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The Grass isn't Greener · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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The Long Game
The morning chores were done.

Dutch sat wiping his forehead in what little shade he could find. From six in the morning until the strike of noon he did with his two hands what would had required fifty just half a century ago. Hell, no doubt there would've been fifty pairs of hands managing the stable and the fields, not to mention Mrs. Shepherd's precious garden. As far back as Dutch could remember, going on some twenty years, Mrs. Shepherd looked after her garden about as much as the servants did, even though she never seemed fond of getting her hands dirty. Even wearing gloves made her visibly uncomfortable, but there was something vaguely satisfying in seeing her overcome her discomfort with dirt to tend to her plants.

Of course, Dutch had no choice but to be bedfellows with dirt.

"Shit," he murmured.

His dark skin glistened, even in the absence of light. There was no end to the sweat that would run down his cheeks, or drip from his brow; it was necessary, indeed, that Dutch's supply of sweat would never run dry. How could a man rest easy if his livelihood depended on sweating? How could he even hope to live with himself—with his conscience!—if he had worked his heart and soul and physical form all day long and in the end come inside to a nice cup of lemonade if he hadn't the sweat on his brow to prove that his efforts were not fabricated?

It wasn't so outlandish, then, to consider that perhaps it was the sweat and pain in his joints that justified the lemonade, the comfortable bed, the modest allowance, rather than the work itself.

Convenient, too, since the Shepherd house always demanded that work be done. There was never an hour that passed in the daytime when there wasn't something to be fixed or prettied up, or even replaced. From the way business was always running smoothly indoors and outdoors, one would think the place was constantly coming apart at the seams, about to plummet into the abyss and so forth. Such a thing had happened with several other houses in the county, that much was true; Dutch and the other servants heard through their so-called employers that the "New" South had brought a wave of desolation and poverty to many families who thought they had everything figured out.

The Dolans, the Spencers, the O'Haras, the O'Briens, the Xaviers—all families who, not too long ago it seemed, were proud Confederate names and places, and all of whom were run down into oblivion within twenty years of the War coming to a dreadful end. If you were an O'Brien in 1860, and allowed into the family fortune, you had all the riches of the world at your disposal, with a hundred acres of green pasture and something like two-hundred black souls at your beck and call.

Paradise, Dutch thought with a bitter dose of irony. Shit, that don't matter anymore.

Not that he could aim much bitterness at the Shepherds. Even at the peak of the family's power the Shepherds owned but a minor plantation in the grand scheme of things, and came close to losing what little—comparatively speaking—they had once the period of Reconstruction swept both the county and the South at large. The slaves, those who were branded with the Shepherd surname, those who had worked tirelessly their whole lives for so little, those who waited with held breaths in the shadows, left the plantation in search of better lives, and none returned. Didn't matter that some of those slaves—now freed men and women—never found better lives for themselves, as getting work within the county was like finding a specific needle in a stack of millions of indistinct needles, utterly interchangeable with each other in both appearance and how they, without thinking and without hesitation, rejected those searching for the right needle. Didn't matter either that the Shepherds were, at least by the standards of white folks, decent people.

And as imaginative as Dutch was, being a man of his age and aspirations, he sighed at the prospect of fully understanding just how so much futility came into the world. If you asked him what day of the month he was born in, he couldn't tell you, but he knew very well he was born in October of 1870. He knew this for a fact, or rather he couldn't forget it, because Mama would remind him all the time as a child of its significance: shortly before Dutch's birth, General Robert Edward Lee passed away. The significant part wasn't so much the General's death itself but what—so Mama claimed—came as a spiritual consequence.

Now Mama was a superstitious lady, much like other black women of her generation, but not quite in the same way as her contemporaries; whereas the enslaved women would often preach of Heaven and how the Lord could carry black souls gently and lovingly into the eternal afterlife, Mama believed with admittedly admirable conviction that no such afterlife existed. Instead she believed that when you die, your soul gets carried along on a sort of astral roadway where it would ultimately be delivered at the doorstep of a new physical form. It was common, as a matter of fact, for Mama to remark about how she recognized the soul of a fellow slave she knew in the body of a crow flying overhead, or of a frog as it ribbited and hopped obliviously near a pond, or of a freshly planted apple tree as it stood steadfastly in the garden. Dutch, being the smart boy that he was, didn't question any of it.

He did question the notion that he possessed the same soul as General Lee, however. The soul of a white man, Dutch thought, and chuckled. He never grew tired of the idea, and Mama never grew tired of it either, if only for a different reason. Something about it appealed to her, most certainly.

Even when Mama died, in 1897 and still in the prime of her life, she remained convinced that her son was the reincarnation of the Confederate General. Dutch asked her many times over the years about whether she was joking—she had to be joking, right?—and she always answered in the negative; she didn't even reveal it as being a joke whilst on her death bed. Later Dutch would reflect that maybe due to being raised in the era of slavery, Mama was used to playing the long game with everything.

How could a woman play a joke as if it were the truth for twenty years? But that's how Mama was, Dutch thought. To make the situation even more absurd, Mama was far from the only one of her generation to do such a thing; if not all of them, then a lot of them did something very similar. Wanna marry that feller you got yo' eyes on? Give it five years. Wanna learn to read 'n' write? Give it ten. Wanna get paid for how you work yo' ass off for white folks? Give it twenty. Wanna drive one of them fancy automobiles by yo' lonesome? Give it fifty! Dutch took awful pride in the smile on his lips, and he wiped his brow with about as much pride in himself.

The soul of a white man!

Maybe that was why he never hated the Shepherds? Ever since he started working for them he felt a certain connection with them, almost in spite of what he had been taught and in spite of his previous experiences with white folks. The most likely answer was that the Shepherds were nearly in as bad a shape as Dutch was when he came to them for employment; they were the only white family in a fifty-mile radius who would take in a black man of Dutch's age, a black man who had the look of a criminal in his eyes, even though Dutch had never so much as gotten into a fist-fight in his life. But at well over six feet tall and with a burliness about him, he intimidated the other families he met, assuming they would've even taken in a black worker in the first place.

Like re-reading a well-worn but well-loved book, the memory came to him easily. The year was 1898, and Mama was dead. With the only person who mattered to him gone, Dutch felt no reason to stay on the Jefferson plantation; he hated Mr. and Mrs. Jefferson with a passion, with their collectively pompous attitude and their strictness, and he felt he could find better employment elsewhere. So he packed what he could and left, walking, searching, surviving, playing the long game like how Mama taught him. There were a few rough patches along the way. There came a point, in the summer of 1898, where Dutch feared he would drop dead on the side of the road, homeless, starved, unclean, but good fortune struck him at just the right moment.

To make a long story short, he learned to appreciate whorehouses about as much as churches.

Alive, if barely so, Dutch arrived at the debilitated Shepherd plantation. It seemed to be a hopeless situation, but Mr. and Mrs. Shepherd needed servants pretty badly, the need made only more urgent by the recent birth of their first child, and soon the couple took Dutch in as one of their own.

Mr. Shepherd was a gaunt man, of tall stature and uncomfortable thinness. He smoked a pipe habitually, which was in itself perfectly normal in those days, but Mr. Shepherd had a sort of love for tobacco that defied words, to the point where he was hardly ever seen without his pipe, even in times when it was probably inappropriate to have one. A few years older than Dutch, Mr. Shepherd was the son of a Confederate soldier who had returned home a perpetually melancholic man, a melancholy that would infect his son for all of his days.

Mrs. Shepherd, formerly Ms. Amis, was a somewhat pudgy woman, at least around the waist and legs. She grew up on a plantation where it was customary to always be either smoking a pipe or sipping tea, and she very much enjoyed the latter; a tolerance for the former would lead—to some degree, anyhow—to her taking a strong liking to Mr. Shepherd when both were deeply entrenched in their youth. The outcome of the War left her family with an unnerving lack of male members, and the deaths of her uncles and cousins made Mrs. Shepherd wary of having sons of her own.

Naturally, within a year of getting married the Shepherds would have their first child—a son. They agreed to name him Jubal, after Jubal Amis, Mrs. Shepherd's father's youngest brother, God rest his soul. There was much rejoicing in the family.

Then came another son, only a year later, and the Shepherds named him Andrew, after Mr. Shepherd's father. Another verse, much the same as the first.

Then came a daughter, and...

Aw hell, Dutch thought. He didn't like to think about Silvia.

Silvia Shepherd was born on June 24th, 1902. She didn't come right out of the womb with that name, of course. Breaking from tradition, the Shepherds decided to not name their daughter after a family member, deceased or otherwise; instead they opted for something that sounded pleasant. "Silvia" sounded like "silver," and silver was indeed pleasant, so it only seemed natural to name the treasure of their lives Silvia.

Silvia, huh?

For Dutch it was surreal to think about how quickly Silvia's candle got snuffed out. He was there, from the time of her birth to hour of her death, and even though it was already in itself a short period of time, the memories of the life of Silvia Shepherd made that candle glow feel all the more short-lived. Silvia lived for three years and a month before typhoid fever claimed her body, if not her reincarnating soul.

Despite not quite believing in it himself, Dutch attempted to console the Shepherds with the idea that Silvia's soul would move to a new body, and that although the child Silvia was dead, her soul could be inhabiting something or someone they knew. The Shepherds were not too fond of this; they believed their daughter's soul had ascended to Heaven, which Dutch didn't quite believe either. Nevertheless, he left the parents and their surviving children alone with their grief.

Eventually the Shepherds had another kid—a third son. The year was 1910, and Mr. and Mrs. Shepherd weren't as young as they used to be, but something compelled them to give pregnancy another chance. Dutch never discovered the reason why, but that didn't matter. Samson Shepherd—named after Mr. Shepherd's paternal grandfather, reviving the naming tradition—was born healthy, if slightly overweight. While the prospect of looking after yet another child made Dutch and his fellow servants skeptical, the fresh wind of life brought into the household compensated for this uncertainty.

The year was now 1918, and all things considered, not much had changed in the twenty years since Dutch started working for the Shepherds. Sure, the plantation had been practically renovated, and there were more mouths to feed, but the sky was no bluer and the grass no greener than before.

Not to say nothing of importance happened recently.

Jubal and Andrew had left on a boat for France just a month ago, both of them, joining the fight with the French and British against the rascally Germans. Not that Dutch knew how exactly the Germans were being rascally, but there was a war going on and there had to be some reason for the whole mess to be what it was. Dutch was too old to join the war effort anyhow, and so as long as the war stayed in Europe it didn't matter much to him.

"Shit," he said to himself.

He stood up, brushing dirt off his pants, and headed for the front porch, where he could rest in the rocking chair—his rocking chair, the hand-me-down rocking chair, the rocking chair that seemed older and more worn down than the plantation itself. So there he sat, by himself, his skin finally cooling, waiting minutes or hours or years or decades until someone needed him, until he could prove himself to anybody, until he could know everything there was to know, until he could make a difference in the world.

He played the long game like how Mama taught him.
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#1 · 1
...I like this. I like the writing in this (I love the ending in particular). But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit confused.

On first reading, I thought this was a world where the south had won their independence, but not much had actually changed historically. I can see that isn't quite right on reading it further, but it feels like there's more to this than 'an old plantation worker thinks about the past'. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but if I am it's only because the prose feels like it's got something lurking under the surface.

Whether I'm right or not, this is still good writing.
#2 ·
· · >>Baal Bunny
There's certainly precedent for having a third person perspective who is more educated than the perspective character, but I urge you to tread lightly when you're covering a topic as charged as this. This story rubbed me the wrong way at times due to the contrast between how the two of these characters speak--Dutch, and the narrator. The narrator takes most of the control of the story, and when that happens, I begin to assume I'm listening to the Author. So when the narrator tells us about Dutch's life and what he's been through, interrupted by a Shit, or an Aw, hell from Dutch, before the narrator gets to follow another well-written plot thread...

I gotta be honest, Author. At best, Dutch started to feel like a picture in a textbook presented as an example to convey your idea. At worst, he started to feel like a zoo animal.

I'm not saying that was your intention, or that I felt this very strongly (it was pretty light, in truth), again, I just want to urge caution. And it's a bit of a catch-22, as well, because writing fully in his accent would involve even more landmines. But it's doable. Or, another option I see would be to have more characters, and make your narrator omniscient. Paint the whole picture, and let us know how everyone's stories play into the idea that you're going for, not just the one guy's.

Enough of that talk, though.

On the whole, not a whole lot happens in this story. Which, as a short story, is very difficult to pull off, because there isn't much to get invested in when I don't get to see it happen. But at the same time, I think this would be a perfectly fine chapter in a novel. I may not care too much about the characters yet, but I do know a lot about them, for what that's worth.

Well, I guess there's really only Dutch and his mother that we see a lot from, but still, I did understand their dynamic enough that I wanted to see more. The astral walkway and the soul of a white man were interesting concepts to see explored.

The theme of playing the long game, and putting a strong back into things while the politics gradually turns in the right direction, is handled immensely well here. And, in case it wasn't clear, I really, really liked the prose. It's educated without being pretentious, which is something that normally drives me insane, so it was refreshing.

Thanks for writing. Good luck!
#3 ·
I didn't get this one:

At all till I read >>Miller Minus's comment about "putting a strong back into things while the politics gradually turns in the right direction". I'm very much a "show, don't tell" sort of reader, author, and there's nothing here but telling. To me, it was like reading a textbook, a dry recitation of names and dates and events that left me with a lot of words but no understanding. So while it was nicely written, it was pretty much impenetrable to me

If you want to make a story accessible to a reader like me, break it down into scenes. Have characters talk to each other, and show me what's going on around them while they talk. If you want to keep any external POV like this, it's possible, but it's a lot harder to avoid the "telly text" syndrome when you've got a narrator literally telling the story. Anchoring the story in a single character's head makes it easier to show things through that character's senses while letting that character's thoughts and feelings draw me in and lead me through.

#4 ·
Alternate Title: Song of the South 2: Electric Boogaloo

Two things I liked:

1. There are only two entries this round that come to my mind which have consistently chunky paragraphs, this and Gardenia. But what gives The Long Game the edge with its extra thicc paragraphs is that they're solid as a rock, technically speaking. It seems like the author wrote on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis, as opposed to scenes (this becomes a major problem but I'll get to that), and the result is a series of paragraphs which feel like stories within themselves, conveying a ton of information while also being pretty well-written. Very tell-y, but well-written.

2. I like the central theme here quite a bit; it remains consistent in spite of the ADHD nature of the narrative. The contrast between the rapid deterioration of the Southern families and the very gradual improvement of Dutch's life presents a world that is both changing and also not over a period of time. The fact that Dutch's situation changes makes his journey feel futile, but at the same time there's enough hope for a better life in the ending that it doesn't feel like a tragedy. I do highly recommend, however, that if you (the author) want to do this theme justice you'll need to give it a lot more room to breathe, and that brings me into...

Two things I didn't like:

1. Too short. Which is ironic considering the entry's title, but I do think The Long Game could seriously use the nutrition and exercise of Kitsune, maybe meet halfway with that entry. There are so many ideas (a lot of which have potential) that get introduced and then dropped so quickly that none of them gets the time to blossom that they need. You could say this is more of an "ideas" story, but that comes at the great expense of a fleshed-out narrative. It's a shame, because there's a lot of material to work with here.

2. Some of the protagonists this round feel underdeveloped, and unfortunately Dutch is one of them. Once again this is a case of potential that is unfortunately not fully tapped into; we're given a good dose of Dutch's backstory, and even a slice of his personality, but our understanding of his perspective is quite limited due to most of the story telling us about Dutch's life, as opposed to Dutch telling us himself. Mind you, telling the story from Dutch's perspective could easily result in something horrid and cringe-worthy if not handled with great care, so it must've seemed like the safer option to tell the story in the way we got. But the best WO entries (or at least my favorites) are the ones that take risks, even if they don't entirely work out, and the author should take note of that from now on.

Verdict: Like with Bits and Bites this feels more like the beginning of something big than a nicely packaged short story, but keep working on it!
#5 ·
I agree with Baal here. This left me quite at arm’s length, all the more than it speaks of a spatiotemporal period which I can’t really connect with. To really get down to the bottom of things, I’m still wondering why this story? What is it that you wanted to tell us? What is the takeaway, if any?