Thanks to Damyanti Ghosh of the Daily (W)rite for calling me out to participate in the Spectacular Settings Flash Fiction Challenge from Write… Edit… Publish. The hosts of WEP, Denise Covey and Yolanda Renée, provide a wonderfully supportive writing community where creative people can submit to a monthly blog-hop. The writers and other artists who participate receive and provide feedback to as many blog-hop entrants as possible.
This being my first time participating in such a thing, I have my trepidations. How is this going to work? What will my fellow writers think? But that’s part of the challenge, isn’t it? Not just in a blog-hop, but in writing, and in life. C.S. Lewis once said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Any time we seek to be virtuous, we do so in the face of a challenge, an obstacle. A testing point. Whatever the virtue being tested, courage is the form that virtue takes when it rises, against the odds, to withstand the onslaught.
So thank you, to Damyanti for throwing down this gauntlet. And to Denise and Yolanda, for hosting such a challenge.
And, without further ado,
For the first act of the Spectacular Settings Flash Fiction Challenge, I’ve selected The Open Boat by Stephen Crane.
NONE of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks.
Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small boat navigation.
The cook squatted in the bottom and looked with both eyes at the six inches of gunwale which separated him from the ocean. His sleeves were rolled over his fat forearms, and the two flaps of his unbuttoned vest dangled as he bent to bail out the boat. Often he said: “Gawd! That was a narrow clip.” As he remarked it he invariably gazed eastward over the broken sea.
The oiler, steering with one of the two oars in the boat, sometimes raised himself suddenly to keep clear of water that swirled in over the stern. It was a thin little oar and it seemed often ready to snap.
The correspondent, pulling at the other oar, watched the waves and wondered why he was there.
The injured captain, lying in the bow, was at this time buried in that profound dejection and indifference which comes, temporarily at least, to even the bravest and most enduring when, willy nilly, the firm fails, the army loses, the ship goes down. The mind of the master of a vessel is rooted deep in the timbers of her, though he command for a day or a decade, and this captain had on him the stern impression of a scene in the grays of dawn of seven turned faces, and later a stump of a top-mast with a white ball on it that slashed to and fro at the waves, went low and lower, and down. Thereafter there was something strange in his voice. Although steady, it was deep with mourning, and of a quality beyond oration or tears.
I’ve cheated a bit on the rules of the challenge, which instruct us to use a mere paragraph from our chosen work. But how could I have chosen just one of these opening paragraphs without also including the ones before and after? It’s a masterpiece for a reason, and in a mere 380 words, he accomplishes what less-skilled writers take pages to do.
The first thing that grabs me about this passage is the lack of description. “None of them knew the color of the sky.”
Immediately I want to know, “why?” Everyone knows the color of the sky, don’t they? Why are these characters exceptional?
And then we get it. They’re not looking at the sky. They couldn’t care less about the sky. The sky is no immediate threat to them.
They’re looking at the waves “that swept toward them… hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea.” The tone of the language, the deft use of color, make it immediately clear that there is something so threatening about the sea that the characters “knew the colors” of it in an intimate way. They have a deep concern for the sea.
And we soon understand why, for the world around them shrinks and expands, rises and fall, at its whim, and the waves are “jagged” and seem to “thrust up in points like rocks,” and they are together against it in a boat not much larger than a bath-tub.
Following this with the introduction of the varied cast of characters adrift in their meagre craft, Crane creates a disquieting image of desolation and despair, and sets the tone eloquently for the story to come. Truly, it’s a masterpiece of the form.
While I would never presume to the skill of a master such as Crane, below is a scene from my own forthcoming work.
…Thus the Lord Eowain found himself with his drymyn and fifty-odd men of Droma returning through the wild borderlands as the gloaming spread across the face of the world.
It was rough terrain, twisted with hills short but steep. He watched the winter forest as he rode. The dwindling sun in the west gave no warmth. His breath misted white in front of his face, frosting his moustache and the black fox fur lining his hood. He was glad that his helmet hung at his pommel. His shirt of steel-ringed mail and leather held the cold and it radiated through his coat and all the layers of wool, silk, and linen beneath. Even the saddle felt cold, as though his pale dapple gelding was made of frozen cream. The helmet would have mazed his mind.
Winter had come late, and with a vengeance. From the heat of summer to the heart of winter in less than a month. The leaves that had lingered through the autumn had frozen before they could change color. They glistened in the fading sun like strange shards of ice-coated malachite.
The horses of the ten arms-men around him occasionally stamped a hoof in the knee-deep snow. It had been a long ride that far, and they had yet farther to go. Dark clouds rolled through the sky to the northward. He didn’t need his weather-wise drymyn to tell him the temperature would plummet before nightfall. They had to be under the shelter of Trígrianna before then.
Beside the ten a-horse, he had forty-four of foot, including twenty men of the king’s own bodyguard. They had returned nigh on three miles through the gloom and the cold when he saw the unexpected red-golden blaze of a fire through the trees. A large fire, where a large fire ought not to be.
Apprehension clutched at Eowain’s throat. He spurred his horse and the mounted lancers with a cry. The drymyn Medyr whipped his pony to keep up, but the elite bodyguard and archers on foot soon fell behind despite their triple-time pace.
Eowain shouted clarion-clear over the pounding hooves of the mad chase. “Medyr, stay close!” He might have need of the damned drymyn’s sorcery before much longer. As he raced ahead of his men, Eowain clung to the back of his gelding. The forest was grown dark now, and the trail was not well-kept in Cailech lands. Branches lashed him across the face. Roots, stones, and holes were hazards better taken slowly and by daylight, but he had no time for such concerns. He gave the gelding its head and hugged its neck, trusting it not to turn a fetlock.
Then he broke out from the dark forest into the cleared farmland. As he feared, the huts of Trígrianna burned on the hill ahead. To his left and down a steep hill was the lake of Lyntrigrian, opaque in the hill’s shadow. Peasants had already formed a bucket brigade from the lake to the village but he could see the effort was in vain. Their homes were all but lost.
He galloped around a wild curve of the trail and on through the village. He saw a child’s burnt stocking lying in the mud. A hoarse prayer to Trógain escaped his lips.
Then ahead was the cattle enclosure, atop the highest point of the hill and defended by a stout log palisade. From within could be heard the frantic lowing of the cattle. From over the walls rose flights of spears and rocks, lobbed west into the darkness. There was a great shouting of men.
And there it is. My Spectacular Setting Flash Fiction Challenge. Thanks for reading!