Very pleased to say that I’ve been chosen as one of the five winners of 1000 Words’ recent flash fiction competition :) The challenge was to write a story of 200 words or less, inspired by the photo above. I managed to resist until half an hour before the competition closed, but got sucked in at the last moment ;)
Sharing the pleasure with some truly excellent writers, both on the winner list and the runner-up list – Shirley Golden, David Hartley and other writers I’m looking forward to discovering. Make sure you head over to read their work!
My story, From My Body, Flowers Shall Grow, is set to be published on Friday, so I’ll share it on here then :)
Meanwhile, thanks to 1000 Words eds Natalie and Heather for reading and enjoying my piece.
We build statues out of snow, and weep to see them melt.
Can I tell you how it was? The earth like a saucer under that wide, grey-gold sky, the sun never rising more than a stretched hand above the horizon. Something swept over the ice that summer – over us – leaving behind it a mark that would never wash away.
I don’t know what brought us up here. I was too young to remember anything from before, and it was understood that you didn’t ask. There were only three of us: Mother with her careful grey eyes, me and Johannes. Our little house, with its tin roof and slanted walls, stood in the middle of the icy flats that, even now, seem to stretch on forever. Once a month, there was Wilhelm, who came with groceries and admiring eyes, and took some of the money mother kept in a tin box behind the hearth.
In winter, Mother warned us to stay close, and so we did – tethered by some invisible cord that we knew not to stretch. Summer days brought more freedom: Johannes and I would creak out on to the porch that ran around the house, spreading our fingers in front of our faces, peering through their shadows to see how much time was left before dark. Johannes couldn’t keep his fingers the same distance apart, and generally left them tucked in his mittens, but I got to be quite good at it. More than three fingers of sun meant several hours free of the warm, wood-smoke dark.
Those precious days, I’d stride away from the house toward the horizon, the safe, resented gravity of home tugging at my back. When we were younger, I let Johannes tag along with me but, as I grew, I shook him off. Wounded but uncomplaining, he stayed by the porch, watched by empty windows as he scraped snow into cluster of short, fleeting friends – a stalk of grass for a mouth, sticks for the arms and holes gouged by pointed fingers for their eyes. Mother unleashed cold fury on him once for pilfering some beans from the pot, so he stuck to what he could find on the ground after that.
That summer was a fractious one, and tempers flared like sun on ice. Mother spent more time than ever folded into the dusty corners of the house while I, fevered with my teenage years, loved and hated everything with all passion and no reason. Johannes padded quietly between the pair of us, bewildered by the looks and long silences, wide-eyed and needy in his worry. His fingers, when not tucked in their woollen mittens, found their way frequently to his mouth.
I ask myself now whether we really had three fingers of sun left that day. Memory is a fickle thing: sometimes I see my fingers spread wide, fat wedges of pale gold light between them. But sometimes, when I wake in the dark quiet, I see only slashes of vivid red between fingers that were barely apart.
I walked away from him that day, away from the house, as I’d done so many times before. I left him there in the sparse, sharp grass, and I walked out toward the darkening horizon, wishing with everything in me that I could run to meet it, and half convinced I was going to try. I turned only once, and the last view I had of the house was of the windows reflecting the flat, endless plains like a mirror, and of Johannnes, stout in his blue coat, scraping together another friend.
* * *
There is nowhere Johannes could have gone. I don’t tell you that in exasperation, or to prove some kind of point; it’s simply the truth. The land out here is as flat as gets – there are no cracks or crevices he could fall into, no hidden rivers under the ice. No visitors came and went, and there were no tyre marks or foot prints, as though anyone could approach without us knowing, anyway.
In those endless days of afterwards, nobody came about Johannes. There was no one to come, and it was for the best. What could we have told them?
Mother retreated further into herself, knowing as well as I did that there was nowhere he could have gone. In the winter that followed, I caught her watching me sometimes, pale eyes glinting in the lamp light. She never said it, and neither did I. When the cancer took her two years later, she went quietly and I sat downstairs by the fire as her breathing rattled then failed. Wilhelm took her away when he came two weeks later, and that was that.
* * *
Now, when I stand on that rickety porch, I move outside myself somehow. I see Johannes and me, dark brush strokes on a canvas that would’ve been better without such bold marks made on it. We stretch down and away, shadows against the lilac snow, staring out to where we’ll never go, where the frozen Earth touches sky. I’m in front of him, longer, thinner than he is; his bundled shape pauses in the short grass, wondering whether to follow or let me go.
And when I lie in bed at night, feeling the weight of the heavens pressing down on the roof, I know that this life, this world, is just too big to hide anything forever. I wait for the crunch of footsteps on the icy snow – for another dark stroke to be made on this pale canvas. Maybe the snow isn’t as white as it looks. Who knows? I’m just telling you how it was. How it is.
Between the trees there creeps a rain-slicked path, mossy and tarred with the mulch of leaves that have fallen and been trodden underfoot, not by men but by whatever else may pass this way. The tang of decay rises with each step, vibrant and coarse in the frigid air.
To the east, a small stone cottage hunkers low beyond the roll and dip of the forest floor. Almost hidden by the misting rain, its dark windows stare blindly out, while what sits behind them is not blind at all. A breath of smoke rises silently from the chimney, hanging in the still air. Stiff-jawed and cold-eyed, you take care to not to turn your face toward the trees, the space between their dark, traitorous columns singing out your presence.
The lonely whistle of a pigeon’s wings echoes in the canopy, and you flick your eyes back to the path ahead, praying that you will soon be out of sight. When your fingers unfreeze and the mud and dead leaves are gone from your boots, all this will just be a story to tell.
One of my favourite writers of short stories and flash fiction – the lovely Berit Ellingsen – has been published in Lies/Isle recently with a gorgeous little piece called Gold-flecked Water.
Like everything Ellingsen writes, it’s completely beautiful, so you should go and check it out. More of Ellingsen’s work, including links to her amazing short story collection Beneath The Liquid Skin, can be found on her website.
A fractious late afternoon: dark skies and low, blinding sun just clearing the tops of the trees. In the clearing, a small wooden hut sits, on whose two rickety steps sits a woman. Her hair falls into a heavy plait over her left shoulder and she’s straining with the pains of labour.
She smiles at us, one hand braced against her belly, and asks us to forgive her lack of hospitality at this time, as though even one of us could fit in her tiny shelter. We walk on, moving under the canopy of trees at the edge of the clearing, where another woman is waiting.
Her black skin shines in the broken light and she tells us that Jesus will soon be coming:
“Things will be different,” she says. ” It will be a time of ease, even for the children. Things that were difficult will no longer be.”
Slowly, almost shyly, she lifts up a wooden puppet: a beautifully carved boy carved from rich, dark wood; it is clear that she thinks her saviour is already here.
We look at the boy, fashioned from wood from this forest, and see that, somehow, he is both something – a coy, soft-eyed something that clings to his mother’s skirts – and nothing at all.
I spotted the film trailer for The Maze Runner, another dystopian YA fiction series on IMDB and thought it looked intriguing. It’s out this October, so I decided to get the books read first.
Big mistake. Despite average ratings of 4-5* across Amazon and GoodReads, The Maze Runner is one of the worse books I’ve read in living memory, and I feel compelled to share my review and warn any hapless readers who might – like I – get sucked in by the hype…
As I say, I bought the Maze Runner series after finding the concept interesting – the protagonist wakes up in a metal box with no memory of anything other than his name. He soon finds that he has joined a large number of other boys who are trapped at the centre of a maze filled with unknown terror. So far, so good.
From chapter one of The Maze Runner, I could sense something was amiss. By the end of the book, I was ready to kill someone – preferably James Dashner for inflicting this monstrosity on the world, but possibly myself, if only to make the pain stop.
It’s hard to even know where to begin with criticising this book, but some of the major bugbears are as follow:
Clunky, slow, so contrived it’s untrue. Instead of genuine suspense and clear plot arcs, the book is just a long line of events that never really succeed in building up any suspense.
Dashner seems incapable of showing the reader anything, instead choosing to describe *everything* in painstaking (and often painfully boring) detail, which results in the plot melting into one big sloppy river of words. I was never able to lose myself in the story because the omnniscient narrator and the annoying protagonist (whose voices often get mixed up, annoyingly) are always there, explicitly stating which emotions/reactions are appropriate at any given time. We don’t *feel* suspense; we get told that things are Super Tense.
The protagonist, Thomas, is one of the most unlikeable characters I’ve had the misfortune of encountering. And that’d be fine if he was supposed to be unlikeable, but he isn’t.
Thomas is a textbook Gary Stu, and we’re supposed to find him admirable/heroic/impressive/all things marvellous when he is, in fact, erratic, unpleasant, obtuse and ridiculously entitled. Oh, and unbelievably dense, a lot of the time, although this seems to be more of a plot driver than anything; he does a lot of daft things and asks a lot of very daft questions simply so the reader can be privy to information that was obvious already:
“‘Where was he bitten?’ Thomas asked. ‘Can you see it?’ ‘They don’t freaking bite you. They prick you….’ For some reason, Thomas thought the word prick sounded a lot worse than bite. ‘Prick you? What does that mean?'”
This guy is supposed to be 16-17 years old, and hyper-intelligent, and he doesn’t understand what the word ‘prick’ means. So many interactions like this read like word-count fillers.
Sexism / objectification…
The only female character for the vast majority of the book – Teresa – is supposed to be around 15-16 years old. And yet, she’s incessantly described by the author/Thomas in nauseatingly clichéd terms relating to her physical appearance – Thomas can’t even think about her without including something about how girly/feminine/pretty she is.
She conveniently stays in a coma until needed, when she wakes up, magically realises that she’s meant to be with Thomas (I won’t tell you how, but it’s vomit-inducing) and spends the rest of the book clinging to him and making acceptably non-threatening and vaguely ‘spunky female’ comments, mostly in response to the male characters’ naff gender stereotyping about ‘girls’.
Tereas is a plot device, pure and simple, and a prop for showing what a big, amazing dudebro Thomas is, very much in the same way that the character of Chuck is used.
The same cannot be said for The Maze Runner, which features gems such as:
“Burning blue eyes darted back and forth as she took deep breaths. Her pink lips trembled as she muttered something over and over, indecipherable…Thomas stared in wonder as her eyes rolled up into her head and she fell back to the ground.”
“He guzzled his water, relishing the wet coolness as it washed down his dry throat.”
OhmyGodplease. Other foodstuffs are described in the same excruciating detail.
“Thomas stood up to pace around the little room, fuming with an intense desire to keep his promise. “I swear, Chuck,” he whispered to no one. “I swear I’ll get you back home.”
And my personal favourite: a hunk of cliché, gender stereotyping, bad grammar and poor writing all rolled into one:
“He was somewhere very close to sleep when a voice spoke in his head, a pretty, feminine voice that sounded as if it came from a fairy goddess trapped in his skull.”
I can only beg for mercy at this point. And what in the name of all that is holy is a ‘fairy goddess’? Ohhhh, of course, it’s a made-up thing that brings together everything pretty and nice and girly and lovely because that’s what the only female character has to be.
I’m pretty sure that when Dashner wrote this book, he filled it will swear-words and then went through with CTRL + F and replaced them all with the infuriating made-up, faux-swears that the characters use. “shuck-face”, “klunk” etc.
And is though that weren’t enough, he even has Thomas’s sidekick/adoring fan, Chuck explain why they use the word “klunk” and what it means (sh*t). So the characters themselves are aware that they’re using ridiculous, invented words, but it’s never explained why. It’s like Dashner expects us to accept that this is a world where the swear-words we know don’t exist; otherwise, why would a group of teen boys self-censor? It would have been infinitely better to just leave the swearing out entirely.
Why Does Dashner Have To Capitalise Every Made-Up Word In The Book?
So yes. That about sums up my most basic feelings about this book. I’m an avid reader of both adult and YA fiction, and I’m not one for leaving a book unfinished, but The Maze Runner just about did me in. It’s an incredibly bad book, and I’m considering taking the (brand new!) other books in the series down to the charity shop rather than actually putting myself through the torture of reading them.
I can only hope my suffering serves as a warning to anyone tempted to pick up this dreadful series.