Friday Fictioneers – Wisps

PHOTO PROMPT © Roger Bultot

Thoughts sprout from my head like wispy hair, slowly, insistently. They buzz in a whirling cloud around me, wavering in the wind. Perhaps, I should seek a barber of cerebration and get a short back and sides.

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Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

156. Stories and the discovery of the individual hero

Stories are about individuals, the challenges they face, and how they cope. There’s a protagonist (which come from the Greek for first struggler) and an antagonist (which means opposing struggler). Right?

Wrong. Or, at least, it’s right for contemporary Western literature, but not true of all places and all times. It wasn’t always so in the West either. Different cultures use very different ideas of the individual.

That idea seems so natural to us that it’s hard to imagine an alternative. But, in fact, we invented the individual only quite recently.

What Guatemalan refugees can teach us about the self

As a way of explaining this odd suggestion, let me tell you a true story. I used to be involved with aid projects in Latin America. One of the projects we supported was psychotherapy for indigenous women fleeing the civil war in Guatemala. The therapists, who were from North America, would say to the women “tell me about yourself.” The women would describe their villages, and where the maize fields were, and their community, and so on. And the therapist would say, “Yes, but tell me about you.” And the women would look puzzled and say “But I just did.”

The therapists and the refugee women had different understandings of what a self was. Obviously, if we can have different understandings view of the self, there will be correspondingly different forms of story-making.

Is Antigone a heroine?

Let’s take, for example, the ancient Greek story of Antigone, famously dramatized by Sophocles. The events of the play follow an unsuccessful invasion of Thebes by Polynices to oust his brother from the throne. Both brothers are killed in the battle. Their uncle, Creon, ascends the throne, and decrees that no burial rites should be performed for Polynices. Antigone, sibling to the brothers, defies the order, arguing that the religious duty to honour the dead overrides human law. Creon orders her buried alive.

What does this story mean? It depends on whether you are an ancient Greek. Berthold Brecht staged a performance in 1948, when the crimes of the Second World War were still raw in memory. He set it in a Berlin air raid shelter. Brecht’s Antigone is a heroine, standing up to the cruelty and tyranny of Creon.

But this is not how Sophocles understood her, as Kenan Malik argues. Though Antigone is championing religious duty, Creon defends the safety of the people. Antigone is guilty of what the Greeks knew as hubris, overweening pride that sets the individual above the law. Her unswerving confidence that she is right causes her to go too far. For Sophocles, this was her tragedy. For the Greeks, heroes embody the best values of the community. They do not stand against the community.

The Greeks were more like the Guatemalan refugees in this than like the therapists. In the more communitarian cultures of Asia, stories today still often focus less on changes in the protagonist than on the unfolding of events.

The change in thinking in the West was quite recent. Malik argues that, until the sixteenth century, most Europeans would have readily understood Sophocles’ original intention. The individual had no meaning, except as a member of a community. It is a person’s actions rather than their thoughts or intentions, which are important.

The proper end of love is death

According to a fascinating essay by Laura Ashe, modern Western fiction could only come into being when it became culturally meaningful and interesting to wonder what was going on in someone else’s head. She argues that it was the development of the troubadours’ tales of courtly love that spearheaded this change in the twelfth century.

Though love has always been a feature of stories throughout ages and cultures, the idea of romantic love, which sprang from the troubadour tradition, is distinctly different. Before this, in great love tales such as Tristan and Isolde, love was a devastating destructive force.. There is no room for the modern idea of the protagonist who has a desire and struggles to achieve it. So a “happy ever after” ending is not available. Love is independent of the wills of the lovers, is incompatible with everyday life, and its proper end is death. Even in the sixteenth century, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet embodies this older understanding of love.

It took the historical uproar of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the rise of mercantile and industrial capitalism to create a world in which modern Western fiction, particularly the novel, could exist. A world which created the ideas that individuals matter, and that they can have agency outside of fate and social station.

Why does any of this matter?

This little romp through a couple of thousand years of Western history tells us how important culture is. What we can imagine depends on the resources our culture gives us. People in Sophocles’ day were probably much the same as they are now. There simply hasn’t been enough time for evolution to have made us biologically different to the ancient Greeks. And people in London or Los Angeles have pretty much the same dreams as people in Lagos or Lima. But all of us live in worlds shaped by the societies we live in. The ancient Greeks lived in a world shaped by fate. The power today of possessive individualism is probably more marked in Los Angeles than in Lima. As they say in Southern Africa, “Motho ke motho ka batho” (people become people through other people).

We can, perhaps, investigate through different stories different ways of being people.

Friday Fictioneers – Bauble

PHOTO PROMPT © Na’ama Yehuda

It felt nice. Generous. Whimsical. Someone had left a Christmas decoration on the tree by the fence. This brightened my morning, and I smiled, giving a little skip in the snow.

The next day, a stocking hung beside the shiny orb. I searched inside for chocolates, nuts and tangerines. But it was empty. That disappointed, and my heart sank.

A day later, and they’d tacked a sign on the stocking. “Fill me, cheapskate.” Now my environment was making demands with menaces. Fear squeezed, and I gulped in a breath of air.

After that, I followed a different route to work.

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Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Something’s Coming

PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carroll

The motor coughs and stutters. The engineers, with wrenches and oil cans, crowd round in agitation. Stern sentinels patrol the city walls and, beyond, a dark beast bays in the night.

“All will be as it was,” the engineers promise. “in the eternal city.”

“Build back better,” the citizens beseech.

“We are of nature,” says the seer. Crowds gather round. “But not everything we choose to do is natural.”

“What must we do?” asks a woman.

“Go back,” some scream. Others yell, “Go forward.” A chant begins, “String up the engineers.”

Down the plaza, a crack dances like lightning and widens.

Me, I wonder what might be coming for us. And whether we will recognise it as kin.

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Mary’s in the fridge

PHOTO PROMPT © Sandra Crook

They cut the head off to make her fit. My fridge is small.

For six days, grief ravaged me. On the seventh, I grabbed my Desert Tech MDR and fitted the clip. In my head, music played. I knew this story. I was this story.

There would be blood. There would be vengeance for my wounded masculinity. There would be congratulations.

But reality’s not like that. The black dude dies first. Do it by the book: the book of law, not the fictional one.

I wish I’d known Mary better before they killed her.

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Making Memories

PHOTO PROMPT © Russell Gayer

I am not here now. I serve the future. We are making memories. One day, Mary, we’ll look back and see how happy we were today: the freedom of the open road in our campervan; the exotic food we ate; the carefree way we ran into the breakers and embraced.

Such memories!

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

155. Are you a spymaster? Can you crack this code?

Do you enjoy cracking codes? I’ve been fascinated by codes and ciphers since I was a kid. Now, I have the chance to include a cipher in the novel I’m working on, Boundarising.  Here it is:

1455   2324   1341   5115   3224   2345   2543   1351   1221   5231   4324   5434

3415  5333   3324   1455   1521   2433   4145   5322   5333    2324   4115   3335

2423   1431   2532   2544   3321   4324   4135   5333   2133    2111   3323   3313 

2433   4415   4433   2423   4135   3442   4411   4145   2454    3335   1251   3135  

2324   4423   1513   4531   4234   4235   3135   5545   1223    1221   4135   3313  

2433   2513   5314   5544   3321   3531   4324   5132   3353    2153   3353   5322  

1242   4134   5545   3545   1431   2442   3255   3335   2123    3442   2531   4223  

1431   2322   3135   3424   4234   3135   5534   1254   4222    1332   3531   5312  

2443   4135   3255   5545   4415   4433   4135   3442   5545    3415   4113   2152  

1431   4115   2124   1415   4235   4145   3313   2513   4254    2443   3231   1513  

2142   1544   1213   1322   2354   2534   4441   5444   3255    3335   5545   2341  

2113   4235   3524   1441   5545   4453   4135   1541   3442    2341   2423   3312  

1322   1431   2312   1441   2423   3135   5321   4233   2234    1214   1322   1415  

4415   3533   1145   3345   4115   3544   2114   2541   5322    1112   5214   1541  

3353   4324   1333   3242   3224   3152   3353   4234   3135    4114   3224   2324  

2224   4241   3331   4454   3135   1541   4555   1213   1452    4321   4445   3135  

1213   3531   4325   4211   2113   4324   1532   3134   1421    4325   4445   3215  

3321   3442   1214   4233   2135   4315   3455   1415   4125    1431   2333   3242  

2354   2234   2411   1542   1431   3212   4222   1432   3313    2423   3321   1142  

5545   4324   4355   4215   2233   3114   1352   1311   5214    3155   3323   4222 

1452

Can you crack this? This isn’t just an empty challenge. I need to be able to demonstrate that a teenage boy, armed only with paper and pencil could do it, so I really need to know how easy this is to solve.

My protagonist, Sol, has been dispatched by his parents to live during wartime with his uncle, Zand in the countryside where he should be safe from enemy bombing, Many children were sent out of danger in this way in Britain during the second world war.

Just before he gets on the train, Sol’s father, William, presses an envelope into his hands and asks him to give it to Zand.

But Sol is a curious boy, opens the envelope and discovers the coded message. He spend many months trying to crack it. To give you a running start, Sol, recognizes that because there are no numbers greater than five, this code is probably created in a 5×5 grid. This would be sufficient to store all the letters of the alphabet, if two (such as I and J) are doubled up.

 12345
1ABCDE
2FGHI/JK
3LMNOP
4QRSTU
5VWXYZ

So, Sol reasons that the numbers code for letters (where 11 is A, 12 is B and so on). But, there are groups of four numbers, while two would be sufficient to code for a letter. So, Sol thinks the code involves pairs of letters. There must be some coding rules for relating the members of the pair to each other.

He readily sees that the grid above doesn’t decode the message, so he decides the letters cannot be arranged simply from A to Z. He thinks it’s unlikely the arrangement is random. That’s as far as he gets for some time.

Can you break the code? If so, please let me know how you did it. The first reader to do so will get a free copy of the book when it’s published.

Friday Fictioneers – Blinded

PHOTO PROMPT © Brenda Cox

You’re right, of course. I should have seen the tree. But I didn’t. Not with him here, in our restaurant, and at my table. Imagine. My hands shook as I took his order. He chose chilli. Not pâté de foie gras, not lobster and truffle sauce, not ambrosia and nectar. Chilli, and a small beer. Like a regular person. It was uplifting. Heavenly choirs sang. Gentle waves caressed the shore.

What do you mean, there’s nobody at the table? Fair enough, I missed the tree. But, really, you can’t see him? Seems we all have our areas of blindness.

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Hero

PHOTO PROMPT © Alicia Jamtaas

I’m a hero, me. They oughta give me a bleedin’ medal for what I done, mate; saved the country, din’t I? Sat on me arse for fourteen months, never going out, never letting any bugger in; it was hard, I can tell you; but I stuck it out, ‘cause that’s what an Englishman does.

Fourteen months! That was my war. Double vaccinated, I am. Stopped the virus in its tracks, so we did. So where’s me bleedin’ medal now, and me war pension from a grateful nation?

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Power for Life

PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson

Phineas crossed his arms. He didn’t look convinced. This one was slipping away from me.

I made my mouth smile. “Your decision, man. Of course it is. Sure. Turn your back on the future. Perhaps, I’ll offer it to your neighbours. They seem like forward-looking folk.”

For the first time, he looked unsure. I pressed my advantage. “A home nuclear reactor isn’t for everyone. Free power for life—that could be too much responsibility.”

The big play now. Turning, I headed across the road to number 10.

“Wait,” Phineas called.

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here