Free Flash Fiction: “The Scent of Food is Memory and Love”

The Scent of Food is Memory and Love

Azedah took the leaves off of the last small, round eggplant, then cut through the dark purple flesh until she had turned it into a pile of thick slices. She added them to the others already simmering in olive oil in her largest frying pan, so wide it covered most of the cooktop on that side of the stove. When both sides were golden brown, she lifted the eggplant pieces out of the pan and put then aside to drain. Quickly, her fingers moving with long experience, she chopped a large yellow onion; the fine slices sizzled when they hit the hot oil left in the pan.

“Azedah,” the house said. “The visitors have arrived.”

“Ah, they are early! Is Yasmin out of the shower?”

“Yes. Yasmin is in the study,” the house replied.

Azedah stirred the onions with a worn wooden spatula, and the smell of their cooking spread across the large kitchen. “Ask Yasmine to greet our guests,” she said. Behind her, the pressure cooker beeped, its cycle finished. She tapped the “natural release” icon, and turned back to the stove.

She reached to her left – but her hand closed on empty air.

“House,” she said aloud, “where did I put the tinned tomato paste?”

There was a beep from one of the long pantry cabinets near the refrigerator; the door opened softly. Azedah gave the frying pan a small circular shake and set it back on the heating element before sprinting over to the open cabinet. She pulled out a small can and rushed back to the stove.

Yasmin’s voice preceded her like a bubbling stream overflowing its seams. “It’s been so long,” she was saying happily. “Azedah has been cooking for hours.”

The voice became a woman with shiny black hair that cascaded in curls down her back, ending at her lowest rib. Her ruby-painted lips were parted in a wide smile, showing her perfectly even, white teeth. She wore a bright blue dress of textured silk, cut to fit her without restricting her movement. There were threads of gold shot through the bottom foot of Yasmin’s dress, and a tiny gold rocket clipping her hair out of her face; she wore no other ornament, and didn’t need any.

Azedah paused a moment to take in the sight of her wife, like always.

“This way,” Yasmin said, waving their guests into the room.

The visitors floated in from the hallway as if they were swimming four feet off the ground, unaffected by gravity. They were longer than the numerous stray cats that Azedah had fed and petted as a child, but smaller than the chocolate lab that lived next door, with a metallic silver coat that could be fur, if any metal on Earth were as pliant.

She peeled the lid from the tomato paste and spooned half of it into the pan with the onions. As she stirred them together, the three visitors fanned out to explore the adjoined dining room, twisted slowly in midair as they moved. Yasmin gave Azedah a reassuring smile.

Azedah did her best to not stare at their guests while she vented the last of the steam from the pressure cooker and took off the lid. A cloud of delicious scents enveloped her as they rose up from the pot: beef, tumeric, black pepper. She breathed it in and relaxed.

The smallest of the three visitors swam over to the kitchen island. It wore a bronze-colored cap that covered where she though its eyes should be, and buckled under its chin. From a small square device attached to its chest, a genderless digital voice said, “Hello, wife of our friend.”

“Hello, friend of my wife,” Azedah said shyly. “I am cooking Khoresh Bademjan. Yasmin asked me to make something fragrant.”

“Please continue,” the visitor’s box said.

Azedah nodded. She poured the broth from the cooked beef into the pan in front of her, and set the pot onto an unused burner on the other side of the stove. She stirred until the tomato and liquid were well mixed, turned up the heat, and waited for it to boil.

The visitor turned onto its back and twitched its tail like a swimmer kicking off from the edge of the pool. It circled Azedah languidly.

“The smell is very good,” its box said.

“My wife is the best cook that I know,” Yasmin said loudly from across the room. She gestured to the other two visitors, inviting them into the kitchen. They swam around her as she stepped carefully toward the island, giving them their distance.

Those two were the same size, and all three were exactly the same color, but one wore a buckled cap that Azedah thought looked a redder bronze than the others. All of their hands and feet were identically shaped, and had digits (like the paws of a raccoon, maybe), kept tight against their bodies.

Red Cap’s box said, “Yasmin was our first friend when we discovered your planet,” and did a barrel roll.

“I am lucky to have been on that mission, my friends,” Yasmin said. “And I am lucky that you have remembered me with a visit three years later.”

Large (Azedah called it in her head) swam over to join Small. They circled the kitchen as Azedah added the buttery-soft chunks of beef and the seared eggplant to the now-boiling broth. They moved closer, the glass whiskers on their heads fanning out, and Azedah eyed them nervously.

“Yasmin,” she called out. “Could you hand me the sour grapes from the refrigerator?”

Her wife laughed, a deeply exuberant laugh, when you would expect a more delicate sound from her lips. In public, she laughed without making a sound. But she was unreserved at home, and for that, Azedah loved her more.

Large and Small moved out of Yasmin’s path as she brought the tub over. She stayed, watching Azedah measure out a cup of the grapes, carefully separated from their pickling liquid, and dumped them into the pan.
“Normally, I make this in a covered pot,” Azedah explained to their floating guests, “but I wanted it to spread out in the large pan so the scent would be wider.”

“You think well of us,” Red Cap said.

“We do not eat your food,” Small said as it passed behind Azedah.

“The smell is delicious,” Large added, circling Yasmin playfully.

Azedah sprinkled a few tablespoons of dried Persian lime into the simmering stew. The visitors drew close again, swimming through the edges of the steam that floated up. Azedah reached out her hand to pet Small as it passed…

“No!” Yasmin cried, and Small darted away.

“I’m so sorry,” Azedah said. “I don’t mean to offend.”

“No offense,” Small said, swimming closer. “We are sharp, wife of our friend.” Its fur stood on end for a moment, a forest of needles, before settling flat again.

“I’m sorry,” Yasmin said, kissing Azedah’s hand. “I should have explained better why I told you not to touch them. I was just in a rush, getting approval for them to be here, setting up the cordon – I should have said.”

“You don’t talk about space because you miss it,” Azedah said quietly. “I understand.” She kissed her wife’s cheek.

“Is this the meal?” Red Cap asked.

“One more ingredient,” Azedah said. She pulled away from Yasmin just enough to reach a small ceramic jar on the island, next to the stove. Opened, it revealed brick-red threads of saffron. She sprinkled some over the top of the sizzling meat, grapes, and eggplant. Then, she and Yasmin stepped back, allowing their guests to swim into the steam over the pan.

“Thank you for joining us for dinner,” Yasmin told them as she hugged Azudah tight.

The three visitors dipped and cavorted, delighting in the scent of Azudah’s dish, as it simmered.

“Let me tell you about being the first team to make contact with an alien species in space,” Yasmin said to her wife quietly. “Now that you can see them. Now that,” she paused, shrugged, and gestured toward the scene. “Now that I can tell it as well as you deserve.”


 

Ignacio Gallup-Diaz asked me for a story about space otters, and 1360 words later, here we are.

If you liked this and want to inspire your own story, you can get on the list by donating any amount via my PayPal, HERE.

You can read more about that, including last year’s flash stories, here.

So far in this round, I’ve posted four other stories. Read them here:

Free Flash Fiction: “A Revised History of Earth”

A Revised History of Earth

“I don’t care about any of that,” Sherla said without looking up from her nail polish.

“But the tests are conclusive,” Mattie said, shaking her tablet at the other woman. “I’ve got it all right here.”

“Don’t care,” Sherla repeated. She applied another strip of opaque black polish to a blank nail and watched as it slowly expanded to cover her nail perfectly.

“You don’t care that the ruins we found on Planet X are actually older than any known civilization on Earth?”

“Nope.”

Mattie sat down on the edge of her bed with a heavy sigh. “I mean… that’s a big deal to me.”

Sherla was lying on her belly on her bed, only a few feet away in their tiny cabin. She turned her head to look Mattie in the eyes, while still blowing her nails, now finished. “I care that you care, honey. But I think we just see this two different ways.”

Mattie shook her head, barely ruffling her close-cropped curls. “How’s that?” she asked.

“Well, as you and most of the scientists on board see it, this expedition has proved that Earth was some kind of colony, right?”

“Yes, I think that’s got to be our working theory going forward from here,” Mattie said, relaxing a little. “We’ll have to go back and revisit all of the old site maps, build a new history of human civilization. New textbooks, new arguments. Oh no, those ancient alien crackpots are going to have a field day!” she added with a sudden grin. “I don’t envy the folks back home who’re going to have to listen to all of that nonsense on the off chance there’s even one hypothesis that matches up with what we’ve found here.”

“Right,” Sherla said, “because you’re not going back to Earth.” She blew on her nails one last time.

“Well, no, I – the expedition is moving out of our solar system to follow the star charts we found during the excavation.” She frowned a little, her dark eyebrows drawing closer together. “That doesn’t make our find less important. It’s actually the whole reason we’re still on the ship.”

Sherla pushed herself up off her elbows, turned, and sat down on the edge of the bed facing her friend. “No, Mattie, it’s why you’re still on the ship. And I’m glad for that, ‘cause you’re a whole sight better than the last girl they stuck me with.”

“The snorer?” Mattie asked, sympathetic.

“The snorer,” Sherla agreed, and for a moment, they both smiled. Then Sherla leaned in, put her hands on Mattie’s knees, and said with a serious face, “I’m not a scientist, honey. I’m enlisted. They didn’t put all us soldiers on this ship to help dig, and we’re not all heading out into the great unknown for anything other than one reason: someone with more brass than me decided I might have to kill some things.”

Mattie bit her lip. “I know that,” she said after a moment, “but that’s statistically unlikely, you know. Whatever might have been out there has probably been dead for half a million years, and Earth has what remains of its refugees.”

Sherla sat back. “Maybe. I hope so, really. I’d love to spend the next couple of decades learning new things and staying pretty instead of developing any serious holes in any part of my body that I can’t live without. But I have to wake up every day and train for the possibility that what’s out there didn’t want us to find it.”

All around them – the floor, the ceiling, the beds – began to shake, and a quiet hum started, grew louder. Sherla stood up.

“That’s ignition, which means we’re officially under way, and that means the goodbye party is about to start. Come on, honey, tell me how pretty I am.” She put her hands on her hips and posed.

“You’re very pretty,” Mattie replied.

“Which means you’re drop dead gorgeous,” Sherla told her, “and it would be unfair to deprive the folks in Aft Lounge 6 of the chance to see the two of us in all our glory.” She held her hands out.

Mattie took them and let herself be pulled to her feet. “You’re a terrible influence.”

“I plan to be, honey,” Sherla said with a grin. She kissed her roommate on the cheek, leaving a faint red stain behind in the exact shape of her lips. “There,” she said. “Now you’ll look like you started the party early, and everyone will be dying to find out just how fun you are.”

“I should get back to monitoring the digital reconstruction of the dig site,” Mattie said, but didn’t sound certain.

“Tomorrow,” Sherla said as she put her arm around the other woman and steered her toward the hallway. “Tomorrow you can worry about how to find our celestial ancestors and I can worry about how to fight them.” She tapped on the side of their door, which slid into the wall. In the distance, they could already hear the sounds of music, and distant voices.

“Tonight…” Sherla paused, and squeezed Mattie gently. Mattie leaned into her friend and nodded.

“Tonight,” Mattie finished for her, “we’re going to say goodbye to Earth, and drink until we forget that we’re never going home again.”

“That’s my girl.”


Greg Bennett gave me the prompts for this story: “Planet 9 discovered and in close orbit to solar system, woman led exploration mission, ancient ruins, discovery that Earth’s inhabitants are actually refugees…” It took me a little while to think of a way to do that without sounding like Battlestar Galactica, but once I realized I could start after that stuff has already been discovered, I knew the moment, the part of this story, I wanted to write.

This is the 4th story I’ve written for this year’s Flash Fiction Challenge, and it’s about 890 words long.

If you liked this and want to inspire your own story, you can get on the list by donating any amount via my PayPal, HERE.

You can read more about that, including last year’s flash stories, here.

So far, I’ve posted three other stories. Read them here:

Free Flash Fiction: “Breakfast on the Moon”

My third story in this year’s flash challenge was inspired by Anthony Jutz, who gave me the title. This story comes in at 1220 words, and is one of the few times I’ve written a in 2nd person PoV/present tense. (It doesn’t usually work for me, but in this case, I like how it turned out.)

Grab a snack and enjoy:

Breakfast on the Moon

Your AI beeps at you until your eyelids flutter open and your eyes, slowly, adjust to the screen in front of you, projected inside your helmet.

“I’m awake,” you mumble. “I’m awake. Stop… making… sound,” you add, struggling a little to find the words. The beeping stops but in its absence, the throbbing in your head actually feels worse. You check whether you can move your limbs, which, yes, are all there, and then scan the readouts for a sign of what’s happened to you.

“Armor is at 45%,” you say to yourself. Your AI already knows of course, but you want to figure this out for yourself. “Everything’s intact, though left leg and left forearm show radiating fractures. So, an explosion, close enough to knock me out, far enough away that I didn’t sustain any serious injuries.”

You make yourself stand up to be certain. You ache everywhere, but your bones support your weight and your armor remains airtight.

“Distance from the ship?” you ask.

“Approximately 340 kilometers,” your AI tells you, then adds, “but it’s in pieces.”

“Figures,” you say, mostly to yourself. “Which direction?”

“The ship is not operational at this time,” you’re told.

“I understand that, but we can salvage from it. Just tell me where to go.” You look around. You’re in a small gray valley, round, undistinguished. There’s a few pieces of twisted metal lying scattered near you – nothing identifiable. The sky is mostly clear, night-black, and full of stars. “C’mon now, buddy,” you say impatiently. “Let’s go.”

“The ship is approximately 340 kilometers–”

“I know that already.”

“Above you.”

You look up again. There is a smear of cloud above you that you’d already decided to ignore, except now that you think about it, the Moon doesn’t enough of an atmosphere to get clouds, so it’s a smear of something else, thinned out and spread across the sky.

“Hey buddy, did the ship explode?”

“Affirmative.”

This valley does look unnaturally round. More like a crater.

“Was I… onboard at the time?”

“Technically, you were falling toward the Moon’s surface at a high velocity when the ship detonated.”

“Okay. This is starting to make sense.” Sort of. “So… what made the ship explode?”

“You ordered it to self-destruct.”

“Why would I do that?” You shake your head but your memories are still in pieces.

“You said it was the only way to kill the Hive ship that had attached itself to us, and the Drones that were breaching our hull.”

“That is… one way to do that, I guess. Can’t go up, got to go somewhere. Is there a base nearby?”

“There was an outpost established 12.5 kilometers from this location. However, it is not currently transmitting on any known frequencies.”

“It’s a place to start,” you say. “And moving is better than standing. Which way?”

Your AI gives you the heading and magnetic declination. It takes longer than you’d like to climb out of the crater, and you can’t feel your left foot at all. Your knee itches, though.

The sensation is familiar.

Once you’ve finally scrambled over the rim, you can see the vast landscape sprawled out on all sides of your position, painted in shades of gray and white. You start walking. You tap open the screen on your arm, and scroll through comm channels, looking for a friendly voice.

It takes two hours to check and double check every frequency. You only hear static.

The itching seems to have moved further down your knee, into the top of your calf. It might have been… your arm? Maybe it was broken once? Or… fell off?

“Hey buddy,” you say, waking your AI. “I’m having some trouble remembering stuff. Did I maybe die a little?”

“The impact did end your biological functions.”

“Huh. Okay.” You look down at your foot. That part of your armor does look newer than the rest. “And then what happened?”

“Repair procedures were initiated. Due to the limited materials available, it took some time.”

“Do I want to know how long I was dead?”

“Protocol suggests that you do not.”

You don’t argue. Instead, you focused on putting one foot in front of the other, trudging across sand and rock, hundreds of thousands of miles from home. While you walk, you sort through the memories you do have, trying to put them into some kind of order.

“Hey buddy,” you ask after a while. “What’s ‘fish’?”

“As a noun, fish is an aquatic Earth animal, and as a verb, it is the act of harvesting that animal.”

“But it’s a food, right?”

“Affirmative.”

“Spam?”

“Food, and a slang term for unwanted communications.”

“Chicken?”

“Food, and the animal the food comes from.”

“Hmm. I think I’m hungry,” you say.

“That is not unreasonable, given the circumstances.”

“Because of how long I was dead?” You remember the protocol. “Right, no asking. Sorry, buddy.”

After another few kilometers, your proximity alarm beeps. There doesn’t appear to be a structure nearby, only soft dunes. You climb one until you’re standing at the coordinates your AI gave you.

“Is this maybe the wrong place?” you ask.

“The entrance to the outpost is no longer above the lunar surface.”

You think about that for a moment. “So I have to… dig?”

“Yes.”

Digging with only your hands takes time, but the ground is pliable enough that – after a few hours – you bump against a metal hatch. You wrench it open, and go down into the darkness.

Your AI sparks up your suit so you’re your own flashlight, and the helmet display includes a thermal and motion sensor readouts; it’s obvious this outpost isn’t just momentarily empty. Good old Earth military: there’s maps on the wall showing the way to all of the important places. You make a note of the infirmary, just in case, and head to the cafeteria.

Among the detritus left behind, you find a couple of crates of meal pouches, permasealed and (probably) still good. You crack open an “omelet” and a “pancakes with syrup” with one hand, grab a crate of pouches with your other hand, and take a seat at one of the tables.

“Hey buddy,” you say between bites. “This place was abandoned a long time ago, wasn’t it?”

“It appears so,” your AI admits.

You finish the pancakes and root around until you spot an “oatmeal with raisins, hot”. You tap it against the table to activate the heating coil. You don’t want to eat too much too fast, but your ankle really itches, and your brain has finished taking inventory of everything you should remember, but don’t. Besides, it’s not like you’re going to have to share with anyone else for a while.

You need something to eat the oatmeal with, though, and you can’t quite find the word for the thing you want. Shovel? Tool?

Your brain is starting to itch now, too.

“Okay, buddy. I think it’s time you tell me what happened.”

“Protocol – ”

“I don’t care. I’m overriding your protocol.” You stand up. “You are going to fill me on everything I want to know, and I’m going to find a spoon.” You pause, realizing your accomplishment.

“Hey, buddy,” you tell your only friend, “I think this is going to be a pretty good day.”


If you liked this and want to inspire your own story, you can get on the list by donating any amount via my PayPal, here:

You can read more about that, including last year’s flash stories, here.

Last week, I posted two other stories. Read them here:

Free Flash Fiction: “The Roaring Silence”

My notes for this one are at the end, so there won’t be spoilers… #SFWAPro

The Roaring Silence

James sat behind his desk, listening to the couple in front of him talk over each other.

“These behaviors keep going on –” the wife said.

“But that’s not fair –” her husband tried to interject.

“– no matter what you promise –”

“– because you know how work has been lately –”

“– I understand, you know I understand –”

“– I’m not saying your job isn’t hard but I –”

James held up both hands until he got their attention, and the room quieted. “Okay,” he said in a calm, measured, voice. “I hear a lot of tension and that’s completely normal, but we want to make sure that expressing our concerns isn’t getting in the way of hearing your partner’s concerns, too.”

“Yeah, okay, but –” the husband started in, and the wife rolled her eyes, and jumped back into the argument.

While his patients went at each other, James sat back in his chair, and thought about ordering from that Chinese place for dinner. Maybe he’d have it delivered and eat it at his desk like he often did…

He pulled himself away from that thought long enough to wrap up their session, and ushered the couple out of his office with some pleasant-sounding but generic advice he didn’t quite remember a few minutes later. It was after 6 in the evening, so his Stacy (his receptionist) had already gone home, but she’d left out a couple of menus just in case he wanted to work late again. James thought about the case files waiting for him, and decided, this once, to call it a night and finish up today’s work first thing in the morning.

Downstairs, with his coat collar turned up against the late Spring cold, James pushed the front door open with one elbow, and turned in a half circle to carefully maneuver around an elderly woman who had picked that moment to enter the building through that same door.

“Thank you, dear,” she said softly.

James nodded silently, holding his breath – and his belly – in while she scooted by.

On the street, he exhaled loudly. An attractive woman standing nearby noticed, frowning. She turned away and waved for a taxi before James had a chance to explain. He looked down, his shoulders dropping, and walked in the other direction.

As he turned a corner, the street noise dwindled around him, fading into nothing, damped as if he’d lowered a pillow over his ears, and only the faint sound of tinkling, old-timey piano music floated past him on the wind.

A young couple, laughing over their phones, passed him by, and the sound of the world came back on their heels.

James reached the subway entrance and his stomach rumbled. He tilted his head up and sniffed.

“Popcorn?” he said to himself. He looked around, but couldn’t find the vendor, and didn’t want to risk making eye contact with the young black man sitting on the platform next to an upturned hat and a sign that read Homeless and Disabled Please Help.

“Another time,” James said so quietly it was nearly a whisper, to the man, or the unseen popcorn vendor, or both.

He took the seat second-closest to the train’s doors, just as he always did, with his hands folded in his lap, and counted the minutes until they pulled into his station.

As the train slowed, James took his briefcase in one hand, stood up, and positioned the worn leather case in front of his chest like a shield; he fixed his gaze on the far wall, and took a deep breath.

The doors opened, and the crowd – oh, the rush and pull of the crowd! Like a wave crashing against James’ shore! He pushed himself forward resolutely, made it out of the train car, and up the stairs to the street, ignoring all jostling and elbows, all cries or claims or conversation around him.

He made it the two blocks to his favorite Chinese takeaway counter before he relaxed enough to lower his briefcase.

“Hello, how are you, come in!” the hostess said brightly. “Are you picking up or placing an order?”

“Placing, please,” James said, looking at the lacquered sticks holding her black hair into a loose bun at the back of her head. “To go.”

“Of course, of course,” she said, nodding. She kept nodding as he gave her his usual request: steamed brown rice, chicken with broccoli, and a cup of wonton soup.

There were a pair of tiny pink elephants hanging from the end of each hair stick. Every time the hostess dipped her head, the elephants danced.

“Oh, do you want a napkin for that?” she asked suddenly, pointing at his cheek.

He reached up with his free hand and wiped something greasy away. When he looked at his glove, there was a smear of chalk-white makeup on the fingertips.

“Yes, please,” he said, shook, nearly stuttering. “Someone on the train. Must have bumped me.” He dabbed at his cheek with the napkin she handed him. “It’s not mine.”

“Of course,” she said, nodding again. She moved on to the next customer, and James shoved the napkin into his coat pocket angrily.

By the time he got home, he’d lost his appetite. He put the takeout containers, still in their bag, into the refrigerator, and sat at the kitchen table, turning the napkin over in his hands. The makeup felt warm, soft, but solid. It didn’t crumble.

He had a vague feeling as if he should know what it was, but couldn’t remember.

Later, in pajamas, teeth brushed, and the comforter on his bed turned down, James heard the music again. It was the song he’d heard on the street, before those kids had stumbled by, engrossed by their devices. It was very faint, but it sounded as if it was coming from close by, just outside perhaps, or –

From inside of his closet?

He turned slowly, saw the closet was shut tight, and almost brushed off the whole silly idea, when he realized there was a light coming from underneath the edge of the door. It didn’t look quite like the familiar yellow glow of the light that had been in there for years. It was… smokier, somehow.

The music changed, or deepened? Layered in with the organ was… James wasn’t sure.

He carefully lowered himself to a crawling position, putting his head almost on the floor, but from across the room, he couldn’t see anything unusual.

On hands and knees, James inched toward the closet door.

He smelled popcorn.

He went closer, close enough he could reach out and touch the light that splashed onto his rug, if he wanted to. The extra sound, he knew then, was the muffled chatter of people, dozens or hundred of people, milling around in a small space. He knew that sound from somewhere deep in his childhood, a place long boxed up, put away, and forgotten about.

From under the door, a small blue rectangle of cardboard shot out, gliding over the floor and coming to a stop right under James’ noise. He picked it up, turned it over, and read exactly the words he expected to see:

Admit One.

Richard Baron asked me to write a story about an unseen carnival, and this is the result. It’s another “long” flash story, at 1207 words. The name comes from the title of a 1976 album by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, which included “Blinded by the Light”, my favorite carnival-related rock song (even if it’s a more-fun cover of an unsuccessful Springsteen original).

The feeling I wanted to capture — of distancing yourself from everyone and everything, only to feel something’s missing that you can’t quite put your finger on… that’s just life, for too many folks.

I think it doesn’t have to be.

If you liked this and want to inspire your own story, you can get on the list by donating any amount via my PayPal, here:

You can read more about that, including last year’s flash stories, here.

Monday’s story was Mrs. Lesley and the Campers of Troop 83 Vs The Giant Blacklegged Tick of Contrary Knob.

Free Flash Fiction: “Mrs. Lesley Vs the Tick”

Okay, so this one is about 1250 words, which is definitely pushing the limits of “flash” fiction, but I had so much fun writing it I just wanted to keep going. #SFWAPro

Today’s story prompt is courtesy of Jason Sizemore (from Apex Magazine), who wanted to “gift” his editor Lesley Conner with a story about her, a camping trip, and a really big tick…

Mrs. Lesley and the Campers of Troop 83 Vs The Giant Blacklegged Tick of Contrary Knob

The sun beat down on the campers of Troop 83 as they dropped their gear heavily to the ground, and with the kind of sighs only weary teenage boys can make, flopped beside their packs. Only their substitute troop leader seemed energetic. She stood near the edge of the clearing, looking out over the wide valley, and the twisting path they’d all just climbed up the mountain.

“Isn’t it beautiful, boys?” She spread her arms wide. “Look at that view!”

Behind her, the campers struggled to get upright. An older child raised a hand with his thumb up, but fell over with a thud.

“Mrs. Lesley?” one red-haired boy called out.

“Dude, her first name is Lesley,” the boy next to him whispered loudly. “She has the same last name as me and Quinn.”

“It’s okay, Bradley,” his mother said to him, and to the rest said, “You kids can call me Mrs. Lesley if you want. What do you need, Jonathan?”

Jonathan stood up, pulling a dark-haired boy up with him. He signed as he spoke, his hands moving along with the words.

“We need to eat dinner,” he said. He looked at the other boy, who signed back at him. “Matty would like some more water, please.”

“Who here has their Wilderness Cookout badge?” Lesley asked, looking at Matty so he could see her lips move. He raised his hand; Jonathan and another boy did, too.

“Okay, you,” Lesley said, pointing, “and Jimmy, you three can be my helpers. Why don’t the rest of you set up the tents?”

Jimmy, who’d been using his pack as a pillow, said, “Yes, ma’am!” and stood. He stretched dramatically, making a show of bending and reaching, until Lesley had turned away to start a campfire. “You guys figure it out,” he hissed suddenly. “Are we still doing this or what?” He jogged to the fire, throwing one last glance at the rest of the boys over his shoulder.

“Gather around,” Bradley said loudly, so his mother could hear. When the campers were huddled up, he lowered his voice. “Did everyone bring their assigned supplies?”

“Mr. Brad isn’t here,” Quinn said. “We can’t sneak off with Mom watching us.”

“Mr. Brad told us the whole plan,” Bradly shot back. “We’re already here. We can’t just go camping with that thing out there, eating deer and dogs.”

“I don’t know,” another boy — David — said. “It’s not the same without Mr. Brad.”

“Well, he broke his leg, and it’s going to be another 6 weeks before he can walk,” Kendrick whispered. “If we wait, it’ll already be summer.”

“Yeah,” Bradly agreed, “and who knows what the monster will eat next. Maybe some campers,” he added with a knowing look.

The others nodded.

“Do you kids need help with the tents?” Lesley called out.

“No!” they all yelled back at once.

“Let’s do the tents and then we can check over the supplies after dinner,” Quinn said. The rest agreed, and broke off to put their Tent and Lean-To badges to work.

Later, after a dinner of hot dogs and cheesy pasta, and an hour of singing campfire songs while Matty and Jonathan made them all s’mores, the sun had set. The boys said goodnight to their substitute troop leader and pretended to go back to their separate tents. When it was much, much, darker outside – darker than a power outage, darker than an iPod with a dead battery – they snuck out of their pup tents with their secret stash of supplies, and met up a few hundred yards away, where the trees blocked any view Mrs. Lesley might have of their flashlights, if she was still awake.

Quinn scribbled on a notepad while his older brother held the light over the page, and the other boys crowded around to read.

“Show what you’ve got,” it said.

One by one, the boys pulled out an assortment pulled from kitchen drawers and the backs of closets: three magnesium road flares, a package of yellow rubber gloves, a half-box of wooden matches, a fancy chef’s cleaver, still in its black box. That last was from Jimmy, who grinned as he handed it over.

“Any other weapons?” Quinn wrote.

A pause, then the others shook their heads. Jonathan waved his hand until Quinn handed the notepad over, then wrote:

“I have two bug bombs and a can of tick repellent!!” And next to it, a drawing of a six-legged bug with Xs for eyes.

David laughed when he saw it, but was quickly shushed.

Bradley took the notepad and pencil away. “I have the map and the compass,” he wrote. “Let’s go.”

Suddenly, from out in the darkness: Snap!

For a moment, no one moved a muscle.

“What was that?” David whispered. Matty shook his head, frowning, so David repeated it in sign, and added, “Sorry.”

“A bear?” Matty signed back.

The boys listened, but heard nothing.

Suddenly, they were bathed in light.

“No, honey, I’m not a bear,” Mrs. Lesley said.

“Mom, I can explain –” Bradley started, but she raised her hand to stop him.

“Oh, I know what you’re doing out here. You’ll all planning to get yourselves killed,” she said. “Back to camp. Now.”

When the campers were once again seated around the fire, their substitute troop leader looked over their pilfered supplies. She sighed a couple of times, checked the map more than once, and sighed again.

“I suppose Brad thought this would be enough for you to take on the Giant Blacklegged Tick of Contrary Knob,” she said finally. “Normally, I’d say you have to treat your troop leaders with respect, but there’s a reason that man broke his leg changing a flat tire.”

Matty was the first to speak up, signing, “You knew? You’re…” he paused, fidgeting.

“A mom?” she said as she signed back. “Yes I am. Do you boys know what else I am?”

They shook their heads no.

“I’m a lifetime member of the Scouts, and I have my Battle Bugs merit badge.” She smiled widely. “My troop took down the Devouring Tuber Worms of Red Marble Corner in ‘85.”

“So, you’re not mad at us?” Quinn asked quietly.

“Well, I’m mad that you were going to go charging off without a decent plan or real weapons,” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “But mostly I’m going to to have a word with Brad about that when we get home.”

Bradley jumped up. “We can’t just go home!” he exclaimed. “We still have to take down the Tick. It’s eating dogs and deer and, and – it’s going to get people next.”

“We have to do something, Mom,” Quinn added.

Lesley shook her head, turned, and stepped into her tent.

Matty signed, questioning, and David shrugged his shoulders in reply.

She reappeared a moment later, dragging a large duffle back heavily across the ground. “Of course we’re going to do something about it, boys,” she said, and opened the bag.

Inside, a pile of sharp metal edges glinted in the firelight.

“Wow, Mrs. Lesley,” Jonathan said. “That’s a lot of swords.”

“There’s a few axes in there, too,” David said.

“I also have my Weaponsmith merit badge,” Lesley said. She carefully picked out a faded scout sash, completely covered in bright-colored patches, and put it on.

“All right, boys. Choose a weapon, gather around, and listen up. You’re going to do exactly as I say…”


If you liked this and want to inspire your own story, you can get on the list by donating any amount via my PayPal, here:

You can read more, including last year’s flash stories, here.

10 Questions About My Writing, Answered

I saw this series of questions going around Twitter, but rather than answer them individually in under 140 characters, behold! A blog post.

1. What kind of writer are you?

I am the sort of writer who writes everything (nonfiction, fiction, essays, articles, literary stories and every other genre marketers have come up with to date), has more story ideas than time, and who genuinely loves everything about the writing process except the fact that it doesn’t pay the bills.

I am the sort of writer who can’t afford to be a writer full-time, not yet, and I miss writing when I’m not, but I feel incredibly guilty when I write for myself instead of the forty other things on my To-Do list at that moment.

I am the sort of writer who’s comfortable being known as a short story writer, or a novelist, or a journalist, or any other flavor of writer, as long as at the end of my life, I’ve completed enough good, solid, work that it can be accumulated into a collection worth reading.

I’m the sort of writer who’s in no particular rush to be famous, but I love hearing when my writing made you feel or see something new, or remember something forgotten, or reconsider yourself. I want to know that at least one other person has gotten out of my words what I put into it. That, and eventually being able to write my way into a decent paycheck and a saving account, are all I want from my writing life.

2. What was it that made you become a writer?

As far as I know, I’ve always been one. When I was very small, before preschool, I was writing stories and drawing pictures, like most little kids do. The first story I clearly remember: I was 4 years old. It was about the life of a unicorn named Fred, who was of course a girl; I wrote it in pencil, on pages and pages of that cheap wide-ruled paper you’re supposed to practice your handwriting on. I illustrated it, too.

I remember being told that my writing was very good, but my art wasn’t, and deciding that okay, I wouldn’t be an artist, but I could keep writing. Up until that point, I’d struggled to make people care about or hear what I had to say, but this story, written down on paper instead of words coming out of my mouth, my mom liked. For a minute, we had connected. I felt understood.

I wanted that feeling forever.

3. Are you super critical of your own work?

It depends on the piece. When I know it’s good writing, it tends to be easier to write; I’m not self-editing every other word, and I enjoy the process of getting the story out onto the page. I write quickly, revise only a little, and am happy with the finished product.

Other times, it takes me years to finish a story, because I know it’s not quite right before I’ve even written it. I’m going to turn it around in my head, let my lizard brain grapple with it, for as long as it takes to figure out what’s wrong. Sometimes, I don’t ever figure it out, and I’m not comfortable sharing those “broken” stories with the world.

4. What do you do to combat writers block?

For me, “writers block” means “I don’t want to write the thing I’m trying to force myself to write”, so I stop trying to write it. I either recognize that there’s something else I want to write more, and jump onto that, or I can see that the piece I’m struggling with isn’t working because I don’t know enough. I have a great setting but I don’t have the plot, or I haven’t done enough research, so I go back to the drawing board and hammer out the missing pieces.

After I’ve written the other thing, or fixed the problem with the thing I’m balking about, it tends to be a lot easier for me to write what I’d intended to do first.

Continue reading

Mifune and Shimura in Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI: The Father and the Son

If you haven’t read “Toshiro Mifune, and Akira Kurosawa’s “NORA INU / STRAY DOG”, please check that out first. Next, read Takashi Shimura, and Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON. This post is a continuation of those thoughts.

If I’ve wrtten at all the way I think it sounds in my head, by now you’re starting to get a sense that Kurosawa is using these two actors, Mifune and Shimura, to make a point. He’s telling us something, tied together across multiple films. In Seven Samurai, the dynamic between them becomes clear.

In his book about Kurosawa, Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro quotes the original film pamphlet for Seven Samurai: “What a wonderful thing if one can construct a grand action film without sacrificing the portrayal of humans.”(1) Here Mifune plays “Lord Kikuchiyo”, the outcast son in this film, the orphaned farmer boy who never quite becomes an accepted member of the samurai “family”. Shimura plays Kambei Shimada, the head of the group and the ideal leader figure: the other samurai join up because they recognize Kambei as a leader/father.(2)

As Gorobei says, though the plight of the farmers was moving, “it was your character that I am most interested in”.

Kikuchiyo, along with the others, is impressed by the quick and skillful way that Kambei dispatched the thief and saved the kidnapped child. He draws the dead thief’s sword in jubilation, waving it about while he shouts cheerfully. He then follows Kambei out of the village and seems about to talk to him when Katsushiro Okamoto (played by Kimura Isao) runs up, throws himself to the ground, and begs to become Kambei’s disciple, effectively taking the place of the son-figure and leaving Kikuchiyo as the outsider.

Both Katsushiro and Kikuchiyo have unshaven heads, showing them to be youths, and both are desperate for recognition. Kambei accepts Katsushiro as a samurai but questions Kikuchiyo’s credentials, shaming the man before leading Katsushiro away. Kikuchiyo tries several times to win the Kambei’s respect and gain a place as a member of the samurai family group, with little success. He brings the haul of dead samurai armor and weapons, expecting to be praised, and is angry when he is rebuked. Mifune’s well-played insecure warrior rants about farmers then reverses and defends their actions as being the only way to deal with the violence of samurai. When Kambei, in a moment of compassion, points out that he realizes “Lord Kikuchiyo” was actually born a farmer, the younger man flees.

In the next scene, Katsushiro walks over to Kikuchiyo, apparently to complement his armor (he is smiling but not laughing) but Kikuchiyo storms off, unable to handle another possible criticism. In this way he is like a stray dog, one that has been kicked too many times, and who shies away from even a gentle hand for fear of being kicked again.

“Throughout his career Kurosawa has preferred to let his films speak for him.”(3)

As both the director and editor on his films, he had the power to use his cinematography and editing to support his narrative vision.  The first time that the viewer sees the character of Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai, it appears to be the first time that Kambei sees him as well. The freshly shaven samurai turns to the watching crowd and sees Kikuchiyo sitting on the ground, scratching his chest. Kikuchiyo leans forward expectantly, but Kambei turns away to confront the thief hiding in the barn.

In the following sequence of shots, Kikuchiyo pushes his way past the front; Kurosawa cuts to a scene of Kikuchiyo performing almost the same exact movement to get past the next set of watchers. The reverse shot is from a much lower angle and looks up from the ground to see Kikuchiyo (from behind) kick over a bucket for a seat while Kambei speaks to the desperate thief. Visually, Kikuchiyo is always positioned as the outsider: when the group of samurai initially enters the village, Kikuchiyo sits on a fence behind the others, laughing, while they stand stoically.

A “conspicuous formal trait that foregrounds the individuality of key characters,” evident in all three of these films, is Kurosawa’s use of “an extreme close-up of their faces.”(4) This individuality allows the characters the range to express themselves as both narrative figures and pieces of Kurosawa’s father-son dynamic, since they are not constricted by being forced to fit into a limited group stereotype.

Kurosawa shows the difference between Detective Murakami and Kikuchiyo in several ways. In Stray Dog, Mifune’s character pursues the “stray dog” and in Seven Samurai he is the stray dog. Mifune is hit over the head by Katsushiro (drunk, after a fight “fought like a wild dog”) and then confronts Shimura. Katsushiro runs off with his sword and they chase each other around the room like squabbling brothers. The other samurai play “keep away” with Mifune/sword. Shimura dismisses the passed out Mifune as a samurai “in his own mind”.

The next morning, the group leaves Mifune behind. Later, when they notice him following them, they try to shoo him off like a stray dog. When they view the new flag, Kikuchiyo is the triangle while the other 6 men (not counting Katsushiro) are circles, showing that he is not like them and will never be like them.

Mifune’s character in Stay Dog is able to redeem himself and win admiration from the father substitute. However, Shimura never takes in the character that Mifune plays in Rashomon, so the bandit suffers from having no one to teach or defend him. In Seven Samurai, Mifune’s aspiring samurai is eventually respected by Shimura’s Kambei, but only after sacrificing himself in a battle to save the villagers. He quite literally has to die in order to gain his father’s affection. However, Yoshimoto points out that without Kikuchiyo, and true alliance between the samurai and the villagers may not have been possible, a perspective that no one within the film’s narrative seems to grasp. (5)

Footnotes:

(1) Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto. Kurosawa. Duke University Press, 2000. Pg 240.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Alan Jaffe. “Review: [Untitled] / Something like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa and Audie E. Bock.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Summer, 1983). University of California Press pp. 25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3697093

(4) Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto. Kurosawa. Duke University Press, 2000. Pg 242.

(5) Ibid. Pg 241.

Update: My Mythos collection, “Black Mud Sun, Blood Red Sea”, is nearly done!

Last year, I held a small fundraiser to help me pay for college. If I met my goal, I’d release a collection of HPL-inspired Mythos fiction: five stories, two of which were previously published by Chaosium, and another three that hadn’t been seen before.

Because I didn’t meet my goal, I couldn’t afford to take time off to focus solely on the collection, but I have been writing on it whenever I could sneak a spare moment. And now the writing is done!

I actually wrote four new, original, stories, so everyone who contributed to the campaign will get six short stories all together, plus a podcast of me reading one of them.

I shared three excerpts online:

The three other new stories are:

  • “Black Mud Sun”, about a small team of cosmonauts investigating a mysterios rift in space…
  • “Blood Red Sea”, a classic HPL-style Mythos adventure set in the 1800s, when a sailing ship could still find places no man has ever been…
  • “When It All Falls Through”, where the right drink poured for a customer on the right stool, in the right bar, could go so very wrong…

Right now, I’m working my way through revisions, artwork, and putting the whole thing together. I’m planning to have it done to release this summer. So, if you contributed already, yay! You’ll have the book soon.

If you didn’t get a chance to buy your copy, you still can, by pre-ordering it via PayPal for $2 — OR, if you’d like to contribute more, and get bigger rewards (original art, editing services, my perpetual adoration) you can do so by donating directly to me here.

$5 or more: You’ll receive the ebook and podcast, when it’s ready.

$20 or more: I’ll beta read a short story – under 8000 words – for you. Any genre. (You can select this reward now and redeem it at a future date.)

$50 or more: There’s more than a few victims of foul play in these stories. Donate $50, and you get to name one of them. (A vaguely reasonable human name, please.)

$75 or more: Donate this amount, and I’ll send you the signed original of a b/w line drawing I’m creating as interior art for this collection.

I’ve turned off last year’s GoFundMe, but the reward levels are still the same; I want everyone to get the same benefits. Just leave me a note with your donation so I know which reward you want!

And, if you’re interested in beta reading one of the stories, please email me and let me know. You get to read one early, and I would appreciate the feedback.

As always, thank you for your support.

 

Takashi Shimura, and Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON

If you haven’t read “Toshiro Mifune, and Akira Kurosawa’s “NORA INU / STRAY DOG”, please check that out first. This post is a continuation of that thought.

Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune are the two actors most closely associated with Akira Kurosawa’s work. Shimura had perhaps the longest run as an actor under Kurosawa, beginning before the end of World War II, and continuing until the end of his life (in 1982).

Susumu Fujita as Sanshiro Sugata

Shimura appeared in the director’s debut film Sanshiro Sugata (1943), and the last film of Kurosawa’s in which he acted was Kagemusha (1980); Kurosawa specifically wrote a part for him. His roles include the doctor in Drunken Angel (1948), the veteran detective in Stray Dog (1949), the flawed lawyer in Scandal (1950),  the mortally ill bureaucrat in Ikiru (1952), and the lead samurai Kambei in Seven Samurai (1954).

He was known for his “impressive and beautifully modulated performance(s),” and that acting ability helped Kurosawa elevate movies like Drunken Angel into a multi-faceted film that William Bernhardt suggested was, “a deeper probing of postwar Japanese life than one expected in a story of a tubercular petty racketeer and the drunken doctor who tries to save him despite himself.”(1)

Japanese poster for Rashomon

Rashomon (1950) is a story about how impossible it is to find truth in human memory, since the various views of the past are presented as being both similar and vastly different. The death of a samurai and possible rape of his wife are pinned on the young bandit Tajōmaru, portrayed by Mifune, while Shimura takes the role of a nameless Woodcutter. The Woodcutter is the only character who is both at the scene of the crime, and at the discussion of it afterwards, but the character shows us that knowing the truth doesn’t matter if you don’t come forward when necessary.

Tajōmaru, fearing dishonor more than death, boasts of killing the samurai but the dead man’s ghost swears otherwise. Just as he refused to admit that he’d fallen from the stolen horse he did not know how to ride, Tajōmaru refuses to admit that he was both afraid to fight a trained samurai and disinterested in fighting for the man’s wife.(2)

Kazuo Miyagawa, the cinematographer, did amazing things with focal length, light, and shadow, in this film.

Shimura, as the Woodcutter, could have stepped in to be Tajōmaru’s surrogate father. He knows how the murder actually happened but because he stole (and sold) the samurai’s knife, he lies about what he knows in order to save himself.

In this role, Shimura is cast as the abandoning father, opposite to the supportive, caring, men he played in Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. He has six children of his own at home that he is trying to support, so he clearly knows the importance of looking out for the younger generation — considered an important aspect of the ideal man — but chooses to ignore that ideal in this case.

The young bandit could have been saved if the Woodcutter had spoken the truth at the trial. It is this betrayal that Shimura’s character tries to redeem by adopting an abandoned baby at the end of the film, but is that act enough?

Kurosawa’s direction and Shimura’s superb acting certainly imply that if the Woodcutter hasn’t found redemption by that point, there is hope for his future. What seems a very cynical film — lies, selfishness, wrongful convictions — closes on a shot of the sun coming out from behind the clouds after the rain.

That moment becomes a cliche over time, as a thousand filmmakers used it as a kind of shorthand in later films, but just then, it’s a relatively new way to show good fortune smiling down on us. Everything you’ve endured watching Rashomon through to that ending is worth it. Every misgiving you feel about humanity is lessened, a little, by knowing we can make the wrong choice, but that doesn’t stop us from making the right choice the next chance we get.

Would it have felt the same if the Woodcutter had been played by Mifune instead? Do we need Shimura’s age and depth to convince us that his complexity is real?

Shimura as the Woodcutter

Rashomon won several awards, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards in 1952, and is now considered one of the greatest films ever made.

If you haven’t seen it yet, make the time.

Footnotes:

(1) Donald Richie. “A Personal Record,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Autumn, 1960), University of California Press. pp. 26.

(2) James F. Davidson, The Antioch Review, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Winter, 1954), pp. 492-501

Note: While the film borrows the title and setting from Ryūnosuke Akutagawa‘s short story “Rashōmon“, it is actually based on Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove“, which provides the characters and plot.

Starting my 2017 Flash Fiction Challenge — Tell me what you want to read!

I’m ready. Let’s do this.

#SFWAPro

Last year, I did a little fiction challenge, where I got ideas from various people, and wrote five flash-length stories. Those were:

This year, I’d like to expand on that challenge to do more than five stories. I also have a few annual bills due this month — and my car died/had to be hauled off — which is straining my budget. Rather than just ask for help from my readers and friends, I thought, “Why not give you something for your money?”

If you donate any amount through my PayPal link, add a note which tells me what you want to see in your story, and I’ll write it! Plus, I’ll mention you when I share it online, and email it to you for approval before posting it here on my site. (Unless you let me know you don’t want that.)

You can give me a phrase, like “Dachshunds from Mars”, or individual prompts, like “forest stream, tall and short, violet, bunny, moons.” You can give me a name you’d like me to use for a character, or tell me what genre/time period your story should be in.*

I’ll keep this open until I’ve got enough topics to write about. Tell your friends!

 

* I reserve the right to say no, but as long as your ideas don’t include gratuitous sex or violence against vulnerable people, I probably won’t.