From Clay

The first thing to stop working was art.
Not all art, of course. We all thought – because nothing like this had happened before, it was nothing we could really conceive of – that tastes had just changed, criticism become more cutting and true. Impressionistic art, abstract art, self-referential and subjective and conceptual art, all of it quietly lost its power. Except for the artists, and a few critics who staked their claim on such things, everyone just agreed that this was a normal enough shift in opinion, that it must have been the publication of certain reviews, that they at most tapped into a hidden public belief not yet expressed. It wasn’t really news that the Turner Prize had lost its punch, after all. It wasn’t shocking to admit that Hirst’s shark left us cold.
The artists themselves were strangely muted, unable to muster a defense.
“I made this to express…” they would say, then stutter, stumbling over words, “I mean, I know what it was supposed to be, but it just isn’t, is it? It’s just… I’m not sure anything’s there.” And they drank more than before, and talked less, and stopped trying.
At the time, I didn’t notice at all. Like everyone else, I began to better appreciate landscapes, realism, photorealistic paintings, that’s all.
Maybe it could have been stopped, back then, if we’d only realized it.

It was a whole year later, maybe more. (Who can mark when we first became disillusioned? Who can say when the fire died, when there were no embers left, amid all the smoke?) Art and music and every other high folly had ebbed. By then poetry could no longer move – when I say that the Sea of Faith was no longer at the full, now, it’s hollow. The referents remain after the beating heart has stopped. But we still didn’t really realize it. What was there to realize? The problem was unnameable. Ridiculous to even begin to describe.’
Then the sciences ground to a halt. A general admission by a researcher at CERN: “There’s really nothing left to say. We think we pretty much understand it all.” He blinked, swallowed, and said, “And it looks like everything is some kind of clay.”
There’s a humor in it, isn’t there? Except his eyes were moist, his voice low. Pictures were displayed, as we all stared at our phones or our laptops or the television in the laundromat: Tangles of cables and equipment, turned gray and uniform. The lenses of telescopes turned opaque, their texture grainy. “This is, obviously, very unexpected,” he said, “But it seems to fully explain everything. You see, most creation stories say that humans were made from…”
I closed the video. It had to be a hoax, right? But even lies were starting to become harder to maintain  – denial being another kind of lie.

This was around when the physical changes started, obviously. Things being reclaimed. Later, people.

This isn’t supposed to be about me, but this is how it was, when the fire at the heart of the world went out. December, I think. The end moved faster than we could imagine, back when we could imagine.
I was coming home on the subway, headphones on but nothing playing (I’d lost my taste for music) when I heard someone shouting. Shaved head, skin mottled with clay, eyes featureless and earthy gray, he loomed over a woman cowering in her seat.
“You’re nothing! Finished!” he shouted, and grabbed her wrist, “No more fucking stealing! No more taking from real people.”
And he was real, he was solid and wet and heavy, and I told myself I couldn’t do anything. I’m weak, I said, and he’s not hurting her, better not to make him angrier. Better not to act.
And eventually she got off. Other people didn’t get too close to him, but there were whispers that maybe she had it coming. By then there were clay people on TV, in suits, faces gone, mouths holes in the clay, talking about how really, this was as right as Scripture. Color television had stopped working not long after the internet, so one couldn’t tell if the people they were talking to were clay as well, or just going along.
“We’re all going to witness it,” I remember one saying, in a clean, objective voice, “The world returned to its rightful and original state. You see, the stolen fire has gone out. It should have been snuffed long ago, of course, but we persisted in sinning, in feeding it, in protecting it.”
The host nodded, smiling.
“But why haven’t we heard anything about this before?” she asked, “And how can viewers at home help darken the coals of the universal fire?”
“Well, that might be a bit more than we have time for here. What matters is that the fire was stolen, and we didn’t have a right to it. And isn’t it better to give up all the hallucinations, all the false pretenses, of that particular fever? The best way to help restore the world is simply to live virtuously.”
On the train, trying to stay distant from the world around me, I felt a chill in my left hand, and when I looked it was streaked with gray.

That’s why I decided to write something down. Not quite this – something a little less devoted to my own failings. A little less devoted to me, at all. Something that might carry on after cold unfired clay reclaims the world. This is for myself, to remind me why I have to keep going. My left arm is clay past the elbow, and I know that the fire in me is barely staying alive. But this stokes it, I think. Maybe. I talked to friends about my hand. They were all being reclaimed as well, by then. Talking about it still had an air of the absurd, of something pointless. I’m sitting on the beach, which is gray, watching the sun rise over a gray ocean.
I need to quicken whatever spark I have. How?
Friends said: “It’s how things are and we should get used to it” and “There’s nothing we can do” and even “Maybe we should try to see things their way.” We cried (gray, opaque) tears, and made (heartfelt, unlikely) promises to stand by each other.
And they one by one went colder, quieter.

Eventually, I couldn’t stand to walk through the streets. The curbs slumped, people shuffling wetly, the buildings beginning to slump like poorly cast pots on the wheel. You can’t tell who still has any skin left, since it’s all coated in wrinkling, elephantine clay.
Not that there are elephants anymore, I think. They must be gone, because the image of them in my head is vague, decayed. The physical and the immaterial collapse together now, flavors and colors bleeding away.
So I fled. I went north, to Maine, to here. The trees don’t really have branches anymore, the pine needles have formed mats of clay strands, the birds can’t even fly. The water is murky and opaque. My family’s cabin has some color left, some objects dense with unreality that have held out. I haven’t been in contact with them. There wasn’t any way, and I didn’t want to hear flat, unkind words from clay tongues. How could I stand that any more than I could stand my friends?
The things I have left: Paintings of the family on the walls. The building weeps slip down the inside walls, but the murals of my aunts and uncles when they were small still hold their color. The tools in the woodshed, though the lock has stopped working, and some of them even seem to have a little electricity left in them, somehow. Knickknacks from my grandparents’ travels, sheet music for singing folk songs. The old boat. Everything our family memories have latched on to remain as embers. Even the fireplace, though in a harsh irony the matches to light it are soft and monochrome and cold.

The lights still work, dimly. The first night here, exhausted from trudging through clay mud for days, I tried to stargaze. No planets to be seen, and there seemed to be many fewer than there should be. Even the vast strange ideas of astronomers could return to clay – we are the center of everything again.

I needed something to write with. Some flame to seal my testament. Something hot and red within me.

I’ve just come back from the woodshed. I’ll have to write quickly, since I don’t know how much longer I can stay awake. None of me is clay anymore – and there’s less of me by a significant part. I hadn’t realized how heavy my inaction was, how much I’d started to lean to the left from its imbalance. Even a little clay is heavier than a whole body of flesh.
I write right-handed, which is fortunate.
I wonder who might read this, who might find the small embers I can leave. It seems unlikely that anything will be left. Maybe the clay people will keep going once everything is flattened out. I think I won’t be one of them, at least.

 

(Written for Chuck Wendig’s January 2017 flash fiction prompt)

The First Attempt

The Boy Who Hooked the Sun [.1]

On the morning of the eighth day, the Sun rose. It beat a golden road into the face of the sea, leading to its own broad face, and licking at the shining stones of Atlantis. There on that shore stood a boy to greet the eighth day, and cast his line, and the Sun swallowed his hook.

This was not such a boy as you or I have ever met: there was something of the chipped emeralds of Atlantis in his eye, and something of the golden road the sun made in his hair. But he was dirty about the face and dusty about the ankle, and worried his mother half to death – so he was just the same as the boy down the road, that you and I know. His father had left long ago to trade the shining stones of Atlantis to the barbarians of Hellas, for goatskins and wine, leaving the boy and his mother in poverty in their house on the edge of the village. Now he stood on the hill above the village overlooking the sea, and held tight to his fishing rod that he had baited with the shining stones of Atlantis.

The Sun, which was not so wise in the ways of humans as it is in these days, began to thrash and turn at the bite of the hook. It sounded, and the world was plunged into a night of constellations laid suddenly bare. It leapt, and cast a spray of stars across the heavens. But the boy just smiled and let the Sun tire itself, sometimes letting out his line, and sometimes drawing it in. The Sun raced to and fro across the sky, and wound the line about the moon to break it, but the hook was fast and the line was long.

Then the richest man in the village, who owned the house the boy and his mother lived in, came up the hill, panting – for he was used to strolling, or his palanquin – with the effort. He called out to the boy.

“Cut your line! Cut your line! When the Sun runs out you lay the blast of winter on my orchards, and all the fruit is withered. When the Sun draws in, droughty August boils the channels of my barley fields and they cannot grow. Cut your line, and you will bathe in gold!”

But the boy only laughed, and when the richest man in the village bored him, he threw the shining stones of Atlantis at him, sapphires and sardonyxes, until he went away.

Then the strongest man in the village, the smith – who smelted diamonds into adamant and malachite into orichalcum, and who could stop the charge of a wild ox with one arm – came up and shouted: “Cut your line! Cut your line, or I’ll break your neck!” as the richest man in the village had paid him to do so.

But the boy only laughed, and when the smith took hold of him by the neck he took hold of the smith in turn and threw him down the hill of rubies and rhodolites, for the strength of the Sun had come down the line.

And in some little time the cleverest man in the village, who was the mayor, came up the hill. He could talk a rabbit into his kitchen – and he often had, and many a rabbit and many a partridge too had found itself trembling there when the door had closed and the knives shone – and he came up to the boy with a sidelong step.

“My son,” he said, “You must cut your line, and come with me! For the other mayors of the other villages and I, across Atlantis, we’ve convened a meeting, and it has been unanimously agreed: We are to be an empire, and you are to be our king! And you may leave off your work, for not one in all the world could do as you have done, and not one in the world would dare to try, so cut your line.”

“Oh, a king?” asked the boy, smiling and bending his rod against the sun so that the days flashed by backwards, “Tell them to bring a throne, or stool, then. Shouldn’t a court come to the king?” And after he had played out many other words, and much other bait, the boy pelted him with agates and emeralds, and the cleverest man in the village left.

Then down from the hills came the wisest woman in the village, who was a sorceress and a theurgist and many things beside, and who knew every future but her own. She folded her robes about her and sat to watch the boy, and tried to glimpse his palm – but he held the pole.

And she said, “Cut your line, child. In his shrine Sabaoth shudders, and refuses the smoke of offerings. The feet of Ereshkigal, whom the unlearned do not fear, have broken, and the sacred bird Quetzal who drinks wisdom from the dew has shed his green plumage. The stars are riot and confusion, so that at one moment humankind will rule them all, and at the next perish utterly. Cut your line!”

But the boy only laughed, and when she frowned so gravely at him he showered her in moonstones and nephrites until she went away.

Then a girl his own age, with hair inked by night, and eyes like fractured garnets – just such a girl as you and I have known, who only wears shoes when her father insists – came up to him.

“Cut your line and come and play,” she said, “or let me hold the rod.” And he almost did, smiling, but the sun leapt up and in her shadow he saw her father, who was the smith of the village.

So instead he said, “I would have, if you had really wanted it for you.” And she sighed, and went down the hill to complain to her father, and the boy tossed his favorite onyxes and opals after her, as she laughed and ran away.

Then most foolish man in the village, who talked with the songbirds in their language and boasted of lying with the white birch on the hill, came up to the boy, his cap and feather in hand. And he tried to say how much he feared the dancing sun, and put in words his longings. But the boy just smiled, and let him touch the rod, and eventually he went away to try again with his quill, which he inked with powdered lapis and jet.

Then at last the boy’s mother came up the hill, and kindly said: “Cut your line and come away, my son, if ever you have loved me. Come down to our house, which the richest man in the village has returned to us, and try on your crown and tell your general to guard the door. And we will lay out the white birch bark and with Quetzal’s feather dipped in the blood of the great white ox we will write out a story better than any I have ever told you.”

And the boy looked away from the Sun and his line, and asked: “What story is that?”

“It is called ‘The Boy Who Hooked The Sun,” now come away and promise me you never will fish for the Sun again as long as we both shall live.”

And the boy nodded, and took out his pen-knife and cut his line, and went laughing down the hill hand in hand with his mother. But as he did, he thought: My mother is kind and I will do as she says, but she is old. And is it not said that all souls wear away as they travel on the Wheel? There will come a day when I live, and she does not, and then I will once more bait my line with the shining stones and humankind will rule the stars. Or not.

And ever since then, the Sun has been wiser, and when it remembers how the hook hurt its mouth it swims far from any shore. And the days are shorter, and the broken line trails across Hermes and Hathor. But then the Sun remembers humankind, clever and foolish, wise and kind, and summer comes with it when it swims near to us.

Or maybe it remembers the taste of the bait.

Starting an Eighth Day

This project is a bit of an odd one – and while I suppose I may eventually use this blog for other purposes, this is the primary and the generative one:

I’m going to try and write stories that have already been written. Gene Wolfe, in The Best of Gene Wolfe which by the title I will trust contains his very best advice, describes a method he attributes to Benjamin Frankling for learning to write.

What one does, is one takes a story by an author you admire, a short story, and reads and reads and reads it until it’s fixed in one’s mind. Then, one hides the story away where you can’t read it, and writes the story again without reference. Then, compare the two, repeat the process, and learn how problems arise and how to fix them.

He also says no student he’s ever taught has taken his advice, so I thought I might as well, especially since the story he suggested quite caught my fancy. It was “The Boy Who Hooked The Sun” and I have elsewhere seen it claimed that it was in the book of fables carried by one Severian. Regarding that illustrious origin in unfathomable futurity, I cannot guess, but it is a story I can stand to write a few times over. After that, I may well move on to other short stories – at the moment, I think I’ll go on to Avram Davidson’s “Golem” – of similar length.

I’m cheating slightly – I just finished my first pass, but am holding off on formatting it for WordPress out of laziness, so here’s an introduction instead.