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.

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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.