Matt Bell Week 7: Fin

This story was developed in one week between May 17-21, from a failed story attempt by Matt Bell. Matt outlines the concept in his introduction, which can be read here. What began on Monday as a paragraph grew to 2,500 words over three writing sessions, which were viewable by the public using software developed for live online meetings. Then, authors Michael Kimball and Lily Hoang each spent an hour trying to refine the story. Later in the week, everyone in the world was invited to contribute. What follows below is the finalized story that Matt put together in one day from all the different edits.

Though perhaps not the best way to compose, the experiment was interesting on a process level. It allowed readers to watch a writer type and delete and make mistakes and solve problems throughout the course of writing a story. The software also accommodated chatter, so people could give feedback and hear what the author or the editor was doing. All of it is available for perusal here. There is also a "Time Slider" function on the page that allows users to see a playback of every word that was typed, even if it was deleted (note: the process took so long -- over 24 hours of writing and editing -- that the Time Slider may take a minute to load).

All told, after a story written in just five hours, in public, then edited in public (and by the public) we are left with a surprisingly successful piece of fiction. There is depth and mystery to:


Our charter does not account for the killing of them, only the driving out. In the forest, we find them now in the shape of the cat, of the hog, of the black bird and the rat and the cock. Too late we yell warnings as one in the shape of the snake coils toward Barton, twists her mantled collar up and around his face. Two days pass before she finishes swallowing him, another four before she can scuttle her swollen body across the crackling leaves. We follow until we are sure Breton is gone, until she passes what is left of him out of her body, and then we set fire to her pit, to the woods around the pit. Her stink thickens the air as we stick deep our lances and spears, leverage their points against her stubborn scales. Eager Bina argues for haste, but backs down against my insistence that we finish our task before moving on, that always we finish our task.

A lifetime of service for a wife: This is what we were promised. This is what we agreed to. It is only the length of that life that we take issue with. How it goes on and on. How the spires of our homes are so far behind us. How these woods expand in directions endless as our enemy. How the sea is never in sight, despite the assurances we were given.

The strictures of my station demand that I hunger and thirst, but no such vows guide my men, whose bodies require rations we no longer possess. They take to hunting to replenish our diminished supplies, or else steal what they require from the folk who live here despite what haunts between the trees. These others have made their peace with them, or else have other ways of ignoring their influx. Before the books came to our city, we did the same, but now it is the will of our leaders that we ignore them no longer. We drive them from their homes, so that one day this forest might be emptied of their shapes, made clean for the advance of the kingdom.

We rely upon our lanterns and torches to light what little path there is. Constantly the men complain of their hunger, their cold. No reminder of what they have been promised will undo the bleakness of their moods. One in the shape of a hare leads Nezach away from the camp and into a bramble where the thorns tear his flesh, make furrows for the shapes of worm and fly to lay their eggs in him. We wait until he is covered, then we set the bramble ablaze. For a day, it lights our progress. For a day, we lose no more men.

How many more men there were in my company when first I brought them forth from our shining city. How my beard has grayed since. How my limbs have grown braided with muscle, starved lean but denser than the cords that once girded my bones. How my heart has grown cold enough that temptation touches it less than it touches even our cut and gelded scouts, sent ahead to prepare our passing.

We discover new holdings, new variations: The shape of the possum. The shape of the badger. The shape of the muskrat. Not all shapes are dangerous but each brings with it surprise, renewed possibility of losing a man despite our long experience. From our flanks come the shapes of the leopard, the tiger, once unknown to these woods. The names of the men I lose to them are Chochma and Kether, are Hod and Jesod, are Tiphereth and Gebura. Their names are legend, and I remember them all into the book of the dead. I write their names so that upon the completion of our duties I might return word of their sacrifice to their widows-in-waiting, promised even after death.

We only rarely catch one still in the blinding shape of a woman. Always the prisoner is young. Always she is comely. Always she tempts me. I retreat to my tent, I ready myself with prayer and fasting until my body is shriven against all possible wants, until my my gauntness presses my shoulderblades against the paper of my flesh. I stopper my ears with wax so her honeyed voice might not steal from me what I have already pledged. I call for the prisoner only then. It is written in the book that we may suffer for our restraint, but also that we will be rewarded. It is written that to do less is to risk too much.

In our twelfth year, Taschen tells the others he recognizes his childhood in the faces we push out. In the shape of the beaver he sees the eyes of his nursemaid, then in the gait of a deer a girl he chased without affection. His fantasies persist until they awaken other imaginations. Soon hands hesitate, hang back from their spear-hafts. The next time I command my men into the brush, they balk, question my orders. The men who are still loyal to me turn on Taschen, hold him down at my urging. If it is his sight that gives him trouble, then it is his sight I will remove.

Roob captures one in the shape of the crow or else just a crow. Rather than push her on, he cages the bird, hangs her from his wagon. For a week, the men busy themselves beneath the cage, listen for the witch within, test her as the book instructs. What is the difference between one in the shape of a raven and a raven? On the eight day after the bird's capture, Keenan wrings her neck, then opens her with his knife. He scries her innads, asks her offal how long until we reach the sea. Despite the sin, I let him Keenan prove there is no prophecy in superstition, no answers anywhere but my answers. Afterward, he spits and cooks her flesh, shares the meal with no one.

There is the book of the dead and the book of the living, but it is only in the first that I write, that I amend with the scripted names of our fallen. The book of the living is already perfected, absolute. It is against its law to question its contents. When the men become bothered with endless questions, the book proves itself true with shapes new to this forest, taken from its oldest stories: First one in the shape of a griffin, then of a three-headed dog, then a chimaera with its lion-head, its goat-legs, snake-tail. Shapes within shapes. We have no right weapons with which to challenge these foes, and so they fill the pages of my book with the names of my men.

We are already diminished when we return to our camp to find our wagons shattered, circled around a wreckage of human bodies. Atop the piles stands the shape of one of our brothers, armed and armored but no longer of his own mind. We test the one inside him with our lances, tatter his uniform, ribbon his flesh. After he is subdued and shackled, we drive him forward into the forest, then burn what fallings our blades left behind.

What more is it to give up sleep? When exhaustion cracks my spirit, I cry out the names I have written, then the prayers and apologies meant to be saved for later, for their unfulfilled brides' ascension to their absented pyres.

Too long I tolerate the grumbling of my men, their blacked glances. The dagger hangs in the minds of all but it is the hand of Elgar that brings it to my tent, that employs it to pierce my shoulder. I sunder his thread with my own blade, but my injured arm is already denied its strength. No more will it hold my lance, nor the staff of my office. It changes nothing. It is not by their authority that I rule. I regird myself in fresh leathers and tunic, loop the symbol of my station around my neck. It is for them that I become this avatar of authority. If I am to lead, then they must not doubt my commission.

Beneath leather and cloth, the wound festers and leaks. First yellow, then green. What morning is it when I awake to the first maggots crawling from the puncture, stinking the space of my tent? I send my manservant Harlan out into the dew and the dark so that he will not watch while I pour holy water across my shoulder, rub in the blessed salts. The wound burns, but what grows inside me is deeper than my fingers can reach. The birthplace of flies, or else those in the shape of flies.

With prayer and sacrament, I fast my body. What lies within hardens even as my shell collapses. Bina urges me daily to take a horse, ride upright so that the men might note my posture. I refuse his request. There is neither luxury nor convenience in the testimony of my example. In the mornings, Harlan fills my tent with incense to cover my decay, but still the men sneak away, first alone, then in pairs.

With the coming of the books came the story of the first woman, how it was from her body that these many shapes rushed forth. Not just the monsters, but also the domesticated animals, the cat and the dog, all the beasts of this forest which were then just beasts. Now we have pushed them back into these shapes, all sprung from the shape of the first. Now for the promise of one we drive all these others away, or else return them to the sea. This is what we have agreed to, and this is what I alone may still intend.

One in the form of a gorgon gores Cheva, then turns his brother Emir to stone while my men uselessly batter their blades against its iron skin. As others fall, I remind them they brought this upon themselves. I say, This is the demonstration of your doubt. The next day there are fewer tents in the camp. It is no longer possible to count the differences between the missing, the deceased and the deserting. I write all their names in the book of the dead.

I am alone when the fever overtakes me, but still I dress. Still I belt my blade to my waist, strap the book of the living and the book of the dead into their harnesses. Everything else I leave behind. I have no need of tent or horse-tack, want not for rations. I do not require a lantern because I myself am becoming light, blaze, beacon. And so I shall know the way.

In the fire, I have seen the sea. Only the faithful will be there when I arrive. I have seen their shadows standing on the shore, shrunken as my own. They are waiting to deliver me my reward, if only I can reach them to receive her.

The forest darkens, presses. The shapes grow closer. I sense them around me, before me and behind me, waiting, watching. I reach my hands out, feel forward. I pray for the thinning of trees, for the coming of cliffs, for the switchbacked descent to the shore, but receive no appeasement, no boon granted for my long service. I beg, plead, cower. Now that I am alone, I am all I care for.

There is only the dark to see, only the shapes around me to hear, only the rot of my right arm to smell. My mind betrays me with old promises: jasmine, silk, the tinkling of bells. The trees thicken, block every path. I stumble and I stumble and I stumble. My flesh tumbles from my shoulder, slips to the forest floor until it exposes bone, and still I am not satisfied to stop.

Breton. Chocma. Kether. Hod. Jesod. Tiphereth. Gebura. Nezach. Taschen. Roob. Keenan. Elgar. Cheva. Emir. Bina. Harlan. On and on. So my book of the dead reads. An alphabet of absence. I long to add my name to the end of the roll, so that whoever finds it might remember me as I have remembered all these others. So that someone might tell the bride I will never know but that I have earned with my death. I go on. I am not dead. I write nothing down.

Matt Bell is the author of How They Were Found, forthcoming from Keyhole Press in October 2010. He is also the editor of The Collagist and the series editor of Dzanc's Best of the Web anthology series.


  1. This was really interesting to watch at various times (got to pop in at least once or twice during each major aspect - Matt writing, MK and LH editing, the group edit yesterday and then Matt wrapping her up), both the writing/editing/fixing AND the comment/chatter and occasional play-by-play on the sidebar.

  2. I felt privileged to watch this develop. Rarely does something that gets called great really deserve it but this was really fun. Thanks for making it happen.