As there’s a spare week this month, I thought I’d have another crack at some flash fiction. I was pleased with how last week’s came out, though appalled at my timing in retrospect. I mean, come on, Dion – a visceral piece about a miscarriage that close to Mother’s Day? Oof. My apologies.
For this new piece I plucked some new words from the air – Warrior, Flattery, Benign – and selected an image suggested by Shona Kinsella to inspire me, but I have to say I really struggled. I’ll go through the creative process afterwards and consider why the muse dried up. Enough talk, here’s the piece:
Deep in the rotten heart of the woods there lies a black pool, flyblown and stagnant, stinking and slick with the remnants of flesh. It is found on no map, yet all men wander thither through the mist-dark millennia, feeding the roots of the world tree.
The paths leading inward shift and squirm, reluctant to reveal their destination lest any traveller grow too bold or too fearful, for this is a secret place, sacred to the green folk—the very source of life. At its side, Yggdrasil contemplates Creation, even as she feasts upon its bones.
All this known, though none have returned bearing witness.
You seek proof? I have none, childe. There is a shape to ignorance which fits the Truth perfectly, if one has but the eyes to see and the mind to decipher the pattern.
What is existence but growth? What is life but exploration?—a myriad choices unique to the wanderer. And what is death but rebirth, diving headlong into the wellspring, dissolving one’s essence in darkness only to be drawn up once more by the roots in endless, benign and wondrous transition.
Man is born to die, as are all living things. There is no cruelty in this, so speak not of injustice. You are here, now, and the journey is yours. It was ever thus. Come now, do not think me insensible. I have been where you kneel. Felt what you feel at this lowest of ebbs. Hope too is eternal.
What artist sees the moon and does not dream of grasping it? What warrior does not fight for the very last breath? What scholar does not seek new solutions? I have been all of these, aye, and many more in my lives, bargaining and begging and working for every scrap. Industry, bribery, flattery, sacrifice—all were for naught in extending my time, but for quality… ah. There’s the nub.
Raise your head. Take to your feet, childe. The world is wide and full of promise. Life is dangerous, but what can we expect you to do? Hide ’neath our skirts all your days? What would that add to your lives or the world? Nay, I would not have you frightened to live. Gird up your loins, walk proudly into the woods and cut your own path if needs be.
You’ll find the pool in your own time, by and by. It is patient and cool and welcoming. About its banks, mycelial whispers pass word of the world beyond, collecting knowledge, accreting understanding. We shall meet there once more, have no doubt. Yggdrasil draws us up, growing ever taller, more expansive, and we who are she who are all that will be grow ever greater within.
Once again, I tried to monitor my creative process as I wrote Rotten Heart, so for anyone interested, let’s weave our way through.
The image was visually striking, which immediately attracted me, but as I sat down to write, I found myself over-thinking the scene. Where last week’s butterflies blasted me with an emotional impact, this one tantalised me with questions. Who are the skeletal figures? What do their postures convey? The tree behind them forms the shape of a heart, through which the moon shines brightly. Is this a love story? But then, what of the pile of skulls in the water? Do they indicate deception? Is this a place of murder?
The more closely I looked, the greater my impulse to decode the story I imagined the artist was telling instead of conveying my own. I began relatively swiftly, describing the location, those first two paragraphs spilling out from me. While they suffered a number of minor tweaks, they remain more or less intact. But where then? I felt abstracted from the scene, itself too perfectly posed to feel real. Look at the symmetry of the tree. And the skull at its joining – I hadn’t noticed that initially. It drew my focus now as if it represented some hidden entity controlling all. Some fae spirit or demon perhaps? The tree itself personified?
Something clicked at the last thought and, line by painful line, I began working with the notion that the whole image was allegorical. Sans flesh, one could imagine the skeletons as anybody. Everybody. I began to think of the narrator as the left-hand figure – one of the dead, comforting the other. For what? Well the opening lines set out something which resonates: mortality itself. I pushed on through, trying to find a way to build on what had gone before, growing out the seeds I’d initially planted, but the writing seemed to curl in upon the central conceit. There was very little flowering. The archaic language (initially used to evoke a sense of the mythic) seemed to clog everything up, and it took an age to shave back the worst excesses.
I forced my way to the end last night, and sat back aghast at how slender the through-line was: a literary wank, and an unsatisfactory one to boot. Elements remain unexplored. The title itself seems to indicate something evil, though by the end I wanted the process of decomposition to be seen in a more positive light, and the notion of the life/death cycle as being benign seems undercut by the menacing grin of Ygdrasil’s skull in the image. An imperfect fit all in all.
Ah, well. This is flash fiction. It’s meant to be practise, not perfection. I could spend more time cleaning it up, trying to deliver perfection, but I have paying work to be getting on with. Enough then. It is what it is.
Did you have a go at this one? If so, I’d love to read it. There’s no time limit, so feel free to take a run at it whenever you like. Just post it in the comments section below.
Think I’ve been too hard on myself? Give me a kick up the arse and tell me what you think worked well.
I’ll set another image and three more words via social media on the 19th April, ready to publish in the next Hobby week (commencing 25th). You’ll be welcome to join me.
If you missed last week’s piece and would like to read it (or perhaps to write your own using the image and key words) then here it is again.
If you’d like to check out some of the old Flashes of Inspiration (and again, perhaps join in) then clickity click right here.
Would you like to hear a podcast I recorded about Flash Fiction, featuring discussion with some writer friends and some lovely little readings? Step right up for A Little Bit of Flash.