Two fish swimming circles, an endless dance around the tank. One red, one yellow, darting sparks in a watery sky. A single plastic stalk waved lazily. Bubbles shuddered to the surface, breaking with a soft gasp, and the infinite spiral continued.

                Put a finger to the glass, and they swam faster. Never touching the walls that contained them, always surrendering to its shape. If placed in the openness of the sea, would they know? Or would they only swim and swim, unseeing, looking for invisible borders?

                A delicate layer between them and the vacuum, destruction. Inside, a haven, but so fragile. And they swam as if it were their only purpose. Swam with nowhere to go. Swam to swim, leaving no ripples behind.

                Until they stopped. Until they turned inward, vanished. Became nothing.

                The plastic plant waved alone. Bubbles trembled through empty water. Green fuzz dimmed the glass. In the blackness of night, a pair of stars, red and yellow, streaked across the sky.

Photo Credit: Image by 성혁 이 from Pixabay 

Unintended Consequences

                I took my morning coffee to the balcony and looked out over the swaying trees as I sat and sipped. Living in the forest was as pleasant as I had always thought it would be. Peaceful. Calming. Once you got past the fact that just last week my apartment had been in the center of an urban tangle of cement and metal.

                A shiver ran through the red leaves. It wasn’t autumn. They were just angry. A lamppost on the street corner sparked and collapsed with a creak of rending metal.

                The best and the brightest had put their heads together, deciding that what we needed in the age of deforestation and ozone-shrinkage was the fastest-growing, strongest, tallest, most oxygen-rich tree ever, and they were going to make it. They’d succeeded.

               Sentience had been an unintended side effect.

                It had been on the news as the greatest discovery of our generation. And then there hadn’t been any news.

               The rain forests were gone. Only bare dirt and a few fallen branches and confused jaguars remained. It wasn’t our doing this time. They’d come north to return the favor.

               I’m sure it was horrifying to wake in a world ruled by fleshy predators who stacked up the skeletal remains of your kin to live and park their fume-spitting metal carriages inside, carrying bits of your skin around inside their pockets and bags and burning your remains for fun on a cool summer evening.

                The ground was a writhing mass of shattered concrete, dark earth, and twitching roots. If you were fool enough to go outside, and there wasn’t much inside left to speak of, it wasn’t long before the ground swallowed you up and the new, hungry trees turned you into a human juice box.

                Still, of all the ways to go, in the peace and quiet of nature, enveloped into the welcoming, dark softness of the earth, wasn’t the worst. The roar of the city had stilled. Birds flitted in the leaves, bursting out in laughing flocks as the trees irritably shook their heads. A soft breeze floated by carrying the scent of fresh blossoms.

                The foundation of my building creaked. A long crack lanced up the wall next to me. I took another sip of my coffee. It wouldn’t be long now.

PUBLISHED: Toward Light

My short story “Toward Light” was recently published in the inaugural issue of DreamForge Anvil by DreamForge Magazine.

For something to thrive, something else must be consumed. Or is it possible to circumvent the cycle wherein the energy to sustain life is taken from a living thing? What would such a world be like?

~ DreamForge Anvil introduction to “Toward Light”

Read the story by clicking here.

Access the entire issue by clicking here. You’ll find some wonderful fiction stories and articles about writing and story craft.

Photo Credit: Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

Nisus III

               Nisus III looked like a marble from orbit, a swirl of purple and black beneath fraying sheets of white cloud. As the shuttle hurtled toward the surface, shaking and rattling in the thickening atmosphere, curls of gold began to streak across the mauve soil, growing to thick patches, the first sign of human settlement and habitation.

               The wheat had sprung up faster than we could have hoped. The rest of the grains languished, if they sprouted at all, but the wheat had lifted its golden head and spread like a weed. It grew faster than any crop at home, even without water or rain, coming to harvest in merely a few weeks. When we flew across it, making the fields ripple and bend in our wake, it looked like home.

                The shuttle came to rest on the bank of the black river where we made our camp. It was only a few portable buildings, a lavatory, and a water purifier chugging softly. Mona stood at the edge of the field, a broad-brimmed hat hiding her face. A few grains of wheat sat in her tan, wrinkled palm, and she poked at them, inspecting. “I think it’s ready,” she said.

                She pushed up the brim of her hat to gaze out over the fields. “From sprout to harvest in less time than even the fastest syntheticrops. Every agricultural unit in this sector is going to be dropping into orbit here.”

                “Are there more than yesterday?” I asked, shielding my eyes from the sun and peering toward the edge of the field.

                Mona shrugged and scattered the wheat kernels over the mauve soil. “They’ve been showing up off and on the past few days. Curious, I think.”

                They stood as dumb and still as trees, great bulbous lumpy things, watching us with black eyes. Their skin was knobbly and rough, like lichen-covered rocks. Someone had called them Ents, and the name stuck. Sometimes they bent down to the soil, spreading their elephant-like hands against the earth and humming, or waded into the black water to stand there quietly. Mona had scanned them. Brain waves indicated they were somewhere been dolphins and octopuses, too intelligent to become farm animals but not intelligent enough to understand resource management. They never touched the wheat fields, never came near them, but they watched.

                The scythe glimmered in the sun, and the wheat fanned out over the soil. It could stay there to dry, in the eternally temperate weather, but we filled our arms with stalks, impatient for a taste of our labors. We shook the tiny kernels from their papery skins until only the small oval grains remained.

                “What are they doing?” I asked, looking up to see that more of the Ents had gathered, standing mutely between us and the field.

                Mona glanced up from the small engine unit she’d been rewiring into a grinder. She snorted. “They’re getting comfortable. Likely to be a nuisance soon. Jorn will have to put up that electric fence.”

                We, five lone researchers in a strange purple land, gathered reverently around the small cookstove as Mona mixed the fresh ground grain with water and a sprinkle of salt, the only piece of home we could bring with us across the expanse. The sticky mass of dough clung to her fingers as she shaped it into an uneven round.

               The smell of baking bread filled my nose, and my mouth watered. The intensity of the sensation after weeks, months, (had it been years?) was almost overwhelming.

                The warm, flat cake was pulled from the burner and broken between us, the jagged pieces held like precious stones in our palms.

                “To human advancement,” Mona said and bit into her piece.

                The brown surface crackled against my teeth. It was dry and had the bland, dehydrating taste of under-seasoned grain. It was the best thing I could remember tasting since I’d left home. But something was wrong.

                A strange sensation burned in my chest. Mona collapsed running to the portable buildings for med supplies, one hand outstretched, fingers digging into the soil. Jorn was on his knees next to me, retching. Through bleary eyes, I saw another one of us fall into the river, trying to drink the black water. Bubbles gurgled then nothing broke the dark surface.

                I collapsed backward. Figures appeared above me, lumpy and solid against the pale sky, staring down at me with black eyes. A murmuring filled the air, a stirring whisper like wind through the trees. In the last struggling gasp of breath, I realized they were laughing.

The Faces of Ardune

                The mountains of Ardune have faces carved upon them.

                Three faces. One turned up to the heavens, eyes wide in wonder. Another looking down to the plains below. And the last with eyes closed and mouth open, green forest flowing like hair from the snowy peak.

                The faces sit, still and silent, on the mountainsides. In the dusk, the cavernous mouths spit black swarms of bats, and the rains of spring fall like rivers of tears from the pitted eyes.

                If a mortal hand carved them, it was long before ships came into the bay of Ardune. When Ardun the Mariner first sailed into the bay, the great faces glared out over the forests, and the sailors cowered in fear, thinking they had strayed to the land of the old gods. And the eldest of Ardune still speak in their thin voices of the siege, when the black ships of Korthyk covered the water, bringing steel and fire and death. A tempest rose that night, and when dawn came, the waters were clear and blue again. They say the mountains drew in the breath of the wind and blew them from the bay.

                But of all the legends of Ardune and the faces set there, none is more well-known than that of Selkan. Selkan the Heretic some call him, and they say that the eyes of the mountains glowed red in the setting sun on the day he stepped off the great ship Riverwrath onto the teeming docks of Ardune.

                When he came ashore, he asked one of the sailors who had been on the Riverwrath with him where he could see these faces he heard so much about.

                “There,” the sailor said, pointing over the uneven roofs of Ardune to the looming mountains.

                Selkan studied them a moment, turning his head first one way then another. “An interesting trick of the light,” he said at last. “Though from the tales, I had expected more.”

                And he set off into the narrow and winding streets of Ardune. He was a traveler and spoke with pride of his knowledge of the dry expanses of Erid and the tall forests of Arbur, though he never spoke of his home. Whatever his origin, he was the kind of man who, seeing a great mountain, saw not a shadow to be lived in but a thing to be scaled.

                “Why do you not mine the mountains?” he asked the folk of Ardune, and the tavern where he had come to spend the night fell silent.

                Farmers and sailors, those who knew to fear the land’s fury, turned their shoulders to him, staring into their beer. When Selkan was told the mountains were held in reverence, that none took even a pebble, he laughed.

                “Rock and boulder!” he cried. “You freeze in houses of lumber when you could have stone.”

                Others had tried. But none who had set out to cross the mountains and see what lay beyond had returned. A light came into Selkan’s eyes when he heard this, and he took up a challenge that hadn’t been given him.

                “I will go,” he said. “I will stand in its mouth and take a stone from its belly. Then you will see that you’ve been afraid of nothing more than a shadow.”

                The next day at dawn, he set out across the open plains, down the thin lanes between the fields, and into the deep forests, toward the great peak of Ardune where the black mouth stood open. And those who watched him go shook their heads.

                In the dead of night, two weeks after Selkan’s departure, the ground began to shake, throwing dishes from the shelves and stirring the waters in the bay so that the ships swayed. A great roar rose from the mountains then was still.

                In the morning, the people of Ardune saw that the stony mouth had shut. The mountain was sealed. And if Selkan yet lives, no soul in Ardune has seen him, but if asked, they will say that it was the mountain that swallowed him.

Tiny Tales is now listed on Feedspot’s Top 80 Short Story Blogs. Check it out:

Image by DarkmoonArt_de from Pixabay

2020: A Year of (Mostly) Fiction in Review

As the year draws to a close, I wanted to take this final moment in 2020 to look back at the reading I’ve done this year. Reading is no less a part of writing than the moments spent putting words on paper. It’s research, and what a joyous and wonderful research it is! I’ll be sharing two books that stood out to me — one fiction and one nonfiction — plus a list of honorable mentions. A complete reading list is included at the bottom of this post. I’d love to discuss any of them, so feel free to leave questions or comments.

The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness focuses primarily on Genly Ai, a human serving as a diplomatic envoy to the planet Winter (also known as Gethen) with the mission of convincing them to join the Ekumenical confederation of planets. The Gethenians are androgynous. One physical sex becomes biologically dominant only during mating, known as kemmer, when either partner may become male or female. Ai must overcome not only the cultural differences inherent in traveling to a distant and previously uncontacted planet but the social differences of a place where no perceived gender binary exists.

Yet for all of that, the book takes a decidedly masculine tone. The Gethenians, despite having no specific physical sex or gender are identified with the pronoun “he.” Whether this reflects Ai’s inherent biases, the world Le Guin was writing in, or an intentional subversion of our understanding of the word’s normal usage is up to the reader to decide. Le Guin wrote a wonderful article on the dilemma of pronouns and the restrictions of our language: read it here. It’s a struggle that continues to be fought today not just by writers but within our evolving society.

Le Guin is a master of world and culture building, unsurprisingly, considering her parents were both anthropologists. The main storyline is interspersed with historical and scientific documents, revealing Gethenian culture through not only scientific observation but legend and story. Le Guin creates the illusion of a vast world just beyond our line of sight, rich in history and existence, full of life and breath.

In Shadow and Act (which I will discuss below), Ralph Ellison discusses our heritage as writers. We can’t choose our blood ancestors, but we can choose our writing ancestors. Le Guin is absolutely one of mine. This book made me consider not the stories I wanted to write but what I wanted to say with them. Telling an interesting story isn’t enough. If your reader isn’t changed, isn’t a different person at the end of the story than they were at the beginning, why should they have read it at all? This book, at its core, is not about distant planets or spaceships or telepathy (yeah, that’s in there too). It’s about humanity, about existence, and she guides us to faraway lands and distant stars so that we can better meet ourselves. And by stepping out of our world for a moment into another that is so completely different, we can look back with changed eyes.

I talk about the gods; I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.*

If you read this book, she will take you through the winding streets of Karhide and across the snowy mountains of Winter. And what you find there might be a fascinating thought-experiment on the possibilities of existence within our galaxy or perhaps it will be something more. Le Guin said it best: “…truth is a matter of the imagination.”

*from the Ace Books 1969 edition with introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin

Shadow and Act by Ralph Ellison

Shadow and Act is a collection of essays, critiques, and interviews discussing everything from literature to society to politics to race to jazz to being a writer. But Ellison is not satisfied with a mere analysis of what is.

He delves further, into the psychological, into the human condition, into the factors and influences that make us who we are regardless of social status or skin color. Ellison rejects the idea that we are trapped within our circumstances but believes that the innate human desire to assert our humanity and simply be, freely, can and must be fulfilled.

Accordingly, each patient, whether white or black, is approached dynamically as a being possessing a cultural and biological past who seeks to make his way toward the future in a world wherein each discovery about himself must be made in the here and now at the expense of hope, pain, and fear — a being who in responding to the complex forces of America has become confused.*

This thread leads us through his discussions of jazz and the genre’s trajectory from small dance halls to a cultural revolution to his discussions of literature where he shares his desire to be seen not as a Black writer but simply a writer expressing his own condition. This desire and his preference for writers like Hemingway earned him criticism for not being loyal to his perceived social group. We are not strangers to these challenges today. How does one simultaneously take pride in being a woman writer while raging against a system that requires such a distinction be made?

Ellison draws back the elusive curtain over the American dilemma, diving into the psychological, rejecting the idea of an America divided simply by color, a tenuous distinction at best, and drawing our attention to the underlying refusal to acknowledge the humanity of all those who live within it. America cannot be seen as two distinct entities but only a deeply flawed whole.

Ellison not only provides insight into a situation that continues to torment America but also shares through his own life the journey we all make as we progress from our beginnings, fighting ever upward to find our place within the world.

*from “Harlem is Nowhere” discussing the Lafargue Psychiatric Clinic

Honorable Mentions

Children of Hurin by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Children of Hurin tells the tale of Turin and his struggle against the ever-present shadow of Morgoth that lies over his family.

I pride myself on having read much of Tolkien’s Middle Earth literature, but this book caught me by surprise. I’ve never known Tolkien to be a particularly poignant writer (his writing can tend to be a little dry), but again and again, I found myself drawn into Turin’s struggle and despair.

If you’re a fan of Tolkien, I would recommend this and “Aldarion and Erendis” from Unfinished Tales.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

In The Turn of the Screw, a governess takes on the care of two children in a remote English manor, and as expected in a remote English manor, dark deeds transpire.

It’s a twisting and ambiguous ghost story that will leave you wondering what was and wasn’t real. James gives nothing up easily, and if you’re like me, you’ll dive back in to find the answers yourself.

James does tend to ramble, so if you’re not a fan of long-winded monologues, you may want to pass.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Another twisting and psychological horror story, The Haunting of Hill House follows Eleanor who, with a group of others, is invited to visit a house with a dark past.

Like Henry James, Jackson leaves you wondering what is and isn’t real as the line between the preternatural and the psychological grows ever thinner. However, don’t expect white-knuckle reading. Neither this book nor The Turn of the Screw is a scary read.

Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf

Moments of Being is a collection of essays and autobiographical writings. The title is taken from Woolf’s description of life as a series of scenes, vivid and bright with importance, surrounded by a fog of normal existence.

It’s an excellent glimpse into the fragility of life during her era. Her family was haunted by death and tragedy, and she, her sisters, and her mother struggled to carry the heavy emotional burdens placed upon them.

I recommend this book if you want to understand more about Woolf’s style as a writer and the events in her life that influenced her stories.

I could talk forever about these books and their authors. They all left little sparks behind, but another year is coming and with it another stack of books to be read. For now, these will be lovingly tucked onto their shelves for next time.

May the last few days of 2020 be the best yet, and may you have a Happy New Year! I will see you in 2021.

~ R. E. Rule

All 2020 Reads (in no particular order):

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)
Through the Looking Glass (Lewis Carroll)
Sylvie and Bruno (Lewis Carroll)
The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. Le Guin)
A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. Le Guin)
The Colour of Magic (Terry Pratchett)
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis)
The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels (Henry James)
Unfinished Tales (J. R. R. Tolkien)
The Children of Hurin (J. R. R. Tolkien)

Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
Stardust (Neil Gaiman)
The Phantom Toolbooth (Norton Juster)
Holidays on Ice (David Sedaris)
Dark Tales (Shirley Jackson)
The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson)
Mirrors (Eduardo Galeano)
Shadow and Act (Ralph Ellison)
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
Moments of Being (Virginia Woolf)
The Voyage Out (Virginia Woolf)
The Shining (Stephen King)
Kings of the Wyld (Nicholas Eames)*
H is for Homicide (Sue Grafton)*

*did not finish

Other References:


Leaves skittered across the cabin floor, caught in the whirl and eddy of a night-time breeze. The door creaked on broken hinges. On the hearth, graying embers hissed and spat as cooling tea crept from the shattered mug into the red glow.

A chair lay on its side, one leg mangled. The end of the heavy bed jutted out into the room, lines in the dust where it had reluctantly moved from its place. Blankets lay crumpled over deep grooves carved into the heart of the wooden floor.

A scarlet drop ran along the jagged glass in the windowsill. With a soft moan, the tattered curtains gave way and fluttered to the floor. A red splash was painted there, leading out into the darkness, across the soft dirt, disappearing among the brooding trees.

Through the oppressive night shuddered a mournful cry.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

The Weather Is Turning Cold

The weather is turning cold.

It makes me hungry for surf-battered shores and sharp-bladed grasses,
for the smell of salt and snow in the air,
for grim, gray rocks carpeted with lichen.

The weather is turning cold.
It makes me hungry for the sea.

Photo Credit: Dartrider,_habitat_of_Cittarium_pica.jpg

X Marks the Spot

                There’s nothing left of our village but a big charred spot and a few blackened logs still valiantly standing upright. It was razed to the ground, and seeing that we were a small coastal community located next to pirate-infested seas, you’d think it was them that did it.

                In a way, it was the pirates that set the whole thing off. They were always coming in and pillaging and being a general all-around nuisance until some clever person years back decided the best way to fend them off was to beat them at their own game. If we buried all our valuables and made out to be nothing but a poor sea village, they’d have no warrant to come and bother us. It wasn’t long before the citizens rivaled the squirrels for nesting away their goods in the forest, and you could hardly stick a spade in the ground without hitting someone’s forgotten chest or sack of gold.

                Eventually the pillagers, being a naturally lazy lot, showed up less often until they stopped coming together. Unfortunately by the time it was safe to retrieve our valuables, everyone had forgotten where they’d buried what. It wasn’t for lack of looking, but inevitably you found something that belonged to somebody else.

                At first, the finders generously took a finder’s fee, pocketing a portion of the re-discovered goods in return for the hassle of finding the owner, which was all well and good until it came to paying for your own valuables when the whole deal suddenly seemed a lot less fair. Fed up with that, we decided to forget the whole system and the finders could just keep whatever they found. The forest soon turned into a field of pits and exposed roots surrounded by a ring of growing dirt mounds you had to clamber over as everyone frantically tried to dig up whatever they could. This system certainly motivated, but it crumbled when the blacksmith, a seven-foot man with arms the size of barrels dug up a chest full of silk dresses and decided he neither wanted nor needed them. And the previous owner of the dresses, who had unearthed his broadsword beneath a copse of oaks, decided she’d much rather keep the weapon.

                As chaotic as this sounds, it would have settled itself in the end. The real problems began when we unearthed the journal. The original owner declined to reveal themselves (which was a wise choice as it turns out), and the finder delved into the brittle pages to see if they could puzzle out who it was. What they found was a collection of gossip so vile, so despicable, that they promptly shared it with everyone in the immediate vicinity.

               Once we started reading it, we obviously couldn’t stop. Whoever wasn’t mentioned within the pages must be the author, so it had to be carefully read from cover to cover and the vicious gossip identified. But nobody trusted anybody else to do the reading, in case they were the one who had penned it, and it became a public event which any and all could attend (and they did). And as there were quite a few names to be checked off before we got to the end, wild suspicions and accusations were flying before we’d even gotten ten pages in.

                On page three, the tavern keeper, a large and balding man, was described as “a lump of rancid lard” who smelled about as bad, and his ale was only slightly preferable to drinking the seawater that dripped from dead fish as they hung in the sun to dry. The outraged tavern keeper was convinced that the fisherman had done it, having always harbored a deep dislike for the man despite their feigned friendship, and sliced all his nets in the night. Again, it might have blown over except he just couldn’t hold back from telling the fisherman that maybe he should worry about his own smell. The fisherman, who had genuinely believed they were friends up until that moment and just now realizing the truth of the matter, poked holes in all the barrels of ale, flooding the tavern, and left behind a very generous and very fishy gift. (The tavern keeper opened his door the next morning to find a collection of very drunk eels.)

                After that, the entire village dissolved into chaos. Every secretly remembered insult and offense came barreling back into the light of day until people barricaded themselves in their homes at night and refused to speak to each other in the streets.

                The last straw (or the first spark) was the lengthy section describing the ineptitude, inability, and complete lack of imagination the town builder displayed in whatever project she touched. This was crowned by an assertion that the inhabitants would probably prefer to live in piles of cow dung over the buildings she created which so closely resembled them. She, the victim of a failed romance with the farrier, focused all her rage on him, and that night set fire to the stable she had so lovingly built, rather stupidly forgetting that all the houses were made of wood and built rather close together, and it wasn’t long before the whole thing went up like a great big hunk of dried dung.

                So now the village is nothing but a smoking black spot on the coast. The citizens cleared out shortly afterward, preferring to take their chances sailing with the pirates than staying one more moment with their loving neighbors. The journal disappeared in the fire, and the author, whoever it was, was never revealed. I have to imagine they were just expressing well-deserved and rather artfully described grievances. But it was rather disconcerting to watch a group of seemingly civil people descend into a pitchfork-wielding mob over a few innocent observations.

                In my defense, when I buried the thing, I didn’t think anyone would find it.

Photo Credit: Sharon Mollerus,Park_Point_Beach,_Duluth(33615120923).jpg