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Friday, August 19, 2011

Short Stuff Take 8

The Fisherman and the Syren
by Frederic Leighton (c. 1856–1858).

"The Dust of the Earth and the Foam of the Sea," by E. M. Biswell in Mindflights

In beautiful and haunting prose, Biswell tells the story of a dying boy's confrontation with love and immortality in "The Dust of the Earth and the Foam of the Sea." The narrator, Prince Maximilian, is dying of consumption. His mother believes saltwater to be an elixir and has banished him to a palace by the sea with his tutor, the very logical Mr. Alexander, as his only company. He grows weaker every day and passes his hours reading Socrates and Plato with his tutor. "I was too weak for swimming, too old for sandcastles and hope." One morning, he spies a young girl sitting on the palace steps with her feet in the water. She calls herself Hespatia. She is a mermaid, searching for an immortal soul, and asks Maximilian for help. "'If you love me—' she said." But, according to Mr. Alexander's teaching, there is no such thing as love or heaven or souls. Maximilian will return to dust and Hespatia will return to foam. Hespatia remains at the palace for three days and does her best to teach Maximilian to hope and to love someone other than himself. Hespatia and Mr. Alexander stand in contradiction and wage a war of ideas through Maximilian who has never sought beyond his tutor's teachings.

"Do you mean love and heaven when you say fairy tales and lies?" [Hespatia] asked. "If so, I would rather accept my lies than your truth, my foolishness than your wisdom."

"Clear eyes are better than false hope," [Mr. Alexander] said.

"Heaven is real," she said. "And so is love."

Maximilian finds joy in Hespatia's company, and though Mr. Alexander's teachings have a hold over his psyche, Marcus Aurelius' meditations provide little comfort to a dying boy. Who wins the war? You'll have to read the story to find out. It's well worth your time. I'm looking forward to more of E. M. Biswell's stories.


"The Tale of the Emperor’s Sighs," by Elizabeth Hopkinson in Silver Blade Magazine

The twenty-second Emperor of China is despondent. "Day after day, he would look out across his gold-roofed palace and sigh, his hand on his wasted cheek, his eyes filling with tears." His ministers gather to debate and hatch a plan to cure the Emperor of his woes. They order craftsmen to construct an enormous paper lantern with a dish of oil to burn and a basket in which the Emperor can ride. They believe that his spirits will be renewed if he rises above whatever is bothering him. The Emperor embarks on his journey upward. He passes an Abbott living high atop a mountain, greets the princes and princesses in the Palace of the Moon, and then stops when he reaches the Mountain of Paradise. He can rise no higher but his sadness persists. The Enlightened One tells the Emperor that his sadness is concern for the sorrows of the world. He sends the Emperor home on a cloud, telling him it “is made of all the sighs you have given for the sorrow and suffering of others. As long as your compassion continues, it will bear you up, until the time when you return to this mountain." The Emperor returns to earth with a heart filled with purpose. Hopkinson tells a beautiful fable in "The Tale of the Emperor’s Sighs." Her writing has the feel of something ancient and wise. The moral is thoroughly integrated with the plot. What a better place our world would be if every leader shared the concerns of Hopkinson's Emperor.

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