A Workshop Piece on Setting

This is a random workshop exercise from my creative writing class. We had a list of locations to choose from, and the assignment was to write a description of whichever one we picked. I chose ‘a polluted stream,’ and this is what popped out of my head.

The forest is beautiful today. The thin, high branches of the trees sway and rattle in a breeze which does not reach the forest floor. There, all is still, though not quiet. Birds chirp and flutter in the lower branches, their calls echoing faintly through the woods, each answering the other to signal all clear! No danger here!

Every so often, the birds are silenced by the distant crack of a limb snapping from a tree and falling to the ground. The shadows of the variegated leaves dance across the underbrush, dappling the soft layer of rotting vegetation with tiny pools of light, which the millipedes and pillbugs and ants and snails do their best to avoid. The light is where the birds can see them. They much prefer to hide in the musky carpet of plant matter, where it is safe and warm.

The line of demarcation between the peaceful woods and the Dead Place is obvious. It is an open, flowing wound across the landscape, gurgling slowly, slowly. As though the earth had cut its wrist, and now only the black heart-blood, stinking and coagulating in rapidly cooling rivulets, is left to fill the ragged and torn flesh.

There is no life, here. The birdsong and the canopy breeze do not reach past the stream. There is only the slow churning of this fetid outlet of the Styx, and ashes.

Ironically, the water at first appears surprisingly clear, save for the rainbow sheen which makes itself visible whenever the brown haze in the air above it clears enough for brief ray of sun to bravely make a tilt at its surface. The clarity is a deception; there are simply no motes of life, no molds, no algae. Nothing capable of clouding the flow. This trick is devastatingly effective. The bones of animals, curled in upon themselves in agony, litter the gray banks, half buried in muddy ashes. Even now, a deer tries desperately to raise itself after drinking from the acid brine. It staggers once, chokes, tries to heave the foul liquid out of its gut, then falls to its forelegs. Its head drops into the water with a muted splash as its remaining bulk collapses heavily on the bank. Its rear leg jerks, and then it is still, and the sluggish, oily brook folds in and around the corpse before moving on to devour more and more of the world.

The weapon that made this part of the world become necrotic sits on a rocky promontory above the stream. It is blocky and gray, featureless but for the pipes and stack, Stygian fumaroles belching smoke and fire into the air above, and bile into the stream below. Words once marked its flank, but those have long since been covered over by its own filth. Now, whatever infernal machinery lurks within it immense stone bulk hammers at its own forges, day after day, feeding itself on the life it’s taken, and sending the liquefied remains of its victims downhill in an ever-widening stream.

The forest is beautiful. But it is also smaller than it was yesterday. And the day before that.

It will be yet smaller tomorrow.



Anya did not stumble down the steps of the apartment building at six on Sunday morning. Nor did her feet lose their perch atop the stiletto heels she failed to shame herself for not changing out of. Neither did she hang her head in the morning light, and as a result her uncurled, hair was unable to hide her face, which was not displaying an acceptable amount of regret. Her shoulders stubbornly refused to stoop as she made her way unabashedly down the sidewalk, and her hands did not tremble or shake as they smoothed out the clothes that she had not changed from the previous night.

The apartment, of course, had not been hers. Neither was the bed within it, nor the occupant of that bed, who did not wake when Anya slipped out without a sound or apology. Anya never apologized; what was there to apologize for? She never did anything immoral or unethical. She was not that kind of woman.

When the doorman at her building held the door open for her, Anya didn’t bother to try and hide the satisfied smile that refused to leave her not unattractive face. His eyes followed her, his face issuing judgments that she would simply not accept. Anya did not submit to such pettiness from others. Anya did not submit at all.

From Imaginative Writing, Fourth Edition by Janet Burroway, exercise 2.8.