Flash fiction, short stories, poetry …
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Clara’s Question

I

t was Clara’s idea to confront the city; to ask her question.

“I won’t understand, otherwise. I won’t. I won’t understand. I won’t; I just won’t.” and she said that over and over in a tiny voice that would break your heart; tears behind her eyes.

I wasn’t at all sure. In fact, I didn’t want to slip off my glove to hold her hand – cold fingers aside – but she insisted we do it together. So we did, standing knee to knee facing the spot where our father had been struck.

This was hours before even the first bunch of flowers had sprouted and flopped in their cellophane, or condolences had been composed, or apologies made.

But it was late enough for there only to be a dark stain on the road and kerb-side that was not blood, but a black dampness, still frothy with detergent, from being scrubbed by a street-cleaning crew.

Clara’s eyes went wide every time a bus passed, now keenly aware of their mass and velocity; of their inevitable and ponderous size; of their ability to change everything on a misstep. But she was keen to ask what she had come to ask and who was I to stop her?

The question to a chilly Edinburgh comes as twilight hits the rooftops with that hard yellow light that slides to blue as the sun sinks beyond the west of the city. The birds fall quiet for a moment, and the starlings twist and turn in elaborate patterns before falling to roost on the monuments.

Clara sniffs, frowns, almost bursts into tears; but croaks – coughs – what she has to say. There is barely a question to it.

There is no response from the pavement, that dark water, the people, or the birds.

And then the whispering starts.

Clara’s question – her one, lonely word – is an exhalation on the breeze. It is a word that is only so much colour; so much of a cool caress.

On hearing it, a small child – pulling hard against his mother’s hand – repeats the word to an old man walking a dog. From such a small child – in trailing reins and a tiny, red-and-white striped hat – it is not so much a vocalized word as a shriek of frustration and a cry for attention. He knows that vowels and consonants are no longer important – the embodiment of that sound is enough to pass it on. The child has made the question his own.

The man walking the dog nods his head vaguely in time to his music. He’s listening to his iPod. The dial is cranked well up, but the cry of the child attracts his attention, just a little, and he makes a slight nod to an off-beat of the music. He casts his eyes upwards in surprise.

A woman, walking the other way on Princess St. is wearing a white dress; black heels. She thinks – for a moment – that an old man is looking at her. She reacts to that movement, magnifying it. Is she correct? Perhaps.

The old man does look, now that she is passing. Now that she has acknowledged him. Her filament of scarf blows in the wind and wraps about her cheek for a second. Her perfume is that of a master perfumery in Paris, and the old man sees and smells.

She looks away, and yet touches her neck with a finger; a light, fish-tail gleam of scales upon her silken, denier of tights.

The look deflates the man.

The woman smiles, a little embarrassed, and as the man and the dog and the woman pass, footfalls hit the stones with regular beats that are almost monolithic strokes against time.

But is the dog that acknowledges the message in that perfume. Who knows what animal sense is ignited with that cocktail of animal, plant and mineral essences, but it snorts once and barks. These sounds are fragments, turned through the larynx, tongue, teeth, nose, and even skull of the dog.

The message is splitting up: through the water under the paving stone struck by the woman’s feet, in the man as he fumbles for his iPod and accidentally twists it down a bar, before twisting it up, beyond its protected maximum.

The sun is falling, and an orange fire is lifting up towards darkness where the word has been spoken. On The Mound, tourists are still walking up and down the long steps, wandering past the National Gallery. The sound reverberates in the brass model of the castle sitting on its plinth, in the coffee stand, where a distracted barista jets five blasts of steam instead of his customary four into a latte. He wipes the steamer pipe with a cloth, and wonders, now why did I do that? Though only vaguely – this is not a big event for him.

The word travels on.

The Red Cross girl in her red puffa jacket – holding a clipboard – fumbles and then drops a five pence piece thrust at her by an anxious commuter running for a taxi. She curses softly and decides to ‘throw it in’ for the night.

A group of kids start jumping on each other’s backs; poking fun; running away; laughing. They stop and dodge left instead of right, as the coin tinkles past: the word is growing in timbre. Where it glides over the ice crystals – over last week’s snow, salted and grey – it cools. Where it piles through the cab and engine mounts of a number twenty-seven bus, it warms.

Pigeons on the roof of The Law Courts stop cooing for a moment, heads swivelling, tongues tasting the air. This is as it should be as the word passes like ultrasound through stone and steel.

Underground, a tour of Germans, Poles and French – mostly school children – laugh a little nervously, as their guide gets a chill; her first ever, while giving this tour of Mary King’s Close. She apologizes without thinking. Now where did that come from? she wonders.

At Murrayfield – a giant stadium shaped like a bowl antenna – a press officer is talking to her mother on the phone; to Barcelona where her mother now lives. As she does so, a little grit gets in her eye, or some other distraction. She moves the phone a little from her face, wobbles it back; modulates the signal.

Her mom says, “You’re breaking up. Lindy? You know you gotta stand outside.”

But now the word has gone digital: into electronics and transmissions, binary and radio. Pulsing outward as one becomes two, four, eight… a billion wavelets and refractions, amplified through a bow-wave of discord, that is pulsed through space by satellites.

It is a moment of self awareness. The city knows it is ill-equipped to deal – alone – with such a question; it is beyond mere bricks and mortar. It has passed it on to a higher authority, and having done so, the launchpad of reflections begins to end, one voice through the next. The sun, in Edinburgh, vanishes to the last of its cooling fire and the finite darkness of the city comes to rest.

Sodium lights twinkle. The word – the question – has gone beyond.

Abruptly, Clara says she wants to go home.

I look at the sky and nod my head slowly, looking at that lemon slice of moon, so clear, and the stars that are popping. She is scared of the answer; that the answer might be another question: ‘Why not?’ Or worse, that there might not be an answer at all.

14 comments

1 Joan { 01.10.11 at 4:16 pm }

Yes – this is like ‘Chinese Whispers’. I like the way things link by the power of a word, and especially how it eventually becomes digital/electronic, and then is passed to a higher authority because the city doesn’t know quite how to answer it. But the word has united the city – in its own way.

This is a story you could read more than once, tracking where that word has gone. Clara, also – by the time there might be an answer, she isn’t sure that she wants it. The answer might not be the one she would want.

Just thoughts here, Stephen. The story is – rythmical, poetical.

2 Stephen Hewitt { 01.11.11 at 9:32 pm }

Hey there Joan – glad you popped a comment on this one. I posted it at Christmas and, well, Christmas happened to everyone, leaving a crisp, white, comment box where no one had been … though for entirely understandable reasons 😉 I wasn’t exactly getting out there on other folk’s blogs as I’m want to do, either.

Yes, I was intrigued by something that grew by transmission and kind of ‘got out there’. It’s a sister story to ‘Evening News’, in a way (I accidentally wrote it, while trying to write EN). It’d be interesting to see what form the answer, if any, would take.

Glad you found some rhythm and poetry in there. That makes me happy.

3 Harry B. Sanderford { 01.17.11 at 11:40 am }

I knew Clara’s question had to be, “Why?” I really liked the way you let the word itself spread as a sound wave, fanning out into infinity I suppose, and touching in some infinitesimal way everything in its path. And I love that even though I was sure what the question would be when I reached the end, you were clever there as well, only revealing the answer she feared.

4 Stephen Hewitt { 01.18.11 at 7:58 pm }

Glad you enjoyed this one, Harry. 🙂 Writing that building wave was fun, as was trying to get that word to appear without saying it. And I was surprised too, in a way, when I saw she might fear the answer … Thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂

5 Joan { 01.19.11 at 3:29 pm }

Interesting what you say about you, the author, being surprised at the way the character, Clara, responds to something in the story (even though you, as author, are writing it). I get this too, when I’m writing, those characters taking on a life of their own, getting away from me! … (I think it’s a good thing.)

6 Stephen Hewitt { 01.22.11 at 8:12 pm }

Hi Joan – I think the same thing tends to apply to all parts of writing. Most of the time I like stories to grow organically because I love reading. In fact, I want writing to be like reading, so tend to avoid pre-planning as much as possible so I can enjoy it as it happens. I want to be surprised by what I find to be ‘true’ about a character or a situation. Writing can be a reader’s entertainment. However, I’m still looking for the perfect balance of minimal planning and ‘winging’ it, as my much larger pieces of fiction seem more likely to turn into unhappy car crashes, without at least some sort of plan. At the very least, they can be a lot of work to fix. St.

7 Joan { 01.25.11 at 4:50 pm }

This is most annoying. I just typed in a long reply, and it wouldn’t accept it because – well, I must have put my email address in wrong. I’ll submit this and see if it goes.

8 Stephen Hewitt { 01.26.11 at 9:22 pm }

Hi there Joan – re: the site not accepting posts. Apologies. Not sure why that’d happen. If you’re writing a longer post, I’d recommend writing it in Word then copy-pasting it into the submission box so you can save a temporary backup. Sometimes, if you wait too long to submit with an open form, a website can require you to start from the beginning again, or other things can go wrong (e.g. the website crashes). I’ve been there too – it’s very annoying when your text goes missing. St.

9 Joan { 01.25.11 at 4:57 pm }

It seems to have gone. Must have been me.
I was just saying how interesting that was that you said – I’ve been saying the same for years – I prefer to let stories develop on their own. In fact, it’s the only way I can write. Yes, this process can leave you unstuck in longer pieces, and I do get to a point where I can see what needs to happen next, and then I’ll make a quick plan of that, as far as I can see it. But I’ve written long things in the past, read them over, and found all sorts in them that I hadn’t been aware I’d actually put there.
I know what you mean by ‘organic’ but I think of this process as ‘letting the subconscious’ through. I frequently do this quite deliberately these days.
Flannery O’Connor – I’ve only read one of hers – but she’s well-known for not planning her novels – this – one of the most weird things I’ve read, and the subject matter not really my cup of tea – religious – but it was extremely interesting from the point of view of how it had developed. As someone said, she tends to come up with entirely original things – I’ve never forgotten this one, anyway.

10 Stephen Hewitt { 01.28.11 at 8:26 pm }

Hi there Joan — I think the power in letting your mind free-wheel is brilliant. As I’ve probably said before, the problem I tend to find, on the long stuff, is that my brain likes to throw in incompatible threads all of which I like. At that point, I end up with horrible consistency problems and a tough editing job that mean lots of stuff falls by the wayside. It can be exhausting. So I want to find a neat middle ground, with some structure, and then get out of the way and let my hind brain get writing. Not sure what that structure is yet, though. lol

I may check out one of those Flannery O’ Conner books to see what can be done if you can get to the end of a free-wheel-a-sode, with one intact story 😉

St.

11 Joan { 01.31.11 at 1:03 pm }

Hi Stephen – first, thanks for the tips on how to use the internet – may sound odd to techno-people, but I am a beginner, and I’ve learnt a lot from commenting on your site.
Yes, Flannery O’Connor – as I said – quite weird the one book I read.
I know what you mean about incompatible threads coming into a story – I said something a while back about worrying about getting everything into an autobiography. Of course, you can’t. I should have realised that. Incompatibility – you sometimes think of things later and try to put them in – they are relevant but they won’t actually fit with what you have – you have to (hate ‘have tos’) choose – but, I realise now – if things don’t fit – they go into another story.
Simple.

12 Stephen Hewitt { 01.31.11 at 9:54 pm }

Hi Joan – no problem with the tech stuff. I know how frustrating it can be, especially losing stuff you’ve just typed in.

Weird is good. Flannery O’Conner is on my list.

You’re right about creating a new story. That’s what I do too. Last year’s (actually two years back, now) NaNoWriMo I wrote the words, but had around five discrete stories, none of which had a beginning or ending. Still, I think progress is being made — each of them would make a good tale. I figure once I get this planning malarky down pat, I have plenty to go back to and hammer into shape. Hopefully something book shaped.

It does remind me of the value of a ‘frags’ file. Somewhere to stick the stuff that you think is vital, so you can save the rest of the story.

13 Joan { 02.02.11 at 4:44 pm }

Yes – words are not set in stone, it’s useful to remember, I think. It’s easy to say that when you’re running well with something you’ve written – other times, it’s very annoying when you can no longer think of those perfect words you’ve lost when you think no others would do – or not do so well.
There are two things here, I think. It is important to have somewhere to put all those important notes – for times when it’s ‘just those particular words’ … but, equally, to know that, should that not be useful after all, there is another way to say things, or there will be another slant you’ll think of another day.
I say this, but I still mourn words lost – ones I remember, but not quite – this is after years. There is no getting them back though. They are gone.
When I used to write academic essays, though, I quite quickly found that it was precisely those notes I’d thrown in the bin that I actually needed at the end of the day, not the ones I’d carefully preserved as being essential. This happened often enough that I used to keep all notes – stacks of them – until the essay was done, dusted, printed, handed in … no further possibility of changing it.

14 Stephen Hewitt { 02.07.11 at 11:21 pm }

Hi there Joan — you remind me of making ‘word sketches’. For instance, at T-in-the-Park one year, I took along a notebook and noted any interesting impressions that occurred. At some point, like sketches in a sketch book, those notes can remind of the concrete experience. Definitely something to save.

And when you were talking about the notes you’d throw away being the ones you actually need — that does, so often, seem to be the case. For me, I guess I’d have ‘first thoughts’ on there, which tend to be what I really wanted to say, before I tried to get complicated. 😉

St.

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