(originally appeared in Yareah online 8/21/2013)
The cowboy lay dying, three bullet holes in his lung.
That’s how the story started. I had 100 words to tell a story and I can’t imagine a better start than a sentence like that. On some level I wished that the site I was submitting to had asked for only 10 words. I would be hard pressed to keep the next 90 words at this level but I was going to try.
You might be asking yourself why I am bothering to tell you about a 100 word story I wrote instead of just showing you the story and letting it stand on its own merits. Well first of all, I have a book to fill and 100 words isn’t going to cut it. It’s hard enough to fill a book when you’re writing short stories as it is let alone a micro-story. Second of all, I’m the writer and you’re the reader so might I suggest that you just read whatever I write and shut the fuck up?
But more importantly, I remember buying a Calvin & Hobbes book where in addition to the cartoons the artist explained a little about what inspired some of them or what was going on when they were created. I found it fascinating, so I thought I’d be fascinating too.
With every exhale, they made a little whistle.
Another sentence that really sets a nice tone. Of course, you might have had some momentary confusion as to what “they” were, but you only have to backtrack a few words to see that “they” must be the bullet holes. Then realizing that the cowboy has yet to expire, that same punctured lung must be still breathing and thus making the aforementioned whistle. Once you have that nugget of info tucked safely away I think you’ll agree that the sentence really added an element of grit to the overall mood.
Each breath with each different finger configuration made a different sound.
Here is where I ask the reader to stay with me. With only 100 words I couldn’t explain that the cowboy was trying to plug each of the holes up with his fingers but was having varying degrees of success what with the holes being all bloody and slippery and whatnot. Definitely the most important line of the story and one where I would imagine that I would lose at least half of the readers. To suddenly switch from the grit of the second sentence to the whimsy of making the cowboy a human bagpipe in the third would no doubt throw some people for a loop.
Finally, after much trial and error, he was able to make his way two thirds the way through The Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner.
If readers were able to stay with me through line three then line four would be the payoff. Imagining a dying cowboy lying alone in some desert slowly and excruciatingly forcing air through his wounded lungs in the attempt to play The Ride of the Valkyries as buzzards circled high above him … that’s just fucking magic. That’s what line four is.
With only 100 words at my disposal you might think that spending five of them on a song title was extravagant but the song that the cowboy chose couldn’t be just any song. Had I had more words at my disposal I might have mentioned the stolen ring in his saddlebag and hinted that it might have played a part in the tragedy that had befallen him, but I didn’t so I didn’t. Instead I had him play a song that explained it in greater detail than another thousand words could have. Call it social critique or an examination of unconscious motivations, could there be a better soundtrack than Die Walküre for a dying cowboy?
Try as he might though he couldn’t make the next note.
In any great story, regardless of the number of words, there has to be some obstacle. A trial or conflict that faces the protagonist. Just as the reader is starting to get carried away by the plot, the cowboy is faced with a problem. I don’t think I would be overstating it by saying that I fully anticipate the reader would be holding their breath through the entire length of the sentence, unable to contain their enthusiasm for getting to the next sentence.
He ended up shooting himself in the other lung to make the necessary hole.
Held breath or not, there is no way the reader saw that coming. Suddenly the passion and moxie of the cowboy is laid bare for all to see. The cowboy goes from a rugged metaphor to an all-too-human, larger-than-life vessel for the reader to unload all of their pent-up emotions that need hyphens onto. Most writers aim for characters that an audience can identify with and that is their problem. This cowboy, this legend lying prone in the dirt, is far more than any reader could ever hope to be. To turn the gun on himself in order to finish the tune, accepting his grim fate … I must admit I’m getting a little misty over here.
That cowboy has stones.
That was one song he was going to finish.
An innocent enough looking sentence but deceptively so. Hidden within these nine words are all the aspirations of the human experience. Our search for meaning. Our need to feel we’ve accomplished something with our limited time on this planet. Mankind, in the dusty form of this cowboy, wrestling with the issue of mortality as the final grains of sand slide down the hourglass… ok, I need a minute.
He farted the last note.
And there it is. The release from despair. For any tragedy to transcend the mundane, there has to be the laugh. The reminder that in the end it’s all a joke. The reader no doubt hoping that this cowboy they have grown so attached to in only 94 words finds some solace in the release of intestinal gas from his anus.
He was a cowboy after all.
Of course he would. Instantly all of the archetypes of the male in the Old West come flooding back to the readers. Riding in to the rescue, not of the cowboy but of the reader.
In E major.