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To Stand Forever

by ivan 

Posted: 27 July 2006
Word Count: 1977
Summary: My second completed short story.

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To Stand Forever

My father spluttered, wheezed, and then, with a grimace, raised first his head from the pillow, then propped his body onto his elbow. The pain passing from his face, fire returned to his pupils. He then turned them upon me.
“The barbarians are to be welcomed into the city. They are to be admitted to the forum for one month.” He coughed. “Those were my orders, and my orders they remain.” Lowering himself back to the bed, he maintained his gaze. I walked away. On reaching the far wall, I spun on my heel and spoke:
“And my feelings remain. I will go to the forum to discuss it further with the council in the light of last night's events.” His eyes followed me out of his chamber.

“The barbarians,” Father had said a month before, “Remember things that we have forgotten. They remember things that we ought not to forget.” I had paced in front of him, fists clenched behind my back.
They have been our enemies for generations. They killed your grandfather and left his head to rot outside our city gates. That we ought not to forget.

I climbed the two flights of steps to the Menzabar tower. From this point, one can see in all directions, the city appearing as a forest of towers, marble spires lit white and sprawling stone houses glowing gold in the desert sun.
Half a mile away to the East, I could make out the maze of alleyways that formed the poor quarter. From there and the surrounds, smoke rose through the haze.

“We must move beyond the crimes of past generations,” Father had said. “The city is bursting at the seams, and the barbarians understand life outside these walls. It is that understanding that I will ask them to share.”
They share with us their ideas, and we share with them what? Our knowledge? Our gold? Our women?

At the heart of the poor quarter, whispers had first been heard in the tea houses, and from within knots of men outside the temple gates:
“The barbarians bring disease.”
“They will steal from us, then disappear in the night.”
In the lanes of the bazaar and amid the dust and traffic at the crossroads, whispers gave way to stronger voices:
“They'll be dining at the palace on the taxes we pay, while our houses crumble.”
Then, among clouds of pipe smoke in the gambling pits and on the street corners, the voices rose into a shout:
“They'll rape our women!”
“This will be the end of the city!”
From the Kasadian Gate at the western edge of the poor quarter, the mob had exploded. Charred walls and window frames marked their passage; blood stained the streets.
In the stupefying heat of the new day, the anger of the rioters had subsided. Now, in the cooling afternoon, a rising hum reached my ears, and the first shouts carried over the faint breeze.

“With reconciliation,” Father had declaimed, “We no longer need fear the barbarians. We no longer need be constrained by our walls, prisoners in our own buildings.”
But there will always be someone to fear, someone beyond and outside, ready to steal that which we have laboured for generations to create.

To the North, over a mile distant, dust and noise rose from the repairs taking place on the city walls. Surveying the circumference of the city, one or two more patches of wall were scaffolded, while the remainder stood in disrepair. Only two days ago, Scarabus, captain of the City Guard, jabbed a bronzed finger into my shoulder as he said: “They could knock down our walls with a feather and be drinking tea by sunset in our precious forum. We haven't had a penny for the army in the last five years.”

“Would you build the walls so high,” Father had asked, “that you could never see beyond the city? Bar the gates so that none could enter, nor ever leave?”
I would do what was necessary, Father, to protect myself, my family and my people.

To the West, a fraction below the horizon, marked by a rising trail of dust, the Barbarian host was approaching on horseback through the desert. They would be here in a matter of hours.

Now, through ill-lit tunnels, crouching between dank and mossy walls, I made my way underneath the city. Emerging into the sunlight, the high walls of the forum muffled the babble from the rest of the city.

“The time has come,” Father had argued, “to look beyond ourselves. We will open the gates to the barbarians and invite them to the forum. Dialogue is the spark that lights a thousand fires. Without ideas we would not have the ramp and pulley to build our city walls, our towers, temples and libraries. But you will say that an idea never fed or clothed anyone.”
No, father. Without the idea, we don't have the scythe, the plough, the irrigation for our fields. But it takes hundreds of men to forge those tools, and thousands to wield them: only then are we fed. And those ideas are formed in the shelter of our homes, safe from the wind and the cold, safe from barbarian arrows and spears.

My face shadowed by a hood, I stood at the edge of the forum. On the paving stood huddles of robed men. Among them was the barbarian ambassador; or so they called him. Ragged, wildly bearded, and deaf to our tongue, he stood to one side.
The forum was silent. I drew back the hood from my face. One by one, faces turned to me. Angustrim, one of the elders, at last spoke.
“Our Prince. We hope that you bring us news of some improvement in your father's condition” Murmurs of consent from all around were issued.
“Thank you for your concern, kind elders. But I'm afraid his condition has worsened further.” At this, they lowered their heads and murmured once more, now expressing disappointment, sympathy: some such sentiment that they thought I would consider appropriate. Angustrim at last spoke.
“You have our sympathy and support. But if you will pardon my directness, portions of the city have been damaged. Some fires are still smoldering. There is a rumour of a mob forming again...”
“And the barbarians will soon be at our gates.” finished Haddaras.
“Something must be done,” said Barthezem, fidgeting in his robes.
“Something, indeed, must,” I replied. Many nodded their consent; all waited. “First, please, your thoughts.” Angustrim stepped forward.
“If I may, it is your father's wish that the barbarians be invited to the forum to share their knowledge. We know and support his reasons for this. However, it is this issue that has caused most consternation among the people.”
“Perhaps when the barbarians come...” ventured Barthezem, “things will calm down.” I turned to him.
“Perhaps.” I said. “And in your judgement, can we afford to take that risk?”
“I... ah...” he consulted a distant and solitary cloud for inspiration. “The issue is certainly complicated...” he concluded.
“And in your judgement?” I asked, turning first to Angustrim, whose eyes would not meet mine, then to Haddaras, who contemplated his fingernails. Finally, I thrust my arm towards the rest of the mute elders. “You spend your days in the forum listening to your own chatter, strutting like peacocks. Yet now the future of the city is at stake, you stand and gape like eunuchs in a whorehouse.”
“Forgive us,” said Angustrim. “We are accustomed to discussing matters of taxation, justice...” His words fluttered to the ground like a wounded bird.
I strode across the forum and grasped the wide-eyed barbarian by the shoulder. “If dialogue is the spark that lights a thousand fires, the dialogue we shall have.” I turned to a frail elder, shrunken in his robe. “Deuterostos,” I said, “Ask our friend why our people riot. Ask him what we should do.” Deuterostos addressed him in a series of choked syllabals. The barbarian, with many shakes of his head and jerks of his claw-like hand, spat his advice onto the floor of the forum.
“He says,” translated Deuterostos, “that the city is strangling us.” His monologue grew in volume and rapidity. “He says that we have forgotten the feel of the wind on our faces We have forgotten how to ride, hunt and fight: how to live.” The barbarian, beard trembling, gestured wildly around him. “We have become afraid.”

With the barbarians' words still ringing in my ears, I re-entered Father's chamber. Placing a pitcher of water by his bedside, I knelt. His cheeks appeared to have recovered some colour, his eyes their twinkle. As I opened my mouth, he spoke.
“What did the barbarian have to say?” I started. He observed me with a raised eyebrow. “Oh,” he continued, “You and I are not as different as you think.” I snorted, something resembling a laugh.
“He said that we have become un-manned, mewlings suckling at the city's teat. His sentiments were along such lines.”
“And I agree.”
“So you find some value in his ideas?”
“Yes. That thought, at least, I found valuable.”
“It is as you say,” he said, eyes on the ceiling. “We need ideas, but we need to men to put them into practice. Men cultivate crops, husband animals, build defences. These ideas let us thrive and grow. Suddenly, we find, no longer do we need to spend every waking hour and every breath struggling to survive. Then,” he said, after a pause, “we spend our time thinking, talking, writing poetry, creating art, giving our lives meaning. This is what we have achieved. This is civilization.”
“This is civilization,” I echoed. “This is what sets us apart from the barbarians, scratching around in the dirt.” I stood over my father. “So we build walls to keep them out, ramparts to defend ourselves. If I were King, I would build a city to stand forever.”
Father's face hardened. Wheezing, he turned away. “While I am King,” he said, “We shall have reconciliation.”
Shaking my head, I knelt again by his bedside. I filled a glass , then held it up to his lips. He brought his head, quivering, forwards. Trembling with the effort of holding himself in position, he gulped down the water, and sighed. Reclining once again, he breathed deeply for a few moments before a choke interrupted the steady rise and fall of his chest. He recovered himself for a moment, then again his chest caught as he inhaled. A frown crossed his face, then his upper body convulsed, his head jerking upwards from the pillow. Gasping, he stared at the glass of water in accusation. With his free hand, he clutched at his throat. His eyes, bulging in horror and realisation, bore into mine. The glass shattered on the polished floor.

The Royal Gong was booming. Sheets of black silk hung from the palace walls. Minute by minute, the shouts and clashes of the mob had died away. Without even a word from the palace, the news had spread throughout the city, blanketing it in silence. Awesome, I thought, was the power of a single idea. Father would have appreciated the moment.

I looked over the city once more from the Menzabar tower. To the West, the rising trail of dust still signalled the approach of the barbarians, oblivious to the barred gate and soldiers lining the walls. They would first, I reasoned, encounter their ambassador treading his lonely path away from the city.
I paused for a moment to listening to the rising buzz from the tide of people at the gates of the palace. Then I stepped forward into the light.
Seeing me on the balcony, framed by the pristine marble of the royal palace, they roared their acclaim as one:
“Hail, Ozymandias! King of Kings!”

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Comments by other Members

Becca at 16:32 on 07 August 2006  Report this post
Hi Ivan,
This is presented as a short story, but reads like an extract from an historical or fantasy novel, this is because there are an awful lot of characters, albeit minor ones, there's no storyline much, other than a man might have poisoned his father, and it alludes to a great many other stories and intrigues that happened in the past, so as an actual short story, it's terribly slight.
I have to say that I think the writing style is a bit stiff. I know you're writing in a specific genre here that does tend to use over-stylised prose, but unless you're really wedded to it, it's a great deal more fun, but also hard work, to head towards a development of your own unique style, your writer's voice, in fact.
The thing that I noticed in particular, which is easily remedied, was 'His eyes followed me out of his chamber.' What do you really think about this phrase? It's always difficult to find different ways of describing a character looking, gazing or staring at another character or a thing. But the phrase you used, [and later 'his eyes on the ceiling'], lets you down, - it's a kind of cliche, and what you're really saying is: he watched me as I left his chamber.' I think just to say it how it is, is more elegant and straightforward, and it does impart the same meaning to the reader.
Along the same lines, words like 'declaimed' and 'argued' only serve to arrest the reader. 'Said' is always better if you can use it because it's 'invisible.'
Both the issues above are to do with style, so if you can avoid them, you're on your way. A writer I'm reading at the moment, Richard Yates, said that honesty in writing is essential, and that writers might use the phrase 'a battered hat', when what they meant was a hat that had been handled a lot. So why not, he asked, use the phrase 'a much-handled hat?' In your text here you have 'The mob exploded...' So, am I to take you literally, or am I to think you didn't pay enough attention to this bit???

I liked the short description of the city, it was good and controlled writing, and it does the job well.

I think there's some missing quote marks from 'They have been....' [near the beginning with the father talking]. Also, I didn't think you needed a semi-colon after 'passage', [a comma instead], but you did need one after 'walls' because here you're saying the same thing in a different way in the same sentence. 'Listening' at the end needs to be 'listen', or 'to' needs to go.
I hope my thoughts have been useful.

ivan at 20:49 on 09 August 2006  Report this post
Hi Becca,

thanks for the useful comments. Having looked at my story again after some time away from it, I can see where you're coming from, particularly with respect to the style in which it is written.

I also see what you mean about the number of characters and sub-plots alluded to. I had read several peices of advice on short story writing which stated the need for few characters and stong plot. I thought I had managed to achieve these to some extent, but perhaps not as successfully as I'd originally thought.

Anyway, thanks again for these pointers, and hopefully I can make some progress in these areas in my next story.


Sibelius at 16:29 on 12 August 2006  Report this post
Hi Ivan,

I don't have much more to add to what Becca said as she has highlighted some good points here.

What I would say is that this is a good effort for only your second completed short story and that you should take encouragement from this.

There are a couple of things which strike me:

1. The tendency to overwrite in places, describing exactly what the characters are doing in order to emphasise their words. It's preferable to convey this through the dialogue. John Steinbeck wrote something about this once, I think he said something along the lines of: "I want to figure out what the guy that's talking looks like from the way he talks and what the guy is thinking from what he says." I reckon that's good advice.

2. The story might lose some of its impact if the reader doesn't know about the story of Ozymandius and the way his ego and his ultimate legacy don't quite match up.

Sierrio at 12:23 on 31 August 2006  Report this post
I liked your story and wanted to read on to see what happened It was well written and the characters seemed real and personal to me.

Someone mentioned Ozymandias is a known story? I’ve never heard of it. You may want to verify that your audience knows the story of Ozymandias before you submit. I don’t know about the UK, but if most Americans are like me, it will be lost.

I like the conflicts and personalities you built between the Father, son, council at the people. The conflict between an ailing father and a son itching to take over control felt real. I could really feel his irritation and anticipation. I also liked the council with their reluctance to say what they think and their exasperation with trying to deal with something they are not qualified for. Finally, I like the presence of the people as a single entity and how they were so influential in the story. It’s all great conflict that really makes the plot emotional and moving. Good job.

Things that could have been better

The first two sentences: “My Father spluttered, wheezed, and then, with a grimace, raised first his head from the pillow, then propped his body onto his elbow. The pain passing from his face, fire returned to his pupils.” I like the visuals but wow there are a lot of words! I love the detailed description and word choice you have, but it seems to be slowing down the action. Another example “marble spires lit white and sprawling stone houses glowing gold in the desert”. Again, great line. But I have to admit that I skimmed over it the first time. It was too much and my eyes went looking for the next action verb. Maybe it’s just style, but I found that the pace really dragged.

From the beginning of the story, the son talks about “in the light of last night’s events”. So what really happened last night? I kept reading wanting to find out but I never really knew for sure. Was it the people uprising? Was it something that caused the perimeter walls to become damaged? I never really understood what happened the previous night, which to me was important, but that’s what triggered the son to plan to poison his father.

When the son said “If I were king. I would build a city to stand forever” seemed out of character to me. I just didn’t think that the son would truly say this to his father. In seems to me that in this village where the council was afraid to voice their opinion to the Prince (he is still a prince at this point), he sure takes a risk saying this to his Father. Wouldn’t saying this be treason regardless of whether he is the king’s son? Perhaps he says it out of revenge because he knows in moments he is going to poison his father, but we don’t know that yet.

But one final note, I felt this story line overall was a little overused. “Father the king is on his death bed so Prince son kills Father the king in order to tae over the kingdom.” It sounds like this story line has been done so many times before. Although I like your vivid and stylish writing, the story seemed too deja vu to me.

Thanks for letting me read it

ivan at 03:33 on 12 September 2006  Report this post
Hi Sibelius, Sierrio,

thanks both for your comments and encouragement. Apologies also for the slow reply - I've been travelling in China for the last month or so, and as a result haven't had time to log in.

I'll take your thoughts into account for my next story, which I hope to start work on shortly.

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