more.”
“What about the board meetings?” the bartender asked. I looked at him, looked at his lonely reflection in the bar mirror. He kept a sharpened, polished pine two by four sitting beside the gin.
“Oh, I had to quit my job, not a lot of that kind of work goes on at night. I took up consulting. I can set my own hours.”
“Would you like another bloody Mary?” he asked.
“No, thanks, I had better push off. It’s getting late and I think I’ve a taste for something a bit more flavorful now.”