The Lighthouse

the lighthouse

19 February 2018

The joy of writing

This was my last 12|12 submission. The prompt was joy, and as I knew by then that I wasn't going to continue the challenge in 2018, I wrote a reflection on what the year of short story writing had been like.

It began with a thought: could I do this? Should I even try? It was going to take time. It was going to take effort. It was going to demand commitment, and that always makes me squirm with resentment when I’m not a one hundred percent believer in a thing.

The challenge appealed to me, so I couldn’t dismiss it outright. It called to my competitive streak and asked if I had the goods to see it through. Did I have the courage to say “I am a writer and these are my words” to a whole group of strange writers? (By strange I mean unknown to me, not that they were writers of strange things, though that did turn out to also be true at times.) What if it turned out my love for writing was better used as a creative hobby to occupy spare moments rather than something to be shared with others? Publicly? With my name on it? That was a scary prospect: my name on my words out there for all to read, with no way to hide that I thought of myself as a writer.

In the end the decision was made without a whole lot of thought or deliberation. It seemed obvious: of course I was going to participate, take up the challenge, join the strange writers in a year-long journey of storytelling. And so we began. I knew it would be difficult, but not as difficult as it was. I expected it to be fun, but not as fun as it was. I thought I would learn a lot, but not as much as I did. For example, I learned that when I’m given a deadline, I become constitutionally incapable of finishing the assignment - or sometimes even beginning it - until right before the assignment is due. I wrote one story in a two hour window of opportunity I had before submitting it on deadline day. I would often have an idea, a strong idea even, not long after learning prompt and word count, but could not seem to find the time or the will to wrestle the idea into a story until a day or two before the deadline.

I also learned that I have a definite process, instead of the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, inspired-by-the-muse approach I thought I had. I free-write ideas, one liners or quickly sketched paragraphs, in a notebook until I have one with life to it. The few, spare words on the page are the shadow of an image, a scene, a line of dialogue, an ambience, or a character, and I know there is a story to be told about it. Then I begin writing in whatever notebook I have on hand, sometimes roughing out the details I want to capture. I don’t erase, because I often change my mind to include a phrase or entire paragraph, only to decide to leave it out in the end. Or maybe I’ll keep it?  Instead I cross the bit out or wrap it in parenthesis, and use symbols like *, $, or % to reposition a block where I think it will work better.  Usually once the writing has some momentum, I will use a word processor to do the bulk of the work, particularly when it gets to editing and polishing (when there is time!  Time, I learned in this challenge, may be a luxury, but a necessary luxury in storytelling.)

More than once over the course of this 12/12 challenge I was frustrated by my inability to convey the idea well, leaving it an incomplete suggestion of what it might have been. One month I knew the characters, I knew their situation, and knew there was a powerful story to be told, but I got bogged down in unnecessary details leaving no room for the story itself. I plan to go back and rework it because it has real potential. In another instance I derailed the idea to the point it had no resemblance to the original at all. I’m not going to renew its misery by revisiting it… we - the idea and I - will both be happier if it is left in peace in the past. There was a story or two that had good beginnings, strong foundations, but there wasn’t the time needed to nurture them into maturity. They remain in infancy, hopefully to be polished later. Perhaps some stories are like wine… they need to be left alone in a dark cellar for a time in order to fulfill their promise.

But more than once I also experienced the joy of being able to put into words exactly what I wanted to say, to convey precisely the idea I had, to tell the story that came to life in my imagination. Four times I posted a story I was proud of, and was pleased to receive feedback that let me know the strange writers understood what I had accomplished. I used the word ‘joy’ in that earlier sentence because, well, that is the prompt this month, but also because joy is exactly what it feels like when my words tell my story in a way I am happy with. I don’t think there is a more satisfying moment for a writer than when she realizes her story does not need to be tweaked, massaged, or polished, but she can let it stand on its own and she can be proud of it. What a feeling of accomplishment comes from constructing a story that engages the mind and awakens the imagination of the reader, that somehow they get it. That is joy, indeed!

I discovered writing requires time. I don’t write well with a few minutes here or there carved out of a day filled with other occupations. I need time not only for the act of writing, but before I can even come to that, I need time to allow my mind to come to rest, to let the noises and distractions of life seep away. Before I undertook the 12/12 challenge, I was writing only when I felt disposed to do so, so I didn’t realize the extent to which I need silence of the interior variety, and the vigilance required to maintain it. I must be intentional about writing if I want to continue writing regularly with a goal in mind. I haven’t figured out how to fit it into my daily life, but I have learned that I want to do so, somehow. Tips and tricks are appreciated!

As for a goal, I do have one. With the 12/12 challenge I discovered that I like writing short stories, and I have an idea for a couple that I’ve written to become part of a series that may one day be published as a collection.

I also learned what a remarkable thing human creativity and imagination is. Every month I thought I knew what most of the stories would be about, but the strange writers were never predictable. They never disappointed with their ingenuity, crafting moving, compelling, startling, beautiful, horrifying, surprising stories each time. I was intrigued by where the ideas come from with such diversity considering we all start with the same prompt.

The level of craftsmanship I found in the group of strange writers was inspiring. It issued its own challenge for me every month to aim higher, to work harder, to write better. I like knowing there are other people like me out there, people who love to write, want to do it well, but maybe struggle a little with the practicalities of writing in the midst of daily life. It was encouraging to witness the willingness to stumble in the attempt and the wanting to keep on learning to write well, and the openness to receiving critique whether good or instructive. I was inspired by seeing so many strange writers show up every month with another story even when life was a challenge or technology was uncooperative, or time raced by at an astonishing pace.

Not to be overlooked is the generosity of every writer who shared their work in the 12/12 challenge. Having access to so many short stories in one place gave me insight into the technical craft of constructing a good piece of writing. It would be interesting to witness the process behind how each writer arrives as their completed story, wouldn’t it? Even so, the finished work on its own offered something to learn from, be inspired by, and get enjoyment from. It was like taking a master class in short fiction. And then, because actually writing the stories isn’t the end of it, each contributor then took the time to read other stories and offer thoughts, praise, and suggestions. That is a wonderful gift to receive from another writer.

2017 has been a challenging and rewarding year of writing. I’ve learned a lot, been inspired, and greatly encouraged. Thank you, all, for your part in it. Happy 2018!

29 November 2017

11 of 12 The Challenge

Prompt: Calculated risk | Word Count: 1,800 | Genre: Fiction

It was finally quiet. He had listened patiently to all who needed to be heard. He had dispensed wisdom to those in need of wisdom. Now they were all gone and silence crept out from the corners where it had retreated with the arrival of his congregation for morning Mass. It used to be that he loved no time or place better than standing at the altar, looking out over the faces of his small congregation. He stood for a moment with his head bowed. It used to be an attitude of reverence, but now it meant nothing more than emptiness.

This was the best time. He liked this time best of all. Still early morning with the sun advancing across the floor. A mountain breeze with a hint of fresh grass drifted in through the open door, a sign of spring. The mountainview through the door of the church was a daily pleasure he never tired of. He tidied the altar cloths, made sure everything thing was in its place for tomorrow’s Mass, and took a moment to appreciate the peace that permeated the inside of his little country church.

The footfalls of thick-soled boots on the stone floor of the entrance broke the silence and ended his solitude. His first reaction was to be grumpy. He liked being alone. He liked having the church to himself. There was a time when he looked forward to being needed, having the chance to be helpful, being able to offer counsel or consolation. He used to love the sacraments more than anything, and now he loved being alone.

Standing in the doorway was a man dressed in a dark uniform. The lapels of the tight fighting jacket were embellished with insignia and a badge of sorts sat over the brim of the hat on his head. His boots caught a ray of sun stretching across the floor, but his face remained in shadow, so Bruno could not tell his age. The starched and tucked appearance of his clothing would never be at home here where the villagers dressed in humble clothing, soft and worn from much washing and mending.

‘Hello,” said Bruno. “Can I be of help?”
“Ah, you must be Bruno, am I correct?”
“Yes, I am Father Bruno,” said a reluctant Bruno.
“Father Bruno,” the man repeated with half a smile.
“I am Miller,” the man said. The confidence in his voice echoed between the walls of the empty church.
“I’m sorry,” said Bruno, “I don’t know anything about military insignia. Should I call you something besides Miller?”
The man laughed briefly, then, looking around at the stained glass windows, said, “It is so often the same with you people. You know every name in every story in your book of legends, but know nothing of the real world.”
“By ‘you people’ do you mean country folk? Asked Bruno.
“I mean clerical folk,” mocked Miller.
“You believe I am lacking in knowledge because I wear a collar?”
“You confessed to not recognizing my rank. You were surprised to find me on your doorstep. Do you even get newspapers up here to know our army is mobilizing and war is imminent?”
“We are simple people out here in the country, Mr. Miller, but we are not simpletons. What is it we can do for you?”

Bruno watched him warily. They were well removed from cities and their troubles here in his little village, but they weren’t ignorant of what was going on. This man brought with him a promise of trouble to come. His clothing was a rebuke to pastoral life, and his face, now that Bruno could see it, was haughty.

“It always interests me,” Miller said, looking again at the stained glass windows, “that people can be simple enough to gather comfort from the stories in these pictures.” The leather of his boots squeaked on the hard stone floor as he walked slowly down a side aisle. “I am amused that you think these legends are true.” He stopped at a window depicting a shepherd carrying a sheep across his shoulders. “I suppose people with no hope of a greater life and no learning must rely on something to give them meaning.”

Bruno shifted his shoulders uncomfortably. He didn’t understand what was happening. Who was this man, and what was the purpose of his mockery? The man was saying things Bruno himself had often thought but would never allow himself to express. The man now crossed in front of the altar to stand with Bruno in the centre aisle.

“I am here with a specific purpose, Father Bruno. It might be mutually beneficial, both for me and for your village.”
An icy chill tumbled down Bruno’s spine. The air felt heavy and somber with significance.
“It has to do with your uniform?” Bruno asked.
“Ah, you are not so much the ignorant provincial as I thought,” Miller said. “Yes, of a certainty it has to do with my uniform. I am in advance of the army, sent to find a suitable place to establish a headquarters in this region. Your charming village with its admirable view of the mountains is strategically perfect for our needs.”

“The army wants to settle here?” Bruno was dismayed.
Miller looked at him intently. He was puzzled at the reaction. He thought being singled out in such a way was an honour.

“It is one such village being considered,” said Miller.
“You might find another more to your liking,” suggested Bruno.
“So far it is the best,” said Miller.
“But you are not yet firmly decided.”
“Father Bruno, come now. Where is this reluctance coming from?”

Bruno’s mind was racing, fully awake after a long hibernation. His thoughts were incoherent, but in an instant he saw it all: his villagers living in fear, intimidation, and punishment, enduring food rationing, and the demolition of their peaceful way of life. His nerve endings tingled. He had to protect his people. Somehow.

“Can I convince you, Mr. Miller, to continue your search elsewhere?”
“Are you thinking to bargain with me, Father Bruno?” Miller was surprised at the idea.
“The people here are good and simple folk,” said Bruno. “Their way of life seems naive to you, I know. But there is something fine and precious here that would be lost forever if the outside world, as you call it, were to take up among them.”

Miller smiled slightly. With hands clasped behind his back, he began a slow down the side aisle, taking in the images in the stained glass windows and the carvings of the stations of the cross. It was all myth and legend to him, a panacea for those who needed comfort when reality became too much for them. Why not have some fun with this, he thought to himself.

“I tell you what, Father,” he said, “I will pretend your village doesn’t exist. I will carry on with my search elsewhere, and you can protect the good and simple folk and their good and simple faith. All you must do is convince me there is something to all this,” he gestured around the interior of the church.

Bruno’s throat closed in fear but his heart kicked in anticipation.
“How do you propose to test me?” he asked.
“Do what you do, Father,” came the answer.

Bruno bowed his head a second time that morning. Now it was in question, seeking guidance he wasn’t sure would come. After long minutes he looked up again at the man, and nodded his head.

“Yes,” he said. “I will do what I do.”

He walked into the sacristy and calmly reciting the prayers, he vested himself. He gathered the sacred vessels, lit the candles on the altar, then took a moment to prepare himself for what he was about to do. Would he be able to convince an unbeliever that there was substance behind faith, when he might not believe it himself?

Whether there was ‘something to all this’ or not, he loved the people in his care, and he was going to take this opportunity to shield them from harm at least for a time.

He took his accustomed place in front of the altar and eased into the ritual. The words were so familiar he had taken to reciting them by rote. He hands moved through the gestures he had made many hundreds of times without thinking. As the mass went on, it took on light and colour and texture, becoming tangible to his senses. Now, in this moment, he was aware anew of the potential of the words, the significance of the postures. He felt uncertainty give way as acceptance settled into his bones. This was what he remembered. This was how it used to be, before he allowed indifference and discontent creep in.Right here in his hands was everything that mattered.

Miller wasn’t entirely a novice. He was familiar enough with the concept of church that he had some idea of the structure of what was taking place before him. He had seen the ritual mocked and parodied enough to even know some of the words. What he wasn’t prepared for was the serenity that obviously settled on the other man as the mass went on. It wasn’t merely ease of the familiar. Rather, it had substance. The peacefulness was a presence Miller could not ignore.

Was the hocus pocus of it all actually true? Surely not… and yet he could see a transformation in the man at the altar. It was tangible. As he sat in the pew watching the priest Miller tried to regather his accustomed scepticism. He was comfortable with the world as he knew it, liked the ordered certainty of his place in it. He thought the amorphous nature of faith was sloppy and disliked the sentimentality he perceived in it. “Hocus pocus,” he muttered to himself, as if for reassurance.

Bruno paused at the end, head bowed reverently. He hadn’t expected to get such a clear answer to the question he’d unknowingly asked while saying the mass, but he now felt calm despite the possibly severe consequences of what happened here today. He looked up to find Miller watching him looking somewhat bemused and resigned.

“I am a man of my word,” Miller said. “I still think all this is superstition and soothsaying, but I cannot deny… well… “ He stumbled to a halt, unable to express what he had just experienced. “I am a man of honour, Father,” he continued. “I will honour my part of the bargain. Your little flock will be quite safe from us. I will not mention this village in my report.”

With that he bowed his head in acknowledgement of what had passed between them, and walked out of the church.

20 November 2017

10 of 12: Elise's photo

(Two more to go!)

Prompt: She didn’t want it anyway | Word Count: 300 | Genre: Fiction

It had been a long wait in the dark, wet night. Elise was cold inside and out, from nerves and icy rain. It felt like hours had gone by since she’d lined up with the others, yet surely that wasn’t possible - the ship would be well and truly sunk before hours passed.

The shivering crowd of women was remarkably calm as they were directed into one lifeboat or another, shuffling together this way and that like slow-moving schools of fish. Five heavy wooden boats had been lowered so far. As Elise inched nearer to the railing, she could look down and see them at the mercy of the heaving waves. The dozens of women in each huddled together in miserable masses. Were they frightened, or relieved?

A hand tugged at her sleeve, and she looked up to see a ship’s steward standing next to her.
“One,” he said, looking from Elise to the woman beside her. “It’s fair sorry I am, ladies, but there is room for only the one of you.”

“You can’t be serious!” protested Elise. “What difference does it make, one or two more people in an already crowded lifeboat?”

“It’s true there are more than should be inside the raft, but I can squeeze in one other… not more,” he said with an almost apologetic lift of a shoulder.

Elise looked at the creased and dirty photo in her hand. A young man smiled out at her from it, the medal on his chest now pinned to the lapel of her coat. Women on either side of her bumped and stumbled into Elise, causing her to lose balance. The photo fell from her fingers to the wet deck, quickly disappearing under wet boots stamping in the cold.

“Take her,” she said, pushing the other woman forward.

Prompt: She didn’t want it anyway | Word Count: 300 | Genre: Fiction

It had been a long wait in the dark, wet night. Elise was cold inside and out, from nerves and icy rain. It felt like hours had gone by since she’d lined up with the others, yet surely that wasn’t possible - the ship would be well and truly sunk before hours passed.

The shivering crowd of women was remarkably calm as they were directed into one lifeboat or another, shuffling together this way and that like slow-moving schools of fish. Five heavy wooden boats had been lowered so far. As Elise inched nearer to the railing, she could look down and see them at the mercy of the heaving waves. The dozens of women in each huddled together in miserable masses. Were they frightened, or relieved?

A hand tugged at her sleeve, and she looked up to see a ship’s steward standing next to her.
“One,” he said, looking from Elise to the woman beside her. “It’s fair sorry I am, ladies, but there is room for only the one of you.”

“You can’t be serious!” protested Elise. “What difference does it make, one or two more people in an already crowded lifeboat?”

“It’s true there are more than should be inside the raft, but I can squeeze in one other… not more,” he said with an almost apologetic lift of a shoulder.

Elise looked at the creased and dirty photo in her hand. A young man smiled out at her from it, the medal on his chest now pinned to the lapel of her coat. Women on either side of her bumped and stumbled into Elise, causing her to lose balance. The photo fell from her fingers to the wet deck, quickly disappearing under wet boots stamping in the cold.

“Take her,” she said, pushing the other woman forward.

05 October 2017

9 of 12, the short story challenge

Prompt: Cutting the string | Word count: 1000 | Genre: Fiction

The room was round. The cool stone wall at her back was curved so the room must be round. She knew if she opened her eyes she would see one large window and an open vista beyond. She knew the deep window seat carved into the thick wall would be worn smooth from time and much use. The room would be softly lit as if from a gentle fire or a dozen candles, but she would never find the actual source of light or warmth. It was always this: emptiness and silence in a high stone tower.

She knew her name was Nicole. She knew when she opened her eyes she would be drawn to the window and when she looked down she would see trees and a garden and a maze. She would hear voices, and they would lure her out of the room, and she would find herself in the garden or under the trees. She never saw a door or stairs or knew how she got out of the room in the tower.

Her eyes opened. As she knew she would, she saw a lush green garden bordered by trees that spoke of age with their tall, stately presence. In the garden was a maze, and in the centre of the maze was a white stone bench. Before the bench was a plinth in matching stone, with a large empty urn made of the same stone as the bench and plinth. From the urn, anchored by a long slender string, a red balloon floated high and still.

She frowned at the distraction of voices. They sounded muffled, far away, as though only a few out of many broke through to her hearing. “... hear… Nicole… you… come… us…” They were a persistent hum in her awareness.

She closed her eyes again, and the voices faded into silence. The memory of greenery eased into black nothingness and she was left empty of sight and sound, the vivid red of the balloon the last image to fade from her awareness.

Time passed. How much she would be unable to say. She would open her eyes, see the room that became familiar all over again, look out at the garden from the window, and know she had done these things many times before. The voices would speak her name amid other indistinct phrases, and she would feel compelled by them, but didn’t understand what they were asking of her. They wouldn’t leave her in peace unless her eyes were closed, and when she opened them again she would find herself back in that room, looking out the window once more, at the garden, the maze, and the floating red balloon.

About to open her eyes once more, she knew that this time, like other times before, she would be standing in the garden. She could feel the stone tower behind her. She knew that this time, like other times, she would move away from it’s dense solidity. Sounds gradually entered her consciousness: birds twittering as they flew about, leaves waving in a barely-there breeze, small creatures rustling through the underbrush. She could smell the green of the grass, the bursting fullness of the flowers, the sharp tang of pine needles. The sun laid a cloak of warm yellow over her eyelids, preparing her for bright daylight when she looked at her surroundings.

It was pleasant to feel air moving around her body as she walked, the long skirt of her dress brushing her legs, her hair moving against her cheek. Her feet pressed into the soft earth, a reassuringly physical testimony to her presence in the garden. Of their own volition those feet took her across the lawn to the entrance of the maze. Her eyes were drawn to the balloon hovering above the lush green garden. It’s crimson presence against the calm blue sky was a jarring note she couldn’t ignore. As she approached nearer to it, the voices grew more distinct.

“...darling… please open… don’t”

Again, she felt compelled by the voices. It was they who kept calling her to leave the black silence and enter the round stone room over and over again, or wander between the living walls of the maze. Neither scenario offered respite, no way of leaving or wresting control over her situation. The voices asked something of her, and she was weary of it, of their persistence, of trying to understand them, of not being able to respond. She was tired of trying to make sense of it all and failing.

Fighting the temptation to close her eyes on the jarring presence of the world around her, Nicole continued into the maze. She took each turn unthinkingly, somehow knowing her way to the centre.Her awareness of the stone tower receded as she went deeper into the twists and coils of shrubbery. The green walls reached far above her head, seeming to touch the sky. With each step the voices grew clearer.

“You have to… eyes. ...hear us...don’t leave… back to us Nicole.”

At last the open space at the centre of the maze was before her. There was the cool, white bench she had seen from the window of the stone tower, and there was the urn and the crimson balloon. Standing here, the rest of the world might not exist. It might all be a fabrication of her mind, a relic of dreams from long ago. If not for the insistent presence of the balloon and the increasingly persistent voices emanating from it, this spot might be a tranquil haven.

Knowing at last what she was there to do, she found in her pocket a pair of delicate sewing scissors. As she stepped up to the urn, suddenly the voices fell silent. With relief, she cut the string and watched the red balloon float free, taking with it all the colour and sound of the world around her. As it faded, she closed her eyes, and was at peace.

10 August 2017

Seven of Twelve: Farmer Liberté's potatoes

Prompt: The Club; word count 750

“This day, it is hot enough to melt your wife’s heart, Guillaume,” complained Auguste, wiping his forehead with a bandana from his pocket. His blond hair was darkened with sweat, his fair face flushed red by exertion and heat.

“Bah! My wife, she always runs warm, she. More than you could handle, Auguste!” protested his friend. “More than is good for her,” he muttered under his breath.

“Your wife is a fine looking woman, Guillaume. Many men in the village envy you. I include myself there.”

“You would all do better to tend to your own wives,” growled Guillaume, his dark whiskers practically bristling. “No good comes of poaching from another man, you will learn that, I promise you.”

“Maybe yes, maybe no. Where’s the harm in a smile or two, I ask you. A man can live for a long time on the smiles of a pretty woman.” Auguste thought himself a man of the world, and his air was of one satisfied with himself. Next to his swarthier, stockier friend, he cut a fine figure: slender, fair, and graceful. He often lamented that fate had seen fit to bestow him upon a rural peasant family, when clearly he was meant for a more refined life.

Guillaume’s face gave away nothing of his thoughts, but then it seldom did, thought Auguste. There was a man who was exactly where he belonged. He would be as out of place in a salon offering pretty compliments to delicate ladies as he was perfectly in his element with dirt under his fingernails and the scent of manure clinging to his rough clothing. Still, he could be counted on to provide steady work, and be too engrossed in crop rotations to notice what went on under his nose.

“I’ve yet to find anything in life that comes without a cost upon it, Auguste. The Seigneur will exact his rents, and fate will collect on your debts, no matter how clever you think you’ve been at hiding from them. Now get to work; the sun is blazing and we have much to do. I’ll take this row; you work on that row, there. I’ll wager you a tankard I get to the far side before you figure out which end of the hoe to use.”

“You talk big, Guillaume,” scoffed  Auguste. “And still you end up paying for the beer at the end of the day!” However, Auguste could be counted on to take up a challenge, and just as Guillaume knew would happen, the man set to his task energetically, eager to prove his friend wrong.

The rest of the afternoon passed in sweltering silence as the men bent their backs to the work before them. The sun was near setting when Auguste, many meters ahead, cried, “Guillaume!  My God, Guillaume!” There was such fear and anguish in his voice to halt a man’s blood in his veins.

Guillaume’s boots sent clods of dirt flying as, with futility, he tried to move faster than the uneven, clinging soil would allow. He stopped abruptly at his friend’s side, looking to where Auguste was pointing.

“Lord have mercy,” Auguste whispered, appalled. He crossed himself, meaning it for the first time in many years.

On the ground between rows of green plants was the limp figure of a woman. She was wearing a simple dress of rough blue cloth favoured by most women of the village. Her long dark hair was unbound, obscuring her face and withholding her identity. She resembled a marionnette dropped to the ground, forgotten, with her legs crumpled under her, one wooden clog on the ground beside her.

“Her head… mon Dieu… her head has been crushed. How has this happened?” Auguste was nearly breathless. He approached a little nearer the woman. “Mother of God, Guillaume, I think it is Celine!”

“It is strange to me that you would think so, Auguste, when she is dressed like any other woman of your acquaintance. How is it that you recognize this body?”

There was something in the other man’s voice that lit Auguste’s nerves on fire. He spun round, horrified to find a brutal looking club in Guillaume’s hands.

“You thief! You stole my Celine from me, and this is the cost you both must pay.”

A juicy thump was the last Auguste knew of this life. By nightfall, both he and the pretty woman who had kissed him were deep under the last row of potatoes in the field of Guillaume Liberté.

17 July 2017

12/12 the sixth. Already!

Prompt: Coming undone | Word count: 1,200 | Genre: Fiction

Home after a long work day, Elise was sitting down at her desk to complete a complicated spreadsheet for a presentation the following week. She liked to get things done, and felt that, with only a week to go, she was already pushing the deadline beyond limits she was comfortable with.

Just out of reach of her vision, she saw - or rather sensed - a purple streak, like a hummingbird, dressed in a purple hoodie darting across her field of vision. How peculiar!


At the office the next day, she worked through the items on her to do list in her usual efficient manner.  She listened to a podcast  during her morning brisk walk ‘break’ and to a literary classic during her afternoon laps. Her lunch of antioxidant salad was followed by the writing of a weekly email to her mother.

That afternoon was dedicated to final preparations for the upcoming presentation. An assistant and an intern were helping to assemble the documents, but Elise liked to oversee it all herself.  Well, she told herself she was overseeing it, when in fact she actually did the work herself while the other two looked on. Hopefully the intern was learning something while hovering over Elise’s shoulder. If not, ordering green tea from the corner café would be the extent of her experience at Fletcher and Fletcher.

Elise sat at the conference table, happily imposing order on the chaos of paper spread before her. She was quite looking forward to the presentation, after which she might even take a day or two off. There was the garage to sort through and she’d been meaning to trim the shrubbery where it closed in on cars entering the lane. There just never seemed to be the opportunity on weekends no matter how carefully she scheduled her time.

Hmm… perhaps it was also time to book an appointment with the optometrist. She rubbed her eye, thinking there must be something in it. She’d seen two black spots move quickly in her periphery, but when she turned her head to discover what they might be, saw only the assistant and the intern. Irritated at their lack of activity, Elise sent them away to get tea and sticky notes.


Friday afternoon arrived, and with it the usual plans around the office to meet up for drinks after work. Elise was always included in the invitation, but seldom (in fact never) joined in. Friday evening was the perfect early start on her weekend tasks!

Elise believed in structure, so her weekend routine didn’t vary much from her weekdays. She woke and rose early, had breakfast accompanied by her one daily coffee, and spent precisely one half hour with the newspaper. (The latter was an indulgence she didn’t take time for during the week.) Then she tackled her to do list, working diligently from the first item down to the end. She would break for a walk in the morning and again in the afternoon, with a brief halt for a healthy lunch between.

Twice on Saturday she saw something on the periphery of her sight. Once, while washing the car she thought a deer or perhaps something smaller scampered away too quickly for her to see. Then while sorting the linen closet she sensed movement away to her right. But again, when she turned to look there was nothing there.

On Sunday, it happened several more times. A hint of motion. A vague glimpse of something not really there. A nearly imagined presence of something she couldn’t see. At first she put it down to visual fatigue. She had been spending a lot of hours in front of the computer lately. Perhaps it was mental strain? She was working hard on the presentation and while it was something she usually thrived on, maybe this time it was too much? Or… what if she was being haunted?  Maybe there’d been a death in the family recently and the soul needed help getting resolution for something before finding peace.

Elise shook her head at the last scenario. She really wasn’t the imaginative type and it seemed far too unlikely that a person she didn’t even know would seek her out after death in order to gain eternal rest. As for the first two possibilities, they were much more likely, but she didn’t appreciate the distraction as it affected her focus and efficiency.


Monday morning found Elise back at the conference table. Twice already that day she had experienced near-vision episodes and she was beginning to actually worry. What if they were a sign of imminent break down?

After a fourth event, she shooed the assistant and the intern out of the room and firmly closed the door behind them. She slumped into one of the big office chairs, clutching her head in her hands. “This isn’t happening,” she repeated as a mantra over and over to herself, trusting in the power of words to take care of things.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw a drift of white settle at her elbow. It was a piece of thick vellum paper on which was written:

Dear Miss Tempovola,
Please excuse this rather startling communication. Your increasing distress at certain recent episodes has prompted the writing of this note in order to explain matters.
You are not having visions. Neither are you losing your mind or being visited by a lately departed family member.
Rather, we, the Time Wardens, have been intervening in your experience of time. Practicality and efficiency are fine qualities to possess, Miss Tempovola, but life is meant to contain moments of joy and wonder; a soul will harden and wither without them.
Several times - more frequently than you have noticed - we have (only momentarily, mind) halted your internal clock. What you saw as fleeting images was life progressing around you at a normal pace. The result, given enough - pardon the expression - time, would be that you would naturally begin to allow for moments of quiet and delight. You are so tightly wound up that your inner clock is liable to stop at any time - again, please forgive the expression.
Under normal circumstances, our interventions remain undetected and unexplained: our clients reset their tempo and carry on, none the wiser as to what actually happened. In this instance, as more direct contact was required, the procedure is somewhat altered. You will not remember either having read this letter or the information it imparted. However, given that you do in this moment know what has happened, you must decide whether or not you will allow the resetting to occur, or instead, continue life as you have been living, but accepting the consequence.

Yours etc,
(Time Warden)


Elise hummed along to song on the radio as she washed the evening dishes. This was her favourite time of day. The sun, in preparation for setting, painted the landscape with touches of rose and antique gold. Elise often noticed such fanciful details, and in the evenings, forced to stand for a time at the sink by the window overlooking the back garden, she delighted in how beautiful it all was.

15 June 2017

Fifth of twelve: The Letter (word count: 500)

“Are you ready yet?” Tom asked the child.
“No, not yet,” the reply drifted back to him.
“Ok,” said Tom. “We can take our time.”

Tom sat on a thick lump of driftwood, hands stuffed deep into his pockets, his shoulders hunched against a wind that bit with sharp teeth through his thin jacket. Waves were being pushed onto the rocks by that wind, as it peeled the lake back layer by layer.

They were being peeled into layers, too, he and the girl. Life had become a stinging wind and blunt rocks, and they were caught in between, like the water, being battered by the two.

Ahead of him, at the point where rock melted into sand stood the small girl, Birdie. Tom’s heart wobbled looking at her. She was so little and alone there on the beach, her slightness emphasized by the vast horizon and unending stretch of water. Now and then she would kick a rock into the water with a drunken sounding ‘sploosh’ but mostly she was still, facing the unrelenting waves and the angry sky with all her solitary frailty.

Coming here, this spot, today, had been her idea. Birdie had spent many happy days at this beach, chasing seagulls, collecting shells, watching her mother paint the ever-changing mood of the sky over the lake. She could sit for hours with a pile of books, lost in a story or pouring over illustrations of shore life, eagerly sharing interesting tidbits.

It was a long drive for them to visit Tom, but they would come every summer. They made every visit worthwhile by filling their days with adventures and picnics, and plenty of day dreaming. Those days were touched by gold, Tom thought. Now they were in a time of somber grey.

“Birdie?” he called after some time had passed since he last asked, “are you ready now?”
“Not yet,” came the answer chased by the wind.

So Tom stood for a moment to stomp warmth back into his feet. They had been here, just like this, for hours it felt like. He was willing to wait longer, determined she would have all the time she needed. Each time he asked the question, her answer was the same: not yet.

And then she moved. He was at the point of thinking he would break and take her away before she was ready, but now she was standing in front of him, big eyes bruised with sadness.

“Is it true, Tom?” she asked, holding out the letter he had read aloud to her three times.

“Show me.” she’d said. “She me which words are Mama’s name.” and she’d traced her fingers over the loops and lines he had pointed to.

“Yes, little one. I’m so very sorry, it is true.”

At his answer she flung herself at him, not crying but holding on so very tight.

After a thousand heartbeats he gently pressed her back to look into her too-old eyes.

“Come on, Birdie Let’s go home.”