short story

Flash Fiction: “Germ”

Submitted for your consideration.

Germ

By the end of winter, feeding everyone was a challenge. All the berries, roots and nuts they’d saved from the summer were long gone and the snow covered anything fresh that might have survived the cold. True, the men and boys hunted nearly every day. Occasionally, they’d bring back a deer to feast upon, but mostly it was rabbits and squirrels.

Just enough to keep them alive.

“Magpie?” her mother said, looking up from the stew she was building over the cook fire. Her brother had snared a rabbit today. “Could you look in the bins and see if there’s any more rice?”

“Yes, Mama.”

Magpie set aside the beadwork she’d been working on and went to the stack of rawhide food containers, though she didn’t think there would be much to find. They’d done everything but scrape the bottoms for a week now.

“Sometimes they like to hide down in the seams.”

Magpie glanced up at her mother. How did she do that?

“Yes, Mama,” she said.

She quickly set aside the container that held what was left of their dried meat and looked through the others for the remains of the rice.

“It is growing warmer every day,” her father said behind her. He was sitting with her older brother beside the fire, warming themselves after a long day trudging through the snow in a fruitless hunt. It was her younger brother who’d snared the rabbit. “The snow is beginning to melt.”

Her brother agreed. “The creeks are running fresh with snowmelt, the willow budding. Soon, the grass will show green again.”

Magpie found the rice container and untied the bindings. The people of her village had spent many days in late summer and early fall gathering the tiny grains from the edges of the lakes around their summer camp. Everyone helped, from the oldest grandfather to the youngest toddler, either with the gathering of the seeds, husking them, or spreading the seeds in the sun to dry. Yet, as hard as everyone worked, there never seemed to be enough.

They always ended up hungry.

She pulled the flaps open and peered inside the container. As she’d expected, it was empty. But she remembered what her mother had said and tipped the container until the fire light fell on the seams at each of the four sides. Sure enough, little grains of rice hid there in the seams.

She tried using her finger to scoop them out and loosened a few, but most seemed to dig further into the seam.

“Something fresh would make this soup so much better.” Her mother said.

“Soon enough. Soon enough,” her father told her. “With the next moon. Earlier if the snow keeps melting.”

Magpie turned the container over and tapped it on the packed earth of the lodge floor. A few of the grains came loose. She hit it again, harder, but only dislodged a few more.

“Are you having trouble, Magpie?” he mother asked.

“No, Mama,” she said. “I’ve got it.”

She slipped the small knife from its sheath at her waist and used the tip of the blade to pry the seeds from the seams of the container. Within a few moments she’d dislodged all the remaining grains of rice.

Magpie returned her knife to its sheath and began to pick the tiny grains of rice from the packed earth floor.

One of the seeds caught her attention. It was different. She separated it from the others and held it up into the light to examine it closer. It looked like the seed had split down the middle and a little white finger grown out of it. The end of the finger had just a touch of green.

It looked like the sprouts that appeared everywhere when the snow went away.

The wispy shadow of an idea began to form in her mind.

“Magpie?” her mother said. “What are you doing?”

“I’m coming,” she said. But before returning to her mother, she set the strange kernel aside, safe from the soup.

The End

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writing, Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Writing Across Cultures

Recently, as I fitfully work on a new project (fitfully, because I’m having trouble getting into the flow) I’ve been doing preliminary research for something else. Though it is still in the early stages, this work would be historical in nature, though probably similar in terms of suspense and all that.

This subject has always been near and dear to my heart and would be a true “work of the heart” should I undertake it. Notice I said “should” I undertake it. Because I find myself hesitant to even try to write the story I have in mind. Why?

I hesitate because writing in the point of view of a culture different from my own is difficult. It can be very difficult.

I came face-to-face with this problem when I attempted a short story recently about a group of Neolithic (stone-age) people. My story had a group of hunters returning from a hunt when a boy from the village runs up, out of breath, and tells them someone stole a baby and took it up into the hills. The men, naturally, are alarmed and ask the boy a simple and (at the time) perfectly reasonable question: “when (how long ago) did it happen?”

And I ran into a figurative brick wall. See, I suddenly realized that the boy couldn’t answer the question. Not only that, but the hunter wouldn’t have asked it. Not only did neither have watches or clocks, but neither stone-age person would think of time in that way. They would have no concept of hours or minutes.

I was writing a story set in the stone-age, but still thinking as a 21st Century white, American man. To do the story justice, I needed to think prehistorically.

It was a difference of cultures. We simply experience the world differently and that changes everything, including our fiction.

Whether we like it, or not, we are all the products of our cultures. Everything from the way we were raised, to where we live, who are friends were and are, to our schooling, to our language and collective history inform the people we are. It colors the way we approach the world around us and affects what we expect from that world.

Normally, this isn’t much of an issue because writing about our culture and its idiosyncrasies is what we do. The trouble comes when we leave the familiar trappings of our own culture and try to write from another.

What could possibly go wrong, right?

Well, there are three things in my mind.

First, we could get the (other) culture so wrong that the results are laughable. (In my mind, I could write nothing worse than a parody that wasn’t meant to be a parody.)

Second, we could get it wrong and immediately lose credibility with those who know the culture well.

Third, and perhaps worst of all, we could get it wrong in such a way that the result is an insult to the culture we’d tried to portray.

Personally, I do not write about anything I don’t care about and that includes cultures. I write because I want to bring something about the culture, whether it’s my own or another, to life for the reader. I feel it is important. The absolutely last thing I want is to get it wrong.

So I’m hesitating to write this new work. I’m afraid of making a mess of it.

So don’t make a mess of it.

How?

Well, the first tactic is too approach whatever we write with all the imagination we can muster. Which means, as in my story about the stone-age people I mentioned earlier, I must place myself totally (in my imagination, anyway) in the world they live in. This means not just in what they see and hear, but in what they think about, what they fear, what they hope for. I need to know what they believe life is all about. Only then can I hope to render my tale with accuracy and compassion.

Of course, we should be doing this with everything we write, shouldn’t we? So there has to be something else.

There is.

Research. Lots of research.

I cannot stress this enough. If you’re going to write something which takes place in a different culture (which includes a different time period. The culture of our parents’ youth is different than that of today. Just listen to the music.) you cannot possibly do too much research. You need to know everything. You need to know things you don’t know you need to know.

For example, you’re writing a love story set in Napoleon-era France and a key scene is just before the Battle of Waterloo. You need to know everything you can about the French army of the times, the uniforms, and the command structure. You will also need to know what weapons the various soldiers will carry, how the military camps are set up, what the soldiers do to pass their down time, what they eat. You probably need to know what the weather was like.

Okay, cool, you’ve got all that.

But do you know what landmarks a soldier would see looking South out of camp? West? Do all the soldiers support their Emperor? What about their families back home? What songs do they sing? What stories are told around the campfire? What books are read? For that matter, how many soldiers can even read?

You can never know too much. Never. Even if a particular fact, such as the most popular song at the time, never actually comes into your story, knowing what that song is and who likes it gives you a better knowledge of the culture.

There is one other option we could take to avoid screwing up our rendition of an alien culture. That is to make our rendition of the culture truly alien, as in Science Fiction and/or Fantasy alien. No one can accuse us of getting the culture wrong if it is (at least on the surface) wholly invented. It does limit the impact of any social statements we may wish to make. But it lessens the risk too.

At this point, I’m still going with the research and realistic rendition route. In my mind, the Fantasy option will only come in when and if I find nothing else works. So I’m doing research. Once I gather enough information to feel comfortable, I will put pen to paper (or word to processor) and see where it leads me.

Stay tuned.

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Writing advice

Anachronisms

I was working on a short story the other day, a tale of suspense set in a neolithic society when I realized there was a problem with my narrative that brought my efforts to a halt. I found that I made statements like: “it took about fifteen minutes to return to the village” and “(the attack) happened an hour, or so, ago”. Those were just two examples of the narrative and they wouldn’t work. They wouldn’t work at all.

Why, you might ask? The examples seem to be fairly reasonable narrative statements.

They are, normally. But in the context of the story I am trying to write, set in neolithic times and told from the point of view of one of those neolithic characters, the time-frame references are anachronistic.

The characters in my story live in pre-industrial, hunter/gatherer culture (which is part of the premise of the story). As such, they neither had, nor had ever come into contact with, watches, clocks, chronometers or any other modern method of measuring time. They would, therefore, have no concept of “minutes,” or “hours.” Certainly not as we do in a modern culture.

Once I recognized the problem, the phrase “it took about fifteen minutes to return to the village” no longer worked. It had no meaning in my characters’ world. It was invalid.

It destroyed the illusion of reality.

Much of what we labor over as writers is a matter of rendering an imagined reality in such a way that our readers can successfully feel they are experiencing it. To do this, they must be willing and able to suspend their disbelief. Anachronisms do more than anything to destroy that suspension.

In Stephen King’s 1975 novel ‘Salem’s Lot, there is a scene where the protagonist, Ben Mears, picks up a revolver and switches the safety to “off.” Unfortunately, anyone familiar with firearms would know that revolvers (with very few exceptions) do not have safeties. It was a factual error and broke the illusion he’d so wonderfully created of the reality of vampires in small town America.

Fortunately, it wasn’t a bad enough mistake to, in my opinion, ruin the novel. Others would probably disagree.

Still, nothing destroys the illusion of reality quicker than anachronisms and sometimes they can be very sneaky. Slang, idioms, and figures of speech are particularly tricky because they are quite often taken from a particular time. Someone during the American Revolution would not urge another to “Take off! Run!” because the term “take off” refers to human flight. And, of course, human flight (in balloons) didn’t occur until the1800’s.

It pays us authors to watch closely any and all idioms for just such anachronisms.

Now, back to my story. I have identified the anachronism in my tale and think I may have a solution to it. The question I have left, and I still don’t exactly have an answer, is how do I create suspense in a story without an exacting measure of time running out?

That one I’m still working on.

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short story

Warrior. A Short Story

This story is from a few years ago. My first and only foray into historical fiction. Hope you enjoy.

Warrior

The great warrior had not slept much that night. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept well. When the first faint glow of light appeared on the east wall of his lodge, he slipped from his bed roll and into a shirt, leggings and pair of fur-lined moccasins. He draped a buffalo robe over his shoulders and, careful not to disturb any of the figures asleep around the embers of the fire, stepped out of the lodge.

It was very cold outside. A blizzard the day before had dropped more than a hand’s breath of fresh snow on the ridges, the leafless cottonwoods along the creek, and on the lodges. But that had been yesterday. Now the air was dry and the sky clear. His breath formed clouds of mist that hung in the air around his head.

Nothing else moved about the camp, except the smoke from a handful of cooking fires. The winter cold had even driven the camp dogs to shelter.

He wrapped the robe tighter around himself and trudged between the sleeping lodges toward the creek. The only sound that followed him was the crunching of his feet on the frozen snow. It was as if the North wind had frozen everything in its path, even sound itself.

He could have been the only thing left alive.

A crack like a rifle shot echoed over the hills and his hand instantly went to the pistol on his belt. But there was no following shot, nor volley of shots, no bugle calls, no thundering charge of horses. When the report sounded again, he recognized it not as a rifle shot, but as a cottonwood bough snapping under the weight of the fresh snow.

A horse whinnied in the distance and another snorted. Farther away, a coyote barked then was silent.

He crossed the frozen creek, then began to climb the ridge on the far side. At first, he moved easily where the gnarled cottonwood and chokecherry thickets kept the heaviest snow from the ground, then with more effort as he passed out onto the open face of the ridge. Here the snow was knee-deep and unbroken by recent travelers. Each step was a frigid exercise in strength and balance. By the time he reached the summit of the ridge, he was breathing hard and his thigh muscles burned. But now he stood on top of the heights overlooking the camp and the country surrounding it.

He turned in a slow, complete circle, scanning the snow-covered landscape for anything out of the ordinary. He did not see anything moving, particularly no column of dark soldiers moving across the unspoiled whiteness intent on killing and burning.

For the moment, they appeared to be safe.

Wolf Mountain had taught him to be extraordinarily careful. He had felt secure there amid the cover of another snowstorm, thinking even Bearcoat Miles and his soldiers would be waiting out the storm within their stockade. That mistake had cost them several lives and most of their winter food supply.

But nothing moved now over the snowy landscape. Nothing at all.

He turned and gazed down at the two hundred or so lodges strung out amid the cottonwoods on the far side of the creek. A few freshening columns of smoke had appeared as women kindled fires and began to prepare breakfasts from what little food they had left.

Somewhere down there, hidden from his view at the moment, two men slept in the lodge of the Kit Fox Warrior Society. They had ridden into camp the previous afternoon, exhausted and half-frozen, with a message from Red Cloud and the soldier chief at Fort Robinson.

The message was that if he and his followers came into Fort Robinson and surrendered their weapons, they would be given food and shelter. Moreover, they would not have to move to the barren lands of the reservation on the Missouri River, but would be given their own agency at Ft. Robinson on the Platte.

If true, it was a tempting offer. There was game on the Platte, deer and elk mostly, but enough to feed them, and grass for their ponies. It was a tempting offer, but there had been so many offers over the years, so many promises broken. Instinctively, he did not trust the white men and doubted he ever would.

As the morning sun rose into the empty blue sky, it kicked up a gentle breeze that pushed grains of snow like frozen sand across the ridge. The horizon seemed to blur. He moved his feet to keep the circulation going. It was the only gesture acknowledging the numbness creeping into his toes and fingers, the end of his nose.

He had long ago vowed to never follow the white man’s way, to live a free Lakota, as his father and grandfather had and many people had chosen to follow him. He had never really understood why. He knew he was spoken of as brave around the campfires, but he knew he was no more brave than a hundred other Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, even many whites. And he didn’t consider himself nearly as brave as the women who had stretched two weeks worth of meat into meals for two months and the children who quietly accepted their empty bellies.

The village was awakening now. Cooking fires burned by the dozen and figures moved between lodges as women prepared meals, children played or began their chores, and small groups of men and boys moved off in search of whatever game they could find. He couldn’t see them, but he knew another group of men, the elected and appointed leaders of the camp, would be gathering in the lodge of the Big Bellies to discuss the offer from the soldier chief. It was they, the governing council, who would decide to accept or reject the offer.

But he also knew they would decide nothing without hearing his opinion.

And the Council’s decision was not binding. Each family was perfectly free to go or stay as they chose.

He still did not know what he would tell them.

He sent a brief prayer to Wakan Tanka, the creator spirit, asking for guidance, then started trudging back down toward the camp.

His wife glanced up as he entered their lodge. She was stirring stew over the cook fire and showed no surprise at his having been out so early, nor did she question where he had gone.

“There are dry moccasins and leggings,” was all she said. “You should eat something.”

“I’m not hungry,” he told her as he slipped out of his wet moccasins and into the dry ones.

She handed him a bowl of stew.

He took it with a small smile and squatted down to eat the watery, almost meatless stew. She had just kept adding water, vegetables, and who knows what else to keep it going. It was her magic and it was delicious.

“Has the Council been called yet?”

She nodded and sat down beside him. “They won’t do anything until they hear from you. You know that.”

He nodded.

For a few moments they sat in silence, he eating the stew, while she stared off as though watching something only she could see. They had been husband and wife for several winters now, long enough to be comfortable with each other and as comfortable in silence as they were in conversation. Their only regret was that they had not been blessed with children.

Under the present circumstances however, that could be blessing too.

“Maybe the whites will change their minds,” she finally said. “Maybe when the spring comes, they will bring another treaty and stop the fighting.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“They did after the Thieve’s Road.”

Nearly ten year’s before, when he was scarcely more then a boy, his people, under the leadership of Red Cloud and Spotted Tail had forced the whites out of the beloved Powder River country. It had been one of the few bright spots in his people’s long struggle with the whites.

“I don’t think it will happen this time,” he told her. “Not after Greasy Grass. Not after we killed Yellow Hair and all his men. Now I think it’s a matter of the blue coats’ honor.”

“I didn’t think the whites had honor.”

“They fight and die as bravely as any Lakota. True, their leaders lie more than they speak truth, but their ways are different than ours. The soldiers do have honor and I don’t think they’ll stop hunting us until we’re all dead or on the reservation.”

His wife sighed.

He finished his stew. His wife took the empty bowl and began cleaning it.

“I must go to the Council. They will be waiting.”

He stood and pulled the buffalo robe closer around himself.

His wife stood and faced him. “My husband, know this: whatever your decision might be, the people will follow you. You have served them well and they trust you. We all trust you. And I–” She lowered her eyes in a gesture he remembered from their courtship. “I am honored to be your wife.”

He smiled and touched a finger to a soft cheek. “And no man has ever had a finer wife.”

A low keening sounded nearby. He looked up, trying to place its source.

“It’s Killdeer,” his wife said. “Her youngest son had the coughing sickness last night. He must have died.”

“The little one?”

His wife nodded.

Killdeer and Low Dog’s youngest son used to wander over to his lodge and watch while he worked on his weapons. The boy hadn’t yet seen three winters and used to chatter like a squirrel, asking what he was doing and why he was doing it at every step. It was how the young ones learned and he had done his best to answer every question. He had enjoyed the boy’s curiosity and had considered taking him as a son-by-choice when he grew older.

Now the boy would ask no more questions.

Low Dog’s lodge was just north of his own in the camp circle. Low Dog was a courageous and dependable, if not spectacular, warrior, and one of the camp’s better hunters. The death of their youngest son was a particularly grievous loss. They’d already lost two other children: a son to fever and a daughter to the blue coat’s guns at Wolf Mountain.

The keening was low and steady, almost a chant, and came from within the lodge.

He crouched down and scratched politely at the door.

After a moment, Low Dog pushed the door aside. He looked surprised, but invited him in.

Killdeer and a handful of women relatives were the ones keening. They sat in a loose circle around a small bundle wrapped in decorated funeral hides. All the women had locks of hair chopped short in mourning. Some, Killdeer especially, had shallow gouges scraped into the skin of their arms.

At the sight of their visitor, the women paused their keening, but only for a moment before continuing.

“We are honored that you have come,” Low Dog said quietly. His eyes were inflamed red, but there were no tears now. His forearms and hands were striped with shallow cuts and rivulets of blood.

The warrior stepped over to kneel beside the tiny bundle, the women wordlessly shifting to make room for him. Without a word, he drew the knife from his belt and cut a gash into his left forearm. The pain made him grit his teeth for a moment, then lessened. Blood trickled down across his hand and dripped from his fingers to mingle with the blood already on the floor.

He was the last of the Council to speak. There were nearly a dozen men gathered in the Big Bellies lodge to formally consider the soldier chief’s offer. Each was honored by the camp for one reason or another, the wisdom of age, courage in battle, or the ability to travel between this and the spirit world. Some were clan leaders, some hereditary chiefs. Hollow Horn was the oldest at sixty winters. He was the youngest.

His turn came to speak, but he said nothing. As the silence deepened, he could feel the gazes upon him and knew they were politely waiting. Though officially, he was just another warrior in a warrior people, they all knew he was the actual leader of the camp. He was the one the people followed. And everyone knew the message from the soldier chief had been directed to him.

“My friends,” he finally said. “Since the white man first came into our country, they have spoken out of both sides of their mouths. Time after time, they have promised one thing, then done another. Now they come with another promise.

“I see no reason to trust them now.”

Heads nodded gravely around the circle.

“For as long as I can remember, I have sworn not to follow the white man’s path. My clothes are made of deer hide, not the trader’s cloth. All I’ve asked is to live as my father lived, as a free Lakota.

“But the white soldiers want the Lakota to live on their reservations. Twice now they have gone to war against us and I believe that once the snow melts, the blue coats will again come to kill us.

“Know that I am not afraid to fight. I am not afraid to die. I would rather die a warrior’s death on the land that my forefathers’ loved than live caged like an animal on the white man’s reservation.”

There were even more nods from the Council, some of them enthusiastic. A few even muttered their agreement aloud.

“Today I mourn the death of a boy not even three winters old. He died of the coughing sickness this morning.”

All eyes looked down. Everyone knew someone who had died too young. Everybody mourned.

“He died of the coughing sickness, but he also died of the cold, of running until he was exhausted, of too little food. Many young men have died in this war, young Lakota, and young Cheyenne, and young white men, but how many women and children have died because of this war? How many old ones who should be teaching around the evening fire are no longer with us?”

There was no answer from the Council. Their gazes were directed at the earth in front of them, or at the fire. Every single one of the men there had lost a brother, a son, wife, or mother. Everyone knew loss; everyone of them knew too much grief.

The warrior turned now to the two messengers. “I speak for no one but myself. When the snows melt enough to travel, I will come to Ft. Robinson on the Platte and lay down my weapons. Those who choose to come with me will do so.”

He stood. “Tell the soldier chief that I, Crazy Horse, of the Oglalla Lakota, give him my word.”

On May 5, 1877, Crazy Horse, as he said he would, rode into Ft. Robinson in the Nebraska Territory and surrendered his rifle and horse to the soldiers. Along with him came some nine hundred Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho men, women, and children. With Sitting Bull in Canada, this effectively ended the armed resistance to the U.S. Government on the northern plains. It was almost exactly ten months after the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

On September 5, 1877, Crazy Horse was mortally wounded as elements of the U.S. Cavalry and Indian Police attempted to arrest him. Shortly thereafter, the remaining Lakota were moved to the reservation along the Missouri River in the Dakota Territory.

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