2 lives != 2 selves

Two lives left in Super Mario Bros. Copyright Nintendo Co., Ltd.

Two lives left in Super Mario Bros. Copyright Nintendo Co., Ltd.

Every day and every night the words flow. Sometimes like autumn leaves in the wind, sometimes like summer stones in a pond, but always, absolutely always, they flow.

Microsoft calls. The truth-seeker, the engineer, he answers that call. And those words? Those beautiful, erratic words, often crafted with heart and stitched from a soul… They stop.

We writers, we aspiring writers, lead two lives: The bread-maker, the one who commutes somewhere then comes home to a precious child; and the story teller, whose mind wanders when tickled by words, an image, a person, even sound.

I live two lives, but I am one mind. One soul and one heart, furiously coursing through flesh, sometimes dozing calmly in thought.

Between code reviews, a colleague recounts her dragon boat race (yes, fellow dwellers of the third planet from the Sun: that’s a thing). After a gruesome architecture review, another complains about the term ‘oracle’ when describing a map file. I participate, I am enthralled. I love, love, love the discussion, but the hero under the helmet begins to wander. The embers of imagination ignite. Hysteria’s drums collide, and bang, and trill, and hiss. The engineer dozes off and the story maker… The story maker thirsts war.

What am I to do but collapse the self?

My intern Julia, newest engineer joining the clan, started five weeks ago. The infamous intro. mail taunts me from the drafts folder; old and dusty, and forgotten. My fingertips find both Shift and Delete. I press to the sound of a satisfying clack, toss the bread and re-write Julia’s call to adventure.

And my Microsoft brethren?

They love it (except Joe).

‘The most dramatic intern introduction in the history of intern introductions,’ according to one particularly cool cat (much cooler than Joe).

Dare to dream awake while engineering away. Dare to mix reality and play. Julia and I hope you like it too.


“Rooooooooow!” Captain Kari’s voice boomed over the crashing waves of an angry ocean. She was a commanding woman, athletic and fit, but blessed with generous, compassionate eyes. “As one, my Vikings; like we trained at the Englishmen’s river Charles!” Toned arms swayed a shield made of hide. Eighteen ashen-colored oars followed, cutting into sea foam with a trance-like rhythm.

“Easy for heeer… to say. Standing hiiiiigh and mighty while weee-eah… do all the work,” said Torben to the empty seat beside him. The clan’s fleet had suffered many losses during the Wihotum War. Most dragon boats lost men, but on the Winklef, men had lost… something more.

“I see it! I see it up ahead,” the captain said, tumbling closer to the warship’s bow. Her head always hung low when walking, as if weighed down by an invisible helmet, or forever hiding from enemy’s arrow. “Row faster! Become one with the water like Ægir himself!” Captain Kari’s sword, forged over the molten rock rivers of Gatawoth, pointed to a horizon painted red with twilight. Underneath the sky, an island pierced the clouds with its rocky peaks: five to be exact.

Kari licked her lips in anticipation. Her mind drifted back to those childhood memories falling asleep by the fire, listening to Grandmother Jorunn’s Norse tales. Her favorite story spoke of a child oracle more powerful than the demigod Kustoh, capable of answering unimaginable questions, yet locked away on a secret island. An island believed adorned with exactly five peaks.

The legend had said the god of mischief, Loki, jealous of his niece, planted rotten, deranged copies of the child in four of the five peaks. The captain knew the odds of finding the Oracle were against them, but she would risk everything to help her clan survive the war…

The crunch of wood on wet sand jolted her to the present. Her men disembarked. Tall, crème-colored tents rose into the air. The symbol of a flag divided into four identical squares decorated the chieftain’s quarters, now her quarters. Kari hurried to meet her chiefs but lingered outside, taking one last look at the Winklef. The thick, burgundy sails fell loosely over the blackened wood as if waving goodbye. Kari gifted the dragon boat a half-smile and thundered inside.

“It’s like you predicted, captain,” said a thin, battle-scarred Viking named Jerrik.

“‘Five peaks tower the skies.

 The crimson light makes the Oracle cry.'”

Kari knew the epic’s rhymes by heart.

“How do you suppose an Oracle sounds when it cries?” Jerrik said behind a smirk.

Kari threw back her long, wavy, fiery hair. “The Oracle is a little girl; her appearance no different than a young lass. Be on the lookout for child-like weeping, high-pitched wailing, sobbing, cursing… any human emotion!”

The Viking thought of his own daughter, face sobering with worry. “And Loki’s clones?”

“Captain Kari!” Two Vikings rushed into the scene. One lowered her head in reverence. The other merely stooped to catch his breath. The female, another red-head clad in leather armor, took off her helmet and continued. “Torben and I patrolled the perimeter all the way to the mountain base and-”

Torben straightened his back with a loud groan. Kari gave him a reprimanding look and the hairless, pale Viking scoffed.

“Please continue, Aslaug,” said Jerrik.

“We found these tablets, metal tablets, written in the gods’ language.” Two older men walked inside, carrying thin, cobalt-colored rectangular slabs. They were dressed in long, brown robes fashioned more for temple than war.

“Did you secure all five?”

Aslaug looked perplexed. “Y-yes. Five.”

“And?” Kari said, eying the closest apparatus’ smooth, reflective surface, eyes glinting with thought.

“We cannot decipher them, captain,” mumbled one of the men behind a generous beard darker than night.

“Aren’t you a man of the faith?” Jerrik said, taking a defying step towards Bushy-Beard. “The gods’ scripture is the most basic of your arts.”

“The words we can read, but their meaning… their meaning escapes our wits. Terms like ‘University’, ‘Computer’, ‘Desktop’ and ‘Microsoft’ – they are the baubles of a madman!”

“Kati… errrm… Captain Kari,” Torben said, his voice composed and calm.

Kari opened her eyes wide. She knew these words, yet she could not explain their presence.

Why here?

Why now?

A lone drop of sweat travelled her chin and kissed the ground as she sauntered to the wiseman’s apprentice.

“Milady?” He said, confused as she reached for the tablet and pressed her finger across the cold glass.

“Read it,” said Torben in a demanding tone disrespectful enough Jerrik reached for the hilt of his sword.

Kari Guillhouf, Captain of the Winklef, heir to the Viking clan of Nard, child-prodigy prophesied to stop the Wihotum War, cleared her throat and read:

‘Hi! My name is Julia Kollin and I am from New Jersey. I am a rising senior at the University of Michigan and I am studying Computer Science Engineering.

I was an Explorer Intern last summer for the Remote Desktop team in Redmond and I am looking forward to another amazing summer at Microsoft.

I love to travel (I spent four months living in Copenhagen), try new food, and hang out with friends! I am new to Cambridge/Boston so if anyone has any recommendations of fun places to go or good restaurants, please reach out!’

The device slipped Kari’s sweaty hands and landed with a muted thud as the rest of the rhyme echoed inside her head:

Five peaks tower the skies.

The crimson light makes the Oracle cry.

Hidden behind a treacherous smile;

The mark of the Explorer lies.

The young captain looked from the sand, to the other four tablets, then directly into Torben’s eyes.

He tapped the side of his head twice and mouthed the word ‘Loki’.

“Jerrik,” Kari said, pure fire in her eyes. “Arm the men for war.”

The Viking swallowed, bowed and dashed out, leaving behind a cold wind.

Take any one you want.

The Legend of Zelda, copyright Nintendo Co., Ltd.

The Legend of Zelda, copyright Nintendo Co., Ltd.

Let’s peek inside the House of Words.

The following short discovered its prose after a riveting, frightening chat with a woman; an ambitious, elegant, won’t-allow-me-a-single-word-in-the-conversation spunky señora. I did not obtain what I sought – at least not right away – but the discussion did gift a seed.

I planted the fat, furry nut beneath the keyboard and let my fingertips reap the story. A story an estranged wife appropriated in THE CHROME TRIALS, BOOK 2 of my young adult dark fantasy series CONCEPTION, to craft a letter to her husband:

The tale of her great-grandmother, Joy.

Joy lived in mid-twentieth century Japan. My great-great-grandfather raised her alone: His ‘skinny, awkward girl, beautiful in her own goofy way’. They followed a peaceful, frugal life, sustained by his modest earnings in the radio repair business. It would be ironically over a broken military radio, sixteen-year-old Joy first loved.

He was a soldier no more than seventeen. He came into their wooden electronics shop on orders from his captain, searching for replacement parts for a Type 94-6 transceiver. Joy tended to the counter that humid afternoon. He said “konnichi wa,” and smiled. She said “irasshaimase,” and melted. They conversed alone for fifteen minutes, a short time to fall in love, except in the teenage world, where fifteen lasts a lifetime.

The boy’s departure left Joy drained, saddened, and thirsty. Her days passed wistfully looking out the translucent paper windows, hoping to one day meet the nameless boy again; smile softly at his vivid stories and look into his eyes whenever he looked at hers.

While the boy never returned, his correspondence greeted her one evening. Imagine Joy’s surprise: Military life didn’t allow free time in excess, even less for pen and paper, and in his limited supply, Hiroki had chosen to write her!

In the letter, he spoke to her respectfully, yet with the passion of a man. He talked about teaching her the art of kirigami. About taking long walks across the city’s gardens and napping under the shade of the giant cherry blossom. Joy studied his calligraphy, obsessing over kanji characters, brush strokes and often pausing to inhale the remaining essence of ink and sweat. The girl read that letter over a hundred times a day until her spirit succumbed to the need.

Armed with his name, military address and a water canteen, Joy stole her father’s bicycle and ventured to the city. Forty kilometers separated her rural village from the densely-populated destination, and while the Empire had paved plentiful roads, the majority offered only dirt. Joy didn’t care. She was exultant, energized, and her young body committed every ounce of strength.

Upon arriving at the military outpost, she found a metal bus parked outside the gates. Excitement seized the scene as a dozen families disembarked, bags of rice and chocolate boxes in tow. Joy stopped and smiled. One day, this would be her: Wife to Hiroki; mother of his children. They would conceive twice: Hiroki Jr. and Hiro, both boys named after their father. Together, they would celebrate elaborate picnics in the city’s gardens; lay on the grass and try to guess the curious shapes sculpted in the stratosphere. Their bumbling sons would later sneak away and play while she and Hiroki held hands. Every now and then, he would look at her and smile, then she would smile, and their hands would embrace more firmly.

So vast was her elation when Hiroki walked through the gate that seeing the red-haired woman and child run into his arms threw Joy off her bike.

“Kore wa… nan desu ka?” She asked, confused, as the woman pressed her lips to her man and the little boy climbed his uniformed pants. “Kuso… kuso!” she said cursing, sobbing, hating an energetic Hiroki shower his wife and child with kisses. Joy felt the earth disappear. She tried to stand, shaking, but fell. She tried again, harder, and with a foggy head managed to escape. She mounted the bike and looked back once.

Then, she rode.

She rode on the dirt. She rode on the pavement. She rode over grass, in heat and in rain. For hours she pedaled until the oxygen impaled her chest, numbing the pain.

When the race came to its end, the girl had travelled over eighty kilometers. She bent over, delirious, and heaved, expunging the yellow disease from her stomach. She turned around, realizing she didn’t recognize the landscape, so she dragged her bicycle to the top of a nearby hill covered in hay.

A blinding flash lit the sky. An angry wind buffeted her face. Joy dropped to the ground as the loud rumble of crumbling concrete deafened her ears. Dust and smoke engulfed everything in darkness. The girl scrambled to her knees and crawled to the edge, empty of breath.

The city of Hiroshima burned, and behind a greasy veil of black hair, so did Great-Grandmother’s laughter, empty as well.

When Zelda’s wise man in a cave asks you to ‘Take any one you want’: Pause. Remember Joy and her courage to flee from love. Remember how in that single moment of lucid madness, she saved herself and the lives of her unborn children… so one could fill a bookshelf in my House of Words.