OTWAG: Holding the Leash

Once there was a Girl who was afraid.

She was afraid of the unfamiliar, and of the dully commonplace.

She was afraid of the dark, and of the bright lights.

She was afraid of hardness, and of too much comfort.

And so, almost everything frightened her. Looking ahead was full of the dangers of the unexpected. Looking to each side offered nothing new. Looking behind revealed a series of gaps and potholes, pitfalls and valleys so deep she forgot that they had steep walls that led upwards as well as down. So she carried on, and in a strange way the Fear became her friend; it was familiar yet exciting, it was expected yet unpredictable. She carried it with her always, sometimes a shivering mouse in her pocket, sometimes a writhing snake around her ankles, sometimes a fierce eagle digging its talons into her shoulder.

Some days, she could make the Fear do her bidding. It would stride beside her, a gundog with its eyes trained to the distance. Some days, it would dash ahead, an ill-mannered mutt dragging her behind. Most days it trotted to and fro, picking a meandering path, occasionally needing a tug to keep up and occasionally startling her as it jumped up against her.

Some people told her she must cast her Fear away, banish it for good. These words only made it cling to her tighter, shortening her breath. Some people told her to let her Fear guide her, to constantly follow in its wake. These words made her feel like a compass was slipping from her hand to crack uselessly against the ground.

Finally, in confusion, the Girl made a decision that also scared her. She decided to talk to her fear. To ask it what it wanted of her, and what she should do. She was afraid that it might tell her it wanted to leave, and that it would abandon her. She was afraid that it might tell her it had to stay, and that she would never breathe freely again. But she knew that if she never asked, she would never know, and that uncertainty was the heaviest weight to carry.

So she asked the Fear what she must do. The Fear asked her if she really wanted to know. Saying it a second time scared her even more, but she repeated her request – closing her eyes and holding out her hand, in which there was a leash. The Fear waited for a long moment, until it seemed like the Girl might give up and walk away. And then, when she was almost at the end of her strength, it spoke.

The Fear told her to push and pull. To lead and follow. To test the leash and taste the air. To allow and to deny. To whisper and to shout. To fear the terrifying and the mundane. To interrogate the unknown and question the obvious.

The Girl listened to all the Fear had to say, slowly turning the leash in her hands. She had meant to either offer it to the Fear, or tie it securely to her belt. But as the Fear stopped speaking, and turned to her expectantly, she found that neither one of these two actions was appealing. The Girl looked at the Fear for a long time, and it looked straight back at her. Its eyes glowed with warmth, and with an unsettling hollowness.

You are my Fear, said the Girl. And I will not set you free. And you are my Girl, said the Fear. And I will not let you go.

And so the Girl and the Fear walked on. Sometimes the Girl marched ahead, the leash slack in her hand, and the Fear dawdled behind. Sometimes the Fear charged ahead, the leash straining, and the Girl skipped hesitantly in its wake. But the Girl never let go of the leash. And the Fear never pulled it out of her hand.

This is the fifth attempt in a writing challenge I have set myself.

OTWAG: Once

Once there was a girl.

Every morning, her dark eyes opened and light poured into them. Every day, her full heart opened and light poured out of it. The light touched everyone around her; this happened whether she wanted it to or not. The girl swam in her light, and danced down the road ahead. She skipped over pebbles and skipped towards the skyline, never once glancing at the road.

And every day, the light kept spilling out. Sometimes it would illuminate a path ahead. Sometimes it would blister the skin – her own, or that of others. More often that not, she turned it on herself. She could tolerate much, raise her brown arms to the sky and soak herself in brilliance from any source.  But her own questioning glow could be enough to strip away a layer, to sear like frostbite and leave a mark. On those days she needed healing; wounds had to be licked. And every time that happened, the girl would feel the road ahead shorten by a few steps – yet at the same time, the planned destination seemed to creep further out of reach.

Bit by bit, the bad days seemed to happen more often. And with every burn, her strides seemed slower. Her limbs felt weighted, her brain waterlogged. At first she was able to shake her head and march on, but as the stripes on her flesh grew longer, deeper and more clearly visible, her footsteps began to falter. Her eyes, always fixed on the horizon, began to flicker downwards, more and more frequently. After a while, she spent as much time looking down as she did ahead. Eventually, her eyes lifted only occasionally. Finally, they barely looked up at all, lingering instead on her wound-patterned limbs and stumbling feet. The path grew muddied under her scuffing toes; where once rocks she could, with some effort, scale popped up here and there, now smooth boulders blocked the way and she laboriously edged around them, unsure whether they were sending her in a direction she had not intended to go.

The light kept burning, and the clouds that were gathering offered no cool breeze.

At last the day came when the girl felt like she could no longer take another step. She stood, staring at her feet, willing them to move forward, but all that seemed to happen was a hesitant sway. Her fingers traced the lines down her arms, across her chest; her eyes traced the marks down her shins, across her knees. She gazed at them for a long time, so long that everything around her seemed to fall silent and still under a dense cloud. She studied the pockmarks and examined the patterns, until they seemed to swim in front of her eyes in dots and lines, spelling out words that were hard to read and painful to accept. She blinked them away, washing them with tears, trying not to read them. But still they flew at her, and still she stood without moving.

The girl never knew how long it took before she let herself read the words. She could never quite remember when her eyes cleared. She wasn’t entirely sure at which point she began to take them in. Bit by bit, however, as she stood, she let them wash over her and acknowledged them. She was able, for the first time, neither to bat them away nor to let them bloody her. The scabs and scratches still stung and glowed, but in a strange way, she realised, this could be powerful. They were not beautiful, in the way that she had understood beauty to be found. She was almost surprised to find that they did not fade away with this realisation, and actually surprised to find that she didn’t care either way if they did.

From that moment, she found she was able to walk again. Her footsteps were never again as carefree and unhesitant as they had been when she had stood in the full glare of day and simply absorbed the rays. But now she halted only to allow the path ahead to clear, and to pick her steps with more certainty. Now she kept her eyes neither downcast nor rigidly fixed on a single spot, but instead allowed them to roam a few feet ahead; she surveyed what she saw, and picked a path that pleased, excited and scared her. Now she understood that neither the length of the path, nor its end point, were her goal.

Once there was a girl. But she couldn’t stay a girl forever.

This is the first attempt in a writing challenge I have set myself.

Papercats – a story

Once there was a boy called Tom, and he lived in a world of paper.

Of course it wasn’t literally paper. He had a house, with broad stone walls, a scarred wooden table and a cold kitchen and warm bedroom – a sure sign of someone who spends too much time in their own head. Tom didn’t have a family and he didn’t have friends. Instead, Tom had paper.

Throughout the day and long into the night, Tom made things out of paper. He made animals and plants, buildings and landscapes. He crafted bridges and bred dinosaurs. He built people and sat them around tiny paper plates, cups and saucers. But at the end of every day, Tom would examine his work sadly and realise that something was missing. Perhaps a crease was messy or there was a smear on the crisp white card. And, sadly, Tom would crumple the paper figures up in his hand, stack his paper neatly at the edge of the table and shuffle slowly up the stairs to bed, where he would sleep badly.

Day after day, night after night, Tom worked steadily on his paper world. And day after day, night after night, he went up to bed disappointed. Until the night that Tom ran out of ideas.

He sat at the table, frustrated and dismayed. He had never before been stuck for inspiration, but this time it seemed like he’d already made everything there was to be made. His hands started to itch to fold paper, but his brain didn’t know what shape the paper should take.

IMG_0328Finally, he lifted a sheet, turned it over in his hands, and eventually started to work. He realised that among the many animals he had made – weasels, parakeets, dogs, frogs, zebras – he’d never made a cat. And that’s what he was going to try to make now.

When the cat was finished, Tom looked it carefully. This cat would never do. Its left ear was too small, and its tail a stubby mess. Immediately, Tom crushed the cat in his fingers and started again.

The second cat was better than the first, but still – it simply wasn’t right. There was a smear on the right haunch, and the head was at a funny angle. Usually Tom would simply move on to the next thing; in fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d even given anything a second chance. And now, as he feverishly grabbed another sheet of paper, he was trying for the third time.

Tom set to work. Piece after folding piece, crease after folding crease, the cat began to take shape. His hair began to fall into his eyes, the cold chill in the kitchen crept up around his shoulders and his fingers began to feel stiff and sore, but still he went on. At last, the final fold was in place, and he gently set the cat on the table and eased down his aching shoulders, staring at the paper pet.

This attempt was….

Perfect.

Tom sat back, confused. He could not find a single fault with the cat. It sat upright on its haunches, a neatly proportioned tail curled around to the side. Its head was tilted with a curious expression, its ears were pointed and perky, and the curve of its back was smooth and blemish free.

Tom slowly rose from his chair. He stacked the paper neatly on the table, never taking his eyes off the cat, and then turned his back and walked up the stairs to bed.

In the gloomy, cold kitchen, nothing moved. Until the cat suddenly yawned, stretched and wandered off into the darkness. It was hungry, and thirsty, and bored. It sniffed at the paper stack, and tasted the edge of a sheet. It jumped down off the table, and chased dust across the floor. It clambered up to the sink and tried to lick droplets from the tap, but this made its muzzle soggy so it edged to the lukewarm radiator and stayed there a while, trying to dry its nose.

Upstairs, Tom was having the worst night’s sleep he’d ever had. In fact, since every time he was about to drop off he jerked back awake, sure he could hear clattering and banging in the empty kitchen, he couldn’t even really call it a night’s sleep at all.

Finally, he gave up and made his way downstairs. Everything was exactly as he left it. Well, almost. In the middle of the table, where he’d left the cat, was… nothing.

Tom looked on the floor, in case the cat had somehow blown over. There was nothing there. He crawled under the table. Nothing there either. He lifted the stack of paper, even though it was flush to the table top. Nothing at all. But the edge of the topmost sheet was strangely frayed.

Finally, Tom sat down, placed the damaged sheet aside, and began to make another cat. And it was just as perfect as the first.

After staring at the new cat for a long while, Tom once again left it in the centre of the table and went up to bed. And this time, for the first time, Tom drifted off almost immediately into a peaceful, dreamless sleep.

The cats met in the middle of the table, approaching each other cautiously and then circling around and around. Then they began to explore.

Eventually, they came back to the pile of paper. They looked at the stack, then looked at each other. Their noses quivered. Together, they turned to look out of the window, where the moon was still high in the sky. And then they turned back to the stack.

The sun was burning brightly by the time Tom woke in his bed. He felt rested, and that in itself was strange, since he never usually felt rested. He felt calm. He felt happy. He felt… hungry.

Tom got up, went to the bathroom, got dressed. He stood at the top of the stairs and stretched. Then he shuffled downstairs to the kitchen, where he stopped in the doorway, stunned.

Every inch of every surface was jammed full of paper cats. They crowded the floor. They cluttered the ceiling lights. They clustered on the chairs. The table. The worktops. The sink – apart from a space around the plughole, where the cats seemed to be edging away from the drips.

Once there was a boy called Tom, and he lived in a world of paper.

Of course it wasn’t literally paper. He had a house, with broad stone walls, a scarred wooden table and a warm kitchen. Tom had family, and Tom had friends. And every one of them was a perfect paper cat.

A little background: As a result of my #100forchildsi sketching, a few stories to accompany my scrawls began to grow in my head. One of them was just a single image, and I drew it once in pencil and once painted – that’s it above. I hoped to next try a plain ink version… it’s never been quite right. Anyway. It was never intended to be more than just a single image, but then Ramona invented a game where we each had to tell a story, and they were becoming increasingly outlandish. Eventually, this image popped into my head and as we were walking through town, crowds milling around us, she held my hand and listened carefully to the story of Tom and his paper friends. If my 100 days of artwork taught me anything, it’s that an unrefined bird released to the winds is worth two fully-polished articles in your head, so I thought better to commit it to screen, faults and all, than to keep replaying it in my head and watching the colours dim each time I failed to do anything more with it. And besides, Ramona might ask me to tell it again.