#FridayFlash: I Weep Not for Thee

#FridayFlash: I Weep Not for Thee

by Tony Noland

Summer had stopped her involuntary sobbing a few minutes ago; the tendons in her neck stood as she worked her jaws, clenching hard. As each lamp went by on the shoulder of the highway, the blue-white light through the passenger window slashed at her, casting misshapen shadows across her distorted face. Flash, flash, flash... she cycled from smooth, silhouetted beauty to clenched, glare-lit fury and back again.

She wiped at her face, pushing the tears away. Her eyes were swollen and her cheeks were raw, but they were dry again. His quilted varsity jacket was far too large for her; the turned-up collar made her head appear oddly small and doll-like.

Dean tried to keep his eyes on the road, tried not to look at her.

The silence stretched as he drove, broken only by the mellow contralto voice of the GPS gently warning him that his exit was coming up in one mile. ETA to Summer's house - eighteen minutes, forty seconds. More than an hour since they left the party at the farmhouse, and she hadn't said a word. She'd gone from stone-faced immobility to weeping, but even that was over now.

He felt he had to say something. He only had eighteen minutes left, and then he would never be able to talk to her again.

"Summer..." he said, "I'm sorry."

She didn't look at him.

After a moment, she said, "So am I." At any other time, he might have called her voice calm or steady. Now, it just sounded... flat.

He took the exit, listened to the GPS talking about his next turn, some three miles ahead.

"You know," he said, "Rick was drunk even before he started on the pot." It had sounded more consoling in his head.

She turned to face him, her jaws clenched.

"So he wouldn't really have been safe to drive you home, anyway." he said. Her face didn't change, but her body fell back as she returned her stare to the road ahead.

He drove on.

The next turn came, followed by a red light. They waited.

"I thought you were going to defend him," she said. "That it was just the booze and the pot."

"Uh, no. No, I don't think I could do that. I mean..." The light turned and he had a moment to choose his words. "Look, Summer, I don't know everything about what was going on there, or how things are between the two of you -"

"Were."

"- uh, right, but from what I saw, it looked like he was... I mean, that's not the kind of thing you can defend. Especially not with ..." He let it go.

"Not with what?" Her voice was still flat, anger the only emotion behind it.

"Um, with you waiting out in the cold and all. He could have at least... come back for you, I guess. Or said something."

She sank back into the seat of the minivan, seeming to deflate into the folds of his jacket. After a time, she spoke.

"No, I don't think he was thinking about me at all." In a changed tone, she said, "Do you think he'll get frostbite?"

"Huh?"

"On his ass. Exposed skin and all that."

"Uh... I don't think it's that cold outside. It's only about forty degrees, maybe thirty five." He looked over at her, decided to risk a joke. "I think Allyson might be in for it, though. She was the one up against the car."

She scowled, and he bit his tongue at his miscalculation. Then, unexpectedly, she gave a snort.

"One can only hope," she said.

He thought about saying more, but his nerve failed him. How many times he'd hoped for just such a situation - Rick the asshole finally screwed up, Summer was distraught and in trouble and he was right there, right there! He was the hero, ready to provide comfort and a shoulder to cry on. Or at least ready to give her his jacket and a ride home. That should be a decent opening, right?

Unfortunately, he thought, things just didn't happen in real life the way they do in movies or books. Somehow, her being boiling mad was never part of the damsel in distress thing. More than an hour, and he had said hardly anything to her.

And in three more minutes he would be nothing more than a reminder of the worst night of her life.

He spent his remaining time trying, and failing, to think of some way to tell her ... something. Anything. He was still trying as he pulled into her driveway.

She sat and looked at her house for a moment. The windows were dark, and only the porch light was burning.

"Thanks, Dean." she said. "For the ride and everything. And for not... for just letting me be, you know? Not ... trying to talk. Or anything."

He flushed, hot. She knew. What a fool he was, of course she knew.

"Sure, Summer," he said. "I'm ... I'm really sorry."

She nodded without speaking, her jaws flexing and clenching. She got out and closed the car door behind her. He watched her go, seeing in the slump of her shoulders what he knew would be a long night for her.

One, two, three steps up to the porch, and she stopped. She stood for moment, then turned and came back to Dean's side of the car. He rolled down his window.

"I still have your jacket, don't I?" she said. "Do you want to come in for a minute? Give me a chance to get a sweatshirt or something, and I'll give it back."

"Sure." He killed the engine and got out. He walked with her up to her porch, and they went inside together.

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Comments and constructive criticisms welcome. Other #FridayFlash pieces can be found here

Eight Maids A'Milking

This is my story from the 12 Days of Christmas project, reprinted here for your enjoyment.



Eight Maids A’Milking

by Tony Noland

“… and that concludes my presentation. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.”

Meixu Liao smiled and turned her hands out, palms upwards. Americans typically saw this combination of facial expression and body language as conveying relaxed confidence and honest openness. She hoped it would quell any urge to ask difficult questions. The part of the data that she’d shown them should be enough to win them over, but Daniel Jackson was a very sharp man. You don’t get to be head of the biggest agribusiness conglomerate in the world by being a pushover.

One of her scientists turned on the lights and started fussing with the computer. Meixu stood with her smile and her open hands while the Americans looked at her and at each other. They were all waiting for Jackson to speak. Her own boss, Xianhu Fong, that fat idiot, looked at the Americans, almost bouncing out of his chair with the desire to “facilitate”. All of her own scientists were busy scribbling notes so they wouldn’t have to look at anyone.

Jackson spoke without looking at the notes and handouts in front of him. “Doctor, thirty-seven million dollars is a lot of money.”

She put her hands together and dropped the smile. She set her face to a serious, almost grave expression. If Jackson was only going to focus on the money, this would be easier than she hoped.

“Yes, Mr. Jackson, it is.” she said. “NovoGenerica has shown a great deal of faith in me and my team. I hope that what I’ve shown you today has justified that faith. The research -”

Fong interrupted her, “We are very, very, very grateful for all of your support! It’s a tremendous statement of activity!” He actually stood up to deliver this little speech to Jackson, using his very best English. Meixu knew her gritted teeth weren’t showing on her face; she had too much practice putting up with the Director’s fawning. Fong was a buffoon, but his antics were useful at times. However, Jackson was unlikely to be distracted. He had a personal interest in this work, having grown up on a dairy farm. That had made him an important champion of her work, but it also made her present situation very dangerous. This had to be handled delicately.

Jackson returned Fong’s bow with an inclination of his own head, then said, “Thank you, Mr. Fong. Please, Dr. Liao, you were saying?”

“I just wanted to acknowledge what NovoGenerica’s funding has meant for this institution,” she said. “From our days as the old Xiaoqueng Women’s College, we’ve grown into a world class research center. The investment from your company has been pivotal in that growth. Equally important, of course, has been the excellent leadership of Mr. Fong,” she said, bowing and thinking of Fong’s cousin the Party Assistant Secretary General. “None of the research we’ve conducted or, if I may say, the successes we’ve achieved, would have been possible without this mutually beneficial collaboration with NovoGenerica. Mr. Jackson, I know that you personally have been our chief supporter, and I am grateful for that.”

“Dr. Liao, in explaining our various research investments to my board of directors,” Jackson said, “I don’t have to work too hard to sell them on the benefits of genetically modified crop plants, cloned livestock or proteomically enhanced biofuels. These are technologies they understand. Despite all the pressure from the anti-GMO groups and the animal rights activists, the board members can readily see the advantages of basic research in these areas. After all, our mission is to advance agribusiness technologies to provide the food, feed, fiber and fuel of the future.” He repeated the tagline from their latest ad campaign, sounding as though he’d written it himself. Perhaps he had, she thought.

“Doctor, your original work in transgenic nanofiber synthesis was also fairly straightforward. However -” he lifted his copy of the executive summary “- the board has raised a number of questions about your latest reports on the cell culture-based bioreactors. Based on your spending patterns, it would appear that the majority of your efforts in the last three years have been directed to this research.” He set down the report and took off his reading glasses.

“So why don’t you cut all this bullshit, Dr. Liao, and tell me what it is you’ve been doing with our money.”

In the silence that followed, Meixu could tell by the color of their faces which of her people had a good grasp of idiomatic English and which did not. Fong, feeling the sudden change in the room, snapped his fingers at his interpreter, who began whispering into his ear.

“What is it you’d like to know, Mr. Jackson?” Meixu said. She might still be able to survive this.

Jackson looked at one of his assistants, the accountant. Kevin something. The man pulled up a sheaf of notes from his attaché and cleared his throat.

“In the last three years,” he said, “nineteen million, eight hundred thousand dollars were spent on something called AIS, the Advanced Intermediate System. What exactly is this project? You describe the results from it in rather glowing terms and you discuss how critical it is towards the development of the full bioreactor. However, you never actually say what this system is, or why it’s so important.”

Podelski, she thought. Kevin Podelski.

“Mr. Podelski, more than twelve years ago NovoGenerica asked me to use genetic engineering to produce fibers with certain unusual properties. With your support, we developed entirely new technologies and then expanded on them. We altered the proteome of mammary gland cells in our clonal herd of cows, so that the milk would contain the oligomeric building blocks of the synthetic fibers you wanted. Those eight transgenically modified cows were designed, created and, I might add, hand milked by my staff of scientists. With those eight animals, we successfully converted conventional livestock feed into nanofiber strands with a tensile strength almost eight thousand times that of molybdenum steel wire.

“Ultimately, however,” she continued, “we want to have a machine-based system that will not involve actual livestock. By suspending in vitro cultures of the proteomically enhanced mammary gland cells in nutrient solutions, we will be able to scale up production to make it economically feasible.”

“We understand the goals of your research, doctor.”

“Then you will also understand that we cannot go directly from live cows in straw-filled pens to stainless steel tanks fed by pipes and pumps. Intermediate stages of technology are necessary, and that is the AIS. I believe my reports on the AIS have been fully descriptive with respect to the materials and methods. As to the budget for that project, there were a number of basic technological hurdles that we had to overcome. All of the accounting details are in the appendices, spreadsheets F and G.” Please let the bluster work, she thought, please let it work.

“Yes, Dr. Liao,” Podelski said, “you were very informative in your reports. The documentation on the AIS runs to more than four thousand pages. In fact, it is so informative and so descriptive that the scientists on our end can’t make heads or tails of it.”

He flipped through the papers. “This project has everything from animal cloning to genomic enhancement to tissue grafting. The million and a half spent on mass spectrometers and proteomics sequencers I can understand, but there are expenses listed for magnetic resonance imaging, neuroanatomical modeling, an entomologist, a grab bag of everything under the sun. You’ve even got one mysterious salary line here for a guy who turns out to be an aerospace engineer! You work with cows, doctor – why did you need to employ entomologists and aerospace engineers?”

“They were consultants, not employees.”

Fong rapped on the table and said, “Do not undertake evasions! Answer the question!”

Meixu frowned and said nothing. Podelski looked at Jackson, then closed his attaché.

“Doctor,” said Jackson, his voice unexpectedly gentle, “there are some on my staff who have concluded that this AIS project is nothing more than an accounting vehicle, a slush fund that you are using to siphon off my company’s money into a wide range of pockets.”

He held up both hands to silence and forestall Meixu as well as Fong.

“If I thought that was the case, I wouldn’t have traveled twelve time zones to be here. I would have simply pulled the plug on this place from my office in Kansas City. You’ve done good work for us in the past, doctor. You’ve accomplished things with cows that I never would have thought possible back when I was a kid milking two hundred head on my father’s dairy farm. My company has profited from this research relationship, and I would like for it to continue to do so.

“But,” he said, “I will break you right in half if I conclude that you are stealing from me. If this AIS is for real, I want to see it. Now.”

“Mr. Jackson, I hesitate to show you the AIS because of the nature of -”

“Now, doctor. Right now.”

Eye to eye, Meixu and Jackson were unmoving for long, long seconds, until the silence was broken by Fong rapping on the table again. “Dr. Liao!” he said, “This is unacceptable! You will escort Mr. Jackson to this laboratory at once! He is a most important friend of this institute, as you seem to forget!”

Meixu dropped her eyes to the floor. This was going badly, but there was still a chance. She said, “Very well, Mr. Jackson. The AIS runs around the clock; we can go see it immediately.” She moved away from the screen and handed the laser pointer to her assistant.

As the group gathered their papers and prepared to leave the executive meeting room, Meixu approached Jackson. Fong was leaning into him, blabbering a mixture of servile apologies and macho bluster. Perhaps if she’d shown the AIS to Fong, if he’d known what it was, he might have been counted on to help her hide it. It solved so many problems, it was the answer to everything. Wouldn’t even he have understood how important it is? With an inward sigh she realized that it didn’t matter if he had. Fong had no control over his own face. If he’d known, the horror of it would have overwhelmed the wonder and he’d have given it all away in the first twenty minutes.

Jackson caught Meixu’s eye and let her stand for a moment while he allowed Fong to vent. He interrupted the flow to say, “Absolutely, Mr. Fong, there is a great deal of truth in what you’re saying. Let me have a look at this AIS, and then I would very much like to hear your views on the matter. I know you are a busy man, Mr. Fong, but can I impose on you for some of your time right now? My associate, Mr. Podelski, would benefit greatly from hearing your perspectives on this. Oh, Kevin? Kevin, Mr. Fong has some fascinating insights into the situation. You need to hear them.”

Before Fong quite knew it, Podelski had engaged him in conversation and led him into a corner of the room, away from Jackson and Meixu. “One of your scientists can direct everyone else, doctor,” he said. “I’d like to speak to you alone. Shall we?” He held the door for her. Like Meixu herself, Jackson carried no files or papers; that was what assistants were for. The two of them walked on, their footsteps echoing in the empty hallway.

“Mr. Jackson…” Meixu fell silent, not knowing how to begin.

“You’re not getting ready to apologize, are you?”

She actually stumbled, she was so surprised. “Apologize? For what?”

He made a face, something that was not quite a grimace. “I didn’t think so. Alright, doctor, where would be a good place to start with this? Ah, I know – tell me about the neuroanatomy. Why did you need MRIs of the cow’s brains?”

She didn’t hesitate. She knew a last chance when faced with one. “Because lactation is a function of the hippocampus. Oxytocin is synthesized in the hypothalamus and released from the pituitary glands, stimulating milk production. To get mammary tissues that produce milk all the time, not just after the cow has given birth, we needed to understand how to get control of the hormonal regulatory systems.”

“And did you?”

“Yes. We can use microelectrodes to stimulate key areas of the brain and make milk production a permanent condition.”

Jackson shook his head. “That’s a dead end. Hormone control has been tried before. Cows can only produce milk for six or seven months before the metabolic drain kills the animal.”

“Not the way we do it.”

He looked at her, very sharply. She didn’t elaborate.

“Alright, tell me about the entomologist.”

She took a deep breath, then said, “Spiders make silk from at least twenty different kinds of precursors. They excrete them in different concentrations using specialized structures within their spinnerets. What we see as spider silk is actually synthesized as these precursors combine. The spider can alter tensile strength, elasticity, UV resistance, a host of structural and performance criteria, all using a brain no larger than a salt crystal.

“For our work, we needed to be able to combine the subcomponent oligomers of the synthetic fibers in a precisely controlled way, so we used the spinnerets as a model system. Once we had the expertise in house, we… did something similar with the AIS. The transgenic cloning of the spinneret structures let us fine tune the fibers we were making through electrode stimulation. We got materials that were really astonishing. It was when we made lot number 679-C that we started thinking about space elevator applications.”

“About what? What did you say?”

“That batch had all the properties necessary for building a space elevator cable. Incredibly strong, cross-linked co-polymer fibers that were self healing. There was also some kind of autoassembling fullerene tube structure at the core of it that made it electrically conductive. We still don’t quite understand how it works, but with some more tweaking, I’m certain we could improve the binding efficiency. That would allow it to generate enormous amounts of power simply by interacting with Earth’s magnetic field, far more than would be needed to lift payloads to geosynchronous orbit.”

Jackson said, “But naturally, the fibers can’t be made in bulk, and you’d need more money than God to build such a structure, right?” He sounded like a man trying not to get excited.

“Actually, we’ve already made ten thousand meters of it with the AIS. All of the small scale results are holding up. The engineering consultants said that construction of the space elevator would be expensive, but feasible.”

He stopped and turned to face her. “Are you serious? Screw space elevators. If this is for real, this is a power source, an unlimited source of free electricity! Don’t you realize this is the most important advance in the history of biogenic nanotechnology! Why on Earth didn’t you say all this in your report?”

“Because it was made using the AIS. I wanted to get the bioreactor working, and reproduce the fibers with that.”

“Goddamn it, doctor, if this stuff is as good as you claim, what are you waiting for? It sounds like your current system is good enough for us to establish ourselves as first to market; we can own the entire industry! You’ve already done the legwork for it – let’s build a dozen or a hundred of these AIS things and scale up production.”

Meixu shook her head. “I don’t want to make another AIS.”

“You don’t… why the hell not?”

She swiped her ID across the lab’s security panel and stepped through as the double doors opened. Jackson followed.

Every sense was assaulted. The noise was deafening, a clicking and buzzing cacophony of a thousand pumps, fans, and digital readouts. The smell was a mixture of vomit, manure and acetone. But the sight was what made Jackson’s face turn pale. Suspended from the ceiling in the huge central bay of the laboratory was a glistening, bulbous thing, twelve meters long at least, a monstrosity of pink and gray flesh, covered in tubes, wires and small pieces of equipment.

Along the length of it, teats and udders erupted from all over its body. He couldn’t even begin to count them all. To each was attached a miniaturized milking harness, linked with wires and tubes. A team of masked technicians were tending these, eight young women doing the milking, adjusting clamps and hoses. He approached one teat as closely as the smell would allow. Its tip was pulsing in time with the flashing lights on the controller. A single hair-like filament was being drawn from the teat. It was led up to a roller pulley and it disappeared into a maze of tubes in the ceiling. The same was being done at each of the dozens, hundreds of teats.

The effect was like seeing a hideous conglomeration of fleshy pink spiders, each an abomination of life and electronics, each fighting to spin its own little web, and everything being stolen from them, thread by thread.

After a long shocked moment, Jackson moved forward, approaching the end that had a cow’s head.

A small forest of wires disappeared into its skull. Its eyes were covered by little glowing screens. IV tubes led from some unknown source into the large veins of its neck. A thick, translucent tube snaked into a huge hole in its throat, permanently attached by what looked like staples and gray tape. He could see a thick sludge being pumped into the thing. As he stood staring, he saw the head twitch and the nostrils flare. He heard a sound, muffled and tortured, but it was unmistakably the moo of a cow.

Clipped to what was left of one ear was a metal tag: DAISY. The D and Y had been scratched out. Jackson stepped back.

“It almost looked like a normal calf when it was born,” Meixu said. “We’d spliced in the spider DNA hoping to restructure the four normal teats into spinnerets, but we never expected anything like this. It started changing with the onset of its first estrus, grew so large it couldn’t support its own weight. We had to suspend it, then eventually cut off its legs to keep it from hurting itself. The wiring directly to the brain and the hypnotic visual inputs help keep it calm, but we keep it pumped with sedatives as a precaution. The IVs also supply the lactation hormones, antibiotics, everything the feeding tube doesn’t.”

“My God.”

“Mr. Jackson, it’s not that I can’t make another one of these. It’s that I don’t want to. I know this is horrible, it’s why I didn’t want to show it to you. Anyone with experience on a conventional dairy farm must find this… Please believe me, I never meant to do this to an animal, I never intended this to happen, but the AIS is the key to everything! Entirely new fields of materials science, cheap energy, cheap spaceflight… I know I can make the bioreactor work! I can get everything that I’m getting now, but from unfeeling tissue cultures supported by pumped nutrient streams and artificial hemoglobin instead of from this poor thing. We can euthanize the AIS, put it out of its misery just as soon as the bioreactor is up and running.”

Jackson returned to the massive head, tried to look into the milky, bloodshot eyes. “How long will that take?” he said.

“Three years. Five years at the outside, I promise.”

Jackson reached out and, moving slowly among the wires, tubes and staples, he ran his fingers gently along the side of the face and up behind the ear. The head twitched, held in place by the clamps but still seeking out his touch.

“I’m sorry, girl,” he whispered. “Daisy, Daisy, I’m so sorry. Just a little while longer, girl, just a little while longer. I swear it.”

You're such a Maroon

I'm happy to see that my alumni association continues to be interested in the doings of alumni. The University of Chicago Magazine sent out a tweet about my story "Phil's Christmas Present", written for #FridayFlash.

Go Maroons!

Picking names for your characters - a Rose by any other name would NOT smell as sweet

In my most recent FridayFlash, "Phil's Christmas Present", a few things changed in the various drafts as I was writing it.

One thing that changed was the names. Picking names for your characters is always hard, so I wanted to talk about this as an entry on the mechanics of writing.

As Olivia Tejeda pointed out in her excellent comment, I accidentally left a bit of an early draft in the final. Originally, the narrator was unnamed, but I decided to call him Phil. The wife started as Helen, but ended up as Ellen. The daughter began as Carolyn, but became Caroline.

What's the difference?

I wanted to give a bit of a blue-collar feel to this. The narrator's profanity in his internal monolgue did that to a certain extent. What about the wife and child? Somehow, for this setting and place, Ellen strikes me as more appropriate than Helen. It's a more common, more down-to-earth name, quite fitting for a wise woman.

And why change the spelling of the daughter's name? It also changes the pronunciation from KAH-roh-len to KAH-roh-lyen. Again, it is in keeping with the common man theme.

What do you think? Changing a character from Charles to Charlie, Chuck or Chuckie is pretty obvious. See also Elizabeth vs. Beth, Lizzy, Betsy, Bitsy, etc. But is it worth changing a character's name from Helen to Ellen, or from Carolyn to Caroline?

I think so.

Stereotyping people by their favorite author

This is a hilarious, outstanding bit of stereotyping from Lauren Leto. What does your favorite author say about you?

Some samples:

Christopher Buckley (or William F. Buckley): People who love excess verbiage.

Ayn Rand: Workaholics seeking validation.

David Foster Wallace: Confirmed 90’s literati.

Jane Austen (or Bronte Sisters): Girls who made out with other girls in college when they were going through a “phase”.

Ralph Waldo Emerson: People who can start a fire.

Nathaniel Hawthorne: People who used to sleep so heavy that they would pee their pants.

Charles Dickens: Ninth graders who think they’re going to be authors someday but end up in marketing.

And so many, many more!

#FridayFlash: Phil's Christmas Present

#FridayFlash: Phil's Christmas Present

by Tony Noland

The wrapping paper was on the floor with the empty box. Phil finished his smoke and tried to figure out what the hell this present was supposed to be. He checked the clock on the microwave. It was too early to take a drink, even now, even after everything. He reached for another cig.

The pack had only three left, and one was broken. It was the last pack, too. Phil thought about how expensive cigarettes were. Fifty bucks a carton at Costco. When he was in the army, a pack was only eighty cents.

Whatever. It didn't matter. It wasn't like he had anything else to spend his money on.

Or anyone.

He felt his eyes start to tear up, closed them. Stupid old man, he thought, crying at nothing.

Ellen got him to quit back in '86, when a pack was two and a half bucks. They needed the money for, well, for everything. They were still in that apartment on Wilson Avenue, saving for the house. Things weren't bad, money-wise, but there wasn't that much breathing room, either. It was the piano lessons that finally did it, though.

"We could afford them if you gave up smoking," she'd said. Not nagging or bitchy or anything. That wasn't Ellen. She wasn't just smart and clever; she was a wise woman. She just laid it out and let him get there himself.

Christ, how hard that quitting had been. He'd expected the nausea and headaches, but he hadn't counted on the irritability and restlessness. After four weeks without a smoke, he was going up the wall, ready to raid the cookie jar for a few bucks and start sneaking them on the sly. Start lying to Ellen about something important.

And then Caroline played "Silent Night" for him, her skinny little butt practically falling off the bench in front of that out of tune old spinet.

Plunk de plunk plunk... plunk de plunk plunk... PLUNK de plunk... PLUNK de plunk...

He remembered how she'd hopped off and danced around the living room, pigtails flapping, lighting the place up with how proud she was.

And that kiss Helen had given him, how she'd whispered in his ear and then how they all danced together to celebrate the budding musical genius.

Fuck it, he thought. Fuck it all.

He lit one of the three.

They didn't burn his throat anymore. Right after the funeral, when he bought his first pack in twenty-odd years, it was like swallowing lit charcoal. The habit came back quickly, though. Too quickly. All those nights he sat up, smoking and drinking, not wanting to go to bed.

Afraid to go to bed, to their bed, now so big and empty and cold.

Thirty one years. A blink of an eye.

And then he was alone.

He picked up Caroline's present again. That's what it was. A little wooden present, painted with red and green stripes and a carved wooden ribbon in sparkly blue. After he'd unwrapped the box it came in, he thought it was supposed to open, too, like one of those dolls with more dolls inside. It didn't, though. It was solid wood, a present inside a present. He didn't know what the fuck it was supposed to be for, or why Caroline had given it to him.

Caroline stayed with him for a while after Ellen died. It was bad for him. He knew it was bad for her, too, losing her mother, but he couldn't do anything for her. He was just so ... shattered by it all. When she left to go back to Jim and her kids, he hadn't even been able to drive her to the airport. He should have been stronger for her.

But he hadn't been. Wasn't.

That first Christmas without Ellen he was either drunk or hung over for two weeks. Couldn't stop crying, fresh tears at every song on the radio. The second year wasn't as bad, but it was still bad enough. Now, it was the third. Three years since she died. Not passed away, or gone home, or any of that bullshit. Three Christmases since Ellen died.

He still didn't get down any of the decorations, but at least he wasn't drunk.

So what was this present from Caroline? He didn't want any Christmas crap. That's what he'd always called the ribbons and bibbons Ellen loved decorating the place with. She's always done all of that kind of thing for them. Wrapped all the presents, too, except the ones he gave her. He thought back over all of them, all those years of gifts. The funny ones, the stupid ones. That purple silk chemise. The diamond ring. That mystery novel by her favorite author, the one he'd gotten autographed. So many years, so many Christmases...

Why would Caroline give him this? He had nothing to give in return. Nothing to give anyone. She had her own family now. She didn't need him. No one did, not anymore.

He sat, thinking about the past and looking at the present.

His Christmas present.

Caroline's present. His present.

The present.

When he finally understood, when he finally got it, his hands started to shake, just like an old man's hands. The tears flowed and rolled down his cheeks and he didn't try to stop them.

His present.

He thought of Ellen, his one true love, his life... his past.

I loved you, he thought. I loved you and I will always love you.

My daughter. My son-in-law. My grandkids, he thought. They are my present.

My Christmas present.

Caroline, he thought, blowing his nose. You damned kid, you're just like your mother. A wise woman.

He picked up the pack, fished out the last two cigarettes and sent them down the garbage disposal. He let the cold water run and washed his face and hands before he reached for the phone. Thinking of his past, his present, and his future, he called his daughter to wish her a merry Christmas.

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Comments and constructive criticisms welcome. Other #FridayFlash pieces can be found here

Maroon Tweet - SciFi and Horror

It's nice to know my alumni association pays attention. The University of Chicago Magazine sent out a tweet about my story "Eight Maids A'milking" over at the 12 Days of Christmas story blog.

I've been doing some thinking about that story, and how it could or should be described. I probably should have written something happier, sweeter and funnier for a Christmas anthology, but that's what came out, so there it is.

Believe it or not, I saw the ending as a positive one. Ultimately, mankind is going to get all kinds of benefits from the AIS. The material benefits aren't what make the story positive, though. It's the compassion that the scientists feel toward their subject, even in the face of the pressure to focus on profit at any cost.

Meixu doesn't want to make another AIS. Her work is moving as fast as possible toward a more humane technology that is much more respectful of life. Jackson backs her on this, even if he could make a gazillion dollars by making more AIS cows.

I felt pretty good about these guys. What does that say about me?

This is not unalloyed compassion and virtue, of course. In the real world, things are never black and white. The almost incalculable benefits are being weighed against the suffering of Daisy. While this individual animal loses, its suffering helps them to draw the line - this far, and no farther.

But what if this is just Chapter One of a longer story?

In considering how to expand it, the obvious question is, what happens when they (Meixu and Jackson) are confronted with pressures from both sides? Who would want this project expanded? Who would want it shut down? How will they hide the truth? How will they hold the line? What happens if they fail? Will they be celebrated as heroes, or vilified as monsters? Together or individually? It was Meixu's work, but it was Jackson's money.

So many questions...

Why would I want to expand this? I don't even know how to describe it as it is.

I thought of it as science fiction, but the comments certainly describe reactions to it primarily as a horror piece.

So which is it? And does it matter?

It matters because a story that can't be well categorized, especially if it comes from an unknown author, has a much lower chance of being published. This story was too horrible to be conventional science fiction, but it's too grounded in reality and science to be conventional horror (no demons, no magic, no fantasy elements).

What do I do? Limit myself to sci-fi that is surprising, dystopic, etc., but NOT scary and horrible? Write full on horror, and let the reality-based sci-fi elements fall by the wayside?

Or should I just write it and see where the story takes me?

Sooner rather than later

Called the surgeon's office & tried to schedule an exam in preparation for some surgery to get this hernia sewn up. Turns out they do their scheduling from 9:00 - 11:30, so will have to call back tomorrow morning. Not happy about that.

I'll just note that this is moving from "rather uncomfortable" to "a bit painful" more quickly than I'd hoped. Based on previous life experiences, I recall the next stop on the I Need Abdominal Surgery Express as "ouch", followed by "holy fuck this hurts".

Serenity is what's needed here.

And ibuprofen.

Eight Maids A'milking

My story "Eight Maids A'milking" is up at the 12 Days of Christmas story blog.
“… and that concludes my presentation. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.”

Meixu Liao smiled and turned her hands out, palms upwards. Americans typically saw this combination of facial expression and body language as conveying relaxed confidence and honest openness. She hoped it would quell any urge to ask difficult questions. The part of the data that she’d shown them should be enough to win them over, but Daniel Jackson was a very sharp man. You don’t get to be head of the biggest agribusiness conglomerate in the world by being a pushover.
... read more...

Enjoy! feel free to leave comments there or here.

#FridayFlash: Time's Arrow

#FridayFlash: Time's Arrow

by Tony Noland

The first arrow was less than two feet from his chest when he pushed it with his sword, just a slight upwards thrust to the barbed tip. He'd learned a dozen lifetimes ago not to try to stop arrows completely. Less than an eyeblink later, as men felt time, the arrow rotated around its middle and the wooden shaft slapped broadside on his armor. It snapped and fell, and he rode on toward the archers and warriors. The rest of the first wave of arrows was tightly spaced as it closed on him; these men knew their business. Probably four fifths of them would have hit his torso, even though he was mounted. It took him a moment to see his way through the cloud of arrows, but there was plenty of time. They were still seven feet away.

As they came within reach, he pushed a few of them on the tips, others at the fletching; they parted like a flock of sparrows. Tips of iron, knapped flint and sharpened wood went past his head, over and under his arms, around his body. A dozen shafts broke against his chest, the splintered pieces flying behind him as he cleared the first wave and rode on. The second wave of arrows was already in the air, but he could see the archers' eyes go wide as he came on, untouched.

Five of the warriors took a half-step back from the front line. Their smooth cheeks and shocked faces marked them as boys, probably in their first fight. He'd make a point to leave at least two of them alive, perhaps three. Boy warriors spread the legend best, since they had the longest to live. Maim them so they would never be in a fight again, and they'd have thirty or forty years to scare children with the story of how they'd lost their eye and hand. Of the other hundred or so on the line, he might leave some. It depended on how the fight went.

The hard old soldiers knew who they were facing, and they did not budge. He saw their fingers curling around their axes and swords. The pikemen braced themselves as he came through the second wave of arrows. There was no third; he was too close. He came as fast as his horse would carry him, and ten feet from his attackers, he jumped forward and to the side.

His horse was thrown backward by the momentum of his leap. He twisted sideways in the air, moving almost faster than their eyes could follow. He threaded through the pikes and landed sideways against the front line. His sword caught three faces at a stroke; the spikes of his shin guards impaled another two. He spun away from the impact, turning in the air over the group of men he'd knocked down, and landed on his feet behind them.

His sword in one hand, the mace in the other, he bludgeoned and cut and kicked them down. Their arms sometimes came close to contacting, but they couldn't land blows effective enough to hurt him. He moved among them as a wasp moves among a pack of dogs. In the thick of the fight, they couldn't bring their numbers to bear all at once. They saw it too, and shifted tactics without waiting for orders. They attacked him in small groups, each mass of six or eight men coming hard after the other; as he killed each group in turn, he saw that they were trying to wear him down. A mistake - he did not tire.

Men had never learned how to fight him, and never would learn. Even if he ever left enough of them alive, it was impossible. He could be hurt if they were able to land a blow. In his first century he had been hurt a few times, through foolishness or inattention. Now, old as the forest and clever as a river, he was simply too fast for them to touch.

Hours later, with the sun behind the hill, with the men killed and the boys maimed and unconscious, he drank their supply of mead. He didn't require drink any more than he needed food, but he still liked the taste. A metallic scratch sounded from far off to his left and the world saw only a blur and a flying mug as he spun into a crouch, sword drawn. His eyes scanned for threats, but saw only an unarmed old man sitting on a large barrel, working slowly at tinder and flint. In the gathering gloom, he saw the man's lantern catch and flare.

For what was to him a very, very long time, he waited for the old man to move or threaten. To the old man, it seemed only a moment before the Walking Death moved cautiously closer, his eyes hard to see clearly as they looked everywhere at once. The old man only sat silently, holding his lantern.

"So,” the warrior called out, “is an old crow come to see the wreckage of an army? Shall I kill you, grandfather? Are you truly well into your dotage that you tempt me so?"

The man on the barrel raised the stump where his right hand had been.

"We have met before, you and I," he said. "You did not kill me then. I do not believe you will kill me now." He covered his stump again with the cloth of his coat.

"You mean nothing to me. Don't be too sure of what I will and will not do, foolish fellow. However many years ago I took your hand from you, I left you alive for my own reasons."

"Yes, I know," said the old man. "I thought long and hard on that. You spared my life so I would tell the story of the Walking Death who comes when the world is grown too kind. As you can see, I did what you would have had me do." He waved his wrinkled old hand, indicating the bloody field. "For three generations, I told them. Their grandfathers knew the truth and were afraid. Their fathers knew only the stories and were doubtful. These men knew nothing at all and they were all eager for the fight. Each of them wanted to be the one to kill the unkillable warrior, as I wanted to when I was a young man."

The warrior laughed and spat into the other's sunken chest.

"And they were no more able to harm me than you were, foolish boy who grew into a foolish old man. My ears hear the boasting and singing of every man who thinks he can kill me. To defeat one such man is as nothing to me. I am faster than any man or beast ever was or ever can be. When there is an entire army of them for me to slaughter," he sneered, "that is what makes for a day of good sport." Spreading amid a face covered in dirt and other men's blood, his smile was ugly and feral.

"I know this all too well, oh destroyer, all too well and to my sorrow. I encouraged them to fight you. I encouraged them in their songs of ill-starred glory because I wanted to see you again, and I hoped you would come. Here," he said, climbing slowly and painfully down off the barrel, "help me open this up." He began to lift the heavy wooden lid. Struggling, he said, "Well? Aren't you going to help me?"

The warrior resumed his battle stance, raising his sword with a sound like a flag whipping in the wind. He kept his distance and did not move, but stood with his dancing eyes and twitching arms.

Sighing, the old man strained his hand against the lid. He slid it over, then allowed it to drop to the ground. Panting, he ran his sleeve over his forehead and leaned against the barrel.

Against the purple sky and the red lantern, the warrior's shape was slightly blurry. At the height of caution and readiness, he waited with a smile for something to emerge from the old man's barrel to challenge him. He had nothing to fear from even the fastest viper.

The old man gently set his lantern down onto the black powder in the barrel, and the eyes of the Walking Death were burned by an enormous flash of light. Even if he had seen them, he could not have done anything at all about the hundreds upon hundreds of razor-sharp caltrops flying at him. They were just too fast.

==========
Comments and constructive criticisms welcome. Other #FridayFlash pieces can be found here

Reality check

Writers are supposed to use their pain to fuel their writing. Looking back over the FridayFlash pieces of recent weeks, it's no real surprise that they are dark, depressing and uncomfortable.

As if the onset of SAD and Christmas weren't enough to suffocate my spirits, this hernia is a constant source of pain. If I can make it through the next few weeks, I'm going to try to get the surgery scheduled for early January.

The pain got old weeks ago. Whatever nobility there was to be had in suffering has been swamped in 120 proof suckitude.

Invoking the name

I just read an opinion piece in which the author cites a very well-known science fiction author by name, not once, not twice, but four freaking times. I won't invoke the name here, but it rhymes with "ballsy". If you are putting his name in your post that many times, it has to be an attempt to entice him to come read your blog, much the same way people used to draw a pentagram and chant a certain name three times in a row.

Mr. "Ballsy" is very web-savvy and runs searches on his own name, looking for references to himself, hence the significance of SEO technique as applied to him. This is not my snarky paranoid fantasies - he's said as much on his very popular website, uh, "schmutever". So, I'm not going to say his name here, lest he come visit some kind of smackdown upon me. "Ballsy" strikes me as one of the more mercurially tempered of the old gods of the blogosphere; perhaps he'll give your blog's visitor stats a nice boost with a neat link, perhaps he'll rip you a new one for being an idiot, and then go right on ripping.

He'll win, by the way. He gets 50,000 visitors a day, you (or at least I) get 20 a day, 60 on a good day. If he rips you on schmutever, especially if he's witty and throws in a picture of a stunned-looking cat, you might have a quarter of a million people all laughing at you for being such a dope. There's nothing stopping him from coming over to your blog and ripping you there, too, and people will come by the thousands in order to read his ripping of you. These will be his people not yours.

For the record, I think just about everything that "Ballsy" has said on the subject of writer pay is spot on, although it may be hard to hear for people for whom authorial success and recognition is still unrealized. If you are being paid little or nothing for your writing, you have to be getting something else out of the deal. Experience, exposure, eduction, training, laughs, whatever... but something of value to you.

Bearing in mind that you cannot buy food with experience, exposure and/or laughs, if you are in a position of privilege, as he puts it, where your day job pays all, then go ahead and sell your work for non-monetary compensation. Just be aware that that is what you're doing.

If, on the other hand, you are writing to pay the bills, you shouldn't put up with crappy pay for good writing. If your writing is still crappy, that's different, but if it is good enough to sell, then you should be trying to sell it for real money.

Which I am.

I put some stuff up here, it's true, but I am actively trying to sell other stuff for real money. As I get better, I expect that the money will improve also.

E-books and great writing

Will e-books kill great writing? There's an article in the Guardian by Tim Adams about e-books. As with many articles on this topic, there's the obligatory quotes from those who like, those who dislike and those in the middle.

The paper and ink crowd insist that something important is lost when relatively inexpensive bound volumes give way to pricey gadgets with screens and keys. This is true, they insist, whether you're reading Milton and Shakespeare or Morrison and Chabon. Nobody wants to curl up with a Kindle, they say. What is lost is not worth what you get in return.

The digerati trumpet the many benefits of e-books, the portability, the connectedness. Content is content, and curling up with a Kindle (or Nook or Android or iPhone) is only as different from a book as a paperback is from a hardback. Despite the issue of battery life, for which there is no true defense other than a candle lit at the altar of Moore's Law, they insist that what is lost is trivial compared to what you get in return.

The second wavers see and accept the advantages of both sides, and are as likely to have a book reader app on their phone as they are to have 40 to 50 linear feet of books in the house.

The real question is, if content is king, will e-books kill great writing?

n.b. - Sturgeon's Law: "Ninety percent of everything is crud."

Consider a world before e-books (like, say, 1983), when publishing followed the traditional paper and ink model of (in order) writers, agents, editors, publishers, printers, wholesalers, dealers, *readers*, remainder and secondhand shops, Goodwill and the landfill. You can insert PR staff, reviewers, publicists, etc. in there where appropriate.

There were so many hurdles to overcome in order to get a book from the writer's typewriter into the reader's hands. At each stage, the ends of the bell curve were clipped. True, some groundbreaking, marvelous books never saw the light of day because they were too different and no one wanted to take a chance on them. However, the majority of what was blocked was at the other end, the lousy end. The filters were at the agent's slush pile, or the editor's cut list or the publisher's prioritized PR budget.

As sad as it is to contemplate, especially for someone who has yet to have a book published, each of these stages of blocking, each of these hurdles were applied because of a risk/benefit calculation. The costs of proceeding outweighed the potential benefit to the agent, publisher, retailer, etc., or at least that's how the calculation went.

So what does this have to do with great writing?

Since e-books are cheaper to make and distribute, a publishing house has less to lose from a flop. There are no remainders, no seconds to dispose of at a loss. There's very little cost in keeping an e-book available on the list of downloadables, so a book that catches fire through some late breaking word of mouth will not be out of print when lightning strikes.

This is great news for publishing houses big and small, but what about the writing?

The high end of the bell curve can be made available, so some potentially great books will come out that wouldn't have otherwise. Unfortunately, it's a skewed curve. The low end will also flourish, as the filters and barriers fall. There was a lot of bad comedy and drama around before cable television, but with many more outlets for it, the proportion of lousy stuff increases.

Great writing won't disappear, but it may become harder to find. The proportions of Sturgeon's Law will shift from 90:10 to 99:1. Finding and promoting the good stuff is hard, and the publishing houses and reviewers (e.g. Kirkus), are in a bad situation for doing that.

Fortunately, social networking has developed in a way such that authors and readers can do more of their own promoting and winnowing. The trick, as always, will be to sort out which of your social contacts are interested in talking about a book or author they like, and which are just trying to sell you something.

On bad days...

On good days, I love to write fiction. Creating and inhabiting people, places, entire worlds, giving readers the chance to get wrapped up in something - what could be cooler than that?

On bad days, I wonder what made me think I could ever write fiction.

No cure for the Christmas blues

Really, there's no cure for the Christmas blues except January, and that's the kind of harsh treatment that's worse than the disease.

#FridayFlash: The Way of All Flesh

The Way of All Flesh

by Tony Noland

The bathroom tiles were cold, biting plates of ice under her bare feet. The vanity cabinet door creaked as she closed it and she froze. Like silvery moonlight framing a statue in the park, the pale glow of the little nightlight held back the darkness. A moment, a long foolish moment passed and she heard nothing but his continued heavy breathing.

She clutched the barber's shears tightly. He would never understand. She didn’t understand herself. There was no reason for it, the whole thing was insane, but she had to. She just had to.

As slowly as she could, she moved back down the hall, back through to her bedroom. It was so dark, she moved by memory toward the bed. He lay exposed, blankets pushed down to his waist. He slept in the nude, as he always did. That first night, she’d been startled by his heat. He was not her first lover, and she’d been accustomed to the warmth of men. Men were like hot bricks wrapped in flannel, a comfort throughout the night for cold feet and hands.

Him, though... sleeping with him in her bed was like sleeping on a warm sandy beach. Every morning for the first week, she slept deeply and awoke aroused. Seven mornings running she had reached for him and he had been solid and ready for her, even in his sleep. Enormous, he was two hand spans long and as thick around as her fingers could curl. It was almost more than she could take, even with a slow and patient touch. He was wonderful, like nothing she had ever felt before.

The antique shears glinted, the long gilt steel blades catching the thin bit of light from the window. She moved one floating step at a time, closer and yet closer still to his side of the bed. It was on their twelfth night, as she lay naked beside him, sweat cooling into the darkness of the bedroom, that the first mad urge flashed in her mind. It passed and she had smiled at the lunacy of it. Since then, though, the desire had returned, at first intermittently, then continuously - a complete image of her doing the unthinkable playing over and over in her mind.

In her waking moments, when she was at work, at the gym, anywhere she was apart from him, she could see that it was absurd. But at night, in the deep heat of the night, when she was at the heights of emotion and sensation, with his body against hers, she was overcome with a sense of the rightness, of the pressing need for this mad course of action. She resisted, she argued with herself, berated herself for being a fool. Why did she want to hurt him? How could she?

She stood next to him, over him. In her mind the crime was already committed. It was not only right and wise - it was necessary, critical that she do this. A very small, weak voice inside her cried out to stop her, to forestall this insanity that would be the ruin of him and her and everything. She ignored it.

She drew down the blanket and with her free hand she gently lifted him. Whether at her touch or at the feel of the cool air, he grew, filling her hand. As quietly as her fingers could manage, she opened wide the shears and maneuvered them in place. Then, with all of the strength in her arm, she closed them hard, slicing the blades fully across the root of him. His manhood came free and she leapt back from the bed, snatching it out of the fountain of blood that gushed from him.

He came awake with a roar and clapped both hands to his mutilated groin. He looked up at her, screaming in shock and agony. Frightened, confused by what she had just done, she turned away from him and looked at the heavy mass she held in her trembling hand, dripping and flopping, yet still firm and radiating warmth.

From behind the head of it, two long yellow fangs flashed out, then arced forward convulsively to bury themselves in her wrist.

==========
Comments and constructive criticisms welcome. Other #FridayFlash pieces can be found here

Why I write flash fiction

My essay on why I write flash fiction is right here, reproduced below:

In defense of flash fiction

I write flash fiction because I believe it is the format that will dominate popular culture in the next twenty years. To ignore the leading literary form is to sideline yourself, not only from the general marketplace of ideas, but from publishing and professional advancement.

Let me begin by rejecting the idea of retrogradation. Intelligence and attention spans are no less acute today than they were in the days of Virgil, Chaucer or Twain. The salient fact that sets our society apart from the societies of the past is our ability to access and cross-reference information. Each of us now living has had a wider and more varied experience than even far-flung Odysseus. Verbal, visual and subtextual data streams represent a synergistic information map that enhances the richness and depth of our reading today in a way that would be incomprehensible to readers of the past. Context and societal framing allow us to communicate more with less.

The short story form has its origins in antiquity, arising from the oral traditions. Compilations of stories with an overarching theme were an accepted aspect of fiction, and were an outgrowth of extended storytelling sessions conducted by traveling bards and storytellers. Examples include Homer's Odyssey and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The former was a collection of adventure vignettes, while the latter a more loosely associated anthology of adventure, humor, and romance. In antiquity, as in our own day, the form followed the needs and desires of the audience.

The rise of the novel is generally tied to the mass market publishing opportunities of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which allowed longer form materials to be made available for a reasonable cost. However, the roots of the novel go back to the theater. Dramatic presentation of a complex main plot interwoven with one or more sub-plots was the basis for this later form. Novels such as Tristram Shandy or Pilgrim's Progress, early examples of the form, draw heavily on the modus dramatae originated in ancient Greece. Even today, it is common to see novelized versions of dramatic presentations, although the source material is more likely to be movies or television programming.

With these long and honorable traditions of the short story, novella and novel forms in mind, why write flash fiction? Why limit the work to a thousand words?

Flash fiction is not driven by the sudden availability of portable reading devices. Rather, the growth of the devices' capabilities is being driven by our desire, our need to engage with good fiction. Living as it does within the contex of fractured lives, the hunger for fiction prompts the development of the flash fiction form. A story that can be read and enjoyed in a few minutes, a standalone piece of another world, fulfills a need that -

...

I beg your pardon?

...

Yes, I know. That's what I'm doing, explaining why I write flash fiction.

...

What? Really? Why I write in general? Just, why I write? Are you sure?

...

Ah. So it is. It's still 750 words, though, right? Well, that's no problem. I don't need 750 words for that.

I write to make you feel happy.

I write to make you feel sad.

I write to make you feel angry or amused or aroused. I write to make you feel scared or proud or nostalgic. I write to make you feel loved or to make you feel alone.

I write to make you feel enlightened or to make you feel confused so that you can then *become* enlightened.

I write to make you feel better than you are, to make you feel better than you deserve to feel. I write to make you feel my pain, to make you feel the pain of the people around you, to make you feel your own pain.

I write to make you feel that there's hope.

I write to make you feel.

Sending stories out

I submitted a story to a magazine last night. This was a complete long shot, but what the hell.

Or maybe not

I re-read and revised my 12 Days story, trimmed out a bunch of stuff, but then added other things in. The final word count didn't change much, now just shy of 3400 words, but it just that much better. Submitted it a little while ago.

Finished the story

I finished writing my story for 12 Days. I should say that I finished the first draft, which I've edited as I went. It came in at 3400 words. There was no hard and fast limit on words, but I was hoping for 3000. I'll re-read it and trim it down to 3200. If I can get it to 3000, that would be great, but I need some space to build up the tension.

My only concern is that this may not be the greatest thing for a Christmas anthology. It ended up being a lot darker than I had expected. Definitely not an eggnog and mistletoe story.

I'll provide links when it becomes available as part of the 12 Days blog anthology.

Writing for Christmas

I wrote and submitted a few horror pieces to TweetTheMeat, and today I'll try to finish my piece for Jim Wisneski's 12 Days of Christmas fiction blog and anthology. It starts on Dec 14 with a partridge in a pear tree. The theme for my piec is eight maids a'milking, so that means it will appear on December 21. Look for it then!

#FridayFlash: Comes the Witching Hour

FridyFlash: Comes the Witching Hour

by Tony Noland

Today he would fight. Today he would win. He clung to the thoughts, and repeated them like a prayer. Today he would fight. Today he would win.

He checked the time - 11:45. They always came for him at the stroke of 12:00. The smell of smoke, the flash of flame and there they would be - the three archetypes of female beauty that he was never strong enough to resist.

Today he would fight. Today he would win.

All three of them served the same master he had served for almost twenty years, ever since he first made the bargain. The difference was, they delighted in their slavery. They laughed about their master, giggled in that maddening way. He swore that he would be a slave no more. As he had every day for a year, he swore that this would be the hour he resisted, that he broke free, that he showed himself to be a man.

Ah, but what man could resist them? Each of them was perfect in her own way. Hair of red, gold and brown. Eyes of green, blue and hazel. Bodies boyish, trim and lush. Every kind of perfection mixed and matched and offered to him, if only he would walk the path of fire. Walk and watch their hips sway in front of him. Walk and feel their hands on him in their teasing, delicious way. Walk and let himself be surrounded by these visions, these succubi, these beautiful angels of death.

11: 50. Today he would fight. Today he would win.

He had already traded away ten years of his life for these delights. All his loneliness had come to an instant, glorious end with one simple bargain. Allowing his body and soul to be possessed and eaten away one small piece at a time meant a host of delights. To be surrounded by such flesh as would otherwise be utterly unapproachable. To have the eyes of his rivals turned toward him in bitter envy and admiration as he moved and cavorted with these lovelies. To hear his name on their lips, to see his own face shining in their eyes, to smell the lilacs and cinnamon and musk of them... when the stench of the fire and smoke did not overwhelm all else.

11:55. Today he would fight. Today he would win.

His grip on the arms of his chair made his arms ache. The muscles of his back and legs were knotted and he hurt. But still, the pain of resistance was just pain, nothing more. He could feel the horror that yet lived within him clawing at him, screaming at him to be freed, stabbing at the soft tissues behind his eyes. Viselike, he embraced the pain and defeated it. He was strong, stronger than anyone would have believed. He knew this about himself. When people saw him at all, what they saw was not much of a man. Soft, pale, smallish. They only saw what was left of him. They did not know his history, what he had survived, how far he had come. He knew what pain was, and he had conquered more forms of it than most men ever saw. He was strong and focused and powerful.

How bitterly he wept that he had enslaved himself so foolishly! Only the pain of loneliness had ever defeated him, and now, could he truly turn his back on this, the central guiding feature of his pathetic life? Could he live without them? Would life be worth living? Surely it would be better to stop resisting and go back to being a slave, or better yet, embrace his servitude as they had?

With a grinding of teeth, he throttled the demon and choked off its lies. A fresh sheen of panicked sweat broke onto his forehead.

11:58 Today he would fight. Today he would win.

11:59 Today he would fight. Today he would win.

12:00

His eyes opened at the smell of smoke and the flash of flame.

"Hey, Jerry, lunch time is smoke time!" Billie from accounting was waving the little flame of her lighter back and forth, like she always did. She was leaning against the wall of his cubicle, her breasts pressed and divided against the brown metal as though it were a pole. Her green eyes were lit by her bright smile. Behind her, twitching with anticipation were Helen and Carol from purchasing.

Fight. Win.

"Sorry, ladies," he said. "I quit this morning." The speech was short, but how he had practiced it!

Fight! Win!

Her flame flicked out. A moment's false hope, and then all three of them leaned forward, sexy and smoky and hungry for him.

"Oh come on, Jerry. Come with us. You know you want to."

==========
Comments and constructive criticisms welcome. Other #FridayFlash pieces can be found here

NaNoWriMo 2009 - materials and methods

In my last post, I talked about what I learned (or think I learned) from NaNoWriMo. This post will be about the nuts and bolts of what I did, why I did it that way, and how I did it.

WHAT As you can see from the graph, I made a serious effort to stick to a daily writing goal, rather than lurch along with periodic binges of 6K followed by exhausted days of nothing. That regular stepwise progression served me pretty well. I kept up, only got uncomfortably behind once, and only had a few gonzo days where I vaulted ahead.

WHY I wanted to know if I could set and meet a tolerable daily writing goal. Some people can write 2 or 3K a day with no problems, either thanks to time, talent or temperament. I'm not one of those people, and I don't have one of those lives. 1.7K was a tough daily schedule for me to meet, even ripping through the low quality writing that I did. A better quality 1K-a-day would take probably as much time as this did. Time, alas, which is in short supply for me.

Could I do this as part of a daily habit? Yes, but I need to take a little time off to rest and recover.

HOW Going into it, I expected to use Q10 a lot. I really like the minimalist writing environment it presents. I've written lots of the Friday Flash stories in it, as well as many longer pieces. However, I ended up not using Q10 at all. Why? Because Write Or Die was released as a desktop edition. This was perfect for NaNoWriMo, as it forces a lot of words to get put down on the page in raw form.

Q10 lets you set timers, time limits, word goals, and calculates statistics on your productivity, but it does not prompt you out of a fatigue-induced stupor by sensing when your fingers are pausing motionless in response to cerebral drift. I know, I know, if I were a real writer, I wouldn't have to rely on external prompts, the words would burst forth of their own volition and the strength of my own inner muse would lend wings to my imagination, etc. etc. I used it and loved it, so go piss up a rope.

Write Or Die let me get the words down, yWriter5 organized them and counted them for me. Really, between these two, I was all set. I wrote in WOD, saved it to separate text files for each session, then imported them into yWriter5 as individual scenes. For the bit of polishing and editing I did along the way, I could edit the text directly in yWriter5. It also let me move scenes around within and between chapters, and lets me move chapters around, with automatic renumbering of chapters after I've done so.

Setting aside thoughts about the quality of what I wrote, and looking exclusively at the mechanical things that I wanted to accomplish with NaNoWriMo, I'd have to say that it was a clear win.

I've got a set of tools that seem to work quite well, and I have an exposure at least to the habits necessary to write the novel that I want to write. I've started and abandoned lots of novels. I think that I may have the experience now to complete them.

NaNoWriMo wrapup

When I won NaNoWriMo in 2006, I was thrilled. I was so proud of what I had done, of having seen through the stupendous effort involved. I wanted to tell everyone, to celebrate and show the world what I'd done.

How do I feel this time? As of this moment, I feel depressed, actually. Yes, I wrote 50,000 words in a month. That's a lot of words.

I thought the idea was good, the characters were interesting, and the plot that developed along the way was OK. However, forcing it all out in a month meant that I abandoned a lot of the sub-plot complexities that I had in the outline. Most of what I wrote is meandering, turgid crap that will be deleted in toto. Is this an accomplishment, or just a bunch of wasted time and effort?

Without NaNo, I don't think I ever would have written this. I never would have forced myself to adhere to a deadline-based work schedule to turn out the text. However, it's pretty clear that what I wrote wasn't worth writing. I can't bear the thought of rereading any of it, let alone contemplating how it could be revised into something at all worth the effort of giving to anyone else.

I'd like to think that this is all just a result of fatigue, and of life's externalities intruding on my writerly ambitions. I'd like to think that my abilities as a writer are fictive rather than fictitious, but it's hard to see that right now. If anything, the NaNoWriMo experience has made me question if I have any real hope of ever being a novelist.

Sad, but there it is. I'm not used to being completely honest in my blog posts, but I don't have it in me at the moment to be smiling and happy about my NaNoWriMo win. In a way, I suppose I'm even farther off the end of the NaNoWriMo-blah scale than Jason Meyers.

NaNoWriMo 2009 - finished and succeeded!

At 8:00 this morning, I added the final 1300 words to put me over the top, and then did another 600 words to set in place the ending I had in mind. This story will really require 80 or 90K to tell properly, but this 50K is enough to sketch the outlines of where things should go.

During the course of the book, my protag:

1. was shot in the head
2. had the tip of one finger blown off
3. exposed perfidious corruption
4. decisively won a bar fight
5. put an end to an evil that spanned three generations
6. was on the receiving end of a) two separate attempts at seduction and b) one really spectacular blowjob
7. protected the innocent
8. helped and supported the almost-certainly-not-innocent
9. killed two people (one of them inadvertently)
10. drank a fair amount of beer.
11. ... and lots more

Not bad.

In the next few days, I'll put together a post with my thoughts on NaNoWriMo - the process, what I learned and/or gained from it and what I didn't. Most importantly, I'll try to spell out what conclusions I can draw from the experience that will guide my future work as a writer. It may surprise you.

NaNoWriMo 2009 - even more sex

The scene I wrote this morning was getting way too heavy on exposition, filling in of backstory and foreshadowing future conflicts in the book. Too loggy and ponderous.

So I switched gears completely and went for a graphic sex scene. Incongruous, certainly, and there were aspects of it that I will obviously have to chop out when it comes to revision and editing, but what the heck, it was fun to write.

I'll have to either draw it out and let it build quite a bit more into full on graphic, or just draw the curtain when a certain percentage of flesh surface area gets exposed.

NaNoWriMo 2009 - more sex

"Thanks, Lizzy. I don't mean to be twitchy, it's just that - "

"Dennis." She interrupted.

"Yes?"

"Am I correct in thinking that, if you were to try to explain why talk of the war upsets you, you would have to talk about the war?"

"Well, yes."

"And that you would therefore be made upset by it?"

"Ah. Also yes."

"So, if we are to have a nice, civil conversation about more pleasant matters, we should be making an effort to do so?"

"Another yes."

"In that case," she said, "tell me why you're interested in the Asheton family history."

He didn't say anything at first, because as she made this statement, she'd reached a finger into her glass of gin, then tilted her head back and drawn the wet finger down the length of her neck, leaving a trail of glistening gin from just below her right ear down to the crest of her cleavage. She lowered her head again and then met his stare with a warm gaze of her own.

"Perfume is so dear these days, what with the war on the continent and all. And I never went in for that French stuff anyway."

MacDonald's throat seemed to have closed up.

"Dennis? The Ashetons?"

"Ah. Right. The Ashetons."

#FridayFlash: Racist Bastard

#FridayFlash - Racist Bastard

by Tony Noland

Xai Feng gritted his teeth and waited for the asshole to stand up. Everybody knew the fucking bastard Carruthers hated Asians. How he had the gall to show up here at all was beyond anyone's belief. The Asian-American Association lunch was supposed to be for Roger Wu; this guy just stank up the place. Through the whole lunch, he and Mei Xu and Shao Hui and the rest of the guys had watched him over there, eating and laughing. They didn't bother to keep their voices down much as they talked about him. The whole group, the core group anyway, was all basically of the same mind about the guy and since Carruthers, of course, couldn't speak Chinese, it was OK.

The way that bastard had treated poor Xu Huang! Right after Carruthers had gotten promoted, Xu Huang had told everybody what a mean, vicious and foul mouthed dictator he was. The first thing he did after he came into that department was to meet with everybody one on one. He said it was just a "get to know the team" exercise, but Xu Huang had said that Carruthers had made it a point during his meeting to say that he didn't think the Asians were very talented and that they certainly weren’t doing enough good quality work. Racist bastard! Xai Feng and everybody else knew that Xu Huang was one of the smartest, most talented guys in the building. He graduated top of his class from Beijing University, and had turned down three other high-paying offers to come work here. Xu Huang had told them so himself.

Here we go, Xai Feng thought. He's coming up to the podium. How could Roger Wu act like he was friends with that guy? Xai Feng wasn't a bit surprised that Roger was being promoted. He was a great guy, very hard working. Xai Feng had never worked in that department, but Roger had a reputation as someone who knew how to deliver and knew how to spot talent; Xai Feng was just sorry that it meant the Roger would have to relocate. He certainly deserved this farewell luncheon. Roger had been in that department for six years, and had done a lot of great things. The funny thing was that he had been Carruthers' supervisor for most of that time. Why hadn't he done something about him? Surely his racism and bias would have shown itself. Xu Huang had quit because that asshole was such a prejudiced bastard, made all sort of changes to Xu Huang's work schedule and deliverables.

Look at him! He's shaking Roger's hand and they're both smiling as though they were really friends! You had to give Roger credit for loyalty anyway, thought Xai Feng. He's been defending that guy all along. The other guys in that group, the guys like Li Xu and Hong Ching, they defend him too. Must be Roger’s influence, that culture of loyalty. All the guys that worked with Carruthers over there seem to defend him. They're so blind. That's just because they’ve benefited from the association; he probably didn't show his true colors to them.

Strange, Xai Feng said to himself. His voice doesn't sound like I expected it to. It isn't nearly as deep and harsh as I thought it would be. Xu Huang said he was raspy and yelled all the time and had stained teeth. Maybe he's had them whitened or something.

Xai Feng looked around the room. Almost all of the Westerners and even a lot of the Asians were smiling as Carruthers spoke. That fucker - he's just using his charisma to hypnotize everyone, even the Regional Director and the Vice-President. It just goes to show how people can be fooled. All the guys at that table worked with him on that big reorganization plan. They're only in his camp because that all turned out well in the end. And that table over there is all people from the employee safety committee he chairs. All the staff from Roger's department are over at those five tables. I don't know why everybody else seems to like the guy.

Sure, go ahead and laugh at his little jokes. He can talk about the work he's done with Roger, what a great mentor Roger has been, his friendship with him and all the rest. All of us know that he's a racist and that he hates Asians. The way he treated Xu Huang proves that. Forcing him to change the way he was working, to cut short all of those interesting side projects he was working on. And for what? Like Xu Huang said, numbers of projects completed aren't as important as picking the right projects to work on. Whatever Xu Huang was doing, I'm sure it was more important that whatever Carruthers was trying to force him to do. Xu Huang was a really smart guy, with lots of experience. He told us all about it!

Carruthers should have just stayed out of it and let Xu Huang use his best judgment. The asshole didn't micromanage anyone else in that department. After the initial meetings, he just left everyone else alone to do their jobs, but no, not poor Xu Huang. It was only Xu Huang he picked on, having him come in for extra meetings to track progress, making him write all those reports on the backlog, all that stuff. That proves he's a bigot. After all, didn't Xu Huang file an EEO complaint against him before he quit? Isn't that proof enough of what kind of person Carruthers is?

Oh, please. So you went to Beijing with Roger and toured the Forbidden City together. So what? That doesn't mean anything. You were probably hating every minute of it, being surrounded by Chinese. Even that collaboration you set up with Jiao Tong University was probably just a political thing.

So you can make an audience smile, laugh and stand up to applaud you. You're a racist bastard, Carruthers, and giving Roger Wu a hug and wishing him well in his new job isn't gonna change our opinion of you.

==========
Comments and constructive criticisms welcome. Other #FridayFlash pieces can be found here

NaNoWriMo 2009 excerpt: a touch, a glance and a deserted country road

an excerpt from Home Cure, my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel

"Mr. MacDonald. I need your help in convincing Miss Ashewood to acknowledge my unborn child as having been fathered by her brother, Crispin Ashewood."

MacDonald paused, then said, "Miss Smythe, I’m certain that Miss Ashewood will not be swayed or convinced by anything other than something from Crispin Ashewood acknowledging such. Do you have such a letter?"

She shook her head without speaking.

"Or a letter of commitment with respect to your engagement? Something wherein he refers to your understanding? Some high member of Bournemouth society, someone beyond reproach or question, who could speak as a witness to your engagement?" He held out little hope for this. Still, despite what he knew to be true from having read the letters she’d sent to Crispin, she was a pitiable sight.

Again, she shook her head.

"If Miss Ashewood were to support you, any other legal probelms could be dealt with.” he said. “The family solicitor, Mr. Tate, would know better than I, but assurance of legitimacy from her would be accepted by society in general without question. However, without some proof, Miss Smythe, it will be exceedingly difficult, essentially impossible to convince her."

She said, "She would listen to you. I believe that in you, she sees the last trace of Crispin Ashewood. She would accept your word almost as coming from him, perhaps the only word in the world that she would accept in such a manner."

He looked down the deserted lane, uncomfortable, but resolute.

"Miss Smythe, please forgive me, but I cannot act on such a matter without something more than your word alone as to how this transpired." He didn't want to tip his hand.

"Then I am ruined." She said it straight out, without blinking or flinching. "Without your help, Mr. MacDonald, I am ruined." She set her face to be resolute and determined, and moved a step closer to him.

"Mr. MacDonald. I have nothing to offer you but the truth, as plainly as I can present it. I have nothing more with which I can convince you as a gentleman." At this, she looked him full in the face, her green eyes bright and liquid. "A gentleman would not be swayed by offers of compensation for his efforts on my behalf. I have no money to make such offers, either as a down payment to secure your aid, or as promises of future payment for services rendered." She moved a step closer. He could smell lavender and roses and cinnamon.

"If need be, I can offer to compensate you, not as a gentleman" she said, "but as a man." One more step closer and her bosom was pressed against MacDonald's chest, brushing lightly, satin against wool. "Mr. MacDonald, I can and do offer a down payment for your representation of my case to Miss Ashewood." He could feel her breath on his chin, warm and moist. "A man back from service to his country might find such an offer... attractive." He felt her hand brush the front of his pants, the side of her fingers tracing the length of his erection from tip to root. Despite himself, he twitched forward. "I am utterly in earnest, Mr. MacDonald. Serve me in this, carry my case to Miss Ashewood and convince her of the legitimacy of Crispin's child," her fingers closed on him, "and I will return your service. Handsomely."

She released him and stepped back. "I will do whatever I have to do in order to assure that Crispin Ashewood's son has a future. I will do anything at all, Mr. MacDonald." She reached up and, never taking her eyes from him, undid a single button at the top of her dress. She stood so, regarding him with a level gaze and the barest trace of skin uncovered. Then, she turned and walked across the road toward a tall hedge off to the side. She entered a break in the hedge, turned back to him and, just as slowly as before, undid another button. She moved behind the hedge and was hidden from sight.

MacDonald stood still in the middle of the empty dirt road, pulse pounding.

Top Ten NaNoWriMo Motivators

Over on Olivia Tejeda's Away With Words blog, there's a list of her Top 10 NaNoWriMo motivators, and some cute penguins, too. Stop by and add yours!

I should note that I'm honored to have made the list, even if mine are more like DEmotivators!

Sabotaging NaNoWriMo -"It's for your own good"

Many articles will tell you how to succeed at NaNoWriMo. Those "how to" articles are aimed at writers, and talk about workable plots, gripping characters, tricks for reaching a daily wordcount, etc.

In contrast, this article isn't intended for writers, scribbling away at the next NaNoWriMo "masterpiece". This is a "how to" aimed at the spouses, partners and family members of people who are participating in NaNoWriMo. The goal is to show you how to stay sane in a NaNoWriMo household. Follow this advice, and your "writer" will come back to his or her senses in no time.


Tip #1: Insist that your partner stick to his or her diet. Writing a #nanowrimo is no excuse for extra calories.

Tip #2: Mealtimes are family times. Writing a #nanowrimo is no excuse for not being a part of every meal. That includes breakfast.

Tip #3: The laundry, gutters, lawn and all the other chores still need to be done. Writing a #nanowrimo is no excuse for a messy house.

Tip #4: Christmas is coming soon. Your partner can work on #nanowrimo later; insist on going over, together, catalogs as they arrive.

Tip #5: Isolation is a sign of a sick mind. Insist that your partner be in the TV room with you in the evenings, not off on that #nanowrimo.

Tip #6: Plenty of sleep is the foundation of good health. Don't let your partner stay up late to work on #nanowrimo. Or get up early.

Tip #7: Use air-quotes with your fingers when referring to the #nanowrimo "novel" your partner is "writing". He/she needs to lighten up.

Tip #8: Put #nanowrimo in a green perspective. Remind your partner how much electricity that laptop is wasting.

Tip #9: It's simple logic - if anyone off the street can sign up to do #nanowrimo, then it must not be a big deal, so why bother?

Tip #10: Reassure your partner that you will still love them, even though they want to waste the best month of the year on #nanowrimo.

======

These simple tips for sabotaging #nanowrimo partners everywhere brought to you by the Aliteracy Foundation. "AF: Don't Read"

NaNoWriMo 2009, Day 16: update - yeah, baby

Have done 4K so far today. With a little effort, a little peace and quiet and a little more coffee, I can knock out another couple K this evening.

This new paradigm works pretty well. Threat of blackmail raised and averted, the situation laid out and the plot thickening. The protag had what he wanted to do and now also has a second subplot burden laid on him.

I also managed to slip in a bunch of foreshadowing, and did it surreptitiously by having the protag misinterpret what was going on (and therefore mislead the audience).

Tony's a clever boy, yes he is.

NaNoWriMo 2009, Day 16: Ugh.

As I write this, I'm at 22K, around 4K shy of where I should be. I've gotten a bit tired of the story, mostly because I haven't been spending ANY time on the exciting parts of it. I've been pissing around with characters, setting, backstory and junk like that. It seems to be a habit - I can't just throw the sense of pacing to the wind and go from action point to action point.

And then this happened! And then that happened! And then this happened!

I always reach for a contemplative inner voice, the one that has the protagonist thinking about what he's seeing.

Well, time to get rid of that. I've got a heck of a lot of theft, seduction, murder, sex, blackmail, incest and more murder to cram into this book.

All the angsty, reflective connective tissue is going to have to come later.

FridayFlash: Two Lutheran Pastors

A joke for #FridayFlash, while I work on NaNoWriMo. Enjoy.

There were two Lutheran pastors, one from Philadelphia, one from Minnesota. They met at a conference and struck up a friendship. After some discussion about fellowship and evangelism, they decided to trade sermons at each other's congregations. So the Lutheran pastor from Philadelphia went to visit his friend's church in Minnesota... in January.

He went over to the church early on a Sunday morning and found the other Lutheran pastor out front with a bucket, spreading sand on the ice leading up to the door.

"Hey," said the first Lutheran pastor, "that's interesting. In Philadelphia, we spread salt on the ice to melt it."

"Oh, salt is great stuff," said the second Lutheran pastor, "but it only works down to about zero degrees. On really cold mornings like we get here in Minnesota, it won't melt the ice. The only thing you can do is spread some sand to provide some traction."

"Really? I had no idea." said the first Lutheran pastor. "Salt won't work at all? Sand is your only option?"

"Yep," said the second Lutheran pastor, "this is Minnesota. Here I sand; I can do no other."

==========
Comments and constructive criticisms welcome. Other #FridayFlash pieces can be found here


UPDATE: If you're not a Lutheran, then this joke was not only not funny, but was probably incomprehensible. It refers to Martin Luther's testimony at the Diet of Worms, wherein he (supposedly) uttered one of the most famous quotes in the history of Protestant theological determinism, "Here I stand. I can do no other." Just forward the link to a Lutheran. They'll laugh enough for both of you.

Don't Mess With The Writer

Rather than bitch and moan to myself about the impossibly negative person I just had to deal with, or write up a blog post detailing why it was such an unpleasant conversation, I'm going to cherish that interaction.

Know this, oh piece of grasshopper dung that I just walked away from:

I'm going to record, as best I can, your snide, insulting and passive-aggressive phrases that made my blood boil. Your hardly-veiled insults and dismissal of my intelligence, experience, wisdom and even my courage and commitment - all of these I will use.

I'm going to make note of all the aspects of manner and mien that conveyed the pomposity, self-congratulation and arrogant condescension for which you are so rightly famous.

I'm going to capture all the various expressions you used to say, in six different ways on each of the six subjects we discussed, "I did it before you and I did it better than you".

I'm going to distill your words to their bitter, vicious essence and I'm going to use them.

For you see, I am a writer.

Which means that you, disagreeable and infuriating, puffed-up and arrogant, obnoxious and grandiose as you are, YOU have messed with the wrong guy.

I have an opening for someone just like you in an upcoming scene. He's not the main villain; that would be too much of a role for such a twisted little man such as you. No, he's a side character, a sub-plot, a pimple on the ass of my protagonist.

My hero has a lot of big, important things he has to worry about and overcome, but he also has you - a fundamentally insignificant little bit of pestilence, which is nonetheless irritating and painful.

When you are in my book, you will have a cologne even more churningly aromatic, a bellyroll even more protuberant and coffee-stained, a fashion sense even more tone-deaf and hideous, and ear hair only slightly longer. I make these changes so that you can't plausibly recognize yourself and sue me.

However, when you are in my book, your words, hurtful and hateful, will be just as you said them to me. They are perfect gems, in their own blistering way. I have no fear of you recognizing them; if you were capable of recognizing such words as having come out of your own mouth, you never would have said them in the first place.

I will shape a world where you, in all your poison-edged reality, will have a permanent place of display. You will live as an exemplar of all that can be horrible in humanity, and anyone with a scrap of wisdom will look at you and strive to be as unlike you as possible.

For you see, I am a writer.

Don't. Fuck. With. Me.

Bird of Prey, Pursing Destiny

Bird of Prey, Pursing Destiny

by Tony Noland

The eagle brought his wings down hard to gain speed, then banked into the wind to trade the speed for altitude. He held his wings out and climbed, angling toward his goal. His chest ached, and even the small effort of maintaining trim to stay aloft was almost as much as he could manage so long a time in the air. He was desperately tired. There was nothing below him but mud. If he landed, he would not be able to lift again, and he would die, so close to his destiny that he could smell it on the upwelling breeze. He was almost there, but he was so very tired.

He thought again of the cliff that his clan owned, the tall, familiar cliff with the rocky land at the top and forest at the foot of it. The river with its waterfall, the thin tree-stands on the cliff top and the deep, cool forest at the cliff’s foot all went with the land. It was not a large clan-holding, but it was well-stocked. Fish, lizards and other prey-sized animals were easily found within the holding. The lands up-river and down here owned by other clans. There had not been a serious land dispute for many generations. It took a serious uprising of a chorus of females to wage one of the bloody and costly land wars. A male sometimes got a female of another clan fixed in his eye, which naturally led to some fighting and killing. That had nothing to do with land, of course, since clan land stayed with the female. It was only the males that died, and there were always plenty of males to be had.

This male was one of those that would have started a land war all by himself, had such a thing been possible. He had grown tired of life on the cliff. The life was, if not exactly comfortable, at least predictable. When he had reached his full wingspan, he had fought over females like all the other males. He’d won some females, lost others. Over and over, he’d flown the same stretch of river that his mother and grandmothers and great-grandmothers had flown. Always, he’d wondered where the river went as it disappeared through the forest. One morning nine weeks ago, with late spring in full flower around him and a full belly of fish within him, he left his clan to find out.

Early in the morning, he’d crested the waterfall and folded his wings to drop down to the rocky pool at the cliff base. He followed the river through its familiar turns to the bend that marked the edge of cliff clan land. With his eyes open wide, he stayed on the river breeze and cruised past the bend. He resisted the pull of habit and custom, and did not turn back at the sight of unfamiliar ground, but flew on. He entered river clan land and flew through it.

As the day went by, he flew on, exulting at the strangely quiet landscape so far from the thunder at the bottom of the waterfall. For the first time, he could actually hear the wind in the trees. From the tall, bare snags that stuck above the forest, nesting mothers eyed him with suspicion. On the river below, males looked up from their fish and watched him fly past. It was unusual for a foreign male to come so deep into river clan in search of a female to fight over, but not unheard of. The river clan males watched him swoop to the river and pull a fat salmon, and they watched him eat it and two more besides. They watched him perch in a low snag near the river’s edge, and in the morning they watched him fly away, continuing downriver.

Day after day, he flew. In and out of one clan holding after another, he followed the river. He was entranced, hypnotized, besotted by the sight of new bends in the river. He flew through the clan lands of eagles whose accents grew stranger and stranger until he could no longer understand the greetings and warnings they called to him. On and on he flew as the river moved through forest and field and forest again, spilling at last in a wide open marshland that stretched to the horizon.

He stayed for three days at the mouth of the river, resting and eating. Beyond the mouth, the river flattened and fanned out into a thousand small streams that disappeared into the boggy marsh. He was at the end, and there was nothing more to see. In his mind’s eye, he saw himself turning around and going back up river, going back to the cliff to tell of what he had seen. He pictured his stay-at-home mother and grandmothers listening and then rolling their eyes at the foolishness of traveling such a long in order to reach nothing. He sat and rested and thought.

Waking before dawn of the fourth day, he was well rested, fully fed and restless. After being on the move and having a purpose in life for weeks on end, he could no longer simply sit and eat. Nor could he bring himself to simply turn and undo all that he had done in coming here. There must be something more, he thought, there has to be something more. He drew himself up and launched himself with a rapid series of powerful strokes of his wings. Lifting from level ground was difficult, but he had mastered the trick in his travels. Within moments he was moving higher in the sky. A few hundred feet up, he broke into sunlight, the dawn that had not yet reached the land below. His wings and chest were warm from his exertions, but the sunlight was welcome nonetheless in the cool morning air.

With nothing and no one around him, he deliberately closed his eyes, another trick he had mastered. In the open air above the treeless grassland shore and wide, open marsh, he kept them closed. This, more than his travels, would have shocked and appalled his kin and clan. Sight and flight, life and breath. When an eagle could no longer see or fly, he threw himself off the cliff to die on the rocks below. It was the way of things. To deliberately invite the darkness, while in the air no less, was a blasphemy bordering on madness. He had never done this while in the air, but something called to him and pulled him into this dark insanity.

He felt the sun and wind on his wings, smelled the grassland and marsh below, heard the wind blowing strongly under him. The minutes passed in darkness, and his exhilaration turned to an instinctive fear. He forced his eyes to stay closed and his fear gave way to panic, panic to terror and terror ultimately, incredibly, gave way to a deep, accepting peace. As he drifted in the brightly sunlit darkness he had created for himself, he felt that he was no longer merely an eagle in the sky - he was the sky. The sky, the earth and all that was in them and on them were as much a part of him as his talons or pinfeathers. When peace eventually turned back to exultation, this time in his mastery of the world, he opened his eyes to survey his domain.

The wind from the grasslands had blown him rather far out over the marsh. He could still see the land he had taken off from, a greenish-brown line on the horizon upwind. Crosswind, the marsh stretched endlessly. On the downwind side, from his great height, he could almost see something white on the far distant edge of the world. Gray and white, like a cliff in winter. He turned and flew back into the wind, back toward the grassland, and he gained altitude rapidly. He turned again, and eyed the distant cliffs. That was where he must go. He would find another river that fed into the marsh from those hills, and he would follow it to its source. He watched the wide marsh slipping by and gauged the speed he was making in this strong wind. The wind showed no signs of slacking, and the cliffs did not look too terribly far away. He would probably have to fly on after sunset, perhaps the entire night before he reached the forest or grassland that must lie at their feet, but he was ready for the challenge.

He paced himself with slow, easy strokes as he flew forward, the strong grassland wind helping him toward his destiny.

It was that sense of reaching toward a destiny that had kept him flying toward the distant cliffs, far and away out over the baking mud below. He flew on and on, riding the thermal winds that were faster than anything he'd ever known in the moutains. When the sun went down, the residual heat rising from the wide, blasted mud flats helped him forward. The sunrise the next morning was as blinding as anything he'd ever seen. Fatigue and the cold night air had made him dull and slow to respond.

All day he flew, moving at terrific speeds towards the cliffs that came closer but slowly, oh, so slowly. By midday he was worried. By afternoon, he was terrified. Now, at close of day, he was only tired. If he did not make the cliff edge by sundown, the land thermals would push him away, and he would die.

Again, he brought his wings down hard to gain speed, then again banked, climbing as high as his quivering, exhausted muscles would carry him. Then, his right wing collapsed and he fell. He came angling in at the cliff's edge at a bone-breaking speed. The limbless corpse of fir loomed up and he scrabbled at it with both talons. He snagged and scraped, then went twisting, tumbling and slammed into the ground. The rocky soil at the base of the trunk dug into his back and he shrieked out his agony. He flopped over and the world went white, then red and finally all was blackness.

After some unknown time, he opened his eyes. Standing eight wingspans off was a female. She had a fish between her talons, a fish the strangest shade of blue that the eagle had ever seen. He tried to speak, but could not. Thirst had gummed his tongue in place. The female cocked her head at him, then picked up the fish, flapped into the air and swooped to drop it in front of his beak.

He could barely make out her accent, but he understood her words.

"Eat. We will talk later."

She turned to face a ground perch not far away. She made to fly, then turned back to him.

"Not many males could haved crossed the nothingness. I will be waiting for you."

With one huge draft, she lifted and left him to eat and recover his strength.