Today, we had both of our dogs put down. We're heartbroken. But it was the most humane and compassionate thing we could do for them.
My first professional fiction sale, "The God Whisperer" was inspired by our experiences with professional dog training, their personalities, and the general life of being a dog owner.
So, in honor of the "real" Zu'ar, and the "real" (unnamed) love goddess, here it is in its entirety.
We'll never forget you.
The God Whisperer
When Jack got home from work on Thursday, he found a pyramid made of bird skulls in his flowerbed. Zu’ar—ancient god of death, strife, and war—must have gotten out of the yard again.
“Ugh,” he said.
More than anything, Jack just wanted to collapse in front of the TV. He wasn’t in any mood to deal with this right now.
The carnage didn’t end at the flowerbed. Scattered across his lawn were more than a dozen freshly-skinned chipmunk carcasses. The pelts were strung up in his holly bushes, drying in the sun.
This was getting out of hand. It was even worse than that time he’d owned a cat. At least the cat would just kill them cleanly, and bring them home as “presents.” But Zu’ar had these barbaric little rituals he had to observe.
Instead of going through the front door, Jack walked around the back of the house. More death and carnage was strewn through the shrubs along the side yard. And sure enough, he noticed a small hole underneath the fence. He’d have to remember to put a trashcan there tonight, until he could get to the store for a bag of gravel.
He decided to leave the back gate open behind him. If Zu’ar was prowling the neighborhood, Jack wanted it to be easy for him to get back in. He went inside and put his laptop bag down on the kitchen table. He got himself a glass of ice water.
“Zu’ar!” he called. “Zu’ar are you here?”
Jack didn’t hear him running around. He wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not. He went into the living room, afraid of what kind of destruction he’d find.
The end table next to the couch lay on its side. One of the legs was broken off and missing. Worse, his grandmother’s old lamp had been smashed into pieces.
Jack sighed and rubbed his eyes. He could clean this up later. First he needed to take care of the mess out front, before the neighbors complained.
Two hours later, just as Jack was placing a spiked rabbit’s head into a trash bag, he felt a dark and terrible presence behind him. The air grew cold. The wind took on the distinct smell of fire and decay.
He heard the rumble of the god’s voice inside his head.
“Greetings, Cowardly Weakling.”
“I wish you wouldn’t call me that,” Jack said.
“I call you that because that is what you are,” the god thought. “My followers would have used you for chattel in their day.”
Jack made a mental note to look up the word chattel tonight.
“Look, you can’t keep going out and doing this.” He waved his arms around him, indicating the front yard and the flowerbeds. “I already told you that you could kill whatever comes into the back yard. The inside of the fence can be your realm of terror. I don’t care. But you have to leave the front yard alone. That sounds like a fair compromise, doesn’t it?”
“Zu’ar does not compromise with mortals, Weakling. Mortals beg him for mercy.”
Jack turned. Zu’ar stood before him defiantly, with his muscular legs spread apart. He glared at Jack with bone yellow eyes. His beard was the color of blood. He was wide, powerfully built, and just a few inches taller than a Barbie doll.
Zu'ar was wearing one of Jack’s old sweat socks as a shoulder bag. The bag-sock was filled with tiny spears. He had apparently carved their shafts out of the missing table leg, and used the broken lamp to make the tips.
The smell of fire and decay intensified. The little guy was obviously due for a bath.
“You really need to stop destroying my stuff. That lamp was an irreplaceable antique.”
“I laugh at your sentimentality, Weakling. I was old before the mountains were young. My followers were among the first men to climb out of the Living Mud that spawned your kind.
“Your ‘antique’ bauble was less than one hundred years old. That time is not even the blink of an eye in the span of my existence.”
Jack studied Zu’ar. He stared straight at him, meeting his tiny gaze head on. One second ticked by. Then two. Then three. On the count of fifteen, the god blinked.
Jack laughed to himself. “The ‘blink of an eye,’ huh?”
“I was attempting to put it in terms your feeble mind would understand, Weakling. Perhaps I failed.”
Jack sighed. “Right. I don’t suppose you’ll help me clean this up, huh? I’ve had a long day at work. I’d really just like to get this over with so I can relax.”
“You do the work of children and wet-nurses, Weakling. I exist for greater things.”
He watched Zu’ar go to the corner of the yard to relieve himself, before proudly walking through the gate and into the back yard.
Jack woke with the sun shining through the shades. He rolled over sleepily and looked at the display of his alarm clock. It was blank.
Jack shot bolt upright. What time was it? He stumbled out of bed, dragging half of the sheets with him. He fumbled in his pant’s pocket for his cell phone.
He flipped the phone open and read the time: 10:37. He was more than an hour late for work.
Jack swore. He looked back at his alarm clock. The power cord was gone. It had been ripped completely off.
“Zu’ar!” he yelled. “Zu’ar, where are you?”
“I am here, Weakling.” He walked into the room, carrying the wound-up cord in one of his tiny fists. He held up the frayed end with an evil smile. “I have created a scourge so that my enemies may know pain.”
“You destroyed my alarm clock!”
“Time is a human contrivance. I have no use for it.”
“But I could lose my job!”
“Fear not. I am confident that your sniveling ways will earn you another master to grovel before.”
Jack rushed to his closet. He hurriedly started laying out his work clothes. “You aren’t going to think this is funny when I don’t have any rent money this month.”
“On the contrary, I believe it would strengthen your character to live beneath the stars and fight for your food.”
But Jack was already more worried about what he would say to his boss when he got to work.
The boss had chewed Jack out when he arrived. He gave him a speech about responsibility, commitment to the company, and work ethic. Jack took the lashing like a whipped dog. He said “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” in all the right places. In the end, he’d escaped with his job. Now Jack was enjoying a very late, very short lunch break in the cafeteria.
“Have you tried obedience school?” Cory asked.
Jack popped a potato puffer into his mouth. Cory was the company's IT wizard. He'd been solving Jack's tech problems for years. He'd also been listening to Jack's personal problems for a large chunk of that time.
“I was going to,” he said. “I signed up for the class and everything. But Zu’ar ended up fighting with one of the other gods. It got so bad that the trainer asked me to leave.”
“That bad?” Cory asked.
“You have no idea.” Jack remembered the woman’s shriek of horror as Zu’ar strangled her precious little love goddess with a leash. He remembered the awful looks he got as he carried Zu’ar out of the store.
“I don’t know,” he said finally. “Maybe I’m just not cut out to be a god owner.”
“Well, what about in-home training?”
Jack gave him a quizzical look. “I don’t know. Isn’t that expensive?”
Cory shrugged. “No more expensive than replacing all that stuff the little guy destroys on you.”
Jack thought about it. Maybe Cory was right. He popped another potato puffer into his mouth, and chased it with a sip of Diet Pepsi.
That night, he did an online search for in-home god training. There were several trainers in the area. He wrote down the number of the one that seemed the most promising, a woman calling herself "The God Whisperer." He’d call from work tomorrow.
“And how long have you had this god in your home?”
Doris the god trainer sat on Jack’s couch. She was a friendly, big boned woman, with dark hair that she wore teased up into a beehive. She had both the breath and the voice of a lifelong smoker.
She'd need to interview Jack first, she’d said. Get a feel for the Zu’ar’s living situation. Once she identified the problem areas with the god’s behavior, she’d be able to figure out what training steps were needed.
“Um, I adopted him about six months ago.”
She scribbled on her notepad. “Did his aggressive behavior start right away? Or did it develop over time?”
“No. He was always pretty aggressive.”
“Mmm-hmm. And I’m sorry, but I don’t have my notes from the phone call in front of me. Did you say he was a rescue?”
“That’s right. I got him at the humane society.”
She was in the middle of asking how much exercise Zu'ar normally got, when the tiny god stalked into the room.
“Who is this woman, Weakling? Why is she in my house?”
Doris wrinkled her nose. “Does he always bring that burning and decay scent with him?”
“Answer me, Weakling. What does this woman want? Why does she ignore me when I speak into her mind?”
“That’s actually a very common sign of dominance with war gods,” Doris said. “They use it as a way to mark their territory. The scent is supposed to terrify more passive gods and mortals into submission. Have you ever tried to get him to stop?”
“No, I mostly just ignore it.”
Doris nodded. She scribbled a few more notes into her pad.
“I will see this woman’s bones bleach beneath the sun, Weakling. Tell her I will not be ignored. Tell her she will hear me, or she will suffer the consequences.”
Jack swallowed. “Um, he says . . .”
The trainer held up her hand. “No. Don’t pay any attention to him when he’s sending prophesies of doom into your mind. When you acknowledge that kind of behavior, it just encourages him to keep it up. You should only give him attention when he communicates in benevolent prophecies.”
Doris closed her notepad. “Look, I’m going to be honest with you, Mr. Foster. War gods are some of the most difficult deities to care for. Their owners have to be assertive and in control at all times. They aren’t inherently ‘bad,’ but they only respect strength and ruthlessness. Their behavior can get out of control if you don’t prove to them that you’re the strongest member of the household. Do you think you’re ready to do that?”
Jack looked at Zu’ar. He remembered how small and defenseless he’d looked in the cage all those months ago. Zu’ar had been sitting by himself in his little corner, while all of the other gods played and performed miracles together.
He was alone. He had nobody. That was why Jack had taken him home. And now Jack couldn’t imagine putting him back in that situation. He loved the little guy.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m ready.”
“Do not make me laugh, Cowardly Weakling. You will never be stronger than me. My followers were feared all across the ancient world.”
Jack turned to say something. But he caught the trainer’s look out the corner of his eye.
“Do not ignore me, Weakling. You will come to regret it.”
Jack didn’t answer him. In a rage, Zu’ar kicked the wall. Then he stormed up the steps. A few seconds later, Jack heard him slam the bedroom door.
“Good,” Doris said. “Now I’d like to ask you about his eating habits.”
Jack came home from work to a pile of bloody pigeon feathers on the front walk.
The training sessions had been going good. Zu’ar hadn’t slaughtered anything in weeks. He was even beginning to listen when Jack told him to do something. Things were actually getting peaceful around the house for a change.
“Zu’ar? Zu’ar where are you?”
“I am here, Weakling.”
“I told you not to call me that,” Jack said.
Zu’ar looked at the ground and slumped his shoulders, adopting a submissive posture. “I am sorry. I meant no offense. That is how I have named you for so long, I merely forgot. Please, forgive me.”
Jack pointed at the pile of feathers. “What is this? I thought I told you, no more killing things in the front yard.”
“I know. I am sorry I broke your edict.”
“What are you holding behind your back? Give it. Give it here.”
Zu’ar held up a small necklace made of twine. Two fresh birds’ feet hung from the loop.
“The eagle’s claw was a status symbol among my people, Mortal. I wanted to make you a similar gift.”
“That’s touching. Thank you.” It was also a little gross. Jack was very careful to hold the necklace by the loop.
Zu’ar peered up hopefully. “Is the Wise Woman coming to the house today, Mortal?”
That was his name for the god trainer. “She is,” Jack said. “She’ll be here in a few minutes, in fact. We should go inside.”
“The Wise Woman has much strength and authority. You should ask her to bear you some children. She would raise them into fine warriors.”
Jack shook his head. Gods. What could you do with them?
“I think she’d prefer a check,” he said.
This story was first published in Writers of the Future Volume 31
There once was a tale that was told,
Of a man both courageous and bold!
So sit back and hear,
Of a far away year,
And adventures and dangers of old.
A great serpent, scaly and brown,
Slither’d to Limerick Town.
It had a barbed tail,
As sharp as a nail,
And it screeched with a terrible sound.
By the High Road, it staked out a lair,
And snatched out as quick as a hare
At unlucky trav’lers,
And—especially—maidens, most fair!
But a young man from Limerick
Came up with a gimmick
To save all those lovely young maidens!
His name was Connor McCann.
He had no titles or land.
But strong as a fox,
And smart as an ox,
He was the pride of his clan.
Of his woman, he had grown fatigued.
Her name was Maggie McTeague.
Though club-foot and blind,
And out of her mind,
She was still out of poor Connor’s league.
But if Connor could just slay the beast,
In his honor, there would be a feast!
The grateful young girls,
Would let down their curls,
And give him some options, at least.
Yes, the man with the gimmick,
He set out from Limerick,
To save all the lovely young maidens!
First he took up his great spear.
Of its like, you never did hear!
Sharp was the brass end,
But carved in the ass-end
Was a secret compartment for beer.
And his shield was fashioned so well!
Of its like, you've never heard tell!
On its face was enameled
A scene of great scandal
‘Tween a man and a mademoiselle.
And he dressed in the finest of mail!
Of its like, you've never heard tales!
It included an odd piece:
A hammered steel codpiece
That showed off his manhood to scale.
Yes, the hero from Limerick,
Deck’d out for his gimmick
Would save all the lovely young maidens!
As Connor approached the great brute
His resolve wasn’t quite absolute.
The monster’s foul screeches
Made him wet his breeches
So much that he filled up his boots.
But Connor, he did persevere!
He sloshed forth and brandished his spear!
But the serpent's barbed tail,
It struck without fail.
And Connor was done for, I fear!
Well Connor, he wasn’t quite dead,
But he sighed and hung down his head.
It was time now, he thunk,
To go and get drunk,
And call on Saint Patrick instead.
Yes, the young man from Limerick
Had failed in his gimmick.
To hell with the lovely young maidens.
With Saint Patrick, you know how it goes.
The snakes he forced out in their droves.
And to this very day,
In Erin they say,
You’d sooner find scales on a rose.
So that just leaves Connor McCann.
Whatever became of the man?
Did he settle down
In Limerick Town
And father good sons for his clan?
Well his sweet Maggie, Connor did wed,
But his bloodline was never to spread,
Because his sweet Maggie
Made him "wear a baggie"
Each night in their marital bed.
My all-time favorite director is John Carpenter, but a very close second is Walter Hill. No one does “ensemble action” better, and the fact we never got to see his version of The Magnificent Seven—co-written with a screenwriter for The Dirty Dozen—is a crime against cinema.
On that note, if you’ve never seen Hill's Southern Comfort, I highly recommend it. Featuring a National Guard squad in a life-or-death struggle against Cajun hunters in the Louisiana bayou, it’s basically Deliverance meets The Warriors, starring Powers Boothe.
For lack of a better term, I think of this kind of story as an “Anabasis-esque.”
In it, a relatively small, tightly-knit group must fight to escape enemy territory, generally under the leadership of a new, untested, otherwise unknown commander.
Of course, the best-known example is probably The Warriors. Hardly surprising, considering the source novel’s author, Sol Yurick, drew inspiration from Xenophon’s famous memoir.
For those unfamiliar, Anabasis recounts the true story of the fabled March of the 10,000 in 370 BC.
In brief, Xenophon was a junior officer in an army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries, hired by Cyrus the Younger to take the Persian throne from his brother, Artaxerxes II. After a long march into present-day Iraq, Cyrus fell in battle, most of the Greeks' senior leaders were murdered, and the Persian army was demanding they surrender.
Xenophon and the other remaining leaders decided the best course of action was a fighting retreat back to Athens, a journey of over 2100 miles under near-constant harassment by hostile forces.
A timeless story of determination and courage under the direst of circumstances, it's no wonder Xenophon's memoir has endured for more than 2400 years.
That said, while the Anabasis-esque takes much inspiration from the 10,000, it's not a 1:1 copy-paste of history. It's drama, with an ideal form ultimately owing more to Walter Hill than Xenophon. And while I’d hesitate to call the Anabasis-esque a genre of its own, it is a story type with particular set of stock characters and tropes that make it work.
The first is that the de facto leader is either inexperienced in the role, like The Warriors' Swan, or a new arrival the rest don’t fully trust yet, like Hardin in Southern Comfort.
Another is the guy who pushes, questions, or otherwise challenges the new leader’s authority. This causes internal tension in the group, which makes escaping harder, and forces the leader to aggressively take the mantle.
Ajax in The Warriors and Reece in Southern Comfort are examples.
This dynamic between Leader and Challenger is what sets the Anabasis-esque apart from the larger chase/survival genre. The primary drama isn’t in the escape, or in the fight against hostile locals. It’s in the unproven leader's struggle to earn the acceptance and respect of his in-group. The escape just adds pressure and immediacy to that struggle.
Deliverance arguably fits into the Anabasis-esque mold, too, or at least has elements of it. Which brings up another important stock character for the form: the expected leader. This is the experienced/respected person the new leader must fill the shoes of.
In order to drive the drama, the expected leader must be killed or sidelined at some point, usually early on.
Another film that has elements of the Anabasis-esque is Cameron's Aliens. On the surface, it seems like an almost perfect fit. The Marines are trapped in hostile territory. After first contact with the xenomorphs, the expected leader—Sgt. Apone--is dead, and Ripley must step into the role of leader.
That said, it’s not as good a fit as Deliverance.
This is because the central leadership conflict of the Anabasis-esque only makes sense in the context of proving oneself in a masculine hierarchy, a conflict Aliens eschews altogether.
To understand why, we need to dive into masculine notions of honor. In particular, we need to understand the concept of the honor group.
In The Way of Men, author Jack Donovan identifies the honor group the central social unit to masculine identity. In short, this is a group of other men that a man seeks the respect and admiration of, because he respects and admires them.
To quote Donovan:
Honor is a concern for one’s reputation for strength, courage, and mastery within the context of an honor group comprised primarily of other men.
—The Way of Men, pp. 57
But even if you concede that a woman can earn a place in a men's hierarchy—and the film does concede this, with the character of Vasquez—Ripley doesn't make the cut.
While she does become de facto leader, Ripley doesn’t especially respect the Marines, and she doesn’t care if they respect her. Her status in the honor group is never in question, because she isn’t part of it, and she doesn’t want to be.
Furthermore, the only man challenging her leadership—Burke—is not a part of the honor group, either. Nor does he have any desire to be. Indeed, he actively looks down on them as a bunch of dumb grunts. In this sense, Aliens is the anti-Anabasis-esque, a story of two outsiders fighting for authority over an honor group neither one respects or admires.
Compare this to the central leadership conflict in The Warriors.
At the start of the movie, Swan is already a rising member of the gang. He wears their colors. He lives by their code and traditions. Earning the respect of his fellow Warriors is important, because he respects them.
The film contains several fantastic examples of this characterization in action, but one of the best happens when the Warriors cross into Orphans territory.
After a brief parley, the Orphans' leader says they can go peacefully, as long as they remove their colors first. From a simple survival standpoint, it’s a no brainer. But there’s much more than survival at stake here.
This is an honor challenge, and Swan refuses to back down.
It earns him some trouble with the Orphans, but he is demonstrating to the rest of the Warriors that he honors their code and their traditions enough to fight for them. Because it’s not just about leading them home safely. It’s about leading them home as Warriors.
When Ajax challenges Swan’s leadership, it’s because he also wants the respect of his fellow Warriors. Just look at his dialogue immediately after Swan takes over as war chief:
“I only got one question. Who named you leader? I got just as much right to take over as you.”
In short, Ripley’s conflict is about making it home at all costs, honor and respect be damned. Swan’s conflict is about how he answers repeated challenges to his honor, and proves he deserves his new position as leader. This conflict—this honor question—is at the core of the Anabasis-esque. It’s what separates it from other survival stories.
And it only really works in groups where honor matters as much as life itself.
On that note, I think it's time to let Joe Walsh play us out.
'Til next time, Boppers.
18 years ago today, the Second Battle of Fallujah began.
I share my worst memories with the best men I ever knew. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Semper Fi, brothers.