Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

More winners of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for pretentious writing — the best of the worst.




She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palpable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination.

— Christ Wieloch, Brookfield, Wisconsin


“Don’t know no tunnels hereabout,” said the old-timer, “unless you mean the abandoned subway line that runs from Hanging Hill, under that weird ruined church, beneath the Indian burial ground, past the dilapidated Usher mansion, and out to the old abandoned asylum for the criminally insane where they had all those murders.”

— Lawrence Person, Austin, Texas


“I told you to wear sensible shoes, but no, your vanity would not allow it!” he yelled at me, as if that had something to do with the airplane crashing into the jungle and all the bodies draped in the trees, but it was just the sort of nonsense I was used to from him, making me wish one or the other of us was hanging dead above us, instead of Rodney.

— Thor F. Carden, Madison, Tennessee


It was such a beautiful night; the bright moonlight illuminated the sky, the thick clouds floated leisurely by just above the silhouette of tall, majestic trees, and I was viewing it all from the front row seat of the bullet hole in my car trunk.

— Tonya Lavel, Barbados, West Indies


The dame was stacked, both conventionally and in that she was the third of five bodies piled against the wall, the wall’s earth tones reminding me of Grandmother’s house, which figured, since it was her house, she having stacked the bodies there after poisoning them, so I studied the bodies as I munched on Grandmother’s ginger snaps and felt a twinge in my stomach.

— Kenneth Bennight, San Antonio, Texas


The dame that walked into my office was statuesque and looked like she ought to be standing on a bed of roses… in other words, she looked exactly like the garden gnome my ex-wife had stuck in our flower bed, next to a bird bath that attracted a whole lot of bills, much like my in-tray, which was lousy with them.

— Jackie Fuchs, Los Angeles, California




When the dead moose floated into view, the famished crew cheered — this had to mean land! — but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear-headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose.

— Elizabeth Dorfman, Bainbridge Island, Washington


“Listen, Control!” snarled Captain Dan McMurdo across the ether, “I’ve got one engine shut down, the other running on fumes, a seriously wounded co-pilot who won’t last an hour, 53 refugee orphans down the back, and a nun for a radio operator, so turn the goddam landing lights on goddam pronto — sorry, Sister.”

— Gavin Dobson, no address


He was a stolid man, prone to excessive and extended bursts of emotionlessness; but when Maurice loved, he loved with the passion of a dog itching its face against the grain of a firm-pile carpet.

— Stephen Sanford, Seattle, Washington


My name is Caroline, and if you’re reading this I’m either dead or I’ve gotten lost in some alternate dimension where Liverpool has exploded and been replaced with a fancy water park… though it’s probably the first one.

— Aiko Baker, Murfreesboro, Tennessee


I will not repeat what she said when she came home and found out I’d been spraying Endust on her dog and throwing treats under the bed to get him to harvest the dust bunnies, but you wouldn’t think a young lady would even know any words like that.

— J. Andrew Cleland, Gray, Tennessee


“One cannot easily shake off old habits,” was all that retired Detective Tim O’Hara could say when, after rifling through the dead old man’s pockets (which, as he expected, were all empty), inspecting his throat, and forcing open his cold, stiff hand to get fingerprints, he was gently but firmly pulled away from the coffin by his brother Harry and piloted out of the parlor under the perplexed stares of Uncle Mel’s friends and relatives.

— Jorge Stolfi, Campinas, Brazil


With that, you are fully up to date on the BLFC. The winners for 2015 will be announced soon.

Read Full Post »

I have been seriously remiss. Too much time has passed since I last reported on the winners of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for pretentious writing.

The BLFC, sponsored since 1982 by San Jose State University, is a bad writing contest. It is inspired by the purple prose of Victorian novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1872).

How purple? This is the opening sentence of Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel “Paul Clifford”:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.


The contest challenges the writing public to compose their own equally bombastic opening sentence of an imaginary novel. Each year, entries pour in by the thousands. Here are some of the recent winners.




For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss — a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil.

— Molly Ringle, Seattle, Washington


The wind whispering through the pine trees and the sun reflecting off the surface of Lake Tahoe like a scattering of diamonds was an idyllic setting, while to the south the same sun struggled to penetrate a sky choked with farm dust and car exhaust over Bakersfield, a town spread over the lower San Joaquin Valley like a brown stain on a wino’s trousers, which is where, unfortunately, this story takes place.

— Dennis Doberneck, Paso Robles, California


— Elaine was a big woman, and in her tiny Smart car, stakeouts were always hard for her, especially in the August sun where the humidity made her massive thighs, under her lightweight cotton dress, stick together like two walruses in heat.

— Derek Renfro, Ringgold, Georgia


As Ethel arranged the list of company phone numbers under her clear plastic desk cover, perfectly aligning the lower right corner of the list with the lower right corner of the plastic, then swiveling her chair to file one more inter-office memorandum on trimming the budget, she considered how different her life might have been if her parents had named her Tiffany.

— Judy Fischer, Prospect, Kentucky




Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.

— Sue Fondrie, Oshkosh, Wisconsin


The laser-blue eyes of the lone horseman tracked the slowly lengthening lariat of a Laredo dawn as it snaked its way through Dead Man’s Pass into the valley below and snared the still-sleeping town’s tiny church steeple in a noose of light with the oh-so-familiar glow of a Dodge City virgin’s last maiden blush.

— Graham Thomas, St. Albans, U.K.


She gazed smolderingly at the mysterious rider, his body cloaked in enough shining black leather to outfit an Italian furniture store, wrapped so tightly each muscle stood out like a flamboyant Mexican hairdresser at an Alabamian monster truck rally; and he met her gaze with an intensity that couldn’t have been matched by even a starving junkyard dog in the meat aisle of a suburban supermarket.

— Chris Kemp, Annapolis, Maryland


Day broke upon the Baroness von Hestach with the pitiable insistence of all that she despised — a gray and unattractive intrusion into her sumptuous bedchamber, much like the Baron.

— Holly Kohler, Concord, Massachusetts




The “clunk” of the guillotine blade’s release reminded Marie Antoinette, quite briefly, of the sound of the wooden leg of her favorite manservant as he not-quite-silently crossed the polished floors of Versailles to bring her another tray of petit fours.

— Leslie Craven, Hataitai, New Zealand


The stifling atmosphere inside the Pink Dolphin Bar in the upper Amazon Basin carried barely enough oxygen for a man to survive — humid and thick the air was, and full of little flying bugs, making the simple act of breathing like trying to suck hot Campbell’s Bean with Bacon Soup through a paper straw.

— Greg Homer, Placerville, California


She slinked through my door wearing a dress that looked like it had been painted on… not with good paint, like Behr or Sherwin-Williams, but with that watered-down stuff that bubbles up right away if you don’t prime the surface before you slap it on, and — just like that cheap paint — the dress needed two more coats to cover her.

— Sue Fondrie, Appleton, Wisconsin


Ronald left this world as he entered it: on a frigid winter night, amid frantic screams and blood-soaked linens, while relatives stood nearby and muttered furious promises to find and punish the man responsible.

— Rebecca Oas, Atlanta, Georgia


The awesomeness continues in my next post.

Read Full Post »


Occasionally, on a Saturday night, beer in hand, I will sit down and watch a bad movie. You know, one of those made-for-TV action films with a no-name cast, in which they are, like, trapped on an island and being pursued by zombies, or deadly supernatural predators, or whatever.

I do it because sometimes — not always, but often enough — the flick transcends “bad” and becomes genuinely entertaining. For 90 minutes, I can relax, disengage my brain, and — hey, that calls for another beer.

That same scenario can apply to reading science fiction. In the early days, when space operas and bug-eyed monsters were fashionable, silly, juvenile stories could cross over and, in spite of obvious shortcomings, leave you amused and entertained.

The short story below, rather than being dopey and poorly rendered itself, is a parody of such stories. It presents the stereotype of the loony scientist and his nutty invention and the inevitable dire consequences, but with tongue firmly in cheek.

William F. Nolan is a prolific, award-winning writer and editor who has published hundreds of sci-fi, horror, and mystery stories over the years. He has written Hollywood screenplays, TV movies, even poetry.

A guy like that is well-equipped to do parody.


Of Time and Texas

By William F. Nolan
Published in Fantastic Universe, November 1956

“In one fell swoop,” declared Professor C. Cydwick Ohms, releasing a thin blue ribbon of pipe-smoke and rocking back on his heels, “I intend to solve the greatest problem facing mankind today.”

“Colonizing the Polar Wastes was a messy and fruitless business. And the Enforced Birth Control Program couldn’t be enforced. Overpopulation still remains the thorn in our side. Gentlemen –” He paused to look each of the assembled reporters in the eye. “– there is but one answer.”

“Mass annihilation?” quavered a cub reporter.

“Posh, boy! Certainly not!” The professor bristled. “The answer is — TIME!”


“Exactly,” nodded Ohms. With a dramatic flourish he swept aside a red velvet drape — to reveal a tall structure of gleaming metal. “As witness!”

“Golly, what’s that thing?” queried the cub.

“This thing,” replied the professor acidly, “is the C. Cydwick Ohms Time Door.”

“Willikers, a Time Machine!”

“Not so, not so. Please, boy! A Time Machine, in the popular sense, is impossible. Wild fancy! However –” The professor tapped the dottle from his pipe. “– by a mathematically precise series of infinite calculations, I have developed the remarkable C. Cydwick Ohms Time Door. Open it, take but a single step — and, presto! The Past!”

“But, where in the past, Prof.?”

Ohms smiled easily down at the tense ring of faces. “Gentlemen, beyond this door lies the sprawling giant of the Southwest — enough land to absorb Earth’s overflow like that!” He snapped his fingers. “I speak, gentlemen, of Texas, 1957!”

“What if the Texans object?”

“They have no choice. The Time Door is strictly a one-way passage. I saw to that. It will be utterly impossible for anyone in 1957 to re-enter our world of 2057. And now — the Past awaits!”

He tossed aside his professorial robes. Under them Cydwick Ohms wore an ancient and bizarre costume: black riding boots, highly polished and trimmed in silver; wool chaps; a wide, jewel-studded belt with an immense buckle; a brightly checked shirt topped by a blazing red bandana. Briskly, he snapped a tall ten-gallon hat on his head, and stepped to the Time Door.

Gripping an ebony handle, he tugged upward. The huge metal door oiled slowly back. “Time,” said Cydwick Ohms simply, gesturing toward the gray nothingness beyond the door.

The reporters and photographers surged forward, notebooks and cameras at the ready. “What if the door swings shut after you’re gone?” one of them asked.

“A groundless fear, boy,” assured Ohms. “I have seen to it that the Time Door can never be closed. And now — good-bye, gentlemen. Or, to use the proper colloquialism — so long, hombres!”

Ohms bowed from the waist, gave his ten-gallon hat a final tug, and took a single step forward.

And did not disappear.

He stood, blinking. Then he swore, beat upon the unyielding wall of grayness with clenched fists, and fell back, panting, to his desk.

“I’ve failed!” he moaned in a lost voice. “The C. Cydwick Ohms Time Door is a botch!” He buried his head in trembling hands.

The reporters and photographers began to file out.

Suddenly the professor raised his head. “Listen!” he warned.

A slow rumbling, muted with distance, emanated from the dense grayness of the Time Door. Faint yips and whoopings were distinct above the rumble. The sounds grew steadily — to a thousand beating drums — to a rolling sea of thunder!

Shrieking, the reporters and photographers scattered for the stairs.

Ah, another knotty problem to be solved, mused Professor Cydwick Ohms, swinging, with some difficulty, onto one of three thousand Texas steers stampeding into the laboratory.



Read Full Post »

In the decades after the Civil War, William Livingston Alden (1837-1908) was a celebrated American journalist, humorist, and diplomat. He’s virtually unknown today, but back then, Mark Twain called him “The funniest man on earth.”

In addition to writing a weekly column in the New York Times, Alden brought the sport of canoeing to the United States. He also served a term as Consul General to Rome. Quite the Renaissance man.

Alden’s humor and prose are dated — as ours will be someday — but, like Twain, he appreciated the humor of everyday life, and he related it with whimsy and panache.

Alden had a special appreciation for cats as a source of unintentional comedy. He delighted in writing about the sinister unpredictability of cats and how their very nature often leads to humorous conflicts with humans.

The short story below is a wonderful case in point.


Van Wagener’s Flying Cat

By W. L. Alden
Published in The Idler, December 1896

“Sparrows,” said the Colonel, “may be very upright, respectably middle-class birds so long as they stay in England, but when they emigrate to America, they are no better than the average of our working classes.

“Some meddling idiot brought a lot of sparrows to the States ten or fifteen years ago, expecting they would kill all the worms on the fruit trees. They hadn’t been in the country above six months when they took the ground that they were as good as the best of our swell birds, and that they considered that killing worms was a degrading kind of labour fit only for blackbirds and crows.

“So they took to living on wheat, and strawberries, and cherries, and they multiplied so fast that they are the worst curse that the farmer and the fruit grower ever had, with the solitary exception of the McKinley tariff.

“That shows the folly of promoting emigration among birds, just as the exportation of rabbits to Australia showed the folly of supposing that man knows more about the proper distribution of animals than Nature knows.

“There are now about ten sparrows to every worm in the United States, and what we need more than anything else is some style of worm big enough to eat the sparrows.

“Professor Van Wagener and I were discussing the sparrow question one day, and I was complaining of the inefficiency of the American cat. Our cats are about as wide-awake as any monarchical cats that you can produce, but they can’t catch a single sparrow.

“I’ve known ambitious cats who set out to catch sparrows, and who wasted away to mere skeletons, and died of weakness, through watching from dawn to darkness, and never once getting within ten feet of one.

“As a general rule I don’t have much sympathy with cats, but the insulting language that sparrows use when they see a cat laying for them, and the aggravating way in which they will fly just over the cat’s head, or maybe hit the cat over the tail with their wings, is more than any cat can be expected to bear.

“‘The trouble is,’ said Van Wagener, ‘that the cat isn’t a flying animal and the sparrow is. The sparrow’s native element is the air, and you can’t expect a cat to catch a sparrow so long as the cat can’t fly.’

“That’s true enough,” said I, “but it doesn’t help us out of our difficulty. Cats weren’t made with wings, and neither you nor I can invent a new model of cat that will be able to fly, and to catch sparrows on the wing.

“‘Don’t you be too sure of that,’ said the Professor. ‘Science has improved everything that it has put its hand to, and I see no reason why science shouldn’t improve cats.

“A flying cat would supply a great public want, for she would kill off the sparrows as easily as she kills off the mice. I’ve half a mind to try the experiment of inventing a flying cat.’

“All right,” said I. “When you get your flying cat finished just notify me, and I’ll come and see her fly. Then, if you are going in for improving animals, perhaps you will invent a cat that can sing like a nightingale. The present style of singing among cats is disgraceful. They haven’t any more idea of music than a Chinaman.

“‘You only show your ignorance, Colonel,’ said Van Wagener, ‘when you ridicule science. Give me six weeks, and I promise to show you a flying cat. I don’t say positively that the flying cat will exterminate all the sparrows, for that would be a pretty large order; but I do say that she will fly, and that she will give the sparrows the worst scare that they have ever had.’

“Well, the Professor buckled down to business, and from his daily interview with his private cat, and the consequent scratches that diversified his good old scientific countenance, I judged that he was doing his best to make a cat that would fly.

“Before the six weeks were up he sent me a note, inviting me to come round to his house at two o’clock the next afternoon to see the first successful flying cat that had ever been invented.

“I needn’t say that I went. I had assisted at the birth of dozens of Van Wagner’s inventions, and I had generally found that the presence of a man with experience in the treatment of accidents was a handy thing, so far as the Professor was concerned.

“I found Van Wagener sitting in his library with the most discouraged looking cat that I had ever seen. As soon as he had shaken hands with me, he launched into a description of his new invention.

“‘You know, Colonel,’ said he, ‘my method as an inventor. I ask myself what is needed for some particular purpose, and then I proceed to supply that need. Most people think that an inventor has ideas come to him all of a sudden in a supernatural sort of way; but that is all nonsense. Inventing is a business, like any other, and any intelligent man can learn it.

“‘Now when I saw that the reason why cats don’t catch sparrows is that they can’t fly after the bird, I saw what was wanted was a flying cat, and I proceeded to invent one.

“‘Here I have a small balloon. This I fix to that cat of mine, and when it is inflated, it will just support the weight of the cat in the air.

“‘Then you see this pair of paddle-wheels. They are to be fixed one on each side of the cat, and are to be driven by a small electrical engine. The balloon floats the cat, and the paddle-wheels propel her. In order to steer the cat I fix a flat piece of tin to the extremity of her tail.

“‘When she sees a sparrow, her instinct will make her swish her tail from one side to the other, and her attention being fastened on catching the bird, she will unconsciously work her tail in such a way as to steer her directly towards it.

“‘All in all, I am justly proud of this invention. It is simple and effective; that is to say when the air is still, for of course my paddle-wheels will not propel the cat against the wind. I tried at first to fit the cat out with wings, but it was impossible to teach her to use them.

“‘Next to a woman, a cat cares less for science than any other animal, and it is impossible to teach her to take an interest in an invention that is designed solely to benefit her. However, the day will come when flying cats will be as common as the ordinary type, and when they get used to flying they will take to the sport as kindly as they now take to catching mice.

“‘Now, Colonel, if you are ready, we will rig up the cat for flying, and we will see what effect she produces on the sparrows in my backyard.’

“It wasn’t an easy job to rig up Van Wagener’s cat. She kicked and swore her level best, and got in several good scratches on the Professor’s hands. However, he stuck to his task, and after a while the cat was ready, and we adjourned to the backyard.

“There was a whole gang of sparrows in the middle of the yard, forming a sort of ring round two that were fighting, and from the way in which every sparrow was talking at the top of his voice, it was clear that some heavy betting on the fight was in progress.

“When they saw Van Wagener and his cat, they naturally flew up to the eaves of the house, where the fight was resumed. Van Wagener took his flying cat to the extremity of the yard, and after showing her the sparrows on the top of the house, and exhorting her to gather them in, he launched her into the air.

“The cat rose slowly, kicking and yelling, until she was just about level with the eaves. The sparrows were so occupied with the fight that they paid no attention to her, and when she saw that there were at least twenty of them gathered close together, her desire to get at them made her temporarily forget her balloon and her paddlewheels.

“She lashed her tail, as cats will do when bent on murder, and, just as the Professor  predicted, the effect was to steer her in the direction of the sparrows. Her paddle- wheels were working smoothly and regularly, and though they were not large enough to give her any great speed, they steadily carried her across the yard towards the sparrows.

“Van Wagener was in ecstasy. He challenged me to point out any defect in his flying cat, and when I candidly admitted that it did seem to be a complete success, he was the happiest man in New Berlinopolisville.

“The cat came through the air so slowly and noiselessly that she was within two yards of the sparrows before they saw her.

“When they did catch sight of this new and startling animal, they were the worst frightened lot of birds that were ever seen outside of one of those so-called Happy Families, where half a dozen birds, clean paralysed with fear, are shut in a cage with a cat that has been filled up with chloral, and the public is asked to regard the exhibition as a specimen of what will be the usual sort of thing when the millennium gets its work fairly in.

“Those sparrows left in a tremendous hurry. They had a sudden business call to some distant part of Illinois, and I don’t believe a single one of them stopped flying until they had put at least thirty miles between themselves and Van Wagener’s flying cat.

“‘Now, you see,” said the Professor, ‘how completely successful my invention is. My flying cat will either catch the sparrows and kill them, or she will frighten them out of the country. In either case, the great sparrow problem is solved.

“‘It makes no difference to me, as a patriotic American citizen, whether all the British sparrows in the country are killed, or whether they are driven over into Canada.

“‘Come to think of it, I should prefer the latter result, for the driving of monarchical European birds out of our beloved country will be an object lesson in the enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine, which will be of immense benefit to the nation.’

“The Professor, being a scientific crank, was naturally a political crank also, and he was more than two-thirds mad on the subject of the Monroe Doctrine, which by-the-bye is unanimously believed in and worshipped by every lunatic in the States.

“When the Professor once got fairly started on the subject of the Monroe Doctrine, he forgot everything else, and he had clean forgotten his flying cat when Mrs. Van Wagener leaned out of a second story window and advised him, in case he was going to make a political speech, to hire a hall.

“She was a mighty sarcastic woman, and her contempt for her husband’s political views was even greater than her contempt for his scientific achievements.

“She was on the point of continuing her remarks about the Professor’s political oration when she suddenly gave the awfullest screech that I ever heard from female lips, though I was once in a room full of strong-minded women when a mouse ran across the floor.

“Mrs. Van Wagener thought that her last hour had come, judging from her screams, but, as I had a full view of what was taking place, I knew it was only the cat who had come.

“Having missed the sparrows, the cat turned partly round to see what had become of them, and just then, Mrs. Van Wagener having unconsciously put her head within the animal’s reach, the cat judged that her opportunity for making a landing had arrived, and accordingly, she lit on the top of Mrs. Van Wagener’s head.

“Most any woman, not knowing that her husband had invented a flying cat, would have supposed that some monster with sharp claws, and a talent for using bad language, came flying through the air and lit on her head; that nothing less than the sea-serpent, or the flying dragons mentioned in Scripture, had attacked her.

“What with the cat’s desire to kick herself free from her flying apparatus, and her anxiety to get square with the human race, she did more with that poor woman’s hair in five minutes than any other cat would have done in a good half hour.

“The Professor tried to explain that it was only the cat and begged his wife not to injure the flying apparatus. It didn’t seem to occur to him that he ought to run to his wife’s assistance till I had taken him by the shoulders and started him upstairs.

“I don’t want you to think for a moment that he wasn’t anxious to help his wife, but he was so in the habit of looking at things from a scientific point of view, that he forgot that while he was explaining things, Mrs. Van Wagener might be clawed to such an extent that she would never be recognised by her nearest friend.

“When he had once grasped the idea that she needed his help, he fairly flew upstairs and succeeded in transferring the cat’s attentions to himself.

“Then I had to come to the rescue, for the Professor not having hair enough to interest the cat, she had devoted her efforts to beautifying his countenance, and if I hadn’t succeeded in pulling her off, and tossing her out of the window, she would have torn his eyes out, or at all events ruined his nose.

“Her balloon had burst during her interview with Mrs. Van Wagener, and consequently, when I threw her out of the window she struck the ground pretty heavily, and smashed up the paddle-wheels.

“We never saw her again, but every little while, there would appear in the newspapers stories of a strange animal with a glittering tail, that haunted the lower part of Illinois. You see, the cat couldn’t rid herself of her steering attachment, and she naturally wasn’t willing to show herself in what she considered a disgraceful dress.

“Mrs. Van Wagener made peace with her husband on condition of his making a solemn promise never to have anything more to do with flying cats. I consider that she was wrong in so doing, for Van Wagener’s invention was bound to be a success.

“If he had been allowed to carry it out, flying cats would have become as common as bats, and every sparrow in the States would have emigrated. If it wasn’t that I don’t believe in using other people’s inventions, I would go in for the manufacture of flying cats myself.

“And as it is, I believe that Edison will some day hear of Van Wagener’s experiment, and will immediately invent a flying cat, and spend the rest of his life in trying to make the invention work.”

Original illustration from

Original illustration from “The Idler” by Cosmo Rowe.

Read Full Post »

Sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick usually isn’t associated with humor, puns, and silliness. For that reason, the short story below stands out — or, in some circles, is given a pass.

Some Philip K. Dick fans see “The Eyes Have It” as a delight. To them, all things PKD are works of art. Others consider the story a bit juvenile. A throwaway. One critic compared it to an essay from a high school creative writing class. Ouch.

Anyway, decide for yourself.


The Eyes Have It

By Philip K. Dick
Published in Science Fiction Stories, Fall 1953

It was quite by accident I discovered this incredible invasion of Earth by lifeforms from another planet. As yet, I haven’t done anything about it; I can’t think of anything to do. I wrote to the Government, and they sent back a pamphlet on the repair and maintenance of frame houses. Anyhow, the whole thing is known; I’m not the first to discover it. Maybe it’s even under control.

I was sitting in my easy-chair, idly turning the pages of a paperbacked book someone had left on the bus, when I came across the reference that first put me on the trail. For a moment I didn’t respond. It took some time for the full import to sink in. After I’d comprehended, it seemed odd I hadn’t noticed it right away.

The reference was clearly to a nonhuman species of incredible properties, not indigenous to Earth. A species, I hasten to point out, customarily masquerading as ordinary human beings. Their disguise, however, became transparent in the face of the following observations by the author. It was at once obvious the author knew everything. Knew everything — and was taking it in his stride. The line (and I tremble remembering it even now) read:

… his eyes slowly roved about the room.

Vague chills assailed me. I tried to picture the eyes. Did they roll like dimes? The passage indicated not; they seemed to move through the air, not over the surface. Rather rapidly, apparently. No one in the story was surprised. That’s what tipped me off. No sign of amazement at such an outrageous thing. Later the matter was amplified.

… his eyes moved from person to person.

There it was in a nutshell. The eyes had clearly come apart from the rest of him and were on their own. My heart pounded and my breath choked in my windpipe. I had stumbled on an accidental mention  of a totally unfamiliar race. Obviously non-Terrestrial. Yet, to the characters in the book, it was perfectly natural — which suggested they belonged to the same species.

And the author? A slow suspicion burned in my mind. The author was taking it rather too easily in his stride. Evidently, he felt this was quite a usual thing. He made absolutely no attempt to conceal this knowledge. The story continued:

… presently his eyes fastened on Julia.

Julia, being a lady, had at least the breeding to feel indignant. She is described as blushing and knitting her brows angrily. At this, I sighed with relief. They weren’t all non-Terrestrials. The narrative continues:

… slowly, calmly, his eyes examined every inch of her.

Great Scott! But here the girl turned and stomped off and the matter ended. I lay back in my chair gasping with horror. My wife and family regarded me in wonder.

“What’s wrong, dear?” my wife asked.

I couldn’t tell her. Knowledge like this was too much for the ordinary run-of-the-mill person. I had to keep it to myself. “Nothing,” I gasped. I leaped up, snatched the book, and hurried out of the room.

In the garage, I continued reading. There was more. Trembling, I read the next revealing passage:

… he put his arm around Julia. Presently she asked him if he would remove his arm. He immediately did so, with a smile.

It’s not said what was done with the arm after the fellow had removed it. Maybe it was left standing upright in the corner. Maybe it was thrown away. I don’t care. In any case, the full meaning was there, staring me right in the face.

Here was a race of creatures capable of removing portions of their anatomy at will. Eyes, arms — and maybe more. Without batting an eyelash. My knowledge of biology came in handy, at this point. Obviously they were simple beings, uni-cellular, some sort of primitive single-celled things. Beings no more developed than starfish. Starfish can do the same thing, you know.

I read on. And came to this incredible revelation, tossed off coolly by the author without the faintest tremor:

… outside the movie theater we split up. Part of us went inside, part over to the cafe for dinner.

Binary fission, obviously. Splitting in half and forming two entities.  Probably each lower half went to the cafe, it being farther, and the upper halves to the movies. I read on, hands shaking. I had really stumbled onto something here. My mind reeled as I made out this passage:

… I’m afraid there’s no doubt about it. Poor Bibney has lost his head again.

Which was followed by:

… and Bob says he has utterly no guts.

Yet Bibney got around as well as the next person. The next person, however, was just as strange. He was soon described as:

… totally lacking in brains.

There was no doubt of the thing in the next passage. Julia, whom I had thought to be the one normal person, reveals herself as also being an alien life form, similar to the rest:

… quite deliberately, Julia had given her heart to the young man.

It didn’t relate what the final disposition of the organ was, but I didn’t really care. It was evident Julia had gone right on living in her usual manner, like all the others in the book. Without heart, arms, eyes, brains, viscera, dividing up in two when the occasion demanded. Without a qualm.

… thereupon she gave him her hand.

I sickened. The rascal now had her hand, as well as her heart. I shudder to think what he’s done with them, by this time.

… he took her arm.

Not content to wait, he had to start dismantling her on his own. Flushing crimson, I slammed the book shut and leaped to my feet. But not in time to escape one last reference to those carefree bits of anatomy whose travels had originally thrown me on the track:

… her eyes followed him all the way down the road and across the meadow.

I rushed from the garage and back inside the warm house, as if the accursed things were following me. My wife and children were playing Monopoly in the kitchen. I joined them and played with frantic fervor, brow feverish, teeth chattering.

I had had enough of the thing. I want to hear no more about it. Let them come on. Let them invade Earth. I don’t want to get mixed up in it.

I have absolutely no stomach for it.



Read Full Post »

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

That complete short story in six words, often credited to Ernest Hemingway, is an early example of “flash fiction,” usually defined as a story notable for its brevity.

To be clear, Hemingway may have repeated the above story, but he didn’t write it; the sad concept of the unused baby shoes was around long before Hemingway’s time.

Understandably, the idea of telling a story in a few strategic words has always intrigued writers. Over time, getting it done in six words became a popular goal.

In 2006, Wired Magazine challenged a group of established writers, most in the fields of fantasy and science fiction, to submit their own short stories of exactly six words. Here is a selection of their entries.


Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?

— Eileen Gunn

Failed SAT. Lost scholarship. Invented rocket.

— William Shatner

Vacuum collision. Orbits diverge. Farewell, love.

— David Brin

Automobile warranty expires. So does engine.

— Stan Lee

I win lottery. Sun goes nova.

— Steven Meretzky

Machine. Unexpectedly, I’d invented a time

— Alan Moore

Epitaph: Foolish humans, never escaped Earth.

— Vernor Vinge

Wasted day. Wasted life. Dessert, please.

— Steven Meretzky

It cost too much, staying human.

— Bruce Sterling

We kissed. She melted. Mop please!

— James Patrick Kelly

Bang postponed. Not Big enough. Reboot.

— David Brin

It’s behind you! Hurry before it

— Rockne S. O’Bannon

Lie detector eyeglasses perfected: Civilization collapses.

— Richard Powers

The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.

— Orson Scott Card

Rained, rained, rained, and never stopped.

— Howard Waldrop

Leia: “Baby’s yours.” Luke: “Bad news…”

— Steven Meretzky

“I couldn’t believe she’d shoot me.”

— Howard Chaykin

Don’t marry her. Buy a house.

— Stephen R. Donaldson

Broken heart, 45, WLTM disabled man.

— Mark Millar

He read his obituary with confusion.

— Steven Meretzky


— Harry Harrison

Easy. Just touch the match to

— Ursula K. Le Guin

Epitaph: He shouldn’t have fed it.

— Brian Herbert

Batman Sues Batsignal: Demands Trademark Royalties.

— Cory Doctorow

Heaven falls. Details at eleven.

— Robert Jordan

whorl. Help! I’m caught in a time

— Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel

Dinosaurs return. Want their oil back.

— David Brin

Please, this is everything, I swear.

— Orson Scott Card

Will this do (lazy writer asked)?

— Ken MacLeod

Clones demand rights: second Emancipation Proclamation.

— Paul Di Filippo

Steve ignores editor’s word limit and

— Steven Meretzky

Baby shoes


Read Full Post »

The writing team of Walt and Leigh Richmond wrote novels and short stories, mostly science fiction, during the 1960s and 70s. The Richmonds were journeyman writers; often entertaining, rarely profound, little known except to a handful of editors.

Some of their acquaintances suspected that Leigh, 11 years older than Walt, did all the writing. If she did, no one could explain why she shared the billing with him.

At any rate, when Walt died in 1977, that ended the collaborating, real or otherwise. Leigh retired from the writing business. She died in 1995.

The short story below (not a sci-fi tale, by the way) is simultaneously clever and silly, and it makes two valid points.

One is that four-year-old children actually are eager little scientists, working and experimenting with whatever is at hand, steadily amassing knowledge.

The other is that it’s quite possible to do the right thing, even if you don’t understand the situation.


Poppa Needs Shorts

By Walt and Leigh Richmond
Published in Analog Science Fact & Fiction, January 1964

Little Oley had wandered into forbidden territory again — Big Brother Sven’s ham shack. The glowing bottles here were an irresistible lure, and he liked to pretend that he knew all there was to know about the mysteries in this room.

Of course, Sven said that not even he knew all of the mysteries, though he admitted he was one of the best ham operators extant, with QSOs from eighteen countries and thirty-eight states to his credit.

At the moment, Sven was busily probing into an open chassis with a hot soldering iron.

“Short’s in here some place,” he muttered.

“What makes shorts, Sven?” Oley wasn’t so knowledgeable but what he would ask an occasional question.

Sven turned and glared down. “What are you doing in here? You know it’s a Federal Offense for anybody to come into this room without I say so?”

“Momma and Hilda come in all the time, and you don’t say so.” Oley stood firm on what he figured were legal grounds. “What makes shorts?”

Sven relented a little. This brother had been something of a surprise to him, coming along when Sven was a full ten years old. But, he reflected, after a few years maybe I should get used to the idea. Actually, he sort of liked the youngster.

“Shorts,” he said, speaking from the superior eminence of his fourteen years to the four-year-old, “is when electricity finds a way to get back where it came from without doing a lot of hard work getting there. But you see, electricity like to work; so, even when it has an easy way, it just works harder and uses itself up.”

This confused explanation of shorts was, of course, taken verbatim, despite the fact that Oley couldn’t define half the words and probably couldn’t even pronounce them.

“I don’t like shorts. I don’t like these pink shorts Momma put on me this morning. Is they electrics, Sven?”

Sven glanced around at the accidentally-dyed-in-the-laundry, formerly white shorts.

“Um-m-m. Yeah. You could call ’em electric.”

With this Oley let out whoop and dashed out of the room, trailing a small voice behind him. “Momma, Momma. Sven says my shorts is electric!”

“I’ll short Sven’s electrics for him, if he makes fun of your shorts!” Oley heard his mother’s comforting reply.

In the adult world days passed before Oley’s accidentally acquired pattern of nubilous information on the subject of shorts was enlarged. It was only days in the adult world, but in Oley’s world each day was a mountainous fraction of an entire lifetime, into which came tumbling and jumbling — or were pulled — bits, pieces, oddments, landslides and acquisitions of information on every subject that he ran into, or that ran into him.

Nobody had told Oley that acquiring information was his job at the moment; the acquisition was partly accidental, mostly instinctive, and spurred by an intense curiosity and an even more intense determination to master the world as he saw it.

There was the taste of the sick green flowers that Momma kept in the window box and, just for a side course, a little bit of the dirt, too. There were the patterns of the rain on the window, and the reactions of a cat to having its tail pulled. The fact that you touch a stove one time, and it’s cool and comfortable to lay your head against, and another time it hurts. Things like that.

And other things — towering adults who sometimes swoop down on you and throw you high into the air; and most times walk over you, around you, and ignore you completely. The jumble of assorted and unsorted information that is the heritage of every growing young inquiring brain.

In terms of time, it was only a couple of weeks, if you were looking at it as an adult, until the next “shorts” incident.

Oley was sitting peacefully at the breakfast table, doing his level best to control the manipulation of the huge knife-fork-and-spoon, plate-bowl-and-glass, from which he was expected to eat a meal. Things smelled good. Momma was cooking doste, and that to Oley smelled best of all.

The doster ticked quietly to itself, then gave a loud pop, and up came two golden-brown slices of doste. Dostes? Oley wasn’t sure. But he hadn’t really begun paying too much attention to whether one doste was the same as two doste or what, though he could quite proudly tell you the difference between one and two.

Out it came, and fresh butter was spread on it, and in went two shiny white beds, for some more doste.

Little Oley watched in fascination. And now he reached for the tremendous glass sitting on the table in front of him. But his fingers didn’t quite make it. Somehow, the glass was heavy and slippery, and it eluded him, rolled over on its side, and spilled the bright purple juicy contents out across the table in a huge swish.

Oley wasn’t dismayed, but watched with a researcher’s interest as the bright purple juice swept across the table towards the busily ticking doster. Momma, of course, wasn’t here, or she would have been gruff about it. She’d just gone into the other room.

The juice spread rapidly at first, and then more and more slowly, making a huge, circuitous river spreading across the table, first towards the doster and then away from it towards the frayed power-cord lying on the table. It touched and began to run along the cord. Not a very eventful recording so far, but Oley watched, charmed.

As he watched, a few bubbles began to appear near the frayed spot. A few wisps of steam. And then, suddenly, there was a loud, snarling splat — and Momma screamed from the doorway. “That juice is making a short!”

The information, of course, was duly recorded. Juice makes shorts.

It was a minor item of information, mixed into a jumble of others, and nothing else was added to this particular file for nearly another week.

Oley was playing happily on the living room floor that night. Here there was much to explore, though an adult might not have thought twice about it. Back in the corner behind Momma’s doing bachine a bright, slender piece of metal caught Oley’s attention. Bigger on one end than the other, but not really very big anywhere, the sewing machine needle proved fascinating.

As a first experiment, Oley determined that it worked like a tooth by biting himself with it. After that he went around the room, biting other things with it. Information, of course, is information, and to be obtained any way one can.

The brown, snaky lamp cord was the end of this experiment. Oley bit it, viciously, with his new tooth, and had only barely observed that it had penetrated completely through when there was a loud splat, and all the lights in the room went out.

In the darkness and confusion, of course, Oley moved away, seeking other new experiences. So the cause of the short that Momma and Poppa yakked so loudly about was never attributed to Oley’s actions, but only to “How could a needle have gotten from your sewing machine into this lamp cord, Alice?”

But the sum of information had increased. Neatles stuck into lamp cords had something to do with shorts.

More time passed. And this time the file on shorts was stimulated by Poppa. The big, rough, booming voice had always scared Oley a bit when it sounded mad, like now.

“Alice, I’ve just got to have some more shorts!”

Poppa was rummaging in a drawer far above Oley’s head, so he couldn’t see the object under discussion. But all he already knew about shorts — the information passed in review before him.

Shorts are useful. They help electrics to work harder.

Shorts you wear, and they are electrics.

Wires are electrics.

Shorts can be made by juice.

Shorts can be made by neatles, that bite like teeth.

Poppa needs more shorts.

But Oley wasn’t motivated to act at the moment. Just sorting out information and connecting it with other information files in the necessarily haphazard manner that might eventually result in something called intelligence, although he didn’t know that yet.

It was a week later in the kitchen, when Momma dropped a giant version of the neatle on the floor, that his information file in this area increased again.

“Is that a neatle?” Oley asked.

His mother laughed quietly and looked fondly at her son as she put the ice pick back on the table.

“I guess you could call it a needle, Oley,” she told him. “An ice needle.”

Oley instinctively waited until Momma’s back was turned before taking the nice neatle to try its biting powers; and instinctively took it out of the kitchen before starting his experiments.

As he passed the cellar door he heard a soft gurgling and promptly changed course. Pulling open the door with difficulty, he seated himself on the cellar stairs to watch a delightful new spectacle — frothing, gurgling water making its way across the floor towards the stairs. It looked wonderfully dirty and brown, and to Oley it was an absorbing phenomenon. It never occurred to him to tell Momma.

Suddenly above him the cellar door slammed open, and Poppa came charging down the stairs, narrowly missing the small figure, straight into the rising waters, intent, though Oley couldn’t know it, on reaching the drain pipe in the far corner of the cellar to plug it before water from the spring rains could back up farther and really flood the cellar out.

Halfway across the cellar, Poppa reached up and grasped the dangling overhead light to turn it on, in order to see his way to the drain — and suddenly came to frozen, rigid, gasping stop as his hand clamped firmly over the socket.

Little Oley watched. There was juice in the cellar. Poppa had hold of an electric. Was Poppa trying to make the shorts he needed?

Oley wasn’t sure. He thought it probable. And from the superior knowledge of his four years, Oley already knew a better way to make shorts. Neatles make good shorts. Juice don’t do so well.

Suddenly, Oley decided to prove his point: Nice neatles probably made even better shorts than other neatles — and there was a big electric running up the side of the stairs — an electric fat enough to make a real good shorts. Maybe lots of shorts.

Raising his nice neatle, Oley took careful aim and plunged it through the 220-volt stove feeder cable.

Oley woke up. The strange pretty lady in white was a new experience. Somebody he hadn’t seen before. And there seemed to be something wrong with his hand, but Oley hadn’t noticed it very much, yet.

“Well, my little Hero’s awake! And how are you this morning? Your Momma and Poppa will be in to see you in just a minute.”

The pretty lady in white went away, and Oley gazed around the white room with its funny shape, happily recorded the experience, and dozed off again.

Then suddenly he was awakened again. Momma was there; and Poppa. And Sven. But they all seemed different somehow this morning. Momma had been crying, even though she was smiling bravely now. And Poppa seemed to have a new softness that he’d seldom seen before. Sven was looking puzzled.

“I still say, Pop, that he’s a genius. He must have known what he was doing.”

“Oley,” Poppa’s voice was husky — gruff, but kinder and softer than usual. “I want you to answer me carefully. But understand that it’s all right either way. I just want you to tell me. Why did you put the ice pick through the stove cable? You saved my life, you know. But I’d like to know how you knew how.”

Little Oley grinned. His world was peaceful and wonderful now. And all the big adults were bending and leaning down and talking to him.

“Nice neatle,” he said. “Big electric. Poppa needed shorts.”

Original illustration from Analog Science Fact & Fiction by John Schoenherr.

Original illustration from Analog Science Fact & Fiction by John Schoenherr.

Read Full Post »

Henry Slesar (1927-2002) was a writer whose talents make lesser wordsmiths — like, say, me — bemoan their inadequacy.

Slesar became an advertising copywriter at age 17 and went on to a long career as an author and playwright. Over the years, he wrote hundreds of short stories and TV screenplays in both the science fiction and mystery genres.

His stories appeared regularly in a range of pulp magazines as well as on Alfred Hitchcock’s TV shows and in Playboy. During the 1950s, he wrote an average of one story per week.

I featured a Slesar story on this blog back in 2009. Whereas that tale was dark and ominous, the story below is charming and light.

Some writers (sigh) can do it all.


Reluctant Genius

By Henry Slesar, writing as O. H. Leslie
Published in Amazing Stories, January 1957

Buos was chastising Laloi as they sped through the ionosphere of the green planet. But like the airy creature she was, Laloi ignored the criticism and rippled zephyr-like through a clump of daffodils when they completed their descent.

“So pretty,” she sighed. She flung her incorporeal substance around each flower, absorbing their unified beauty of scent, sight, and feel. Buos shrilled himself into a column of wind to express his displeasure at her attitude.

“Stupid, silly, shallow thing!” he said. “If the others only knew how you behaved –”

“And you’ll be glad to tell them, of course,” she said, extending her fingers of air into the roots of the wind-bent grass. She rolled across the hill ecstatically, and Buos followed in grumbling billows of energy.

“I don’t carry tales,” he replied, somewhat mortified. “But we’re here as observers, and you insist upon making this world a plaything…”

“I love it,” she said happily. “It’s so warm and green.”

Buos whipped in front of her angrily. “This is an assignment,” he snapped, his emotion crackling the air about him. “We have a purpose here.”

“Purpose!” she groaned, settling over a patch of crowded clover. “How many centuries will this assignment last?”

“This world is young,” said Buos. “It will take time.”

“But how long?” she asked mournfully. “Our world will be shriveled and dead before these people have the knowledge to rescue us. Why can’t we spend our lives here…”

“And leave the others behind?” said Buos stiffly. “Selfish being,” he said sadly. “This world cannot support one-fourth our number.”

“Oh, I know, I know,” Laloi said. “I do not mean to say such things. I am twisted by my sorrow…” As if to express her self-abnegation, she corkscrewed out of the clover and into a thin spiral of near-nothingness.

“Settle down, foolish one,” said Buos, not unkindly. “I know your feelings. Do you think I am not tormented as well, by the slow pace of these Earth-things? Crude, barbaric beings, like children with the building blocks of science. They have such a long way to go…”

“And so few know,” said Laloi despairingly. “A handful of seeing minds, tens of millions of ignorant ones. Not even first principles — they’re stupid, stupid!”

“But they will learn,” Buos said stubbornly. “That is historical fact. Someday, they will know the true meanings of matter and light and energy. Slowly, yes, slowly. But in terms of their growth, it will seem like great speed to them…”

“And in terms of our world,” said Laloi, spinning sadly over the ground, “they may be far too late…”

“No!” In his excitement, Buos forgot himself and entwined with the flowing form of the she-creature, and the result was a rending of the air that cracked like heat lightning over the field.

“No,” he repeated again. “They must not be too late. They must learn. They must build from the very ground, and then they must fly. And then their eyes must be lifted to the stars, and desire must extend them to all the universe…”

“It seems so hopeless –”

“It cannot be! Our destiny is not extinction. They must come to us, in fleets of silver, and replant our soil, and send towers of green shooting into our sky, breathing out air.”

“Yes, yes!” Laloi cried pitifully. “It will be that way, Buos. It will be that way! That man-creature, we will begin with him…”

Buos floated earthward disconsolately. “He is a dreamer,” he said cheerlessly. “His mind is good; he thinks of tomorrow; he is one of the knowing ones. But he cannot be moved, Laloi. His thoughts may fester and die in the prison of his brain…”

“No, they will not! We have watched him. He understands much. He will help us!”

“I have seen his like before,” said Buos hopelessly. “He thinks and he works, and his conclusions will die stillborn, for lack of a moving force…”

“Then let us provide it, Buos. Let us move him!”

“With what?” said the other disdainfully. “Arms of nothing? Hands of vacuum? A breeze against his cheek? A rustle of leaves? A meaningless whistle in his ear?”

“Let us try. Let us try! This empty watchfulness is destroying us. Let us move him, Buos. Come!”

Faster than the sky-sweeping clouds they flew, over the gently swelling hills, over the yearning branches of the trees, over the calm blue waters of the lakes. Swifter than the flight of birds they came, searching for a thinking mind…

They found him at last.

“He knows, he knows,” said Laloi. “Only now to say ‘this is so because’ and ‘this must happen when’! Only to think — to understand –”

They hovered over his head, in a pandemonium of helplessness. They whirled, and tumbled, and shrilly circled. And then to Laloi the inspiration came.

The apple, caught by a sudden gust of wind, twisted from the tenuous hold of the tree and fell to the ground.

The man, startled, picked it up.

He gazed at it, deep in thought.

Original illustration from Amazing Stories, artist uncredited.

Original illustration from Amazing Stories, artist uncredited.

Read Full Post »

Here is another excellent short story by 19th Century American author Kate Chopin, this one about a childless woman suddenly obliged to care for four energetic children. I doubt if a childless woman could have written it.

This tale, like the previous story about the unfortunate Louise Mallard, takes place in rural Louisiana in the late 1800s. The characters:

Mamzelle Aurélie — (“Mamzelle,” meaning “mademoiselle,” the French title for an unmarried woman)

Ponto — Aurélie’s dog

Odile — Aurélie’s neighbor

Elodie — Odile’s baby daughter

Ti Nomme — Odile’s young son (Translation: “petit homme,” French for “little fellow”)

Marcéline, Odile’s daughter

Marcélette, Odile’s daughter

Valsin, Odile’s manservant

Aunt Ruby, Aurélie’s cook



By Kate Chopin
Published in 1894

Mamzelle Aurélie possessed a good strong figure, ruddy cheeks, hair that was changing from brown to gray, and a determined eye. She wore a man’s hat about the farm, and an old blue army overcoat when it was cold, and sometimes top-boots.

Mamzelle Aurélie had never thought of marrying. She had never been in love. At the age of twenty she had received a proposal, which she had promptly declined, and at the age of fifty she had not yet lived to regret it.

So she was quite alone in the world, except for her dog Ponto, and the negroes who lived in her cabins and worked her crops, and the fowls, a few cows, a couple of mules, her gun (with which she shot chicken-hawks), and her religion.

One morning Mamzelle Aurélie stood upon her gallery, contemplating, with arms akimbo, a small band of very small children who, to all intents and purposes, might have fallen from the clouds, so unexpected and bewildering was their coming, and so unwelcome. They were the children of her nearest neighbor, Odile, who was not such a near neighbor, after all.

The young woman had appeared but five minutes before, accompanied by these four children. In her arms she carried little Elodie; she dragged Ti Nomme by an unwilling hand; while Marcéline and Marcélette followed with irresolute steps.

Her face was red and disfigured from tears and excitement. She had been summoned to a neighboring parish by the dangerous illness of her mother; her husband was away in Texas — it seemed to her a million miles away; and Valsin was waiting with the mule-cart to drive her to the station.

“It’s no question, Mamzelle Aurélie ; you jus’ got to keep those youngsters fo’ me tell I come back. Dieu sait [Note1], I wouldn’ botha you with ’em if it was any otha way to do! Make ’em mine you, Mamzelle Aurélie ; don’ spare ’em.

“Me, there, I’m half crazy between the chil’ren, an’ Léon not home, an’ maybe not even to fine po’ maman alive encore!” — a harrowing possibility which drove Odile to take a final hasty and convulsive leave of her disconsolate family.

She left them crowded into the narrow strip of shade on the porch of the long, low house; the white sunlight was beating in on the white old boards; some chickens were scratching in the grass at the foot of the steps, and one had boldly mounted, and was stepping heavily, solemnly, and aimlessly across the gallery.

There was a pleasant odor of pinks in the air, and the sound of negroes’ laughter was coming across the flowering cotton-field.

Mamzelle Aurélie stood contemplating the children. She looked with a critical eye upon Marcéline, who had been left staggering beneath the weight of the chubby Elodie. She surveyed with the same calculating air Marcélette mingling her silent tears with the audible grief and rebellion of Ti Nomme.

During those few contemplative moments she was collecting herself, determining upon a line of action which should be identical with a line of duty. She began by feeding them.

If Mamzelle Aurélie’s responsibilities might have begun and ended there, they could easily have been dismissed; for her larder was amply provided against an emergency of this nature.

But little children are not little pigs: they require and demand attentions which were wholly unexpected by Mamzelle Aurélie, and which she was ill prepared to give.

She was, indeed, very inapt in her management of Odile’s children during the first few days. How could she know that Marcélette always wept when spoken to in a loud and commanding tone of voice? It was a peculiarity of Marcélette’s.

She became acquainted with Ti Nomme’s passion for flowers only when he had plucked all the choicest gardenias and pinks for the apparent purpose of critically studying their botanical construction.

“‘Tain’t enough to tell ‘im, Mamzelle Aurélie,” Marcéline instructed her; “you got to tie ‘im in a chair. It’s w’at maman all time do w’en he’s bad: she tie ‘im in a chair.”

The chair in which Mamzelle Aurélie tied Ti Nomme was roomy and comfortable, and he seized the opportunity to take a nap in it, the afternoon being warm.

At night, when she ordered them one and all to bed as she would have shooed the chickens into the hen-house, they stayed uncomprehending before her.

What about the little white nightgowns that had to be taken from the pillow-slip in which they were brought over, and shaken by some strong hand till they snapped like ox-whips?

What about the tub of water which had to be brought and set in the middle of the floor, in which the little tired, dusty, sun-browned feet had every one to be washed sweet and clean?

And it made Marcéline and Marcélette laugh merrily — the idea that Mamzelle Aurélie should for a moment have believed that Ti Nomme could fall asleep without being told the story of Croque-mitaine [Note 2] or Loup-garou [Note 3], or both; or that Elodie could fall asleep at all without being rocked and sung to.

“I tell you, Aunt Ruby,” Mamzelle Aurélie informed her cook in confidence; “me, I’d rather manage a dozen plantation’ than fo’ chil’ren. It’s terrassent! Bonté! [Note 4] Don’t talk to me about chil’ren!”

“Tain’ ispected sich as you would know airy thing ’bout ’em, Mamzelle Aurélie. I see dat plainly yistiddy w’en I spy dat li’le chile playin’ wid yo’ baskit o’ keys. You don’ know dat makes chillun grow up hard-headed, to play wid keys? Des like it make ’em teeth hard to look in a lookin’-glass. Them’s the things you got to know in the raisin’ an’ manigement o’ chillun.”

Mamzelle Aurélie certainly did not pretend or aspire to such subtle and far-reaching knowledge on the subject as Aunt Ruby possessed, who had “raised five an’ buried six” in her day. She was glad enough to learn a few little mother-tricks to serve the moment’s need.

Ti Nomme’s sticky fingers compelled her to unearth white aprons that she had not worn for years, and she had to accustom herself to his moist kisses — the expressions of an affectionate and exuberant nature.

She got down her sewing-basket, which she seldom used, from the top shelf of the armoire, and placed it within the ready and easy reach which torn slips and buttonless waists demanded.

It took her some days to become accustomed to the laughing, the crying, the chattering that echoed through the house and around it all day long. And it was not the first or the second night that she could sleep comfortably with little Elodie’s hot, plump body pressed close against her, and the little one’s warm breath beating her cheek like the fanning of a bird’s wing.

But at the end of two weeks Mamzelle Aurélie had grown quite used to these things, and she no longer complained.

It was also at the end of two weeks that Mamzelle Aurélie, one evening, looking away toward the crib where the cattle were being fed, saw Valsin’s blue cart turning the bend of the road. Odile sat beside the mulatto, upright and alert. As they drew near, the young woman’s beaming face indicated that her home-coming was a happy one.

But this coming, unannounced and unexpected, threw Mamzelle Aurélie into a flutter that was almost agitation. The children had to be gathered.

Where was Ti Nomme? Yonder in the shed, putting an edge on his knife at the grindstone. And Marcéline and Marcélette? Cutting and fashioning doll-rags in the corner of the gallery.

As for Elodie, she was safe enough in Mamzelle Aurélie’s arms; and she had screamed with delight at sight of the familiar blue cart which was bringing her mother back to her.

The excitement was all over, and they were gone. How still it was when they were gone!

Mamzelle Aurélie stood upon the gallery, looking and listening. She could no longer see the cart; the red sunset and the blue-gray twilight had together flung a purple mist across the fields and road that hid it from her view. She could no longer hear the wheezing and creaking of its wheels. But she could still faintly hear the shrill, glad voices of the children.

She turned into the house. There was much work awaiting her, for the children had left a sad disorder behind them; but she did not at once set about the task of righting it.

Mamzelle Aurélie seated herself beside the table. She gave one slow glance through the room, into which the evening shadows were creeping and deepening around her solitary figure. She let her head fall down upon her bended arm, and began to cry.

Oh, but she cried! Not softly, as women often do. She cried like a man, with sobs that seemed to tear her very soul. She did not notice Ponto licking her hand.


Note 1 — (French) “God knows.”
Note 2 — (French) A boogeyman who deals with children who misbehave.
Note 3 — (French) A werewolf.
Note 4 — (French) “It’s overwhelming! Goodness!”

Author Chopin in 1877 with four of her five children.

Author Chopin in 1877 with four of her five children.

Read Full Post »

In the late 1800s, American author Kate Chopin wrote short stories and novels, mostly about women in the South, that were honest, unorthodox, and thoughtful. Critics hailed her as “a new feminist voice.”

According to Chopin’s grandson, the author did not see herself as a feminist, but instead as “a woman who took women extremely seriously. She never doubted women’s ability to be strong.”

Chopin was born Katherine O’Flaherty in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1850. She was the third of five children and the only one to live past age 25.

While growing up, Kate immersed herself in novels, poetry, and fairy tales, and she occasionally wrote stories for enjoyment.

Although she was clearly talented, nothing came of it. She married at age 20, and by 28, was the mother of six children.

Her husband, Oscar Chopin, was a cotton broker and owner of a general store in New Orleans. In 1882, Oscar died suddenly, leaving Kate with a houseful of children and substantial debts.

She tried to keep Oscar’s businesses open, but couldn’t. She and the children moved back to St. Louis to live with her mother. Within the year, her mother also died.

With her parents, siblings, and husband all deceased, Chopin fell into a deep depression.

Several friends, aware of Chopin’s literary nature, encouraged her to begin writing in earnest — as therapy, as an emotional outlet, and as a possible source of income.

No one expected her to become so successful. Within a few years, her short stories were appearing in magazines and newspapers across America. Novels followed.

In 1904, at the height of her success, while visiting the St. Louis World’s Fair, Chopin suffered a brain hemorrhage and died. She was 54.

In my next two posts, I will present Chopin short stories that examine, from different angles, the burden of being female in American society.

The first story concerns a young woman who faces, as Chopin did, the sudden death of her husband.


The Story of an Hour

By Kate Chopin
Published in 1894

Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death.

It was her sister Josephine who told her, in broken sentences; veiled hints that revealed in half concealing. Her husband’s friend Richards was there, too, near her. It was he who had been in the newspaper office when intelligence of the railroad disaster was received, with Brently Mallard’s name leading the list of “killed.”

He had only taken the time to assure himself of its truth by a second telegram, and had hastened to forestall any less careful, less tender friend in bearing the sad message.

She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her.

There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.

She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which someone was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.

There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds that had met and piled one above the other in the west facing her window.

She sat with her head thrown back upon the cushion of the chair, quite motionless, except when a sob came up into her throat and shook her, as a child who has cried itself to sleep continues to sob in its dreams.

She was young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength. But now there was a dull stare in her eyes, whose gaze was fixed away off yonder on one of those patches of blue sky. It was not a glance of reflection, but rather indicated a suspension of intelligent thought.

There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.

Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will — as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been.

When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under the breath: “free, free, free!” The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes.

They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body.

She did not stop to ask if it were or were not a monstrous joy that held her. A clear and exalted perception enabled her to dismiss the suggestion as trivial. She knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed and gray and dead.

But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome.

There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature.

A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.

And yet she had loved him — sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter! What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in the face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!

“Free! Body and soul, free!” she kept whispering.

Josephine was kneeling before the closed door with her lips to the keyhole, imploring for admission. “Louise, open the door! I beg; open the door — you will make yourself ill. What are you doing, Louise? For heaven’s sake open the door.”

“Go away. I am not making myself ill.” No; she was drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window.

Her fancy was running riot along those days ahead of her. Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.

She arose at length and opened the door to her sister’s importunities. There was a feverish triumph in her eyes, and she carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory. She clasped her sister’s waist, and together they descended the stairs.

Richards stood waiting for them at the bottom.

Someone was opening the front door with a latchkey. It was Brently Mallard who entered, a little travel-stained, composedly carrying his grip-sack and umbrella. He had been far from the scene of the accident, and did not even know there had been one.

He stood amazed at Josephine’s piercing cry; at Richards’ quick motion to screen him from the view of his wife.

When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease — of the joy that kills.

The author in 1894.

The author in 1894.


Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »