This is the third round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them not familiar with the challenge, you can read about it HERE and HERE. For them interested, the Round 3 Title voting results are found HERE.
As a quick summary, we solicited titles, readers voted for their favorite title, and we each wrote a story using the winning title.
The winning title for Round 3 was Of Broken Things.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
This, then, is Gary’s submission.
Oh, before we begin, I solicited blurbs from each writer. Here’s Gary’s:
At first, this tale might seem like a simple parable, a story designed to make you consider the human condition. But as you peel this onion, you will find that it parallels a much more familiar trilogy tale. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to dive a little deeper and pick up on as many similarities between this father, son, and hermit crab story and the lessons you were taught in Sunday school. Good luck!
Of Broken Things
Copyright 2022 — R. G. Broxson
(4,110 words – approx. reading time: about 16 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Ulysses scooped up a palmful of sand and seawater from the tidal pool; he splashed the warm, salty water onto his face and some into his mouth. He used a roughed forefinger to scrub his teeth, first the front, then the back, with the scouring grains of sand. He gargled, burbled, and then returned the salty spray to Mother Ocean. He raked his fingers through his morning hair and looked down the beach where every day was different. He saw it, a gleaming white seashell. Ulysses plucked it from the corral-rimmed pool and examined it closely. “You will guide us today,” he whispered to the shell and held it to his heart.
“Have you baited all the lines, Uley?”
“Yes, Father,” Ulysses said.
Ulysses’s father took off his fishing hat and measured his son with bleary eyes, clearly waiting for more. Ulysses had recently broken a tiny trust with his father. “All of them?”
“Yes, Father. I swear I have not eaten any of the bait today.”
Poleo smiled and reached to pat his 11-year-old son on the head. Ulysses flinched; then softened. “Will we have luck on the great waters today, boy?”
“Yes, Father.” Ulysses beamed in the light of forgiveness, as he held up the pure white shell in a formal offering; a chipped tooth marred his otherwise perfect smile. “This will be our pomaika, our good luck charm.”
Poleo took the nondescript shell from his son, like a priest might receive a sacred relic. He examined it, turning the shell in his rough hands, scarred and hardened from fishing and fathering. Pulled by an invisible fishhook, Poleo’s lip dipped into a cynical sneer.
“So, this is our talisman today?” He elbowed Ulysses as he traded the shell for an anchor rope.
Ulysses, ever wary of his father’s tone, felt compelled to reply. He had been rehearsing an argument since he fished the white shell from the tidal pool.
“It’s broken,” Poleo pointed to the chipped tip of the shell with a nub of a finger, sheared off by a barracuda years past.
“Yes, Father.” The boy kept smiling.
“It has no color or markings. It’s just plain and white,” Poleo continued.
“Yes, Father.” Ulysses’ argument was working.
“There are many other shells,” he pointed to the shoreline, “that are perfect and painted by the water gods.”
“Yes, Father.” Ulysses punctuated his final point.
“As you wish.” Poleo bowed courtly to his son. “Now, load the gear and tie the lines,” his good humor evaporating just as quickly.
“I think we should call him Haki,” Ulysses said.
“Ah, perfect,” said Poleo. “It is a truth that there can be beauty and usefulness even of broken things.”
Ulysses took the talisman and placed the imperfect shell on the prow of the hand-hewed fishing vessel. This boat was different from any other craft on the small fishing island of Pagon. It was still argued that Poleo’s great-grandfather had either been a visionary or a fool. He had designed and crafted this unique boat with three hulls that merged into a single bow, instead of the usual canoe style. For this reason, Poleo was able to go farther and deeper than most local fishermen.
The bizarre boat, however, had been passed down and down by starving fishermen, and now Poleo and Ulysses were continuing the legacy of deprivation. Just the night before, Ulysses had grown so hungry that he had dipped into the bait bucket and eaten several raw shiners designated for bait the next morning. Poleo had struck him hard and had broken Ulysses’ tooth.
As Poleo manned the oars, Ulysses pushed the boat backwards into the smooth surf toward the breaking dawn. It slid easily and soon Poleo had the vessel turned out and cutting through the building breakers and into the open sea. “We will fish deep today,” Poleo puffed between oar strokes.
“Then we will need the best of luck.” Deftly, Ulysses clambered over tackle, ropes, and oars to get to the front of the surging boat. He firmly forced the opening of the shell onto a wooden cleat at the boat’s bow. He wedged it tightly and looked back at his father. The rowing man smiled with broken and rotting teeth. Ulysses smiled back. Soon the single sail was hoisted up the spar and a leeward breeze carried them out and out until their island home disappeared into the vast blue waters.
That night they feasted. Poleo and Ulysses had drifted into a school of mahi-mahi and had filled the transom of the boat with several of the large flapping fish. Poleo wetted an old canvas sail and covered the gasping catch. For the next three days luck remained with Poleo and Ulysses. Finally, they had enough to eat and a surplus to sell at the village market. Poleo used the money to buy bread and tackle, and he noticed Ulysses looking at a tray of paints. “What would you do with these? Would you paint more stars in the sky?” he asked.
“I will give color and stars to our pomaika, and our fortunes will multiply.”
So, Poleo bought the paints and Ulysses ran all the way home to the lucky shell. First, he painted bright red vertical stripes along the length of the shell. He then used his finger to draw tiny moons and stars, and other bits of sky between the bold lines, just as the sky-gods had. He painted the holy cross near the broken tip to honor his mother. Then he carefully wrote the only two letters he knew just inside the creamy porcelain fold of the shell. He painted ever so carefully a ‘U’ for Ulysses and a ‘P’ for Poleo. As he admired his handiwork, he felt something tickle the palm of his hand. Ulysses turned the shell very slowly and he saw it. Spider-like legs rapidly retracted back into the large shell.
“My friend,” Ulysses exclaimed. “I beg forgiveness. I have been a terrible host. You have given us hope and I have offered you nothing in return. Let me get you food and water.” Ulysses carried the shell and its unexpected occupant outside the hut to a nearby stream. He put the shell onto the soft, wet sand, and as quick as an egret, Ulysses plucked a tiny minnow from the water. He crushed the fingerling into a silver and pink paste and nudged it near the shell’s opening, then stood back and watched, licking a constellation of silvery scales from his fingers.
As expected, a hermit crab eventually emerged from the shell, its eyes on stalks bent in all directions, taking in its new environment. Hunger quickly overtook curiosity and the crab minced the minnow with tiny pincers and devoured it completely. Bubbles rose in the shallow stream and Ulysses knew his new friend was happy.
Poleo, erratically indulgent, approved of the garishly painted shell and joined Ulysses in believing that it would only enhance their luck on the sea. Rather by coincidence or providence, mahi-mahi filled the boat’s hold, day after day. Ulysses would laugh every time Poleo hauled up a shimmering fish and say, “Mahi-mahi, so good, we have to say it twice.”
Fishing was twice as good, until their luck dried up. All morning the fishermen dropped lines and trolled the familiar coastal waters. The heat was oppressive and there was no breeze to cool them or to energize the sail. Poleo grew impatient; he began to row straight out into the deepest waters—the Marianas. Ulysses sat near the bow; he rubbed his shell-friend affectionately and affixed it to the cleat. He shaded his eyes and carefully watched for seagulls that might indicate fish schools.
It began to get dark and they were still heading out, away from Pagon. A gust suddenly impregnated the limp sail and the craft careened off course. The water under them began to roil. Poleo stopped rowing as the ghostly sail came to life, perhaps possessed by wind demons. He crushed his thatch hat down onto his head and watched as Ulysses’ black hair whipped and twisted in the wild winds in sync with the flailing sails. Suddenly the sea turned green. Glowing shoals of fluorescent squid rose from below and churned the waters around the boat.
Unafraid, Ulysses scrambled to the coiled cast net; he turned, twisted, and flung it into the eerie waters. It immediately filled up and took on a life of its own, jerking the boat hard to port. Struggling, Ulysses hauled the glowing, flashing mass of squid into the boat and spilled them onto her deck. He looked at his father and his father looked back at him; they both laughed. They were bathed in the alien green light of the pulsing squid.
“We have enough now, Uley. We can go home.” Poleo reset the sail; he turned and tried to navigate back to Pagon, but it was now very dark and he could not see land.
“Here,” Ulysses said. “We just need a lantern to light the way.”
The boy plucked a squid from the trough and squeezed the translucent creature until it burst. He held glowing green hands up to his face and laughed, lightening the mood. Then Ulysses reached forward and smeared the green gore onto the lucky seashell still firmly affixed to the cleat. It instantly lit up the bow of the boat.
Poleo stood up, suddenly understanding. He looked to the heavens, traced the constellations, the stars, and then found the star. There it was, Na Hiku, the mother star. Poleo pointed the prow toward Na Hiku using the glowing shell to guide their way home.
The ghostly boat made its way toward the star and toward home. It could be seen from miles away. The night breeze picked up and pushed the old boat along. Poleo, standing at the stern of the boat, steered with the oars, expertly dipping to port or starboard, to keep the course.
A petrel soared high overhead and began to circle the odd craft. A night hunter, the petrel was no stranger to bioluminescent prey. Eyeing the green beacon, the petrel swooped down and snapped at it with a powerful beak. It succeeded only in dislodging the shell and for a moment it teetered on the edge of the gunnel.
Suddenly shocked by the flap and flutter of the hungry bird, Ulysses was just a moment too late in recovering the prized shell. It wobbled once, and then tipped overboard just as his hands reached for it. Plop! It was gone. Ulysses howled as he watched the glowing shell sink into the blood-warm water. Then he leaped.
Spiraling downward into the abyss, a single stalk tipped with an ink-drop eyeball popped out of a hole in the top of the seashell. As it descended, it looked up and saw the silhouette of a fluorescent, triple-hulled boat getting smaller and smaller. Beside the boat was the face of a boy, the boy, bubbles pouring out of his holes. Then it all disappeared.
The hermit crab plunged deeper than it had ever been. The sea creature was a stranger to the open ocean; it had only skulked the coastal waters and coral reefs for most of its life. Only recently had it enjoyed a unique change in the steady ebb and flow of the tides. It had become something more. Its tiny brain could not conceive the totality of its new station, but it knew one thing: there was more to life than its eyes, legs, and pincers could imagine.
Like a randomly lobbed mortar, the sinking seashell fell upon an unwary target; in this case, an enemy target setting its own ambush. It struck a flat patch of sand that exploded into smoke when the shell struck it, tip first. The seashell had interrupted the best laid plans of a hungry, hunting rajella, a skate fish that buries itself in the silt and pounces on passersby. In this case, an unsuspecting Jonah crab.
Tick, tick, tick. Haki heard a tapping on his shell.
“Hellooo, anybody in there?” a voice echoed down the shell chambers.
Haki poked an eye out through the hole in the top of its shell like a submarine periscope. He saw a crab, but one unlike any crab he had ever seen in the shallows. This beast was lumpy and orange, with disproportionately huge black-tipped claws. Haki was unsure and afraid and withdrew into his shell.
“Hey,” the crab said. “I’m Jonah. Who are you?”
“You really helped me out just now. I didn’t see that buried skate. If you hadn’t…fallen out of the…where did you come from?”
Haki realized he needed a friend. He had just lost one and now he was in a strange new world. He emerged.
“I’m Haki. It means ‘broken’ in my tongue,” he told the Jonah crab. By then, many other crabs were gathering around the luminous and strangely painted seashell.
“Thank you, Haki. If not for you, I would be lunch for that dirt devil. You came down and you saved me.”
A starfish drifted into the armored battalion of crabs, gliding over the uneven shells like a flying carpet, and asked Haki, “Where did you come from?”
Haki looked upward with both eyes. “Above,” he said.
The crabs clicked and clattered among themselves. The starfish continued, “But there is no above. There is only ocean and more ocean.”
Haki pulled himself further out of the shell; some of the closer crabs skittered backwards. “I have seen the above. I have lived alongside creatures that do not dwell in the ocean, but beyond it.”
Brightly striped shrimp buzzed like gnats about the painted seashell. A ghostly blob of jellyfish hovered just above the gathering. All were intrigued by the mysterious shell. “Tell us of this place, these creatures,” the starfish said.
Haki told them about the sun, the wind, and the painted stars. They marveled at this, but most viewed these words as fancies and fairy tales. Then he spoke of the people he encountered, the father and son. He told of his friendship with the boy and how he had come to fall from the boat.
“Will you return?” the starfish asked when Haki had finished.
“Yes,” Haki said, looking to the strange letters on his shell for conviction. “I will find a way to return to the father and son.” Most of the bottom dwellers laughed, some just looked confused. As the crowd diffused, a small group of Jonah crabs circled Haki.
“We wish to learn more about The Above. Can we stay with you?” Haki was happy to have new friends. He regaled them with stories and images of The Above even as they helped him navigate the ways of the bottom.
“Foolish boy!” Poleo shouted as he hauled Ulysses up by his ankles, back into the boat. “This water is full of sharks and…” He flashed back to the day a barracuda bit off his ring finger, taking the shiny token of his love with it. It was the only thing he’d had left to remind him of his wife, now long dead since childbirth. No, he chided himself, you have him; you have Uley.
“But, Father, the shell…Haki…we will have bad luck.”
“We’ve had bad luck before” he sighed. “We will carry on. Look! Uley. Even now, our luck lingers. I see a light ahead. The island fires are lit to guide us home.”
“Enough of this foolishness,” the Octopus Queen commanded. “For weeks now you have been filling the carapaces of our youth with lies. They dream of mystical places beyond the known. They neglect the order of the floor and disavow the warnings of the Vent. I caution you, Shellback, stop with your fanciful stories and stop spreading discontent.” The Octopus Queen curled a cup-studded tentacle around Haki and lifted him, revealing her black snapping beak, capable of crushing coral.
“How can I not see what I have seen, not tell what I know to be so?” Haki said.
“You have been warned, dissenter,” the great octopus replied. She unfurled her tentacle and flung the seashell into the outer darkness.
Haki’s brethren found him, by the essence of his glow, and crowded round him. They turned the painted shell back onto its side and prayed to The Above that Haki would be okay.
“Take me to the Vent,” Haki said, emerging from the shell.
“What shall we use to guide us this day, Father?”
Poleo looked around the small room. Next to an empty liquor bottle lay a broken crucifix. It had once watched over the family, lordly hovering above the thatched mat where they had all slept. It had watched, mute, as Poleo’s wife had bled out in childbirth. In a fit of drink and distress, Poleo had thrown the empty bottle at the false cross. He cursed the white, bleeding Jesus and then cried his wife’s name until he fell asleep.
“We are on our own, boy. Go brush your teeth and bait the lines.”
Each creature, using its own unique and often ungainly mode of locomotion, made its way to the Vent. Haki crept along but had trouble keeping up with the jubilant congregation. He was happy and relieved when Jonah announced they were nearing the sacred place.
“If they learn that you have come here, they will kill you,” Jonah whispered to Haki. “This place is forbidden to outsiders.” He paused, “Especially outsiders like you,” he finished.
“My friend, my time in this place is soon over. I must join the father and son above as I have promised. Grant me this one request.”
As the sundry believers walked, crawled, and flippered, the ocean floor grew warmer and the water temperature rose. A dull orange light burst from the earth and battled back the eternal darkness, defying its stygian domain. The fellowship of sea creatures ringed the Vent and prayed. The Vent was alive with molten rocks and spitting lava. It was a cauldron, coughing up fiery phlegm from middle earth; a crusty, infected lesion that oozed burning blood.
“They know! They know and they’re coming!” A lantern fish grunted, swimming quickly into the sacred circle of followers.
“Who?” Jonah asked, already knowing.
“The skate told them of our plans. It must have been buried among us, at our very feet, as we met and spoke. He has informed the Octopus Queen and now she comes with soldiers.”
“We must leave this place,” said Jonah.
“No, help me onto the Vent,” Haki said.
“You are mad, like they said. The Octopus Queen was right. Can’t you see?” Jonah pointed his black-tipped claw to the flaming tower, “You will burn here and we will all suffer for your impudence.”
“It’s time; help me go up,” Haki said in a strong, unwavering voice.
“I cannot help you,” Jonah said, and swam sideways out into the darkness.
Haki wept as his friend fled.
“They come,” called the lantern fish, shining his tiny dome light against the approaching forces.
The Octopus Queen opened and closed her tentacles, creating jet-propulsion; at her side were king crab centurions taking huge stilted steps to keep up with Her Majesty.
“Get on my back,” his quizzical friend, the starfish, offered.
Haki did not waver. He climbed on and clamped all his legs and pincers onto the starfish’s bristly spine and held on tightly as the ungainly, top-heavy duo made their way up the rocky side of the fumarole.
The Octopus Queen stopped just yards from the Vent; the force of the heat on her sensitive, chromatic skin was too much. “Get them!” she commanded to the looming king crabs.
“Just a little further, Starfish,” Haki said.
“It’s getting too hot, Haki, my legs…one of Starfish’s legs snapped off and tumbled to the ocean floor, but Starfish kept climbing with Haki attached to his back.
“Stop here,” Haki demanded.
Haki loosened himself from Starfish and climbed to the edge of the Vent. “Go back, my friend; go back and tell them what you saw here. Tell them of broken things that are renewed.”
Starfish let go of the infernal tower and spun back down into the cool mud below. Miraculously, his leg would soon grow back. He would become a prophet in the new order.
“Come down, you fool,” commanded the Octopus Queen. “Come down and face your final judgment.” These powerful words invoked tremors in hearts and heartlands.
The world below rumbled; it belched. A molten bubble formed at the crest of the Vent. Haki grasped the lip on his shell and pulled with all his might from within the spiraled recesses. Sinew painfully ripped and snapped away from inner shell and he shucked his mortal coil. Haki’s home, his identity, his whole world, was gone.
Body, soul, and shell were separated—released. The empty husk dislodged and tumbled dangerously down the black tower into the massing onlookers. A small, sandy perimeter formed around the sacred shell—there was no precedent. As if ordered, a cortege of crabs converged onto the soulless shell and lifted the painted remains onto their backs. They quickly carried the vestige of their prophet away from the light and into the darkness, disappearing.
Shucked and stripped to his core, Haki poised precariously on the lip of the hellish Vent, then leaped.
The lava bubble lifted, full of thermic gases, lighter than water. Haki entered the orb precisely as it formed. It caught him and bore him up. Haki balled up tightly, not wishing to prick the gossamer sphere with an errant claw or a poking pincer. He rose higher as the onlookers all marveled, each seeing the same thing, each trying in their own way to interpret the miracle.
“Where did Mother go…you know, when she died?”
Poleo stopped rowing. He pushed back his straw hat, wiped his brow, and looked upward. “She went where the old gulls go. They just keep flying higher and higher until they become a new star,” he said.
“Sometimes I think I remember her. Her eyes, her smile…her smell…” Ulysses trailed off. “But how could she go that high, how could she go into space?”
“There is no such space, my son,” Poleo countered and laughed, “only sparkling spots that look like stars, painted by hollow gods. Like the paints I bought for you.”
Higher and higher the crab-filled bubble rose. Haki risked lifting his eyes and looking up. There it was, exactly as he had seen it during his descent—the boat. He recognized the odd triple-hulled silhouette. Haki willed his bubble to hurry, to resurrect in front of the drifting boat and the boy he had lost.
“It is better not to think of the dead,” Poleo advised. “They only wish us to live, because they know life is short and death is too long, too lonely. They cannot help us; they only disappoint.”
“Do you think Haki is dead?”
“Haki: our pomaika. Remember last moon, when the painted shell fell off the boat?” Ulysses asked, slightly irritated.
Poleo shrugged, “I think you dream too much, my son.”
The bubble broke the surface and burst into the sunlight. Haki was reborn, bare and exposed. He scrambled with all his flitting limbs and was able to stroke the short distance to the wooden boat. A random wave brushed him against the hull, and then another tugged him away. He resolved that he would be ready with the next surge; he wished only to connect to the boat with his raw adhesive flesh and make it his new shell, his home.
“You remember him, Father. The hermit crab that lived in the shell I painted. The pomaika that helped us catch mahi-mahi and all those shiny squid. Remember?”
“Remember me, remember me,” Haki chanted as he stroked his tiny legs toward the boat.
Poleo shrugged his shoulders. “Yes, son,” he said, noncommittal.
“It had a broken shell. You teased me about it. You are playing with me now, Father, right?” Ulysses was becoming frustrated.
“Yes, son,” Poleo slowly smiled. Ulysses smiled back, revealing now a second broken tooth.
Glancing down, Ulysses’s eyes brightened. He plucked up a shell fish skippering on the surface near the boat. Laughing at his father, he bit the crab in half and crunched loudly on the soft shell and sweet meat. He obscenely sucked the remaining carapace dry and tossed the useless husk into the ocean.
Ulysses and Poleo prayed to the painted stars for better luck as they sailed on in search of fish.
If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE<<<Link and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.
If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:
E. J. D’Alise submission<<link
Perry Broxson submission<<link
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