|Consider something that you regret: something that you did and wish you could undo, something you didn't do and wish that you had. Think or write briefly about what you would do if you had a second chance and how you think your life might be different without that regret.
If your character would have a chance to start anew and with a clean slate, what would he or she do with such a chance? Write a story, poem or create an artwork where this is offered to them or how they execute such a chance.
What do I regret? It's a hard question to answer because I tend to feel that my feet find their road even if I have to wander through the rocks to get there. I am happy in my life, and don't know that I'd want to undo even my stupidest decisions, lest I find myself someplace different and not necessarily better.
So I have to go way back to answer. When I was young(er), I was picked on by a lot. A lot. I was like a case study in peer abuse. Over the years, I have come to terms with a lot of the rage I felt about this--especially toward the adults in my life that let it happen--by remembering that a lot of the artistic abilities that I have now (not to mention my ability to think somewhat independently of the herd) would probably never have developed if I, like my peers, was off at sleepovers every Friday night and listening to New Kids on the Block instead of making up stories and drawing pictures and training my imagination to run marathons.
But what I can't quite come to terms with is, when chance happened to give me a bit of higher ground, how I responded to other unfortunates like myself. The idealized version of me, when seeing other kids picked on by people willing to claim me as a friend, would have tried to stop that abuse. The idealized version of me would have managed some empathy for those hurt as I had been hurt. The real version of me did not.
Of course, I recognize, too, that my ability to speak up today comes, in part, from the implacable regret I feel for the few occasions when I could have stopped others from being hurt as I had been and did nothing. Only I cannot make that choice for someone else; I cannot decide that the sacrifice I forced him or her to make in bearing abuse that I allowed to happen--even once or twice contributed to--is worth the heightened social conscience that I developed as a result. So it is something that I will forever regret, and if I could go back and erase it--even if it meant I would change fundamentally in who I am now--then I would.
"The List" doesn't fit the prompt exactly. But it begged to be written, so I complied.
The list was out.
Word of it pounded through the college with a sound and speed like the racing blood in their bodies. The list, the list, the list … Dry mouths wheezed laughter; sweaty palms went unwiped on robes in an attempt to look casual; students hovered in languid clusters and pretended that they didn't care, that in their minds' eyes they didn't see just a wooden door, shut, sealed, and the list upon it, pinned in place with a neat brass tack. They made their way to the headmaster's study under a gentle exertion of force like that which, over time, shifts the courses of rivers: so slight that it can't be perceived as a compulsion, yet is. Fingertips trembled and drummed to hide it as they passed up and down the list in search of a name. Those who weren't on the list remained carefully indifferent. Those were on it suddenly cared.
Pengolodh had none to walk with him. He had the loneliness of any child with the weight of expectation upon him, heavier than a shirt of rings, a subtle, constant weight that held him tighter to the earth and made him lag ever behind his peers. He was the son of two loremasters and his mother a master in illumination as well. Teachers knew his name on the first day of class without having to ask. His papers came back scored as though with ink-black blood that told a story of perpetual disappointment. Teachers called his name without turning from the slate to see who was volunteering to answer. "Pengolodh." It was never a question. The eyes of his peers made him squirm like an organism pinned in place under an anatomist's glass. He longed to free himself, yet to do so would be immolation.
The door to the teachers' hall banged open with such force that it struck the wall behind it. Three boys were ejected in a riot of whoops, leaping from the third stair to the path below. One boy leaped so high that his knees seemed ready to brush his chest and his robes flared high enough that Pengolodh saw his underpants. They paid Pengolodh no mind. They rounded the corner of the healers' college and their voices diminished.
The sun was low, easing herself into the western sea like an old lady into a cold bath. Pengolodh caught a glimpse of her between the buildings before passing into the long shadow of the teachers' hall. His hands were in the pockets of his robes past the wrist. His father hated that and threatened constantly that when Pengolodh next needed new robes, he would order the tailor that they be made without pockets. "Then where shall I keep my quills?" was Pengolodh's tepid protest. "You are an imaginative boy," his father said. "You will think of something." Pengolodh played with the inner seams, picking at the stitches until they unraveled; pulled them and delighting in the feel of the two halves of material unzipping from each other. Delighting in the crimped string that he extracted as a result. He would have to think of something for his quills now, for they would fall through his pockets and drop down his leg to the ground.
He wrapped the crimped string around his fingers as he climbed the stairs.
Most of the children had come and gone already by now. The slow compulsion upon them was not stronger than it was upon Pengolodh--perhaps the opposite--but there was less in the way of resistance. Pengolodh had raised a mountain to guard against the wind. He'd had to. Rivers could not shift overnight without first unmaking the world upon which they flowed.
It was a familiar climb to the fourth floor and the headmaster's study at the end of it. Pengolodh had made it three times now, each at the end of three years of the Sun, each culminating in disappointment, disappointment that remained vague and intangible. Maybe if there was a second list … a list of those who didn't make it, he often thought. Maybe … But there was not. And so, for three years now, the disappointment was a gradual settling upon his already weight-wearied shoulders, for maybe he'd overlooked his name? Or been overlooked? The exhaustion of the day the list was posted was less that initial plunge of disappoint when--after running his fingers ten times down the list, twelve, twenty--his name did not appear on it. The exhaustion came from nurturing that tiny flame of hope over the entirety of the summer holiday, a leaping of the heart at every knock upon the door, a straining of the ears for those words: "Master Sailaheru, there has been a mistake. You see, your son Pengolodh was left off the list, inadvertently of course, and we only realized when he did not report to his master's study for the books he shall require for his apprenticeship--"
Pengolodh mounted the final stair. There it was. The door, at the end of the long hallway. The list, centered upon the door and held in place by a single bright brass tack. Pengolodh swallowed hard and started down the hall. He had wrapped the string from his pocket so tightly around his fingers that the tips of them had gone purple and, when his fingers rested lightly upon the list to scan it for his name, there wasn't much feeling left there. It was like running his fingers down a column of air.
Twenty were chosen each year. Three times, Pengolodh had been rejected. Last year, the list had only contained nineteen names (Pengolodh had counted them, five times); they would have rather chosen no one than him. Three times, his mother--brutally practical--had reminded him that the list was only permitted to hold the names of those who had reached the point in that individual's basic education when it was believed that he or she would not progress any further without a master's individualized guidance. She didn't look up from her work when she said it. She had been chosen in her first year, one of the only illuminators who could make such a claim.
"It is a compliment, Pengolodh," she told him, three times, yet he knew full well that she didn't regard her own hasty choosing as an insult but, rather, an indication of natural talent. Which he was clearly lacking.
He scanned the list once. He was not on it. His stomach sagged as though he'd swallowed a great iron ball. He scanned it again. Perhaps he'd missed--
He had. There he was. His finger stopped on his name. He read it, twice. Again. Just to be sure. Yes, it was there. He was there. Yes, he was accepted.
He straightened and wet his lips and looked around. All of the other students and teachers had gone home for the night. There was no one to celebrate his acceptance, no one to see the change upon his face that, yes, at last, he could admit that he cared which names were on the list. And, tonight, his parents had a meeting for the historian's guild and wouldn't be home to celebrate either. He'd heard them talking about how someone from Lord Macalaurë Fëanárion's camp would be there to participate in a debate about the construction of the Ainulindalë stories, so they'd be out late, and they wouldn't see his acceptance as an apprentice (which was inevitable anyway, given his bloodline) as an excuse for surpassing his bedtime.
There was a wild feeling inside of him that longed to whoop and jump like the boys he'd seen earlier. It struggled and kicked within him to free itself. He whirled around fully on his heel and banged his fist three quick times into the wall with triumph. He had to bite his lip not to shout. The feeling was surging until he felt that he was crackling with electricity that, if it was not dispelled, would drive his heart into a fury beyond what even an immortal body could contain. He imagined the breezy relief of the flight across the sea to Mandos as his body cooled beneath the list.
Trembling fingers found a blank sheet of paper tucked in his lessonbook and a quill. A pot of black ink. He watched himself with detached interest, like he watched the dancers at the Gates of Summer, his mind never fully able to comprehend where all their energy came from, even though he liked to watch them.
He knew the names of each of his classmates. He'd learned them all so that if he was ever spoken to or invited somewhere, then he was not left humiliated by his inability to even greet his savior by name. He memorized the names of people like he memorized the names on maps or timelines. They loomed large to him. But now he felt as though he stood on the instructor's dais at the front of the room. He felt like he looked over the tops of their head and that his voice--though no louder--was more powerful than their own. At last, he thought. At last …
The quill slashed short black strokes not at all like his own handwriting. It wasn't beautiful at all, but that was good. Even beneath the wildness was a murmuring fear of discovery. Eyes cast quickly about him, but he was still alone. There were forty-seven names on the page; forty-seven names not accepted and beneath his own. He knew every one. With an extra brass tack tucked away on the side of the doorframe, he pressed his list into the door.