500 words: the price

The Price

The words streamed through the open doors in her mind like water through a sluice, more words with more speed than she could ever write down. But she wrote in phosphor, on slips of napkin, in the margins of books, and on the back of her hand when there was no place else to write. Sometimes the ink on her hand would fade and blur, the words washed away before she could transfer them to a more permanent place. Even so there were always more words to write. So she wrote. This was her purpose, her calling, her reason. She was the road, the arroyo, the channel for the words, the scribe and the medium and the marionette.

But it was not just the words that waterfalled through the doors in her mind. The creatures also came through the doors, quietly, furtively, from the corners, in the shadows. She was focussed on the words and determined in her purpose; she didn’t notice their arrival. She didn’t notice when they began chewing on the edges of her consciousness, burned and scratched and tore at the walls and windows of her brain. Were they creatures, or beasts, demons or insects? She didn’t know what form they took, but she thought of them as creatures, later, once she understood they were there, once she realized the damage they had done. For years they had followed the words through the doors. For years they had laughed and danced on the wreckage of her thoughts. The price of the words were the creatures. The price of the creatures was her sanity.

The white and yellow pills chased and burned the creatures from her brain and closed the doors so no more would come through. The bleeding edges of her mind scabbed and healed, the damage repaired and rebuilt. Her family and the doctors were pleased; she was pronounced cured and sent back into the world to live what they all called a normal life.

Except that the doors were closed. The waterfall was dry. The words were gone. She could still assemble phrases, sentences, paragraphs, but the words felt cold, dry, as if she were collecting shells and stones from a beach. Shells and stones were not a calling, a reason, a purpose; shells and stones were potsherds, skeletons, shadows. Dead things.

This was the price of the cure. The price of the cure was the words.

The price was too high. Against everyone’s wishes she stopped taking the white and yellow pills. The doors opened. The words came back. And with them, the creatures.

She understands them, sees them, recognizes them, this time. She feels them tear at her again; she bleeds words uncontrollably onto the page. She know it is only time before the creatures win, before the river of words washes her away entirely. But until then she writes, and she writes, and she writes, because that is her purpose, and it is all that she does.

She writes; and over and over, day after day, she pays the price.

500 words: winter

(this one is short but, um, kind of dark)


Even as March surrendered and fell blissfully into April’s arms and the days grew from short to long, Alissa quietly, sadly, faded away into winter. As summer emerged from spring with warmth and brightness, Alissa’s days grew colder, with lengthening shadows, bitter winds, fallen leaves, and eventually, a deep chilly darkness with no moon and no stars. When people spoke to her, it was as if she were deep under the water, beneath the ice, their voices everywhere and nowhere, all sound and no words.

The less she understood, the less people spoke, and the more the darkness pressed on her the less she left her apartment. As the days once again turned from long to short, from summer into fall, Alissa froze and cracked and blew away in the dark and the wind and no one noticed she was gone.

500 words: blood

OK I cheated. I didn’t write this one based on a random word I pulled out of a book; I just wrote it.

In the Blood

He snuck out the cyclist’s dorm on day 15 of the tour, long after midnight and long after even the chaperones had gone to bed. He stole a bicycle from the alley next to the hotel and carried it out to the street until he could be sure no one would hear him leave. It was the sort of bicycle a grandmother would use to carry vegetables back from town on sundays; fenders and wide handlebars with a big basket tied to the front fender. After two weeks on his racing bike the old bicycle felt heavy and awkward but it was two wheels and it would get him through town and up into the meadows on the other side.

She was meeting him on the hill at the far end of town. He was running a huge risk meeting her here. Even sending messages to her through his soigneurs was forbidden; sneaking out could get him suspended from the race. Meeting her at all might result in a dangerously high level of testosterone in the morning’s testing and he could be banned for the year or more. But he was winning and he missed her so he took the chance.

He left the bike at the bottom of the hill and caught her up in his arms. She smelled of olives and lavender and summer and he kissed her again and again, her fingers laced the hair in the back of his neck.

She cried when he removed his shirt and she saw the catheters and apparatus they had installled into him for the testing. She knew what they did to him, of course, had seen the cuts and the scars, but never like this. Never during the racing season, when they set him up for testing. Three times a day they tested him, blood, urine, saliva, spinal fluid. Electrolytes, liver function, hormones, red blood cell count, all compared against standard baseline levels they took when he started racing at age 14. All to ensure that he was racing clean.

They could not make love for fear of displacing the apparatus or hurting him, but she enjoyed his company for an hour or two in the moonlight in the grass on the hillside, the old bike beside them.

“Doesn’t it hurt,” she asked him, touching the apparatus taped just under his left nipple. The skin where the catheter went in was raw, scabbed, red. He laughed in reply. “Not as much as racing,” he said.

“Why do you do it, then?”

“Its part of the job,” he said, thinking she meant the testing. “It’s part of racing.”

“No,” she sat up. “Why do you have to keep on racing?” she asked, desperate, tears once again. “Why do you have to let them keep doing that to you?”

He looked at her, astonished that she would ask such a question, after all the time they had been together. “I have to race,” he said, plainly, honestly, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “It’s in my blood.”

500 words: middle

In the Middle

So yesterday I found a coconut in the middle of a watermelon. It was a plain ordinary watermelon, I swear, I bought it from the supermarket and it was supposed to be seedless. I had planned to just slice it open for a snack and couldn’t get my knife all the way through it. But once I cut all the way around it popped right open and there was the coconut, like a giant pit inside.

How did I know it was a coconut? It was hairy like a coconut, and dark, and it had those three spots on the end. I’ve seen a coconut before, I’m not an idiot. It was wet from the watermelon but once I pulled it out when I shook it there was coconut milk in there. I could hear it. But there was something else in there, to, something big thumping around.

I went out to the garage and got a hammer and took the coconut out onto the patio and bashed it a few times. It cracked and leaked coconut milk onto my shoes but a few more whacks and it finally cracked in half.

There was an orange in the middle of the coconut. I’m telling you, I don’t know how the orange got in the middle of the coconut. I don’t know how the coconut got in the middle of the watermelon. I don’t know any of those things. The orange was ripe and fresh. What? No, it was a navel orange. It smelled like coconut.

So I peeled it. Inside the orange was an orange, but when I split the sections in the middle of the sections there was an egg. A plain ordinary brown egg. I broke the egg and got eggwhite all over my patio and in the middle of the egg there was a walnut.

So back to the hammer again. I held the walnut with one hand and just tapped it, and it cracked just a little and then I heard the chirping.

No, I’m not shitting you, don’t look at me like that, like I’d make that up after the watermelon and the coconut and the orange. Yes, the walnut was chirping. I tapped it again and it cracked right down the middle — and then it broke right open and this tiny golden bird hopped out from the middle of the shell. Gold like the sun, not gold like a parakeet. And the little bird stood right there on the patio and sang at me, like a little flute almost; then it spread its wings and flew up by my face hovered like a hummingbird, then it circled my head and flew up and away into the sky.

I’m going back first thing tomorrow and I’m going to go buy another watermelon.

500 words or less: table

The Table

January 15 was the night Alexandra always set the table for five. It had started out to be just a table for two, on that particular anniversary, but then over the years more place settings had been added.

She set it for Neil, who was blonde and shy and called her peanut. He had skin as soft as a girl’s and a high laugh that made her think of wind chimes. But he also dreamed of drowning and cried in his sleep, holding onto her so tightly that she thought she might break.

She set it for Franklin, who on their second date had proclaimed his love for her and gave her a ring. It was a cheap ring, the kind you found at flea markets arrayed in velvet platters, ten dollars, two for fifteen. He had taken her to the Coast Inn for dinner and presented it to her out on the dock, with the wind blowing her hair into her eyes and the sea lions braying in the background. He told her she was beautiful and that they should get married and make babies and live happily ever after. She accepted his ring but told him he was crazy and that all she would commit to was dinner. He accepted her commitment. This time.

She set it for Charles, not Charlie or Chuck but Charles, who rode a Ducati motorcycle and spoke perfect italian. He grew his hair too long, smelled of horrible brown cigarettes and read her his poetry in bed. It was truly dreadful poetry but he was so sincere and so handsome, she couldn’t help but watch him read, watch as his lips formed the words and his dark eyes reflected the emotions of his work. She wanted to eat up every single tasty bit of his zabaglione.

She set it for her father, who always told her she was so pretty in those dresses but if she didn’t get her hair out of her face none of the boys would notice her. He told her she was an excellent cook and would make a terrific wife someday. And he always asked her what had happened to that boyfriend of hers, the blonde one, he was nice.

Finally she set the table for herself and sat down at the head of it, raising a glass to Neil, who had drowned in the bath on January 15 just before his 23rd birthday; to Franklin, who after four months of proclaiming his undying love had left her; for Charles, who after the motorcycle accident took up drinking and drove her away; and to her father, for whom she was always such a disappointment.

500 words or less: the introduction (plus kudos for Jonathan Coulton)

I’ve been thinking for a while that I need to write more fiction (and a bunch of people who have read my fiction have told me so too). But I’ve been really bad at writing fiction for a really long time. Recently, I stink at it. I’m boring. I can’t finish anything. So then I was thinking maybe I need to stop being so tense and that maybe I need a. pressure and b. permission to suck a lot.

So here’s the plan. Every day I’m going to open a book at random from somewhere in my house and pick a word. And every day, more or less, I’m going to write 500 words or less about that word. And I’m going to post it here. I started already, yesterday, with Library, and today with Comb, because I forgot to post this intro yesterday. Sorry about that.

500 words or less, every day (more or less). A lot of of the 500 words are going to be plotless (entire stories in 500 words are hard). Some of them — lots of them — are going to be very bad. Many of them may be significantly shorter than 500 words. And, um, we’ll see how long I can keep it up. I’m not so good with the follow through. But that’s my idea.

I got this idea, by the way, from one Jonathan Coulton, a singer/songwriter who writes and records (and releases, for free, on his blog) a song a week (except up until right this very moment I was misremembering it as a song a day, which is why I picked 500 words a day (more or less). Darn! Darn! Darn! I could have gone with a week! argh!). He describes his “Thing a Week” like this:

Thing a Week is my forced-march approach to writing and recording. Since September 2005 I have posted a new song every Friday in an effort to keep the creative juices flowing and to prove to myself that I can actually create on a schedule. It’s been a real learning experience – I’m not always happy with the outcome, but I’m learning to let some of the details go, and I’m figuring out how to keep from censoring myself all the time.

See his song list here. Lots of these songs are really, really great. Try, for example: Code Monkey, Flickr, Baby Got Back, Ikea, Re Your Brains, Mandelbrot Set.

500 words or less: comb


Jackson, the fisherman who lived by the shoals where the river meets the
sea, captured a mermaid took her as his wife. The men in the town
congratulated him heartily for finding a wife so beautiful, seemingly
unaware of her green and gold hair, and ignoring the enormous
silent green tears she shed from her deepest greenest eyes.

The women, however, saw her for what she was. They recognized her and
knew from stories their mothers and mothers before them had told them:
in a seaside town the capture of a mermaid was a curse.

The women pleaded with Jackson to return her to the sea, but he spat at
them. The women had laughed at him when he had courted them, he accused
them, had called him stupid and mean. They called him names behind his
back, even now. Now they would deny him his beautiful wife? He had
found her, he bragged. He had caught her in his nets and taken
something from her, a comb made from an abalone shell. He knew the
stories, too; that was what bound her to him. And with that she would
stay with him forever. There was nothing the women could do.

And then that year the salmon did not come up the river as they always
did. They were a fishing town; without the salmon to catch and store
and barter they would starve. Something had to be done.

The women came to Jackson’s home in the night by the shoals where the
river meets the sea, came silently to his home and with hands and
blankets and clothing, held him and strangled him in his bed. The
mermaid watched, silently, in the corner in the darkness, her deepest
greenest eyes shining by the moonlight. Callie, the youngest, found the
abalone comb in one of the dead man’s pockets. The mermaid took it silently, gratefully, smiled, and then vanished as if she had dissolved entirely away.

The salmon returned to the river, more salmon than ever before. The
women told the men later that it must have been a brain fever that
caused Jackson to wander into the water that night. The water was
shallow in the shoals where the river met the sea but still he drowned.
A terrible accident.

Too young to fish, Callie was playing in the shoals where the river met
the sea when she looked up and saw the mermaid, sitting on a rock
and combing out her green and gold hair with the abalone comb. The
mermaid smiled at her with with her deepest greenest eyes and with each
pass of the comb, green and gold salmon fell shimmering from her hair
into the river below.

500 words or less: library (a writing experiment).

(I open a book at random and pick a word. Today’s word was library.)


Each day in my research at the library I filled out my request form and
passed it through the dark slot in the wall that said STACKS. Each day
during my year-long tenure at the University I waited and listened for
the groan and thunk of the dumbwaiter in the corner of the library, as
my books came magically up from the stacks in neat dusty piles.

What kind of bright magical world was there down below the dumbwaiter,
below the library? I imagined robots, simulacrums, ageless golems, giant
metal library drones, rushing from one crowded aisle to another,
gathering books with precision and speed. And were there more than
books in the stacks? Did they have truffles or unicorns, neutrinos or
the square root of negative one? If only I asked, what would they give

I filled out my request form and sent it down the slot to the stacks.
Under the heading that said Requests I had written: RABBIT.

The dumbwaiter was silent for minutes, ten, almost twenty. Then from
under the floor I heard a knocking, the turn of machinery, moan, a sigh,
a rush of air and the doors to the dumbwaiter opened by themselves.
Inside the space that smelled of oak chips and snakeskin was a single
slip of paper; it was my request form. Somehow disappointed, I picked
up the form and let the doors of the dumbwaiter close behind me. So it
was all just books and librarians after all.

The library in the morning was bright with the sun filtered through the
windows and the skylights in the ceiling. As I emerged from the corner,
from the dark behind the shelves marked 648 – 652.3, a mark on the form
in my hand caught my eye. In the light I stood and smoothed out my form;
it was strangely dirty and creased as if it had been passed from hand
to hand and folded and saved over a long time. I smoothed it out and
turned it over. On the back, as if drawn by a hand with a thousand years
of patience and practice, was a pencil drawing of a rabbit.