The Amberg

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By 1944 the Polish resistance has been crushed. Half a million of Warsaw’s citizens are dead rotting in destroyed building or in plain sight on the street.

The survivors of what was once a vibrant cityscape scurry about like vermin in a living nightmare. They look for any way to survive, but know death is coming for them no matter how hard they struggle. Today, tomorrow, it does not really matter, their birth condemned them to death.

Feliks wears the uniform of the Waffen SS. He is a Polish conscript who never fired his weapon. Even when he was a member of the resistance. He was a shit soldier and is okay with that. He did not ask for war, war asked for him.

His uniform was once pristine grey wool, but now fits his overly thin body in baggy tatters. His face is gaunt. Maybe all fourteen bones can be counted if a person can move past the dark haunted eyes that sit sunken in that now far from human face to count them. His lips are depressions that once covered teeth. His neck, sticking from the frayed collar of his uniform jacket, is rail thin. The hands appearing from the cuffs of his jacket are limber bones attached to each other with visible strands of ligament.

Yet when he lays eyes on the pristine Amberg piano, a light goes off that takes away the war weary shadows and makes him look young again.

He has been hiding from the Soviets for weeks. Going from bombed out apartment to bombed out apartment finding scraps of food, hunting rats, eating bugs. Doing things that in his twenty-one years of existence he never thought he would have to do, yet he needs to survive. For what reason though he has not a clue. Maybe he is just afraid of death. Maybe he does it in memory of his mother. Maybe he does it to honor his father’s name. Maybe he continues to make his lungs suck air and his heart pump blood to insure the Czarodziej lineage lives on.

But the Amberg might be the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. It must have come from one of the apartments further up in the building because now it sits on top of a pile of rubble as if it were built there more than a hundred years before.

Feliks Czarodziej stumbles toward the piano like a man possessed. He climbs the rubble. Loose stones of cement cascade behind him. His climb is far from quiet. The person who moments before secreted himself in this building to avoid a Soviet patrol would be shocked at his blatant disregard for sound discipline.

With his climb to the piano, he is wasting weeks of sneaking around voiding all his attempt to keep living at all costs.

He reaches the pinnacle of the rubble and stands before one of the greatest instruments ever built. Its cherry finish glows even in the low light of the destroyed building.

He runs his hands along its smooth varnish as if it had been blessed by God.

He lifts the lid, which protects the implements capable of producing so much of the music he enjoyed as a child in the audience of the Warsaw Philharmonic.

This instrument, or one of its sisters, was worked under the fingers of the music masters of Poland. People who could make grown men weep.

He places his fingers above the keys and memories drift up from the abyss of his mind. His teachers, old even then, not very patient men who would slap his knuckles with rulers if he erred.

They are all probably dead. Most of them Jewish masters. He witnessed his last teacher being paraded to the train yards just five years ago. Stooped and more grey than he had been at their last lesson. A walking skeleton.

Feliks would be surprised to learn he was not far from a walking skeleton himself. His war is over, but hell was just beginning. He sneaked away when orders for retreat back to Germany were given. He was a conscript. A forced soldier and he did not want to leave his beloved Poland even under threat of Soviet invasion.

He was forced to be a German soldier, but if given a choice he would die a Polish musician.

Before he even realizes he is even doing it, his fingers pound a startling note on the ivory white keys. The sound is powerful as if coming directly from Feliks’ own soul. It has qualities of sadness to it, of regret and death.

Then he is playing the first bars of Mozart’s Requiem and tears come to his eyes blurring out the keys.

He stops to wipe at his eyes.

A sudden clapping startles him.

He turns quickly and is shocked to see six Soviet soldiers standing in the destroyed entryway to the building. The officer is clapping slowly. He has an evil look on his face. A face that has seen more death than a single person should ever see. He is chubby. He has a great bulbous belly while his men are rail thin. Not as emaciated as Feliks, but hungry. They hold bolt action Mosin-Nagant and one has the automatic PPD

“Please, don’t stop on our behalf,” the fat officer chides.

Feliks does not want to oblige. Music is his art. He used to love what his fingers could create. But these men are evil. He can sense it. The rumor was the Soviets waited for the Polish resistance to be destroyed before entering the city to finish the job. They killed more than the Germans did.

“I insist,” he lowers his hand to sit on the pistol tucked in the holster on his belt.

Feliks takes his hands from the keys and puts them in his lap and shakes his head no.

He sits like that for what feels like an eternity, until a pistol fires and the cement below his feet crumbles into chips.

He looks up to see a TT-30 in the fat red hands of the Soviet officer with smoke slowly swirling from the barrel.

“The next bullet finds a soft warm spot in you, and the next and the next then next. Keep playing comrade Polish.” He growls, the sarcastic smile gone from his face.

Feliks raises his hands and hovers them over the keys. He has decided to die today, but will first play one last piece of music. It is his choice, so he will go out with the memory of Mozart playing in his ears.

He again plays the first haunting note and then the second and the third. He strokes the keys lovingly and the sound comes back to him as an embrace. He has never felt more love then he feels in this melody. It is haunting and beautiful and he finishes and lowers his head, spent.

The sudden barrage of gunfire startles him. He looks up to see five of the Soviet soldiers fall. The fat one squirms, he acts as if he wants to roll over and protect himself, his pistol held in a shaking fist. Another barrage by the man holding the automatic rifle stops him cold.

He looks up at Feliks tears dripping from his eyes.

He walks over to his now dead leader and drops his rifle to the ground. He reaches down and replaces it with the officer’s pistol. He puts the weapon under his bone lean chin and in accented Polish says, “Someone who makes music so beautiful should live forever,” and pulls the trigger.

Instantly his skull explodes into tiny bits of blood and brain and he collapses in a heap. His name forever unknown.

Sixty years later to the day, Feliks plays Requiem one last time. He remembers that soldier as he does when he plays any music.

The crowd in Lincoln Center stands and claps vigorously.

Many call for an encore.

Feliks bows. His long life almost over. The nightmare of living in the past almost done.

He feels his heart stammer as it has been doing a lot lately. Death approaches. Good, he thinks, it’s about time.

Music has haunted him. He plays because he was told to play. He was cursed to play until he could no longer play, not under threat of death, but under threat of life.

“Not tonight, my many friends, not tonight; tonight I have no more music to play,” he says standing and moves off stage.

The pain in his chest grows. His heart pounds. His left arm is numb. He thinks of his children. A boy and a girl, both parents now themselves. Happy adjusted, Americans. He thinks of his home in Warsaw. He thinks of the Amberg he has kept in his living room all these decades. He never played it again.

That might be the greatest tragedy of his life to own that piece of art meant for the joy of music to languish unplayed. As he collapses to his knees just on the safety side of his dressing room door he hopes that someone will make joy on that instrument again. He hopes that the music they create will be from their heart and not from the curse of life.  

Primal

primal
Posted to  /r/pics – by  /u/wistfulwatermelon

 

 

This is primal.

Think prehistory.

Of living in a cave.

Of staring at the star dotted sky.

Of trying to understand the sudden explosive glory of a comet and the lunacy of living on a gravity well in the middle of a gas cloud only ninety-two million miles from a controlled nuclear explosion.

Think  a thing with a disease called sentience on the cusp of oblivion tasting chaos and expecting pain.

Happiness

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And on that day the chicken knew happiness.
He waited a long time to be picked up again and know that feeling of love and acceptance of seeing beauty beyond the coop.
And when that day came and he was lifted up by that same boy very much older, he was not scared, he knew what to expect.
But instead of the sweet nectar of the beautiful plant for a split second before nothing he saw whirring blades, but he was not upset, that one flower made his entire life worth it.

The Bard and Ser Gerald

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Human Bard – Art by: Erik Tenkar

 

 

 

Ser Gerald attacks. A gleaming sword held high in his expert fist. He tossed his shield. It would be worthless in this fight.

The hill giant looks amused. He is a hairy brute, naked with a roll of fat hiding his manhood. He stands taller then a two story house and weighs probably as much. He smells of eye watering vinegar, malt and old barn.

It was his smell that lead them to him.

The giant raises a thick spruce tree that he ripped from the ground right when the silly man in metal made his prayer to his God at the top of his lungs.

Why paladins give warning before they attack is beyond Tomas, but it works well for poetry.

The giant makes his own battle cry, more a glorious burp that moves the thick matted tangle of hair on his face.

Tomas has no armor, he has a tiny dagger shoved between his left boot and leather legging, but only for emergencies. He needs both hands for his real weapon, a lute. The instrument is just a normal lute. Four strings and a pine wood body. He has been playing it the entire ride down into the valley. He’s been singing stories of heros and great feats of bravery.

All for the knight’s benefit, Ser Gerald got into it pretty good, even sang a few verses himself. In fact Tomas takes credit for the holy warrior’s motivation when they spotted their warrant.

Tomas strums a quick tune.

The giant swings his tree and misses. Barely. He is already making another attack when Tomas strums off key and sings with a shrieking voice. The Giants looks at him distracted and the knight takes the opportunity to open the monsters belly spilling intestines and half digested lamb meat.

The giant falls to his knees and the knight hacks it’s head off. It takes three blows.

Tomas feels bad, but not bad enough to avoid feeling inspired and start humming a tune he thinks would work well when retelling the tale later at the local tavern as they await their reward from the local magistrate.

 

Sisyphus

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Sisyphus concept art by: David Kilmer

 

 

Millenniums have passed.

Every day the same burden.

The wicked hot sun above him beats down on his shoulders as he pushes. The skin on his back is cracked like baked mud. It breaks and bleeds when he starts his efforts each day. His feet are muddy with blood soaked dirt.

Sisyphus feels the normal strain on his shoulders. His neck bulges. His biceps quake. Dehydrated veins bulge. Beads of salty sweat roll into his eyes and off his body adding to the already gore slicked ground under his feet. His hands are white with effort.

The boulder he labors against has worn perfectly smooth with his efforts over the centuries, but this does not help him in his chore of gaining elevation. Every foot step is an earned torture as he labors to push his boulder higher and higher.

There is no point to this task.

He knows just as he reaches the pinnacle of this elevation the boulder will magically roll away from him.

This exercise in futility is a sentence for hubris. The one crime Zeus never forgave.

Sisyphus’ punishment is to push this boulder up this hill for eternity and nothing can save him. Over the course of his amercement he has come to the conclusion that he deserves it.

As he toils day in and day out his mind worries over his crimes.

His list of misdeeds is many.

In the morning he goes through the list of merchants and travelers he killed indiscriminately. Their blood fueled his reputation and allowed him to rule with an iron fist. He pictures each murder with perfected detail. Some he just ordered dispatched. Those were the first he thought of. The easiest. Then he works through the faces of those he felt the blade enter skin and muscle. He would remember the look of betrayal. None expect death. That was the most surprising part. By the end his reputation was secure, yet the merchants kept showing up, the promise of riches too great. He wondered if in death they also were chained to a boulder for the hubris of thinking they would survive his wrath.

Zeus probably did not care about the crimes of those little people. Sisyphus is well aware how he earned Zeus’ scorn and it wasn’t with murder or betrayal. Those were crimes expected of a king.

By midday his mind usually turns to the crime he committed that tortures him the most. The one that makes his very soul ache. This is the crime that earned him his throne, the one he got away with.

He married the sister of King Salmoneus of Corinth. Her name was Tyro. She had long brown hair that had a wave to it when wet. Her eyes were large and deep brown pools of love. She was warm and soft. She smelled like spices. He had many children with her. His life was happy and good, but still he lusted for power. So he killed his brother in law and took the throne.

Grief stole his wife’s sanity.

This memory always plays out perfectly in every detail. He wishes he could make this one not come, but like clockwork with the sun at its zenith it arrives.

He stands on the parade ground inspecting the Corinthian army.

His second gasps and points up.

Sisyphus follows his gesture to see Tyro at a high window in the knossos. In her hands is their youngest. A little girl. Not even a year. The sound of her small body hitting the ground lives with him as if it has replaced his heart beat. Then his next child. Followed by the third. All in a pile in front of him broken, bleeding and dead.

Then she follows. By the time she jumped he was cold to her suicide. He would have killed her himself if she hadn’t thrown herself out the window. She saved him the trouble.

His oldest son was saved. He was in Ithica were he was allowed to be adopted by the good king Laërtes to raise as his own. On Sisyphus’ death he would return to claim the Corinth throne.

Sisyphus did not have time to be a father. He had more important things to do. He wanted revenge. He wanted the Gods to answer for allowing his children to die.

By the time the sun began its great descent Sisyphus was ready to work over his greatest crime.

Challenging the Gods themselves.

He was feared as a ruler on Gia. All men shat themselves when his name was mentioned. Corinth was considered the center of Greece, but he was still just a man and men died.

When Sisyphus died he was old and feeble. He pushed the limits of his body into an eighty-ninth year. His skin was paper thin. His muscles frail. His hair was grey and his eyes white with cataracts. And torture of tortures when he died it would seem he does so without an heir.

Rumor was his son was lost after the Trojan War. He sailed a boat into the horizon and never returned.

The sadness this news brought almost ruined the motivation behind his machinations, but even with no desire to spend the currency he earned he still bought what he intended to buy.

As he lay feeble and sentenced to the gallows of his bed Thanatos arrived to take him to the underworld.

Thanatos, but not Hermes.

In the moments before death took him fully he questioned the God of Death, “Why do you come and not Hermes?”

It was customary to expect Hermes to guide a soul across the river styx to join the dead in the Underworld. Hermes was the messenger God, the God of Cunning, and trickery. He was not easily bought, but Sisyphus earned a favor from him with enough sacrifices.

First he built a temple in Hermes honor.

The only one of its kind in all of Greece.

Then he cleared Greece of snakes and butchered them by the millions to his effigy. For Hermes he soaked his hands in the blood of of all his victims one after another. Every single one of his murders had a purpose and on the day he met Thanatos the God of Death he got his reward.

Hermes gave Sisyphus the power to trick one God one time.

“Mortals do not question the will of the Gods. Today I bring the chains of death for you to wear for eternity. Put them on.”

Thanatos tossed the chains to Sisyphus.

Sisyphus’ feigned, “how do I wear these oh great God of death, I am but a feeble old man. Please demonstrate?”

With a sigh Thanatos said, “Fine,” and placed the chains on himself realizing too late he was locking himself in death. This act freed Sisyphus from dying. Immediately he felt his body return to its former glory. The vigor of youth returning he jumped from bed to make a sacrifice of thanks to Hermes.

He rushed to the temple and found himself face to face with the entirety of the Greek Pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. Hermes stood among them smiling as his own joke.

His greatest crime was not beating death, it was forgetting that his act of chaining Thanatos freed all men from death.

Death was inevitable. It was part of life. It was the cruel joke that capped a lifetime of effort and plans. In the end nothing mattered.

So his punishment was an eternity of pushing this rock up this hill. Every morning he would start and every night all his efforts would be undone.

And today, like all the yesterdays that he has passed doing this chore, as the sun reaches the horizon and the crest of the hill approaches, he knows any moment now he will lose his grip on the boulder and be forced to watch all of his efforts roll back down to the base of the hill.

But like a man on his deathbed the typical hope blossoms in Sisyphus’ heart.

The hope is maybe it will not be the end this time. Maybe he can go just a little bit further, maybe this time he will make the crest.

The hope is fueled by his last moment as a mortal man confronted with the mighty Zeus.

Thanatos was unchained. He stood behind the God of Lightning ashamed. He was tricked by a human. There was no worse fate for a God then to be tricked by a human and as Sisyphus stood there avoiding looking directly at any of the deities in front of him a thought struck him. These beings were only powerful because humans allowed them to be powerful. Humans believed they were powerful. This belief made them Gods.

One day he knew that would change. Man would move on. Man would stop believing.

As evening spread across the horizon and the moon reached up for the night sky Sisyphus found his boulder at the crest of the hill and he knows that day has come.

He plants his blistered feet on the rocky soil knowing man’s belief in Zeus had passed.

Zeus was dead and he was free.

Sisyphus takes a deep breath of the rapidly cooling night air. It tastes like freedom. The ambrosia of knowledge that his life is now his own.

But life is fleeting.

Then Thanatos appears in front of him, his bony hand stretched out with the chains of death snaked loosely through his skeletal leathery fingers, Sisyphus realizes, the Gods may be dead but Death will always live on.

On Writing: Finding an Ending

bdw-intro

When I first started writing I would begin story after story, make it about five hundred words in and then wham, hit a brick wall. I could not figure out how to end a piece. I had a vision in my head. I wanted the main guy to do X, but then I would get lost on how to actually get him there. This is until I realized that an ending is based on three vital parts.

Character

Intention

Momentum

All three work in concert and get me to a place where I can put an ending on a short story, or longer work. It is really about the flow of events, because an ending is the conclusion to a natural sequence.

In the grand scheme of things writing a story is satisfying desires.

1+1=2

It’s natural, it makes sense, it’s not overly complicated.

In improve it is called, “and then.”

As a simple example let’s look at making toast.

First, who is our character making the toast?

Maybe the protagonist is a war vet who lost a hand in combat.

His intention is to quench hunger.

And the momentum in this story would be the steps in making toast.

We all know the sequence  to making toast.

You take the bag of bread. Open it up. Take out two pieces. Put them in the toaster. Depress the mechanism. And wait. Pop, the toast arrives, hot and ready to be slathered with butter and jam.Crunch, he takes a bite.

The end.

Easy right?

But for a person who only has one hand there are the challenges.

And as the great Danny Devito once said about plot: Put a character up a tree and then get him down again.

We know who our character is and our tree is a making toast with one hand

The challenges include:

How does he get the bag open? Or get the bag to stay still while he reaches in and grabs the bread? I imagine spreading butter and jam could be hard also. So many little nuances to making a simple breakfast of toast that a person with two hands never thinks about.

Making the toast is the intended momentum and is determined by the emphasis placed on the characterization. The emotionality from this movement are the elements you give the character.

Who is this person and what do they want? He wants toast, but has been stymied by a combat injury and a simple plastic bag.

He went from being a hero defending his country to being unable to do things he once considered simple. he has to rethink his entire life.  

I imagine the character is reminded about losing his hand. Maybe he replays the moment in combat and what that means for his future. Maybe he laments a missed opportunity.

This is all in addition to making toast and moves the reader to follow the action and cheer our vet on and once the undertaken action is accomplished the reader can put down the story satisfied.

The end of the movement marks a departure for the character.

He achieved a goal.

Or he failed miserably.

Either way he is different and the reader knows a little bit more about his life going forward.

Can we continue to show this guys life?

Sure, but we don’t need to. In terms of an ending we have one. He either did, or did not make toast.

We have a result. It’s still an ending based  on characterizations and with good characterizations a writer can make watching paint dry interesting.

 

On Writing: How to Write Flash Fiction

bdw-intro

 

I love flash fiction. It’s quick fun and exciting. It’s the right sequence of actions. It’s an exercise in brevity, of choosing the right words, of the hack and slash editorial style, or as Faulkner said, “killing one’s babies.”  

So much relationship exists between what’s being said that even in a story that lives in a few hundred words can be much bigger in the reader’s mind.

Flash fiction comes in many sizes. It can be the impossible Six-Word piece, or the newfangled 140-character twitterature.

I love to play with the  50 word dribble and the 100 word drabble, but my all time favorite, is the satisfying blast of a hard cap 750 words.

A good flash piece is a whirlwind of poetry, words, imagery and emotions.

Like any other story it will have a beginning, middle and end, but in flash the beginning is the middle and the end is rarely at the end.

You start a flash fiction piece with a tickle.

A character.

A motivation.

An image.

A story is nothing without exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, but I would argue that falling action and resolution are better left to the imagination in this type of work.

How about an example?

He dies

When he was alive he barely lived. He had a wife and children and a job. He walked the dog. He did chores. His life was mundane and his soul ached for more. Then he met her. A whirlwind of bad choices followed. The affair being only one. Probably the worst was the decision to rob the bank.

In this piece short doesn’t mean incomplete. It starts with some back ground and then rounds it all up with the resolution. You get a clear picture of what the author is attempting to portray.

There aren’t too many characters. Too many characters can muddle a piece. The wife and kids are mentioned in passing, but the protagonist and his mistress are the point, so most of the words focus on them.

In flash fiction the title is important. It acts like an allegro or an opening move in chess. It prepares the reader for what follows. Time and energy should be used in crafting the perfect title to make the piece flow with the rest of  the other sentences in the piece. It can work as a first line, or as the title of the piece above suggests, an ending.

Which brings up to the actual ending. In flash fiction the ending is like a punchline to a joke, the point. It can startle and shock, or delight, cause laughter or tears, but mainly it should make the reader want to go back to the beginning and work out all the parts and pieces to the story again.  

Some authorities on literature even suggest a flash piece hints at a larger work. As this one does. More could follow. There is definitely more relationship with the wife and kids that could explored, the whole work up to the bank robbery could be written, but in this piece the reader is asked to do a lot of the heavy lifting themselves, it relies on pre-stored imagery.

I like to think nothing ever truly ends, and since the big bang there are no true beginnings, there is only the next moment and the next movement from action to action.