Speculative Flash Fables

“The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary,” Ursula K. Le Guin observed . “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom.”

This collection grows from an Ecological Design Collective workshop on speculative storytelling on Tuesday, May 18, facilitated by Lauren Parater and Anand Pandian. We brought our own story ideas to the workshop, and prepared by reading a few short pieces on flash fiction and environmental storytelling, by Dinty Moore, Alexis Wright, and others.

We convened for an hourlong workshop via text and video on the Speculative Worlds channel of the EDC Commons, from many different places: Baltimore, Detroit, San Diego, Dublin, Beirut, Pakistan, India, and elsewhere. We pursued a few writing exercises together in response to three prompts:

  • Prompt one: Look outside or imagine the world outside wherever you are. Perhaps you see a tree or a small critter, a mountain or the sky. Breathe in and imagine yourself as that being. Write a little about what that feels like.

  • Prompt two: Focus now on the story idea you brought to this workshop. Imagine that what you had in mind already came true, that it just happened recently. Describe, in a few sentences, what happened.

  • Prompt three: Think of someone or something that lives in this world you have in mind. What kind of damage or destruction have they lived through, or inherited? Do they experience any joy or delight, in being in that world? Write a few sentences about what they live for.

Then we took some time to work on our own stories, some of which you’ll find here. In this collection of flash fables, we explore storytelling as a practice of charting alternative trajectories and envisioning new worlds, in the face of ecological loss. We intend these speculative stories as catalysts for other modes of action and imagination, with the promise of transition and repair in mind.

1 Like

It was a nice world Mike and I were entering - some would call it a commune. Except that this commune is actually a district within the larger country. Complete, with its own foreign policy and trade outlook. The different thing about this country is that it actually gives you options on how you want to live and organise your life. We 've chosen the community living&self cultivating model. It reminds both Mike and I of our longer term goals and we thought we’d try it out for a while to see just how deeply it resonates. And if not, we could always switch back to the district of city living& professional lives. It’s interesting, because despite the scenic environs, daily life is not as idyllic as I had imagined. Just the other day, my diary entry read like this:

“Have to uproot the banana tree that’s finished its yield - what a relief that it regenerates. One assured item on the table for this month. The chickens have started laying eggs, but I’m a little worried about their new tendency to eat their own eggs. I should make a note to ask Amini the neighbour if her rice field is going to be harvested this season so we can strike up an exchange: rice grains for vegetables from our patch of land. Not sure how to organise a barter for Kunjumol’s milk.”

I’ve heard we’re announcing open doors for people from the Sunderbans whose lands have been fully cleaved off in the floods this time. District 9 is flourishing with produce at the moment so it should be a welcome respite for people who lost everything in a flash…
The terrain’s also similar: harsh and unpredictable, but when it’s calm and the sun’s shining, it can feel like a home.

2 Likes

The Wolfhunter by Fiona Murphy

It is better now that all the trees have been destroyed, no more whorled branches to rupture. My job is infinitely easier. Nothing entangled with the shadows, no imagined luminaries or ghostly entities hiding out in the rose-flushed mellow of these evenings. The landscape is free and easy. My path is clear. I can more freely trespass. In the redness of the evening’s crepuscule, I can hunt with impunity. Standing tall in an expressive green landscape, stalwart, my striving is etched into their colonial legislation. It was never my plan. I became a wolfhunter at their decree-a deplorable request. The folk who live here now are but mere geographical afterthoughts but their stories continue to haunt. Their tales evoke a past attempting to stranglehold our endeavor. Their words perform a kind of guardianship-a lingering reverence for what we have destroyed, their homes and their church. I try not to believe in the power of these stories. I push them to the back of my once inquisitive mind, but faltering somehow, they persist. It is reported that there is, but one wolf left. Yet we, the wolfhunters, are many, maneuvering ungainly bear like bodies through a foreign country, faces stung scarlet by the late night cold of such unfriendly climes. It was on one of those unending lonely nights that I met her, barely visible in the last of the citrine candle infused light. She walked towards me as I feasted on the glow of her reflection. The startling grey redness of her skin struck me as odd. Her eyes, sargasso green, drank me up. I could not move as I stood in front of this imponderable thing. Raising my weapon was not an option. I froze. I recalled the stories of the Irish goddess turned wolf that they say roamed this place once. She was a shapeshifter-sometimes a large black eel, sometimes a red cow with bright white ears but mostly, she was a wolf, grey-red and luminous. As I stood stultified by story and memory, she turned around, departed, letting me be, once more alone, in my reverent awe. Days later, a story would circulate that the last Irish wolf had been killed, wolfhunting could be disbanded. Many of the men departed, glad to return to their families and homes. I could not leave, I did not want to leave, feeling now more bound to the potency of this place. The last wolf killed was reported to be a male, large with hues of brown and black. She was still out there; in whatever form she had assumed, and I would await her return.

Explainer:

Pre-colonial Ireland was a place of forests and wolves (occasionally called ‘wolfland’). Both trees and wolves are firmly embedded in Celtic lore and mythology. As part of the colonial project, widespread deforestation took place, as well as a legislative order (by Cromwell) to kill off all of the native wolves. This was accomplished to great success and contemporary Ireland remains a country with one of the lowest number of forests in Europe. In 2019, amidst a general call for rewilding and reforestation projects, came the idea (from the Green party) that wolves should be reintroduced (akin to the success seen in Yellowstone in the US) to help further nurture rewilding goals. This was met with much resistance. This piece of flash fiction is a play on the history of wolfhunting whilst also trying to evoke the story of a shapeshifting Celtic Irish Goddess, famed for her destruction in the form of a grey-red wolf. When time permits (and grading is finished ;)) I would like to develop this idea more. Thanks for this opportunity to think with you all and experiment!

3 Likes

[My contribution… one of the prompts from the workshop after some editing. Happily accepting criticism.]

I’ve had many names, as have most mountains. Wy’east has been my favorite and one I’ve held the longest, besides the long silence before I was ever named. It was almost taken away from me for a while, replaced with the almost insultingly meaningless Mt. Hood, which only lasted during the blink of my eye but across many generations of namers. Then they brought it back, sighing with relief, and I sighed with them.

I watch over them now, like a stop-motion film, blinking and seeing them grow and change with every breath I take. Sometimes I change them myself, with my smoke and ash and earth, and sometimes they change me, nearly melting my ice and then letting it grow back again, much more slowly. Their lifetimes are my inhales and exhales. Mostly, they change on their own, and I only watch.

Look. My ice is back to the way it was before. I have a different name again. Time will tell if I will like this one as much, if it is spoken with as much respect as the last.

[Explainer, as others added: Mt. Hood/Wy’east is a mountain in the Cascades range of Oregon State, near where I grew up. There is currently a movement to rename these mountains back to the names given to them by the indigenous people – Wy’east for Mount Hood, Loowit for St. Helens, etc. I wrote this story from the perspective of the mountain starting shortly after we, hopefully, change its name back.]

1 Like

A mattress sits caught halfway across the river. It is one of the new ones, a thin strip of synthetic material, the kind that feels cool when you lay on it, but which quickly builds up a layer of sticky dried sweat, so that sleeping means a constant roll back and forth. Half of it stuck out, fibers dry and shining in the sun, giving a spot of shade underneath. At the waterline, thick red-brown silt make parallel marks where the water rose and fell. Humidity rose from the surface – at night, the river would steam.

The summers were not the worst; the hottest times were the spring. In the summer you could sit half-submerged in the current with your head poking out like a boulder and let the hot (but not as hot as the air) current move past you. There were days, though, when that wasn’t enough. When the river was too hot, even someone in the river could go. Heat cooks the brain first, and without a cooling wind or sudden rain the process would intensify. Someone going would call out to you and forget why. They’d forget their cousin’s name (but names come and go, as our mother told us). Dad was the first one to start to forget. The first night we saw it, on a May night when the river sat slow and steaming, and we were sitting as far apart as conversation would allow in the cool under the house, he was already far away, staring off at the opposite bank. We thought he ignored us, but he’d forgotten our names already.

There is loss, and there is loss. We knew what was going to come from stories other towns told, further downriver, so we were ready, and took time to glean what we could. Even without language, there is connection in a perfect moment of sitting next to the old man as he looks out across the river. Although words have gone, the sound of water keeps bringing back vocabulary even as it disappears just as quickly. These are moments that cannot be recalled or repeated – the river and the night speak directly through us without forethought or memory. But there are new vocabularies; fire hangs low over the river’s surface – at that time some of us had started to shed.

It came from my mother’s family. She had said that a long time ago, her family lived in the water. They wrestled and tangled in the mud and, when their hearts were too full with the moonlight, they spat orange fire into the air as a joke. Later, when things got too cold, these river people came up out of the water and changed their skin, taking beautiful green and gold scales and covering it over with pink and brown flesh, pocked with pores and sprinkled with hair. Nude skin that drew insects in, sweated, and stank, but warm. Skin that turned blotchy and red when the heat grew and grew. Skin that peeled and blistered. Skin that, for the children of the river-people (but not the men that they loved), shed.

Kate was the last to go, shedding off an old skin and laying on the bank with the rest of us. New skin – drinking in the sun over the red-brown water. A new skin that would not blister in the sun, new blood that moved slow and cool in the night, and bright and hot in the day.

[This is my contribution - it comes a little from a few different sources. Where I live now overlooks an industrial stream where new pieces of trash/material appear every time there’s a major rain, and make new small ecologies in the water. It also comes from speaking/not-speaking with my father, who has dementia. The more speculative aspects come a bit from JG Ballard, and from a local story from the Mekong area, where I’ve done ethnographic work for the last 10 years or so, where towns are made from the union of a water serpent mother and a human father. The question here is what happens when the world becomes uninhabitable by the former.]

1 Like

Thanks for sharing this with us all, @fionaeileenmurphy! It made me remember a poem by Gary Lawless I loved many years ago - “the last whale”. http://armedwithvisions.com/2012/07/14/gary-lawless-the-last-whale/

Oh super, love that poem -good to think with ! thank you :slight_smile: