To force myself to take a break from weather books and the Bible, I like to head to the bookstore and just pick a fantasy book. During this exercise I use one variable to make my selection–its cover.
The latest cover to jump from the shelf into my hands is Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart.
I want to draw attention to one particular element of fantasy that I hitherto had not thought of as fantasy–but should have. This element? The gray. The subtle.
The protagonist girl-child, an “Adept”, is learning the ways of the world from a renegade bachelor prince called Anafiel Delauney. Of this stud she strokes, “I have never known a mind more subtle than that of Anafiel Delauney.”
Right now the American conversation is binary. If you’re Greta, the world is black and white. If you’re Trump, it’s red and blue. There’s capitalist, there’s socialist. There’s rich, there’s not rich. Safe, assaulted. Tolerated…hated? No, that’s not right. Tolerated is squared up against accepted. Yep, that’s the ticket.
Does it have to be this way? Probably. How do I know? Because we fantasize about the gray. We escape to a world where subtle minds are cast as inescapably welcome. Or at least I do.
In my dying breath, that is, if my time with you had been animated with breath of my own and not simply with your imagination, in other words, if I had had a dying breath, then I like to think I would’ve thanked-
What? No! Not the acorn, never! Not that lifeless lump. Why do people always focus on the nut? I’ve always said: The nut is not the meat!
No, no, no. But where was I?
Ah, yes. I remember.
If I could have thanked anyone–call to mind that I am a character of fiction and it is quite impossible for me to offer gratitude in its proper sense–but I’m saying, if I could have, you know, hypothetically, thanked anyone, then I would thank Henny-penny.
She was a rare bird. And without her-
Well, without her, I guess I just wouldn’t have anyone to thank.
Harsh wind enraged remnant embers
“Cain, my love!” his mother cries
She bids him, “Here!”, she scrambles near.
A Sestina is form of poetry–a restrictive form of poetry. It has six stanzas of six lines, then a three line stanza. The last words of each stanza are the tricky part. After the first stanza, the last words have been chosen. The full pattern is as follows:
- ECA or ACE (called envol or tornada–it must also contain the other end-words, BDF, in the course of the three lines so that all six appear in the final three lines.)
We now pause our regularly scheduled programming (three more Cain and Abel re-writes on their way) to bring you some of Robert Louis Stevenson’s best sentences.
From Treasure Island
Silver was roundly accused of playing double–of trying to make a separate peace for himself, of sacrificing the interests of his accomplices and victims, and, in one word, of the identical, exact thing that he was doing.
From Prince Otto
(This first one hits strikingly close to home–perhaps ol’ Bob stumbled upon Ecclesiastes?)
Do you not know that you are touching, with lay hands, the very holiest inwards of philosophy, where madness dwells? Ay, Otto, madness; for in the serene temples of the wise, the inmost shrine, which we carefully keep locked, is full of spiders’ webs. All men, all, are fundamentally useless; nature tolerates, she does not need, she does not use them: sterile flowers!
And this one (Prince Otto, too) persuades whatever inner-workings lie behind the long development of some men’s seemingly hard, dark faces to rush to just beneath the surface the brightest and rosiest hues of red.
There is nothing that so apes the external bearing of free will as that unconscious bustle, obscurely following liquid laws, with which a river contends among obstructions.
Of all creatures, man is set apart by his ability to respond at length. Other creatures appear to be able to make inquiry and even reply through a series of grunts and gestures, but man alone has been endowed with the responsive power so-called reason.
Lowering his chin almost imperceptibly, Adam slowly closed his eyes. With an increase of force likely to be noticed solely by his closest family, he exhaled the entirety of the deep breath he had been holding as he watched his sons. He leaned his head forward until his chin rested on hand, which was on the top of his staff, as he reopened his eyes.
“What?” Eve asked.
He didn’t look at her. Though his eyes were open, he did not see anything but the garden.
“What?” Eve repeated.
Worried by Adam’s silence, Eve did not notice the look on Cain’s face. Adam did not have to.
“Abel!” he called at last. “Here,” he motioned for his son to come close.
As Abel listened to his father’s words, he looked towards Cain only to see that Cain was staring at him. Some new feeling arose in Abel, one whose name did not yet exist but which he wished would never have surfaced.
The next month was not pleasant for the family. Adam would not let his sons out of his sight. Eve worried.
“What are you saying, Cain?” Abel asked when the two brothers were in the fields, some distance from Adam.
“I’m saying He-” Cain motioned towards the entire sky, “-He spoke to me after that day.”
“And what did He say?” Abel replied.
“He told me If you do well, will not your face be lifted up?”
Relieved, Abel said, “That sounds true.”
“But then He said,” Cain continued, “And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you.”
Alarmed and looking for Adam, Abel said, “Why wouldn’t you do well, brother?”
Adam awoke from his daydream and did not immediately see his sons. Scanning the horizon with growing panic, he soon calmed down. The two men were seen facing each other, apparently talking about something. Then Abel took a step backwards, as if to place some distance between Cain and himself. Adam grabbed his staff and began to run, cursing himself that he did not stay closer.
“STOP!” Cain commanded Adam, Abel lying lifeless on the ground. “Do not come any closer, father.”
Adam stopped and closed his eyes and saw the garden. Cain bumped Adam’s shoulder as he left him there with Abel’s body. Then Adam buried Abel.
That night, Cain had nightmares of the voice saying, “You must master it. You must master it. You must master it.”
He awoke to the sound of thunder, soaked in sweat.
Then Yahweh said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”
I’m still in Tolstoy’s short stories. Again, one particular sentence just struck me as perfect. So here’s the challenge: In the below comments, let’s see if we can write with similar excellence. (One sentence.)
The bonfire was extinguished, the forest no longer looked as black as before, but in the sky the stars still shone, though faintly.
Here’s my attempt: The young boy stopped running, the city moved even faster, but he still felt her hand in his, though now she did the squeezing.
If by ashamed you mean ‘to chuckle’, then “Yes” I am ashamed when I see your eyes notice all the piles as you enter my home.
Immediately to your right, you see what is quite possibly the most random pile. It consists of a bowling ball bag, winter gloves, hats, and ski goggles. You next notice a kitchen table and chairs that reorient the word ‘messy’. As you gather your bearings, you see that under the kitchen counter there is an overstuffed book shelf, upon which sit more books and beside which rest two stacks of even more books. Recoiling a bit, you scan left and conclude that there must be at least one child living here because there is a small chair surrounded by children’s books and a panda bear and a remote control car with two pony passengers. The 88-key electronic keyboard and its bench have items upon them, as does the adjacent Steinway B and the instructor’s stool. Somehow that piano’s bench is without pile.
(Before walking down the hallway you pretend not to notice one more bookshelf and end table too ceased their resistance long ago.)
If your visit surprised me, I may not have had a chance to close the bedroom doors. In my bedroom you won’t see a massive pile of clothes at the end of my bed, because it is under a king size comforter which H- recently managed to place on top.
(If she’s anything like me, carrying something that big and soft from her room to mine was probably a delightful chore.)
In disbelief as you roll your eyes, H-‘s room snags your attention. Though admittedly more pink-themed, her bedding is likewise piled on her bed, and at every spot where the walls meet the floor there are piles. They are either piles of books and papers, piles of junk, piles of stuffed animals, or they are piles of clothes. Piles, piles, piles.
Why? you wonder. Why so many piles? You speculate that surely one of the books has to include both teaching on the importance and the ‘how to’ of cleaning.
Well, you asked, so I’ll tell ya. For me, piles equal happiness. Here’s the mathematical proof. If I begin to clean my piles, I’ll eventually decide to clean H-‘s piles. Half-piles do not exist. It’s all or none. And therein lies the problem. You see, H- and I spend very little time together in this junked up home. But when we do, she behaves like a Tasmanian angel. Whether coloring books, stuffed animals, reading books, or dolls, she is constantly relocating everything as she plays inside. To suggest that she “put them away” as you might think, is not really an option she would understand. And I wouldn’t know how to answer her striving for obedience, though honestly inquisitive, response, “Where, Daddy?”
This entire situation is adorable to me. Just watching her play is endlessly fascinating. How is she determining what to play with and for how long? Does she get a thrill out of not having to “clean” like I do? I’ll never know.
Anyhow, the point is, when I’ve tried to clean these piles in the past, it’s unbearable. I cannot touch her toys without thinking of her and I cannot think of her without remembering, as strongly as fire remembers hot and as ice remembers cold, that she is not here. And I cannot think that, without being sad–very, very sad.
So I maintain piles and I maintain that piles equal happiness.
I’ve been reading Tolstoy’s shorter fiction and almost each story contains writing so good that I want to never make the attempt again. Here’s a few examples.
From The Death of Ivan Ilyich:
Ivan Ilych knows quite well and definitely that all this is nonsense and pure deception, but when the doctor, getting down on his knee, leans over him, putting his ear first higher then lower, and performs various gymnastic movements over him with a significant expression on his face, Ivan Ilych submits to it all as he used to submit to the speeches of the lawyers, though he knew very well that they were all lying and why they were lying.
From The Kreutzer Sonata:
“What is wrong with education?” said the lady, with a scarcely perceptible smile. “Surely it can’t be better to marry as they used to in the old days when the bride and bridegroom did not even see one another before the wedding,” she continued, answering not what her interlocutor had said but what she thought he would say, in the way many ladies have. “Without knowing whether they loved, or whether they could love, they married just anybody, and were wretched all their lives. And you think that was better?” she said, evidently addressing me and the lawyer chiefly and least of all the old man with whom she was talking.
From The Devil:
During coffee, as often happened, a peculiarly feminine kind of conversation went on which had no logical sequence but which evidently was connected in some way for it went on uninterruptedly.
Well done, Count.
As for myself, I had a coffee date with a young lady the other day, something I have not made an effort to do in years. As is often the case in situations like mine, I told myself that I was willing to re-enter the dating world for several clear and distinct reasons. Firstly, it is not good for the man to be alone. Secondly, the idea of sexual congress with a woman has not yet become altogether repulsive. Thirdly, and ever present, there is in me still some remnant of fire, quite incapable of scientific scrutiny, that wants to prove–or fail trying–that I might yet possess some quality desirable to a member of the fairer sex.
As for her, she was highly educated, well-spoken, and cultured. And beautiful. On these points there would be no dispute. Not wholly unlike the much publicized cases of celebrity progeny, however, her parents’ more modest wealth still seemed nearest the root of her inability to properly arrange cause and effect. On this point there may be dispute.
The baby is not the last thing that will be removed during an emergency C-section. Neither will the baby be last in a planned C-section or vaginal delivery for that matter. The last thing will be the placenta.
Attempting to quell some of my new-found, seemingly limitless nervous energy, I quickly flipped through the CD book. I was searching for the one she wanted to hear.
“This is it. This is the last car ride as a childless couple,” I pointed out, hoping to distract her. Her musical request now playing, I put it in reverse and slowly backed down the driveway.
She was ten days overdue.
Almost from the moment of conception, though definitely intensifying during the Lamaze classes, I had witnessed her become more and more terrified by the thought of a C-section.
“Do we have the movies?” she asked, playing along in our little game.
“I put them and the DVD player in the backpack three days ago,” I reassured her, tapping the bag stowed behind me.
Having completed the stretching of her skin, the doctor will cease to give consideration to anything or anyone–whether the room’s familiar beeps and buzzing, his assistant’s breathing, or even his own thoughts–as he silently and hurriedly slices through the exposed portion of her tough, clammy, and purple uterus with precision.
Like a consecrated moment of silence, his worth can now be demonstrated solely through execution.
“Well, looks like you’re all settled in. This seems silly. We’re going to sit for twelve hours, eh? Just waiting? Do you want me to put on one of the movies? Or I can read to you from one of the books? I brought T.C. Boyle’s new one.”
The hospital room’s television was already on. She was viewing it from her bed as she shifted her attention over to me briefly. I kept talking about random trivialities, but we both knew there was only one thought being entertained.
Guys at work, fathers, had recently reminded us–unhelpfully–how doctors were paid more for performing C-sections. “That’s another reason why there are so many these days,” they would speculate. “But the female body needs to experience a natural delivery if the mom is going to come out of the pregnancy alright,” they would continue, with a look that meant alright in the head. “There’s a lot of stuff going on in a woman’s body during a pregnancy and just cutting her open and pulling out the baby does not let nature take its course,” ran the last theory explained before I noticed her dilated pupils and silenced them.
Back in the hospital, she said, “I can’t eat, but if you want to grab some food like we planned, now’s a good time.” She tried to smile.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay by yourself?” I asked before leaving.
Her rushing breaths will never abate even as she unavoidably seeks the eyes of the motherly voice that just announced, “Okay! We’re getting ready to pull baby.”
Four hands will squeeze into her abdomen. They belong to the doctor and his assistant who will have positioned themselves on opposite sides of her. Not even sparing the moment it would take to make eye contact with each other, they will then begin to alternate a violent pulling and tugging. Their pace for stretching her skin will be a mean one–precisely between reckless and urgent. Pull-tug-pull-tug-pull-tug.
“Why don’t we see how laying on your left side works again?” nurse number five suggested. I had just finished my burger.
The nurse–like the others before her–mechanically touched the bedding and then my wife as she waited for task completion.
“I’ll be back in a bit, after we see if that works,” she said on her way out the door.
On one of the screens near the bed, I noticed that the green number relaying my wife’s heart rate had climbed ten digits since last I looked.
Only two of the twelve hours we were told we would have to wait before they would induce delivery had elapsed when a tall forty year old doctor that we had never seen before walked into the room.
“The baby’s heart rate is staying consistent through your contractions which is good,” he began. “But the baby’s heart rate is dropping after them.”
Hearing nothing, I turned to her in time to see her hold back her tears by nodding rapidly in response.
“We need to do a C-section to deliver the baby,” he concluded. Then he left the room.
All I could think about was what the guys had said. The doctor is greedy. He knows the baby would probably be fine, and the only reason he told us anything is to justify his payday.
“I can’t believe this,” I began aloud with an undignified tone that feigned a feeling of helplessness. “Can you believe this?” I asked her as she trembled uncontrollably. “This is exactly what everyone told us would happen. I am so sorry. We don’t even know this man and we were supposed to wait twelve hours before even beginning to induce. It has only been two. What the hell is going on here?”
Waiting for help, she cried.
These days scalpels under a new name are plugged into a power outlet and cauterize as they cut. There will be no blood.
I came into the operating room after being shown how to put on all the disposable sterile gear. The room appeared to still be under construction. A nurse led me to my wife’s side along a path that ensured that the blue sheet hanging over her torso, the sheet meant to obstruct her view of the procedure, would also obstruct mine.
Arms and legs strapped down, the woman will lay on a padded table awake though nauseous from the anesthetics.
“How are you doing, sweetie?” the nurse will ask just prior to the doctor making the initial incision. The doctor will not hear this, his thoughts centering instead on getting the baby out.
The hot blade will then slice through her unfeeling skin, fat, and muscle with little resistance.
Her restricted hand moved. The finest edge in the room was the courage behind the words that I will never forget. Piercing every form of fear, she filled the world with five syllables.
“Will you hold my hand?”
You know, you’re walking through the grocery store and need to buy some V8, which you have coded “special drink”, for yourself and your daughter. So you’re walking through the store and as you’re about to check out you remember you need some more special drink. Terribly disappointed, you discover that their stock is out of the economy-sized jug. Like any self-respecting American man, you apply your fickle-as-a-woman’s-mood frugality to the situation and decide to just buy another brand than buy the kick-a-man-while-he’s-down regular-sized, overpriced jug. Having tried the store brand once before and finding it less than pleasing to your palette, you move on to Campbell’s tomato juice.
Days later, you find yourself studying Koine Greek in an effort to get right with God. Realizing it’s almost bedtime, and so time for a glass of that glorious act-of-vegetable-eating replacing special drink, you move to the fridge. “Ah!” you exclaim as you open it and remember you get to test what Campbell’s has to offer to the people. “Will it be bad?” you cringe. “Could it be better?” you hope. Excitement builds. Scanning the label to discover just how many servings of vegetables you’re about to ingest, you shrug off the creeping doubt that this red elixir is no equivalent to special drink. Pouring the beverage into your cup, you again fight away thoughts such as, “You know, V8 really isn’t just tomatoes, and this seems like it is just tomatoes.”
Then you sniff it. Then you stop your practiced chugging and conclude that, in fact, Campbell’s tomato juice is tomato juice, and not special at all.
Oh well. Only 16 days until the now open jug can be thrown away guilt free. 16. Guilt-filled. Days.