“Dogs in Heaven”: flash fiction

I wrote this flash fiction for an open mic, and I began writing with a few goals in mind. The story had to fit within the three-minute time limit. I knew from experience that self-contained pieces get the best audience reception, so it needed a beginning, middle, and end. Audiences enjoy humor — and everyone loves cute animals.

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They say all dogs go to heaven, and it’s true — all dogs, most cats, and even the occasional goldfish for reasons known only to God.

As for human beings, perhaps God had a reason for sending a woman named Phoebe to heaven. She had expected to go down rather than up with such certainty that when she arrived at the afterlife, she mistook it for hell, especially when she saw all those damn dogs cavorting around. Surprisingly, the clouds of brimstone smelled pleasant, a bit like incense.

She saw a lot of dogs and a lot of happy people — demons, no doubt — and a few cats, which were almost as bad as dogs, and a sort of golden floating spark, which she took for evidence of hellfire. Since she had nothing to hope for, she leaned against a bank of clouds, weeping and waiting for a demon to approach and torment her.

Instead a dog sat down in front of her. “Why?” it asked.

Talking dogs? Well, given the locale, anything could be possible, and a misstep might bring special punishment, so despite her antipathy to all things canine, she answered:

“Why shouldn’t I be sad? I’m here.”

“Why?” the dog repeated.

She had never thought dogs were smart in life, and perhaps they were as dumb as rocks in the afterlife, too. So she said, as a test, “I committed a traffic infraction with horrible consequences.”

“Traffic? You played in traffic? Bad human, bad, bad.”

She knew she could never explain traffic regulations to an animal that understood the world by means of smelling butts. She said anyway, “I was parking illegally in a handicapped spot when I was hit by a truck.”

“Did you have your head out of the window? Bad human. Bad.”

Phoebe felt both deeper despair and supreme vindication. Dogs were in fact idiots — but they also seemed judgmental and they might be prone to punishment.

Out of nowhere, a ball appeared at the dog’s feet.

“We play here,” the dog said. “I can play fetch with you. We can have fun!”

Then she understood. The dog was a demon — all those dogs were hellish demons, as she had always suspected — and her torment would be to play fetch for eternity.

They say we make our own heaven or hell on earth, and it’s true. We can even make hell out of heaven and suffer endless torment merely because it meets our expectations. This is the difference between human beings and all dogs, most cats, and the occasional goldfish.

By the way, the dog thought Phoebe was great, and it played blissfully. For eternity.

— by Sue Burke

………

P.S. If you love dogs, check out Ludlow Charlington’s Doghouse: an anthology supporting Friends of Chicago Animal Care and Control. Buy it here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09ZK7CTRP/

Goodreads review: “The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai

The Great Believers

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was covering AIDS as a newspaper reporter in Milwaukee during the 1980s, and this book brought back searing memories. Part of the novel takes place in the gay community in Chicago in 1985, part of it in 2015 among survivors. I remember the anger, fear, and loss of so many people in the early years of AIDS. I remember how the disease was used to attack and condemn gay men.

Rebecca Makkai captures those emotions and the dreadful toll. While many of the details, like the people, are fictional, some of them are real. One bit of reality: the novel mentions “the Unitarian place … a gay-friendly church right off Broadway, and thus — recently — Funeral Central.” This is my church now, Second Unitarian Church, and we’re still proud of the support we could provide when it was needed.

The novel also resonates with our own very recent times when disease, too, became political, and as a result covid-19 was a worse disaster than it needed to be.

Obviously, this is an outstanding novel, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize — and for me it’s also a personal book, reminding me of why a little corner of my heart is still angry and broken. The novel ends with hope, though: “If we could just be on earth at the same place and time with everyone we loved, if we could be born together and die together, it would be so simple. And it’s not. But listen: You two are on the planet at the same time. You’re in the same place now. That’s a miracle.”

Love is love, even when everyone and everything tries to destroy it.

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Speculative Fiction: The Future Happens Everywhere

The science fiction and fantasy community made a commitment to be more inclusive of works from around the world, including translations. How is that working out?

I explore the results in an article called “Speculative Fiction: The Future Happens Everywhere,” in the latest issue of Source, the journal of the Literary Division of the American Translators Association, of which I’m a member. You can download a PDF of the journal here.

Real sword and sorcery: Amadis of Gaul

Twenty years ago, I began translating a medieval Spanish novel of chivalry, Amadis of Gaul. It falls within the Arthurian tradition, telling the story of the greatest knight in the world, Amadis, who lived in an era before King Arthur. (The once-upon-a-time setting doesn’t bear scrutiny; the Kingdom of Gaul is also imaginary.)

The earliest existing copy of the novel dates to 1508, but the story had originated two centuries earlier, a truly medieval tale of sword and sorcery. Once the printing press was invented, the novel became one of Renaissance Europe’s first best-sellers.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter IX. At this point, the teenage Amadis has recently become a knight and is achieving prodigious feats. He had been discovered as an infant in a box floating in the sea, so he is known as the Childe of the Sea, but we learned in Chapter 1 that he is actually the son of King Perion and Queen Elisena of Gaul — but no one knows that, including his parents (it’s complicated; medieval stories are notoriously complicated). He was adopted and raised by a nobleman in Scotland, and is now accompanied by Agrajes, a Scottish prince.

Meanwhile, King Abies of Ireland has invaded Gaul, and the Childe of the Sea comes to the aid of King Perion. After a hard-fought battle, the Childe of the Sea has been chosen to fight King Abies hand-to-hand for the kingdom.

I translated it as close to the original medieval Spanish as I could. It was meant to be read aloud, so you will notice references to the audience. You may also notice the distinctive medieval notions of honor, such as the Queen personally attending to the Childe of the Sea, and the townspeople singing to their victor.

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Once the battle between King Abies and the Childe of the Sea was arranged, as ye have heard, those on both sides saw that most of the day had already passed, so they agreed to wait until the next day, against the wishes of the two combatants. They could clean their weapons as well as treat their wounds, and because all the men on both sides were injured and tired and they wished to rest and recover, each side went back to where they lodged.

The Childe of the Sea, riding bare-headed, entered the town with King Perion and Agrajes, and everyone in the town sang to him:

“Oh, good knight, God help thee and give thee virtue

that thou mayst end well what thou hast begun to do!

Oh, handsome knight! In him, chivalry gets its due

for he above all keeps it most noble and true!”

When they arrived at the palace of the King, a damsel came and said to the Childe of the Sea:

“My lord, the Queen asks you not to remove your armor until ye arrive at your rooms, where she waits for you.”

This was agreed to by the King, who said:

“My friend, go to the Queen, and Agrajes may go with you to keep you company.”

Then the King went to his rooms, and the Childe and Agrajes to his, where they found the Queen and many ladies and damsels, who took their armor. But the Queen would not allow anyone to touch the Childe besides her, and she removed his armor and covered him with a cloak. At this time the King came and saw that the Childe was injured, and he said:

“Why did ye not ask for a delay on the day of the battle?”

“That was not necessary,” said the Childe. “There is no wound that would keep me from it.”

Then they treated his wounds and they gave them supper.

The next morning the Queen came with all her ladies and found the knights talking with the King. Mass began, and after it was said, the Childe of the Sea armed himself not with the arms from the previous day, because nothing remained that was useful, but with others that were more handsome and strong. He bid goodbye to the Queen and the ladies and damsels, and he rode off on a well-rested horse that they had for him at the gate of the castle.

King Perion carried his helmet, Agrajes his shield, and old knight named Agonon, who was well-esteemed at arms, his lance. Because of Agonon’s great nobility in the past, and for his courage as well as his virtue, he was the Childe’s third, after the King and the son of a King. The shield that Agrajes carried had a field of gold with two blue lions on it, facing each other as if they wished to bite each other.

When they left the gate of the town, they saw King Abies on a large black horse, fully armed, though he had not yet strapped on his helmet. The villagers and the enemy soldiers arranged themselves to watch the battle as well as they could. The field had been marked and a stockade erected with many stands around it.

They strapped on their helmets and picked up their shields. King Abies put a shield around his neck with an indigo field that displayed a giant and a knight next to it who was cutting off its head. He used that insignia because he had fought against a giant that had entered his lands and left barren all that it encountered, and because he had cut off its head, he carried that feat’s representation on his shield.

After both took up their arms, all others left the field, and each side commended its knight to God.

Without delay, they had their horses charge at a gallop. Since both were strong and wholehearted, at the first strike all their arms failed. Their lances broke, and both the men and the horses struck each other so hard that both were knocked off. Everyone believed they were dead. Pieces of the lance were embedded in their shields and the iron tips had reached their flesh.

But as both were agile and brave of heart, they quickly got up, removed the pieces of lance from themselves, and took their swords in hand. They attacked so fiercely that those who were around the field were frightened to see it.

Yet the battle seemed unequal, not because the Childe of the Sea was not well built and reasonably tall, but because King Abies was a palm taller than any other knight, and his arms and legs seemed to belong to a giant. He was well loved by his people and always demonstrated good conduct, except that he was more arrogant than he ought to have been.

The battle between them was both cruel and relentless, with no time to rest, and the blows were so great that they seemed more like twenty knights. They cut at each others’ shields, which fell to the field in large pieces. They dented each others’ helmets and rent each other’s hauberks. Thus each made his strength and his passion known to the other. And the great strength and quality of their swords made their armor almost worthless, so that frequently they cut flesh, since nothing remained of their shields to protect themselves.

So much blood flowed that it was amazing they remained standing, but so great was the passion that each carried within him that they hardly felt it. And so they continued in this first battle until the third hour of the day. Neither weakness nor cowardice could be detected in either. Instead they fought with spirit, but the sun heated their armor and made them fatigued.

At this time King Abies stepped back and said:

“Wait and let us straighten our helmets, and if thou wishest, let us rest a bit. Our battle will not be delayed much. And although I would do thee mortal harm, I esteem thee more than any other knight against whom I have fought, though thou shouldst not take my esteem as a wish not to do thee ill, for thou killedst him whom I loved dearly and thou givest me great shame that this battle has lasted so long in front of so many good men.”

The Childe of the Sea said:

“King Abies, this gives thee shame, but not having come arrogantly to do so much wrong to he who does not deserve it from thee? Thou shouldst see that men, especially kings, ought not do what they can but what they must, because often it happens that the harm and violence that they wish on those who do not deserve it in the end befalls on themselves, and they lose all, even their lives. Now, if thou wishest me to let thee rest, there are others, greatly oppressed, who wish respite from thee, which thou wilt not grant, and because thou feelst what thou hast made them suffer, prepare thyself, for thou shalt not rest with my permission.”

The King took up his sword and what little remained of his shield and said:

“This passion ill behooves thee, for it puts thee into a danger from which thou shalt not leave without losing thy head.”

“Now use thy might,” said the Childe of the Sea, “for thou shalt not rest until thy death comes to thee or thy honor is finished.”

And they attacked with more wrath than before, and so bravely that it seemed that the battle had begun at that moment and they had not struck a blow earlier that day. King Abies, who was very skilled in the use of arms, fought wisely, protecting himself from blows and attacking where he could do the most harm. The Childe moved and attacked with amazing speed and struck so hard that everything the King knew seemed wrong. In spite of himself, things were going badly, and he began losing ground.

The Childe of the Sea had just destroyed the shield on his arm, and nothing remained of it, and had cut to the flesh in many places. The King’s blood flowed freely. He could no longer attack, and his sword twisted in his hand. He was so afflicted that he almost turned his back to the Childe as he searched for a place of refuge in fear of his sword, which he felt so cruelly in his flesh.

But when the King saw that he had no choice but death, he turned, took his sword in both hands, and ran at the Childe, meaning to strike the top of his helmet. The Childe lifted up his shield, which took the blow, and the blade sunk so deep that it could not be withdrawn. As the King pulled back, he exposed his left leg, and the Childe of the Sea struck such that his leg was cut in half.

The King fell onto the field. The Childe came at him, pulled off his helmet and said:

“Thou art dead, King Abies, if thou dost not surrender.”

He said:

“Truly I am dead, but not vanquished. Instead I believe that my arrogance killed me. I beg thee to pledge that my war party will suffer no harm and may take me to my homeland. I forgive thee and those whom I wished to harm, and I order returned to King Perion all that I took from him. I beg thee to let me make confession, for I am dead.”

The Childe of the Sea, when he heard this, felt great and amazing sorrow for him, but he knew well that the King would not have sorrow for him if he had won.

Once all this had happened, as ye have heard, the invaders and the townspeople came together, since the safety of all was assured. King Abies ordered that everything he had taken from King Perion be returned, and King Perion pledged to him that all his troops would be secure until they had taken him to his lands. Then, having received all the sacraments of the Holy Church, King Abies’s soul left him. His vassals, with great lamentations, took his body back to his lands.

King Perion and Agrajes and other outstanding men of his court took the Childe of the Sea from the battlefield with the kind of glory that the victors of such deeds usually earn, not only for the honor but for the restoration of a kingdom to someone who has lost it. The Childe of the Sea went to the King and Agrajes, who were waiting for him, and they entered the village. Everyone sang:

“Come, good knight, and welcome!

Through you we have regained

our honor and our joy!”

And so they went to the palace, where in the Childe of the Sea’s rooms they found the Queen waiting with all her ladies and damsels, in great merriment. The women raised their arms to take him from his horse, and the hands of the Queen removed his armor. Doctors came to treat his wounds, which were many, but none caused him great distress.

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Read more at the Amadis of Gaul website.

Goodreads review: “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A man is exploring a huge building, which he calls the House, but something seems odd about both him and the House. That’s how the novel opens, and soon, things become clearly wrong. The man, Piranesi, doesn’t — and in a strange way can’t — understand his own situation, which is ghastly. Yet, overall, he’s very happy, good, and generous.

The novel leads the reader on a series of discoveries. What is happening, and why does Piranesi believe such strange and obviously false things? By the end it makes sense, but with a twist. This is the novel’s final sentence: “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.” We learn that the things Piranesi believed that seemed false may in fact be true.

I might not be making sense because I don’t want to give anything away. This novel won some big awards, and it deserves them. It was a delight to read.

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