One of the most personal pieces I’ve ever written, equal to A World Away and Buried Deep (published in Flame Tree) is out today in Metastellar:Where a literary creatures meets her audience and must make a decision. Do you think it was the right one?
Give it a read! My heart and hope is in it.
If you’ve ever watched Madmen there’s a scene where Rachel Menkin talks to Don about a country she’s never been to, doesn’t plan to go to, and yet still has a connection with because of her roots and she says to him “it just has to be. To me it’s more of an idea than a place.”
In many ways, belief in the coat’s existence is how I thought about Ukraine, the country of my birth. It was enough for me knowing the place is there. Where generations of my family lived and suffered. That maybe one day I would see it and if not that’s okay too because it’s there. And now… for me… the streets about which I’ve heard stories all my life are gone. Rubble. I’ll never get to see them, people’s lives–if they’ve survived–are completely upturned.
Lets always believe in the existence of good and manifesting it into reality. To Gogol’s overcoat, it continues to inspire so many years later.
Look at this beautiful cover! And my story is in it!!!
Indirectly this story deals with how I feel separated from my Ukrainian heritage because so much of it is overshadowed and completely engulfed by its occupation during the Soviet Union. And then immigrating to the USA very young on top of it all. As my MC alien learns the hard lesson that the stories she passes down to her son are true in their own right, I’m trying to accept the same for those stories I pass down to my littles.
“The stories explore the world from the perspective of the incoming, whether necessitated through war or oppression, financial or familial need, or with hope for a better future, examining visions of displacement and relocation in future and speculative settings.”
The future has arrived and it’s bleak. Fed up with streaming and subscription services not letting you “own” anything? You’ll want to read my short story “Subscribers Only,” available in this amazing anthology. It’s going to get worse before it gets better but there is hope in human resilience and search for connection.
I hope you like it! Let me know in the comments and we can chat about it.
I am so happy to share my reprint with the world. It’s my 1st ever publication. My whisper to the world I’m here, I’ve something to say, take notice. If I wrote it today I think I’d go about it very differently. How amazing it is that every piece we write is a snapshot of ourselves at the time.
As I’ve mentioned, no story is written in a vacuum. It comes from the writer’s experience. Supposedly, Ray Bradbury wrote this story as a response to the 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The 1940’s experienced a general societal awareness of technology, robots, and their potential role in society. Some feared robots would take over their jobs (how relevant this remains today with AI art and chatgpt). Others believed the rate of technological advancement would outstrip humanity’s ability to keep up with ethical problems that would arise from these advancements. All of this in a background of a world that had survived two world wars in a short span of time, I’ve little doubt, percolated in Ray Bradbury’s head to inspire this fantastic piece of literature.
The title of the story comes from a poem by Sara Teasdale of the same name. Inspiration for this poem came not from WWI, when humanity first really came to grips with the massive destruction they were capable of committing against the environment and each other. It asserts nature cares little for human exploits.
The poem itself features in the story but I’ll present it here out of order. In the story, this poem is a favorite of Mrs. McClellan’s.
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;
Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.
The summary of the poem is bleak but also unexpectedly positive. Man will wipe itself (himself? themselves? herein I’ll refer as itself, no offense meant) from the Earth but nature and animals will continue on like nothing ever happened, completely unhindered by the means of man’s destruction. What an optimistic perspective when it comes down to it!
I think with this foundation we can start to probe into the amazing short story:
Now to the discussion:
“‘Tick-tock, seven o’clock, time to get up, time to get up, seven o ‘clock!’ as if it were afraid that nobody would.”
There are already seeds of the ominous despite the cheery, even childish tone. The contrast adds to the horror.
Why would the voice-clock be afraid nobody would wake up? In the next sentence we’re told the house is empty. And yet the house is full of activity, making so much ado about nothing. Is it in denial? Or simply running its programming? I think there’s a bit of both at play.
“At eight-thirty the eggs were shrivelled and the toast was like stone.”
So much food wasted and the eggs are shrivelled after only being out for 1 1/2 hours, the toast is inedible. There is more going on than meets the eye. The house sets everything right and continues on. I, as the reader, am dropped into this world wondering why? Where is everyone? This story doesn’t withhold, soon it’ll tell me.
Mice scurry to clean up the mess. How fascinating that of all the robotic animals Bradbury could have used, he chose mice–the image most people associate with filth. Why? Perhaps to say that so often we humans are the pests of the earth. Or perhaps because man changes nature to suit his needs.
The story has already shown us how advanced this house is, how much thought and energy went into making this a “smart” home and yet not the same thought and energy was devoted to humans caring for one another, communicating with words rather than weapons. It’s an important contrast to see how technology is being used to do so much for people. It almost makes me think of the book Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, where humans lose their sense of purpose because machines complete their tasks. It’s a theme Bradbury touches on in Fahrenheit 451 also.
“Ten o’clock. The sun came out from behind the rain. The house stood alone in a city of rubble and ashes. This was the one house left standing. At night the ruined city gave off a radioactive glow which could be seen for miles.”
This is our first look outside the house and of everything in its vicinity, it alone remains. Oddly, in fantastic condition given there’s been a nuclear fallout that has seemingly destroyed the rest of the world (or at least any neighboring area).
What a beautiful way to phrase it too. The sun didn’t come out from behind a cloud but from “behind the rain.”
It’s important that it HAD been raining but now the sun is out. Almost to parallel how nature was under the cloud of man’s fancies and now, with them gone (leaving a city of rubble and ashes) nature can resume in the light. These are the soft rains that come.
It also tells us what’s happened to this world. Time is important both in year (we’re told it’s 2026 though in the original version it was 1985) and by the hour as the voice-clock provides the only dialogue. The year itself is not so important–the important bit is this is right around the corner.
A reminder to us that our time is not infinite and we must use what we have of it with care.
“The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down. The five spots of paint – the man, the woman, the children, the ball – remained. The rest was a thin charcoaled layer.”
We meet the “characters” only by absence. A family like any family. Not one warring but innocent, playful. Going about their business like it’s an ordinary day. Children playing ball.
Another point, is this how you pictured the family? Frankly, I find the idea of a man mowing his lawn when he has such a “smart” home contradictory. I can’t imagine he wouldn’t just have a programmed lawnmower for that. But it’s besides the point. Why use this image? It clues us into what their last moments were like. How lucky for them, I think sometimes, that they died oblivious. Or is it lucky? Every war, every violence, has collateral damage. The story isn’t as powerful without this image.
It quivered at each sound, the house did. If a sparrow brushed a window, the shade snapped up. The bird, startled, flew off! No, not even a bird must touch the house!
The house knows something more is wrong. Does it know the horrors of what? Does it know its people–worse, no people, will ever return? Importantly, the house fears nature. Tries to keep itself separate from it. Nature wants in. The ever-constant struggle.
Then we meet the family dog. The house recognizes it, lets it in, cleans up after it (nature after all is dirty).
“The dog ran upstairs, hysterically yelping to each door, at last realizing, as the house realized, that only silence was here. It sniffed the air and scratched the kitchen door. Behind the door, the stove was making pancakes which filled the house with a rich baked odour and the scent of maple syrup. The dog frothed at the mouth, lying at the door, sniffing, its eyes turned to fire. It ran wildly in circles, biting at its tail, spun in a frenzy, and died. It lay in the parlor for an hour.
Two o’clock, sang a voice. Delicately sensing decay at last, the regiments of mice hummed out as softly as blown gray leaves in an electrical wind.”
This story is rich in symbolism. What does the house represent? Perhaps ourselves, man’s hubris, man’s dominance over the world. The legacy we leave behind. The dog? Some say the dog represents nature. I think there is an aspect of that but it’s missing an important core: the dog represents nature as tamed by man. And when man is gone, that too will die, as the dog does. This death is important and pivotal, because it foreshadows the house’s ultimate loss of purpose and its own destruction. Man, and things for man/loyal to man, will all be doomed to the same fate. Again look at the focus to time. It’s only 2 o’clock. Afternoon/midday. Humanity should be in its wise-years but humanity is dead and (almost) all it loved gone with it.
Look also at how the dog is disposed. Like common trash, incinerated in the cellar. No ceremony.
“At ten o’clock the house began to die.”
It’s unclear how long it’s been since the radioactive fallout that caused the inciting incident but once into the story, we’ve known the house for only 15 hours before it meets its doom. How does it go out? Nature kills it. But not nature alone. The final blow was the ingredients within the house itself. Ingredients put there by humans to ensure cleanliness.
“The wind blew. A falling tree bough crashed through the kitchen window. Cleaning solvent, bottled, shattered over the stove. The room was ablaze in an instant!”
And for the first time we really see the house as a character unto itself because it’s not passive in its death.
“The house tried to save itself. Doors sprang tightly shut, but the windows were broken by the heat and the wind blew and sucked upon the fire.
The house gave ground as the fire in ten billion angry sparks moved with flaming ease from room to room and then up the stairs. While scurrying water rats squeaked from the walls, pistolled their water, and ran for more. And the wall sprays let down showers of mechanical rain.”
The house must fight because if it doesn’t, it won’t hit that same emotional resonance when it eventually loses to the flames. This is not the 1st try/fail cycle the house has had. It’s the final and most important one, however, because this isn’t just for the people who once lived there. It’s a fight for itself, for all that remains. For the legacy left behind by man. And it almost wins! Almost is never enough.
“And then, reinforcements. From attic trapdoors, blind robot faces peered down with faucet mouths gushing green chemical.
The fire backed off, as even an elephant must at the sight of a dead snake.”
“But the fire was clever. It had sent flame outside the house, up through the attic to the pumps there. An explosion! The attic brain which directed the pumps was shattered into bronze shrapnel on the beam.”
It’s important that attic is referred to as the brain here because as the reader we’re meant to believe this is a stand-in for us. Our hero. Our loyal servant. And we do, or at least I do.
“In the last instant under the fire avalanche, other choruses, oblivious, could be heard announcing the time, cutting the lawn by remote-control mower, or setting an umbrella frantically out and in, the slamming and opening front door, a thousand things happening, like a clock shop when each clock strikes the hour insanely before or after the other, a scene of maniac confusion, yet unity; singing, screaming, a few last cleaning mice darting bravely out to carry the horrid ashes away! And one voice, with sublime disregard for the situation, read poetry aloud in the fiery study, until all the film spools burned, until all the wires withered and the circuits cracked.”
Why does Bradbury write this? Why are there parts of the house oblivious to this devastation? Because this is a mirror to ourselves in two ways. One, we can’t be ignorant of the greater politics going on around/without us because whether we participate or not, it will impact us. Another is perhaps this is the house’s last stand. Not cowering but proud. It’s disregard to the flames is “sublime,” inspirational. It dies with poetry thrumming through its burning vocal chords.
“Dawn showed faintly in the east. Among the ruins, one wall stood alone. Within the wall, a last voice said, over and over again and again, even as the sun rose to shine upon the heaped rubble and steam: ‘Today is August 5, 2026, today is August 5, 2026, today is…'”
Bradbury begs us to continue for him. Today is what, what type of day will that be? Will we choose kindness over jealousy? Sharing over collecting? Are we getting closer to this nuclear end or have we learned our lesson?
The ending is incredibly sad and nostalgic. That mention of steam, isn’t that how all this began with the industrial revolution? So it ends.
The voice continues on to nobody in its Sisyphean task–and I do think it’s meant to call back to Sisyphus carrying the boulder up the hill only for it to roll down near the summit. The sun shines on this heaped rubble, nature has won. All man and man’s accomplishments are meaningless dust. There is only the voice, until that too will utter its last. Is there no way for nature and man to exist in harmony? The story is not a prediction, it’s not answering “no” to the question. It’s a warning. A question to us. Today is…?
Back to the title, soft rains–any rains, may have spared the house. They do not come. In opposing nature, man destroys itself and its memory.
I can see the title as a good fit because it refers to when those soft rains do come, they’ll not be for man, as the poem goes onto show.
However, and maybe it’s human-centric of me, and this is why Bradbury is Bradbury and Yelena isn’t, the title I think is more appropriate would be “The Last Voice” not because that last voice is man–it’s not. Man is gone. The last voice we hear saying “today is…” the echo of man. Would you re-title it? If so, how? Why? A good title is able to either summarize the story down to its core or aid to recontextualize it. So what is this story about to you?
I hope these thoughts made you think about this fantastic short in a new way. I’d love to continue the discussion in the comments!
A story can always be improved. The review made me realize where I could have done better. The reviewer writes: ” Five years ago, ninety percent of the world hooked into Virtual Reality for life” but actually that was how much time had passed since Logan lost his daughter to VR, not how long the world itself had suffered the loss of the human population. Logan had been working with the Reality faction since he was young, before he had Jean. I had hoped mentioning the state of the roads would have planted a seed for readers that this problem has persisted for a while.
The writing business is all about developing a thick skin–for constant rejections, self-doubt, unfavorable reviews (which this wasn’t, lucky me!), etc. So live, learn, grow thicker skin!
I’ve loved the Little Prince since 5th grade and have reread it many times through the years. Recently I had the great pleasure of sharing this work with my own children. It’s long overdue I put my thoughts on this transformative book into text.
To start, as any writer knows a work/character is not representative of the writer, but no work is written in a vacuum. Antoine De Saint Exupery underwent many hardships, stranded on a desert much like his pilot in the story, and saw many of the horrors of WWII firsthand. I think viewing the book through the context of his surroundings is vital for understanding the little prince and his relationship with the pilot.
The book starts with the famous drawing of a hat…or is it a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant? The problem is not that “grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them;” it is that they shut down discourse when reality does not match their expectations. The problem also lies in how the pilot interpreted their response. Sure he was 6, but as an adult he should have seen he wasn’t fair to the grownups. So much of our vision is perception based on our situational experience. How many grownups have seen or know that boa constrictors can swallow an elephant and how they’d look after having done it? How many more grownups have seen hats? In reality, both the children (through no fault of their own) and adults (though the fault of age and higher reasoning) talk past each other.
The pilot points out that, “When you tell them about a new friend, [grown-ups] never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask: ‘What does his voice sounds like?’ ‘What games does he like best?’ ‘Does he collect butterflies?’ They ask: ‘How old is he?’ ‘How many brothers does he have?’ ‘How much does he weigh?’ ‘How much money does his father make?’”
Is it any wonder that the pilot points this out when the author himself saw the breakdown of communication all around him? Maybe if people had bothered asking about those things that mattered the whole mess of genocide over differences of religion, abilities, sexual orientation, etc could have been avoided.
The Little Prince says, “Only the children know what they are looking for. They waste their time over a rag doll and it becomes very important to them; And if anybody takes it away from them they cry.”
“They are lucky,” the switchman said.
Why are they lucky? Because they know what they’re looking for? I would argue not that alone. It’s because they don’t fear making connections and strong bonds with a rag doll. To a child that rag doll is no small thing, it’s no waste of time. It is a world. A companion. A piece of themselves. And they offer it to the rag doll with no expectation of anything in return.
My favorite part of the book is the chapter with the fox and taming.
But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”
“I am beginning to understand,” said the little prince. “There is a flower… I think that she has tamed me…”
Again and again this book centers on the theme of making connections and relationships. A child and their rag doll. A little prince and his rose. A pilot and his laughing stars. I can’t speak for the author but as a reader I wonder, does Antoine De Saint-Exupery think if we tamed each other more the problems in the world could cease, or at the least lessen?
“People where you live,” the little prince said, “grow five thousand roses in one garden… yet they don’t find what they’re looking for…” “They don’t find it,” I answered. “And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water…” Of course,” I answered. And the little prince added, “But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.”
Here is his lesson to the world. Tame each other. Be unique to one another. Because those we tame, we dare not hurt. We dare not see their loved ones hurt. Look with our hearts. Ask the questions that matter.
“But what does that mean– ‘ephemeral’?” repeated the little prince, who never in his life had let go of a question, once he had asked it.
And of course all this taming is important because we, like the little prince’s rose, are ephemeral. We only have so much time to tame each other. But more than that, we must also not let go of our questions. Once the answers are at hand, the work is not over. We must examine the answers too. How could critical thinking, and questioning the status quo have changed the world Antoine De Saint-Exupery knew?
The book focuses a lot on the invisible things that bring us joy or sorrow. The power of the invisible. Is it power partly derived because of its invisibility? I think it hearkens back to why the rag doll matters. It’s invisible because people have lost sight of it, because they look at it the wrong way. They see the hat and not the boa constrictor. But if they looked…they’d see a fox waiting for a little prince. A little prince tending to his rose–its soil just so. It’s invisible because the world in 1939 (and really at any time given the right location) couldn’t see it.
Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
“It is the time I have wasted for my rose–” said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.
“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose…”
“What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well…”
The power is not because it’s invisible.We know the well is there…somewhere. Once found it’s no longer invisible and not any less valuable.
This book is a prayer from author to reader. A prayer that says: please, return the lost connections.
A prayer to teach others not to be lost again, not to forget because when we do, something as awful as WWII can happen. I believe here Antoine De Saint-Exupery and/or the pilot is reflecting on what adults lost sight of in his time. We must take responsibility for the essential things. We must not forget. It can start with roses, with rag dolls, with streetlamps, with foxes…it must not end there. Invisible why? Because without vigilance they can become invisible. And once they do, it’s so much harder to tame and bear responsibility.
So if you’ve made it this far…tell me what does your voice sound like? What games do you like best? Do you collect butterflies?
As promised on my twitter, here is the new drabble. I am now paranoid that I talked it up too much with the “drabble you won’t want to miss.” Maybe it is miss-able but its themes have been heavy on my mind.
Does it remind you of a certain song?
Let me know in the comments if it worked/didn’t work for you.
And stay tuned, I’ll soon be posting an analysis of a short story I love.
“Mama!” Matty’s always tugging on her tired skirt for attention.
Gail slips on the little yellow VR headset over Matty’s disappointed eyes. “Mama’s here,” she says, and flicks the power switch on. She just needs a minute’s peace.
An hour’s passed before she notices Matty’s mouth open in a silent scream.
Guilt-ridden, Gail shuts off the VR. It releases Matty’s wails to the room.
He doesn’t let her near, hate and fear in his eyes.
She doesn’t want to think about what he’s seen because she forgot to adjust the viewer settings.
They don’t truly bleed. They don’t truly laugh but “if you unplug us, do we not die?” My drabble “In Defense of Simulations” is out today. It’s only 100 words but I hope it makes you think, question, feel.