Wednesday, April 4, 2012

D is for Drowned Hero

A fellow writer recently asked if anyone else ever starts to write something, finishes a draft, and then loses interest in it. This is the story of how I fell into and out of love with an idea.

A couple of years ago I started toying with the idea of a kind of simple set of morality tales in the form of a secondary-world fantasy. I started with two different cultures vaguely connected to the classical elements - a nomadic desert race representing fire and earth and a seafaring race represenging water and air. They had a fairly stable relationship until, in an act of war an imperial power called the Roi conquered one of the seafarer's cities and tried to impose their own culture. The tale would be told from three perspectives in a triptych of independent stories connected by theme and setting.
At least that was the plan. Further inspiration for the first - "The Torcher's Tale" came from a news story about a Saharan "sand cure" (in which people would let themselves be buried to the neck in hot desert sand) and a panhandler on the streets of New York with a sign proclaiming himself the victim of "government torcher". The misspelling, sand cure, and larger idea jelled in my mind to the story you can read here.

The water tale was also influenced by a story I heard on the radio, but it was troubled from the start. I kept tweaking my original vision to match the real-world hero on whom I'd based my character, but desperately wanted to keep the world I'd built in my head. I twisted, I prodded, I workshopped it with my talented and insightful friends at the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers meetup group (more on them - and critique groups in general - in a later post), I added and deleted, but it never seemed to add up to more than the sum of its parts. Enough time has passed in my own life since my first fumblings with this one that I feel that revisiting it would be trying to step into the same river a second time. So, I'll put the Torcher triptych to rest here with the unfinished text of "Waiting for the Drowned Hero". There's a touch of wordplay in the names and titles of the hero. I'll leave it to you, my readers to figure out who he is.


Waiting for the Drowned Hero
by Leonard C Suskin (2100 words)

I. Fleeing the Nameless City

I fled the nameless city that had been my home with nothing but memories, and even many of those I left behind. The city’s name, for one. The invaders gave it a new one when they drove us from our homes and out into the cobblestone streets without even a spare set of sandals. It was on a warm night that I left the city. Ileft it to the pale-skinned savages from across the sea and the desert nomads we’d been fool enough to think of as friends. I left the city’s name. With the invaders ruling, it was no longer Efaaplis, no longer our home. I’d never call it by a dirty foreign name, so it was just the nameless city. One more thing taken.  And, of course, I took the memory of my father, and the stories he’d told of Cobete Lortenmer, remembered to this day as the “Firth Id Leger” or Drowned Hero.  It was the light in his voice when he spoke of Cobete that I carried with me, and that light was the beacon that brought me to the Serpent’s Tooth.

II. Arriving at the Serpent’s Tooth
It’s a rough but surprisingly green hill within sight of some of Scimitar Straights – those rocky, turbulent waters through which sailing ships have to pass to get from the Nameless City  to the famed metalworkers of the treacherous Roi. I arrived tired and hungry, not having had time to pack enough food for the long overland journey. The sea sometimes vanished from sight as I followed a lightly wooded path along the base of the Tooth, but the constant grumble of waves on rocks kept me company, like the constant reminiscences of an angry old man.  I eventually came to a small clearing at the edge of a rocky cliff with a breathtaking view of powerful ocean waves breaking against the rocky shore. As I leaned against a tree to catch my breath I noticed a flash of color on the ground. Someone – perhaps many someones – had placed ribbons, toy ships, and small wooden clubs at this point, overlooking the sea where the Firth Id Leger’s ship had last been sighted. I fell to me knees on  the soft earth, remembering the last time I was here with my father, waiting for the drowned hero. I don’t know if it was a true memory or just a cloud-shape in my mind, formed by my father’s constant re-telling and re-imagining of the story.

I was ashamed to have no trinket to leave behind in memory of the drowned hero.

III. The Day our Hero Died

The summer when Cobete Lortenmner drowned, I was old enough to tie a proper knot and to be trusted to wander the shore searching out odd bits of driftwood, but still too young for work or responsibility. Still young enough to run around town with a stick in my hand, rolling my head to flex neck muscles that wouldn’t feel stiffness for decades to come and pretend that I was the great hero, prepared to board a foreign ship to steal treasure for the young and orphaned back home.  I can’t remember if I cried when I heard the news his ship had sunk, but recall clearly my anger at the unfairness. He was too brave and noble and strong and swift for a little thing like a shipwreck to end his life.

Throngs packed the cliffs of the Serpent’s Tooth, and more crowded the small, rocky beach. Young men waved wooden clubs overhead and chanting his name while older men in sailors’ crimson (most sun-bleached to a coral pink) stared thoughtfully out at the sea. The women mainly nibbled on chunks of fire-roast fish and gossiped amongst themselves as women do, but some stared out to sea with a hunger and intensity to match any of the men.  Scents of roasting meat and unwashed human bodies mixed with the overwhelming smell of sea-salt to create a carnival atmosphere. I looked up at my father, who was staring off into the distant sea. “Is he really coming back?”

“Cobete was a hero, son. Did I ever tell you about the first time I saw him? He’s the strongest, smartest, most agile man I’d ever seen and”

“and the first of our people to captain his own ship in the Roi’s foreign navy” I finished.  I knew this. Everyone knew this. It’s why we’d run along the docks waving around scraps of driftwood or discarded belaying pins and pretend we were Corbete, armed with his wooden club.

His turned to the sea. “Look at all these people waiting and watching. They’re calling him the Firth id Leger – drowned hero in  the old speech. We wouldn’t all be waiting if he couldn’t swim back to shore, would we? Don’t you have at least that much faith in our people?”

I had no anwer.

IV.  A priest of the Firth Id Leger

I picked up a little toy ship from the makeshift shrine and flung it off the cliff, into the sea. “Come back, damn you. Come back,”  I yelled. It was time for him to come back. The time was long overdue.

An unexpected voice from behind me stunned me out of my reminisces and reverie. “Lots of people waiting for him these days.” He was an old man, wearing tattered sailors’ reds, long sun-bleached from bright crimson to a wan pink. His skin was sun-scarred as well and his hair faded to white, but he strode confidently and powerfully down the mountain path. “Some begging for his return, some cursing him.” As the man sat on a rock and stared out to sea he asked which I was.

“The Firth Id Leger is one of us. I don’t care that he sailed for the Roi, he was one of us. When he comes back, he’ll save us. Are you waiting for him too?”

The man smiled. “Isn’t that what people come here for? There used to be a crowd, then a handful, and now just me. Still the people who do come all believe that he’ll be back soon.  Either to save us or betray us from the Roi.” He offered his hand and introduced himself as Temn. “I was a sailor too, but haven’t been on a ship in years. Not since before he drowned,” he finished, with another glance at Cobete’s watery grave.

I was impressed. Cobete’s last voyage was only a few tens of years ago, but it already felt like something from another time, from a lost age of heroes. “Really? Did you know him?”

“Know him? I sailed with him. Now I keep the faith. I tell the stories. Not the ones about the women or the battles, but the good stories. His best moments.” He gave a funny, half-winking kind of smile, “kind of like priests do for the gods. For instance, did you ever hear about the raid on Lud’s Island? Now that was one of his prouder moments.

V. Temn’s Tale

This here’s a story Cobete tried to keep quiet-like, cause back then he still thought the Roi had their use. Even back then, they owned the seas. The <Shipname> was spotted a slow, fat merchant ship.  She didn’t have much in the way of guns, this merchant we were stalkin, and couldn’t sail too fast neither. I’d asked him why we were following a ship with Roi colors when we flew them ourselves, he just said that something looked wrongish. Wrongish, he said. I’ll always remember that kinda thing about him. I think it was because the Roi used to make fun of how he talked, with our accent and all that. He mighta thought it made them underestimate him, and he mighta been right.

Anyway, so we were following this ship because Cobete had a feeling. It was heading out into deep water where there was no port we’d heard of. We should have been harassing Espan merchant convoys, but once Cobete got an idea in his head it stayed in his head. Heck, with that stubborn streak it’s no wonder he wouldn’t stay drowned.

So we follow it to this island out in the middle of noplace that none of us had never seen on no map, and Cobete pulls out his spyglass and what does he see there? Kids. Not Roi kids either. Sandwalker kids digging up bird crap from the island and loading it in casks. They had one of those buildings where the Roi teach kids to think like Roi, but mainly it’s just these kids mining bird crap. Why? Who knows why. They were too lazy to do it themselves. They just like screwing with Sandwalker kids. Maybe it’s some kinda crazy Roi religious crap. And they call everyone else barbarians.

Well, Cobete was about as mad as you’d guess he’d been and then some.  Raked that merchant ship with  canons something fierce, then ordered fire arrows, burning pitch, the works. Took no prisoners neither. Cobete always took prisoners, usually talked to the smarter ones. Tried to make them see him civilized, even if he wasn’t a Roi. That was important to him. The way the Roi treat kids doesn’t make him civilized though… makes him mad as can be.

So now he’s  sank whatever of the merchant ship he hasn’t burned, killed all the crew, and he’s got these kids. There’s no room for ‘em in the <shipname> and whatever supplies there shoulda been for ‘em just sank to the ocean floor. Just us and these kids and they damn Roi teacher Cobete orders hanged from the yardarm almost as soon as we get ashore.

So now we’ve got some dead Roi, a whole mess of sandwalker kids, and all the bird crap we could ever want. Not one of our prouder moments.

What’d he do? He set us a course straight for the Devil’s Kneecap.  Yeah, it’s a Roi island, but we already sank one of theirs, even if we didn’t get caught. What’s another? The Kneecap is a right worthless rock, so we knew the ships in had to have food. It’s also the gaol for whatever bad muckmymucks are too bad to hold without an ocean around them, so we knew it’d be armed. Better armed than a bird-crap boat anyhow. We took a heavy pounding, but we gave as good as we got. Boarded ‘em, took prisoners, loaded up on food, were on our way back to birdcrap Island.

The <shipname> never made port again. It musta been damaged worse in the battle than we thought, ‘cause even Cobete couldn’t keep get her through these here straights.  That was when she went down.

VI.  Waiting for the Drowned Hero

I didn’t know what to make of Temn’s tale, and wasn’t sure I wanted to tell him. Sure, it sounded grand and was a great example of why we were better than the Roi are, even if they did take the now-nameless city.  Something about it wasn’t quite right, but the old man was growing more and more animated as he spoke. He had seen more winters than my father, but was very spry and growing increasingly animated as he talked. I was afraid if I showed doubt he’d hit me with that club he’d been waving around and try to throw me into the ocean. I thought it a good time to change the subject.

“You said there’d been more people here waiting for the Firth Id Leger over the past weeks? Since the fall of the Nameless City?”

This lead to a digression in which I had to explain to him why my home city no longer had a name, and Temn seemed to approve.

“Yes, over a score, one or two at a time. I told all of them the same story I told you, and all moved on. They didn’t get the point of the story.”

The point seemed clear to me. The Roi were bad, and we needed to fight them if we were again to be free. The sandwalkers were fellow victims, but also a dangerous distraction from the fight for our own lives. I confessed to Temn that I found it quite inconceivable that not anyone would get it.

Temn glared at me. “That’s not it at all. The fight was never about the Roi or for us or even for the sandwalkers. The real fight was against that part in himself that let the rage take over, that sank the merchant ship he could have captured and used to take those kids away, or at least fed them. May that part of the Firth Id Leger remain drowned forever.  

For the rest, we wait.”

VII. The Gathering

I never found out how the first ones heard about me, if they heard of me. Perhaps something in our blood just pulls us here. It was after I saw smoke rising at the distant horizon, smoke rising from the nameless city.

I didn’t cry, but the distant smoke might have stung my eyes, just a bit.

The first to arrive were old men, leaning heavily on walking sticks. Their bodies little more than a bundle of sticks, wrapped in old leather.

Then came the women in patched dresses carrying bundles of rags and rotting food and babies. They’d been sent by the husbands and brothers and fathers who would stay and fight for the city. To restore its name.

Finally the men came. Angry and defiant, bearing knives and swords and makeshift clubs. Had the young men come first there’d have been no chance. This would have become a place for caching weapons and making war.

But the young men did not come first. The came later to find the old men and the women staring into the sea, talking about Tem’s tale and the Firth id Leger as a saviour. Not just as a warrior.

The old man disappeared. One day I saw him walk down the mountain, to the sea, and never saw him again. But that’s OK.

We’re gathering here. And sharing the stories.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I enjoyed reading through the story... Thanks for posting it and not just telling about it, that was a nice touch and not something that many writers do, actually.