“Local Hero”

I’m thrilled to announce that my (tad longer than) flash story “Local Hero” is now live in Dream of Shadows Issue 2! The big Epic Fantasy war against the Dark Lord is over, and in the Black Land, the Orcs are living under occupation by their conquerors. But even a beaten people have their heroes and legends.

Read: “Local Hero” in Dream of Shadows, Issue 2

Author’s Notes

“Anthropologists will tell you that oral cultures understand the past differently; for them, their histories don’t need to be accurate so much as they need to validate the community’s understanding of itself.”

— Ted Chiang, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”

When I was re-reading The Lord of the Rings with my daughter, I noticed an unexpectedly poignant scene in The Two Towers between two Orcs, Gorbag and Shagrat, sharing their dreams for once the war is over.

“I’d like to try somewhere where there’s none of ’em [Nazgûl, Shelob]. But the war’s on now, and when that’s over things may be easier. … But anyway, if it does go well, there should be a lot more room What d’you say? — if we get a chance, you and me’ll slip off and set up somewhere on our own with a few trusty lads, somewhere where there’s good loot nice and handy, and no big bosses.”

“Ah!” said Shagrat. “Like old times.”

… “But don’t forget: the enemies don’t love us any more than they love Him, and if they get topsides on Him, we’re done too.”

Orcs with hopes and dreams? Imagine that! And I did.

The victors aren’t the only ones to write history. When the defeated survive, so do their stories, and where pride of identity is strong, those stories combine to form a counter-history, heretical to the dominant culture, cherished by the subordinated one.

“Local Hero” is about the myths that a defeated people tell about themselves, to themselves, to justify their own existence in the new world order. It’s about coping with one’s identity, when that identity has been vilified by history. It’s about the legend of the Orcish Captain America, and how even a mythological figure can inspire real action.

For better or worse.

EDIT: I wrote this story as I was reading news about monuments and symbols of the American Confederacy–about efforts of some to pull them down, and the efforts of others to preserve them. I have no sympathies with the desire to revise and romanticize the rebellion to preserve slavery. But I am struck by a culture’s impulse to rewrite its history to be a source of pride instead of shame. Then, this story was published right as the U.S. rose up to protest systemic racism after a policeman killed George Floyd. That put a different contextual focus: police brutality and righteous uprising. “Local Hero” is emphatically not meant as a metaphor for either situation. It imagines the future of Gorbag and Shagrat’s people after the War of the Ring is lost (from their perspective), and echoes of our history and current events are the vibrations of the real world that influence how we look at all stories.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Skywalkers

The Skywalker Saga—what we old-timers knew as Star Wars—is over. I refrained from adding my hot take on The Rise of Skywalker to the pile of hot takes because a saga that spanned 42 years of my life needs time to settle, and honestly, nobody cares about hot takes.

But I have been doing some deep thinking about endings, as I did for The Matrix, the Battlestar Galactica remake, Lost, Game of Thrones, The Wheel of Time, and all the other long-form stories that I couldn’t binge. In all those stories there was time to speculate, to wonder, to consider what would be a good ending, and what would not.

In a writer’s reckoning, a satisfying ending is a function of the story’s structure. Structure, more simply, means promises and payoffs. In a Whodunnit, we’ll find out who done it. If a youth on a farm is dreaming of adventure or some undefinable “more,” we’re going to go on an adventure with significant stakes. If a cryptic prophecy hints at salvation or doom, we’ll see which it is. If someone loves someone else from afar, they’re going to get their shot. In short, something changes, and that change addresses the questions, the needs, raised at the beginning. That’s a story.

Whatever Lucas’s shortcomings are with dialogue, he’s a master of structure. (See this wonderful discussion of Star Wars Ring Theory.) Star Wars is the go-to exemplar to illustrate Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” monomyth, a structure that’s ubiquitous in adventure stories. Consider how the promises and payoffs build on each other in the two Star Wars trilogies under Lucas’s vision.

  • Episode IV: A backwater farm boy wishes for life of excitement and significance. He gets swept up into an adventure that ends with him harnessing a mystical power and striking a crippling blow to the evil Empire.
  • Episodes IV – VI: A farm boy, secretly the son of the galaxy’s most feared agent of the evil Empire, wishes for a life of excitement and significance. He learns to master his father’s mystical power, and instead of falling to evil, uses it to redeem his father and destroy the Empire.
  • Episode I: A boy with the potential for enormous power, is enslaved on a backwater planet. He is spirited away by a mentor who believes in him, and he is put on a path to stand against a mysterious evil.
  • Episodes I – III: An evil Sith Lord uses his mystical power to create an avatar of that power, a “Chosen One” of the Jedi establishment who oppose him. He corrupts the avatar into destroying the Jedi who oppose his rise to authoritarian dictatorship.
  • Episodes I – VI: An avatar of a great, mystical power is created by an evil Emperor to help subjugate the galaxy. He is redeemed by his own son and destroys the Emperor who created and corrupted him, freeing the galaxy.

It’s amazing how the story reinterprets itself and expands its own circuit, beginning as a hero’s rise and evolving into a full-on mythology of the corruption and redemption of the Force itself in human form. Anakin is alternately a tragic hero, a villain, a redeemed hero, or a demigod, depending on the scope. Luke is the hero, the instrument of the hero’s redemption, or a demigod version 2. And the Skywalker line itself changes from representing embattled heroes to a human incarnation of the Force itself.

But George Lucas envisioned his saga to be a trilogy of trilogies. I had heard those rumors way back when I was processing the shocks delivered by The Empire Strikes Back. So in the fourth decade of speculating about this story, with the franchise under new management, it was natural to wonder whether the concluding trilogy would stick the landing. And what “sticking the landing” even meant. 

If the Ring Theory analysis held, there would be arcs of Episode VII, Episodes VII – IX, and Episodes I – IX that built on one another. The Force Awakens gave it a promising start. 

  • Episode VII: A tech scavenger named Rey with a natural fluency in the Force waits for the return of her parents on a backwater planet. She is drawn into an adventure that ends with her harnessing a mystical power and striking a crippling blow to the evil First Order.

Looks pretty similar to the Episode VI arc, except Rey didn’t long for adventure. And the question of her lineage lingers. But with The Rise of Skywalker a mirror of the original trilogy forms.

  • Episode VII – Episode IX: A tech scavenger, secretly the granddaughter of the evil Emperor behind the First Order, joins a battle against the First Order. She learns to master her grandfather’s power, and instead of falling to evil, uses it to redeem the fallen Skywalker bloodline and destroy the First Order.

It’s a little clunky. The promise of Rey’s parentage is a red herring, along with the mutual gravity between her and artifacts of the past, like the Skywalker lightsaber and the Millennium Falcon. It’s fitting that Palpatine would be the final antagonist, as he was the one who set the Skywalker Saga in motion, using Shmi Skywalker as a Force Madonna. Supreme Leader Snoke was revealed to be a proxy for Palpatine (I mean, what else could he have been?), but Palpatine should have been more of a presence throughout the final trilogy. The First Order is indistinguishable from the Empire anyway, and if Palpatine were going to use a puppet proxy, why wouldn’t he choose a beautiful, charismatic form than something that just looks like the Emperor, smooshed a little differently and using a dumb name?

But more significantly, this is the Skywalker Saga, and whether you found this ending satisfying probably hinges on how you think of the Skywalker bloodline and the prophecy of the Chosen One. Palpatine used the Force to induce the midi-chlorians to create life in Shmi Skywalker. Anakin Skywalker was the Force made flesh—a mortal incarnation of the Force. The Jedi of the time even had a term for it: a “vergence” in the Force. They also had a prophecy around it: a Chosen One would be one such vergence, and he or she would “bring balance to the Force.”

As the incarnation of the Force merged its bloodline with human beings by having children, the poetically minded among us might suppose the Force acquired a human soul, capable of moral agency. There was Luke, trained by Jedi of the old order. There was Leia, untouched by both Jedi and Sith philosophies. And then there was Leia’s son Ben, trained by Luke in his own reconstruction of the old Jedi way, but corrupted by the Palpatine proxy. And then there was Rey: Force-intuitive on her own, offered training by the fallen Ben, refused but then grudgingly granted training by Luke, and finally trained by Leia.

But Rey ended up a Palpatine, not a Skywalker. At least by blood.

So what does the whole saga look like, in terms of promises and payoffs?

Episodes I – IX: The Force is incarnated as prophecy’s “Chosen One” by the machinations of an evil Sith Lord who seeks to corrupt him away from his purpose, but…

…but the Sith Lord’s granddaughter redeems the Chosen One’s grandson, and together they destroy the Sith Lord?

It lacks poetry. Yes, a Palpatine corrupted the Force incarnate, and generations later, another Palpatine redeemed it and set it free. And yes, at the end, Rey adopts the name “Skywalker.” But what about that prophecy about bringing balance to the Force? Did that just translate to “kill Palpatine and make sure he stays dead?” That isn’t satisfying at all. Especially since the saga seemed to be dropping clues about a deeper meaning, right up until the end.

  • Trilogy 1: The aloofness, arrogance, and lack of empathy of the Jedi order enabled Palpatine to divide Anakin’s loyalties, and it was a only a violation of the Jedi code—loving, marrying, and having children—that set in motion Anakin’s eventual redemption.
  • Trilogy 2: It is only when Luke defies Yoda out of compassion for his friends, and Darth Vader exposes Obi-Wan’s lies by omission, does Luke seek to confront his father with love. In the confrontation, his fear for his sister drives him to batter Vader into submission, but a flash of empathy makes him stay his hand instead of killing him. It was emotion that enabled Luke to turn Vader against the Emperor. And it hints at what a balanced Force could look like.
  • Trilogy 3: An untrained girl uses the Force like a natural, and seeks the last Jedi master for instruction. Luke says he was wrong, and the Jedi order was wrong. He says he must be the last Jedi. Rey intuitively reaches for the Dark Side of the Force, and Luke is terrified. All around the galaxy, more Force-intuitives begin to awaken, without any Jedi or Sith dogma. Rey uses both Light and Dark powers to serve her own purposes, remaining true to her heart throughout.

It really seems that the prophesied balance to the Force was going to be a union of the so-called Light and Dark sides, the disciplined head and the emotional heart, focus and passion. The final, encompassing ring could have elevated the mythic saga of I – VI to a statement about the human condition.

Maybe this would have been the story if we hadn’t lost Carrie Fisher. Leia, of the incarnated Force’s bloodline and free of the influence of both Jedi and Sith, could have taught Rey a third path. Or better still, redeemed her own son, not through combat, but through love. Leia, Yoda’s fallback “other hope,” could have been the key to ushering in an era of the Balanced Force that none of the others could imagine.

Episodes I – IX: The Force is incarnated into the human Skywalker bloodline to balance itself, and the Jedi and Sith war over their hearts and minds with their binary philosophies. The one Skywalker left unindoctrinated finds the truth of the balance.

That’s the sort of ending that would have satisfied me.

The Insufficient Language of Boredom

In these times of sheltering in place from COVID-19, the insufficiency of the word “bored” is especially pressing. It carries a connotation of indolence. Laziness. Consider: Children complain, “I’m bored.” Parents respond with a list of chores. The children’s problem is not solved, simply transformed into a less indolent flavor of boredom.

But also consider: A middle manager’s day is booked with back-to-back Zoom meetings, where she re-hashes the same talking points among multiple stakeholders. So boring. She hopes the next day will be different, and it is: she spends it approving expenses, vacation requests, and system entitlements; she fills out status reports and tailors the language to each audience to which she’s beholden. Bored bored bored.

Indeed, these are times that call for greater precision. The experience of boredom is multifaceted. Though any number of dimensions could be argued, I propose three:

  1. Unstimulated / Stimulated is mental engagement: intellectual, emotional, aesthetic.
  2. Unoccupied / Busy is the engagement of one’s time and effort.
  3. Discomfort / Pleasure is the basic component of emotional experience. Pain or pleasure. Aversive or attractive. Boredom is discomfort, of course, but let’s include pleasure for contrast.

The combinations of these dimensions yield emotional states that deserve their own vacabulary. These are some proposals. They certainly invite improvement.

Bored_Alternatives

I’m feeling bored if I’m experiencing unstimulated, unoccupied discomfort, like when I’m sitting on the sofa, with no motivation to attack anything on the to-do list, and feeling miserable about it.

I’m feeling relaxed if I’m experiencing unstimulated, unoccupied pleasure, like when I wake up with the alarm but realize it’s a weekend with no commitments but to listen to the wind howl outside while snug in my bed.

I’m feeling burdened if I’m experiencing unstimulated, busy discomfort, like when my day is full of pointless bullshit, the completion of which is a precondition for getting paid.

I’m feeling meditative if I’m experiencing unstimulated, busy pleasure, like when I’m driving, or stuffing dumplings, or doing something easily productive, and getting into the flow of it.

I’m feeling restless if I’m experiencing stimulated, unoccupied discomfort, like when my brain is bursting with ideas, I don’t have the means to act on them, and I’m frustrated by it.

I’m feeling imaginative if I’m experiencing stimulated, unoccupied pleasure, like when I’m caught up in daydreaming.

I’m feeling stressed if I’m experiencing stimulated, busy discomfort, like when I have engaging work, but way too much of it.

I’m feeling engaged if I’m experiencing stimulated, busy pleasure, like when I’m in the zone, doing something I want to do.

Any better adjectives? Any additional dimensions? Chime in. It’s not like you have anything better to do…

 

Last Christmas by Doctor Manhattan

“Last Christmas” by Doctor Manhattan, who does not perceive time linearly, but all at once.

 

“Where are you, Jon? When are you?”

 

It is December 15, 1984. I hear George Michael on the radio.

 

It is December 26, 2018. You are giving my heart away.

 

It is December 26, 1983. I am trying to console George Michael, whose heart I have given away. I tell him I understand. This is as yet a lie.

 

It is December 25, 2018. I am giving you my heart.

 

It is December 24, 2019. I am listening to a song George Michael wrote, understanding.

 

It is December 25, 2019. I am giving my heart to someone special.

 

It is June 14, 1983. I tell George Michael to stop calling me and write a song.

GOP Talking Points For President Trump’s Fifth Avenue Massacre

I’ve lost count of the number of times I read an article on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and thought, “that’s amazing, I wish I’d written that!” Dare to dream. Friends and gentlefolk, I HAVE A BYLINE IN McSWEENEY’S!

“GOP Talking Points For President Trump’s Fifth Avenue Massacre” comes on the heels of the leaked GOP talking points on President Trump’s call with Ukraine’s President Zelensky. There’s certainly a pattern to this Administration’s response to accusation of corruption and crime. At this point, I’m not sure if it’s satire or prophecy.

Time will tell.

Before the End of Game of Thrones

SPOILERS for all but the last episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

As we enter the closing gambit of Game of Thrones, social media commentary shifts from what might happen to how what’s happening is wrong. It’s natural. The story is sprawling and complex, and those who developed an investment have fitted the details to their own moral and narrative models. Now is the time those models will be validated or violated. And Game of Thrones is a story that thrives on violating expectations.

Depending on our lens, the central question is anything from “who will sit on the Iron Throne?” to “will the strong female characters tear down the corrupt patriarchy?” Those with the latter lens have already expressed their disgust with this season: the hope of the superior woman ruler has been dashed by the show’s penultimate episode. There’s a meta element here. In the conflict for the throne, all the adherents pin so much hope on their contender, and all such adherents have had their hearts broken–their hearts at the very least. Every single claimant has failed to hold onto power. If there’s a thesis statement that forms a through-line of the story, it’s Varys’s riddle about the nature of power.

“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the name of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?” The answer Varys gives is both profound and simplistic. “Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.” We’ve seen the permutations of this for eight seasons.

In the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, Daenerys faced a moment of choice. She could honor the surrender of King’s Landing, as Tyrion pleaded, or she could utterly annihilate her opposition. Her choice broke the hearts of the viewership (and elicited accusations of bad writing and misogyny), but the seeds of her decision were planted in the very first season, when a girl, told from childhood that her family had a right to rule a land of which she had no memory, was given three weapons of mass destruction that steadily grew in power. Daenerys is not at all a bad person. But if she has has a defining trait through most of her story, it is her unwavering certainty that she is the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. This will to power made her spectacularly formidable. It also prioritizes power over compassion, especially when crossing the Narrow Sea leaves her friendless, loveless, and delegitimized. Cersei murders Missandei before her eyes, brutally destroying the symbol of her most worthy accomplishment, the freeing and elevation of slaves. All Daenerys has left to assert her claim, her very identity, is her one remaining nuclear bomb. Using it basically destroys the throne itself. It’s a very Game of Thrones outcome. It’s tragedy in the Classical sense. It’s supposed to hurt. No one is unscathed by power.

The one remaining permutation of power is that of god itself. It’s alluded to after the battle against the Night King, when Davos comments that the Lord of Light supposedly stepped in and then buggered off without a sign. Game of Thrones has not been subtle in noting fate and causal chains; how each character’s past formed the events bringing them to their ultimate destiny or (more often) doom. And of course Bran, who is now the closest thing to God in this world, notes that without Jaime shoving him out the window, he would never have become the Three Eyed Raven, a being capable of tinkering with history. Of writing the narrative. If I’ve correctly gleaned the story Game of Thrones intends to tell, Bran has been spending his time shaping the past so the exact events we are watching can come to pass.

And when we see the ultimate conclusion, we will be left to argue, was it just? Did the good outweigh the bad? Was Bran the Old God a virtuous ruler or a tyrant? Should he have done more to reduce the net suffering in the overall ledger? We won’t have an easy answer. Because, like the characters, we view this story through our own lenses and our own moral frameworks. We see–and judge–the narrative we’ve built in our own minds, which is not necessarily the narrative being spun by God. Or the authors. We’ll say Martin, Weiss, and Benioff were geniuses or hacks, depending on how the story delivers what we want from it. But the truth, much like power, may just be shadows on the wall.

So what the heck. Now, just before the end of things, I’ll indulge in some predictions.

  • ARYA, the rider on the pale horse, will kill DAENERYS, possibly wearing GRAY WORM’S face. Maybe Drogon will eat her. Maybe the two will go off and have adventures.
  • AEGON “JON SNOW” TARGARYEN will have rulership thrust upon him, much as Eddard Stark did, but unlike his adoptive father, he will flee north of the broken Wall, to pal around with Tormund and reunite with Ghost. The one happy ending.
  • TYRION, the dead Queen’s Hand and the only survivor whose will to power was trumped by compassion, even for Cersei, will step in. But to administer, not rule. He’ll draft a new type of governance document, uniting the rulers of seven independent kingdoms.
  • SANSA, Queen in the North, will be the first to sign.
  • BRAN, nodding at what he considers the best possible outcome, transfers his mind into the Winterfell heart tree, leaving his empty, broken, mortal body in the Godswood.

“The Old Ones, Great and Small”

UPDATE: “The Old Ones, Great and Small” can now be read, for free, at Diabolical Plots!

With great pride and pleasure, I can now announce that my story “The Old Ones, Great and Small” is now available in the Diabolical Plots Year Five collection! It will also be available to read for free on the Diabolical Plots website in March 2020.

Charles Payseur wrote a lovely QuickSip Review in his long-running short fiction review column!

Tara Grimravn also wrote a lovely review for Tangent!

Jeff Xilon had kind things to say in his Short Fiction Roundup!

Author’s Notes

Writing this story started, as is so common with a fledgling SFF writer, with being inspired by H.P. Lovecraft. Maybe it’s a burning desire to use “squamous,” “cyclopean,” or “non-Euclidean geometry” in a sentence. Maybe it’s a desire to describe the indescribable. Maybe it’s a need to respond to the xenophobia and gynophobia underpinning Lovecraft’s stories. Or maybe it’s curiosity about why and how those stories endure and continue to spawn a thousand young.

I’m not immune. To me, the horror of H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones is the Fear of the Other to the ultimate degree. Not only are his horrors shadowy and inscrutable, they are so alien as to defy understanding; the sane human mind is incapable of comprehending them. Merely knowing of them, of their scale and cosmic indifference, moves us far from the center and threatens our sense of significance. How existentially angsty!

So, what if we beat them? What if humanity did what it always does in the face of an imminent, adversarial threat: girded ourselves, developed weapons and defenses, and subdued or annihilated our foe? “The Old Ones, Great and Small” takes place in the after-times. Humanity has gone into the shadows and dragged what lurked there out into the light. We’ve caged them, studied them, and even forced them to perform for us. Now, once we’ve gotten past our fear, how do we see the Ultimate Other? Is it much different from how we’ve evolved on all the other Others we feared?

I read that the original concept pitch for the movie Jurassic World described a scene where a bored teenager takes a selfie with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I love that notion. I’ll never forget the sense of wonder from the original movie, when they first see the Brachiosaurus stand on it’s hind legs to reach a treetop. But years later… Ho hum. Kids these days, right?

Of course the protagonist of my story would be an old man. Not the sort to take selfies. A brooder, a park bench philosopher. And in a short story, I didn’t have to make a Lovecraftian Jurassic Park in three acts, complete with escaping, rampaging monsters (as fun as that could be) and a cautionary message. The story could focus on a smaller, quieter concern. Like where the sense of terror (and wonder) had gone–and whether it could ever be rediscovered.

“L’Appel du Vide”

L’Appel du Vide,” French for “the call of the void,” is a psychological phenomenon where a person standing at a precipice has a sudden notion of stepping out into the abyss. It’s not a suicidal urge. It’s a reflex of the imagination in the face of a thin line between possibilities. To be free is to be able to choose, even between life and death. There’s the rational choice–the sane choice, and… the other one. But what if?

Sometimes we don’t make a choice because we don’t see the choice. We’re stuck in a rut, and tethered down by the rational justifications for staying in that rut. But sometimes, circumstances force us to the brink of other possibilities. There’s a terror in that. And a thrill. It’s the feeling of being truly alive.

This is a story about hovering at the edge of possibilities. Please enjoy “L’Appel du Vide” at Metaphorosis, either with the other stories in issue 39 as a $3 ebook, or free on the site, on March 22 2019.

Floating above the earth

I wrote this story after leaving a rut that had become unbearable, without having a “next thing” in hand. It was a scary, frustrating, and guilt-ridden time. But it was also an astounding experience of personal agency, having blocks of time that I could devote to things that I chose, for no other reason than I was interested. It couldn’t last, of course. And it didn’t. But… what if?

(Side note: This is the second of my published stories, after “Matchstick Reveries,” which features someone rising up into the air. The third, after “Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?“, if you count people gazing up into the sky. Not sure what that’s about.)

I’d like to thank editor B. Morris Allen for his patient persistence helping me get this story up to par for his wonderful magazine.

“Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?”

Every time I looked at Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” I noticed something new. The detail is incredible. The imagery is gleefully bizarre. It’s utterly bonkers, and I love it. So I couldn’t pass up writing a story in that world when I saw the call for submissions for the Honey & Sulfur anthology.

This one’s a love story. (Then again, aren’t they all?) But it’s a love story set in Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell, which has its own set of unique challenges. Most importantly, you have to watch out for those Birds.

Please enjoy “Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?” in the Honey & Sulfur anthology, available at Amazon.

For inspiration, I stared at the painting even more, zooming in on the details. There’s a magnificent online tour of the triptych, with a haunting ambient soundtrack as you move from scene to scene. There are hundreds of stories hidden in the three panels. Once you get past the most obvious and famous ones, you start to notice the quieter, less salient parts, and when you’re looking with an eye for narrative, they become full of mystery. In the middle of Hell, for example, amidst the demons and torture, there’s a dark courtyard by a garden wall. There’s an open gateway arch in that wall, and through it pours a golden radiance. The pale figures in the courtyard stand just at the edge of the light, afraid, yet drawn to it. What else could such a light be in Hell, but a promise of salvation? And why would sinners cluster in the shadows if not out of fear that they were perhaps unworthy? Clearly this was a Hell that had emotional drama, not just the dull routine of bizarre torments–for on the scale of eternity, any torment becomes a dull routine. Drama in eternal torment required some kind of hope, and the ability to exercise agency on behalf of that hope. That meant that Hell had rules of its own, even if they were only there to prolong the suffering. What were they?

Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear - Courtyard

When writing this story, I had just quit a job that was a sort of Hell for me, and I didn’t have anything to immediately replace it. The best I could hope for was to find just another flavor of Hell. But in between, I took some time to write, to think, to regain my strength. This liminal space between Hells was wonderful, even joyful. But I knew it couldn’t last. Anxiety circled, ready to swoop. It started eating away at that joy. I needed to find a way to hold on to that joy, to insulate and nurture it from the grind of the obligations to which I needed to return. There must be a way to endure what was demanded, while in my heart of hearts living in my hidden sanctuary of joy. There must be a way.

At that point, the story wrote itself.

 

“Matchstick Reveries”

It is with great pleasure that I can now announce the publication of my third-ever short story sale, “Matchstick Reveries,” in issue 5 of the online magazine Truancy! Please read the story over at Truancy, and the come back here for some behind-the-scenes notes, if you’re curious.

Click here to read “Matchstick Reveries” in Truancy issue 5.

(The story, as originally posted in Truancy, omitted some paragraphs due to a publishing SNAFU. The editor has restored the full text.)

Truancy_5_cover

As with a lot of my stories, it started as a joke. The title I’d given it was “Marvel Comics Presents: The Little Match Girl” and it was a mash-up between X-Men comics and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” It had mutant psychics, a freezing little girl, and a cosmic force of fiery death and resurrection. It got some yuks from my Facebook friends, which is usually as far as these ideas go. But something about it stuck in my craw. There was a reason I took that troubling little H.C.A. tale in a different direction. I kept fiddling with it.

Matchstick Reveries - Phoenix 2

The Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Little Match Girl” horrified me as a child, a horror that only deepened as I revisited it over the years, in its various incarnations. It wasn’t just that a young child, cold, alone, and overlooked, lights match after match on a winter street, has visions of simple comforts she can never have, and then freezes to death on a street corner. It was also that the narration beatifies this senseless result of societal negligence. The dead little girl is better off now, in heaven, because nothing could save or comfort her in the temporal world. Maybe Andersen meant to stir societal shame through pity, but it looked like nihilism in my eyes. Then I heard of an African proverb that brought the theme into focus: “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” So yes, I wanted to write a story where the Little Match Girl takes them all down with her, and instead of her world ending in ice, she sets her world on fire. That was the ending I needed to make peace with Hans Christian Andersen.

I entered a version of the story in PodCastle‘s flash fiction competition, but the feedback was that it was too brutal, too unjust. That was, of course, the point, but the 1,000-word limit didn’t allow me to dig deeper into the moral framework I imagined for the story. And in truth, the story still leaned too heavily into the X-Men Dark Phoenix joke to stand on its own and have something to say.

So I did some research, and went off on different tangents. I learned that selling matches was, historically, used as a thin cover for begging in the streets. I read about the different incarnations of safety matches through the years, and how they were called “Lucifers.” I had a “her parents were French Revolutionaries stirring up trouble across the Channel” angle that I soon scrapped. I read about the Great Fire of London (inconveniently 200 years before the setting of this story), and how the original monument was supposed to have–no joke!–a phoenix on the top. And the suicides, from jumping off the monument and getting impaled on the iron fence posts below? That was historical too. And yes, children froze to death in the streets, and were carted away to paupers’ graves, and the Church tried to put it all into a context of divine meaning.

So Jeanne, this version of The Little Match Girl, is the eventual and inevitable reckoning that comes when the village doesn’t take care of its own. When the phoenix immolates, something new will always rise from the ashes. It’s brutal, terrible, but it sets the stage for a second chance. How will we do the next go-round?