Your Friend is Dying. What Do You Write? Unfettered: “The Sound of Broken Absolutes” by Peter Orullian

A special five story preview of Shawn Speakman’s epic fantasy anthology Unfettered will be released at Phoenix Comicon this Memorial Day weekend. This week, we’re taking a look at all five stories, many featuring new glimpses of our favorite fantasy worlds.

“The Sound of Broken Absolutes,” Peter Orullian’s contribution to Shawn Speakman’s fantasy anthology Unfettered, is a story inspired and informed by the loss of a loved one. This loss is not specifically Peter’s and it’s not specifically yours, but the unique—and eternally frustrating—hallmarks of mourning and grief are what propel it to its conclusion.

It’s a story that has been told many times before, but before you let that color your impression of “Broken Absolutes,” ask yourself: What would you write if you thought your friend was going to die?

In the introduction to his story, Orullian admits that “Broken Absolutes” is his response to that question. A response specific to being with author Shawn Speakman through bouts of radiation therapy and treatments for Speakman’s lymphoma. Supporting someone close to you during these kinds of treatments brings an intensity and variation of emotion that is difficult to deal with. You want to be there for them, and you are, but the disease doesn’t care either way and this whittles away at you as much as it does your loved one. You’re watching them be taken, piece by piece, for so long that it becomes mundane, another rhythm of events to add to your life.

Which is when the most righteous anger fills your thoughts. You slam and gnash and wail against a wall you know you can never break. You would shrink yourself down and fight the cancer hand to hand if you could. This is how intense it gets and this is how unfair life feels, because none of that can be translated into something that will give your loved one their days back. This is grief, and it just beginning.

“The Sound of Broken Absolutes” explores this grief through the intertwining narrative of two characters. Belamae, a young student, is learning how to sing songs that can reshape the world. Although brimming with promise, Belamae’s tutelage is cut short. His homeland is being invaded and his father has fallen in battle. He must return and enlist, for every hand is needed, and those who can sing like Belamae can are needed more than most.

Belamae’s teacher, Divad, is insistent that his student stay. That even though his loved ones pull at him Belamae will ultimately be able to help them more by mastering the next stage of his ability: Absolute sound. Through this lay songs that can strike at the truth. Sound that you would hear even if you had never heard a sound in your life, even, perhaps, into death.

But Belamae is young, and inexperienced in handling grief, and he responds to Divad’s call for maturity by quitting abruptly and smashing a priceless viola d’amore instrument on his way out. Belamae is under the impression that Divad doesn’t know how it feels to face the loss of your family. Belamae is wrong.

Divad’s grief over his own loss plays out in contrast to Belamae. The younger man’s anger and frustration never leave him, and although this puts dangerous—and effective—tools in his hand, it never brings him what he truly wants. He slams and gnashes and wails against a wall he doesn’t yet know he can’t break. When it is done, all he is left with is his anger. Anger that feels inexhaustible, anger that simply grows larger the more he tries to deplete it.

Those who lose a loved one to cancer are familiar with this anger. It is infuriating, because it feels utterly rational, and frightening, because it defies your hopes and remains constant even as more and more time passes. There is always something to feed it, whether it’s a constant second-guessing of the actions you could have taken, watching someone be dismissive towards a loved one that you’ve lost forever, or experiencing something joyful and wondrous that your loved one never got the chance to see. The anger remains.

In Divad’s case, time has grown his anger into a sense of regret both powerful and thorny. The loss he has suffered is one he will never stop questioning. He’s made a good life for himself, but that just makes it worse. His good life… could he have traded it for more days with his family?

Could you have done something to steer your loved one away from a premature end? Do you know what it is? Does it tear at you to know that you could have truly helped, even if you suspect you did all that you could?

A part of you thinks there’s a timeline out there where your loved one is still alive. An alternate history where things played out differently and where you asked all the questions that in real life you will never have an answer for. Or perhaps you are a burgeoning author of an epic fantasy series, watching your friend be taken to the edge of death. You’re doing all you can to help, to be there, but it might not be enough.

It is maddening. You create worlds. You could create one today where this kind of injustice is thwarted. Where the fulfillment of one’s life is guaranteed through hard work and courage.

But those worlds are not where your loved ones exist. You are here. They are here. And the treatment seems to be working, gods yes, but the bills are mounting. The disease may not take your friend’s life, but it may take away that which makes life worth living.

Now, what would you do if you wanted your friend to live?

 

Read about more of the stories from Shawn Speakman’s anthology Unfettered here on Tor.com:


Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and wants to thank Peter, Kelsey, Leigh, and Carl for writing some amazing pieces about this unique anthology, and Shawn himself for giving us the opportunity.

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