Saturday, January 5, 2013

Short Story: "Standard"

This short story came from a writing exercise I was given while at the Iowa Young Writer's Studio. We had to go into a library, choose two vastly different books, and use a sentence from each as the first sentence and last sentence, respectively. My first sentence was from a fantasy book about ogres (it's been changed slightly to avoid plagiarism, but the content is essentially the same) and my last sentence is from a how-to-knit book. Enjoy!

The sorcerers had given him the ability to speak Standard just as well as Maren.
            It had cost him money, of course—I remembered it, though I was small then. Lots of money. So much money that my parents had sat with him in the kitchen for hours the night before he went to the city to see the sorcerers. They wanted to make sure that he was sure, they said, as the candles burned low, smelling of roses, because, yes, he was a grown man, but he was still their child, and he was about to spend more than a year’s earnings on something they couldn’t see the worth of. I listened with my ear pressed against the wood of the door, absently, tensely, rolling a ball of green yarn around in my hands. Their voices weren’t clear, but I could understand them well enough.
            He reassured them, soft and slow, again and again, until they fell silent.
            When he came out I was still by the door; I felt no need to hide from him. I had never felt the need. I was so small, compared to him, and he had wide shoulders and gentle sky-blue eyes, and he would always protect me. That was my brother, when I imagined him, just shoulders and eyes, and that was what mattered.
            He found me outside the door, wide-eyed and silent, curled up within the white tent of my nightgown.
            “Lila.” He sighed, faintly chastising, leaning down to pick me up. I should be in my bed, asleep, I knew, but I didn’t want to go. I wrapped my seven-year-old arms around his neck, holding fast to the yarn, and smelled the scent of his hair.
            “You’re going to the city?”
            “Yes,” he murmured, “To see the sorcerers.”  
            “To learn Standard?”
            “Yes, like Maren.” He replied.
            My mind filled with images of Maren. Maren, the wanderer, who came sometimes to our dusty town upon a hill, packs filled with spices or silk, smelling of the road and of faraway places, his dark beard tinged with grey and the cups and pans tied to his back making sounds like bells as he walked down the road with a cloud of dust in his wake.
            “You want to wander?” I asked. It was the reasonable assumption. Everyone nearby spoke our small old, ancestral tongue—you only needed to speak Standard if you wanted to go far, past the Lion River and to the city and across the flat lands, to the sea and beyond.
            “I don’t want to spend my whole life as a candlemaker’s son.”
            I understood, almost, at seven. I’d dreamed too, sometimes, of going far away, to spice-filled lands. But unlike my brother, I supposed, I preferred other things to wandering. The rugs of Aunt Vinita, for example, who sat on the corner and wove strands of color into ecstatic beauty.
            The next morning my brother went away. He didn’t return for three years.
            In those months, those lonely months, I spent time with my Aunt Vinita. She was a beautiful woman, I supposed, or at least had been once.  She had wide dark eyes that always made her look as if she was trapped in mild disbelief and clouds of black hair, graying now, that surrounded her face and made her skin seem paler than it was. I sat on her corner beneath her weaving, watching as the rugs came into being, each one a story of color.
            “These are art, Lila,” She would say, “These are life. Each rug is a piece of life. Each rug takes the colors of a day and weaves them into something to keep.”
            I believed her as she purred to me in her soft voice. As the children passed through the street, children older than me and younger, leaping, playing blind tag and Ahnesi, I was content to sit in the shade of her loom.
I hadn’t realized before how much my brother permeated my life—how, every morning before he left, I would wake to the sound of him strolling past the vats, the scent of his soap, lavender, wafting through the air—I saw in the rugs a piece of him. I wondered where he wandered. In a yellow and green rug I saw him sitting by a desert oasis. In a purple and orange one I saw him in a foreign market. In a black and blue rug I saw him under a wide midnight sky. And slowly Aunt Vinita began to teach me the yarn, the strings, the weaving. It was my exploration. But her hands were always upon mine, and I never did it on my own, because she didn’t trust me with the strings, not yet. I didn’t mind. I didn’t quite trust myself either.
I was still a child, I realized, as I walked sometimes through the streets of town, seeing the men and women in brown and grey sitting on steps and in the shade of canvas tents. They talked about secret things there, about love and parenthood, and I could never get too close to them. They fell silent when I did, or changed the subject. It was a strange revelation. My brother had never truly treated me as a child, and it was strange to realize that I was.
            And when my brother did return, he had changed—oh, he had changed! It had only been three years, but he was a thousand worlds bigger than he had been before, and he, like Maren, carried pans that sounded like bells upon his wide back, and he, like Maren, smelled of something beyond.
            When he rose over the hill, Grace the butcher’s daughter was the first to see him, but I was nearby, and she called me, and I was the second. I ran to him and he swept me up in his arms and I breathed in his new smell. He didn’t smell like lavender anymore.
            That night we sat far above the town, on the cliff face that rose up over it and gave it shadow in the afternoon.
            “What’s it like, beyond?” I asked. He was quiet for a moment.
            “Greater than I ever could have imagined.” He replied.
            “The markets are beautiful?”
            “More than beautiful.”
            “The faraway jungles are tall?”
            “Taller than anything.”
            “And is it lonely?”
            “Yes, yes it is. But it’s the best kind of lonely, Lila. The beautiful kind of lonely. The lonely where you can come home again and see your little sister three years older even though somehow you imagined she would stay just the same.”
            I laughed. “I’ve missed you.” I said. “but I suppose I’ve been the good kind of lonely too.”
            “I’m leaving again in the morning.” He said.
            I didn’t respond to this. We sat in silence for a while longer. Then—
            “Speak to me in Standard,” I said.
            And he did. He spoke to me in Standard. Far into the night. I fell asleep with my head in his lap, his gentle eyes looking down at me, and I learned to love the sound of a language I didn’t understand.
            In the morning he left. There was a beautiful sunrise as he rode away—all salmon pinks and tangerine oranges and sunflower yellows and as he retreated into the light he became nothing more than a dark black silhouette against the sun. I drank in the image of his retreating shadow and vowed never to forget it.
            The next day I weaved for the first time on my own.
            The image of my vanishing brother was bright in my mind.
A rug invited me to put those colors together. 


  1. Very nice. And what a cool exercise! I haven't written short form for about a year now, but this would be fun to try.

  2. Thanks! This is probably my favorite writing exercise ever--it always leads to really weird/awesome stuff.

  3. This is a really awesome short story! Lots of detail and a clear setting, and you really pull your reader in. We just began exploring fiction in my creative writing class, and I'm interested in seeing what this kind of exercise could turn into for me.