The Rock Triptych
This group of three flash pieces was written as an assignment for a MOOC associated with the Iowa Writer’s Project. The prompt for the first (the option I chose) was to write a story about an object that stirs wonder, from the point-of-view of an animal. The second prompt was to take the same object and make it the focus of conflict in a story with at least two characters. The third part was to involve the object in the settling of the argument.
I wrote in three different genres: experimental literary fiction with some elements of parody for the first, character-oriented literary fiction for the second and very silly science fiction humor for the third, with the three pieces taken together functioning as a romance but having the feel of science fiction. I hope it gives you a flavor of some of the places my stories go. Sure, this piece doesn’t feature any hard science fiction, environmental/economic critical dystopia, or near-future social criticism—all also frequent themes in my writing—but for these, visit my page of links to published short stories.
Tolkien Re-Envisioned with a Gorilla Protagonist
Water falls from sky. All no-hair-on-face leave. Water stop, many no-hair-on-face come back. Bilbo swings from rope, Bilbo climbs tree. Little no-hair-on-face smiles. Bilbo smiles.
Bilbo pick up cracked-open rock. Rock sparkles like yellow fire in sky. Rock is purple and silver and green.
Rock was gift from Ellen. Ellen said, “Bilbo, I know you like pretty things. My first paycheck came yesterday. Now that I’m in charge of primates at the zoo, I get paid a little more. I bought you a present. I hope you like it.”
Rock is so pretty. Bilbo loves rock, Bilbo loves Ellen.
Bilbo’s only friends: Ellen and flat man. Flat man talks to all little no-hair-on-face. Flat man says, “Bilbo is a silverback. In the wild, gorillas live in a troop with two to three other adult males and some younger males. Gorillas eat mostly fruit.”
There are more silverbacks? Flat man always say so.
When yellow fire in sky goes away, Ellen touches finger to wall near flat man. Flat man goes away. When flat man goes away, wall is black.
Ellen gives Bilbo bananas and apples and pears. Gorillas eat mostly fruit.
Ellen would never touch Bilbo or make Bilbo go away.
Yellow fire in sky goes away, Bilbo sleeps.
Yellow fire in sky comes back. Many no-hair-on-face today, most little. They smell like sweat and dirt and salty food. Too many. They point at Bilbo. Bilbo reaches under rock, grabs poop.
But Ellen says, “No, Bilbo.” So Bilbo plays with rock instead.
Ellen tells all no-hair-on-face to listen to flat man. Flat man says new words. He says, “Severe storm warning. Leave the zoo immediately. Vouchers for refunds will be issued at the gate.” All no-hair-on-face leave.
Except Ellen. “Bilbo, you’ll be fine. Just stay under the roof. You can’t go in the outside part of your home. You understand?”
No, Bilbo doesn’t understand. But if Ellen say, “It’s a dangerous business…going out of your door,” it’s true.
Ellen takes big, round ring from pocket. Ellen locks Bilbo’s cage. Ellen never locks Bilbo in! Why now? Bilbo cannot go outside to play on big tire swing.
Ellen returns and hangs ring on wall near flat man. Ellen touches the wall, and flat man goes away. Before yellow fire in sky goes away?
Ellen leaves. Yellow fire in sky leaves. Bilbo picks up rock and kisses it. Rock will stay with Bilbo.
Water falls from sky and yellow fire flashes. Bilbo hears crash like Ellen drops dinner plate, but more loud. More flash, more crash.
Floor is wet. Not like when Ellen cleans, wet and more wet. Bilbo’s feet are cold.
“Don’t leave,” Ellen said.
Home is where Bilbo wants to stay. But water wets Bilbo’s tummy.
Can Bilbo get the ring? Bilbo reaches through the bars, stretching, stretching… Yes! Bilbo twists knobs on ring like he saw Ellen do. The gate opens.
Bilbo grabs rock, runs outside and … Bright fire, crash, wet—very wet.
“Don’t jump over the fence,” Ellen said. But Ellen is gone.
Bilbo walks through water around his home and climbs up fence. Bilbo is where no-hair-on-face walk. Only Bilbo is there today. He walks and walks and walks and walks.
Too wet—Bilbo is cold. Another cage? Where is Ellen? Where is flat man?
A shelter ahead looks dry. Bilbo pushes the door. It doesn’t move. Bilbo tries the knobs on the ring. They don’t open the door. Bilbo is sad and frightened.
Maybe the rock can help. Bilbo pounds the rock on the door.
It opens, and it’s Ellen! “Bilbo, what in the world? Come inside and I’ll dry you off.”
Ellen wraps Bilbo in a soft furry. Bilbo lays his head on Ellen’s shoulder. The flat man is there too. He says, “Severe storm warning will continue for the next hour.”
The flat man lives outside Bilbo’s home? Why? He is quite a little fellow.
“I guess you’ll have to stay here tonight, Bilbo. No more wandering in the wide world. Would you like an apple?”
Bilbo grunted. No more adventures today, thank you.
Zak had thrown Bilbo’s rock into the garbage.
With one hand, Ellen fished it out and held it up, as if it was a weapon. “Do you fucking hate me?” He knew how much the split, ten-pound hunk of agate meant to her.
Zak retreated to the bathroom, closed the door, began to urinate.
With the sleeve of her T-shirt, Ellen wiped away tears. She breathed heavily, counted to ten. Retreating from conflict was normal for men with Asperger’s Syndrome. Normal, but still infuriating; the need to suppress her reaction vexed to an even greater degree.
The apartment quieted. “You can come out now.”
The doorknob turned, and Zak dashed into the kitchenette.
Ellen followed, still holding the rock. “Why did you throw this out?”
The open door to the dishwasher separated them, as it stretched across to the tiny table. One by one, Zak lifted the water glasses and arrayed them in rows of four in the cabinet overhead. “Scratched.”
Scratched? Of course it was scratched. It was scratched when she’d moved in with him. Bilbo had scratched it banging on the door of her office in the zoo administration building the night of the huge storm. The damage to his prized possession, a gift from Ellen, had saddened the gorilla, but her boyfriend couldn’t have cared less. Asperger’s sure, but certainly he knew how much the rock meant to her.
It was her only memory of Bilbo.
In the last year of Bilbo’s life, Ellen had stayed each evening until the ape fell asleep, holding the animal’s hand. Cancer was a bitch for anyone, all the more so for someone who couldn’t understand the progression of his disease.
One Saturday near the beginning of that year, Zak had stood for the entire day, across from Bilbo’s enclosure, watching him. He’d returned the next day. And both days of the following weekend.
The third Saturday, reasoning at least with this man she had shared a common interest in primates, she steeled herself against yet another rejection and struck up a conversation. “I see you are fond of Bilbo.”
“Mountain gorilla, species Gorilla beringei subspecies beringei, native to Virunga mountains of Central Africa.”
“Yes, he’s a rescue. We got him as a baby. With the funding cuts, the staff at Virunga National Park couldn’t treat his injuries.”
“Virunga National Park, eastern region, Democratic Republic of Congo.”
“Yes.” What was with this guy? Cute, though.
“Here.” He handed her a card. On it, in embossed letters, “I am Zachary van Dorn. I have Asperger’s Syndrome. Please call my mother, Judith van Dorn, if I am in trouble. Her phone number is (510) 536-3611.”
She returned the card and smiled.
When Bilbo emitted a deep, rumbling belch, Zak turned up his nose.
“You get used to it,” Ellen said. “It’s one of twenty-five distinct vocalizations. It indicates contentment. He likes you.”
Without taking his gaze from Bilbo, Zak smiled.
Over the next two months, Ellen took her days off during the week, just to be able to see Zak. She shared details of gorilla behavior. Gentle and peaceful, in social situations, the dominant silverback mediates conflicts. Mountain gorillas grow less arboreal as they age. They fear the rain, getting wet and snakes.
Saturdays, she brought articles about cancer in non-human primates; Zak would read them and return on Sunday for discussion.
Finally, she risked a topic other than gorillas. “I have tomorrow off. Would you like to go out for lunch?”
“Monday through Friday, eight o’clock through five o’clock, I analyze the data.”
“From the Large Hadron Collider experiments. I’m a physics graduate student.”
He hadn’t mentioned his occupation. Come to think of it, she hadn’t asked. “What about dinner?”
“Dinner, every Monday, Chicago Pizza on Solano Avenue.”
Zachary’s. “Did you choose the restaurant because of the name?”
When he narrowed his eyes and tilted his head to the side, she dropped the line of inquiry.
“Would it be okay if I came with you tomorrow?”
Four months later, she’d moved in. The night Bilbo died, Zak had lain silent beside her, holding her until dawn.
Although he hadn’t always anticipated her needs, when he did, his focus turned entirely to her. And he had been sweet even in his misinterpretations. One Saturday, she had remarked favorably upon California poppies they’d seen while hiking the Panoramic Ridge Trail in Claremont Canyon. Every Saturday thereafter, she’d opened her eyes to orange flowers in a vase on her nightstand. And him beside them, smiling. Out of context, away from the grassy hill with its view of the Bay, divorced from the memory of his hand in hers and the sunshine on her face, the poppies, she could take or leave. For a while, as a gesture of love, she’d cherished them, but the same gesture, the same flower, the same time each week had left an ache for change, for disruption of the routine.
She’d told herself his Asperger’s didn’t matter. But it did. She needed more from a relationship.
One week ago, she had told him she was considering moving out. He hadn’t spoken much since, and Saturday morning, there had been no flowers.
This morning, he threw out her rock. Why?
Zak closed the dishwasher. “I am scratched. Damaged like your rock. I used the rock to get your attention. Like Bilbo did.”
“I don’t want a gorilla for a boyfriend anymore.”
“And I’m the one they say is emotionally crippled?”
Ellen drew back, crossed her arms. “I’ve never said that.”
“You don’t always contradict it when others do.”
Hadn’t she? In social situations, especially when discussing her primates, she often lost track of his presence in the room. Was she so self-absorbed? In their relationship, could she have tried harder?
It was Monday. Ellen snagged her jacket from the back of the kitchen chair. “Zachary’s?”
Report on the Earthlings from Special Envoy Zorgblat
And they thought I was just a pretty rock.
When I saw the agate and the amethyst sitting on the cart on Telegraph Avenue, I of course thought they were the planet’s sentient species. They looked like us, more or less. But when six of your diurnal cycles of planetary rotation had passed and they still hadn’t said a word, I abandoned my earlier notion that they were merely unfriendly.
At that point, Ellen brought me to her friend, Bilbo. When primary custody of me was awarded to the more hirsuit of the pair, I was overjoyed. On most planets where I had previously served, hairiness correlated with intelligence. It wasn’t until he nearly killed me, banging me against a door, that I rethought this notion.
Their language was simple enough to understand, although I lacked the anatomical structures required for vocalization. So I listened. When I became Ellen and Zak’s third roommate, I expected to hear all about their relationship. No. Just gorillas. Gorilla feeding, gorilla mating, gorilla communication…they spent more of their time thinking about gorillas than Bilbo did!
But I lucked out with these two. Living with them allowed observation of a mating pair. Actually, it was a bit embarrassing, but you wouldn’t expect modesty from a species with non-mineralized genitalia.
The three of us lived together for seventy years. When they decided to return their elemental components for biogeochemical cycling, I called home for pickup.
I’m going to miss this planet. They even love their rocks.
©Allan Dyen-Shapiro, 2016