Pillars of the Sky

Fiction

Humans must be terrified of Lord Etin of Ire, at least according to the witch. That damned witch. She’s one of them.

A storm follows as Etin races toward the castle. His feet leave craters in the hard ground. The two fake heads on either shoulder bob around. He holds them in place. All this effort to turn the humans into stone seems unnecessary. Loathsome pests. The witch more so than others. But the pillars must be built if there is any hope of saving the world.

The witch said there’d be a storm before the Sky God falls. Etin looks up to the blue-black sky. Dark grey clouds swallow the stars. Almost time. The top branch of a tree scrapes his temple. He stumbles but the momentum keeps him upright. The straps holding the fake heads threaten to tear.

He looks up again. The storm won’t hold off for much longer. Time is running out. He picks up his pace. One greedy shepherd just had to talk about a raisetoday of all days. That shepherd can count his fortune that his work has produced results or he’d be used as a pillar. Just one more human to keep the Sky up.

The castle gates rise over the horizon, open and waiting for his return. A fire inside warms up the night. In front of the flames dances the black silhouette of the witch.

He runs up to her, bends at the waist, and whispers in her ear. “Is he here?”

She nods and points to the hole in the wall. Just as planned for her silly ritual. But humans like holes, apparently. Simple creatures, thinking a hole would hide them. It took Etin a whole week to dig it out. Still, it was easier than bribing those human shepherds to direct other humans to the castle. What is it with humans and gold? They always want more but never eat it.

Etin corrects his fake heads and clears his throat. How do the words go again? It’s been so long.

“Sniff there and sniff here, I smell an earthly man. Whether he’s living or dead, his heart will be the spread for my bread.” He looks at the witch who shakes her head and rolls her eyes. Wench.

With a sigh, he bends down and reaches into the hole, grabbing the human. Etin’s red hand covers his entire chest. The human squirms and mumbles something incoherent about his mother and cake. Etin shrugs then lowers him. Typical human nonsense talk.

Please don’t eat me?” The human clasps his hands together. Great, another beggar. “I only wanted to escape the storm. I can’t go anywhere else. Those giants outside… They’re frightening.”

How much more until he quivers? Etin clears his throat and lowers his head, his chin almost touching his neck.

“I myself am a Giant and this is my home. Do you know who I am?”

I-I do.” The human’s head bobs up and down. “Lord Etin, King of the Giants of Ire.”

Etin nods. “Now listen here.” He bares his palms to the human. “Answer me three questions and I will spare your life.” Patience. The anxious brew boiling in the pit of his stomach wants out. There isn’t much time left. The storm still comes.

Anything.” The human’s voice quivers. “I’ll answer anything.”

He clears his throat and winks at the witch. “Was Ire or Scot first inhabited by sentient life?”

The witch rolls her eyes and turns to face the fire again. What sort of messages does the Sky God send her through the flames? He looks at the human.

Knees tremble. “I…” The human licks his lips while scratching his yellow hair. “I don’t know.”

With a suppressed a smile, Etin takes a breath. “Well then, was man made for woman, or woman for man?” The human won’t know this one. Nor call him on the trick question.

While fidgeting with his fingers, the human looks around. “Uhm…” His eyes focus on the castle gates. “Uh, I don’t know that one, either. Woman for man?”

Good. All good. Almost time. “Then tell me this: were men made first, or giants such as myself?” No human can answer that. They’re too young a race to know the true history of the world. Never mind knowing about the Sky God.

The human hesitates then darts for the gates. Too slow. Etin grabs him and lowers him beside the fireplace. The human falls to his knees and clasps his hands together again.

Please? Let me live? I don’t know the answers. I’m a simple man.”

Oh, I know.” Etin lets the smile show. They’re all simple but they make for good stone. The final pillar to hold up the Sky God.

You’re not going to kill me?” The human looks up with furrowed brows and up-turned lips.

Why would I do that?” Etin unclips the mace from his belt. Silly human only thinking of himself. He taps the human’s head, in case he has any plans of trying to escape again.

The human’s feet turn to stone. Then his legs. He screams and writhes until his mouth too becomes rock. Etin folds his arms over his chest and admires his work. The statue’s arms  are straightened above the head. Perfect. The final pillar.

Better prepare the women you hold upstairs for the Sky God.” The witch turns around. “Another comes this way.” Always preparing. For years now, prepare, prepare. She just sits there and watches the flames. Trying to glean messages. Can anyone truly understand the gods?

Etin picks up the human statue and places him in the courtyard. He glares at the witch. “Another human?” Damn her vague, mystic talk.

This human’s brother.” The witch cackles and turns back to the fire.

He stares at the flames. There’s nothing in there. No message. Maybe she should be the last pillar instead? Etin huffs. “I’ll deal with him first then make pillars of the females.” So your precious pure stone won’t waste. He could have turned them into stone long ago. But, no. This damned witch insisted that would ruin the pillars. Does she not know the strength of stone? He corrects the fake heads again and walks to the back gate of the castle. This better not take long.

Through the crack in the wall, he spies the front gate. His stomach growls. These intrusive humans leave no time for meals. A nice salad, fruit no less, would be wonderful.

Sure as the Sky God is coming, the human’s brother arrives. He speaks to the witch who directs him to the hole. Of all the places to hide.

Etin sighs then stomps back into the castle. What were the words again? Oh, yes. “Sniff there and sniff here, I smell an earthly man. Whether he’s living or dead, his heart will be the spread for my bread.” How many times now? The words make his shoulders feel heavy. The fake heads don’t help at all. With a grunt, he bends down and pulls the brother from the hole.

Again, this human squirms and squeals. “I should have taken only half of Mother’s cake!” The brother looks to Etin. “Please? My mother cursed me. Damned woman. Don’t let it come true just because I chose to take the whole cake? Who does that to their son, any way? The curse should have stayed with my brother. Why he had to seek his supposed fortune, I don’t know.”

Etin narrows his eyes, frowns, then shakes his head. More human nonsense. They always talk too much. He puts the human down, gripping his shoulders between his forefinger and thumb. Is it really needed to ask this again?

The witch nods, as though hearing his thoughts.

Answer me three questions and I will spare your life and break your curse. Was Ire or Scot first inhabited by sentient life?”

The brother’s brows furrow and his head cocks back. “How should I know? I wasn’t there.”

Good. This is going faster than expected.

Was man made for woman, or woman for man?” Etin releases his grip.

The brother rubs his shoulders and scoffs. “Woman for man, of course.”

Excellent. At least he isn’t a beggar. Etin unclips the mace. “So who was created first: man or Giant?”

Man.” The brother’s eyes narrow. “Don’t you know your history?”

Etin lets out the laugh boiling from within his belly. “More than you, human.” He taps the brother’s head. He, too, becomes stone—his arms reaching for the sky.

If the Sky God isn’t content with the male, he now has one extra.” Etin chuckles as he picks up the statue and places it in the courtyard, beside his brother. They should do.

It’s not over, yet, Lord Etin. Your Red Giant hide assumes too much. Another yet comes.” The witch cackles once more and turns to the fire. Mad thing, that’s for certain.

His stomach grumbles again. “Is there at least time for something to eat before the other arrives?” The witch cackles again and points to the front gate.

That does it! As soon as the next human becomes a pillar, so will she. The Sky God won’t care. Humans are humans. Her ability to speak with him gains her no favour above anyone else.

He drags his feet to the back gate and takes position by the crack. Another human enters, approaches the witch, then dives into the hole. Does she tell them it’s safe? Simple creatures probably believe her because she’s old.

The pieces for the ceremony are fulfilled. This silly ritual of the witch isn’t necessary any more. Would it matter to make him stone? The witch turns to face the back gate and meets his eye. She nods. How does she know his thoughts?

Sniff there and sniff here, I smell an earthly man. Whether he’s living or dead, his heart will be the spread for my bread.” Etin stomps back into the castle. Partially in tantrum. He casts a glare at the witch. This better be the final time he has to say this. He clenches his jaw. “Come out, I know you’re in there.”

Unlike the others, this one shows no fear. Was he brave or stupid? Not much of a distinction with these creatures. Better ask the questions all at once. Get this over with. The clouds have swallowed the moon already. He’s almost here.

Answer me three questions and I will spare your life. Was Ire or Scot first inhabited by sentient life? Was man made for woman, or woman for man? And who was created first: man or Giant?” His stomach twists in knots. Food. He needs food. Hurry up, human.

Neither, as the definition of sentient life varies from scholar to scholar. What is your definition thereof?” The human holds out his hands then clasps them together. “Both man and woman were made for each other, the Earth God had no preference for one over the other.”

This human is smart. Damn the creature.

And, of course, Giants were created first as the Sky God was the first to be born.” The human pulls out a stick from his boot. A wand? Where did he get a wand?

How do you know all this, human?” Etin fumbles for his mace. Why won’t his fingers work any more? He looks to the wand. Is that a fairy’s? Can’t be. They don’t encourage harm. And yet, that wand is one of theirs. Woodland one, for certain. Dried, crooked, and twisted vines are their signature. This cursed human has numbed his fingers with fairy magic? His knees give out as the numbness crawls through his arms, down his chest, and into his legs.

Damn that witch and her rituals. The Sky God is almost here and the females still need to be turned into stone. The Earth God will be crushed without the pillars when the Sky falls. Silly humans and their ignorance. Etin shakes his head. “Wait, no!”

The human slips the wand back into his boot then reaches for an axe by the pile of wood and charges at him.

Stop! You will be the end of us all!” Etin tugs his arms but they refuse to move.

Still, the human comes. “I know of you, Lord Etin. You stole the daughter of Scot’s king. You are feared by all but me.” He chops off the fake heads in successive swings.

Etin wriggles his shoulders and shuffles backward into the courtyard. The stars and moon are gone. It’s not too late. He can still save the world. “Are you deaf or dumb?”

Neither, Etin! The Sky will not fall, because of me.” The human lifts the axe again and leaps from a step.

The witch’s cackling fades as the Sky God falls and the axe comes down.


This was my version of a fairy tale retelling of The Red Ettin collected by Joseph Jacobs and included in Andrew Lang’s collection, The Blue Fairy Book, as told from the perspective of the antagonist who may have simply been trying to save the world.


 

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Great Expectations

Fiction, Micro Flash Fiction


Harry bought a copy of Pop Magazine, as he had for the past six months, and flipped through the pages.

His story wasn’t in there.

He pulled out his phone then paused. They’d only promise next month again.

Half a year, for nothing. He dumped the magazine in a bin.

As a writer pursuing mainstream publication, the frustrations of career stagnation and rejection letters are all too well known by me. Choosing to be a writer as a career is, of course, by default a difficult and frustrating endeavour. I don’t think anyone not in their write mind would willingly go through this torment and subject themselves to intellectual masochism.

Over and over and over…

But, then again, that’s what makes writers… well, writers. And this is probably how it keeps those not serious enough about writing from being writers. Cruel, I know, but it’s just an observation and speculation. The “it” I’m referring to is the figurative being of writing, created by standards and preferences that dictate the norms and trends of writing. I can’t help personifying it—that’s what I do.

And venturing into the mainstream publishing world further weeds out the writers who stick through it from those who don’t. This isn’t anything wrong, exactly. I can’t think of a single skill-set that this doesn’t happen with. That’s life. And when submitting the work you slaved over for months, maybe even years, editing and editing and rewriting and editing, only to receive a letter that thanks you then proceeds to reject that work can be soul-crushing.

More like soul-grinding.

And often we, as writers, take the rejection personally. How could they not love this perfect thing I created?! That, my friends, is the seducer called Ego, tempting you away from reality and emotional stability. And so we take rejection as an attack on our work and therefore on us. But a lot of the time with good writing, a rejection isn’t because of the work or you. Okay, it’s almost never about you. It can be because the editors had a certain theme, tone, voice, or subject matter planned for the magazine/journal and your work just doesn’t fit.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just business, baby.

So what do you do with a rejection when you’re unsure if it’s because of your work or because of the editors’ plans? You take it, pin it against the wall, frame it, and look at it with pride. Why? Because you tried. You did what many writers don’t. You let them see your work and they’ve seen how hard you worked on it.

Or you can toss it in a bin and write something else, or work more on that work, then send it out again. Rinse and repeat.

Intellectual masochism, as I said. Embrace it. Use it. Don’t give up just because Ego said no one liked your magnum opus. Ego can’t read editors’ minds. Remember that.


This little lecture/rant/motivational was inspired by Jayna Locke‘s Fifty Word Challenge where the prompt this week was “pop”. I encourage every writer—starting out or professional—to join in this fun but challenging initiative.

 


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Contact

Fiction, Micro Flash Fiction


James leaned over the car door. “Where’re you from?”

“Lemon-5.” Her black orb eyes glistened.

“I could drive away and leave you be.” He took a drag off his cigarette. “But where would that leave me in the pursuit of knowledge?”

He chuckled and turned his key in the ignition.

A lot of people wonder, at one time or another, about whether we’re the only sentient life in our cosmic neighbourhood. Whether we’re alone in our little corner of the known universe.

Statistically, there is bound to be other sentient life around us. Physics and math pretty much point to it. Several planets have been found potentially favourable to hosting life. Sure, mostly for basic life—microbial and probably not much more. And these planets are general in what’s called the Goldilocks zone, the area around a star where planets in orbit within are far enough away from the star but not too far, depending on the type of star.

So if there is such a possibility, and not a small one at that, why have we not yet encountered any other life—sentient or basic? Obviously, at this point, our technology is not yet advanced enough to confirm the existence of basic life even in our own solar system. Then what of sentient life? Surely there would be something sent out to space by alien lifeforms trying to communicate, to find out if they’re not alone?

That’s a good point and it’s logical. It’s what we would do, within our thinking conventions. And that, right there, is the snag. It’s what humans would do. Not necessarily what other lifeforms would. But that doesn’t really answer the question, only broadens our ability to consider.

Officially, no one knows why we haven’t made contact or observed life. We can’t know until we actually do. It’s a catch-22 situation. But we can speculate—theorise.

Consider, for a moment, the vast distance between the Earth and the sun—Sol. 149,6 million kilometres. Now, the distance between Sol and the Kuiper Belt surrounding the edge of our solar system, in where Pluto orbits, ends at 50 AU (astronomical units, where 1 AU is the distance from Sol to Earth). For further perspective, Sol’s closest solar neighbour is Proxima Centauri which is 4.24 light-years (LY) away—where 1 LY is about 63 239 AU.

That’s pretty far away.

Consider, then, that perhaps—if a sentient civilisation has been trying to contact us—they’re too far for their signals to reach us. And by the time they do—if they do—they would be long dead. Not to mention that, in this case, any contact to us would be one-way. There probably won’t be anyone around to hear our response by the time it reaches the origin location.

Or perhaps, just maybe, they have made contact already but our human tendency to discard consideration for the Other has been the reason we still wonder if we’re alone and why the universe is so quiet?

This little thought experiment (and not-so-little critique on humanity) was inspired by Jayna Locke‘s Fifty Word Challenge where the prompt this week was “lemon”. I encourage every writer—starting out or professional—to join in this fun but challenging initiative.


 


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For Them

Fiction, Micro Flash Fiction

How far would a parent go to ensure their child’s future? Given the resources and tools to secure that future, many would go to the edge of the universe and back. But what if it would cost the lives of millions?


The words ‘danger: biohazard’ illuminated the dark bunker. Another global riot alert popped up on her laptop, and she looked at her sleeping toddler.

Leaning over, she kissed the boy’s forehead. “For you.”

These children deserved a peaceful world. This one was over.

She pressed the button, releasing the virus.

It’s called the maternal instinct but the desire, and sometimes urge, to protect the child is also seen with men. Why this instinct? Biologically, it can be argued as ensuring the survival of our genetic make-up. This would make the most sense as the protection of young is something we can observe nearly consistently with most mammals. It is further evident with the hormones released that secure bonding to our offspring.

Perhaps due to the frequency, variety, and amount of hormones produced in the body from the double X chromosomes that it’s called the maternal instinct as opposed to paternal or even—more accurately—parental instinct.

Or is it a matter of socialisation, of conditioning? Realistically, it’s because of both biology and social construct.

But just how much do other reasons for parental instinct factor into the individual’s reasoning to protect their children, either consciously or subconsciously? Say, for instance, the concept of immortality. Arguably, the need to immortalise oneself is a common feature among people, and it translating into assuring the survival of offspring plays in both the point of ensuring genetics are carried down and the social aspect of lineage.

What if immortalising oneself through reproduction is a stronger need than the two factors the idea stems from? To what length, then, would a parent go to guarantee their child’s survival and future?

This was a short, short science-fiction story that explored the idea of ego misinterpreted as the parental instinct.

 

 


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Practice

Fiction, Micro Flash Fiction


As her brush splashed across the canvas in hard strokes, it smeared the paint into new shades. She stepped back, inspecting her poor re-creation.

Not good enough. Nothing like the original.

Chewing the wooden handle of the brush, she reached for the palette once more.

With practice, it could be.

Any creative knows the process of practice and the striving to (near enough) perfection as we each define it. Some of us have the ideal of perfection placed on a higher scale, while others recognise the flaw of such an ideal and lower that scale. As an artist and a writer, I can say I fall into either at times. There are days when my idea of “good enough” rests in that perfect ideal, and other days when “good is enough” is in itself close to perfection.

Finding the balance between those two extremes is as much a challenge and skill to master as the creative work itself. And frustration comes easy when the balance is fleeting. But the key to both skills—and this is something we know yet often forget—is practice. Like any skill, applying effort to understanding and developing it is necessary. This applies to the skill of balance particularly.

I reached a burn-out not too long ago when I failed to practice the balance of the extremes. And my crafts suffered for it. I dare say the lack of practice has noticeably regressed the progresses I had made in my crafts, and now it’s time to compensate for time and effort lost. To catch up to where I would have been now.

And I believe this practice of balance applies to any aspect of life. Slow down when needed, progress when needed, and re-evaluate where “good enough” and “perfection” meet. But always, and always, practice.

And this is my motivational for the day. It is good enough, for me.

 

 


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The Lesson

Fiction, Micro Flash Fiction


Janny deserved a broken arm. All I did was try to show her the hole—the one hidden in the grass. I barely touched her. She just fell and something cracked.

Mom made me apologise, and I did.

But I warned Janny. Now she’ll know not to take my stuff.

The Lesson is a story born from a childhood memory in an encounter between me and my step-sister. As siblings are wont to do, they invade privacy and take belongings. Only as an adult did I realise she did it to try form a relationship with me and looked up to me (I’m the eldest of the litter). But as a kid, I didn’t understand her behaviour. This, naturally, turned into a relationship of distrust and resentment.

It wasn’t pretty.

So I took the memory of the time she didn’t notice a hole in the ground that was covered with veld grass. We were playing in a public park while my step-mom was getting groceries. My step-sister broke her arm when she fell. I remember thinking it was karma, so I won’t lie and pretend I was innocent.

Then I thought about indulging my younger self on the what-ifs and what would happen if I thought of being malevolent and having caused her arm to break. I probably wouldn’t. We didn’t dare do that stuff to each other… because consequences. But for the sake of character, I had to really get into that mindset and change myself into this new and sinister person.

The biggest take-away from this is that kids are evil.

 

 


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War of the Third Worlds

Fiction, Micro Flash Fiction


Blood runs through the soil as Jacob lowers, steadying his rifle on the ground. Grains fly into the air with each breath. Rooinekke race up the adjacent hill toward his brothers on the other side. Enemy in cross-hairs. Contracting his finger, he pauses.

This isn’t the way to defeat hate.

Usually, I let the story speak for itself (and generate intrigue for when I post the longer versions), but this time some extra information feels required. A couple of centuries ago in Southern Africa—a British colony, and present day South Africa and Swaziland—a war for independence broke out. Not once, but twice between two factions occupying Southern Africa.

These were the Boer wars. They were wars waged by the Boer—Afrikaans citizens of the colony—against the British. English troops were called the “rooinekke”, translating to “red necks”, due to the sunburn the British troops suffered under the African sun. The word became a derogatory term for those who spoke English in South Africa.

The wars left a hateful taste on South Africans toward the British for many years after the Anglo-Boer War (the second Boer war). With all the social issues and atrocities on-going at the time and the time after—such as slavery and Apartheid—the hatred and discrimination of English-speakers died but remains lingering. While the story is based on the Boer Wars, it’s not about them alone. It’s focused on all manners of hatred between peoples and the resulting violence unnecessarily committed due to the irrational.

This isn’t the way to defeat hate.

 


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