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Black Door, Part I: Softly Does It

In an effort to push myself beyond one-off pieces, I’ve decided to try writing a short serial, so welcome to part I of ‘Black Door’. It was supposed to be 3 parts in flash fiction, but it’s already escaped. This first part doesn’t even class as flash fiction (it’s 1237 words), and the serial is likely to be 5-7 parts.

As we’ll probably discover together, when it comes to planning fiction, I’m more of a reader than a writer: I love the surprises that come with reading, and detailed plotting tends to kill my fiction dead. Bit of a problem that, when I want to ‘go large’. So what follows is really a plotting experiment, where we all get to find out the details together (I’m laughing, but I’m crying). I have a rough structure, but nothing too restrictive.

So welcome to the writing equivalent of knife juggling…where the knives are paper and the worst dangers are presumably paper cuts, or confused readers. There’s no author, though – I’m reading along with you. St.

***

T

he last shreds of the weaving, unfurled from his body like a long sheet of cellophane pulled straight up into the sky. His right hand and arm were left upraised in rapture, his left sagging, caressing the air like a cello player’s crescendo, holding onto the old magic for one, long, lingering moment.

Colours he’s never seen before, things he’s never felt; and then dark trees rising up as a wall of whispers and cold gloom.

He moans.

Time slows. Needles fall. Sounds drag up to speed. Nature turns.

The sparkle gone: the whole of creation revealed as a finger drawn through a mundane pile of mud, as he steps into a new time and place.

The magic was all he could imagine and more, and his stomach lurches to bile even thinking about the feel of it, and Softly has never lost a meal.

But time is pressing. So he shakes his head till his lips slap, cracks one shoulder then the other, and turns a sharp eye to the trees and their long, tall slots.

He orientates and trots off.  

Nothing sees him coming, nothing sees him go. There is no tip-to-toe of Mr Softly, on account of his looking exactly like thin air.

Down the earthen banks, over dykes; tip-toeing through glades, with tattered leaves flapping.

After a while, a ripe, herbal odour begins to fill the greenhouse beneath the dappled canopy. It’s those little four-leaved helicopters, poking through endless mossy mounds; the sphagnum domed like foreheads of men marching in quicksand.

That smell could be sweet, Casaba melon on the turn.

Splutch, splutch.

Behind him, the mounds pop up beneath his footprints.

Foul water bathes his toes. Despite the lack of crumbling sewer brick, he may just be home.

Then he smells wood smoke; getting a gulp of it on the breeze.

Softly, softly, he begins to circle round, hands splayed.

Until he almost has his elbows off – there is a scuffle and one dismal, throttled bark.

He presses branches aside like vaudevillian drapes.

And now to the grandstanding murder of the day – an old man on a stoop porch. Middle of the brown woods, smells of paraffin. Gun on his knee, stoat heads on strings, wide eyed to the birds flying with hooted calls.

Chitter chatter, giving it away!

The old cuss growls something, holds up the rifle but doesn’t fire.

“That you Parley?” Old dog looking for his old dog. Sounded like “Far-ey”, way he said it: worried and hopeful, shot through with back-woods suspicion. But Softly had gotten the vicious thing with a loop of barbed wire, right next to the drop house: wolf hound, surprisingly strong, with gobbets of yellow teeth and coarse grey hair.

His hands still smell of dog; a kind of sweaty, livery, wet-blanket smell. Even got its fibrous muscle ridged up under his fingernails. Uncomfortable, that. Gloop feels like a warm glove. Licks it.

But he’s sweating all the same: gun’s pointed right at his heart, a foot away, though ‘Old Coop’ can’t see it.  Forget about guns, forget about ammunition.

Click.

And then again…

Old man gotten so addled with shadows, he’s forgotten to play the gun as loaded. You look through that one, narrow, window cut through weathered log ends – grains like graters, the glass swinging with webs and leaf crumb – and you can see his cartridges sitting on a pail of broken shingles.

Old fraud ain’t so much, after all that.

Whip-crack smash. Boots off and blood.

Breeze stirring the leaves.

A tooth tick, tack, tickity, tack, glistening like a ruby.

Got me the gun, oh my. A rifle – heavy, awkward. Bolt action, oiled, smooth stock.

Impressive.

Need anything else?

The old man’s head? Go guddle for it under the porch?

Pfft, spent enough time crawling around in dark spaces – another reason to get on changing up.

Besides, blood on the smooth stock for evidentiating. Clutcher got a nose don’t it? Gods knows Softly can smell the old hunter on there; him and his foul-mouthed doggit.

But now, the awkward carry. Gotta get a gun up a hill, middle of the lonesome forest, and without one intention of touching it with naked, glassy flesh. Bullets bad, but momentary; barrel-iron, a long and insufferable boil with bleach in…

There is a weathered creak.

The door on the old stoop, lolls. Latch settles.

Softly, pushes inside like a bear in a supermarket. Even hums his own muzack.

Smells of socks, and cabin smoke. Gun oil and garlic.

It’s Softly who sets up that tankling of tin cups, enjoying their wide mouthed ping pang as they bounce around on the floor; and then has to restrain an impulse to pounce, but he still grins at the jerking wing-wounded motion.

Wades ankle deep through the rag rug, like an all-coloured anemone.

A subtle push, as if launching a little ship, and a picture frame flips backwards down the back of  a bow-legged dresser, glass splashing and sliding to a stop on the floor. Loved that sound. Picture of man and dog slides out from under, like a Polaroid of remembrance.

Then he finds a fresh shirt by the old man’s washing pot; caught him on the shave, cut-throat razor open like a musical note. Still got a battleship of shaving foam on the water, bristling with a scrape of tiny, tree-like whiskers.

Impulsively, he runs the tip of his tongue along the blade, the metal burning like frying oil, seeking an intimate flavour of the man. Makes a face – lemon and chemicals! Curses. Spits.

Takes the shirt, then out by the door hanging with more locks than god has in creation – little uns, big uns, plain old bank-vault monsters – when all the old man had around them was shack wood.

On the stoop he wraps the gun, and decides – on second thoughts – to take a finger, Clutcher being Clutcher – yank to dislocate, and bite off at the knuckle. That’s how it goes, with a little, savoury pop.

By all accounts, Old Man and Clutcher have been at war for years. Years and years. But the old man was too cunning, and the big ole brute too lumbering and slow. And for a big thing dripping with bad attitude, Clutcher sure doesn’t like dogs and guns. A feardy horror, is what it is. Not that Softly would say that within snapping distance of its complex jaws. But either way, it’s sure going to be glad to meet its best, new friend, if it doesn’t just disembowel him where he stands.

But time, oh my, time is an issue. There’s already a faint frisson of inelasticity – like the world wants to pop back. And by the flayed gods of fiendish horror, that can’t be for hours yet, lest his plans spoil at the seams, though a full night may be wishful thinking.

He drops his watch on the old oak boards and inspects the dull face through its swaddling of Sellotape; tape that’s gone brown and greasy. Digits flicker likes flies alive in amber.

Hu. That’ll be late afternoon, then: oh-six-oh-five. 

The tape creaks as he slips the watch back on his wrist as a bracelet that has entirely vanished.

Adam’s watch, curse him. But don’t curse him too soon, because he has two more weavings to bestow, or not. Better than wishes, better than anything. Softly, softly, that’s the trick. And the other trick, will be getting close enough to the Clutcher without it ripping his head off.

17 comments

1 Jenny Dreadful { 08.27.11 at 12:50 pm }

First and foremost; a DELIGHTED thanks upon reading you have purchased my humble chap. I sincerely hope you enjoy, and you have my gratitude.

Now on a different note, your work: There’s no way around it on the first paragraph – the delicate unfurling of detail draws the reader in immediately. I wouldn’t change a goddamn thing.
But “The magic was all he could imagine and more . . .” leaves me wanting more. The reader wants to beg a little more detail. Is this ecstasy and pain? Is this a charred fling of fireworks behind the eyes, these colours? Does it leave the body the way water leaves a cup, empty?

A good point you made with your work here, perhaps unknowingly; most of the gore that happens in writing seems hellbent on making one toss their cookies in an effort for the reader to see the carnage – sometimes it rather makes me think of the kids in school who would one up each other by daring to pick apart and finger roadkill. And an author needn’t drag out pages of gratuitous blood dripping detail to make a reader feel death and carnage. You’ve made that point succinctly. The deaths – I may sound morbid – were almost lovingly delicate – which made the character that much scarier.

That being said, I did get lost somewhat differentiating between Mr. Softly and Clutcher, had to take a second/third reading to clarify. (I may still be confused, loathe as I am to admit it.)

Thanks again,
-Jenny

2 Stephen Hewitt { 09.06.11 at 1:32 pm }

@Jenny — you’re welcome. I was happy to see you’d done some writing that you hadn’t mentioned on your blog unless I missed it (read: you should mention it on your blog) 🙂 It arrived uber-quick (next day) from England. Read the first half on holiday in Dumfries and started the second crossing the Forth Rail Bridge by train on an epically lovely day. Thought your chap was genuinely, really good: thoughtful, personal, funny and dark in places. Just what I hoped. So thanks for a great read 🙂

Ah yes, “The magic was all he could imagine and more . . .” has left the audience wanting more. I take that on board. I’m trying to remember what I intended by it, and I think it was as a kind of summary to what was happening before, but more a stylistic quirk than a literary addition, I think. Useful your pointing it out — I’ll be on the watch for that.

For the deaths, I think it’s too easy to go the other way and pile on something horrifically visceral where it’s not required. Understated, with some afterthought images or nasty implications (should they be considered) fits more with my ‘show don’t tell’, I think.

As for differentiating between Clutcher and Softly, a lot of stuff I read has problems with the relation of who does what. Doesn’t surprise me if I’ve gone and done the same darned thing: muddied the water for the sake of some poetic rhythm, or just carelessness. If I come to revise this piece, I will look to make those references clear (it won’t be you, it’ll be me ;))

3 Stephen { 08.28.11 at 12:24 am }

Once again, you’ve maximized the descriptions in so little space. Part of me thinks that Mr. Softly is a form of Death, or some other spirit, and the Old Man and Clutcher, being at odds, are the epitome of Good and Evil. So many thoughts to conteplate here. Thank you for sharing.

4 Stephen Hewitt { 09.06.11 at 1:40 pm }

@Stephen — some interesting theories there. We’ll get to see how they develop 🙂

@Icy — thanks Icy. I’ll be interested to see where I go from here, too. Lol.

@Aidan — yes, there may be some playing with time, because I love making things difficult for myself. Avoiding needless gore is the harder path, I think, and it also allows you to portray things that are probably more horrible than the X-rated shlock. The aim is to entertain, not offend, with a slight frisson of the horrible.

5 Icy Sedgwick { 08.28.11 at 12:24 pm }

I’ll certainly be very interested to see where you go from here. You’ve set up an intriguing premise!

6 Aidan Fritz { 08.28.11 at 5:17 pm }

I love the way this plays with time. A complicated weave he’s got here and I can just see his plans falling before his fingers. A good start.

I agree with Jenny, I’m one of those ones who looks away at the gory parts in movies, but this hits pitch perfect for me, getting the gore across without me losing my meal.

7 Joan { 08.28.11 at 9:04 pm }

The line about Softly never having ‘lost a meal’ is a strong piece of characterisation – that is, we know him through this – something definite and familiar in the magic and unfamiliarity that has surrounded Softly up to this point.

That is not a criticism – I think you kneed to keep your poetical way of writing, since you are inclined that way, but I read somewhere that something concrete and familiar amongst the fantastic helps the reader to take to the fantastic also.

I think this, that you’ve done here, is a fine example of that.

I like the way it is written in the present tense also – it helps along that idea of Softly’s ‘new birth’. ( I’m writing this as I read, and it seems to me that Softly is experiencing something like a new birth, or rebirth.)

Yes – ‘long, tall slots’ – the trees – the sort of poetic language that is your strength, I think.

Wonderful that he looks ‘exactly like thin air’.

Yes – it’s good – he’s murdered an old dog and now an old man, but, as a reader, you are still with Softly – he must have a reason for this – whether that reason fits with your own (when you’re not reading) moral compass or not.

8 Stephen Hewitt { 09.06.11 at 2:00 pm }

@Helen — thanks Helen. Much re-reading helps to smooth the rhythms, which is most often what I’m trying to get right. Tricky that — no idea if anyone else picks up the same rhythms as me, so I do it to suit myself. Mr Softly is certainly ‘not normal’.

@Joan — you can safely assume that Mr Softly does not go hungry.

You’re right about including the concrete stuff. The closest analogy I have is in making things in (computer) 3D: if you make a fantastic alien, it may be received with approval, but if you model a fantastic Coke can, right down to the glistening beads of moisture, people can tell how good you really are because they have a basis for comparison. Most fantasy rings horribly untrue to me, while the likes of Tolkein who based his work, in part, on historical peoples and languages reads much better, as does anything that focusses on real people rather than the weirdness. Hopefully I’m managing to counterpoint the poetic bits in my writing, or we’ll probably all need a break from too many words.

I did find Mr Softly came out as an intriguing character to follow, and his rebirth may, at least, be in the opportunity he feels is developing…

9 Helen { 08.29.11 at 5:10 am }

Your writing has a rhythm that draws the reader in and carries him along to the end. Mr. Softly is an intriguing character, and left me wondering what he was exactly. I’m now interested to see where you take this.

10 John Xero { 08.29.11 at 8:00 am }

Oh ho, I like this Mr. Softly (though maybe not to meet…). I assume the aversion to iron is somewhat relevant to his true nature, but it’s all very intriguing.

I love the tiny paragraph of his description, for its brevity and tone –
“Nothing sees him coming, nothing sees him go. There is no tip-to-toe of Mr Softly, on account of his looking exactly like thin air.”

And with regards to longer fiction, I’m the same. That’s why I’m trying serialised fiction now, to push myself, to ‘go large’ in small steps… 😉 Looking forward to more of this, Stephen, and meeting Clutcher.

11 Stephen Hewitt { 09.06.11 at 2:25 pm }

@Sonia — I do love a nice image, even though they often try and stick in my head and not fall out on the page. 🙂

@Anne — thanks Anne. Wait till you get to the bit about Ulysses. 😉

@Harry — thanks Harry. Interesting start is good — hopefully I’ll be able to keep it up. The other pieces are likely to be loosely linked, so here’s hoping.

@Steve — thanks Steve. Still battling those blurry boundaries between poetics and actually getting the point across, but I’m having fun doing it. No idea if folks heads will explode with word use over serialization lengths, though will be looking to counterpoint differing styles. Probably need to start writing poetry again or I’ll be in danger of trying to do everything in the one place. Mr Softly is pretty much a personification of ‘cunning and easy violence’ so I’m sure he’d be tickled to hear it, if he wasn’t off doing something disreputable somewhere.

@John — for Mr Softly, I thought: bad personality and invisible — not a healthy combination. That line was fun.

I think your going into serialized work will be a great thing to try out (and read). I’m already a fan. I think doing it here is already helping to get my head thinking the right way, even while pondering part two through the week.

12 Steve Green { 08.29.11 at 12:37 pm }

Oh wonderful, wonderful imagery and wordcraft. Like many of your works, the word-flow borders on poetry, occasionally in a sing-song kind of way.

There is plenty of mystery here, and plenty left for the reader’s own imagination to fill in, it is absolutely brimming with eloquently descriptive lines.

I like the way the violence is given enough detail, but not overstated. I haven’t quite worked out exactly what creature Mr Softly is yet, but his cunning and easy violence is endearing me to him already.

Looking forward to the next episode. 🙂

13 Harry B. Sandeford { 08.29.11 at 8:25 pm }

Wow, very interesting start Stephen! I’ll definitely be staying tuned!

14 Anne Michaud { 09.02.11 at 12:25 am }

I love your poetic rhythm…can’t wait to read part 2!

15 Sonia Lal { 09.02.11 at 1:27 am }

The imagery is wonderful! Like the rhythm of the words, too, how they carry you along.

16 Jenny Dreadful { 09.09.11 at 12:15 am }

WONDERFUL!!!

So glad it could entertain for a short while (they are flash/micro prose), and I have done as you suggested re: posting on my blog about it.
I should have done so earlier, but I am entirely clumsy with handling any sort of PR concerning myself. I’ve been terrifying myself silly at the thought of doing a reading. *shudder*

And yes re: your work – ‘show, don’t tell’ is one of those easy to forget tantamount rules of writing that can be so tough to apply. And it worked beautifully in your instance. That eerie, haunting tingle can sometimes be more deliciously exact then one blandly describing entrails tossed around as confetti.

Again, I’m deeply honored that you’ve bought my chap, and even more so that you enjoyed it. (Poetry can be a tough mark to hit. I know I’ve dismissed much of it, being rather picky myself. I usually expect readers to be the same.)

My thanks again, and keep the pen moving!

-Jenny

17 Stephen Hewitt { 09.11.11 at 5:46 pm }

@Jenny — I think lots of people will want to read your work — you just have to find them, so don’t be coy in letting them know what you’re up to. Once you’ve done a few readings I’m sure they’ll get easier. It’s also a great way of getting out there, and a whole other form of entertainment for the audience. I’m pretty picky about poetry too, so all the more happy with my purchase 😉

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