Riding to Mars (Part 1)

1930864_1Image Credit: Bambalick Design

Sweat streamed down her face as she rode. It glowed red, burning with both exertion and shame.

The heat of the sun shimmered against the red earth, as though she were riding headlong towards a portal to another world. Justice eyed that shimmer, wanting the fictional escape. Her legs pumped against the pedals, each footfall drawing another bead of sweat, each cycle pushing her forward, but the new world never came.

The temperature would drop soon, she knew. The weather lately had been alternating between extreme heat and chilling cold, as though the the city itself were running a fever. Between each change came the wind, rushing in to sweep the previous elements away.

The weather had been temperamental since the day Mars was terraformed, but it had increased recently. She didn’t know what that meant, if it meant anything, but she didn’t care. She wanted off this red rock anyway.

As she’d predicted the wind came gusting across the barren landscape, blowing first with her, then against. She growled against the added strain.

When her parents had first told her they would be moving to Mars she had been happy, then sad, then happy again. Bittersweet was the word, but at ten years old she was unfamiliar with the term.

The bitter came from the idea of leaving everything she knew behind. Her small town in southern Australia had encompassed almost her entire world–the odd trip to Melbourne the only exception. She saw it like an online role playing game, where most of the terrain stays in black, lighting up and revealing itself only when your avatar braved forward into the dark. Her world was mostly black, but soon she would be on a rocket to another planet, and she knew you would be hard pressed to find a way that lit up more terrain than that. That was where the sweet half of the equation came from, the chance to explore, and the fact that Mars was the best place to achieve her desired career. She was going to be an astronaut, she just knew it.

Her first year on Mars hadn’t lived up to expectations. The infrastructure in place when she had arrived with her family had been the barest necessary to allow human habitation, meaning all her usual comforts were non existent. Mars might have been terraformed and now habitable for humans, but it would take decades yet before anything resembling an ecosystem would start to appear. Each seed of that ecosystem, not to mention all the tools and materials that would allow it to flourish, would have to be shipped over on expensive cargo shuttles from Earth. Even basic comforts, such as indoor toilets and showers, had yet to make their way to Mars.

In the time since, Mars had flourished, and so had she.

Space travel advanced, becoming cheaper, and more and more shuttles began arriving every day. Her small outpost grew to became a city. Not like the ones she’d known back on Earth perhaps, but something new, and, eventually, familiar. The desert still remained, but the Earth-brought vegetation was beginning to establish itself, advancing outwards from the city like the world’s slowest moving army.

She had studied and trained. Every day. She had ran made up drills out on the red flats, pushing herself to become stronger, and asked her parents to supply her with books on every topic, to be brought over by the incoming fleets. She had discovered that knowledge was also like the terrain in a role playing game, and so she had sought to dispel the dark there as well.

Then, at fifteen, she had joined the institute. They had pushed her even harder than she’d pushed herself. She made the decision to move into the barracks a year early, at seventeen, a decision her parents questioned, but she knew she had to give her all if she had even a chance of making it. The next leap, out to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, was scheduled for just over eight years away, and she had a lot of ladder to climb if she wanted to ensure she would be on that mission.

She wouldn’t.

What she would do is suffer a panic attack during the final examination, brought on by lack of sleep and a general over exhaustion. This would lead to her hyperventilating and passing out only to then vomit on her personal hero and admiral of the fleet, Serena Shaw, when she tried to rouse her. They had taken her to a medical room to lie down, but as soon as she was alone she’d left, jumped on a bike, and rode for the distant horizon; a location that, much like her future career as an astronaut, seemed to move further away the harder she pushed herself toward it.

She leaned over the front of the bike, forcing her aching legs to pedal faster, then faster still. She screamed into the whipping wind, at the planet, at the situation, at herself, a guttural scream that tore at her throat and left her breathless.

Then the bike’s front tyre found a rock and the next thing she knew she was flying through the air. She hit red dirt, compacted and hard. Lights flashed in her head and she passed out for the second time that day.

She woke hours later; bleeding, bruised, and broken.

Justice lifted her head, and squinted against the still whipping wind. A groan dribbled out of her as she pulled herself into a sitting position to assess the damage. She felt sore all over. Whatever muscles weren’t bruised felt stiff from their prolonged awkward position on the hard ground. Her hands and elbows were heavily grazed, and, judging from the hot pain on her cheek, she assumed the same was true for the left side of her face.

Worse though, were her legs. The right one was okay; okay meaning cut and bleeding but otherwise functional. The left was broken. It’d been trapped between the ground and the bike as she hit, and had snapped like a candy cane from the combined pressures.

The bike was a mess of twisted metal. The front end in particular, as it has hit the ground hard and head on, probably saving her own helmet-less head from cracking. She freed herself from the tangle of bike, whimpering as she was forced to lift her broken leg, then drew her pant leg up with a hiss of pain.

The break wasn’t a compound fracture, but she could see the bone jutting against her skin from the inside. She bit down an urge to gag and took a deep breath; using her training to calm herself. She needed hospilisation, except the closest one was now kilometers away. She hadn’t ridden with any direction or destination in mind, merely wanting to create distance between her and her failure. Back the way she had came, she could just make out the outline of the city, hidden by the blowing dust.

They would come looking for her, given enough time, but how long would that take? Hours? Days? She would need to make her own way back, somehow. First, though, she needed shelter. The wind was becoming worse, and she knew a dust storm couldn’t be that far away. Except there was no shelter. There was no vegetation this far out from the city, and no outcrops to hide behind in the immediate vicinity.

With a sigh, she reached over to the bike and unscrewed the mud guard. It wasn’t much in the way of spades, but it would have to do. She began to dig.

The hole was far from perfect, she could only just fit into it by pulling her legs up into a fetal position, an act that caused tears to rush to her eyes as she jostled her broken limb. She then pulled her cloak over herself, and dragged the damaged bike on top to weigh it down.

As she lay there, knees pressed up against herself, the weight of the bike pushing down uncomfortably on top of her, wind and dust howling overhead, she considered just how shitty a day she’d had.

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Part 2 of this story can be found here

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Thanks for reading,

Damian

 

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February 16, 2018

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Another song today from Allman Brown because not only is it a great track but it also seems to suit today’s blog.

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Words written for the year: 34,097

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I’ve been kind of off lately and I think it has to do with feeling like I’m never going to get any closer to the mountain than where I am right now. It’s fear, really. If you replace ‘feeling like’ with ‘a fear of’ it probably tells a much truer tale. It’s not a fear of current failure, though, but a fear of future failure. Of never reaching the mountain. Recognising that however, doesn’t lower that fear, nor does it offer any real solutions. I know I’m afraid, that’s where most misery comes from, so I suppose the question becomes how do I dispel fear? Proof that the fear doesn’t exist would be ideal, but I’m not sure that’s feasible when the fear is one of future possibilities. No one can show me proof that my life will go a certain way; life is far from being about certainties. So, in that sense the fear is valid, I might not move any closer to the mountain.

Or, I might.

Which is the second, but less whole solution to fear. Hope.

But, damn, can it be hard to stay hopeful all the time. I think I’m pretty good at it. Holly calls me a positive realist, which means I see things as they are but tend to focus on the positive of any situation. There are always pros and cons, and I like to look for the pros. So, when it comes to the future, I usually acknowledge that I might never move any closer to the mountain, but that I also might, and hopefully will, and that the only way to know for sure is to keep working at it. That way I’ve at least got a chance.

But hope can be a really hard reason to force yourself to work, because if the principle of creating the work is, ‘something great might happen one day because of this,’ then the inverse is, ‘or it might not,’ which is the fear speaking, because fear is an arsehole. Fear is the one that says ‘why bother working when it’s not going to get you anything anyway? Why bother writing something when no one wants to read it? Why bother doing anything when it’s not going to make a difference?’ And when I’m vulnerable, or tired, or just having a shitty day, it starts to make a lot of sense. Writing something no one wants to read does feel futile. Of course, I’m generalising, I’m lucky enough to have people who love me and who will always read my stuff, and I don’t mean to dismiss that, but when fear is talking it minimises their support, and it makes me spiral. I stop being productive, because why bother? And then that fear of future failure gets loaded up with feeling hopeless, all but making the fear a self fulfilling prophecy.

So then I guess it comes to me to ask, what is the mountain I’m wanting to move towards? I’d be hard pressed not to say that it’s success of some kind. Success here meaning external recognition of my work, and being financially abundant because of it. Which, writing it down, is a big thing to ask. Basically, it means I want a lot of strangers to tell me how awesome my writing is while also paying me a lot of money for it. Call it hard wiring, call it part of being human, call it ego, that want is still there, and it’s not going to go away, and my guess is it wouldn’t go away even if I did reach some imagined point. To go back to my original analogy, the mountain would always be that little bit further away, no matter how close I got. That’s how humans work.

The thing is, it’s not about reaching the mountain, and it took me revisiting the original source of that analogy for me to remember that. It comes from a keynote address, writer, Neil Gaiman, gave at The University of the Arts in 2012. The whole talk is a joyful mess of inspiring and imaginative, but I’ll include the pertinent part for you here:

“Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut, and sometimes  it will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you are doing the correct thing, because you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.

Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.

I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.”

As he describes, the mountain is distant, something on the horizon, and as with any journey, looking at the end point and worrying about how far away it is only serves to make a person miserable, and, in my case, fearful, or perhaps resentful, towards taking another step.

But taking another step in the point. It’s the joy of moving forward, even if moving forward means writing another story no one will read. Because ultimately my mountain isn’t to have people pay me lots of money and tell me how great I am, that’s a byproduct (hopefully) of what my mountain really is; becoming a good writer who can tell stories that connect with people. The stories I love, and the writers I admire, are the ones who make me feel moved, or understood, or amazed, or lost in a world not my own, and it’s that experience that I want to recreate with my own writing.

That is the mountain.

So, that’s what I need to move towards, knowing that I may never reach it, but also knowing that as long as I keep walking towards the mountain, I’ll be okay.

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Here’s the entire commencement speech, I highly recommend you watch it, perhaps multiple times. That’s what I’m about to do.

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Remember, I’ll be okay, and you will too.

Talk soon

Damian

February 12, 2018

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Music today comes from a chap called Allman Brown., the song is called Sons and Daughters, I’ve been loving it, and now you can too.

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Words written for the year: 30,997

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Being an emerging writer, I don’t have many deadlines. I have some, such as if I want to enter a competition that has a closing date, when I’m creating things with other people, or when I have picked up the occasional writing job, but when I’m working on my own stuff there’s no need to hit a certain mark every day, no one breathing down my work saying they need those pages ASAP.

While it’s good not to have the stress and extreme pressure, some pressure can be a good thing. It can motivate. I’m still hitting my daily word goal, six hundred plus, but I want to incorporate that with short sharp bursts of writing where I try to hit much higher marks.

Basically, I think I could do with a liberal dose of deadlines, so I’m planning to give myself some. The idea will be to choose a project, or a subsection of a project, and set a date to finish it by, and sometimes aim to start, middle, and finish some of the smaller projects within a single day.

The thing is, I have the time. I’ve purposely been doing less things this year so that I have more down time. When this happens I usually consider writing, but then talk myself out of it by saying that I’ve already hit my daily word goal. Which isn’t a lie, and is good, and should be rewarded, but there’s also no reason I shouldn’t push myself for a little bit more. The problem then comes from motivation, because the fact is writing is work. It’s definitely enjoyable, and fun, and you can get into a zone where hours fly by without you realising, but conversely, there are times where it’s laborious, and hard, and feels like squeezing juice out of uncut coconut. You have enough of those times and your motivation can wan.

I’m hoping deadlines will work as a way to force me to squeeze the coconut, even when I don’t want to.

I’ll let you know how I go.

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I’ve also been relearning how to run.

I don’t mean I’m getting back into running, I mean I’m literally learning a better way to run, and it hurts.

Let’s back up a bit. I’ve been seeing a running coach, two actually (I get around), although one’s also a physiotherapist. The people in question are Dominic (running coach) and Nikki (physiotherapist) who run BCN Health and Fitness, and they’ve been teaching me how to run.

I’ve been running for a few years now, probably around ten now, and have done okay at it. I’m not about to win any races, but I’ve completed a few half marathons and mostly managed to stay consistent and (so far) injury free. But, as I’m learning, I’ve also been running in a way that exerts excess energy and doesn’t utilise certain muscles that could give me extra speed.

I completed a running assessment with Dom and Nikki, where Nikki asked me to do a number of stretches and squats to test my butt muscles (she called them gluts) before passing me over to Dom who recorded me running (clothes on, he insisted) and made some changes to my form and stance, as well as some other suggestions. They followed this up with a in-depth written and video analysis, a number of daily exercises to strengthen my sweet gluts, and a running program for the next six weeks.

It’s now been two weeks since I’ve implemented their changes and I’m sore. My arms are being held in a different way, my juicy butt is getting a frequent workout, I’m landing on my feet differently, and unsurprisingly my legs are using different muscles to compensate for all that. It’s a good kind of sore, a kind that says I’m training my muscles, strengthening them, and making me a more competent runner. But still, sore. The soreness is decreasing though, and I’ll be interested to see how their changes pay out by the end of the six weeks.

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Lastly, I saw this video of artist, Fernando Abellanas, building himself a secret studio under an underpass and thought it was the best thing ever. Check it out.

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Remember, you’re still going and so am I.

Talk soon,

Damian

Fortune Delivered

cookie

There was a knock at the door.

Alan rose from the couch and waited outside the hallway for just a second before entering. He didn’t want the delivery driver to think he’d been sitting there, just waiting for his food to arrive. He had been, but he didn’t want them to think that.

Through the glass of the front door he saw a bored looking asian man. He was young, around his age, and wore a bright puffy jacket with the delivery company’s logo on the front — black to the jacket’s garish yellow — and a motorcycle helmet still on his head, only the top half of his face visible through the lifted visor.

Most importantly though, his hands held food.

Well, they held a brown paper bag, but inside that bag was food.

Alan had been dreaming about this meal. All. Week.

His diet had started two weeks ago. It had meant to be three weeks ago, but then on that first tuesday someone had left a pack of biscuits in the break room and he’d eaten one before remembering he was supposed to be on a diet, and so after that he’d decided it would be best to just wait to the following Monday to start the diet again. More complete that way.

Other than that one deviation though, he’d done quite well. A whole fortnight of sticking to his meal plans, limiting his snacking to only the healthiest options, and denying himself of sugar all together. He felt great. Well, he felt withdrawn and tired, but he was also very proud of himself.

Naturally, that sort of self discipline deserved a reward.

He opened the door and forcibly stopped himself from reaching for the bag. He didn’t want to seem like a food starved crazy person. Best to let the delivery driver hand it to him. These things had a protocol.

‘Hello,’ he said, and the delivery driver turned to look at him.

He did reach for the bag then, but the driver pulled it away from his reach to read the docket stapled to the side.

‘Prawn toast, spring rolls, combination black bean, and a twelve pack of wontons?’ he said with a muffled voice as he held the bag hostage.

‘Yep. That’s what we ordered,’ Alan said, reaching again for the food, wanting the interaction to be over, now self conscious of the solo order.

The driver gave over the bag, and Alan started to close the door.

‘Wait,’ the driver said. ‘Orders of this size come with a serve of fortune cookies.’ The driver reached into his backpack and pulled out the complementary dessert.

‘Thank you,’ Alan said, taking them, but not entirely sure if he wanted them, not having factored the cookies into his calculated reward.

‘Have a good night,’ the driver said.

Alan thought he was smiling at him, the edges of his eyes had crinkled upwards, but he couldn’t be sure since he was unable to see his mouth. He thought it best to presume he was, gave him a smile of his own, and said, ‘you too.’

He closed the door behind him and carried the brown paper bag and fortune cookies into the lounge room. Alan smiled. He and the food were finally alone.

He quickly changed out of his jeans and shirt and into sweatpants and a tee — he’d only been wearing the clothes until the interaction with the delivery driver was over — settled himself onto the couch, turned on the tv, and pulled the food into his lap.

+

The meal was everything he’d hoped it would be.

The prawn toast was the perfect combination of crunchy and soft, the wontons squishy and savoury, the spring rolls flaky and flavoursome, and the black bean sauce ran dark rivers across his taste buds that he drank down like a man who hadn’t eaten for a week. Or a fortnight.

He leaned back against the couch at the end of the meal, a picture of satisfaction. He laid his hand across his belly which felt full, but a comfortable full. He didn’t need another bite.

But still…

His eyes moved to the plastic bag and the fortune cookies within.

One would be okay. Surely. They were so thin and light. Yes, just one.

He reached across the coffee table and lifted the bag to him. It had one of those sticky tags around the top that he could never quite open and so he ripped a hole in the plastic. The smell of the cookies wafted towards him. He breathed it in. They were far from his favourite dessert, but after two weeks without sugar the smell triggered all the right receptors in his brain. He looked in and and grabbed the biggest one.

The pastry snapped easily in his grip, causing bits of crumb to fall back down onto his lap. His mouth watered in anticipation. Then he saw the strip of paper hanging from the side of the cookie. He’d almost forgotten about the generic bit of fortune that the sweets were named for. Might as well read it, he thought.

He took up the small bit of paper and read:

You will discover you are not alone.

Alan stared at the words, printed a faded grey on the cheap paper, and chuckled. Yes, it was the usual nonsense. A sweet platitude but ultimately meaningless. Besides, he was happy to be alone.

A noise sounded from the other end of the house.

A thud, then a scurry.

Alan looked towards the sound and listened, waiting to hear if there would be a repeat. There wasn’t, so he decided it best to ignore it, and turned his attention back to the cookie. He put both halves into his mouth and chomped down. His eyes closed with bliss as he crunched the bits into smaller bits, delighting as the sweetness activated the corresponding taste buds.

The noise came again. Thud, then scurry.

Alan turned, mid chew, to once more look towards the other end of the house. He couldn’t ignore it now, could he? No. He decided. He sighed and rose, placed the rest of the cookies onto the coffee table and brushed the crumbs off his lap.

The house was mostly a single hallway, with the kitchen and lounge room at one end, a spare bedroom at the other, and in between his bedroom and the bathroom. He assumed the noise must be some kind of animal that had gotten into the house, a possum perhaps.

He stopped outside his bedroom door, gave it a quick look but saw no sign of disturbance.

That settled it then, the possum must be in the spare room.

He pushed open the door. The room was silent, the thudding and scurrying paused for the moment, but there was a smell present. Musty. Not like an animal exactly, more like…aged. He stepped one foot into the room, shielded the rest of his body behind the door, then reached out and flicked on the switch. Warm light enveloped the room, which grew brighter as the halogen bulb became hotter.

Something was definitely in there. The room, which served as a spare bedroom/study/storage room was crowded. Plenty of places for a critter to hide. The desk chair was down, knocked over, as was a stack of his old textbooks. The explained the two thumps, but not the scurrys.

Alan bent to pick up one of the fallen textbooks. As he did he heard a noise come from under the bed. A snuffle, was probably the best way to describe it. Did possum’s snuffle? He wondered.

He got on all fours, holding the textbook as a shield, and peered under the bed.

He thought he saw movement, but it was black moving on black so it was hard to be definitive. He considered crawling under the bed with a broom or something, but quickly dismissed the idea. No, better he take the hands off approach.

He stood up, moved back to the safety of the doorway, and flicked the light switch off and on a number of times.

Amazingly, it worked.

Alan heard a snuffle, saw movement, and so left the light on.

What came out from under the bed was not a possum, or a rat, or any animal Alan had ever seen or heard of. It was round, it’s body an oblong cylinder, off of which came two pairs of feathered wings, and three sets of legs.

And that was it.

No head, no eyes, no ears. Just the single piece of flesh with wings and legs attached. At least Alan thought they were legs. They somewhat resembled chickens feet, but had the same covering of pink flesh the rest of the body had, making them also look like hands.

Whatever definition you chose, the creature used them to walk itself out from under the bed, emitting more snuffles as it went. Alan wondered how it could snuffle when it had no mouth. He wondered a lot of things in that moment, at least in the recesses of his mind; the front part was panicking. Alan let out a sound, a sort of questioning groan, and the creature spun towards him. He stepped backwards out of the room and slammed the door.

Something like, what the hell was that? ran through his head on repeat, although it was less coherent, and more like a swarm of general confusion and horror.

Alan paced down the hallway trying to think of what to do. Should he call animal control? Did they handle…monsters. Which was the only word he could think of to describe the thing. What was he going to say to them? Hello, some creature crawled out from under my spare bed that looks like a headless pig, with wings and an extra set of legs.

They’d think he was crazy.

He’d think he was crazy if it wasn’t for the fact that he could still hear the beast snuffling around in the other room.

His pacing took him back to the lounge room where the remaining fortune cookies drew him like steel to a magnet. He wasn’t hungry, but he was a nervous eater, and now seemed like a good time to be nervous. Alan drew out a cookie and had already cracked it when he saw the previous fortune.

You will discover you are not alone.

That had certainly proven to be true, he thought, first with panicked amusement and then growing horror. The cookies? Surely not. No. No. That was insane. Right?

He remembered back. He had first heard the sound after he’d snapped the first cookie. But, if that were the case…

The walls shook as a thump sounded from the other end of the house. Alan ran towards the noise, bile rising in his throat as he moved down the hallway. He swallowed it and swung the door open.

The creature filled the room. It’s huge bulk leaned heavily against one wall and its six legs scrambled as it tried to find space for the extra mass it now carried. The bed was a pile of splinters and linens, and the rest of the rooms clutter was in a state of further disarray.

Alan slammed the door shut and fell back against the hallway wall. He looked down at his hands, which were balled into fists, and forced himself to unclench them. One still held the second fortune cookie, now shattered, his sweat mingling to make it a sticky mess of broken biscuit, a small strip of paper at the center. Seven words told him his second fortune.

Ignore your problems and they will grow.

The bile came back with a vengeance, and this time Alan couldn’t keep it down.

+

He waited two hours before he opened the next fortune cookie.

That time was spent thinking through the problem while routinely checking in on the creature. It had calmed down after it had destroyed the room. Now it lay in the rubble of his possessions like a dog in its bed.

Here are the solutions Alan came up with and dismissed in those two hours:

  1. Starve it out – Except it had no mouth, so who’s to say the thing is even capable of starving
  2. Kill it – Problematic due to its size and the fact that it seems to have an awareness of his presence despite a lack of eyes. Basically, it might kill him before he can kill it
  3. Call the police – It seemed likely that they would do able to do something — although Alan didn’t know what exactly — but it also seemed likely that they’d have a lot of questions for him, questions he couldn’t answer. He also wondered how much prison time exotic animal dealers got these days
  4. Keep it indefinitely – Too many negatives; hard to explain to visitors, lose a whole room of his house, not really at the point in his life where he can commit to keeping a monster
  5. Give the chinese restaurant a bad review online and complain that their fortune cookies were enchanted – satisfying, but wouldn’t solve the actual problem

Which left him with option number six: open the rest of the fortune cookies and see what happens. It was a problematic option. It had the potential for greater disaster, almost a guarantee really, and by no means did it seem definite that it would offer a solution.

But it might.

That ‘but’ was what he was working with. Out of all the options this seemed like the only one that had even a chance of getting rid of the beast, however small that chance was.

There were two left in the bag. Two seemingly harmless clam shaped wafers with his future written inside. He wondered if it mattered which one he broke next, or, if like the fortunes themselves, all of this was preordained. It didn’t really matter, he supposed. He picked up the one on the left and snapped it in two.

Opportunities to climb high will come your way.

What could that-

A crash. A tear. Plaster and roof tiles and footsteps. From above.

The thing was on the roof.

Alan rushed into his spare room and saw exactly what he feared he would. A hole where a ceiling should be. He ran back down the hallway and towards the front door. Once outside he looked up. On the rooftop, it’s silhouette visible through the moonlight, was the beast. It snuffled, then let out a muffled and ragged caw.

Lights were turning on in his neighbours houses, and through the windows he could see people peering out.

‘Shit. Shit. Shit,’ Alan said, taking the last fortune cookie from his pocket. He really hoped it would have a solution. It cracked under the pressure of his shaking fingers, and with more than a little trepidation he freed the off-white slip of paper from it’s sugary shell.

Open up the senses, and all that bothers you shall disappear.

What the hell did that mean?

No, don’t freak out, Alan told himself. Disappear, that’s a good thing, right? He just had to solve the riddle. Open up his senses. He could figure this out. Sure.

The beast paced across the rooftop, each step cracking tiles and breaking wood.

C’mon, Alan, he thought. Open up his senses? What could that mean? No, he was reading it wrong. It was open up the senses, and the only thing without senses around here was…

Oh no. Alan really hoped he was wrong, but he had a sickly feeling that he wasn’t.

He looked up at the faceless monster, who had stopped its pacing and was now perched on the edge of the roof. It’s posture suggested it was looking down at him.

Alan, feeling miserable, put both halves of the fortune cookie in his mouth and chewed.

+

The tiles slid under his feet as Alan made his way across the rooftop. The rain had started while he’d been searching through the shed which only made his already dangerous task even more so. He didn’t have a ladder so he’d had to climb up the wheelie bin and then scramble his way over the guttering. Not an easy thing to do when you were carrying a drill in one hand.

He’d almost forgotten he had the thing. He’d received it as a present a few years ago when he’d gone through a handyman phase. Once that’d passed he’d left the drill in the shed with his few other tools to collect dust. It still had some battery though. He hoped it was enough.

He was about a meter from the beast when he slipped. He fell face first down onto the already cracked tiles, which cracked further under his weight. His chin bounced but he managed to keep hold of the drill. He carefully got onto his knees, wiped the blood from his chin, and looked up at the monster who had stepped forward to loom over him.

Alan swallowed his fear, which tasted of bile and fortune cookies, and leapt into action. He jumped onto the monsters back, used one hand to steady himself, gripping its wings, and with the other he turned the drill on. It let out a terrible mechanic whine that was followed with a rumble of thunder from above.

Alan screamed out an apology and forced the drill into the left side of the beasts “head”. The drill took and pushed forward. There was little resistance and he was surprised to see no blood escape the wound. It was as if the monster was made of cork rather than flesh. The creature bucked and scrambled across the roof, but Alan held on. He removed and reinserted the drill to create a similar hole on the right side.

Good. Ears done. Only five more holes to go.

Alan leaned forward and with two quick whirs, gave the beast its nostrils. It reared up in retaliation, it’s two front feet leaving the ground. He gripped tight to the wings, and felt his stomach rise up in his throat.

Lightning cracked.

The beast dropped down and Alan went back to work. He forced the drill into the area where he figured its right eye should be. The thing bucked again, forward this time, causing Alan, already off balance, to slip. He flipped mid air and landed hard on his back, which forced the air out of his lungs.

Alan gasped as he struggled to pull oxygen back into his body. Feeling sore and light headed, he nevertheless managed to draw himself up, drill still in hand.

Thunder boomed again.

Alan wiped the rain from his eyes and charged.

The monster swung its weight towards him but Alan leapt at the last second and brought the drill down to its left, creating a second eye in the creatures front. Alan smiled, he was doing well. Which was when the beast kicked him. He went down for a third time. The drill bounced out of his hands, slide across the roof, and fell to the ground with a smash.

Alan looked from the broken drill to the monster. The two eye holes he had given it stared back at him. It pawed the ground, ready for a charge, then came; one big ball of muscle.

Alan grabbed the closest thing to him, a broken piece of tile, and slashed out as he simultaneously rolled to the side.

The monster, unable to stop its momentum, skidded and toppled over the edge of the roof.

Alan pulled himself up onto all fours, and looked down. Where he expected to see the body of the beast, smashed on the ground alongside his drill, he instead saw it hovering, it’s four wings flapping to keep it in place.

It flew up, drawing eye level with Alan. Lightning cracked and through the sudden light he saw the beast now wore a ragged smile, compliments of the broken tile.

The creature bowed, and Alan met its smile with one of his own.

The monster’s body began to disintegrate, particles of it moving to land on the broken roof, and through the hole it had made.

Where every particle fell, wreckage was restored.

Alan stood in wonder as all around him his roof repaired itself, then looked up to see the last of the beast, it’s newly acquired face, fall to pieces and disappear.

Then he was alone, standing on his roof in the rain.

Alan climbed down and went back inside. He made his way towards the spare room, now completely restored, and checked under the bed to be sure, but there was nothing there. He went back into the lounge room and flopped his sodden body down onto the couch. The discarded packaging of his dinner lay before him.

He wondered if he would ever order take away again.

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This creature in this story was influenced by one from chinese mythology, the Hundun. In the mythology the Hundun was the personification of chaos, and lived before the world was really the world. It lived with the gods of the north and south seas, Shu and Hu, who one day decided to grant the Hundun its senses, and so drilled seven holes in its head. On the completion of the final hole the Hundun died, and from its body the universe was created.

The Hundun is a symbol of the undivided beginning, the embodiment of primordial chaos. His lack of senses highlights the complete darkness that exists in the beginning of time, and which ended with the death.

It is also the mandarin name for a wonton.

hundun

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Thanks for reading,

Damian

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Image and information from:

https://steemit.com/mythology/@natord/world-mythology-fantastic-beasts-of-chinese-legends

https://aminoapps.com/c/mythology/page/blog/zhong-guo-shen-hua-story-of-hundun-the-chaos/zmvQ_macxuDrnMBeNqQw4zLje5lDNNB1ew

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundun

January 24, 2018

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Last Friday the Lady Holly and I were lucky enough to attend The Porch Sessions. Think of it as a travelling mini festival. Really mini. Set in someone’s backyard. Four musicians, which this year consisted of Ryan Martin John, Tim Hart, Stu Larsen, and Natsuki Kurai, travel around Australia in a number of vans, playing shows in backyards of people who volunteer the spaces. A small crowd of music lovers then spread out on the supplied rugs and blankets, underneath streamers and lights, and picnic and drink while listening to some great tunes. We were those people, and it was excellent. The atmosphere was perfect, intimate but relaxed, and the music incredibly enjoyable. The standout by far was Natsuki Kurai, a harmonicist from Japan, who performed his set with Stu Larsen. He did things with a harmonica that had be heard to be believed. It was like he was singing through it, so natural did he make the sound. He also managed to use the harmonica to make background sounds that matched the lyrics, beat box, and elevate every song it was a part of. Unsurprisingly, their duo is today’s blog song.

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Words written for the year: 19,539

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I wrote a few weeks ago about my four new years goals, which were, in short; writing, running, reading, and photography. The goal being to increase all of these activities, using a measurable target for each of them. But I also have an unofficial goal for this year as well, one linked to writing. It is thus:

Collect as many rejection letters as possible*.

At the tail end of last year I had two close calls with awards — a longlisting for pilot script, and a shortlisting for a novella — and those close calls have motivated me. I’m going to enter everything, I’m going to submit more of my writing to competitions and magazines than I ever have previously, and I’m going to collect rejection letters like twelve year old me collected pokemon cards.

You may be thinking, surely the goal should be to win or get published, not collect rejection letters, which is where the above asterisk comes in.

*and acceptance letters where possible.

There are a couple or reasons that asterik is a subset of the goal and not the main goal itself.

First, I have no control over whether I win, or whether an editor likes my story. Literally, none. I could try to change my writing so that it fits the niche of whoever I’m submitting it to, and I should definitely be aware of their preferences, but ultimately it’ll still be a Damian Robb story told in a Damian Robb way, and if a Damian Robb story is not what they’re looking for then there’s nothing I can do about that. So, setting my goal to “winning” is unrealistic and ultimately pointless.

Second, receiving rejection letters is what writers do. I’ve read a number of books on writing, and follow an even larger number of writers blogs, and without exception every writer I look up to has an impressive collection of rejection letters. Stephen King, in his early days, kept his rejection letters on a nail above his writing desk, and wrote this in his book; On Writing:

“By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”

Likewise his son, Joe Hill, also now an acclaimed author, shared this tweet on twitter showcasing the amount of rejection letters he got for a single story.

Of course both those guys are successful authors, so it’s easy for them to show off these war wounds, but it’s important to remember they weren’t when they received them. Being a seasoned writer means receiving rejection letters. It’s a collection, a thing to stockpile, to bring out and show your friends, not something to be ashamed of.

Third, I want to feel positive whenever I submit a piece of writing. I should, right? If I’m submitting something then I have 1) written something (that’s good!) and 2) had the courage and belief in that writing to share it out into the big bad world of possible rejection (also good!). Also, by changing my mindset so that receiving a rejection letter is seen as a good thing, a necessary step on the road to becoming a writer, that’ll stop me feeling like a failure whenever I receive one. I don’t want to feel like a failure, I want to feel like a writer, and they way to feel like a writer is to keep writing; something that becomes infinitely harder to do when I feel like a failure.

Fourth, that pile of rejection letters will become the metaphorical ladder I’ll use to reach greater heights. Writing, like any skill, requires practice and feedback; putting your work out there before it’s ready because that’s the way to make it ready. Having places to submit my writing gives me more reasons to write, and, if the magazine or competition offers it, will provide me with feedback on how to improve. The more rejection letters I receive, the better my writing should become, until, hopefully, they’re not rejection letters anymore.

I’m already off to a good start. I’ve made a spreadsheet (how I love a good spreadsheet) with a list of magazines to submit to on one axis, and a list of finished short stories on the other. There are already a number of crosses (indications of rejection letters) littered across the cells, and I plan to get a lot more before the year is out, and, possibly, a tick or two as well.

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Remember, the important thing isn’t to succeed, but to keep trying

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Talk soon,

Damian

January 17, 2018

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Today’s blog song comes from the soundtrack for the film Pete’s Dragon. Admittedly I haven’t actually seen the film, but I did recently acquire the soundtrack after hearing this tune on spotify; Nobody Knows by The Lumineers. A lovely song, and the rest of the soundtrack isn’t half bad either, with a bunch of great instrumental tracks by composer, Daniel Hart.

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Words written for the year: 14,330

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I have something to tell myself. It’s the one piece of writing advice — or, arguably, writing fact — that I most often forget. Like, daily. I need constant reminding of this little tidbit, and so that’s what today’s blog is for. For me to remind myself, and put down in writing for future-Damian, so he can be reminded too (and hopefully it’ll resonate with any non-Damian’s as well). So, here it is:

First drafts are just first drafts.

Fairly innocuous, right? It’s the kind of statement that sounds like it’s saying something without really saying something. Except it is, let me unpack it.

What I am trying to say to myself is this, a first draft won’t be an amazing work of art. It won’t be without faults, it won’t be without inconsistencies, it won’t be without superfluous bits, or boring bits, or even typos! The first draft won’t be the final draft. It will be a roughly cut bit of stone that kinda looks like something, but will only transform into the sculpture it’s suppose to be through the laborious act of chipping away at it using the hammer and chisel that is editing and redrafting.

Most importantly: It’s allowed to be shit.

Oddly, a blank page doesn’t fill me with despair like some writers, but rather excitement. I have so many ideas in my ideas folder that a blank page is the playground for them to finally run free in. It’s once the ideas are let out of their cages that the problems start.

The first few sessions working on something, I’m fine. I’m having fun exploring whatever the idea is, I’m learning about my characters and world, it’s great. Then there comes a turning point. It’s right about the time I realise I like what I’ve written and think it has potential to be something good. Then BAM! Anxiety and overthinking come barrelling in like two happy sheepdogs, and bowl me over.

That might be an exaggeration.

What I do do is start to analyse the writing as I’m writing it. I’m trying to think ahead. I’m trying to ask all the questions you should ask yourself during a second draft before I’ve even written the first. Unsurprisingly, this cripples the flow of the writing.

So, again, this blog is a reminder: Stop it, Damian. Stop.

What I really want is to get back into that original headspace. That place where it was more about ideas than story structure or perfect dialogue. It’s from that place where the rough kinda-looks-like-something stone comes from. It’s the right brain. But, for a story to work, for it to feel well rounded and succinct and whole, you need the left brain as well; and he’s the one who keeps butting in with his logical thoughts and analytical opinions and messing the whole thing up.

So, how do I handle my left brain so my right brain can get back to work? Well, one option is try to ignore it through force of will, remind myself of all the above stuff, and tell ol’ lefty his time will come, he just needs to wait for the second draft. But I’m not real great at that. I might put my left brain behind the baby gate, but he’s a screamer, and so the problem doesn’t really solve itself.

Another option is to try and sate my left brain, make him feel listened to. I can do this through outlining. Either roughly plot out the next few beats, or even scratch down an entire storyline, so that as I continue to write I feel like I have some idea where the story is going. I’ve found this to be pretty effective at quieting the left brain, but it can then cause right brain to throw a tantrum. He’s now worried that by outlining the story I’m restricting his creativity and imagination and not allowing enough room for cool and interesting and unexpected things to grow. And by he, I mean me, because they’re both parts of my brain, and this isn’t really how brains work anyway.

To get over this second, second guessing myself, I need one final reminder. The outline isn’t set in stone (too many stone metaphors, I know). The outline is fluid, and malleable, and can be thrown away completely if the story takes an unexpected twist while writing it.

Once I’m done shouting this list of reminders at myself I can then get back to writing the first draft…at least until tomorrow, when I forget them again, and need to start the process all over again.

So, once more, for all the Damians out there, past, present, and future:

First drafts are just first drafts.

Talk soon

Damian

The Chalk Man

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I write this in a dimly lit room, stark walls surround me, no windows. If my script is large or chaotic it is because I have left my glasses in the room next door. I allow not even a mug of water in my presence. I have discovered a myth, or something more, perhaps, and I do not want the subject of my study to see me; not yet.

Lost legends have him as the Chalk Man, less a name but a descriptor; given for his white and ashen skin. Which is wrong, as it’s not skin, but bone. Bone so old that it crumbles, leaving a fine powder of dust, akin to chalk dust, on whatever he touches. Man is also wrong, as he is of no gender, nor even human, but, for lack of appropriate terminology, we will use the pronouns referring to the masculine throughout this text.

The lost legends — that are now found, if only to myself — are, by a human understanding, ancient, as the Chalk Man hasn’t been spoken of, written of, or likely even thought of, for centuries. His existence slowly being lost from the collective consciousness one life at a time. By the Chalk Man’s point of view, however, they are practically modern, having been written within the last millenium.

His purpose, in those legends, is ill defined, if simply not mentioned at all, which is a shame because his purpose is a very important one, that contains many roles. He is a king to some, a servant to others, sometimes a friend, sometimes an enemy, an angel, or a demon. His job, as it were, is to appear as the honest reflection of us all. A confusing, if not mysterious, job description I am aware. Let me try and make more sense of it.

Have you ever caught your own reflection and for a moment thought someone else was looking back at you? Perhaps you saw a monster, or a stranger, or a royal, or a saint. Just for a second. That was the Chalk Man. Or at least, that is the Chalk Man at work, and he has been doing this work for a very long time.

It is presumed that the Chalk Man was present when we were still walking around on all fours. Indeed, it is likely he was there when our ameba ancestors were first beginning to divide. He watched us, they say, the legends that are both ancient and modern, from his reflective surfaces, waiting for the day when we would gain a level of sentience that could recognise our own image.

Some of the legends, that I have hunted down in hidden cities that no longer have names, argue that the Chalk Man did more than watch; that he, just once, stretched out a bony arm from his reflective kingdom and altered the course of man; that it is due to him that we are so different from the rest of the animals that we share this planet with. What it is the Chalk Man did to achieve this is not written, and so this theory is to be taken with a pinch of salt…or chalk dust, as it were.

The first recorded encounter with the Chalk Man came some time after, when one of the ancient civilisations, the residents of one of those cities without names, first started writing things down. One such text wrote of an encounter whereby a local woman went to drink from the underground river that fueled the city, peered into the inky water, and saw the Chalk Man staring back at her. The woman, a weaver by the name of Oma, cried out, but did not flee. Instead, once her breath and heart were once more under her control, she crawled back to look at the water. Once more she saw the Chalk Man, bony and white, her own reflection nowhere to be seen. He did naught but watch young Oma, who, after deeming him not a threat, went to gather others to show them the chalk figure in the water. By the time she brought the crowd to the water’s edge, he was gone; her own reflection returned to her. It would only be later, after multiple appearances, that Oma’s story would be believed.

The reason why the Chalk Man simply watched Oma, and especially why he watched her in his own form, has been much argued over the many years by the forgotten scholars that once studied the Chalk Man. Some claimed that by seeing the Chalk Man as he truly is allowed Oma some gaining of knowledge outside of our understanding, and caused some great shift in her life, and on mankind as a whole; and indeed Oma did go on to live a remarkable life. Some claimed that he fell in love with Oma, and stole her reflection for those few short minutes to take as his Queen, only to find a reflection was no substitute for the real thing; this too, may well be the case. For myself, I think the Chalk Man was simply studying, seeing some final aspect of mankind’s heart so he could then go on to do his true work.

The work, as one of the old texts described it, was: “Purveyor of understanding and dealer of truths”. This is the most accurate description I have found. Simply, the Chalk Man shows you what you need to see. If you be good, but lacking in courage, you may see yourself momentarily in a reflective surface as a hero. If you be evil, but lacking in morals, you may see yourself as a monster. You may see an angel when you need hope. You may see a devil when you need fear. You may see your mother when she needs you to visit. And on it goes. The Chalk Man knows what you need to see and shows it to you. Often, after a viewing, you may find some of his bone dust on a shoe, or you shirt. This is the way to know if was a true showing. Or, so the texts say.

One text, the latest I’ve found, goes one step further. It claims that behind every reflective surface lies a kingdom, his kingdom, and if you do not heed the truth he offers you that he will reach out and take you there, never to return.

The next question, and the one most pressing to my own research, is why was knowledge of the Chalk Man lost? Why has he left our collective consciousness? Many of the the legends I’ve found barely describe the Chalk Man whenever they reference him, so sure were they that the reader knew of whom they spoke. So how is it that he is not even a mythological figure today? I do not know, but I expect to find out soon for I think he watches me.

Twice now I have had a glimpse of something else in my mirror. First, I am sure it was his own figure, white and silent, then the second time I saw myself, only with unbroken skin where my mouth should be. After both instances I searched the area for dust, and both times found it.

I have collected the dust and added it to a small vial, to be sent to the university along with this manuscript. I hope to send it this very afternoon. This will of course require me to leave my matte room and pass my own reflection, be it in a window or pool of water. I am ready. I have my questions. If I see him again I will not look away, but will instead ask why he withdrew from our world — as I am sure now the lost knowledge of his person was at his own design — and if he is likely to return. I hope he does, this world could do with a good hard look at itself.

One final note. It occurs to me that perhaps I have been…foolhardy, cataloging this history, if indeed the Chalk Man does want to stay hidden. So if you are reading this, it might be best to steer clear of mirrors for a while. You never know when he might be watching.

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Thanks for reading,

Damian