It’s a marvelous day to dance with death. Its incarnations and personifications are many, but usually the old specter comes with shadow and bone. He’s pretty much the biggest party pooper ever. That’s why we’re talking about death on a Monday
Anyway, The Writer’s Arena first annual tournament rages on. We’ve entered the second bout, and our authors had to serve up some hot steaming death. Somehow both went a little more subtle than that.
Albert Berg crossed space and time with “The Thief.”
Donald J. Uitvlugt gave us mercy with “La Santa Muerta.”
Our first judge is an amazing A/V editor, archiver, campaign runner, and all around thoughtful badass. His name is Jon Jones and you should definitely follow him on twitter.
I am once again honored to be invited as a judge in the Arena, especially when both competitors are master story-tellers for whom I have the highest regard. Casting “Death” as a character in this prompt can present quite a challenge in bringing something new and unique to a trope that is as old as story-telling itself. The stories this week certainly did not disappoint. Let’s begin:
“The Thief” by Albert Berg
Wow, this story got heavy, and deep…and I didn’t see it coming.
Through what initially comes across as a fairly simple parable of sorts, Mr. Berg introduces us to a conceptual character that never shows it’s face and never speaks a line, but is nevertheless ever present throughout the entire narrative, and is dutifully hinted at by the story’s secondary protagonist, Death (portrayed here as a shadow).
The “Thief” in this tale is (for lack of a better term) Time itself, the “something worse” the shadow made mention of, and its presence is ingeniously interwoven in the language of this story, providing the descriptive backdrop of every scene. Beginning with the rays of the sun shining down upon the wealthiest and most powerful man in the world, and ending with the shadow of death trying to hold a conversation with the last remaining simple, stupid creature foraging through the darkest part of the ocean, Time is the ever-present thief by which all wealth, power, art, knowledge, and creation itself is ultimately seen to be meaningless as far as Death is concerned.
I liked how the shadow, as Time’s constant observer, developed through the story – at first coming across as reserved and almost dismissive about the “terrible and wonderful” accomplishments of humanity, only to eventually become needy and imploring itself once confronted with the impending obsolesce of its singular purpose.
And in the very end, after Death has made its final exit, only Time, after emptying the universe of all else, remains as the very last word in the very last line. This ending sequence was brilliantly executed.
“La Santa Muerte” by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt
There is a notably complex duality in this story – ambitiously framing the grandiosity of several timeless mythologies within a poignant and intimate encounter between a dying girl and a sad, embittered angel assigned to take her soul.
Although the story takes place in the girl’s hospital room, we are only granted snippets of information peppered throughout the narrative as to the gravity of her circumstances. The main character in this tale is Death itself, presented initially as a graceful, but seemingly morose woman, and we come to understand more about her as the two characters engage in a politely obstinate debate about the nature of her divine duty.
I loved this story, though I admit I felt at times somewhat unsure about where it was headed. Part way through it took me a few moments to wrap my mind around, and in fact appreciate the story (or stories) within a story construct being utilized to elaborate on the conflicting perspectives of Death’s character. But as the two characters continued to parlay with various mythologies, each countering the other with just the right amount of detail and nuance to substantiate their differing attitudes on what they both know what is about to happen.
By incorporating familiar and timeless mythologies, poetically conveyed through the lens of cultural wisdom, Mr. Uitvlught has crafted something especially touching and deeply personal with this tale. And it is quite beautifully written.
Both of these stories were brilliantly written, each with a uniquely creative approach to the prompt, and providing a richly rewarding reading experience. Though each story is in its own right a commendably solid entry for the Arena tournament, I can only cast my vote for one. My vote this week goes to the story that had the most emotional impact for me, and that story is: “La Santa Muerte” by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt.
Phew! This week might have been the toughest week ever in the arena, at least for me. I read each story multiple times, sat and thought about them for a while, started to write a verdict, slept on it and started all over. Add in the tournament aspect of this battle, which I could be sending someone home with my vote, and I feel like I am competing in the arena and not just judging. Still, we need a winner so let’s take a look at our stories.
“La Santa Muerte” by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt – I have become somewhat familiar with Mr Uitvlugt’s work through his time in the arena and other flash fiction endeavors. I am pretty sure I could pick this story out as his even if it didn’t have a title.
I absolutely love the beginning of this story. It sets the mood very well. The choice of words and time taken to try and explain the reason for the strangeness of the woman also slow down the pace of the story, which is perfect. I have developed this theory that the entire exchange between Jacinta and the woman happens in the space between moments. I see it as if the entire world slows down and allows this conversation to take place.
The request for a story is great. To me it drives home the fact that Jacinta is a young girl. Denied candy and flowers, too weak to play, she simply wants someone to tell her a story and talk to her. Wonderful.
The trading of stories works so well here and I was honestly a bit surprised. They become a way for two entities from such different worlds to engage in a true conversation. Not only are the stories they tell a product of their backgrounds but also colored throughout with each person’s hopes, dreams and general worldview.
The woman uses her stories to convey to Jacinta her unhappiness with her place in the world. She has grown weary of her part in the way of the world and is filled with a deep melancholy. (I really enjoyed the idea that even death can get depressed).
Jacinta counters back with versions of the same stories filled with the ideas of mercy and kindness. She doesn’t want Death to feel bad about what is to come or what has gone past. Maybe because of the cancer, Jacinta has an outlook that exceeds that of a child. Jacinta knows that Death is a necessary, and sometimes welcome, part of life.
I like to think that La Santa Muerte went on to her next dance partner with her head held a little bit higher. I think that Jacinta had a fairly profound effect on the eternal being and has eased her pain as much as La Santa Muerte eased Jacinta’s.
I genuinely felt bad for Death after reading this story. The years upon years of loneliness and heartache were conveyed quite clear. Any story that can do that is an excellent story indeed.
“The Thief” by Albert Berg – Kings, great artists, even the fishes in the sea, everything has an appointment to keep. Turns out that even Death itself has that appointment.
Mr Berg has, in his time in the arena, made the unusual his usual. One thing I can always count on from him is a different viewpoint on something I thought I knew. This is true even for death.
I really like how the first two stories mirror each other while also subtly conveying the passage of time. The transition from a “barbarian” king to a painting on canvas implies an evolution of society that comes into play in a bit.
I also loved the exchange that Death has with each of the first two characters. The pleas for an extra day are granted with the explanation that it “matters very little to me”. (We find out later that it does in fact matter quite a deal to him) This cavalier dismissal (and the later revelation) plants the idea that Death is somehow beholden of time as much as anyone else. The threat made to both king and artist reinforce this idea and show that Death has a lot of respect, maybe even fear, for Time.
The final exchange is the best of them all. In a way the tables have turned on Death. Faced now with what has become the last living thing in the universe, he is the one longing for an extension. That his final charge is so primitive as to not be able to request this is a great touch.
I have never considered just what Death would do when there was nothing left alive. I get the idea that Death hadn’t considered it much either. The idle wandering, the pause at the door that shows maybe a little apprehension on Death’s part, it all makes Death more human, more relatable.
I like how the last line of the story is another reference to the horrible destroyer that is time. Well done.
Both stories this week showed us that Death is not the unfeeling, uncaring reaper of souls that we have been warned about. Both of our authors chose to humanize Death to different degrees and make us see things through their eyes. I love the way the arena seems to bring that out of people. Now the part I have been putting off. Only one author can move on, only one story can be declared the winner even those both are worthy of the title. This week I have to cast my vote for the story that made me feel more, that drew me into the story more. That story is “La Santa Muerte” by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt
Boom! Just like that Donald J. Uitvlugt moves on and early favorite Albert Berg is done for the year! Congratulations Donald, you definitely earned this victory.
Let’s see if our audience agrees.
It’s a close vote, but Albert has the people’s choice. Since the judges decision was unanimous, it doesn’t pick out winner.
Once again congratulations to Donald Uitvlugt! You will be facing Joseph Devon in a few short weeks.
Be sure to come back next week for an inky battle between Hannah Newell and Tony Southcotte!