GIVETHEREADERSWHATTHEYWANT!
One writer's experiment to tackle any subject his friends come up with.
4/4/11-NEIL CHETHIK

The Task of Charon

I stand at the edge of my verdant homeland, under the shade of mighty stalks at my back. As I survey the fields beyond our thinning borders, my eyes take in a world beset by wraiths. Death is overtaking the land. This is not a ripe death, not one ready for transformation. This is a world made pale and stagnant by grey spirits that choke out life. The dead must be released. A way must be made.

 

I am called Charon, according to the tradition of my people. It is my duty to rob the dead of their claim on this world, to restore balance to the land so that their unborn brethren can rise. I pray I will live up to the task.

 

I check my provisions once more. Food and water for five days – half a lifetime. I mount the broad, dark back of my six-legged steed. His chitinous hide is cool beneath me. The great antlers of his armored head begin to sway in anticipation.

 

We strike out into the lifeless valley. I smile as my scythe parts the wraiths easily from their grip on this world. My blade sings for these unclaimed souls. The strong wind carries away their freed spirits like so much chaff. Here, at the outskirts, their ranks are few, their traps weak. My steed steps nimbly out of their reach, tearing at their tendrils when he can. Our progress is swift and rewarding.

 

As the sun climbs higher, however, the ranks of our adversary multiply and concentrate. Our pace slows, and we stumble often. The wind weakens so that even those spirits we have released still tarry. After conquering an especially strong company, my steed foolishly charges at the giant ahead of him, mounting and climbing its husky frame to wrestle it. But the treacherous spirit collapses under his weight, and we begin to fall. As my steed’s enormous bulk twists through the air, I push myself free. I hit the chalky ground hard, but manage to roll myself out of the great beast’s path. His crash is like a thunderclap. I stand, aching and weary, to inspect his condition. Although he has survived, he is on his back, legs flailing.

 

Bearing all my weight against his bulk, I cannot move him. My feet continually slip and falter in the nettles and dust. Already I can see my steed’s life ebbing as his unguarded belly is cooked by the merciless sun. His fate is inescapable, but his suffering unnecessary.

 

I locate my scythe among the tangled husks littering the ground, and approach the noble head. As I stare into faceted eyes, each as big as my fist, I know that he could have saved his own life at the risk of mine. Tent-like, diaphanous wings that lay beneath the armor on his back could have sprung to life at any moment and taken him to safety, but doing so would have meant a violent ejection for me, his rider. I utter a prayer in the name of the fertile earth and its Dark Gods, and end his suffering with a swift stroke from my scythe.

 

I take stock of the waste around me. My provisions are destroyed. The fragile pouches and canteens were strapped to my steed, and have met the fate that was nearly mine.

 

At great cost, I have learned: The wraiths’ stultifying mass is a ruse, and to see their stillness as weakness is to invite tragedy. Their wish is for all to join them in their fate. They are snares in their essence, and they trap, they hold, they defeat by exhaustion. Their stagnance is their strategy, and the sun their ally. In this field, heat is death’s weapon. To be deceived by those thin, lifeless tendrils is to be caught unawares, not by brittle wisps but ropes of iron, and become wrapped and entangled in their wretched claws, bereft of darkness, water, and life. Only the most tenacious will avoid or escape them. I marvel at my foolishness, for I intend to upset them all.

 

I push onward. What else is there? Without food or water, my only hope is to reach the edge of this desiccated land. If I should return the way I came, my own people will force me back, on pain of death. For a Charon, the way out is through. I press onward, reaving my way through this purgatory of untold thousands.

 

Progress on foot is unbearable. I am constantly ensnared by the spirits’ clutches. Yet I proceed, if only to postpone the inevitable. Suddenly I face a chilling scene. Before me, partially obscured by the wraiths that have claimed it, lies the lifeless body of a Dark God. I have only heard of these deities that crawl through the unending night beneath us. They are not friend or foe, but are as pure as the elements. We owe them much, for even as they consume our fallen bodies, they give us continued life.

 

And yet here one lies, still and hollow, lost even to the darkness. The Dark God’s body stretches on into the distance, beyond my vision. Something in me dares not disturb it or the spirits which surround it. The forces at work here are far more powerful than I had feared. I study the brutal form for one last instant, utter a prayer of sending and another of protection, and back away. Not knowing how long a detour is required, I set myself on a new path, the sun at my back.

 

I muster my strength, but soon I am again burdened by weariness. Surely this has been a fool’s errand. We misjudged the strength of these spirits, the prudence of my steed, and now, even the wind has failed. With no elemental forces to disturb them, even the haints I have felled hinder me. I fear not for myself, for what is one soul? My fears are for my people, and the slow creep of oblivion that awaits them.

 

As I stumble, an instant of darkness falls on me. I wonder at my faculties and then witness it again. I look upward to gauge this mystery, and witness great black shadows circling above, blotting out the sun. The truth dawns on me, and I am frozen in fear. These are the God-eaters.

 

I had thought them merely legends, but my eyes confirm what my mind resists. The elders speak of a time when their destruction befell our people often. The God-eaters were so named because it was said that they could plunge their heads deep into the earth and tear the Dark Gods from the netherworld. This was unfathomable, and so disregarded. Generations had passed, a hundred days or more, since first-hand accounts could be claimed. Was I witnessing their return?

 

I watch, and realize that the ancient tales are true: They are bigger than houses, yet move with incredible speed. Their approach is swift and terrible, and they lay waste to all that they touch. They are chaos incarnate, arriving on merciless winds, and with their great claws they rend and score the earth.

 

A terrible crash, and instantly one is near me. Its screams are deafening. Why would they come to this place? Aside from a few which must have been driven from the ground ages ago to die, no Dark Gods are to be found here.

 

But this demon has not come for any of the Old Masters. Once again, I resist the truth my eyes show me, as the God-eater’s sharp, mighty jaws close on several of the wraiths and wrench them up and away, banishing them forever from the land. The black monster then unfurls its incredible wings, momentarily bringing night again, and leaps skyward, as I am blasted, clawing at the dusty ground for purchase. I witness this again and again, as dozens of the fell beasts gnash and rend at the lost souls. I find myself almost pitying the wraiths their fate.

 

Before I can react, I find myself hoisted upward amid a bundle of the dead. Terror grips me anew as terra firma is lost, fathoms below. I am carried away amid a violent struggle with the air.

 

But this is not fit comportment for a Charon. I force control over my panic and survey the devastation below me. I am awestruck, and humbled. My lifetime’s task has been completed in minutes. I cannot hope to understand the reason of these heedless titans, but I am grateful for their effort. My people may yet be saved.

 

I shift my gaze and stare into the wind. At last, I welcome the cool release, and I question not whither I am taken.

 

Copyright Cole Bennett, all rights reserved.

 

I’ve switched it up a bit this time around, for reasons which I hope will be clear as one reads!  So here, finally, is Neil’s story starter:

A sweet evening in the garden, wrestling dried weeds and last year’s stems, welcoming white-green shoots.

 

 

14 Comments to “4/4/11-NEIL CHETHIK”

  1. Cole Bennett says:

    Thanks, Neil! Simple beauty often leads to more profound truth. I shall dig deep for this one!

  2. Eric T Morrow says:

    I don’t even know where to begin.

    You know, I resisted the urge to ask you yesterday when the next story was due. It’s hard to believe it’s only been a week! That’s how I usually feel when I’m anticipating the next read from an author. No pressure. ;)

    Reading it through the first time, I was taken in by the description. You have a knack for imagery! Even the emotions come through visually. This world seems much more interesting and beautiful than our own, even in acts of destruction.

    When I got to the story starter, I was blown away. I don’t think I’ll ever look at a springtime yard in the same way ever again. Now I’m going to be wondering what that yard looks like to its Charon. I love it when so-called “fantasy” stories cross into the realm of reality!

    • Cole Bennett says:

      Eric, it’s fascinating to finally get a fresh perspective on this. It’s very challenging, straddling two realities and trying to give true, non-conflicting descriptions of each. I thought surely that by the end it would be given away. I love that the realization came from Neil’s starter.

      Thanks very much for your kind words. I hope the blog keeps you coming back for more!

  3. Michelle L. Bennett says:

    I LOVE it! (And I love you.)

  4. Gary Bennett says:

    Cole,
    What a delightful experience. Knowing your interest in S/f I was not surprised until I came to Neil’s story starter which I had forgotten. Thanks for the surprise.
    Dad

    • Cole Bennett says:

      Thanks Dad! It’s been enlightening to see just how obscure people found the references to “reality”.

  5. Jās says:

    I love where you’ve taken us with this one especially considering the starter. You have a great understanding of the genre as evidenced by the imaginatively accessible yet surreal world you created. I had Neil Gaiman-esque art direction placed in Tarsem Singh sized landscapes a-la The Fall running through my head. Where I think it falls short a bit is in the way it sometimes reads. It didn’t flow the way I expected. After the first couple of paragraphs you relied on too many first person possessive descriptors to develop the action through imagery. There are incredibly poetic moments that are bookended by…too many…words…sentences? Too many periods interrupting the narrative perhaps. There were also a couple of instances when the language fell back to our reality breaking me away from the amazing one you had created.

    It’s incredible to me how you’ve taken each of these first three “starters” to places where the readers can forsee each as a full novel or series of stories. Can’t wait for more.

    • Cole Bennett says:

      Hey Jas,

      Thanks for thinking so much about this! I appreciate the real critique, and I agree 100%.

      This one came together in bits and pieces. I’d get an image of what this or that beast would be like at Charon’s scale, and how his interaction might go, and would start writing it. I ended up with half a dozen glimpses into his world with no organization. So putting the flow into it was artificial, to say the least. And the voice and narration style was a challenge as well, and feels unnatural at times. I worked pretty hard at getting each paragraph to sound right, but there are plenty of spots that still strike me as awkward. The last paragraph still sounds abrupt and uneven. It’s definitely not the way “true writers” would put a story together.

      I’m starting to wonder whether the story-a-week approach may not allow for the finessing really needed (gasp!). I promised these stories would likely not be ready for primetime, and so far, I’ve delivered on that! It would be nice to finish them a day or two early, so that I can “sit with them” a bit. Yes, that would be nice…

      And sometimes cleverness can come at the expense of truth. I do like having fun with these imaginative styles, but if the construct is too severe, it can keep you from exploring honestly.

      Joe Anthony, a “true writer” :) whom I have the pleasure of knowing, has been encouraging me to keep aiming for honesty. The characters have to be real, and have to drive the story. I try not to simplify it into a dichotomy between “popular fiction” and “literature”. In _On Writing_, Stephen King says “I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible”, and “Honesty in story-telling makes up for a great many stylistic faults… but lying is the great unrepairable fault.”

      I try not to precede a story with a cavalcade of caveats, because I do want the readers to critique it themselves, and I don’t want them to think I’m trying to say that I’ve already thought of all the problems they’ll have with it. But these are all the relevant thoughts that keep banging around in my head (stop it, thoughts!). Thanks for touching on them so insightfully.

  6. Adam Gillett says:

    You have a really strong voice for this type of work. As mentioned, it’s really not what was expected given the story idea. Ha! Take that, readers!

    • Cole Bennett says:

      Exactly!

      I know Neil, he’s a good sport. I wonder if *he* remembers his story starter? :) Or will it surprise him too?

  7. Neil Chethik says:

    Wow! The wait was worth it. Your story is a fascinating take on my starter. I love the way you’ve created this universe of 10-day lifetimes, six-legged steeds, spirits hovering. Your writing is exciting too — a trudging rhythm that reflects the action.

    Thank you for honoring my starter with this intense and eerie scene.

    • Cole Bennett says:

      Thanks, Neil! I wasn’t sure what you’d think of the perpendicular interpretation I took. :) and I appreciate your comment on the rhythm. I’ve gotten lots of input on scribophile.com: people either go for that stoic tone or they hate the too-involved narration, but no one yet has pointed out both aspects: that it can be trudging and active. Thanks for helping me understand it a little better.

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