From time to time I will find a piece of fiction and use a line within as a starting prompt to write. Usually when this happens I don’t get a whole story, because I’m not intending to. Occasionally this will produce an interesting character, or perhaps a tone or voice that I enjoy, or a phrase that really intrigues me, or even the start of something that I will come back to later.
Today I picked up the book Myths of Origin; Four Short Novels by Catherine M.Valente, and opened to a random page. There were no page numbers, but the title was “Heaven and Earth Stood Still”. The first line is the first line of that page. Everything after is my own writing practice (don’t think, don’t get logical, keep your hand moving, lose control, go for the jugular):
When I was a child and Ayako only, the village had a great number of silkworms, and the women wove with radiance.
They created tapestries of artwork, beautiful to behold, intricate and delicate and precious, and displayed these draped across their own shoulders, or the arms and legs of their husbands or children. The silks were the finest in the land, or so the rumor went, for three generations.
The women prided themselves on their abilities. We children, myself, my playmates Tokira and Sakai, felt that there must be something magical in the air. We would wait at the edge of the village, playing “step-one-two”, our only game, in the dust at the edge of the path leading in and out and to the next location. We would watch as caravans of five, ten, twenty people would drag themselves along the route through the far-away forest and emerge, looking tired, and, somehow, lonely as they walked. Then, as they would look up from their feet and see that they were approaching the village finally, they would begin to transform.
Smiles would form on their faces. Their shoulders straightened, their steps lengthened. They chattered with each other. And they would gesture to one another, and point towards us, towards the huts behind us in the village, and as they approached we could hear their voices become stronger and more excited.
When they would pass us, on their way in to the village to purchase silks made by the women, to trade for other rice or paper or material goods made by the people of their village, they would smile at us and throw tiny candies to us, in appreciation of how blessed we were to live in the village of Kan, where the silks were the finest in the land. We appreciated this and would shout our congratulations back to them, wish them good trades, happy buying, invite them to the soup brothel that stood at the opposite end of the village, where Sukai’s parents kept the tables clean and the patrons always left satisfied, invited them to stay at Tokina’s guest room, which was always filled with warmth and pleasantly, suggested that they also visit the wishing well in the center of town to toss a coin in for good luck, for happy futures, for much love and success wherever the road would deliver them next.
At times I wished I, too, had something to offer those weary souls. I wished my parents would be the cobblers in the village, perhaps run the animal stable, ensuring that the beasts were as well-cared-for as the people. Or that, perhaps, my mother was one of those celebrated weavers who knew how not only to make cloth but somehow infuse it with the magic that seemed to fill the village with its peace, and happiness, and warmth.
Alas, I could not, for my parents had died, two nights apart, years ago, from a coughing sickness that took hold on the thumb-day and took my mother’s life on the pointer-day, and my father’s life on the next-to-last day. They were buried together on the next thumb-day, once the rest of the villagers were certain that all of the sickness had left their bodies. I had cried, then, but at only four years old I knew not much about life, or death, only that I would wonder where I would find my soups and my bed from then on.
It was then that I started to climb down into the wishing well to scrounge for the coins left there by hopeful travelers. It was then that I began to sleep alone in the hut I had previously slept with my mother and father in. It was then that I began to wake in the middle of the night, shaking and sweating, unable to console myself, unable to sleep, unable to do anything but listen to the crickets outside as they chirped the night into the morning. It was then that I began to dream during the day. It was then that my nightmares became reality.
So, what was that? Well, it began with the name “Ayako”, and the image of silkworms. These automatically make me think of China, a rural village, a small, simple place. So I began to draw on what I know of weaving (very little), and of merchant travels (still little), and of children (about as much) and making up stuff (a little bit more). But by the time I had the idea for an orphan (yes, it’s been done much), I was enjoying the tone of the story. A bit nostalgic, a bit like an old woman telling a story to her grandchildren. She is not angry, or bitter. She is simply relating what happened, and with a lifetime of experience afterwards, can see that many of the things that she found difficult while young prepared her for much greater struggles later on.
One thing that stuck out – I was trying, in the moment, to have a time cycle that wasn’t our standard 7 days. Because various cultures develop in different ways. I’ve read of cultures that separate time by the fingers of a hand, so I latched on to that. If I were to write this into a story (which, by now, is kind of intriguing), I woudl develop this more fully. That would be part of world-building: what do each of the days of the cycle mean? What is special or taboo on each day? How would those days intersect with the plot and character? I like the idea of the thumb-day being the most important. So is that the first or last day of the week? Do we use both hands? Do we go right-to-left or left-to-right? One hand cycles (5 days) or two (10)?
All of these could be investigated, thought through, accepted and rejected, and integrated with the story that comes out. If I ever were to come back to this story, I think it would be a fantasy where Ayako must learn to battle the nightmares that come out in the day, and she must fight them with different people throughout her life – her friends at first, then her family (husband and children), and finally at the end of her life the whole village must believe the things that she sees but they do not and she must convince them to fight with her.
Oooh – many demon/monster stories revolve around everyone finally believing the heroine when the monster reveals itself and they see it with their own eyes. But what if – what if she is the ONLY one who can see them? That is, the villagers will see terrible things happening, like death of their animals and destruction of their silkworms, but they suspect her of witchcraft or magic or bending the will of the spirits because she is claiming that invisible beasts are really the culprit. That would be interesting.