Animation, Character Essences, Research & Coding, Research & Play

Le Quack Walker v1.0

“People’s movements can change your impression of them.” 

(Isao Takahata)

 

 

Notes

Code: This blog post is a piece of personal research and development, which is very close to my heart. I encourage you to read, experiment with the code and Maya file available on Github and reference this post if you use it in your own work.

Research: I believe academic findings should be shared beyond the borders of peer reviewed journals and this is a small attempt at achieving that. I do recognize, however, the importance of published work. The current post does not aim to replace the latter, but to supplement it with findings that stem from curiosity rather than academic rigour. 

Learn: If you wish to learn more about designing, modelling and procedurally animating simple characters, please have a look at my upcoming course, Little Creatures with a Personality on Thinkific. 

 

Introduction

Patterns of movement, patterns of laughter, patterns of movement that make us laugh. There are many patterns that connect us, but the ones that truly matter speak the truth of our human nature. And if the truth is unique, otherwise it wouldn’t be called “the truth”, then it should have clear characteristics. There should be a code behind truthful behaviours that generate similar reactions in people, regardless of where they come from.

This project started as a question: What is it that makes ducks funny? Moreover, I wanted to know if there was a code behind the movement of a funny duck. After much thought, experimentation and scripting, I realized that the notion of funniness is too complex. Rather than attempting to understand everything at once, I chose a simple behaviour, walking, and investigated its “funny” potential. Since emotions are also seen among laughing people, they were chosen as nuances for the walking behaviour. This allowed a palette of walk cycles to be experimented with.

This report is part of the Character Essences project, which focuses on recreating believable actions using procedural animation. Actions are often hard to describe, but techniques like Laban Motion Analysis allow dividing complex behaviours into simple motions. Behaviours can thus be described and recreated as a cohesion of individual movements.

This observation is connected to emergence theory, where complex systems emerge from apparently simple rules. One example is Craig Reynolds’ flocking system (1987), where three simple rules govern the complexity of a moving flock of boids (ie. birds or fish). These rules are cohesion (boids must stick together), alignment (boids must travel in the same direction) and separation (boids mustn’t collide with each other).

Motivation

Before delving into the complexity of human behaviour, I wanted to have a look at a simple creature, a duck. Ducks are funny little birds, with their wagging tails and wobbly walks. Everything about a duck feels like out of a cartoon, even its brilliantly coloured feathers and beak. So what is it that makes a duck funny? Also, can I find the simple motions which form the complex behaviour of a wobbly duck? If the answers to these questions are found, I can then recreate a duck as a procedurally animated character.

Moreover, the feeling a procedural character conveys could inspire a similar effect in an observer. In other words, if we consider a walking duck to be funny, a similar reconstruction done for a procedural duck should also be classified as funny. This could extend to more types of characteristics and behaviours, which can lead to applications in video games, films and psychology.

Procedural characters could be used in simulations and interactions with users to entertain and aid them. If the psychological effect and believability are controllable to some extent, characters can react according to the context of a scene. In a video game, for example, a procedural character can display an angry walk if a user breaks the rules or it can have a joyful jump if they haven’t seen the player in a long time. 

Background

Firstly, let’s discuss the concept of “movement code”. I was introduced to this notion in Stephen Mottram’s puppeteering workshop, The Logic of Movement (2017). He spoke about every creature having a well defined method for moving, which is linked to their size, weight and emotion. As an example, the reason why a chicken thrusts its head forward when walking is to balance out the larger body weight left behind when taking a step.

The “movement code” is also linked to the more comprehensive Laban Motion Analysis (LMA) technique defined by Rudolf Laban and his students (2011). Laban was a movement theorist who studied and classified complex movement into a simple set of qualities. He looked at the shape of the body and space it moves in, as well as the conscious efforts humans make when performing an action.

The efforts described in LMA are weight, space, time and flow (Bishko 2014). Each effort varies between two movement qualities. Weight can vary between light and strong/heavy, space between indirect and direct, time between sudden and sustained, while flow varies between free and bound. Combinations of two qualities form states (awake, remote, stable, dream, rhythm and mobile) and three qualities form drives (action, passion, vision and spell).

By focusing on the four efforts, the question is whether these elements can form the basis of complex, emergent behaviour. In Melzer et. al (2019) basic emotions (Ekman 1992) like happiness, sadness and anger were recreated through sets of simple motions. The goal of the performing actors was to display core movements, without the knowledge of which emotion they were attempting to recreate. Participants then ranked the overall movement as emotions. The experiments showed not only that emotions can be recreated in the human body by simply repeating certain simple movements, but also that others recognise and empathize with such emotions.

The work I attempted relies on the aforementioned paper, but is not rigorous in its academic methodology. It is more of an early prototype, a hypothesis formed in the imagination, if you will. I wished to know whether similar techniques could be applied to a duck walk and whether people found the results funny. The duck walk was to be generated using mathematical functions, thus forming a repeatable movement code. 

Method

The software used to create the Le Quack Walker V1.0 prototype was Autodesk Maya 2018. A simple 3D mesh was modelled, textured and rigged to approximate the look and mechanics of a duck’s walk. NURBS controllers parent constrained joints in the feet, spine and neck areas to allow movement of the skinned joints.

duck1

Simple duck mesh, texturing and rig prototype.

Instead of keyframing curves by hand, a Python script plugin was written to generate keyframes depending on the desired parameters (code available on Github). The GUI below shows the options the user has when running the Python script. First the Animation Start and End Frames are established, together with the Frames per Second (FPS). By default, these values are 0, 120 and 24 respectively. When generating the walk cycle, a keyframe is added automatically for all the controllers every 3 frames to help create a smooth animation.

GUIDuck

 

The next values, Amplitude, Speed, Weight and Direction control the qualities of movement for the duck walk cycle. Weight and Direction are directly linked to the Laban efforts, mentioned in the Background section. Amplitude is the length of the stride, while Speed is how fast the duck goes. Unfortunately the latter parameter didn’t work out as expected and the default value of 5 that the plugin starts with is the best looking option.

Amplitude

Amplitude compensates for the issue with the Speed parameter, as a large stride coincides with a faster walk, since more ground is covered in the same amount of time as a smaller stride. The slider value varies between a low and a high Amplitude. This is mapped to the respective small and large step sizes. The forward translation is then calculated as a function of the amplitude and speed of the character. The side view images below show two frames from the Amplitude = 1 and Amplitude = 10 respectively. An amplitude of zero would result in no movement as the step size is 0.

AmplitudeOneTwoFrames

Frames 1 (right) and 36 (left) of the generated walk at Amplitude = 1

AmplitudeTenTwoFrames

Frames 1 (right) and 36 (left) of the generated walk at Amplitude = 10

Weight

A low Weight value on the available slider represents a light weight, while a high value is a strong/heavy weight. A light weight is similar to a feather floating through the air, while a heavy weight is like the sturdy step of an elephant. I added some additional bounce in the duck’s step for a lightweight animation. When the weight is heavy, the duck’s movement is closer to the ground, since it’s more affected by gravity. The side view images below show two frames from the minimum and maximum Weight values, 0 and 10 respectively. Notice the bounce in the step for the low weight value.

WeightZeroTwoFrames

Two frames of the generated walk at Weight = 0

WeightTenTwoFrames

Two frames of the generated walk at Weight = 10

Direction

Direction is direct for low slider values and indirect for high values. A direct motion is converted into little or no body rotation around the vertical (Y) axis. An indirect motion has more rotation around the Y axis, as well as some supporting side to side X axis translation. The side view images below show two frames from the minimum and maximum Direction values, 0 and 10 respectively. Notice the exaggerated sway in the second image when the movement is indirect.

DirectionZeroTwoFrames

Two frames of the generated walk at Direction = 1

DirectionTenTwoFrames

Two frames of the generated walk at Direction = 10

Emotions

Once these parameters were established, the question was whether combinations of them would reveal complex behaviour. There are many ways to express behaviour and personality, but among the most common ones are emotions. Two out of the six basic emotions described by Paul Ekman (1992) were chosen, joy and sadness. Attempts were made to recreate these emotions on top of the neutral walk cycle of the duck. The neutral state was estimated at Amplitude = 5, Speed = 5, Weight = 5 and Direction = 0. 

The available parameters were mapped to the parameters suggested in Melzer et. al (2019) for recreating emotions in humans. For example, their paper mentions that joy was recognized by participants in their study when elements like lightness, jumping and rising movements were observed. These could be replicated easily with small weight value, specifically Weight = 1.

Sadness, on the other hand, was recognized in Melzer et. al (2019) as passive, sinking weight along with other parameters. A high value, Weight = 9, was used for recreating this effect. Amplitude and Direction were also experimented with, but did not offer significant results in expressing joy or sadness.

Animation Graphs and Code

Once the desired parameters are established, for example Amplitude = 5, Speed = 5, Weight = 1, Direction = 0 the Generate button is pressed in the GUI Python plugin. This activates a sequence of functions that reset controller values and extract values from the GUI fields. These values are then fed into the generateWalk() function. A snipped of this function is shown below. 

Notice that trigonometric functions like sine and cosine are used with an angle theta as a parameter. This angle increases depending on the current frame and frames per second. The Amplitude parameter influences the amplitude of the trigonometric functions, resulting in the step size. Looking at lines 4 and 5 below, the variables currentFootTranslationY and currentFootTranslationZ are the coordinates for a point moving along an ellipse.

The ellipse flattens when touching the ground, as conditioned in lines 8 to 11. The resulting curve is the trajectory for the left foot inverse kinematics (IK) handle. The joint angles for the rest of the leg are calculated automatically by Maya’s Rotate Plane IK Solver. An example of the left foot animation graphs can be seen in the first image below.

The spine translation along the Y axis factors in the inverse Weight parameter. The sine wave graph that results shifts between higher and lower average values depending on whether the Weight is low or high respectively. An example of the Translate Y animation graph for a low Weight value can be seen in the second image below.

Notice that the maximum value is 1.5, while the minimum value is -0.5. This translates visually to the character bouncing up more than it gravitates towards the ground. Finally, in the third image you can see the animation graph for the Rotate Z values for the spine, which is directly proportional to the Rotate Y variable. The latter is the side to side movement of the spine, given by a cosine function.    

rotationAmplitude = amplitude * extraAmpFactor
currentLeftFootTranslationX = (amplitude / 3.0) * weight * math.fabs(math.sin(0.5 * teta))
currentRightFootTranslationX = currentLeftFootTranslationX - amplitude                
currentFootTranslationY = -amplitude * math.sin(teta) / asq
currentFootTranslationZ = amplitude * math.cos(teta) / bsq
currentLeftFootRotationX = -rotationAmplitude * math.sin(teta) / 2.0

if (currentFootTranslationY < 0):
    currentFootTranslationY = 0
if (currentLeftFootRotationX < 0):
    currentLeftFootRotationX = 0  
                    
currentLeftToeTranslationY = -currentFootTranslationY / asq
currentLeftFootTranslationZ = currentLeftToeTranslationY / asq                           
             
#Spine    
currentSpineTranslationX = currentLeftFootTranslationX - amplitude / 2.0                
currentSpineTranslationY = (weightCosValue / 2.0) + invWeight * math.sin(2 * teta) / asq 
currentSpineRotationY = -weight * rotationAmplitude * math.cos(teta)
currentSpineRotationZ = currentSpineRotationY / 3.0
currentTailRotationY = currentSpineRotationY / 2.0
                
#Assign values to controllers

Results

Fourteen combinations of low and high parameter values for Amplitude, Weights and Direction were made. The resulting animations were playblasted out of Autodesk Maya and uploaded as private videos on Youtube. These videos were then inserted into a Google Forms survey with thirty questions.

At the start and end of the survey, participants were asked how happy they were. This was to check whether the duck animations had any effect on the overall state of the observers. At the start, 73.5% of the participants were above 5 on a scale from 1 (not happy) to 10 (super happy). At the end, 79.4% of the participants were above 5. Although the change is not significant, it does show a tendency towards a more cheerful disposition after watching procedurally animated ducks.   

For each of the fourteen videos, participants were asked to name the emotion they thought the video expressed, with Happy, Sad, Angry, Fearful, Disgusted, Neutral and Other as potential answers. They were then asked whether the duck in the video was funny.

Thirty four participants answered the questionnaire anonymously. The most successful question was the one for video four (Amplitude = 5, Speed = 5, Weight = 1, Direction = 0). Over 90% of the participants recognized the light Weight animation as a Happy movement. In the graph below Excited was classified as Happy.

94% of the participants also found this animation as funny, with a score of 5 or above, where 1 is not funny, while 10 is super funny. 61% of participants gave a score of 7 or above to the same question. This result repeated itself for both the emotion and the degree of funniness for duck 12 (Amplitude = 7, Speed = 5, Weight = 1, Direction = 5), but to a lesser degree. About 67% of participants found the duck Happy, while over 85% said the duck was funny.

Duck 4 walk cycle results

Sadness and fear were often found at similar percentages of influence. For example, video thirteen (Amplitude = 3, Speed = 5, Weight = 9, Direction = 0) was classified as Sad by 38% of the participants, while 41.2% classified it as Fear. This was triggered by a high weight while walking, with the respective parameter Weight = 9. This observation is backed up by the sinking motion described by Melzer et al (2019) when defining sadness.

It is worth noting that Amplitude has an influence in the results. Videos five and thirteen both had Weight = 9, but only the latter was classified as sad and fearful. Amplitude = 5 for video five, while Amplitude = 3 for video thirteen. This might be linked to the enclosing behaviour recognized in fear and passive weight specific to sadness (Melzer et. al 2019).

Discussion and Conclusion

This report illustrated the creation of a procedural walk cycle for a duck character with the option of varying the movement style through a set of parameters (Amplitude, Weight and Direction). Two of these parameters, Weight and Direction, are linked to Laban’s efforts of movement. In specific combinations, Laban’s efforts have been shown to convey emotions. Thus the duck walk cycles can be nuanced through such emotions.

The survey results were conclusive only for the expression of joy, with sadness coming second. The most indicative parameter of such emotions was Weight. Low weights have been found to illustrate happiness, while high weights are more representative of sadness. These results are similar to the characteristics given to such emotions in a study on human movement and the link to emotions (Melzer et. al 2019). Moreover, people were more prone to find a duck funny when it was displaying a happy walk cycle.

More work is needed, however, to further understand the mechanics of stylized walk cycles, the emergent theories behind emotions and what comprises a funny behaviour. In the future, comparisons can be done with similar techniques from the field of physics simulations or machine learning algorithms, rather than purely mathematical procedural animation.

It must be said, however, that this report shows how simple movements have the potential to convey complex behaviours. Along with emergent theories, procedural animation could unlock nature’s hidden patterns of movement using the simplest of tools. In other words, we are slightly closer to discovering the “movement code” of a duck, which opens possibilities for other, more complicated beings, maybe even humans.

References

  • Bishko, L. 2014. Animation Principles and Laban Movement Analysis: Movement Frameworks for Creating Empathic Character Performances. Research Showcase at Carnegie Mellon University: Nonverbal Communication in Virtual Worlds: Understanding and Designing Expressive Characters.
  • Ekman, P. (1992). An argument for basic emotionsCognition and Emotion, 6(3-4), 169–200. [Link here]
  • Laban, R., Ullmann, L. (2011). The Mastery of Movement, Fourth Edition. A Dance Books Publication.
  • Melzer Ayelet, Shafir Tal, Tsachor Rachelle Palnick. (2019). How Do We Recognize Emotion From Movement? Specific Motor Components Contribute to the Recognition of Each Emotion. Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 10, 2019, Pages 1389, DOI=10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01389, ISSN=1664-1078 [Link here]
  • Reynolds, Craig W. (1987). Flocks, herds and schools: A distributed behavioral model. SIGGRAPH Comput. Graph. 21, 4 (July 1987), 25–34. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/37402.37406
  • Laughing Matters | Comedy Documentary  | Earful Comedy. (1985). Redistributed by Earful Comedy, narrated and starring Rowan Atkinson [Video] [Link here]
  • The Logic of Movement. Workshop by Stephen Mottram as part of the Pupeteering Festival, Bristol 2017.
Standard
Flash Fiction, Stories

Storm at Seascale

DSC05386_small

Dedicated to the lonely pony from Seascale

The wind howled. Mrs Bootle brewed her chamomile tea. She stared through her dusty kitchen window at Alfred, the house pony. He looked bored, or perhaps lonely. His mane was soaked, but he just stood there, blinking in a chewed up garden. Rain chipped at the glass, like sharp pebbles in a pool.

Mrs Bootle poured the tea in a flowery cup. The scented vapours steamed her round glasses. Alfred neighed in a low tone. The tide had come in. The pony turned his head to look at it flood the garden with a thirsty gurgle. He snorted, then climbed onto a boulder, unfazed. He turned his head towards the window to watch Mrs Bootle slurp her tea with visible noises.

A wave crashed over the small stone wall at the brim of the garden. The sea burst through the wooden gate. Alfred was knee deep in water. He watched a jellyfish swim past, as the wave retracted. Still he stood there in the rain, like a loyal rock. Mrs Bootle opened a newspaper. It had the picture of a seagull with a sea captain’s hat, eating an ice cream. A second wave curled over the wall, foaming at its tip.

Alfred frowned as water picked him up. He floated to the windowsill, his legs still stretched, as if standing. Fish swam around him, but he did not move a muscle. He kept staring at Mrs Bootle with a feeble twinkle in his eyes. Suddenly half of the stone cottage drifted off the sandy cliff like melting ice cream on a brownie. Salty rain drizzled the woman’s newspaper. Her flip flops soaked the intruding sea that was racing in through the opening.

Mrs Bootle reached to place her cup on its saucer, but found it had moved. She blinked audibly, waist deep in water. Furniture was floating around her, while she shuffled to the door. She opened it in time to see Alfred floating past. He neighed courteously as if tipping a hat.

‘Where are you off to Alfie?’ the lady creaked in a composed, upper class voice. She then grabbed her umbrella and sifted through the sea to reach her pony.

‘Come here boy!’ she rang, shaking a bag of wet toffees.

The house collapsed as she stepped off the porch. Alfred now stood on a little muddy hill, staring at the raging sea. Still he did not wince. Mrs Bootle gave a few strokes with one arm, her head erect, toffees in the other hand. She pierced the muddy hill with her flip flops as if escalating a mountain.

‘There you are my little lad!’ she puffed. ‘That is a pretty cloud, isn’t it Alfie?’

Alfred snorted and placed his snout on the bag of toffees. Mrs Bootle took out a lumpy piece and placed it into his mouth. His snout was foamy and grassy, leaving her hand sticky. She patted him with the sticky hand and giggled polite sounds. The swelling sea clambered onto the little hill. Past hooves and past flip flops it went. The sun sank behind the mount of water, as it swept over the sky and over Mrs Bootle and Alfred’s smiling faces.

Andy wailed, his chubby legs splayed onto the wet sands of Seascale. His yellow toy donkey was floating a couple of yards away.

‘Mommy!’ he cried and pointed.
‘Shush, I’ll get it!’ Anna shouted.

Andy looked at her with round, twinkly eyes. He then giggled as he watched his big sister splash through the water in her flip flops. He then resumed splatting the little hill the sea had made of their sand cottage.

Standard
Cufărul cu versuri, Poetry

Scrânciobul lui bunicu

Mărul din grădina bunicilor, noduros și cenușiu,
Șade-n umbra dealurilor de fân pline,
Florile cosite își dau suflarea de parfum sfios,
Noi ne dăm de-a tumba pe greblatele coline.

– Fă-ne scrânciob bunicule, chicotim îmbujorați
Bunicu lasă coasa grea și se pune pe urcat,
Mărul ascultă, îl cunoaște, își apleacă coama gri
Pădurețe sar pe pietre ca în jocuri de copii.

Brațul harnic și vânos învârte lanțul de o cracă
Și-ncet coboară parcă un pui de leagan dintr-o arcă 
Noi îl încoronăm cu scândurica de lemn moale și duios
Și ne-ntrecem cine poate să se așeze mai frumos.

Bunicu coboară lin precum vântul cald al verii
Limpede el ne privește cu lumina învierii,
Ia găleata și culege merele căzute-n iarbă
Oile behăie din poartă, sunând vesel din talangă.

-Hai la diresală, strigă bunica cocoțată în gireadă
Bunicu ia coasa pe umăr, nepoții grebluțele grămadă,
Numai eu rămân în scrânciob, privind mărul nostru în șoaptă,
Verii strigă, hai la fân, măi Anuți alună coaptă!

Standard
Flowers and People, Poetry

True Beauty

Morning dew on sweet rose petals,
Awake thy mouth to-a hearty song
Though my lips are coarse as nettles,
They are wise and not headstrong.

Fresh and scented is thy gaze,
In the light of rising suns
Though my eyes are dry with haze,
They avert from charming sons.

I hope we meet in time of trial,
The outside oft reflects the deep
Where the soul soars from defile,
The body’s climb is very steep.

Standard
Formal and Polite, Poetry

The Collector

Vincent sips his coffee in a French cafe
With a perfumed scarf and a creme brulee,
He watches people live their lives
With a pen in his hand and feverish eyes

A lady with the air of a delicate swan
Enters his gaze as she glides like a pawn,
To checkmate his heart, while his hand writes
And dashes three ticks on the page’s sides.

‘Dances ballet and plays the flute,
Can read for hours as an enchanted mute,
Her mind, as firm as her two bare toes,
But her heart is as wild as a mountain rose.’

Vincent smiles then strikes off the rows,
On her wild heart and hard boiled toes,
‘Interesting – but too hard to keep,
With a mind of her own that might take me too deep.’

He rips off the page with meticulous fingers
And folds it neatly as the feeling lingers,
With a shake of his head the paper slides loose,
In a box labelled simply “for future use”.

Standard
Research & Play

Tech for Good

Dramatic intro: It is quiet on the streets of Manchester. Fewer and fewer cars flow rapidly over the rain spotted streets. The trees are in full bloom, but few are there to see them. At least birds can now take a breath of fresh air. Ironically, the climate will benefit from the world’s cry. Greta kept saying that our house is on fire, but only now do we see the fire. It’s a microscopic fire, spreading more fear than fevers, but a threat nevertheless.

A few days ago I thought the world doesn’t need anymore technology. We are too disconnected, mentally and spiritually distanced from each other. And now, in the middle of a pandemic, we will be even more isolated. Again, ironically, the root of our social distancing can bring us together during our physical distancing. Although we might end up having walls between each other, we can break the virtual walls and say hello once more! Or if you have balconies, sing together like our friends from Italy.

Here is a list (that can be updated by me or you) of ways technology can bring us together during this world isolation experiment. Disclaimer, I am not advertising these apps! 🙂

  1. Teach your grandma to use Whatsapp before going into lockdown.
  2. Pray together using conferencing applications like Zoom (up to 50 people, free for up to 40 minutes / ~15 $/month per host for unlimited time) [Useful link here].
  3. Improvise together using Google Hangouts (up to 25 people, free). [Useful link here]
  4. Sing together using Skype or other apps (up to 25 people, free). [TED Talk inspiration here]
  5. Create animations online with anyone from anywhere with Artella (free to sign up). [Website link here]
  6. Play video games online with your buddies. [Useful link here]
  7. Share stories with your writer’s group using Google Docs/Dropbox and comment on each other’s work.
  8. Read dramatic stories to each other using Discord (free). Or join an online book club. [Useful link here]
  9. Watch films with 3 friends (at the same time) using a Premium Netflix package (~3 pounds/person per month).
  10. Solve maths problems using a collaborative online whiteboard (free, up to 5 people/ 5$/month for unlimited participants). [Useful link here]
  11. Artists, teachers, scientists, gregarious opinionated debaters, live stream your work and ask for donations, especially if you’re going through a hard time! [Useful link on apps | Useful links on getting paid]
  12. Write your own novel, inspired by the events from today by using online writing tools like Ulysses. [Useful links here]

 

Please comment if you have more ideas and I can add them to the list! Take care of each other my friends!

Standard
Chasing the Light Poetry, Poetry

We build

Stone and brick, iron and steel,

We build strong walls along the street,

Man-made structures now the Heavens seal

And pluck the grass from underneath our feet.

 

We’re civilized, dignified and educated,

Technology is pouring from our walls,

We are connected, yet so disconnected,

Stone-faced at the beggar’s calls.

 

I am that beggar, a face in the crowd,

Begging to see and to be seen,

You give me change to buy my shroud,

And walk on spraying your hands clean.

 

Machines are moving in the shadows

Of great men of high esteem.

Their ash falls down with quiet woes

As foreign hands build up their dream.

 

Today don’t build, but listen, friend,

To that last robin from the tree

Water the roses, to your garden tend,

And show the beggar you once more can see.

Standard
Short Stories, Stories

The Weeping Mist

LaculRosu_small

Some of the people of Ash Forest could see the sky that day. The dark clouds had descended onto the tips of the birch trees and were now thinning away. These people had been waiting for years to see the sun. Wandering aimlessly amongst the thick grey trees, they had forgotten the feeling of warmth. Stretched arms, withered by the morning winds, reached for glimpses of light. 

Rarely did the ever wake mist lift its merciless veil from the Ash Forest people, for a tragic tale bound it to their ground. It was said that until a proud man shed a tear for another, the mist would not lift. Until then, the woodland dwellers were to roam half blind, never truly seeing each other. The tale was bound to a man, Lord Ashley Achton. Hundreds of years ago, he lived on the edge of the forest, in a grand manor house. He would often prowl among the trees, to shoot deer and meet women. 

One of the ladies he fancied at the time was a poor blind woman from Little Creek village. Her name was Dietrich Arietes and hadn’t a penny to her name. Despite her unfortunate circumstances, Dietrich was the jewel of her village. Her fair cheeks were like roses in the morning light and her long black hair swirled like wild horses in the desert. Her step was dainty and her gaze, although devoid of earthly light, would have made any young man blush with awe.   

Ablaze with infatuation, Ashley was determined to pursue Dietrich. His intentions were always pure, or so he thought, until new intentions came along. He had a way with words, so managed to seduce poor Dietrich into the forest. His promises poured into her ears, as their footsteps carried them deeper. Long after sunset, Lord Achton returned to his manor alone. 

Months passed and Ashley carried on in his usual manner. One cold november night, a loud knock echoed through his chambers. Dietrich had arrived in a state of great distress and demanded to speak with him. The maid whom had opened the door took pity on the girl and let her inside to wait by the fire. Achton agreed to see her briefly, remembering the beauty he once cherished. He was shocked, however, to see the frail frame and haunting eyes of his past idol. 

‘I’m six months pregnant,’ Dietrich cried caressing her belly. ‘I have nothing. I ask for nothing, except this. Please promise me you will take our child and raise it as your own.’

‘Foolish woman!’ Achton burst. ‘How am I to know this child is truly mine?’ 

Silence fell as Dietrich weeped. She slowly knelt on the stone floor.

‘Please, I have nothing,’ she repeated, her cry intensifying. ‘You know it is yours.’

Lord Achton watched her with steely eyes and pondered. His heart softened for a moment, remembering her past beauty. His brow struggled between anger and compassion. Finally he said, ‘I can not father the child of a woman whose class is so beneath me. You will make do as your family always has.’

‘They are ashamed of me,’ she whispered, ‘and so am I.’ 

For a moment her dark hair covered her face, as she raised back up. She then parted it, revealing her flaming eyes, staring straight at Ashley. He knew she could not see him, but still shook from their intensity. 

‘Then listen to this. Never shall you or your villagers see daylight. I may be blind, but not as blind as you are now. So you shall taste the bitter darkness until your blood will shed a tear for someone other than yourself.’

Dietrich left alone and made her way with a crooked stick into Ash Forest. She was never seen again. Soon after that night, a thick mist fell from Little Creek Village, all the way to the mountains beyond the forest. The villagers were forced to move into the woods, for the mist was slightly more forgiving there. They could not tell arm from leg where their homes used to be. 

The swirls of fine rain would grow moss on their thatched roofs and put out the fires in their hearths. And sometimes, when the nights were silent and the winds grew weary, a quiet weep could be heard in the distance. It was not desperate, but a gentle reminder of whom had brought the watery burden upon them all and what was to be done to lift it.

*

Will Achton was a scrawny little lad, no more than sixteen. His father, Michael Achton was a fire maker. With all the humidity in the woods, necessity crafted fire making into a profession. As most fathers in the Ash Forest settlement, Michael had high hopes for his son, but always ended up disappointed. Generations had passed, but people were still hoping for a redeemer from their sorrows. Their sole thought was that one day a strong man would come and lift their burden, for it had grown heavier over the years. 

“Only a strong hand can wring a tear out of a proud heart,” they would say.

‘Today you come with me, lad,’ Michael said one morning to his son. ‘I’ll show you where to find dry wood.’

Will smiled and followed his father deep into the forest. Michael’s axe crunched through the hollow birches and crooked maples. Will carried as much as his feeble arms could hold. His father then smirked and picked up ten times more with one arm. As they walked slowly back to the settlement, they reached Amber lake, in the heart of the woods. 

‘Don’t walk too close to the water,’ Michael said, ‘there are strange creatures lurking about.’

The mist lifted slightly and Will saw a deer grazing on the other side of the lake. Its silhouette shimmered in the dim morning light, as dew gently rested on its dark fur. Its head suddenly sprang up and looked at him with haunting grey eyes. 

‘It’s blind,’ Will whispered in awe. 

Michael slowly bent and discarded his load of firewood on a patch of fairly dry ground. His son placed the few branches he had carried on the wood mount his father had built. The man took out his dagger and nodded towards Will. The boy shivered at the sight of his reflection in the silver blade. 

‘Lunch,’ Michael finally uttered. He stepped with confidence, resembling a wild cat on the prowl. 

The wind blew gently towards them, sheltering their footsteps from the alert ears of the creature. Will followed his father with trembling feet. His brow furled and unfurled as beads of sweat crawled on his skin. 

‘Father, we should let it go,’ he begged. ‘It cannot see!’

‘Then there is nothing for it to fear,’ his father grunted. ‘Quiet, for it is blind, not deaf.’ 

Michael hastened his steps towards the deer. The mist thickened and swallowed the two in its depth. They heard the earth shaking and then mud splattered their lips as the deer sprang from their reach. 

‘It knows,’ Will cried, ‘let it be!’

‘Shut up,’ Michael demanded, wiping the mud from his mouth. He then added, in a softer tone, ‘son, you are too weak. We must have food for tonight.’ 

‘It’s scared dad and helpless. We can eat something else tonight!’

‘I’m sick of mushrooms,’ his father growled.

He then hurried into the fog, listening intently. The damp earth squelched under his feet and it smelt of shadows. He strained his ears to hear the whisper of footsteps and the gentle rustle of leaves. Michael licked his lips and prepared his blade. A soft shadow moved among the streaks of grey trees. The man stopped for a moment, watching the shape shift and turn with dainty movements. He waited until the figure sharpened through the droplets of fog. Michael charged with a wild yell towards the beast and thrust the knife at its head. 

‘Father!’ the beast uttered. The mist swirled, revealing the closing eyes of Will. The blade stopped just in time, an inch from the boy’s face. Michael dropped his knife in the mud and his knees followed. He grabbed his son and thrust him to his chest. A moment of eternal silence. Will could hear his father’s heart trembling. A deep sob emerged from the roots of Michael’s soul. He cried bitterly, holding his son, on the shore of Amber lake.

The cloud of dew rolled over the still water, slowly lifting its veil. Will opened his eyes once more, still in his father’s embrace. The mist over the lake had cleared as the figure of a dark haired maiden stepped gracefully into the forest.

Standard
Chasing the Light, Essays

Inocentii

innocents

Scène du massacre des Innocents by Léon Cogniet

Metafore inspirate de pictura Scène du massacre des Innocents de Léon Cogniet:

Femeie, nu te teme de privirea sura a pictorilor tai. Te-am imbracat in haine de roaba si te-am lasat desculta. Genunchii tai ingramaditi de zidul rece s-au invinetit de spaima si de frig. Iata, glasurile mamelor au devenit stravezii. Doar umbra lor mai suspina prin crapaturile pamantului. Bratele lor au amortit cu sugarii prinsi de piept. Bataia inimii lor a devenit una cu murmurul pruncilor.

Nu te teme, mama, nu te vom pari purtatorilor de sabii. Ascutisul lor s-a tocit de sange nevinovat. Slobozeste glasul pruncului tau si lasa-l sa vorbeasca. Gangureste micutule om, glasul tau se va adanci in sufletele oamenilor. Osanditorii tai s-au pierdut in arsita desertului. Glasul celor ce striga in pustie s-a stins de sete, dar in curand vor avea iar apa. Obrajii lor s-au uscat de lacrimi, iar buzele lor au sangerat de rugaciune. Scoala-te din intunericul fricii si indrazneste, mama! Fiul tau va fi viu!

Standard
Chasing the Light, Flash Fiction, Stories

A Step in the Dark

This piece was inspired by the following painting.

'In Manus Tuas, Domine' Briton Riviere (1879) Manchester Art Gallery

‘In Manus Tuas, Domine’ by Briton Riviere (1879)

The horse’s hooves trembled on the misty rocks. Their sheen bolted in crackling sounds as the white beast slid on the frost covered earth. 

‘Quiet Edmund!’ the knight on its back whispered.

His armour was untouched, with the emblem of a double headed eagle on his chest. His eyes were weary and talked of nights of restless contemplation. A blunt sword served him as a cross, blessing the dark chasm that opened at his feet. 

Three bloodhounds followed their master with reluctant whimpers. Their tense, muscular bodies urged the man to retreat from his imminent fate. The knight spurred the horse’s sore flanks. His breath stopped in his chest as his left arm lifted his father’s heater shield.  

In a loud cry he entered the dark cavern of twisted trees and thorn bushes. A pair of fiery eyes glimmered in the belly of the chasm. The hounds howled but dared not follow in their master’s steps. The breath of fire pierced the knight’s pale skin, as he looked into the eyes of the Vasan dragon.

The sword was flung with the precision of an arrow into the creature’s scaly heart. Its dark grey head crushed the ash covered trees around it. The rider slid off his horse, under the weight of his burning armour. The horse bolted into the morning light as the knight whispered his forgiveness. 

With his last breath, the knight took off his helmet to behold the beauty that emerged from the ashes. A diaphanous nymph crawled from underneath the dragon’s pitch black claws. She ran to her saviour with eerie footsteps and gave him a kiss as his soul departed his chest. 

‘May our love be renewed when the sun will set over this world,’ she whispered and walked out of the darkness in silence.

Standard