Last April I was walking around my room, checking whether story ideas I’d planted had germinated, when I saw it. A young teaktree, shading the streetlamp loverlike with broad glossy leaves. I backed across my room and froze in the one spot from which I could glimpse a yellow crescent of streetlamp between two teakleaves.
A new story idea. A man and woman are working boring jobs, emailing each other about saving up, running away, and opening a bed-and-breakfast. Outside her office a streetlamp shades a teaktree. They wait. He dies of a stroke. She goes to collect his effects – we realise they were spouses. At home, each face mirrored the other’s failure: they couldn’t face each other. But over email they’d become children, their dreaming eyes gaping woundlike.
I shifted. The lamp disappeared. Problems materialised. How would I misdirect the reader about their relationship? Besides, characters should be active, should do something, even though this story was about people spectating their own lives.
This story needed proper plotting. “Let it germinate,” I muttered.
I drafted another story: a rewrite, already thoroughly outlined. The drafting was autopilot: no more sense of discovery, but it was a competent story. Then I resumed my novel. Only novels sell, the rest is practice. But now my novel felt like practice for the streetlamp story.
The streetlamp idea kept swooping down on me, like a playful hawk swiping at my eyes, or murderous maybe. It perched on my shoulders. I longed to shoo it away – story ideas are a dime-a-dozen. But I felt as if I’d groped the earth’s bowels and pulled out something I didn’t fully understand, something I was obliged to birth and release. This story began to feel like part of my real work. In preparation, I wrote stories where I tackled cliches skillfully, stories that challenged my plotting. The hawk settled on a telephone pole and watched me goldeneyed.
The teaktree was resilient. My neighbour swept his trash under it every Sunday and dropped a match. The smoke billowed coalblack. The streetlamp began flickering but the teakleaves shone fat. Soon I would assemble the perfect playlist and find a goldgreen nook to write this story in. Meanwhile, the potboilers.
Last evening, April again, I looked out. When did these eucalyptus seedlings shoot up so? They blocked my view. The idea returned, not swooping hawklike, but like the wall lizard, colourless and silent, that’s been there all along. I looked the lizard in its eye.
I opened my notes for the streetlamp story. The words lolled on my tongue. I peered between the eucalyptus, stooping and tiptoeing, dodging left and right. There’s the streetlamp, unlit though it’s 8pm, but where’s the teaktree? Did my neighbour chop it down? Slowly I straightened up.
This story was now somebody else’s. This story had never been.
I looked up at the moon, yellow and full. Something flickered across its face. I recognised my story idea, in geosynchronous orbit, along with everyone else’s ghost debris.
Amita Basu’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in over sixty magazines and anthologies including The Penn Review, Bamboo Ridge, Another Chicago Magazine, Funicular, and Gasher. She’s a review editor for Bewildering Stories and a submissions editor for Fairfield Scribes Microfiction. She lives in Bangalore, has a PhD in cognitive science, likes Captain Planet, and blogs at http://amitabasu.com/