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Lightning in a Jar · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Show rules for this event
Sodom’s Greatest Alchemist
Soldiers placate the crowd. Caravans intercept them, causing a commotion. He sloshes water into the cup. A little blood flows over, but it’s caught by the ground. The next time they won’t be so kind. He catches a bullet in his hand. The silver receipts fall down. The ground is covered in gold. When he walks the ground records his steps. Thirty-nine thousand, three hundred ninety-three have been recorded since your last visit. Would you like to deposit another?

Johnson & Johnson have gone bankrupt. They would like no one to know. When company comes over they dig a bit deeper into the wine-cellar than they did before. Their fingers scrape along the basement walls leaving blood but the bottle comes out all the same. Children participate in the sacrifice. Starved ribs protrude from their frames. It’s easier for the blade to penetrate that way.

Sterile gold stares into his eyes. The metal stacks toward the ceiling. Space is scarce between the top of the stack and the ceiling, a gap too thin to stuff in more gold. That doesn’t stop him from trying. Capital comes at a cost. He can’t recall the exact amount stored, so he consults his record-keeping.

Thirteen children play in the room, grooming the gold. When it’s ripe they’ll pick the leaves. The fruits are poisonous, but the leaves are sweet. They’ll stir them into a teapot to brew. They’ll drink it with their dimples and die. The thirteen children stack to the ceiling so high you can’t fit in anymore.

That’s no good. Thirteen is an unlucky number. Having only thirteen dead children does not bode well for him. Even if he could kill another, it wouldn’t fit. It could fit if he gave up some of his gold. He hoped it wouldn’t have to come to that, but if it did, he could part with the gold that has liquefied into blood. He needed to remember to ask Judas why it did that.

He has six rats side-by-side in a row. Rats move frequently, so getting them to stay in a row is not an easy task. One will crawl forwards while another backs ups. He set up walls both behind and before them. They climbed up the walls, crawling out of sight when he wasn’t looking. He put a wall above them, but then they crawled out the sides. So he walled off those too. The rats died of suffocation. The suffocated rats fit in the gaps.

The prelude introduces more important information. Direct digital contact destroyed the casual letter. Trying to sing a song now is like paying homage to a castle made from straw. Every year a flaming arrow finds its way into the court and burns it all down to the ground. Gold dust falls to the ground. It smells like burnt corpses. At minimum it requires two hours to fully burn. Bones are left over. They go in the crunchy jaws. Grandma dust, child dust, and dog dust all pass through the same jaws, the doors of death.

Many vital liquids comprise the human body. If even one were to be absent, the rest would die. The hands hold the cup of water covered in blood. The hands are covered in blood. The cup is covered in blood. The blood is covered in blood. Fire, water, and spirit mix inside and something comes out and smiles at him. So many souls smile at him from inside his cup that he drops it in fright.

The cup hits the stone floor and shatters into thousands of fragments covered in waters. Air cannot contain them, so they seep into the ground. Aerial toll-masters flap around trying to collect them before they escape. Winged Ethiopians grip at the ground, lapping up souls. The Earth’s cavernous stomach adopts most of them into her welded womb. There they are safe from the fires for a moment. Those lapped up by the toll-masters are spit into the stomach at a later date.

Barks of war make their way into his tent. He steps out into the blood and wonders who could be making such a commotion. The atomic bomb has gone off over the horizon. Communism swats another city out of existence. It would be only a matter of time until they can free him as well. He turns back into the tent and sets his tent-pegs deep into the ground. He envelops himself and feels safe at last.

He grabs another bottle from the cabinet and sets it next to the sink. This would be the one. This time it will work. He drafts another draught of magic from his tankard. There isn’t enough left to fill the entire bottle, but it’s enough to serve in his next act. He pulls out more children from his pocket and adds them with an eye-dropper. The bottle becomes black. He has to swat away the thirsty Ethiopians as they try to get at his bottle. He cuts open his own hand with a knife and completes the concoction with his own blood.

Drip by drip the gold becomes blood. Capital rushes in to greet him. Thousands of heads stare up at him. Millions of cattle eyes carry their silent cries up to him. A little more of his blood becomes gold. He couldn’t move his leaden legs. The greed crept up further and further until it was all solid gold. He drinks the whole bottle in one gulp.

Another usurious vampire coughs up silver. Their gold was almost gone. The gap had widened enough to fit forty children. No one played amid the leaves.

The interlude breaks up the action, allowing for a reprieve from the madness. Clouds coated in Heaven’s seed fall down to the ground. The Watchers awake from fictions and find they now lust for human flesh. Soviet strikes do nothing to their children skulking across the countryside. When their blood touches the barren ground another sprouts up and starts walking. Silver bloods, golden bloods, watery bloods covered in spiritual veils pool on desert sand and dry rocks, bearing more children for the fight.

Abel’s Jail holds them for a while. Degeneration of descendents’ dissident discourse denudes their despair. Flesh and bone fueled by nuclear fission fight with men mated to metal. Contamination drives back the regiments until the Capitol comes within reach. Angelic arms grip lawmaking halls bereft of bodies. The city falls into the flame.

Lightning from Heaven falls afar off, faltering before it hits the Earth. The circuit cannot be completed until Abel’s Jail is empty. Fantasy gums up his gun. Bullet holes patter the concrete. Drunken blood washes over the roads, leaving gilded streaks. The seed of men and gods desecrate the Earth with pollutions. Seed and spit mix together and the blood is born out of the mixture. Death erupts from the ground, swallowing whole camps in its maw.

There are no women left in the city. They were superfluous and inefficient. When he discovered children could be created without them, the choice was easy. Catching the souls before they were incarnated was the hardest part. Between initial creation and incarnation is a sliver of time big enough to be exploited but too small to accurately measure. Dog bodies held them best, but any animal would do.

Cages filled with animal children lined the room. Keeping the heart pumping while you drained the blood took practice, but he was a quick learner. Once whetted, the altar wouldn’t be satisfied until it was completely painted in the red watery souls and set on fire. The blaze would be hot enough to melt mountains. Giant animal children timbered whole metropolises of metallic trees. Tender young hands undid hundreds of years’ worth of work.

Taken at a glance the giants seem tame and tender. Their fleshy meat cooks evenly and tastes flavorful when medium rare. Seasoning steals away some of that natural flavor. It’s illegal to sell their blood on Sunday so all the self-driving cars fuel up on Saturday instead. Hearses carrying dead Bolshevik bodies cover the streets, waiting for their turn in the Sunday service. Christianity revives the Communists and sends them back into the fray.

Columbia comes down with her gun and frees them all as they walk out the door. The hearses collect their bodies and wait for the next Sunday service. Stars twinkle in the blue sky. Blood runs down his white shirt. The washing machine can’t do anything about the bullet holes. They tell him to try Clorox next time. He nods and notes it down in his iPhone. Gilded faces stuck in unfamiliar expressions fill up the rest of the storage space. He’ll have to buy a new one soon.

Alien orbs piloted by Ethiopians soar in the sky, punching holes in the seed-soaked clouds. A new form of religion forms around them. Cults start cropping up in every major American city. The Americans lay out a runway for the orbs hoping for them to land. Conspiratorial voices claim it all to be a Communist plot. Worthless green papers prop them up.

Petty people parade their blood like it’s gold. No one notices the forests filling with dead animals who walk about in suits of matted fur. Gods ask men to intercede for them, but men have been made blind and deaf to them. The crystalline palaces protect them from the parades. Polygamists knock on the door. When no one answers they walk away, assuming no one to be home. Thirteen happily married men walk back to their own home. Thirteen adventurous, childish suitors greet them and give them a hand.

Congratulations on your promotion, Thomas. You can buy that yacht you’ve had your eye on for the last few months. Don’t forget to bring us along, though! We’ll break it in for you for sure. The sailing seas run blood-red, but the boats still float. Wood bobs in blood. Every day they sink a foot farther into the sea. They won’t stop loading up the boats with gold.

A fruit of the knowledge of good and evil lays on the plate. The only light is a single jar. Since the ship is sinking, the light in the jar isn’t even. It tilts to one side, showing more of the right than the left. When we found the fruit of the tree of life the first thing we did was distill it into alcohol. No matter how strong you distilled it, it still stayed sweet. It gave off a ghostly glow, too.

He takes a sip from his glowing jar and sits back, enjoying the friendly heat. Giant toes toss up the water, tilting the jar of light one way and then the other. Tables slide from one side of the ship to the other. Chairs fall over and follow them. He hears monster hands gripping the mast. Steel cables pop off like a loose eyelash. Metal armor snaps in half like a busted sparrow wing. Gargantuan eyes stare down at him. Pale fingers grip him gently so as not to bruise his frail flesh. The massive mouth opens wide and eats him whole—head-first.

Its stomach receives him like a childless woman. Bitter gold leaflets litter the acid. Nothing but seed and spittle surround him now. He prays to the Ethiopian orbs and drowns.

All his gold has become blood now. He shivers awake. The animals aren’t fresh enough to use, but their bodies are warm. He cuts one open and stuffs his fists inside. The animal’s eyes are still alive. They start to ask why the child inside cries. He didn’t know how to answer that, so he stayed silent. There is an epilogue written in the intestines. He searches through them, separating them into the appopriate categorizations. It’s only when he found the message that he realized he’d broken his reading glasses falling to the ground after drinking the last of his magic.

An optical illusion makes it hard to walk through the halls. Terrifying shapes dance on the walls. The vomit has yet to drain from his eyeballs. The knife slashes against the metal-shrouded shadows, sending a spark over them. For that second they recede, only to come back the very next moment. Pallorous hands hold a knife of blood and the molten metal drips from its grip. He takes his time after that, taking it one step at a time. One can’t be too careful in a place like this.

He shuffled off his impractical shoes six meters back. His bare feet step unsteadily on blood and bile, unsure of whether they would slip. Trudging into darkness he pulls on his legs to no avail. Slick golden letterheads hold him down and pen him to the ground. Stock certificates lacerate what’s left of his abdomen. The bull finds him lying there and beats his feet until they bruise. He sees a cloven golden hoof in front of his face.

Abel’s Jail empties into oblivion. This time the lightning doesn’t hesitate to strike. Cain comes out and takes a bow. The charade isn't up yet, though. He's got more up his sleeve. Covetous Communist soldiers storm the story and arrest him, fleecing him for all he has. A pocket watch and three pennies is all they can find. Unsatisfied, they continue the search. They stomp through hundreds of miles’ worth of sterile hallway looking for the gold. They find the cages touching the rafters and brimming with blood but nothing else.
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#1 · 2
· · >>Cassius
I'm going to treat this more like a poem than a piece of prose. I need to read it again, probably more than once before I can say something intelligent.

Absent any other criticism, though, I appreciate the originality and verve on display here.
#2 · 2
· · >>Cassius >>Dolfeus Doseux
This reads like Robert Anton Wilson and Allen Ginsburg had a bastard child that grew up and wrote a BioShock fanfic.

I've said it before, and I'll say it here again. "Art should take effort to make, not to enjoy."

I'll add a caveat here though. I think this DID take effort to make. For all the dense, pseudo-random turns of phrase that I really can't quite piece together, I sense the author did have meaning to them. Ginsburg's "Howl" (at least the denser portions) took me some time to get through as well, and I'm certain I never fully understood all of it.

That said, this... felt like a superficial copy of that seminal work. It takes similar patterns, and evokes related symbols, but just doesn't connect at a deeper level like Howl itself did for me.

Overall, points for effort, and trying something bolder than simple narrative, but it fails. If there was a "Rudy" award for spirt/effort, it'd probably go to this story though.
#3 · 5
· · >>Dolfeus Doseux
This was the first story I opened in this competition at 7:05AM EST. I had a headache from staying up all night. This story did not help matters.

So I took some time to read it again when I had a bit more patience to try and figure this entry out. As it turns out, I just ended up getting another headache.

But enough of me complaining; time for some constructive criticism: I hate this story—shit that's not right.

Okay let me try that again. I can appreciate the effort that went into creating something like this, despite the fact it really reminds me of Impossible Even Now, except there is an underlying direction behind it as opposed to being simply words haphazardly thrown about. As >>Xepher points out, there is a logical through line with how the narration talks and even a story here if you want to bother to dig it out.

If you individually take each line on its own, there are quite a few good and evocative phrasing. In particular, the two phrases in regards to starving ribs making them easier to stab got a bit of a reaction from me. As >>Cold in Gardez says, this is more a poem than prose. Or rather, it is as someone took every line of poem they were writing and organized into paragraph form. If the author is doing this to be a smart-ass as another """"""commentary"""""" piece on the "should poetry be in the write-off debate", I'm going to be very annoyed. I'm sure Quill Scratch will love this entry, though.

But for me, this entry was physically painful to read. The nonstop barrage of short, impact sentences absolutely disrupts the flow of reading, as your eyes are constantly darting forward, only to have to stop, reread, and try to make sense of what the flying fuck is going on. It would be one thing if this were a perspective piece where the narrator is someone who is highly anxious or has difficulty concentrating—that could work, although I have my doubts it would work for a whole story—but to have the narration go on about in this slapdash style while also combining it with obtuse and indirect descriptors only leads to a deep feeling of disorientation and irritation.

Someone may argue that, "Well, Cassius, perhaps that was the point, to be disorienting. The story is about the many messy gears and cogs of this city after all in relation to the alchemist and perhaps the fast-paced and vague narrative is intended to give off that effect."

To which I say: I don't really care. Writing a narrative that is a pain in the ass to read is a trade: you have to have the goods to back up the reader putting in the extra effort to understand it. Being indirect and metaphorical in your prose adds another level effort for the reader to put in to understand your work. Does the story do enough good to overcome these handicaps? In my opinion, no.

I feel >>Xepher may be giving Howl too little credit. Although it is dense, it's not hard to follow, which is to say, the intricacies of what Ginsberg means may be hard to understand, but the overall idea is rather easy to comprehend. And what's amazing is that Ginsberg does this all in the first line of each part.

Part I introduces the conceit and topic of the poem: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness"

Part II introduces asks and answers who is responsible: "What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?"

Part III affirms Ginsberg's kinship and togetherness with Carl Solomon (the "best minds of my generation" for Part I): "Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland"

Now, I'm not saying Howl is a cakewalk to get through or that it's not dense, and I don't want to get into a lecture on Ginsberg, but this sensibility of introducing a premise simply to a reader and then becoming more complex and obtuse is an important part of fiction crafting, which is entirely overlooked in this piece. You don't have to understand every line of Howl to understand what Howl is about, and in fact, without knowing very specific pieces of information, you can't really know what every line of Howl is intended to mean. But Howl still works because the reader understands what is going on generally, even if they don't know the specifics.

The same cannot be said of this story. We never are privy to what the hell is going on, and implored to figure it out for ourselves, as if the author tossed a jumble of puzzle pieces without telling us what the picture was supposed to be. I've read this three times, and I'm still only about 50% certain of what is supposed to be transpiring, and I'm not gonna read it a fourth time.
#4 · 3
· · >>Dolfeus Doseux
A rotating wheel. Turning an axle. Grinding. Bolthead. Linear gearbox. Falling sky. Seven holy stakes. A docked ship. A portal to another world. A thin rope tied to a thick rope. A torn harness. Parabolic gearbox. Expanding universe. Time controlled by slipping cogwheels. Existence of God. Swimming with open water in all directions. Drowning. A prayer written in blood. A prayer written in time-devouring snakes with human eyes. A thread connecting all living human eyes. A kaleidoscope of holy stakes. Exponential gearbox. A sky of exploding stars. God disproving the existence of God. A wheel rotating in six dimensions. Forty gears and a ticking clock. A clock that ticks one second for every rotation of the planet. A clock that ticks forty times every time it ticks every second time. A bolthead of holy stakes tied to the existence of a docked ship to another world. A kaleidoscope of blood written in clocks. A time-devouring prayer connecting a sky of forty gears and open human eyes in all directions. Breathing gearbox. Breathing bolthead. Breathing ship. Breathing portal. Breathing snakes. Breathing God. Breathing blood. Breathing holy stakes. Breathing human eyes. Breathing time. Breathing prayer. Breathing sky. Breathing wheel.

More seriously though, I really don't have anything to add that Cass didn't already say. Ultimately, while there is some nice prose, there is nothing here that particularly engages me as a reader, which is really important because this story IS a bit of a slog to read through. Like, there is nothing wrong with hard works (House of Leaves has some intensely sloggy sections to deal with), but you need to have sold the reader on that idea first.
#5 · 5
· · >>Dolfeus Doseux
Okay, I’m going to be the contrarian here. This was a good poem.

Yes, it’s a poem. It’s written as prose, but it’s meant to be read. Look at the sentences. They are short, and they often alliterate. No complexity leads to charges of repetitive sameness. I’ll concede this point.

Okay, to the actual content. I threatened Cassius with a close reading of this story typed line by line into his Discord. He objected and threatened to review my story. So here we are instead.

There’s a story hidden in these paragraphs (let’s call them stanzas). Critics say it’s buried in them. They say that poems should be hard to write but not hard to read. I agree. It would take a metal detector to separate the plot from the dross. The gold that underlines sublime turns of phrase from the slag added to reach 2,000 words.

But there is gold in here. I went to work today and thought of this poem at my desk. Images of blood pouring from empty cages stacked to the ceiling shadowed my thoughts. I imagined this story like 30 pieces of manna in the desert. I could spend hours reading, inventing meanings beyond what the author intended. Death of the author, indeed. It reminds me of magnetic poetry. Each reader discovers his own reading.

We can’t ignore the negatives. Some stanzas shine, while others taste like chalk. In my second reading I was surprised to see them. They left no impression the first time, stones falling without ripples into memory’s pond.

Author, I hope this is sincere. I worry when we are done you’ll reveal the truth, that Sodom’s Greatest Alchemist is an elaborate ruse. A way of poking fun at avant garde literature by parodying its incoherent excess. And then I’ll look the fool for defending it, for having seen genius in a pile of scrap.

But I’ll still enjoy it though.
#6 ·
· · >>Dolfeus Doseux
I’m siding with CiG here. I’m not sure if there’s a hidden meaning or message, but the images build in an unsettling manner. This is not just random blather, there is something being communicated here, though subject to multiple interpretations. I will rank this as upper mid-tier for now and see how it stacks up.
#7 · 3
>>Cold in Gardez
Thank you everyone for spending time on my prose. I apologize for being unable to submit a story conforming to a higher standard, but nano has taken its toll on me, and I had many ideas that I wanted to get down on paper but that didn't all quite fit together as nicely as they needed to.

I think this piece has many similarities with "I Am Very Glad, Because I'm Finally Back Home" by Edward Khil in that it's appreciable both as a work of art despite its apparent meaninglessness and as a joke. As I said in chat, Wheel from DDLC was part of my inspiration. I also took elements from Impossible Even Now and Neon Genesis Evangelion. It's a mess. It might be meaningless. But it was fun to write, even if it was painful to read. This is also probably going to end up as the capstone of my NaNoWriMo attempt.
#8 · 1
Just coming back to this months later to say I still love it. Write more like it, Dolfeus.