Spectacular Settings: The Hills of the Cailech (WEP Entry)


Denise Covey of Write... Edit... Publish

Denise Covey of Write… Edit… Publish

Thanks to Damyanti Ghosh of the Daily (W)rite for calling me out to participate in the Spectacular Settings Flash Fiction Challenge from Write… Edit… Publish. The hosts of WEP, Denise Covey and Yolanda Renée, provide a wonderfully supportive writing community where creative people can submit to a monthly blog-hop. The writers and other artists who participate receive and provide feedback to as many blog-hop entrants as possible.

This being my first time participating in such a thing, I have my trepidations. How is this going to work? What will my fellow writers think? But that’s part of the challenge, isn’t it? Not just in a blog-hop, but in writing, and in life. C.S. Lewis once said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Any time we seek to be virtuous, we do so in the face of a challenge, an obstacle. A testing point. Whatever the virtue being tested, courage is the form that virtue takes when it rises, against the odds, to withstand the onslaught.

So thank you, to Damyanti for throwing down this gauntlet. And to Denise and Yolanda, for hosting such a challenge.

And, without further ado,

Act One

For the first act of the Spectacular Settings Flash Fiction Challenge, I’ve selected The Open Boat by Stephen Crane.

None of them knew the color of the sky...

None of them knew the color of the sky…

NONE of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks.

Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small boat navigation.

The cook squatted in the bottom and looked with both eyes at the six inches of gunwale which separated him from the ocean. His sleeves were rolled over his fat forearms, and the two flaps of his unbuttoned vest dangled as he bent to bail out the boat. Often he said: “Gawd! That was a narrow clip.” As he remarked it he invariably gazed eastward over the broken sea.

The oiler, steering with one of the two oars in the boat, sometimes raised himself suddenly to keep clear of water that swirled in over the stern. It was a thin little oar and it seemed often ready to snap.

The correspondent, pulling at the other oar, watched the waves and wondered why he was there.

The injured captain, lying in the bow, was at this time buried in that profound dejection and indifference which comes, temporarily at least, to even the bravest and most enduring when, willy nilly, the firm fails, the army loses, the ship goes down. The mind of the master of a vessel is rooted deep in the timbers of her, though he command for a day or a decade, and this captain had on him the stern impression of a scene in the grays of dawn of seven turned faces, and later a stump of a top-mast with a white ball on it that slashed to and fro at the waves, went low and lower, and down. Thereafter there was something strange in his voice. Although steady, it was deep with mourning, and of a quality beyond oration or tears.

Yolanda Renée of Write... Edit... Publish

Yolanda Renée of Write… Edit… Publish

I’ve cheated a bit on the rules of the challenge, which instruct us to use a mere paragraph from our chosen work. But how could I have chosen just one of these opening paragraphs without also including the ones before and after? It’s a masterpiece for a reason, and in a mere 380 words, he accomplishes what less-skilled writers take pages to do.

The first thing that grabs me about this passage is the lack of description. “None of them knew the color of the sky.”

Immediately I want to know, “why?” Everyone knows the color of the sky, don’t they? Why are these characters exceptional?

And then we get it. They’re not looking at the sky. They couldn’t care less about the sky. The sky is no immediate threat to them.

Damyanti Ghosh of the Daily (W)rite

Damyanti Ghosh of the Daily (W)rite

They’re looking at the waves “that swept toward them… hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea.” The tone of the language, the deft use of color, make it immediately clear that there is something so threatening about the sea that the characters “knew the colors” of it in an intimate way. They have a deep concern for the sea.

And we soon understand why, for the world around them shrinks and expands, rises and fall, at its whim, and the waves are “jagged” and seem to “thrust up in points like rocks,” and they are together against it in a boat not much larger than a bath-tub.

Following this with the introduction of the varied cast of characters adrift in their meagre craft, Crane creates a disquieting image of desolation and despair, and sets the tone eloquently for the story to come. Truly, it’s a masterpiece of the form.

Act Two

While I would never presume to the skill of a master such as Crane, below is a scene from my own forthcoming work.

Forest Horseman, ©2012-2015 WackoShirow from DeviantArt

Forest Horseman, ©2012-2015 WackoShirow from DeviantArt

…Thus the Lord Eowain found himself with his drymyn and fifty-odd men of Droma returning through the wild borderlands as the gloaming spread across the face of the world.

It was rough terrain, twisted with hills short but steep. He watched the winter forest as he rode. The dwindling sun in the west gave no warmth. His breath misted white in front of his face, frosting his moustache and the black fox fur lining his hood. He was glad that his helmet hung at his pommel. His shirt of steel-ringed mail and leather held the cold and it radiated through his coat and all the layers of wool, silk, and linen beneath. Even the saddle felt cold, as though his pale dapple gelding was made of frozen cream. The helmet would have mazed his mind.

Winter had come late, and with a vengeance. From the heat of summer to the heart of winter in less than a month. The leaves that had lingered through the autumn had frozen before they could change color. They glistened in the fading sun like strange shards of ice-coated malachite.

The horses of the ten arms-men around him occasionally stamped a hoof in the knee-deep snow. It had been a long ride that far, and they had yet farther to go. Dark clouds rolled through the sky to the northward. He didn’t need his weather-wise drymyn to tell him the temperature would plummet before nightfall. They had to be under the shelter of Trígrianna before then.

Beside the ten a-horse, he had forty-four of foot, including twenty men of the king’s own bodyguard. They had returned nigh on three miles through the gloom and the cold when he saw the unexpected red-golden blaze of a fire through the trees. A large fire, where a large fire ought not to be.

Apprehension clutched at Eowain’s throat. He spurred his horse and the mounted lancers with a cry. The drymyn Medyr whipped his pony to keep up, but the elite bodyguard and archers on foot soon fell behind despite their triple-time pace.

Eowain shouted clarion-clear over the pounding hooves of the mad chase. “Medyr, stay close!” He might have need of the damned drymyn’s sorcery before much longer. As he raced ahead of his men, Eowain clung to the back of his gelding. The forest was grown dark now, and the trail was not well-kept in Cailech lands. Branches lashed him across the face. Roots, stones, and holes were hazards better taken slowly and by daylight, but he had no time for such concerns. He gave the gelding its head and hugged its neck, trusting it not to turn a fetlock.

Then he broke out from the dark forest into the cleared farmland. As he feared, the huts of Trígrianna burned on the hill ahead. To his left and down a steep hill was the lake of Lyntrigrian, opaque in the hill’s shadow. Peasants had already formed a bucket brigade from the lake to the village but he could see the effort was in vain. Their homes were all but lost.

He galloped around a wild curve of the trail and on through the village. He saw a child’s burnt stocking lying in the mud. A hoarse prayer to Trógain escaped his lips.

Then ahead was the cattle enclosure, atop the highest point of the hill and defended by a stout log palisade. From within could be heard the frantic lowing of the cattle. From over the walls rose flights of spears and rocks, lobbed west into the darkness. There was a great shouting of men.

Word Count : CPA

Word Count 599: FCA

And there it is. My Spectacular Setting Flash Fiction Challenge. Thanks for reading!


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37 comments on “Spectacular Settings: The Hills of the Cailech (WEP Entry)
  1. Loved your submissions. Your talent as a writer is obvious. I look forward to learning a great deal from you.

  2. cleemckenzie says:

    You couldn’t have chosen a more beautiful piece of description than the one you did by Crane. You’ve made me go to my bookshelf and pull The Open Boat out. I haven’t read that in years, but it’s now on top of my pile to be read again.

    In your own contribution, I felt the cold and urgency, then the saw the tragic fire and loss of homes and lives. Beautifully written.

    • Thank you. I’ve always admired that particular story by Crane. It captures the utter disregard of the universe so well, and reminds me of an old prayer: “My Lord, your ocean is so vast. And my boat, it is so very small. Have mercy.”

  3. Michael

    Act One: The Open Boat by Stephen Crane is brilliant for setting but also for character description specifically the injured captain: “. . . there was something strange in his voice. Although steady, it was deep with mourning, and of a quality beyond oration or tears.” Impressive!

    Act Two: Your contribution is just as skilled, the slog through the rough terrain, the fire on the horizon and the fear that overtakes him when he sees the child’s stocking, all building to that cliffhanger that leaves your readers wanting more. Excellent! And yes, I do want more!

    I do hope you find as you trek through all the entries for the WEP, that your expectations are not only met but also exceeded. Thank you for taking this journey with us, your entry is superb, your writing flawless, and your piece captivating. Your tweets, blog posts, and now this, your entry, speaks to your love of the artistic community. This opportunity to share, and learn from such amazing and talented folk, though separated by miles and continents, is remarkable because we are really only a click away.

    Thanks again for participating in the WEP Spectacular Settings Challenge, I hope you’ll join us again in October for our Halloween challenge Childhood frights vs. Adult fears.

    • Thanks, Yolanda! I’ve been uniformly impressed by the work of all the artists in the challenge. I’m honored to be included among them. I look forward to the Halloween challenge. I’ll have to start thinking about it! 😉

  4. Thank you for the introduction to Crane. How could I have missed this? Exploration of his work will happen soon.
    And I loved your contribution. So evocative. ‘shards of ice-coated malachite.’ in particular sang to me.

    • Always glad to turn a reader on to Crane. He was like the Hemingway of the US Civil War, working as a journalist and a medic, and is something of a patron saint of the US school of Naturalistic philosophy. And thank you for the kind words, I appreciate it.

  5. Denise Covey says:

    Firstly, Michael, I want to thank you for your tireless promotion for WEP once Damyanti convinced you to hop on board the boat (pun intended!) I have every wish that you’ll find this a worthy challenge and a way to get instant feedback on your WIPs. I’m sure you’ll also find the time to read other’s works and I’m looking forward to your feedback.

    Part A. I love your share of Crane. A great study in show don’t tell: ‘Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea.’ So much more poetic than ‘it was a small boat’. It took me into the setting and I was in that boat, alert to the dangers inherent in the situation.

    Part B. I see you’re a more-than-accomplished author with this extract. In your past blog posts that I’ve trawled through I have already been introduced to Droma and this extract was full of action and description. So many small details stuck with me, like ‘His shirt of steel-ringed mail and leather held the cold and it radiated through his coat and all the layers of wool, silk, and linen beneath.’ Shiver. Shiver. Shiver. Tragic loss. This is an amazing story. So much revealed in so few lines.

    Once again, thanks for participating. A perfect entry for Spectacular Settings. Spectacular they are!

    Denise 🙂

    • Thank *you*, Denise, for hosting such a wonderful challenge! I’ve been enjoying the amazing work I’ve seen from the other artists, and of course, it was fun working on my own scene. Thank you very much for the kind words.

  6. Damyanti says:

    I haven’t read Crane before, and this was a gorgeous introduction to him.

    I like how nuanced, lyrical and absorbing your setting is– you’re a fantastic writer– the excerpt makes me want to read your book. That child’s burnt stocking was gut wrenching– it leaves so much to the imagination, to anticipation, and builds fear despite a complete lack of blood and gore.

    Lines like: “Beside the ten a-horse, he had forty-four of foot, including twenty men of the king’s own bodyguard” tell us exactly where we are, and gives you head-authority– it makes me feel like the writer knows what he’s talking about, and I can trust him not only to tell a good story, but to tell it authentically and well.

    This was a high-wire act, Michael. Now you see why I’m a fangirl? 😉

    • You, madam, are a shameless flatterer. But please, do go on. 😉 Honestly, thank you for the feedback, I appreciate it, and for throwing the gauntlet for this challenge. It’s been fun and exciting. And I’m glad to be turning some readers onto Crane. He was the Hemingway of his own time.

      • Damyanti says:

        I’m a plain speaker. No one has ever accused me of flattery yet ( but about shameless, well) lol . I’m looking forward to digging into that Crane some time soon. My post is up– could use your eagle eyes, and sharp red pen!

  7. I have not read Stephen Crane but can appreciate his skill at creating a setting that has desperation and some foreboding. Your story had some similar themes. The group of soldiers and their leader weary and cold returning home to find another battle awaits them. Are they Celts?

    • There is a sensibility to Crane’s work that I think speaks remarkably well to the age of war and uncertainty we find ourselves in today. Desperation and foreboding were certainly moods I was hoping to strike in this piece, thank you. My world-building does owe a lot to Irish myth, legend, and history, yes. The scene and characters owe no actual debt to the Celts beyond that inspiration, but fans of the Celtics will find strong hints of that flavor in my work. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!!

  8. Sally says:

    I haven’t come across Stephen Crane before so thank you for introducing me to a great writer. Your story is told so well and the language and style of writing is wonderful. I could almost feel the coldness seeping through my computer. The rough terrain and terrible cold seeping through everything gives me shivers.

  9. Debbie D. says:

    Stephen Crane’s tale was gripping. I could sense the desperation of the men and especially the captain, “buried in profound dejection”. Thanks for the introduction to this author.

    Your piece made me feel the cold of winter (which I’m all too familiar with) and the weariness of the soldiers as they came upon that burning village. With their energy sapped, could they survive another battle? I’d love to keep reading and find out.

  10. Ahh, the Realist/American Naturalism author. I love his work. Especially, The Red Badge of Courage. Being a fan, I know you’ve read Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. I think The Open Boat was so skillfully written that NO ONE could surpass his extraordinary use of the written word, and it was based on a true experience to boot! The Blue Hotel and The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky are also magnificent. He did all that, and much more is his short life. Dying way too young. One wonders what he would have accomplished had he lived longer.

    On to your Act Two. What a polished work. Your writing charms your readers, and that first sentence hooks them instantly. You have built your world meticulously. Fabulous excerpt. I look forward to reading the completed story.

    • At last, another Crane reader! I was beginning to despair for the culture! 😉 He was definitely a talent lost too soon. Though his later novels weren’t as well-received as Maggie and Red Badge, short stories like Open Boat, Blue Hotel and The Monster still display his mastery.

      Thank you very much for the kind words on my excerpt, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  11. Tom says:

    Hi Michael. As I just told somebody else in the challenge, I abhor the sea and all wide expanses of water, so the vivid descriptions in your chosen piece were a nightmare for me to read – which goes to prove how good the passage is.
    Well played on your own piece too. Graphic, moody and foreboding, and sufficient to garner interest with just that small exerpt. Great piece of work. Good luck with it.

  12. jlennidorner says:

    Oooh, the child’s burnt stocking laying in the mud— yes, I see why you picked this for the blog hop. That’s such a strong image. Well done.

  13. Rasma R says:

    Well written and sent my imagination reeling. Enjoyed this. Kept thinking Moby Dick was going to show up at some time.

  14. The passage from Crane reminds me of the first time that I was on a ship, in the ocean, in the middle of the night, and suddenly I thought about the fact that there was nothing but miles of cold black ocean beneath us, and that if I fell overboard… *shudder*. And that ship was around 35000 tons!

    Loved your description, the seasons changing so rapidly, cold “as though his pale dapple gelding was made of frozen cream”. Delightful read!

  15. Hi, Michael,

    I haven’t read Crane since High School… many, many moons ago. Enjoyed the action and penetrating emotion of the high seas.

    As the others have stated, your writing is quite emotional and atmospheric. Living in Chicago with its brutal winters, I could feel the cold seeping through my bones. I know how your hero feels. Cold such as that is beyond bearable.

    Beautifully written.

  16. Toi Thomas says:

    Thanks for the intro to Crane. I haven’t read his work, but I like the sound of it. I also quite enjoyed your piece; it is somehow similar yet very different from the other. The feelings of cold and weary seem to be a matter fact that the reader must accept; it would be unnatural not to. The burnt imagery sticks with you and you want to see how it all turns out. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  17. artman413 says:

    Well, I’m not sure what I can add to what’s already been said.

    The first excerpt was gripping due to its atmosphere, but also built up the characters and their reactions to the circumstances well.

    As for your story, I was hooked! From the long cold march to the agonizing fiery discovery, you conveyed a great sense of place, mood and climate. Fantastic stuff!

  18. WriterlySam says:

    You’ve woven such a rich tapestry of images, wrapped around the inner workings of your character. This was an absolute pleasure to read! I look forward to more!!

    The Weight of Wonder