has declared it International Embarrass Yourself As A Writer Day
. Since it was an effort just to post some of those first paragraphs, this is going to be rather difficult... but all right. Let me see what I can find, noting her emphasis on it being something that at the time
I threw my heart and soul into and really believed in.
Fortunately for all of you, I deleted the piece that was written entirely
as an IRC log. What the fuck was I thinking? I don't throw away very many things, and I especially dislike throwing away creative efforts, but if I had a printer I would have printed that one out just to wipe myself with it, set it on fire, and piss on the ashes. I did, however, preserve two pieces that are nearly as worthy of being posted here.
Incidentally, the total wordcount for this entry is north of 11,700. (Good grief! I was clearly really in love with my subject matter. Or myself. Or something.) Please feel free to scroll liberally. Any bit of prose you happen to encounter will probably be bad. This is probably even more instructive than actually reading the whole thing beginning to end.
First, a short one from 1994, which I'm appropriately embarrassed to admit I was still attempting to revise as late as 1996. It has promise, but the stilted attempts at high fantasy prose... I... just... gah. I had also apparently never heard "show, don't tell", or if I had, I had no idea what it meant. At all. In any way.
Time and Beauty
There was once a young woman--not a princess, but an ordinary young woman--who was so beautiful that no clothes made by mortal hands could fit her. Try though she might, they were too tight in one place or too loose in another, and no one recognized her beauty (save herself, alone at night before her mirror) because she had no clothes which fit. Even the most skilled dressmaker, given her exact measures, could never get it quite right.
He uncle loved her dearly, and although he saw the ill-fitting clothes and hated them as much as anyone, he was the only one who could also see the beauty within her. Sometimes, when he concentrated on her gorgeous soul as she read aloud a piece of her poetry or played music she had written, he caught a glimpse of her outer beauty as well, shining through like a ray of moonlight on the darkest night of the year. One day she told him a story, the seeds of which had blossomed the night before as she lay dreaming, and it was so beautiful that he wept. His tears were like tiny windows through which he truly saw her and he was overwhelmed by this glorious vision; from that day on had no other goal but to learn how to make her clothing which could show the rest of the world what he had seen for that one beautiful instant.
He knew that the task would take many lifetimes, and so he found books of magic and wisdom and pored over every one until he at last had the secret of immortality. Speaking a simple phrase aloud, he felt something--a shower of light, he called it later--move over and around him until he was entirely within it. It held him for a moment and then vanished, but now he knew immortality for what it was. It is not, as so many have thought or written, the gift of unending life, but rather the ability to change time, to move it backwards and forwards or around in circles as one chooses. Abuse this power once, he knew, and it would be gone forever, but he was not the sort of man to do that.
He slowed time to a standstill while he learned all there was to learn about making clothing and cloth and thread. When he released the invisible strands, very much like marionette strings, which he used to control the passage of time, he had made for himself a loom, a spinning wheel, wool cards, and a dozen needles, all of a substance so magical that its name cannot be spoken, much less written here. He had also learned how to contact the spirits in their forms upon the earth, and had befriended all of them, so that he could now call upon them in his need.
That day, he invited his niece over for tea. Although she had gone to his house the day before, in her thinking, he sounded so lonely that she agreed at once and rushed over without a second thought. She can be forgiven for not telling her parents; she was as good and dutiful a daughter as anyone has a right to have--and it must be said here that they did not deserve such as she--but she loved her uncle with all her heart, and when he seemed to be missing her so, she could not help but go and comfort him. In all of her fifteen years, he was the one who had been there when she needed him; she would now do the same if he needed her.
When she arrived, her uncle acted very calm and normal, asking after her health and her parents (whom he heartily detested, but never said so), and making sure that she was comfortable. When they were down to the last cup of tea, and their plates held nothing but crumbs, he asked rather nonchalantly, "What would you like most in the world, darling? You know that I want nothing more than to make all your dreams come true."
"Oh," she cried, "simply a set of clothes which fit me," and then she felt ashamed, for it sounded as though her parents had never bought her clothes to fit.
Her uncle took her beautiful hand in his and said gently, "You needn't be ashamed for saying that. I know that you and your parents have tried, and I have tried too. I think, however, that perhaps I can do more now than try. Let me show you something."
He led her into a part of his house which she had never seen before, although as a tiny girl she had loved to explore the place, for it was large and old and full or nooks and crannies. She asked him, "Why have I never seen this room? I thought I knew all of your house."
"Very simply," he said, "it is because it did not exist before yesterday."
She looked around in wonder. "But there is dust in the corners!" she said. "And this wood is certainly as old as the rest of the house. How could this have happened in a day?"
"I will show you," he said. Carefully he set an empty bottle made of clear crystal in the westernmost corner of the room, breathing gently across its mouth as he did. A mournful sound, as of the wind blowing around one's house in the evening, resulted and seemed to echo in the enclosed room. In the south a handful of moist brown earth went into a small glass dish. Turning to the east, he poured water from a copper bottle into a seashell and set the shell down. At last, facing north, he lit a red candle with an odd flame, which seemingly came from nowhere and disappeared as the red-dyed wick took light. His niece thought that she could almost follow the strange flame into oblivion, but it hurt her eyes to try and she turned away. She heard her uncle shout something behind her and tried to hear the words, but it was as though they slipped from her mind's grasp. Suddenly, lines of pure white energy shot along the walls, connecting the four directions. The force moved upwards as well, obscuring the walls and then the ceiling, so that they were in a room of light with only a wooden floor to remind them of the world they seemed to have left behind.
"Are you frightened?" he asked solicitously.
She thought for a moment. "I don't think so," she said. "I was at first, maybe, but I know you'd never do anything to hurt me, so I'm not worried anymore. I would like to know what just happened, though."
"I have stopped time outside this room," he said. "That is how I built this room and how it aged in what was to you a few minutes, by stopping time."
"But why don't you age?"
"I'm still connected to our time, so when people there don't grow older, neither do I. I'm not sure exactly how the spell works. No, don't touch those," as she moved towards the cloth-making apparatus, and his voice was so full of warning that she immediately stepped back.
"What are those made of?" she asked in wonder. "I have never seen a metal like that before."
"I can't tell you the name of it, but it is arguably the most magical substance in the world."
"I see," she said, sitting down in a plain wooden chair near where the door had been. "So you are a great magician, then?"
"I suppose you could say that," he replied, uncomfortable with the title. "I did it all for you, you see. I believe that your beauty is so great that no clothes made by mortal hands will ever fit you, and so I decided to become immortal so that I could make you a wardrobe of clothing which could show off your marvelously gorgeous self."
She blushed. "How will you do this?" she asked.
"I have already spent more years than anyone could count learning the craft of thread-making, cloth-making, and sewing. Soon, I will find materials which are appropriate to this task, shut myself in here for what will be but a few moments to you, and create clothing the likes of which has never been seen before." He smiled. "I hope only that the mobs of young men who will follow you around after this won't tear the clothes off your back!"
They both laughed, and then she got up and embraced him. "Thank you," she whispered as they held each other, "thank you more than I will ever be able to say."
"I would do more than this to make you happy," he replied, and meant it.
He turned and called out a single syllable which rang like a silver hammer gently striking a glass bell. The walls of force wavered and disappeared. He carefully gathered up the materials he had placed in the corners of the room, moving clockwise from north to west, and then opened and held the door for her. She stepped out, almost surprised to find solid ground beneath her feet. They bid each other good day, as though nothing had happened, and then she went home to think over what had passed. She very quickly came to the conclusion that her uncle was the most wonderful man in the world.
After she left, her uncle went out and ate a simple supper, much startling his housekeeper, who was just about to clear away the leftovers from tea. Having finished his meal, he secluded himself in what he had taken to calling his "time room." Setting out the elements and speaking the magic phrase, he was soon encased within the walls of light. He pulled a small, black-bound book out of his pocket--it had not been there a moment before; he had learned other tricks besides the controlling of time--and thumbed through it until he found the entry that he wanted. He closed the book and spoke aloud a single word, a name.
Before him formed a circle containing a picture of a face, the bearer of that name. She smiled to see him, for during the years of his magical research they had become great friends. She, of course, was unhampered by the restraints he had placed on time. "What can I do for you?" she asked.
"I have told you of my niece," he responded, "and I have promised that I shall make some clothes for her. What material can you give me, appearing to be as normal cloth, but light and airy as the wind which you hold so dear?" For this friend of his was the Elemental of the West, and she and the Wind were as one.
She thought for a moment, and then her face moved from the circle before him and her hand appeared in its stead. The hand reached out from the circle and into his room to lay upon the table before him a heap of strange, fleece-like material. It was soft and puffy and resembled nothing so much as the beautiful white clouds which give just enough shade on perfect summer afternoons. In fact, the material was cloud, and enough of it to make yards and yards of marvelous cloth. He thanked his friend for her wonderful gift and bid her goodbye, promising a favor in return.
Next he called upon the Elemental of the South and of the Earth, a man as sturdy and strong as the oldest oak of the forest, and near as gnarled. This friend bestowed many a mile of silk unwound from cocoons which butterflies leave behind. To him also the girl's uncle promised a favor, for this was no little gift.
The third to listen to his request was the Eastern Elemental, who governed all the waters of this world and others; it was indescribable, changing as the waters did and growing and shrinking with the tides. This spirit gave him a dozen bushels of snow, with each tiny ice crystal perfect, separate, and unmelting, that he might spin it into crystalline thread. He gave his thanks and swore to return a gift if one was needed.
Lastly, this most loving and hard-working of men turned to the Elemental of the North, who kept watch over the flames of the sun and the stars, and of all fires upon the earth. The creature was as a living flame, with a voice which sounded like the crackling of kindling upon the hearth and a form so bright that no one, not even his kindred Elementals, could look upon it. Fragrant smoke, of pine and juniper and ash-wood, was the gift of this fiery being, and smoke so thick that it could be formed and molded. At long last, the man was ready to form his gift to his niece, and he gave his word to return this favor some day.
He began by spinning and weaving the silk, snow, and cloud into fine, strong cloth which could only be cut with magic. The silk became many skirts, all shimmering with every color of the rainbow; the soft cloud-cloth was made into blouses and jackets, each one shining with the purple and gold of sunset. The snow became pair after pair of stockings. Then, the smoke was molded into shoes of every description, from the hardiest boots to the daintiest slippers. Each garment was stitched up with moonlight, and fastened without buttons, needing only to be pressed into place.
He spoke aloud the word which brought time back. For him it had been seven days and nights; for the rest of the world, it had been less than a second. He left the room, passing his housekeeper as she began to clear away his supper dishes, went straight to his bedroom, and fell into a deep sleep.
In his dreams, he saw his niece again and again, dancing in front of him in her new clothing, dancing until she was carried away by the air in her clothes--for it was truly all air, smoke and snow and butterfly-silk and cloud, all brought up into the heavens by the endlessly blowing wind. It was hardly sad to see her fly away, still moving as though she was dancing on the air itself; although he had never been a religious man, it was like seeing someone dearly loved ascend into heaven, and there was great joy in that sight. He awoke smiling and knowing that whatever the day brought, he could face it with the joy of this marvelous dream; it had been both wonderful and full of wonder, and he felt for the first time complete. He learned, with no surprise, that he had slept a full day and a half.
His niece, he was informed, had called the afternoon before and would again today at three. He took advantage of the two hours before her visit to bathe and eat enough to make up for four missed meals (not counting teatime the day before). He was just finishing off the strawberry jam when she ran in.
"Are you all right?" was her first question. "Asleep all day yesterday, and no reason left for those of us who are awake to worry--that's just not nice! I thought you liked me!" All the while she was covering his face with kisses and fussing with the details of his tie. He disengaged himself from her and the table and calmly picked her up; he was large and she was small, so this was not very difficult. She squealed, but in joy rather than protest; she enjoyed that wonderful way which every uncle has of treating her as an adult, but she had missed (more than she knew) the wonderful way in which he had treated her like a child when she was one.
He put her down and said, "Now stop all this worrying about me. The reason that I was asleep for a day and this morning was because I was up for about seven days straight before that, and I could hardly leave that message with my housekeeper, since those seven days did not exist for her. Come see what I did in that lost week." He took her by the hand, covered her eyes, and led her into the spare bedroom, where he had placed, neatly folded, the clothes which were to be hers and which would show her to be the most beautiful creature in the world. He walked her until she was just inside the room and he was just outside it, and then uncovered her face and closed the door in one smooth motion.
A cry of delight came from within the room. He waited outside the door, smiling slightly. A few minutes later a vision rushed out and jumped into his arms. He endured the hugs and kisses until he could wait no longer, and then held her back to see what he had wrought.
At first he could barely stand to look at such beauty. What before had been merely a neat, clean face now shone, and her form was something incredible. The clothes fit themselves to her so perfectly that it was as though she had grown them, like a second skin; the cloud-blouse was full and airy, the silken skirt floated above the ground, and every flash of stocking glittered in the sunlight shining through the windows. Her uncle drew a five-sided crystal from his pocket, and turned it so that her image was captured in every facet; the crystal shivered and shuddered, and four sides of it disappeared, winding their way through time and imagination as gifts to repay the Elementals. The fifth side of the crystal remained in his hand, and he replaced it in his pocket, to rest forever beside his heart.
She had picked a pair of dancing slippers from the pile of shoes, and they seemed to hold her floating above the floor as she pirouetted, her hand in his, and then pulled him out the door and into the wide, wide world; they danced together, Uncle Time and Immortal Beauty, and everything glowed with the wonder and goodness of it all.
Wasn't that charming? Mm. Yeah.
And now the real prize. I would still desperately love to rehabilitate this piece. I'm not sure it's possible, but it's like an ex I'm still half in love with even though I know we're really bad for each other and would be much better off going our separate ways. I think this is from an even earlier era; I seem to remember making the mistake of showing it to some friends around 1992. Can that be right? I don't remember what they said, but I do remember that I haven't shown it to anyone else since, and with good reason.
He came out of the swamp one day, immaculately dressed in clothes of a somewhat old-fashioned cut in shades of a dark grey-green. His voice was soft and tired, like old flannel, and he sat down in the village tavern and watched people come and go. He had, as far as they knew, no name. It didn't seem to matter.
It was an odd place as villages go. It had been created by a number of rich men who decided that they were rich enough and that they should retire in style. They bought a couple of hundred square miles of swampland and cultivated it into a couple of hundred miles of emerald lawn and manor houses. Then, for the atmosphere of it, they put an ancient-seeming village tavern in the middle, complete with space for dancing and dreadful watery ale that everyone pretended to like.
They decided to leave a corner the land uncultivated, simply for the thrill of having a real honest-to-gosh swamp as part of the town. Nothing lived there except for a pair of quiet frogs and a number of lazy mosquitoes. The town didn't bother the swamp and the swamp didn't bother the town. The nearest road was on the other side of it, invisible through the tall dark trees that grew so thickly around the swamp and surrounded the town on all sides, but no one paid much attention to the road. No one saw any need to; who knew they were there?
They started calling him the green man after a while. He was always dressed in the same shade of green, and at night after the last villagers had drifted back to their elaborate homes, he would leave the tavern and fade into the lush green darkness of the swamp, reappearing the next evening. He said little and was an object of absolute fascination for the few young women permitted into the tavern by their fathers. (This was possibly the only tavern in existence without barmaids; all the work was done by a group of volunteers on a rotation schedule. Everything from the outside world was gotten by whoever drew the straw to make the long walk through the forest to the second-closest road, since everyone avoided the swamp in a vague sort of way, and hitchhike from there to the nearest real town. They took their isolation very seriously, these men.)
Many people grew curious about the green man's origins, but he had a very simple way of deflecting their questions: he would answer, but in a voice so soft that no one could hear over the tavern raucousness, and would repeat anything he was asked to repeat in the same tone. Eventually people stopped asking. He was almost always alone after that, with the rare exception of visits from Ariel Bayer.
James Bayer III, known to everyone as Jim, was most likely the richest of the rich men. His house was the largest, and so was his lawn. His pet peeve was that no matter what he did to it, his lawn was never quite the rich emerald green of the others'. He had tried, he thought, everything.
His wife was long gone, unable to stand living in the village with its faked atmosphere of ruggedness and old-time-ness. She simply walked to the road one day with her priceless jewelry to pay her way, and never came back. She left behind a note and Ariel, then an adorable five-year-old girl with her mother's impatience and matter-of-fact attitude and her father's intelligence and perseverance. Strong-willed was something of an understatement when one described Ariel Bayer, and she refused to give up on finding out more about the green man.
Wisely concluding that he hated direct questions, she began the careful process of getting things from him with idle conversation. One night, after he'd been there for perhaps three weeks, she went home and realized that she knew nothing about his past or even his present--but that she knew enough about him to know that she was in love. After that night, their conversations were rather different; rather than trying to find out about him, she managed to gently draw from him an admittance that he might feel as she did. Outwardly, they looked the same, talking earnestly with their heads together, for no one could be allowed to know how they felt; inwardly they were in each other's hearts.
At times they grew daring and held hands beneath the table. One night they were even more daring, and instead of going back into the swamp he waited at the edge of it for her.
She came flying through the dark green evening, wearing white and with her long dark hair unbound, and at last he took her in his arms and held her. They stayed like that for a very long time. A shy kiss permitted itself to be exchanged, and then one less timid. After several minutes of this, he glanced up at the stars and said, "I need to go. It's late."
She looked puzzled.
He would say nothing more than that he had to be back (wherever he went) by a certain time of night, and that that time was drawing near. She begged to come with him and got a flat refusal in a tone she hadn't heard from him since someone in the tavern had offered him a drink stronger than water. It startled her enough that she stepped back, and in a blink he was gone, with only the frogs' sleepy croaking to keep her company.
She knew better than to try to go through the swamp at night without a guide, and so she made her way back to her house and pretended to have been asleep. She hid the white dress away, trying not to notice that where his hands had been were pale green smudges, like grass stains.
It went on like that for a number of months. Ariel continued to grow lovelier and lonelier, and argued with her father more and more often. Jim Bayer was an extremely indulgent father as fathers go--especially considering the rather conservative parenting preferred by most of his compatriots--but he had his moods and tempers. He would sit on his porch and look out over his neighbors' emerald lawns and his own somewhat scraggly expanse of unhappy grass and weeds, working himself into a thunderously cloudy mood of dissatisfaction, and then either fight with Ariel about something trivial or go to the tavern and try and drink it away. As a result, Ariel was often left unhappily to her own devices, and began spending a great deal of time with the green man.
She refused to talk about her father at first, maintaining that personal problems shouldn't be aired to those outside the family, but one night when he found her in tears after a particularly awful fight, she gave in.
"It's that stupid lawn of his," she sniffled, leaning her head on her beloved's shoulder. "He never thinks about anything else. I hate it; it's like it sits there and refuses to grow just to make him unhappy. And then he fights with me and goes off and drinks and comes home and fights some more. Stupid, stupid lawn... it's causing nothing but misery. I wish it would just go away." She fell silent, listening to the sounds of the swamp behind them.
"I can help," he said in his quiet voice.
"How? I've already tried setting fire to it, but it won't burn, and I can't think of any other way to get rid of it." Her voice was more bitter than it had ever been, surprising herself as well as her companion.
"I can make it grow."
She turned full around and looked at him. "You mean, like the others, so that he's not jealous anymore?"
He nodded. "Or better."
She smiled for the first time in weeks. The expression looked odd under her puffy eyes and tearstained cheeks, but she didn't mind. "That would be perfect! But he's tried everything... what can you do that he hasn't?"
He refused to tell her, distracting her with a kiss instead, and soon she had forgotten the question. What mattered was that it would be done.
A week later, the leaves had fallen off of most of the trees and winter was starting in earnest. Jim Bayer was slightly less unhappy during the winter, as everyone's lawns were dead and covered with snow, and the season was relatively peaceful for Ariel. She occupied herself with painting a portrait of a woman she had seen in her dreams, a woman dressed in blue and always almost smiling; the image haunted her until she got out her paints and smock and began trying to capture it, at which point it became immediately elusive. The green man came out of the swamp only rarely, so she had lots of spare time, and after a number of weeks of hard and exhausting work, the portrait was done.
She asked one of the other men in the village to put together a frame for it, and when it was done she framed and hung it herself while her father was down at the tavern. Then she sat underneath it, smiling to herself, and waited for him to come home. She was totally unprepared for his reaction: he stopped dead, went very pale, and began to sway slightly.
She ran to him, of course, and got him to sit down and drink a little water. When he could speak again, his first words were "Where did that come from?"
"The painting?" she asked, puzzled. "That's what I've been working on all winter--" for it was almost spring now, and things were beginning to grow again. She had seen the green man wandering around the edge of her father's lawn, late at night, and was sure he was keeping his promise to help make it grow.
"Were you looking through my things?" her father demanded. She sat up, rather taken aback by his tone.
"No, of course not... I saw her in a dream and had to paint her. It's not from a photograph or anything...."
Her father sighed and rubbed his eyes. "You painted a portrait of your mother," he told her quietly, and then stood and walked off to his room.
There wasn't anything she could say to that. She sat and stared at the painting for a long time after that, trying once more to memorize it, searching for childhood memories which could have sparked the dreams--or had the dreams themselves been memories?--and shown her a face she hadn't seen in almost thirteen years. Eventually, exhausted, she went to bed, taking the painting with her into her room.
The snow melted and the grass began to grow. Her father's lawn was lush from the beginning, especially right in the center; he was overjoyed, and bragged about it incessantly. The painting was quite forgotten as Ariel turned eighteen and everything blossomed. And then, out of the blue, the tree began to grow.
Nobody knew how it had gotten there, but there was a tree in the middle of the Bayer lawn. It seemed to have sprung up in the middle of the night, and was noticeably taller every day. If you watched it for a long time, you could see it growing. It was a gorgeous tree, with lovely shade and climbable branches, and everyone loved it--except for Jim Bayer.
You could hear him miles away. "The first time I get my lawn to grow--" Ariel decided against telling him that he should take all the credit "--and a tree thinks it has the right to grow in the middle of it! The shade will kill my grass!" It was always, of course, 'his grass.' "Do you see how fast it's growing? It'll soak up everything my grass needs to grow!" He was utterly livid at this point, out of breath but still trying to shout at the unhearing, uncaring tree. "I'll show that tree! Someone find me an axe!"
Eventually Ariel managed to point out that the grass was nothing if not thicker and healthier nearest the tree, and Jim subsided into the occasional grumble. She laughed about it that night while she was talking to the green man, in his arms for the first time since the winter. "Can you believe, he wants to cut down something as beautiful as that tree?" she said, looking up into his face, and was surprised to see that he didn't share in her amusement.
"That would be a very bad idea," he said softly. "Tell him not to."
"Why?" she asked, puzzled. "Did you put it there when you did... whatever you did to the lawn?"
He sighed and was silent for a while, looking off into the dark depths of the swamp and thinking. She kept quiet, knowing that he was much more likely to answer if she didn't push him. Eventually he turned back to her and said something completely unexpected.
"You have a painting of a woman in blue. It's in your house, in a place where no one ever looks at it. I would like that for my payment." It was not a request. "As for the tree, think of it as part of what makes the lawn beautiful. Cutting it down would not be a good thing. Everything dies in its own time, and that choice is not your father's or anyone else's to make. Leave it to grow and it will make you happy."
His voice was almost harsh, almost raised, and Ariel didn't even think of disobeying it. She knew he never lied--why would he?--and had grown to trust him implicitly. And so, the next night, she carried the painting which had taken three months of hard work out of her house and down to the edge of the swamp, and when he left, he took it with him.
She no longer went to the tavern in the evenings, and neither did he; he had gradually become less and less welcome. Her father, in particular, had taken a disliking to the green man and her closeness to him and had forbidden her to meet with him. So far their love had remained secret, but somehow she wasn't surprised to find her father awake and waiting for her when she returned home, breathless from her run through the dark and with the slight smell of rot from the swamp caught in her hair.
"Where were you?" he asked, sounding wearily sure of the answer. He never dreamed that his daughter would lie to him.
Ariel, who had been considering and discarding stories ever since she saw the lights on in the windows, was prepared. "I was up in the tree," she said calmly.
Her father's face twisted slightly. "That damned tree," he muttered, and then looked up. "Alone?" he demanded.
She did her best to look indignant while still trying to catch her breath. "Of course I was alone," she said. "May I go to bed now? I'm tired."
"Two more questions," he said, looking even more tired. "First of all, what are those stains on your dress?"
She looked down and winced internally; the green man's hands had left their usual green stains behind, and she had forgotten to wear dark clothes. "Those are just grass stains, and stains from the leaves of the tree," she said, and disguised her sigh of relief as a yawn when he nodded.
"And what did you do with that painting of your mother?" he asked, and now the real weariness of the last thirteen years showed in his face.
Ariel was brought up short by the question. "I... I got rid of it," she confessed. "I couldn't stand to look at it anymore. She left. She doesn't belong here--she said so herself. So I didn't think her picture belonged here either." When she heard her own words, she was surprised at how true they were; the picture had gone into her closet and she hadn't looked at it until she had taken it out and covered it to take to the green man.
Jim Bayer nodded again, slowly. "Go to bed," he said, and seemed to withdraw completely into himself. She could tell that there would be no use talking to him, and so she tiptoed into her room and spent a long night trying to get to sleep.
Summer waxed and waned, and her love for the green man grew every day. She couldn't stay away from him, and even dared to ask for a daytime meeting. "I want to see your face in good light," she explained. "I don't really know what you look like, and you don't know what I look like either...."
"No," he said, and that was the end of it.
So they loved in dimness and darkness and night, and somehow that seemed the way it should be. As the seasons changed, night came earlier, and as soon as the light was gone from the sky she would run down to the edge of the swamp and meet him. Then they would simply hold each other, barely touching, speaking of small things in small voices. It was all they needed.
The last day before winter, he kissed her goodbye--he had never tried to touch her, save for those kisses--and told her he would see her in the spring. Once again she asked where he went, and once again he refused to answer. Before he faded away into the dark, he said, "Remember--don't let your father cut down the tree. No matter what it does." And then he was gone, and the only way for her to go was home.
The tree, now taller than her house, had stopped growing at some point during the summer. Having no lover to meet in the evenings and no wish to deal with the people her age in the tavern, she spent hours among its strong and sturdy branches, and soon came to love the tree as much as she loved the green man who had given it to her. She was almost always alone, and her father rarely spoke to her upon the rare occasions when they were both in the house; she didn't know what to do or say, and so retreated to the sanctuary of her room when it got too cold to be out in the tree. And one day she began to paint again.
This painting didn't take quite as long as the first one had. At first it was just a silhouette, a suggestion of a face, but as she worked it became a portrait of her father--the way he had been, the way she remembered him. Young and laughing, the man in the picture was beautiful and clearly happy. In the background there was just a suggestion of herself... and, if you looked closely, a woman in a blue dress with long dark hair, almost smiling.
When it was finished she put it away in her closet, unable to look at it and sure that showing it to her father would be a mistake. And the earth awoke to springtime outside, and she ran out to greet the tree and stopped dead.
It looked, at first, as though each of the branches had grown a pair of wings. When she looked more closely, she saw that they were pairs of seed pods, each one half as tall as she was and nearly as wide. They completely dwarfed the budding leaves, but didn't seem heavy at all; indeed, when she touched one, it felt warm and light as air in her hands, and the outside of the pod was soft and covered with a downy green fur. She carefully left them alone as she made her first climb of the year.
The next day her father mentioned that he was going into town with a few of his friends to pick up supplies. Two days later she awoke to the sound of axes.
Ariel was out of bed, into her robe, and outside before she could even stop to think. The tree's trunk had a horrible gash in it, and it was swaying from side to side for all the world as though it were about to faint. Oblivious to the plant's obvious pain, Jim Bayer was diligently hewing away, face set and grim.
"Stop!" she screamed, but he couldn't or didn't hear her. She ran over and tried to pull the axe away from her father, but he shook her off and kept chopping and she had to duck away from the blade. He didn't seem to have noticed her at all.
The tree was shuddering with every blow, and already the leaves on the damaged side were beginning to wither. A pair of seed pods came loose and began to drift down; the wind caught them, large as they were, and bore them away. Ariel wasn't sure, but something inside them seemed to be moving. Before she could take a closer look, they were gone.
The day wore on. There was nowhere she could go to escape the hideous sound of the axe killing the tree that she had come to think of as hers. The entire rest of the village appeared oblivious; no one appeared to see the cause of the noise, or to aid her father in his obsession. She screamed until she was hoarse, begging him to stop, grabbing at his arms and trying to pull him away, but he seemed hypnotized by his task and paid no attention to anything else.
When he was halfway through, the tree began to sway in earnest, and the remaining part of its trunk made a terrible sound, half scream and half groan, as the wood strained to hold itself together. Ariel couldn't take any more, and ran blindly away from her house, across strange lawns and around unfamiliar buildings, until she collapsed at the edge of the swamp. A seed pod drifted over her head, but she was too far from consciousness to notice.
His hands brought her gently back to awareness, and she sat bolt upright as she realized that the only sounds too be heard were those of the swamp talking quietly to itself. "The tree--" she began, and when she saw the pain in his face the tears finally started.
"It died before its time," he said softly. "He should not have done that. It will only make things worse."
"I tried to stop him," she said through her weeping, desperate that he should not think that she had been part of the death of her beautiful, beloved tree. If he blamed her for that....
But he didn't, and his arms remained around her. "I know," he said, softly. "I saw. And I felt. There was nothing you could do; the trees affect some people like that. I hadn't thought your father would be one of them, and that was my mistake."
She couldn't speak, and so he held her and let her cry, and when she could stand he walked her home. Neither of them could stand to look towards the stump where the tree had been; the rest of the tree itself was gone, withered up and faded into the ground and all the seed pods blown away. He left her at the edge of the lawn and she managed to go the rest of the way by herself.
Her father was waiting for her in the darkened living room, and she turned her back as soon as she saw him. Before he could say a word, she was in her room with the door closed and locked.
The seed pods scattered on the wind, coming to rest here and there. Some caught in the tops of trees and eventually withered away; others landed on fertile ground and took root. And soon more trees were growing, to the astonishment and irritation of many of the inhabitants of the community, for each tree was inevitably in the center of a lush, well-cultivated lawn....
These trees grew as fast as their parent had, but differently; they were twisted, with dark shiny leaves and oily bark that no one wanted to go near to. Ariel hated them from the first, and, in rather morbid curiosity, asked the green man what they were.
He sighed. "Have you ever seen a five-year-old child trying to make a living for himself?" he asked.
"No," she said, puzzled. "Why would a child need to make a living for himself? Parents take care of their children..." and then she realized what he was saying.
"The parent was killed and the children left to fend for themselves," he said in his quiet voice. "Is it any wonder that they are unhappy, and angry, and in pain?"
For once, her clear voice was softer than his. "Angry?"
He looked at her. "Wouldn't you be?" he said, and would say nothing more on the subject.
The community was never quite the same after that. The trees awakened some deep fear and hatred within the people, and soon all the families had withdrawn into their variously ostentatious houses to wait and argue and hope that the trees would go away.
A couple of braver sorts went out with axes one day and were never seen again; children immediately insisted that the trees would eat you if you went near them, and none of even the most rational adults could quite deny that this was a possibility. The trees were that terrifying, and when you watched them move not with the wind but against it, it was easy to believe that they were something close to sentient.
With nothing fighting them, the trees grew year by year, and their seedlings were just as twisted as they. All traces of the beauty of the first tree--even though it had been a terrible and awesome beauty in some ways, it was sweetness and light compared to the demeanor of its twisted children--were gone; only the occasional light green leaf or patch of soft smooth bark betrayed the trees' origins. Soon they covered what had once been immaculate lawn and even encroached upon the houses. The wiser of the villagers had laid in supplies; those with less foresight moved in with anyone who had extra. A sad few tried to run for it and didn't succeed. There were no raids, even from the desperate, because that would have meant hiding in the trees, and no one was that brave or that evil.
Ariel, like everyone else, was absolutely terrified of going out, and so for a long time the green man came in secret to her house and they talked and held hands through her bedroom window. On the night of her twenty-fifth birthday, a lovely spring evening except for the choking stench that wafted out from the trees when the sun went down, he told her that he would come for her the next night and that she had to be ready to go.
"Go? Go where?" She couldn't imagine a way to leave in safety, and for her there was nothing beyond the boundaries of the community. "How--"
He put a finger to her lips, gently. "If you knew we wouldn't be able to. Pack a bag--small, only the necessities--and I will take you from here."
Something in the way he said it made her look up. "What about you?" she asked quietly. "Will you come with me?"
He shook oddly for a moment, in the grip of some powerful emotion that she couldn't decipher. "I can't. Yet. When I can I'll find you."
"And am I the only one who will be free, then?" Tears of fear and worry threatened to overwhelm her, but she kept them in check. "What about my father?"
The green man stared at her. "You would take your father out there? When he is the reason and the cause for the trees being as they are? Better to kill him now and quickly." At Ariel's stricken look, he sighed and took her hand in his. "There may be a way to save him, and everyone, but only if we go alone."
She nodded, unable to speak, and he held her hand tighter and stayed longer than he ever had before. When the sky began to grow light, he hastily begged her leave and faded back into the darkness of the trees. As always, she wondered how he could pass among them in safety, and as always she put the question out of her mind and went to sleep.
She stayed in her room the entire rest of the day, first asleep and then packing. Into the bag went two lightweight changes of clothes, a few candles and matches, some canned food, and a can opener; she had no idea what else she could need. She put on her most comfortable clothes, thinking that she might need to run at some point, and then as daylight began to fade she went out into the dining room to talk with her father for what might be the last time.
It was a particularly unrewarding conversation. He was more intent on eating than talking, and she didn't know what she could say without revealing her escape plans. She forced herself to eat some of her meager dinner and then went back into her room to await the green man.
He still startled her some nights, suddenly appearing from the deep shadows between the trees--they were all around her house now--and tonight he was even more stealthy than usual. She passed her bag out to him and was about to climb out the window when he said suddenly, "Wait. Do you have the painting? No, it's still in your closet... get it. We'll need it." And when she returned with the painting of her father, she saw that he had the one of her mother tucked under his arm. She passed the second painting out, and then joined him on the lawn.
It was lucky for both of them that Ariel was looking over his shoulder, for she screamed just in time. Her father's axe buried itself in the side of the house, and the green man wrenched himself upright, picked up her bag and both paintings, and gasped "Come on!" as he started to run. There was nothing she could do but follow.
They ran through endless mazes of twisted trunks and drooping, viscous leaves. She could hear her father behind them, somehow following their path, and ran faster. Somewhere along the way she took the second painting from the green man to lighten his load, and clutched it to herself as they went.
The trees loomed and beckoned, but no matter how much it slowed them the escapees were careful never to touch leaf or bark. Jim Bayer was equally slowed; even in his wild obsession, his instinct for self-preservation was strong, and he knew a single brush against a single tree would kill him. Even when they were deep into the thicket, where the trees reached for them and branches swayed into their path without the aid of wind, the three all managed to duck into safety.
As they ran, Ariel couldn't help but look around her at what had been her home. She had spent twenty-five years in this place, always exploring and learning, but everything had been changed by the trees. Each one rose on a hill that hadn't been there before, and the hills themselves seemed to move as though something below them was trying to escape the confines of the ground. Once-emerald grass was now brown and withered, light and nutrients stolen by the ever-encroaching trees; all that grew beneath them now were strange stalks with pairs of pods on the end, which moved about like snails' eyes and made her feel as though the plants and the earth itself were watching her.
Houses were half-hidden in the shadows of towering, slimy-looking trunks, and some had branches growing into their windows. Ariel saw that one tree had managed to grow right through the center of one house; there was no sign of the building's former inhabitants. She wrenched her eyes away and concentrate on running.
Soon they came to the edge of the swamp. Without stopping, the green man plunged into the darkness, somehow finding footholds on hummocks above the brackish water. She gulped, looked nervously behind her, and watched the trees begin to close in on the path they had taken; there was no going back. Then she realized her father was still inside what had become a forest, and she found herself unable to move.
The green man appeared again out of the gloom. "What are you waiting for?" he asked impatiently. "We don't have much longer." Even now, his voice was quiet as ever, if slightly strained.
"My father," she said desperately. "He's still in there. We have to save him. Tell me how. I know you can--you know more about these trees than anyone else ever could. Tell me or I'll go back in and get him myself." It was not an empty threat; despite the recent years of coldness, her father was all she had.
Her companion nodded once and sighed. "Give me the painting of your father," he said tiredly.
She handed it to him and he whispered something across and somehow into it. Then he motioned her out of the way, turned the painting sideways, and hurled it into the trees. It vanished into a thick cluster of leaves and there was silence for a moment.
Then suddenly all of the trees were moving, struggling to reach this image of the one who had made them into what they were and competing to destroy it. The path was clear again, and soon Ariel saw her father run out of it, emerging alive and amazingly unscathed into the clear space that the trees had left around the swamp--for some reason they seemed to avoid it, but she couldn't spare time to wonder. He spotted them and started running faster; as he got closer, she could see that his expression was still one of hatred and anger. But how could he know that they had saved him from being torn apart, even as the painting had been ripped to pieces by the angry trees?
And then a dark tendril snaked out--and he was stumbling, and falling, and somehow suddenly too still on the ground. The hillside opened for a moment, letting out a flash of dark green light, and when it closed he was no longer there. The earth had finally taken its revenge on Jim Bayer for the death of its child.
The green man took her hand and pulled her into the swamp. Stumbling slightly, she followed him into the green and humid darkness.
After what seemed like an eternity of careful footsteps, picking their way through stagnant puddles and around unidentifiable things sticking up out of the muck, they reached the other side of the swamp--and a road. Ariel was amazed; she had never known there was a road so close to the community. Then again, no one ever went into the swamp, and she felt a rush of victory at having made it through, at night no less. After allowing herself a moment of pride, she looked around.
The road was dark but clear and well-paved. She wouldn't have any problem finding her way along it, especially as the sky was beginning to grow light. Turning back to the swamp, she saw that the green man had stayed in among the plants and refused to join her on the road, and her heart sank.
"You're not coming with me, are you," she said. Her voice was amazingly steady.
"You knew I wouldn't," he reminded her. "And someday, when I can, I will come and find you, and let you see me for what and who I am."
He handed her the bag and the painting of her mother. "You need this more than I do," he said softly. "Go look for her. And wait for me."
"I will," she promised.
They kissed for a long soft moment and then he was gone, and she had no choice but to start walking along the road. Behind her, in the soft pre-dawn light, the twisted trees unbent themselves for a single glorious moment, reaching for the sun; as it rose above the horizon, they wilted and faded back into the earth, and it was as though they had never been.
Ariel followed the green man's advice, and after a long search, found her mother. The reunion was strangely unemotional, for they were really strangers to each other, and a great deal of time was spent simply trying to assimilate all the growing that each had done in the last twenty-one years. All that Ariel ever told her mother was that her father had died and she had run away from the community, and in some ways that was all her mother ever wanted to know about it. She was living well and on her own and had no need to be reminded of a past she had chosen to leave behind.
Soon she found her daughter a job, which paid her way through night school; Ariel had never attended a proper school, though both parents had made sure she could read. She had gone through her father's library more than once, and so knew a great deal of English and history and some mathematics (she had an extremely strong intuitive grasp of economics); her learning in the sciences, on the other hand, was less than rudimentary. While making up for this, she began to explore the world she suddenly found herself in, and, like her mother, did her best to forget the one she had left.
She created a new life for herself--not easy for a young woman of twenty-five, but she managed--and eventually got a better job and a place of her own. She finished her classes, tested for and received a diploma, and enrolled in college. Beautiful and often haunted-looking, her pale skin and dark eyes and hair attracted many young men to her side, but she never forgot her promise to the green man; his were the only lips to ever touch hers. As the years passed, she sometimes wondered if he had forgotten her, but swore that she would keep her promise even if it meant that she would die unloving and unloved.
Many years along the way, her mother died. The painting of the woman in blue was buried with her, and Ariel said goodbye as well as she could--as a friend, if not quite a daughter. From then on she was alone.
At the age of eighty-two, she knew her life was nearing its end. Retiring from her job with all the appropriate fanfare, she packed two changes of clothes into an old, worn bag one morning and left her home behind. Walking for hours at her age was difficult, and she stopped and rested often. Night found her on the open road, and she stumbled in the sudden darkness, not really surprised when strong hands caught her and bore her up.
She looked into his eyes and he looked sadly into hers. He looked the same as he ever had, and she... she looked younger than her age, but nothing could change the white hair or the wrinkled skin.
"That's not true, you know," he said in that quiet voice she remembered so well.
She wasn't surprised that he could read her thoughts, either. "How could it be changed?" she asked. Her voice wasn't bitter; she had left all her bitterness behind long before. "How can I be other than what I am?"
"You could be like me," came the soft words. "Eternally young and unchanging. You will die when the earth decides you should, of course, but we can convince her to delay her decision."
She laughed softly. "Are your powers over the earth so strong, then? Or are you just very convincing?"
He hesitated. "There is a... service I do her in return. But it is little to pay for life. And life together with you...."
"You never came for me," she said, her voice soft as his and for the first time reproachful.
"I couldn't." There was pain in his voice to match her reproach. "Even now, it's hard for me to walk on the road. A city would be far more than I could handle. Come live with me here, in the green and the wild. We can be together forever." And then, for the first time in her life, she heard her name spoken with love. "Ariel... please."
Her heart melted. All of the love she had held within her for fifty-six years, silenced and denied but never lessened, came out and she wrapped her arms around him. "Do you promise to never let me go?"
"I promise," he said, and held her tight.
"Then I will join you. Simply tell me how."
The green man smiled and led her back into the woods. Seating her on a rock in a clearing, he knelt down and touched both his hands to the earth. He whispered a few words that she couldn't make out, and beneath his hands the earth moved slightly. Smiling, he looked up at her. "She likes you, and approves," he said. "Come place your hands under mine and she will give you life like mine."
Somehow, Ariel hesitated. "Will I be like you, then?" she asked. "Able to move only at night, able only to touch that which is alive? What service must I do for the earth that she will give me this?"
His voice was soothing. "A minor service and minor sacrifices. Life is worth it."
"I have lived for eighty-two years," she said softly. "Why do I need more? I am done here; I can feel it, feel my body's weary aches and my soul wishing only to be free. I will make my own choices," her voice sharp with the accumulation of nearly sixty years' worth of independence and choices made both well and poorly, "and I will make informed ones or my answer to you is no. What is taken from me in repayment? Answer me straight or I will leave you here."
"Ariel--" he whispered.
"I plant trees." His voice was so quiet she could barely hear him.
Slowly, a white-hot fury began to grow within her. "You mean like the trees that destroyed my home?" Her eyes narrowed and her voice grew harsh. "The trees that killed my father?"
"That wasn't supposed to happen!" he cried. "If your father hadn't cut it down--"
"And what would the seed pods have done?" she demanded. "There were hundreds of them. Surely they would have spread as far." He could not deny it. "And just as surely they would have overwhelmed the houses... how can you say that your life is worth all of those lives you destroyed?"
His face showed his pain all too clearly. "Don't you see," he said softly, "all those people weren't like us. They didn't love the trees. They didn't respect the earth."
"Some of them were children!"
"They would have grown up just like their parents." His eyes were slightly too wide, and she stared at him in horror.
"I didn't!" she protested. "How do you know? Who made you God?"
He flinched slightly. "I do as the earth tells me, and in return she gives me life. The sacrifice of a few destroyers isn't too much to ask."
"And now you want me to join you in this?" The idea made her feel ill. "How can you think that I could turn my back on humanity just for you and for eternal youth and life at a horrible price?"
He could take no more. Reaching up suddenly, he grabbed her hands and pressed them to the earth where his had been. Ariel gasped and cried out as a sudden surge of... something... pressed itself into her palms.
She could feel her skin unwrinkling, feel the roots of her hair thickening, feel her entire body de-aging. Horrified, she stared at the suddenly smooth backs of her hands and realized that her eyes were as sharp as they had been sixty years ago. Her scream startled an owl from its perch, and as it flew off into the darkness she began to cry the easy tears of an eighteen-year-old.
The green man sat back and looked at her calmly. "Disconcerting, isn't it?" he said. "But you'll get used to it. Every few decades or so, you need another shot to keep you young and healthy--no more diseases either." His voice was tender. "Ariel, my love, now at last we can be together forever."
She pulled away from him with newly-found strength and ran.
Her transformation was new and incomplete, and though her clothes suddenly chafed and the road burned her feet, she could still run. Somehow she had kept her bag with her, and when at last she struggled up the steps to her apartment, her keys were in her hand. She slammed and locked the door behind her and gasped for breath.
The next night, having hastily shopped for all-cotton clothes that better suited her new appearance, she went out to a club she had frequented in her first days of living alone. It didn't take long for her to pick up a charming young man, and they went back to her apartment together.
Afterwards, she stayed awake and watched him sleep, and around two in the morning shook him gently awake. "You'd better leave," she said, and something in her voice told him not to argue. She kissed him goodbye, and a few minutes later followed him out.
The road was much easier this time, and soon she stood by the edge of the swamp. Carefully, she took off and folded her clothes and laid them in a pile by the edge of the road, just out of reach of the green man who stood and watched her from the trees.
"I knew you would come back," he said.
"I have something to show you," she said.
She reached into the pile of clothes and picked up a little stoppered bottle.
"What is that?" he asked, curious.
"It's death," she answered, and before he could say anything more she uncorked the bottle and drank. "Doesn't that sound terribly melodramatic? But some things require melodrama. It's the price you pay for mundanity: strange things, important moments, must be given their due.
"You see," she continued, swaying slightly, "I thought I loved you once. But I didn't--I loved who you said you were, who you seemed to be. And so I made a foolish promise. Tonight, I broke that promise--" he was completely shaken now, as she had hoped he would be "--and so I die for it. The only price of life is death; better to pay now than be in debt forever." Her head was spinning, and she barely felt herself fall down. He ran out to her and tried to touch her, and gasped as his fingers burned.
She coughed and smiled. "You can't touch anything that's not alive," she said softly. "And we both know I should have died last night. I think, in some ways, I did; my soul is gone. And now the body follows...."
She opened her eyes and smiled at him one last time, and blew him a kiss, and was gone.
I did actually find a piece that's worse than either of these, significantly so; but it draws so much on real-life events (which is part of what makes it such poor writing, as you essentially have to be me to understand why the hell you should care about any of it) that I'm refraining. I don't feel like having those memories rifled through and I think it would be unkind to dredge up history for the people mentioned therein, at least one of whom reads this journal. It's the short story equivalent of hideously angsty breakup poetry, tarted up in what I believed at the time could pass for pretty prose. Trust me, you're not missing anything.
Because the point of this is my mortification--and not a purposeless one, you understand, but with the idea that aspiring writers can wade through these piles of muck and come out saying, wow, even well-trained natively-talented wordsmiths really do start out writing crap--I will leave comments enabled. Do your worst. And if you dare, participate. Artists, post those old pencil sketches from high school notebooks. Designers, link to those BLINK-filled homepages you wrote in Notepad. Musicians, make those dusty MIDI files available for download. Blush and groan and cover your eyes and ears. And then take a moment to marvel at just how far we've come.