Last time I mentioned working diligently during a particular period to write shorter and shorter, until I reached the (for me) region of ultimate fiction shortness. As a result of that effort, I have several very short pieces out there. One of them was for a rather unusual anthology, A Field Guide to Surreal Botany. Pieces took the form of entries in a field guide, and mine was for a plant called Clickweed. (Someone actually turned up with a copy at Outland in Oslo, which surprised and delighted me.) It’s not available online, and it’s a bit odd out of context–but then, the actual context was (delightfully) odd to begin with.
Also around this time, I wrote the 1,000 word “Bury the Dead,” which never had a print publication, so I put it on my website for International Pixel Stained Technopeasant Wretch Day, and later it was narrated over at Podcastle by the awesome Tina Connolly.
I wrote “Footprints” in a fit of pique after an online conversation that made me angry, and then sold it to Postcards from Hell, which was an interesting project that sadly never did more than it’s first series of postcards. I put it on my Livejournal for another IPSTP Day, once its exclusivity period had lapsed. Five hundred words! That’s very nearly the lowest wordcount I would ever manage.
But the actual lowest? The point at which I said to myself, “Self, you have accomplished that. Check the box and go do other things”? That was “The Sad History of the Tearless Onion.” I wrote it for the first Escape Pod flash fiction contest. It came in fourth, but EP bought it anyway, and eventually it ran on Podcastle. Three hundred words. I had done it!
Later, after Ancillary Justice came out, Popular Science asked me for a flash fiction piece for their Dispatches from the Future, specifically on the topic of aging. So I do have one much more recent piece of fiction that’s three hundred words long: “HappyMart.” Scroll down–or, you know, just read Ian Tregellis’ story which is just above mine.
This is really not a length at which I’m comfortable–when it comes to short fiction I’m happiest when I’m working in the eight to twelve thousand word range, honestly. But I’m pretty proud of having managed to actually write these stories.
Oh, and since A Field Guide to Surreal Botany came out in 2008, I’m pretty sure my bit of it is past any exclusivity period, so here’s my entry. (Without, of course, the lovely illustration.) I think you can still get copies of the book, actually, and it’s a cool little project that I enjoyed very much.
Anyone who has wandered by the side of a lake or a stream will have encountered the common clickweed. Its seven-leaved basal rosette, the distinctive smooth, thick leaves, and the hairy stalks that trail into the water, are unmistakeable. Raise those stalks out of the water (gingerly, with a stick!) and the lens-shaped growths near the ends of those stalks emit the clicking sound that gives these predatory plants their name. To a fish’s ear these clicks sound remarkably like a distressed knucklefish, and any hearer hoping for an easy mouthful is lured into the entangling hairs and trapped, to be absorbed by the clickweed over a period of several days. Half-digested clickweed prey is sought after by some epicures, who eat it with vinegar, or a dash of coarse salt. This, and the noise the plant makes, is the extent of the clickweed’s charm. It is hardly a beautiful plant.
But common, ugly clickweed has a secret. Some seventy-five years ago a retired diplomat named Bren Wilson was separated from her party during a caving expedition. Fifty years later her skeleton was found near an underground pool, along with a notebook detailing her last days. According to this account she lived by the pool for weeks, eating the sparse prey of a clickweed bleached white by its subterranean existence. This is not impossible; though each clickweed seems like a single plant, in fact it is really one part of a single organism that may stretch as far as a quarter mile, hundreds of sets of leaves emerging from the same rhizome. It is conceivable that an offshoot might find its way into a cavern.
But the next part of her notes led readers to assume that, disoriented and malnourished, she had imagined the plant entirely–she wrote that she had been able to find the plant and its pool because it glowed. “Like a cold fire,” she wrote, “golden and glittering and burning.” This would seem impossible–clickweed had never been observed to glow under any circumstances, and phosphoresence serves no purpose in a cavern, since the creatures that live there are blind.
But fifteen years after the discovery of Wilson’s notes research confirmed that, contrary to all common sense, some of these do indeed glow. There is no predicting whether a particular specimen will, nor when it will do so–a subterranean colony might shine for its entire existence, or grow for years in darkness, burn for three days to a month, and then go dark again. As Wilson herself wrote, “It can serve no purpose…but it is not mysterious, because no one can even suspect it. It exists, it would seem, for itself alone.”
Carnivorous, colonial geophyte. 7-leaved base rosette of oblanceolate leaves, 4-10 cm, fleshy and glabrous. Trailing stalks 20-70cm, 2-5mm wide, with numerous long, fine but strong hairs. Near the ends 2-6 lenticular excresences, opposite, lacunate. Monoecious, pedicels 0.5-1cm, apetalous, capsule ovoid, black, dehiscent, 5-seeded. Found along the banks of lakes, streams, and small rivers on every continent.