This is a 250-word piece I wrote for this week’s Flash Fiction Challenge at Indies Unlimited. A picture is provided for the challenge, as well as a few lines of context/setup, and from there you’re to write a 250 word (or less) story that includes elements from the photo, the context, or both. The photo in this post is not the picture from the challenge.
There’s a video I’d like you to watch. It’s not terribly long at close to seventeen minutes, and once you get the general tenor of it (no pun intended), don’t feel as though you have to watch the whole thing.
Just imagine it: you’re walking to your apartment building or along a quiet, snowy trail, and then from nowhere, this booming horn sound hits you. Not just for just a few seconds, but a few minutes. Bizarre, isn’t it? Even creepy. I personally don’t believe that it’s a prophetic sign of any variety, but it’s definitely an odd phenomenon.
Two years ago, I was pointed to this clip by James L. Paris’s friend and colleague Robert G. Yetman Jr. I’d worked with Bob on several projects in my professional career, and I’m proud to call him a friend. He’s a U.S. Army veteran, published writer, self-defense expert, former investment manager, and a lot more. I interviewed him on Poisoned Eden some time ago, and was pleased to be able to ask him, in all seriousness, “Can you give us any investment strategies for dealing with the Zombie Apocalypse?”
The video fascinated me, and when I moved on from Poisoned Eden to write novels, I incorporated the “strange trumpet sounds” phenomenon into The Blessed Man and the Witch. This wasn’t an idea shoehorned in: the Book of Revelation describes seven angels winding trumpets at the end of the world. I just took the idea and altered it. I turned Gabriel’s Trumpet into an actual person: the Herald of Armageddon.
Without this video, there probably would have been no Blessed Man and the Witch (or BMW, as writer R. M. Huffman has referred to it). At the very least, it would have been in a much different form. So thank you, Bob: you gave me the acorn from which this trilogy tree is growing.
I just got finished a reread of Dune. The ecology, philosophical and religious aspects of the novel, of the universe he built, are incredible. I’m looking forward to reading the sequels, of which there are many. Even if you didn’t know a lot about the author, even a casual reading of Frank Herbert’s most famous novel would tell you that he did an incredible amount of research on life cycles, planetary ecology, Middle Eastern culture, the nature of aristocracy, and how science and religion can clash. Herbert was a brilliant man.
But he didn’t know a single thing about knife fighting, and it shows.
Part of my problem with how personal combat was portrayed in the novel was the strange hierarchy of fighters in the Dune universe. To briefly sketch out the background, personal shield technology had been developed so that most fighting men had force fields around them that they could turn on and off. A fast-moving object like a bullet would be deflected by a shield, but a slightly slower object, like a hand holding a knife, could slip through. So for personal combat, you had to go fast on defense and slow on attack. Also, if someone shot you with a laser weapon (called a lasgun) while your shield was activated, both you and the person holding the laser would be obliterated in a massive nuclear explosion, known as the Holtzman effect. In essence, Herbert wanted to eliminate guns of all kinds in his science fiction universe.
The best individual fighters in the known universe were both attached to the main character Paul: Duncan Idaho, a “swordmaster,” and Gurney Halleck, a former prisoner of Paul’s enemies. They developed a form of fighting that was so good, it rivaled and maybe even beat the most feared armies known. What didn’t work in the novel was that all of this had to be told to the reader, and not shown. Herbert went into great detail about how the gigantic sandworms of Dune created the spice melange, but when it came to fighting, he fell back on what he knew, which was fencing. It was unconvincing.
Fencing isn’t anything like fighting with knives. It’s a long-range form of fighting (or, well, sport). A knife fight is, by its very nature, an extreme close-quarters encounter. Blades don’t touch in a knife fight. You can’t elevate it into a fencing duel; it’s too quick.
The winner in a knife fight is almost always going to be the one with more will, more speed, more strength, and more reach. He’ll get that all-important first hit in. Let’s also keep in mind that the idea of a knife duel is an entirely constructed fantasy, not unlike West Side Story. The vast, vast majority of us don’t get into knife duels. Someone looking to cut you isn’t going to give you a chance to defend yourself: he’ll wait until your back is turned and shank you.
There aren’t a lot of places that teach knife dueling. Filipino martial artists do flow drills that approximate it like sumbrada and hubud-lubud, but they’re intended to ingrain fighting reflexes, not draw out a fight into a duel. So the lack of resources available to Herbert isn’t surprising.
Nevertheless, the fight scenes lacked authenticity. An awesome book despite that.
In March of 2009, I traveled to Sedona, Arizona to shoot an instructional video series on survival skills. The shoot took the better part of a week, and it rained on and off the entire time we were there. During the shoot, we learned flint knapping, improvised weapon construction, do-it-yourself smithing, and plenty of other primitive skills. The best part of the shoot for me was the smithing, something in which I’d been interested since childhood, and the video we produced on that topic was called The Poor Man’s Forge. In it, the author took a piece of rebar and forged it into a knife using a forge he’d constructed out of recycled materials.
As you can see, the knife is ugly. It’s hideous. It’s got hammer marks, a small notch from testing the edge on a penny, and one of the sections of handle rope is gone. I love it. It’s what it’s supposed to be: functional, brutal, and effective. It started out as a length of rebar, which is made of all kinds of scrap steel melted down and made into lengths of bar or wire. It used to hold up a building. Now it’s a different sort of tool.
Note the strange sunset of colors from the middle of the blade to the back. This is from the heat-treating process that produces a hard edge and a soft back, which is what you want. You want it to be able to flex a little if it has to, but maintain the hardness of the edge. The smith who made it, a true artisan who has produced some really beautiful pieces, deliberately left the hammer marks in to show that it isn’t supposed to look good. It’s supposed to do its job, which is to scale a fish, skin a deer, carve some wood, or whatever else you need to do with it.
This is the back of the handle. In Filipino martial arts, this is called the punyo. To make this part of the knife, the smith first shaped the blade and determined the length of the handle. He then heated the other end of the unfinished rebar to the proper color (a bright yellow), hammered it out, and curled it on the edge of the anvil. This was a process that took many heats, a great deal of time, and dozens of hammer beats.
I’m not a knife guy. I don’t love knives, as such. But I do admire craftsmanship. And despite its deliberate, inherent ugliness, the rebar knife is a thing of beauty. It’s the ultimate symbol of transformation.
Shen Hart of The Review Hart posted this picture and asked writers to write a flash fiction piece about it, something that seems to be part of a larger story. I took up the challenge, and here is what I wrote:
“The same one every time?”
“Every time,” I confirmed.
“And when she turns around…she has no, uh…”
“No face. Right.”
He shook his head. “Jesus. That’s fucked up.” His mouth opened to say something else, stayed that way for a few seconds, and then closed itself.
“So what does she do with the rainbow picture?”
“Nothing,” I told him. “It just hangs there.”
Pushing his plate aside so that it hit the ice-choked tumbler with a low clink, he scowled. “Okay, forget it. Getting information from you is like pulling teeth. Find another oneiromancer. Or try the haruspication girl down the street. She’s good with goat guts.”
I held out a hand as he started to get up. “Hold on! Wait. Just…it’s not easy to talk about. I’ve tried other ones. No one’s been willing to take my case.”
On his feet now, he motioned with his head at the door. “Thanks for the burger and all, but there’s no way on the gods’ green Earths that I’m going to risk my soul on a trip into the deathscape you call a subconscious. Screaming teddy bears, faceless girls… there’s something else you’re not telling me. So forget it.”
My fingernails scraped along the seam in my skull, the rough line that separated opaque bone from translucent yellow crystal. “Just give me a second, okay? I’ve…I’ve got to get this out of my head. You can see that, can’t you?” I meant it literally: the dream had manifested itself as a black tumor, spreading hair-fine tendrils through the visible parts of my brain.
As usual, Whole Foods was crowded. I’ve never been in one that wasn’t. Our three-year-old son, sitting in the front of the cart, did his typical thing: asked a thousand questions, wanted everything that caught his eye, required attention as we browsed the aisles. Nothing new.
Unfortunately, the store was woefully lacking in free samples of delectables like organic whole-grain free-range tortilla chips, organic brown rice syrup caramel popcorn, and Terra chips (also organic because, well, it’s Whole Foods), so he didn’t have the necessary distractions to keep him busy during shopping. Hence, the lure we’d used to keep him relatively patient turned out to be an empty promise. And I wasn’t about to take a box of Gorilla Munch cereal off the shelf and open it up for him to, uh, munch on. Even if it did have tasty bits of organic gorilla baked right in. That’s shoplifting.
He got a bit fractious by the time we reached the checkout line, and as the cashier rang up our organic strawberries and flaxseed-enriched organic peanut butter, I heard him bellow at the top of his lungs:
“I LIKE SPIDER-MAN!”
The entire front end of the store stared at us, and as people laughed or scowled according to their general inclinations, he added, louder:
“I LIKE SUPERMAN!”
I turned and asked him, “Are you all right?”
My wife explained, “He’s performing.”
“I LIKE GREEN LANTERN!”
“Well,” I replied, “it needs work.”
The cashier snickered, and I began to experience a vague sense of embarrassment as I became that parent: the one who can’t control his little barbarian. He’s usually very good, I swear, I said in the privacy of my mind. He never does this in public. Etc, etc.
The bagger asked him, sweetly, “Who do you like better: Spider-Man or Superman?”
“I LIKE FLASH!” he informed her at top volume, grinning maniacally.
I paid for our overpriced (but organically delicious) groceries, and we left the store. My son was pretty happy at that point, because he got exactly what he wanted: massive amounts of attention from everyone around. Most of it positive (though it doesn’t matter at that age: even negative attention is worth getting). At least he didn’t mention the color of his underwear, or the amount of body hair on his father’s stomach.
That’s what being a parent is, I suppose: mild embarrassment, nonsensical shouting, and relief that whatever happened could have been worse.