A teenage girl climbing a rock cliff with a man below her

A teenage girl climbing a rock cliff with a man below her

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Author’s note: Following the Neil Gaiman Master Class series, he offers the following exercise. Take one of the simple settings below and write a page about it, trying to undermine the reader’s expectations. For example, you’re writing about a man at a party who is talking to a beautiful woman. What he wants is probably obvious. Try to lead the reader in a different direction by not revealing his desire up front, or by revealing a surprising motivation.

  1. A man lying on a hill looking through a rifle scope
  2. A couple in wedding outfits riding in a car
  3. A child raking a sandbox next to his nanny
  4. Two old women sitting on a bench with knitting needles and yarn
  5. A teenage girl climbing a rock cliff with a man below her
cliff with basalt rock formation in sea
Photo by Nick Bondarev on Pexels.com

The rock shifted under her fingers and the scream that nearly came from her mouth conflicted with her choked intake of breath as a kind of squeaked whimper. The piece of cliff face peeled away from the sheer surface like tree bark and tumbled away past her right ear bouncing down the 10 meters of incline until smashing to pieces with a dull thump on the unforgiving rocks below.

Sweat burned rivulets down her face and stung her eyes. Her whole upper body was trembling from the effort of climbing. She was panting hard as she blinked desperately to clear her sight.

“This was a mistake Claire.” she thought, “a very big, very high mistake.”

She scanned the surface around her through blurring vision until noting the lengthwise fissure, for a moment she hesitated not knowing what may have made its home in there before thrusting her hand as deep as she could manage, then formed a fist, grating knuckles against stone, definitely tearing up her skin. She hissed between teeth as she used the ‘grip’ to lift her body and right leg enough to find a toe hold. Then she lunged up, her body clear of the cliff aside from her fist grip. Heart in mouth she exalted as her left arm slammed triumphantly onto the small ledge she’d seen.

Small, barely 30cm deep, more of a shelf than a ledge, but enough to sit on, enough to rest. Get her body back under some kind of control. She let out a ragged yell of effort as she heaved herself up and onto the outcrop, scraping her chest painfully through her t-shirt and then carefully shuffling her body around with secure handgrips before swinging her feet out to dangle from her impromptu seat.

She nearly fell from what she saw had arrived below, flinching back so hard from the figure that she nearly shifted her buttocks off the ledge, she braced on a knife’s edge for a moment before finding her balance and shrinking as far back against the rock face as possible.

The figure watched impassively, honestly, she admitted to herself, it didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, it looked like it was carved from basalt, featureless and grey, the surface looking marked my a million tiny chips and scratches, merely the suggestion of a face and the tilt of its head letting her know that it was focused on her. Head cocked to one side like a person might when considering something but the blank smooth “face” gave no indication of what that might be.

The only thing Claire knew for sure is the thing terrified her, even here 10 meters up she felt her skin crawl at the sight of it. It hadn’t said anything, perhaps it couldn’t but it’s hulking mass although shaped like a human, was lumpy and disfigured, while she thought it might be around 2 meters tall it didn’t make a sound when it moved. No grinding crunching earthy sounds. Silence. Not even when it stepped down on gravel like below. The impassive watcher made her stress levels spike again.

So she forcibly turned her head to look away from the thing below, steeling herself to look up, to her escape, or fall. First, she estimated just two body lengths until the rim of the cliff and then she released a sigh of pent up tension, a million healthy-looking hand and footholds were visible. The small fissure she’d used below blossomed into a massive open gash in the cliff that offered her a million ways to finish the climb.

Grinning triumphantly she looked back down at the figure below. It stood unmoving head cocked on the opposite side now. The face impression still angled directly at her. Her smile curled a little at the sight and she found her mouth was suddenly very dry. Swallowing a few times she turned and moved to finish the cliff. Her body ached and her hands bled freely. But she brushed away the discomfort and focused. She took a moment to rub rock dust on her fingers, palms, face and forehead to soak up the sweat before lunging for her chosen route.

Within moments she triumphantly cleared the edge. Right arm grabbing roots and branches of a thick bush to help her pull her body up and then flop onto her back the grassy term fresh and cool on her arms and neck. She lay there taking deep lungfuls of air. A great tension releasing from her body, to be replaced by instant fatigue. She cautiously peeked over the edge of the cliff back to the base. The figure remained there but was in motion again. It’s formally fixated gaze seemed to be moving back and forth. It brought to mind a person trying to find the source of a sound. Was it ‘looking’ for her? She snapped her head back and slowly moved backwards away from the cliff edge.

Whatever was happening, now was time to run and run some more. She could figure out what to think about all this later. She turned intent on doing just that and froze, no more than 20 meters away stood another figure. But this one was massive, maybe 3 or 4 meters high. Its body resembling a human in only the vaguest of ways, two elongated arms, two squat legs, a wedged boulder for a head all in a dusty white stone resembling rough marble. The wedge at the top swivelled smoothly as she watched in growing horror a vein of quartz demarking its attention which had fixed upon her. She remained locked in place, like the rabbit caught in the oncoming headlights, “I need to move, I need to move” her mind bleated.

It surged forward, tearing a scream of pure horror from her throat as it loped and stumbled toward her on its deformed arms like some sort of lopsided gorilla, one arm raised high and she saw at that moment the promise of a violent and crushing death. Her legs remained rooted in place, her body rebelling against her. She closed her eyes and with a mental sob, waited for the inevitable.

She felt more than heard the impact, the grinding crunch of stone on stone and felt her face and upper body peppered with what felt like needles. It was followed immediately by what sounded like the crack of a lightning bolt, a noise so hard and shocking that it reverberated through the ground, up to her teeth, through every bone in her body, but she wasn’t dead, she was sure of that. She opened a single eye, terrified and curious of what was there. A dark grey basalt wall was an arms reach before her. The figure from before now stood before so close she could see every scratch and battle scar adorning its form.

Her stunned mind refused to take it all in, it must have jumped the cliff she realised numbly, A 20-meter vertical jump so well done that it landed just before her in time… In time too. The marble figure regarded the smaller one, who held it’s the great fist in both of its own. Then, for the first time, Claire heard the basalt figure make a sound, a deep rumbling growl, the sound of avalanches, the sound of earthquakes and storms. Elemental. Then the battle exploded before her.

Two old women sitting on a bench with knitting needles and yarn

Two old women sitting on a bench with knitting needles and yarn

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Author’s note: Following the Neil Gaiman Master Class series, he offers the following exercise. Take one of the simple settings below and write a page about it, trying to undermine the reader’s expectations. For example, you’re writing about a man at a party who is talking to a beautiful woman. What he wants is probably obvious. Try to lead the reader in a different direction by not revealing his desire up front, or by revealing a surprising motivation.

  1. A man lying on a hill looking through a rifle scope
  2. A couple in wedding outfits riding in a car
  3. A child raking a sandbox next to his nanny
  4. Two old women sitting on a bench with knitting needles and yarn
  5. A teenage girl climbing a rock cliff with a man below her
beige concrete building during golden hour
Photo by sergio souza on Pexels.com

The dusty dry yard was nearly silent in the sweltering heat, the only sounds breaking through the oppressive heat haze were the distant buzzing of cicadas in the distance and the repetitive clicking of knitting needles emanating from under the sagging awning of the front porch. Two figures could be seen there on the bench swaddled in clothes that seemed too dark and far too heavy for the desert conditions. 

Their hands, gnarled and bloated like old tree roots, moved with a fluidity and speed that spoke of years and decades of practice. After what seemed like days in the oppressive heat the clicking finally slowed, subsided and stopped for the first time in what seemed like forever. One of the forms stretched her arms out in a long extended yawn, the moment let out a such a series of loud sucking popping sounds the cat curled up at her feet stirred for long enough to shoot an irritated eye up at the crone before returning to its all-important nap that she’d dared to disturb. 

“Ahhh,” her voice rasped like sandpaper “it’s looking good, Isn’t it Soteria? Yes, very good.” 

Bony fingers trace along the long folds of fabric that had piled up beside them. The base of which thrummed with such violent explosions of vibrant colour that in the direct sunlight it hurt the eye if viewed directly. But as the fabric continued the colours became duller and duller, muddied and worn. By the centre of the pile they had become so dark as to seem like pale imitations of their origins and now sitting on the top of the pile the colour had all but bleached away to leave nothing more than a white peak like the snow-capped crags of a mountain. 

“Such a beautiful tapestry you wove little one.” She crooned out to the figure in the yard

“Melinoe, don’t be cruel.” 

Soteria, evidently the other figure, kinder, with a smoother gentler voice, reminded him of an archetypal grandmother, the one who would always bring cookies out the moment you arrived. Melinoe turned with what the onlooker imagined to be a baleful stare. He could feel the cold hatred of that stare and given the burning heat that surrounded him it must have had a millennium of weight behind it. Which despite the horror of everything made his cracked lips part in a smile. 

Melione sniffed audibly before turning back to the onlooker. He was suspended by wire, fixed to the pole a few meters of the yard. His skin was burned raw by the sun, face caked by salts like a Halloween mask, lips and flesh shrunken and dehydrated. He’d stopped breathing a long time ago but no matter what he remained, trapped in amber. Watching the women weave and knit. 

“Do you know what this is, Peter?” 

Peter. That was his name, he remembered it now, clinging to his memories as he clung to his shrivelled corpse. He could perceive on some level that the thread of yarn spooled out in tapestry was something important to him, but every idea was a vagary, every time he tried to think it broke apart like a murmuration of starlings. He would have responded but his tongue was shrivelled like some dried date in his mouth, so he just hung there hanging and motionless. 

“It’s your life, Peter. All of it, from the beginning,” 

Melione ran her taloned fingers along the base of the pile disturbing the vibrant shades. Peter saw days on the beach, playing in the park, climbing trees. 

“to the end.” 

Her hand ran to the white bled out topping of the pile, Peter saw tubes and hospital beds, smelled chemicals and rancid shit.” 

 “Peter.” The voice snapping him back to the yard

“This is your life Peter,” soothed the gentle voice of Soteria “It’s all you’ve done before you came here. You have been both good, ” the sound of an infant crying with joy, ” the bad” a screaming argument, breaking glass, ” and the ugly…” the sounds of fire and panicked screams.

He wanted to be able to speak, to apologise, to beg or plead, to explain how he was drafted, how the training drove him to follow orders, how the burning villages were orders, how it wasn’t his fault.

But with everything laid out bare before him, every choice he’d made blotching the fabric of his life knitted before his eyes, he knew excuses from honesty. He knew his life had been part fate but part choice, part Soteria and part Melione. He couldn’t even vocalise his apologies at this point. Too late, far too late. 

Soteria held out a blade before her, ancient and terrible, unknown but familiar, carved from the jaw of some ancient beast of labor. His soul tensed against the withered body, not wanting this. Not wanting judgement. But her kind eyes were blank and decided. 

“We’ll keep your fabric Peter, it’s such a beautiful beginning, may what’s coming help prepare you for what happens next”. 

With a blinding flash of movement the cord was cut and darkness descended, Peter felt himself slough away from his body and fall, and fall, and fall towards heat, towards sulphur, towards something far worse than the sisters.