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Welcome to the Night Life with the Cowled Figure

Rather than write about a subject this week, we at The Phoenix decided to subject ourselves to writing. Every now and then you get these kicks as a writer to attempt something clever, something daring, or something altogether foolish. It is often in these moments that you discover something profound— something about yourself, something about someone else, or something that you should totally never do again. In fact, more often than not, the latter predominates your sentiment and you go on your merry way having learned a lesson and feigning ignorance whenever someone complements you on your techniques. Fortunately, the experiment composed and performed over the past week by my fellow editor Zach “Z-Money” Perry and myself yielded more discovery in the positive sense rather than in the negative and has left each of us with a better understanding of our individual writing styles and creative leaps.

The first stage of the experiment required one simple tool that we all use to varying degrees of effectiveness each day— email. I composed a short introductory paragraph to a fantasy story with limited background detail and sent it to Zach. Zach then developed the plot further with a second paragraph in a response email. We continued to shoot schemes back and forth with no preparation and little expectation until our brief, incomplete narrative came into being. This narrative has been reproduced below with little editing and less dignity. You have been warned.

E: A cowled figure rose from the shadows of the night as the clouds parted and allowed the brilliant moonlight to shine forth atop the high-rise. The cool, indifferent wind pulled listlessly at his tattered woolen cloak and, finding no refuge, continued its search elsewhere. The inky form stared blindly at the empty streets below, recalling the years when the rowdy din of a healthy city rang sharply through the alleyways and echoed across the building tops. Those cruel streets with the kind ends, where the clever could survive on gift or theft, smiles or snarls, could provide little more sustenance than his frayed shawl.

Z: T̶h̶e̶ ̶s̶h̶a̶d̶o̶w̶y̶ ̶f̶i̶g̶u̶r̶e̶ ̶k̶n̶e̶w̶ ̶e̶v̶e̶r̶y̶t̶h̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶r̶e̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶ ̶a̶b̶o̶u̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶c̶i̶t̶y̶.̶ ̶H̶e̶ ̶k̶n̶e̶w̶ ̶e̶v̶e̶r̶y̶ ̶t̶r̶i̶c̶k̶.̶ ̶A̶n̶y̶t̶h̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶c̶o̶u̶l̶d̶ ̶p̶o̶s̶s̶i̶b̶l̶y̶ ̶h̶a̶p̶p̶e̶n̶,̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶k̶n̶e̶w̶ ̶a̶b̶o̶u̶t̶ ̶i̶t̶ ̶f̶i̶r̶s̶t̶.̶ ̶W̶i̶t̶h̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶l̶e̶f̶t̶ ̶f̶o̶o̶t̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶c̶a̶r̶e̶f̶u̶l̶l̶y̶ ̶t̶o̶o̶k̶ ̶o̶n̶e̶ ̶s̶t̶e̶p̶ ̶b̶a̶c̶k̶.̶ ̶A̶s̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶s̶h̶i̶f̶t̶e̶d̶ ̶w̶e̶i̶g̶h̶t̶,̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶f̶e̶l̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶b̶a̶n̶a̶n̶a̶ ̶p̶e̶e̶l̶ ̶u̶n̶d̶e̶r̶ ̶f̶o̶o̶t̶.̶ ̶I̶t̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶ ̶t̶o̶o̶ ̶l̶a̶t̶e̶.̶ ̶H̶e̶ ̶s̶l̶i̶p̶p̶e̶d̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶t̶o̶p̶p̶l̶e̶d̶ ̶o̶f̶f̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶b̶u̶i̶l̶d̶i̶n̶g̶.̶ ̶A̶l̶m̶o̶s̶t̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶s̶l̶o̶w̶ ̶m̶o̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶f̶i̶g̶u̶r̶e̶ ̶w̶a̶t̶c̶h̶e̶d̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶s̶p̶a̶g̶h̶e̶t̶t̶i̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶h̶a̶d̶ ̶b̶e̶e̶n̶ ̶s̶t̶o̶r̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶f̶a̶n̶n̶y̶ ̶p̶a̶c̶k̶ ̶(̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶a̶ ̶l̶a̶t̶e̶r̶ ̶s̶n̶a̶c̶k̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶c̶o̶u̶r̶s̶e̶)̶ ̶s̶p̶i̶l̶l̶ ̶o̶u̶t̶.̶ ̶W̶h̶e̶n̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶h̶i̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶g̶r̶o̶u̶n̶d̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶o̶n̶l̶y̶ ̶t̶h̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶h̶u̶r̶t̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶p̶r̶i̶d̶e̶.̶ ̶H̶i̶s̶ ̶f̶a̶c̶e̶ ̶f̶e̶l̶t̶ ̶h̶o̶t̶,̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶s̶a̶l̶t̶y̶ ̶w̶a̶t̶e̶r̶ ̶p̶o̶u̶r̶e̶d̶ ̶f̶r̶o̶m̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶e̶y̶e̶s̶.̶ ̶E̶m̶b̶a̶r̶r̶a̶s̶s̶m̶e̶n̶t̶ ̶i̶s̶ ̶t̶o̶o̶ ̶s̶o̶f̶t̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶a̶ ̶w̶o̶r̶d̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶d̶e̶s̶c̶r̶i̶b̶e̶ ̶w̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶ ̶e̶x̶p̶e̶r̶i̶e̶n̶c̶i̶n̶g̶.̶ ̶W̶a̶l̶l̶o̶w̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶a̶l̶l̶y̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶d̶i̶d̶n̶’̶t̶ ̶e̶v̶e̶n̶ ̶n̶o̶t̶i̶c̶e̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶h̶a̶d̶ ̶p̶e̶e̶d̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶p̶a̶n̶t̶s̶.̶ ̶

The pale moonlight cast sharp shadows down the familiar cobbled streets. A world of greys was interrupted by the flickering of an orange light in an alley just below the tattered figure. Sickly sweet tobacco smoke rolled out of the alley in little puffs. Carefully the figure began to descend the wooden scaffolding leading into the ally below. He paused for a moment before stepping into the silver light that illuminated the alley. A short barrel-chested man was fidgeting with his pipe while the last tendrils of smoke came from its end. Characteristically, the short man muttered and swore at his pipe before putting it away. Frustrated, he announced to the empty streets, “It’s ready whenever you are. Been doin’ this shit for too long.” He yelled in an almost drunken accent, and kicked a nearby wooden box. Still in the shadows, the man under the cowl winced as the ignorant fool struck the box. The short man took one last look around the alley before stepping into the street in search for the nearest pub. As he whistled down the street, the figure in the cowl slowly approached the package that was left for him. He opened the lid of the cheaply-made box to see a beautiful baby girl bundled in a grey blanket just as tattered as his shawl.

E: T̶h̶e̶ ̶c̶o̶w̶l̶e̶d̶ ̶m̶a̶n̶ ̶l̶o̶o̶k̶e̶d̶ ̶d̶o̶w̶n̶ ̶u̶p̶o̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶c̶h̶i̶l̶d̶ ̶w̶i̶t̶h̶ ̶d̶i̶s̶d̶a̶i̶n̶ ̶a̶s̶ ̶s̶h̶e̶ ̶b̶l̶i̶n̶k̶e̶d̶ ̶a̶t̶ ̶h̶i̶m̶ ̶w̶i̶t̶h̶ ̶c̶a̶l̶f̶-̶l̶i̶k̶e̶ ̶e̶y̶e̶s̶.̶ ̶“̶S̶o̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶’̶s̶ ̶h̶o̶w̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶’̶r̶e̶ ̶p̶l̶a̶y̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶i̶t̶ ̶n̶o̶w̶,̶ ̶e̶h̶?̶ ̶I̶n̶n̶o̶c̶e̶n̶t̶ ̶a̶s̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶d̶a̶y̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶ ̶w̶e̶r̶e̶ ̶b̶o̶r̶n̶,̶ ̶I̶ ̶w̶o̶u̶l̶d̶n̶’̶t̶ ̶d̶o̶u̶b̶t̶,̶”̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶s̶n̶o̶r̶t̶e̶d̶ ̶a̶s̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶p̶u̶l̶l̶e̶d̶ ̶a̶ ̶l̶o̶n̶g̶ ̶c̶i̶g̶a̶r̶ ̶f̶r̶o̶m̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶f̶r̶a̶y̶e̶d̶ ̶c̶l̶o̶a̶k̶.̶ ̶T̶h̶e̶ ̶c̶h̶i̶l̶d̶’̶s̶ ̶b̶r̶o̶w̶n̶ ̶c̶a̶l̶f̶ ̶e̶y̶e̶s̶ ̶t̶u̶r̶n̶e̶d̶ ̶b̶l̶o̶o̶d̶ ̶r̶e̶d̶ ̶a̶s̶ ̶s̶h̶e̶ ̶c̶l̶i̶m̶b̶e̶d̶ ̶l̶i̶t̶h̶e̶l̶y̶ ̶f̶r̶o̶m̶ ̶h̶e̶r̶ ̶m̶a̶k̶e̶s̶h̶i̶f̶t̶ ̶c̶r̶a̶d̶l̶e̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶c̶r̶o̶u̶c̶h̶e̶d̶ ̶a̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶m̶a̶n̶’̶s̶ ̶k̶n̶e̶e̶.̶ ̶“̶I̶ ̶d̶o̶n̶’̶t̶ ̶s̶e̶e̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶ ̶w̶e̶a̶r̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶a̶n̶y̶ ̶s̶o̶r̶t̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶d̶i̶s̶g̶u̶i̶s̶e̶,̶ ̶G̶a̶f̶t̶.̶ ̶N̶o̶,̶ ̶i̶n̶s̶t̶e̶a̶d̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶ ̶s̶p̶e̶n̶d̶ ̶a̶l̶l̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶t̶i̶m̶e̶ ̶p̶i̶s̶s̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶a̶g̶a̶i̶n̶s̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶w̶i̶n̶d̶ ̶o̶n̶ ̶r̶o̶o̶f̶t̶o̶p̶s̶.̶ ̶N̶o̶w̶ ̶g̶i̶v̶e̶ ̶m̶e̶ ̶o̶n̶e̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶t̶h̶o̶s̶e̶ ̶G̶*̶*̶ ̶d̶*̶*̶*̶e̶d̶ ̶c̶i̶g̶a̶r̶s̶!̶”̶ ̶G̶a̶f̶t̶ ̶r̶e̶a̶c̶h̶e̶d̶ ̶b̶a̶c̶k̶ ̶i̶n̶t̶o̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶c̶l̶o̶a̶k̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶r̶e̶t̶u̶r̶n̶e̶d̶ ̶w̶i̶t̶h̶ ̶a̶n̶o̶t̶h̶e̶r̶ ̶c̶i̶g̶a̶r̶,̶ ̶p̶r̶e̶-̶l̶i̶t̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶s̶p̶i̶t̶t̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶s̶p̶a̶r̶k̶s̶ ̶o̶u̶t̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶i̶t̶s̶ ̶e̶n̶d̶.̶ ̶“̶A̶n̶d̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶s̶p̶a̶g̶h̶e̶t̶t̶i̶…̶”̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶t̶i̶n̶y̶ ̶c̶r̶e̶a̶t̶u̶r̶e̶ ̶g̶r̶o̶w̶l̶e̶d̶ ̶a̶s̶ ̶s̶h̶e̶ ̶t̶o̶o̶k̶ ̶a̶ ̶l̶o̶n̶g̶ ̶p̶u̶f̶f̶ ̶o̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶r̶a̶t̶t̶l̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶w̶e̶e̶d̶.̶

Despite the woozy buffoon’s boorish ministrations, the innocent tot in the crate slept on, her sweet countenance completely unaffected by the malevolent world or its crueler mistress. A raucous din erupted beyond the alley as the courier reached his destined haven, and the cowled man shrunk instinctively back into the shadows. From beneath the scaffolding he gripped the ribbed hilt of a well-oiled dagger and listened as the noises from the distant pub faded and ceased with a heavy wooden clatter. Reclaiming himself, the cowled man glanced once more at the nearby box as he felt a foreign alley wind drift by. Shaking his head in an anguished tremor and silently cursing his weakness, he forced himself to step forward once more and gaze upon the chubby rounds of the child’s face. As if awakened by the breeze, she blinked up at him expectantly, making no sound beyond her baby breathing. He had reserved all of his resolve for this moment, yet some great seal inside him nearly broke. Those gleaming, amber eyes… he had loved those eyes, once. They were her eyes.

Z: Still in the shadows, the murky figure started to breath heavily. All of a sudden he was conscious of his mouth being dry. He took his hand off of his dagger and slid it to his heart. His liquid drum was still beating faster, all the faster. That small innocent bundle had those eyes. Beneath the cowl, he thought back to Magdalena. Her hair would cascade down to her shoulders. Even looking back now he felt torn in two directions. How could he love a woman who was gone, and yet hate her at the exact same time?

E: Several minutes passed as the cowled shadow's arresting indecisions shuddered forth into his passing reality. The baby began to whimper quietly in the cold air as the peculiar wind picked up once more. At last the man's racing pulses began to slow and he returned to fully rational cognition. He had a precious few remaining hours before the final quiet vestiges of the night lay slain and were replaced by the vicious, howling drum-cracks of day. The child needed tending to for now. No decision need be made in haste… especially any decision involving the Lady Magdelena. Averting his gaze from the direct scowl of the child, now accusatory and even more painfully familiar, the hooded wisp bundled the girl up in her rough swaddling and padded her carefully in the satchel swung low beneath his cloak. In moments he had soundlessly passed from the alleyway to the rooftops. Though the final passage of a dying breeze reached out to tug at his cloak, it found no comfort for its plight and passed into oblivion, forgotten and alone.

You may have noticed the paragraphs that have been scratched out. These are possible branches that the story could have gone down. I first made the “strike through text” after making my first response to Eli. Of course we both have very different writing styles, and because my stories never have this sort of moodiness, I felt the need to write something silly. I created a second universe in which the character had a fanny pack full of spaghetti, and let him explore his surroundings. Honestly, I did not expect Eli to write a response to both of the story lines, but was glad the humor was appreciated.

Although both of these stories still have room to grow, our experiment ends here. It is debatable whether or not is was successful in creating powerful fiction. What is not debatable was the fun of coming out of our comfort zones. Eli first pitched the idea as a fantasy piece, which I have never done before. My usual cup of tea is creative non-fiction, so when it was my turn I had to force myself to progress the story without giving an excruciating amount of detail. What is not surprising, is the fact that I did not have any fantasy element in my sections. This brings us to our very different styles. Eli has the amazing ability to paint lovely pictures in one sentence. Take the first sentence of the story for example, instantly we get a description of a character, where he is, and the time of day all in one. I, however, would take a full paragraph to describe the same scene. The result of this is short sentences with simple descriptions, such as the cowled figure’s heartbeat in my second response. I speak for both myself and Eli when I say the major takeaways were respect for the other style, and a Frankenstein of story.

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