We’re back in Flash fiction territory once more, stretching our creative muscles for a bit of fun. The inspirational image is called Cyberpunk, by artist Yuri Shwedoff, and the Key words we have to utisilise are Mercian, Rain God, and Laughter – brought to us this month by Peter Coleborn from a mysterious bit of graffiti he spotted. There’s no word limit, but I like to keep things fairly punchy if I can. Here’s what I came up with:
For the many
They’re Sylvan in physique if not in size, suspicious by nature, rough tongued—though the Mercian dialect is close enough in form and root for understanding. I used to wonder at that connection, but some holes go too deep. I’ve yet to find a settlement of any great size or note, nor evidence of the great society this drizzled, dour, and desperate land once boasted. It is most strange. I may have to pierce deeper; leave the borderlands and risk the wrath of iron. A troubling thought.
Communities are lacking. Sparse households and hamlets at most, with patches of land jealously enclosed, tilled or used to keep scrawny animals. The people are dominated by a fearsome old man they call The One – avatar of their pernicious rain god – who demands his due from starveling subjects with honeyed words and whips. If this is truly representative of mankind, their degeneration is complete. That should please the Queen. This stolen land may yet be ours again.
I’m brought up short by a sight I thought never to witness: a shackled brace of children kneeling on the dusty road, offered up in sacrifice. Not to me of course; I keep myself well hidden behind blades of grass and feathered fern. They wait heads down, hands aloft, for the ragged procession to reach them. Behind at a distance are the family, huddled in muted misery, weeping and consoling, irresolute and incapable. At the head of the procession strides the old man himself – The One – eyeing this tribute with mild surprise. He looks across at the homesteaders.
‘Greetings and blessings to you all. Where is the Speaker for the stead?’
A matron steps forward and nervously clears her throat.
‘The Speaker has passed, alas. His heart gave way on yonder hillock.’
‘Indeed? Your man, I presume? A heavy blow.’ He pauses a barely respectful moment. ‘And my harvest, where is that?’
The woman’s mouth opens, her chest hitches, but she is unable to speak. At his feet, the elder child answers instead, low toned. A girl-child, I think, though unformed.
‘Father died before the planting was complete. Me an’ Rick were down with sweating sickness for weeks and the weather turned bad before we recovered.’
‘Then there is no harvest.’ No question here; a bald fact spat derisively. He glares at the matron until her eyes flick downward, her cheeks burning. ‘Your home is forfeit.’ Gasps all round, but the voice grinds on without mercy. ‘The fault is your own—you know this. For even as the rain fills my cup, so does it trickle down to you. My bounty is your bounty and my drought is your drought.’ These last words are a wasp sting. He points at the shackled youngsters. ‘What is this?’
‘Rosewort and Hayrick, my own bounty. Yours, if you’ll have them in lieu o’ th’ harvest.’
The One’s laughter is short, dry to the point of desiccation. He looks down with distaste, taking in their hollow eyes, their slender bones, their mottled skin and tattered rags. He spits in each of their faces, a blessing and curse entwined.
‘They’re of no use to me, woman. You have two turns, then I want you gone.’
Her howl is despairing, taken up by the steaders behind her, but a sudden snarl drowns them out. Enraged and in concert, Rosewort and Hayrick leap into action. The boy strikes low at belly and groin, dropping the old man. The girl whips their connecting chain around his wrinkled neck, and as his retinue cry in dismay, the old goat’s windpipe cracks.
Silence follows, then hoes are brought to bear, sickles unveiled. The procession beats a hasty retreat and a proud mother embraces her offspring. The reign of the One is over. His body will, it seems, be divided up between the many to sustain them through these lean times. As they build their fire and prepare his flesh, I see the light of revelation kindle in their eyes. Together, they are strong. Word of this will spread.
It gives me pause for thought.
My creative path
I wrote my first paragraph with no clear thought in mind beyond the notion that this was to be set in a post-apocalyptic world. I didn’t want to flat-out use the space-shuttle image, but the pictured knight seemed to me to be curious rather than regretful. It made me think of them as an outsider who perhaps knows more about the world than those who now inhabit it. That made me think of social regression.
You haven’t actually read my first paragraph because it ended up on the cutting room floor. Here it is, for those who are curious:
It’s a smaller world, they say, but smaller than what? Or when? All I get is a shrug. They seem peeved by my curiosity, defensive. As if a question is an attack, but… well, that’s the Mercs for you. Not big on thought. It’s just a saying. I’ve tried to engage them a number of times over the years, probing their borders, gauging the threat. I don’t push hard – I’ve heard too many stories of violence when roused – but I can’t seem to stop myself prodding. It’s going to get me killed one day.
Two things to note. I didn’t want to use the key word ‘Mercian’ to mean people from Mercia because that places us in an *historic rather than future setting, so I thought I’d put a spin on the word. I never got to use the word Mercantile to define the culture that spawned these ‘Mercs’ and their dialect, but that’s what came to mind. Spinning off from that came the thought that they could be the product of capitalism taken to extremes. Ultimate exploitation, society broken in such a way that it cannot conceive of working in concert for the benefit of all. The godhood of the individual – or The One – which speaks of trickling down (ahem) in its rain god imagery, yet is only interested in its own enrichment.
I began to get obsessed with that saying from the start: ‘It’s a smaller world’, feeling that it was important to the story. I imagined the various positive ways and contexts in which the Mercs might use it e.g. to express victory and control (when they have won a game or a battle), said joyously about marriage (reducing the number of units by combining two people), said in hope by the young (the world is becoming more known, less perilous) and so on and so forth. It began to skew everything into world-building. It demanded expansion, so it had to be cut.
To further separate this from being specifically England (and thus permit me to develop my increasingly pointed political undertones) I figured the borders in question could be metaphysical, with faeries wanting to reclaim the land. That was to be the purpose of my observer – scouting the area for his Queen. It occurred to me that he would be pleased by the degeneration of man, putting him on the side of The One in a funny way. I still didn’t have a story though. I needed an encounter and a resolution – one which would give the **reader a sense of justice and hope.
I needed to bring the old man in, then. And I needed his subjects to rebel, to put the case forward for working towards the benefit of all, redistributing the bounty in as shocking and practical a way as possible. There’s that story of the Dutch Prime Minister who was killed and eaten, right? That’d do a treat. All I needed to do was set the dominos up and they’d fall just beautifully. Does it work as a prod to the masses? Does it act as a caution to our corrupt and selfish rulers? Of course not – it’s just a bit of flash fiction – but I reckon it came out alright. What do you think?
Feel free to leave feedback in the comments below. I’d love to read your own work too, so if you feel inspired by the image and the 3 key words then have a go. Post your story (or poem or whatever) below.
* Mercia was one of several kingdoms in post-Roman England.
** Okay, okay… One that would allow me to feel it, along with some vicarious savagery on those who preach the creed of greed.
You can read my other flash pieces and, if you like, contribute your own to sit along side them.
If you’re interested in something more substantial, listen to a performed reading of my story – From Tappet Woods – free of charge.
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