The Princess Bride is an interesting story within a story. The novel version is presented as being an abridgement of the actual story, an edit of the original down to just its “good parts.” Of course in reality there is no original, it’s all just a humorous commentary on how great stories can be weighed down by too much dross. The film version of The Princess Bride presents things a bit differently. It opens with a grandfather reading the fantasy story to his sick grandchild, which then transitions into the scenes within the book.
In both cases the outer story impinges on the inner story from time-to-time. In the novel the author interrupts the flow to say that the original went into numerous pages describing Buttercup’s wedding gown and he’s not going to recreate that here. In the film we have the grandchild interrupting when the story nears a kiss, stating that he doesn’t want to hear about that mushy stuff.
This technique of enclosing a story within a story is one that I have thought about a great deal. The novel I am currently working on falls into the exact same category. At the heart of it is a simple, straightforward tale about a group of explorers that come to an island and try to make their fortune upon it. Bookending (and occasionally interrupting) that tale is another one of an explorer that is viewing this other narrative as a memory, coming to terms with the tragedy that he/she knows will come at the story’s end.
There have been many times when writing this piece that I have wondered whether I wasn’t unnecessarily complicating things. Why not just write that inner story, the one about the explorers on the island, and drop the outer layer? Why doesn’t the Princess Bride work that way, too? It could have been just a straightforward fantasy story, why add a layer about a middleman relating it to the next generation?
The consideration, I’ve realized, is whether this layering of story is tied to the true purpose of the overall tale. In the Princess Bride there is a rich and complete fantasy story at its center, but at the end of the day that wasn’t the core story William Goldman (the author) was trying to relate. He was trying to talk about how we preserve stories like these to the next generation. And in my novel there is a complete story about explorers making their fortune, but that’s really not what my core story is all about. It’s about the regret of breaking something beautiful, and coming to believe in second chances.
This is also the same situation with my current short story: The Time Travel Situation. For this story I needed to wrap everything inside of an outer story of children playing pretend for it to even make sense. Incredulous things are happening that no one would accept from a straightforward sci-fi story, but when couched in the context of “these are kids playing pretend” anything becomes acceptable. But more importantly, The Time Travel Situation isn’t really about the adventure that makes up the bulk of text, it is about the kids who are playing it and the freedom of their imagination. The depiction of their real world might only make up a small minority of the wordcount, but it is still what the story is really about.
In these stories the “extra stuff” isn’t extra at all! It might only appear briefly, but it is the heart of the entire tale.
There is yet another way to weave together multiple worlds in a single tale. It does not only have to be bookends that encapsulate the rest, it can also be multiple distinct threads wound into one.
This occurs numerous times in the Christopher Nolan film Inception. Here the protagonists invade the subconscious of another man, travelling through multiple layers of his dreams at the same time. But in the rules of the film, when one dives to a deeper level of dreaming, they also remain in the higher state as well. This leads to some complex interactions, such as a van falling off the bridge in the topmost layer, creating a sense of weightlessness in the layer below.
It isn’t only physical states that carry down from one level to the next either, emotional and mental states do as well. Thus a question about a dying father’s last words becomes an obsession at the next level as the implications are processed by the dreamer’s innermost core. And the lost love of the main protagonist continues to haunt him in more and more pronounced ways the deeper he goes, becoming a single emotion that defines everything about him.
This is deconstructionist story-telling, where everything is taken apart so that it can then be put back together. But while some lessons are learned at the deepest level, others only come into focus when stepped back into their full context. Thus the dying father’s words when examined on the micro level change the life of his son, but the all-consuming lost love of the protagonist is reminded that she cannot be the only force in his life when he returns back to the surface.
I have applied this technique only briefly in my current short story. In the last section of The Time Travel Situation I laid out two separate issues: one group of children were trying to stop a laser before it fired and the other were trying to protect their time machine from a raging Tyrannosaurus Rex. Each of these threads continued separately, hopping back and forth with no connection between. But then everything came together when the first group of children managed to push a massive boulder into the path of the laser. This blocked the laser, but also burst the rock into a million pieces of shrapnel, some of which flew over to the second group of children and punched through the Tyrannosaurus Rex, resolving their issue as well.
Perhaps not as emotional of an interweaving as the examples from Inception, but far more entertaining than if I had made the two threads resolve themselves independently. The surprise connection provides a delightful surprise to tie off the chapter.
Now the children are moving into a new area, though, and I am going to add another element of intersecting worlds to their tale. Every time they jump to another point there are going to be some stowaways that come along with, enhancing the chaos in each successive under domain. The first of these is the raptors that come from the age of dinosaurs to terrorize a pirate ship. Come back on Thursday to see this in motion!
Private Bradley passed the last hour in a dazed stupor. Though his veins still bulged with adrenaline, he could feel the exhaustion lurking beneath it. Though his eyes were open and his breath was sharp, he could hardly he considered conscious.
Men walked before him, but he did not see them. Voices spoke around him, but he did not hear them. A pair of hands guided him down the hill and into the back of a truck, but he did not feel them.
He had bounced around in the back of the vehicle a full five minutes before it even dawned on him that he must have been relieved. New troops must have come, and now he was on his way back to camp. Or maybe the enemy had come back and he was being led to a prisoner of war camp. He honestly couldn’t have said which.
But thankfully it was the first, and ten minutes later Bradley shuffled out of the truck and stood in front of his tent. Some officer’s voice was droning at him, probably giving him orders. Probably telling him to get some rest and then await further instructions.
Probably. But even if those weren’t the orders, that was what he was going to do anyhow. It was the only thing he was capable of doing anymore. Nothing else was possible. He was coming apart in so many ways, that it seemed to take all that he had just to remain standing in one piece. To do anything, to change anything, seemed like it might shatter him once and for all.
And now he realized that he was terrified even to go to sleep. In fact, he was so tired that he didn’t know if he had the strength to face it! It meant letting go. It meant trusting the world around him as he lay totally at its mercy. He had been clenching for so long, that now he wasn’t sure how to release.
But now the officer was finished with his droning, and marching away to other duties, and Bradley’s tent lay in front of him, its front flap waving invitingly in the breeze. Bradley didn’t think about it, he just moved forward. He wasn’t aware of his feet moving, indeed it felt as if he was levitating an inch off the ground. In a haze he closed the distance, passed across the threshold, and rotated down on his cot.
He didn’t bother to undo his belt. He didn’t try to pull off his boots. He didn’t unclasp his helmet and let it clatter to the floor. He certainly didn’t worry about getting out of his muddy clothes or taking a shower.
He just lay down, closed his lids, and let his vision turn inwards.
Bradley was unconscious. Not really asleep yet, but unconscious. What Bradley was putting to rest was not his body, it was the machine. He was powering it down. Its vise-like grip slowly unclenched. And now, at last, his mind and body had room enough to start going to work on themselves. Now, at last, all the things that he had been stifling inside began to worm their way out.
First came a series of shivers. They began across his brow, then worked their way down his body, all the way to the feet. They were involuntary shudders, earthquakes in his bones. It was his body loosening out all of the tension that he had so strictly maintained all these hours. Every inch of skin had to be shaken out and made to feel again.
Next came the sweating. Tension and strain had built up a lot of heat in Bradley, and it had to be cooled. There was so much hate and fear that had to be flushed out as well. So each of his pores opened and baptized his body with purifying water. All the grime that had been clogging him up was washed away.
Then came the crying. Bradley’s chest heaved up and down and tears tracked down his cheeks. His mouth opened wide, and through it he gave a series of long, shuddering exhales. No moans came with them, for when one wails audibly they are giving expression to their traumas, and Bradley’s mourning was too deep to be given any names. They could only be breathed, spilled out of him, a thousand at a time, in a heavy torrent.
At last the body had unlocked itself. Bradley’s survival grip was broken, and now he could feel again. Thus he finally realized how uncomfortable he was in his bed. His boots were tight and heavy, and he worked to take them off. He was still mostly unconscious, and unable to wake enough to take remove them properly. Instead he just idly swatted his hand at them every few minutes over the next hour until they were finally teased off an inch at a time. At last they fell to the ground with heavy thuds.
Then his fingers reached up to his chin and fumbled with the strap of his helmet. It too clattered to the ground. He rolled over and the lapel of his jacket dug at his wounded shoulder. He winced, and undid his belt, then shrugged the jacket away.
Now he was cold, and his hands found the blanket and pulled it up to his chin. His body curled up into the fetal position, and he reverted into his most primal instincts. Now his dreams began.
Strange, abstract shapes and colors came first. Black and red, jagged and sharp. They fluctuated and danced into one another without meaning. Then, slowly, they settled into something comprehensible. Bradley saw that they were a seascape of blood waves, reaching like teeth high into the air. So high that they pierced into the onyx tapestry of thunderclouds that made up the entire sky. And where the two bodies collided into one another there oozed out a thick mud.
Bradley was aware of himself in this space. He was soaring towards the horizon where the two dread masses converged into one. Would he be drowned in the waves or would he be dissipated in the mist? Either way, he would surely then be oozed out the dark mud between.
“Please, no!” he cried. “I fought, I won, I get to go home.”
You fought, you won, this is your home a thunderous voice boomed from the heavens. Claim the spoils of your victory!
And then Bradley saw. He was the waves and he was the cloud. He was the squeezing, choking vise that must grind wayward sea explorers between his iron mills. He saw puny sailors rolling across his undulating belly, eyes wide and full of fear. He hated them for their smallness. Hated them for their fear.
Bradley sneered and swelled himself, rushing his two halves together and bursting the vessels apart like juicy grapes. He hated them for being weak enough to be consumed by him. Hated them for dying while he lived.
And though he would dare not admit it, he feared them too. They looked at him with such terror, but why? How did they not see that they had just as much power to kill him, too?
The dream turned. He was still a phantom of black and red, but now in a loose bodily form, and he was sprinting between the walls of an eternal labyrinth. One did not try to escape a place as this. Once consigned here it was your home forever. And your tomb.
Around every few bends he came across one of the dread, blue sailors. He screamed at them and burst himself forth, trying to drown them in his depths before they could crush him.
One of them rounded the bend and hesitated. That was his undoing, Bradley snuffed him out in an instant. Bradley rounded the bend on another and the two of them burst themselves on one another at the same moment. The blow of that other was strong, but Bradley bluffed a laugh through quivering lips. The sailor drew back at that, and believed that Bradley might have some hidden secret that gave him the confidence to laugh. That moment of weakness doomed him. The man succumbed to the momentum of his despair, and knelt down and hung his head. Bradley quaked him into the ground.
It was a game of chicken. The first to show fear lost. To flinch, to admit your terror, was your own undoing. If Bradley could make them believe he was more powerful than they, then it would be so.
This is all that magic and witches are, the great voice boomed again. A spell is only of effect when the victim believes in it. Make them believe their doom and it will be so.
And what if they were made to believe in hope? Bradley wondered. Did magic work that way, too? Was Sergeant a mage? Had he cast a spell on Bradley to make him believe that he could survive that last night? Made a reality of a fiction? Convinced Bradley of it, but then died because he did not believe in it himself?
Why did Bradley get to live while the others did not? Some days he would say that it was just a matter of dumb luck, but he knew that that was not the entire story. He really felt there was some truth to this notion of overwhelming the will of others to live with your own. That will to live was like a muscle, and in some men it was stronger than others. And why was Bradley’s will to live stronger than many others? He did not know. Maybe he was just born that way. Maybe he was bewitched by Sarge’s speech. Maybe a million things. He had it though, and it was his blessing. Or perhaps his curse.
At this point Bradley turned over and nearly awoke. A faint thought crossed his mind that he was starving, filthy, and in need of a doctor to examine his shoulder. Yes, alright, he would take care of all those things. But first a little more sleep. He had denied his body this rest for too long, and now the time had come to pay the tab.
So instead he ground deeper into his pillow, pulled the blanket tight with earnest, and muscled his way back into deeper waves of sleep. The dreams here were more erratic and fanciful than before. Every now and then a vision from the trenches would arise, such as one where he was laying traps a pack of wolves that was also hunting him, but more so they were abstract and bizarre, such as one where he was carving faces into potatoes to try and get them to speak to him.
All the while men came and left from the tent. Trucks rolled by outside. Orders were shouted and people scrambled to fulfill them. None of them could break his trance, though, and everyone knew better than to wake the men that had come back from the line.
How much time passed was impossible to tell. Bradley had missed two full nights of sleep, and he more than made up for them now. When at last his eyes opened there was sunlight outside, so that he mistakenly thought that it was still the same day as when he had first laid head to pillow.
For a full hour he laid without any more movement than the occasional blink of his eyes. Indeed when he first opened them he did not realize that they were open. He just stared blankly ahead as the room slowly swam into conscious focus. He stared, and he listened. And at first the sounds seemed far-off and random, totally devoid of any word or meaning. But as his hearing also came into conscious focus he realized that there was an unusual rhythm to what he heard.
The camp had always been a busy place, but somehow it was even more so now. Trucks were rumbling by in a constant procession, voices were ringing over one another in a chorus of commands. Feet were running every direction at once. What on earth was going on out there?
Bradley rose to his feet, waited a minute for the resultant light-headedness to pass, then stepped out into the sun. If things had sounded active, they looked even more so! Most of the tents were being disassembled, the large medical pavilion was being brought down even now. Everything was being tied down, bundled up, and thrown into the back of trucks.
“Our line’s been broken!” Bradley hissed in horror. “We’re retreating!”
But even as he said that, he realized that couldn’t be right. Because even with all the hasty hustle and bustle, the men were smiling and laughing, clinking together glasses of champagne scurried up from who-knew-where.
“What is this?” Bradley caught a soldier by the arm as he passed by.
“Oh you’re a mess,” the man said, looking up and down Bradley’s filth-caked clothing. “And we’ve just taken down the showers, so you’ll just have to sail that way!”
“Sail? What are you talking about? Where is everyone going?”
The man cocked his head in utter bewilderment. “Do you really not know? You haven’t heard?”
Bradley shook his head.
“The war is over man! The old men back home have signed a treaty!”
Bradley released the man’s shoulder and stood with mouth agape. Could it be? He looked about himself in a stupor. It seemed too much to believe…yet here was his entire company beating a joyful march back home.
Two airplanes buzzed overhead, and Bradley watched them soar by. They were followed by a dozen more, all making way for the coast.
Bradley smiled and shook his head. He had slept clean through the end of the war. “So you were right all along, Sarge,” he muttered. Then he turned, and followed the procession away from that place.
And that brings us to the conclusion of The Soldier’s Last Sleep! On Monday we discussed the idea of a final act prolonging the themes of the story’s climax. Previously we experienced the rousing apex of action where Bradley defended the trench through the last night of his shift. That sequence concluded, and today I sloped the story into a long tail before the finish.
In this final act I have used Bradley’s subconscious to reiterate the themes of my story to the reader. Even as his subconscious is trying to process the events within him, I am doing the same thing for the audience. Through this I emphasize the ideas of force of will, of trying to control oneself with a vise-like grip, and the toll, physical and mental that comes with that. I speak of tension and release. I point out the idea of men overpowering one another by a show of strength, or more accurately by a facade of strength. I finish up with a discussion of influence and inspiration, which suggests a more gentle way to impose one’s will upon another.
And then, to cap it all off, I talk about the calm after the storm. For after each charge of the enemy came respite, after the fog came clear skies, and after the war there must come peace. Which was meant as a meta-commentary on the calm-final-act-after-the-climax-of-a-story theme from Monday.
This dream sequence that I concluded with also allowed me a pleasant opportunity to delve deep into the rabbit hole. Throughout the story I presented the story with dramatic prose, painting the scene of war as some sort of exaggerated fantasy. That same idea is more deeply explored in Bradley’s unconscious visions, where fantasy finally becomes his reality. With my next blog post I’d like to go deeper into this idea of going deeper. I want to consider how a story can present an idea, and then really dive into the meat of it. Come back Monday to hear about that, and have a wonderful weekend in the meantime!
“I don’t know, I just always liked that sort of sound in–” Simon stopped speaking abruptly and turned to look about the room. He was the only one here. He was speaking to…no one.
What had he been talking about? Who had he thought he was saying it to?… He honestly couldn’t even remember. Perhaps he had been sleeping. He didn’t think he had been, but perhaps.
These things did happen to him from time-to-time. He couldn’t remember exactly when they started. Not until recently…he believed. And each time they occurred he felt his heart skip a beat. It was like jolting awake from the sensation of falling. Only it wasn’t his body falling, it was his mind, and he didn’t know how far it would have gone if he hadn’t woken in time to catch it.
A little shake of the head and Simon Bowie pushed himself up and out of the chair. He shuffled out of the room. He wanted to get away from the moment, to distract himself with something. He lumbered down the hall, eyes downwards to see that he planted his cane tip firmly into the carpet with each deliberate step. As he did so, he found himself face-to-face with a small girl smiling up at him, her hands clasped behind her back.
“Daddy, have you seen where my necklace got to?”
“No, Suzie. I don’t think I have.”
“Oh I know! It must have fallen off while I was swimming. I’ll go get it!” Without another word she bounded away with a youthful skip to her step.
“No wait,” he called out, suddenly concerned. “Suzie don’t go! It isn’t safe.”
He began hobbling after her. Something was wrong about this, he wasn’t sure what, but he remembered that it didn’t go well. “Please Suzie, don’t go so fast!” He reached the top of the staircase and paused. Though he needed to hurry he was afraid, and he took the steps slowly, clinging to the handrail with both hands for support. It was a spiral staircase, and he kept his eyes looking down the center to the floor below, trying to see Suzie and catch her before she went outside.
“Don’t go so fast, it’s too wet!” he called feebly. “It’s been raining and it’s all slippery.”
“It’s rain,” a cold voice said. “That’s what it does.”
Simon cocked his head to look behind his shoulder. It was…her. What was her name? It had been too long, he couldn’t remember. She looked pretty, in a haughty, superior sort of way. A teenage girl with a face blanked by malice.
“I don’t like it,” he heard himself say, but the voice was that of a small boy.
“If you don’t like it, then get Mother to buy you an umbrella.”
“That’s right she won’t. She doesn’t have to put up with you, does she?”
Simon shook his head.
“And why is that, Bowie?” she strained the last name like it was a disgusting creature. It wasn’t really his last name, it had been the other woman’s.
“Because I’m a half-breed,” he said dejectedly, reciting his assigned title.
“Good, glad you’ve been listening.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
Simon shuddered at the memory of cold rainwater trickling down his spine.
“You didn’t have to be so mean to me, Margaret,” he said with a tear in his eye.
“What’s this? Tears?” It was yet another voice this time. A tender one. He knew at once to whom it belonged.
“Joyce,” he breathed in awe. She still looked so beautiful. How had she not aged as he had?
“Darling, I’m so sorry,” she said, pulling him close and burying his face in her shoulder. “I didn’t want to go.”
That was why. Because she left.
He tried to suppress his sobs, but that just made his whole body shake so that he might as well have let them out.
“I’m sorry,” he finally managed to say between gulps. “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t cry.”
Joyce lifted his head to look into her eyes. “Darling, you can cry! It’s okay. Why shouldn’t you?”
“I don’t want you to see me so broken-hearted.”
“It’s alright, you can be broken-hearted.”
Simon was at the bottom of the stairs. He didn’t remember getting here. He was looking across the hall towards the door. What was it he had been doing before Joyce and that other one came? It was important. He needed to remember, he needed to fix it, but it just kept slipping from him.
“Did you want to help me look for my necklace, Daddy?”
Oh that was it.
“Suzie, something’s wrong. I can’t remember what–”
“I’m going to go look for my necklace in the swimming pool. I’m going to slip in and drown.”
“No,” Simon shook his head. “That wasn’t how it happened. I was afraid of that, I think, but that’s not how it happened with you.” He screwed his eyes shut and pressed his fists against his temples. What was it? Why couldn’t he remember?
“Why?” Suzie asked with a frown. “Why do you say it was different?”
“Well…I just know that it was…you didn’t die here. Other things happened. Like–” he winced, unable to recall. For a moment he felt a dread, as if forgetting would mean that the other things never did happen. “Like you grew up and got married, remember?”
She paused, then smiled and nodded. Cool relief swept over Simon.
“Yes I did, didn’t I? I’d forgotten about that. Thank you.”
“Of course darling.” She vanished from his view. “Anything for you, darling.”
He paused and closed his eyes. He could not hold onto the present moment even if he wanted to. He just started to drift absently. It felt less like he was standing and more like he was floating on the top of a wave. He opened his eyes again. Had he been sleeping? Or was he sleeping now? Joyce was here again.
“You’re looking better,” she said kindly.
“I think I was able to help Suzie, I think she’ll be alright now.”
Joyce nodded. “I miss her.”
“I haven’t forgotten everything you know.”
“Not everything? What are some of the things that you remember?”
“I remembered the promise you made me make before you went.”
“Don’t lose your heart.”
“How is it going with that?”
Simon sighed long and hard. “I don’t know, Joyce. I really don’t… I try. But some days–these last days particularly–it’s been very hard.”
“What makes it so hard?”
“I feel so bad for getting to stay here when you had to leave. I feel guilty that I got to.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
A coldness took him and he pulled himself in tightly, as if to let it pass him by. But it didn’t. Even beneath his lids he could see her. She looked so beautiful. So haughty and cruel.
“Hiding away down here?”
“Leave me alone, Margaret,” his young voice said sourly.
She sneered. “It would be my pleasure, but I’m afraid the adults have left, so it’s my responsibility to see that you are taken care of.”
There is a world of difference between “cared for” and “taken care of.”
“Well I’ll just be down here, so you can leave me be.”
“But I haven’t even told you what today’s rule is though.”
“No more rules, Margaret.”
“Oh no? I think you’ll find this one particularly interesting…”
“I’m not playing.”
She smiled, and there was something triumphant about it. “Suit yourself,” she said softly as she turned away.
Something seemed terribly wrong. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he had just been duped. He frowned and tried to remember what had happened. It was important. Maybe if he remembered in time he would be able to change it…
“Sootie!” he cried, leaping to his feet in a flash of horror. His eyes opened and he was looking down to the bottom of a swimming pool. His daughter was in a rabbit hutch there. He reached down and pulled her out, but she was already lifeless.
“You should have listened to the rules,” Margaret was tutting behind him. “You might have made it in time if you hadn’t been so busy sulking. But that’s your choice.”
His temples were pulsing and his hands were shaking. He was going to hurt her. But before he could there came a sudden tear at his heart, like it beat too hard and had burst a little.
“Ohh!” he cried, collapsing to the floor. He tried to sit up but his heart rent again and he fell back once more.
“Oh no,” he murmured, “Joyce, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry? What do you have to be sorry for?” A gentle hand cradled against his cheek.
“My heart, I haven’t kept it like I was supposed to. One rule, and I broke it. It’s gone!”
“Why do you hold onto all of these things, Simon? Don’t you see how they’re just tormenting you.”
“Well I–I have to–”
“No, you can let them go. Will you let them go, darling? Will you?”
Her hand was over his fist, not prying the fingers open, but inviting them to do so on their own.
“What’s inside of there?” Suzie was asking.
“What?” he asked, shaking his head. “Oh, it’s a surprise. I got it for you, but I haven’t given it to you yet.”
“Is it that necklace?”
“Why…yes it is. It is, in fact. It’s your necklace.”
“Oh thank you! May I have it now?”
“No…I mean I want to, but something happened…”
“Oh not the drowning at the bottom of the pool again.”
“No, I was mistaken, that was something else. But something still happened, and it was too late to give this to you.”
“Well give it to me now and things will be different then, won’t they?”
Simon looked down and tried to open his hand, but he couldn’t. It was locked like a vise, the way it would if he was writhing on the ground having a heart attack. Or the way it would if he were pulling her hair.
“Let go of me!” Margaret shrieked, trying to wriggle out of his grasp but he wouldn’t let her. “I will punish you so badly!”
He didn’t care, it didn’t matter. He had passed that point. He simply tightened his grip, one hand around her hair, the other around her neck.
“Please!” she said, the first time he’d ever heard her use that word towards him. “I didn’t even actually say half the things you remember me saying. Or at least not the way you remember them.”
“You didn’t have to.”
Another throb of his heart and for a moment his vision blacked out to perfect whiteness.
“Why did you name me Suzie, anyway?”
“I don’t know, I just always liked that sort of sound in a name.”
“And why do you think I drowned in that car accident, Daddy?”
“Didn’t you? Don’t go so fast, it’s too wet!”
“There was an accident, but I didn’t drown.”
“Didn’t you? I’ve dreamt so many times that you did.”
Another throb, and he seemed to feel upside down, his lips were cold.
“Simon listen to me, it’s Joyce. Please let go.”
“I can’t,” he strained. “It’s broken. I never even got to give her your necklace.”
“You did, it’s around her neck now.”
“You’re choking me!” Margaret spluttered.
“No,” he snarled “I’m drowning you. I’m drowning–”
Wait no, he couldn’t breath. He was the one drowning! He opened his mouth but his lungs were deflated and couldn’t draw anything in. He was trying to swim up, but his hands were still in fists.
“Just let go!”
“Daddy, please let go, let me see what’s inside.”
“I can’t,” Simon cried. “I can’t let it go.”
“You’ll regret this!”
A shout was rumbling inside him, unable to break out into the audible world, tormenting him and constricting his throat. It kept growing. Louder and louder, though never heard. A suffocating wave of–
“Simon?” A quiet stillness fell. He seemed to be floating on the top of a wave. It was white all around him.
“Simon, it’s okay. I’m here with you now. I need you to try to focus on my voice.”
There was still a chattering, but it was strangely muted, like it came from far away. He tried to listen to Joyce’s voice, but it was hard.
“Just listen to me. The more you listen to me the more disconnected you’ll be from all the rest, the more you’ll be able to let go.”
“I broke it. I lost it.”
“You only say that because you’re holding onto those moments. There were good ones, too, don’t you remember them?”
“It’s okay, just relax,” her hands were stroking over his fingers, teasing them apart. His heart was stopping.
“I lost them. These others are all I have.”
“They define me.”
“No, you’ll find the rest soon.”
His fingers were unclenching. All his body seemed fuzzy, soft, disconnected.
“It’s alright,” she soothed. She was wiping away the last tears.
“I lost it,” he cried.
“I kept it.”
He let go.
I tend to be a very visual thinker, using mental images to represent emotions and experiences. For this story, everything began with me imagining two hands crumpling up a paper from a magazine. That crumpled page could no longer be read normally, but one could still make out individual words and pictures here and there, and could infer the basic meaning of it, such as whether it was an article, advertisement, or fine print.
I wanted to write a story like that. One where the reader didn’t need to understand the details, just the gist. As I suggested on Monday, my intention was to literally wrinkle a story, and by so doing give it the feel of a mind that is fraying.
The validity of all Simon’s memories and feelings are suspect. They blend so constantly into one another that one cannot tell whether he is recalling actual events, extrapolating implied meanings, or living out fantasies and fears.
But while the clear divisions may be impossible to find, I think the character of Simon is still understood. He is lonely, he is regretful, he is holding on to hurt. He has seen beautiful and wonderful things, but he is obsessing over the negative. It is his own grip that is crumpling his page, creasing it so that we (and he) cannot see the wholeness and completeness. His great quest is to relax his vise so that he may accept his full self.
And while Simon’s affliction may seem grim, I think that many of us can relate to it. Far too often we define ourselves from our trauma and regret. The emotions that tie us to our lives, to our very selves, are usually negative. We describe ourselves as “not something enough.”
Because of Simon’s insistence that his life be defined by these elements, it took an entire separation of self from life before he could let go of those parts. While he ended up finding his peace, hopefully each of us will be able to secure our own a bit sooner.
I had a dream that I was an explorer in a new land, traveling with a party of adventurers, all fair-haired, young, and beautiful. We were pioneers, pilgrims, fearlessly carving a new course through the world! I had the sense that we had traveled for a long while already, but that the real journey was only just now about to begin. For we were on a ledge overlooking a lush and green valley, and we were happily describing how we would go into this place, stake our claim, and forge our futures. One ambition would be succeeded by another until we would make this place shine as a beacon to the world, the star that dwelled on earth rather than the heavens above.
As the rest of our group continued with their enthusiasms I noticed a cave standing on the ledge a little bit back from the rest of us. Something deep was pulsating to me from there, and I found myself growing intensely curious. I informed my compatriots that I was going to see what was inside, and they cautioned me to hurry as they would not wait for long.
I entered the cave and found that it was not very deep at all. Just a few yards in and I came to its back, against which their lay a single, massive slab of onyx stone. It was from this stone that the pulsating rhythm emanated, a deeper frequency than I could actually hear, but which I could feel.
I was seized by a strange desire to possess the stone somehow. I reached to my side and drew my knife out, then proceeded to carve an image of myself into the rock. The stone was surprisingly soft, and easily received my image onto it. I was able to make my likeness with perfect ease, even down to some of the most minute details.
With a shock I realized I had been here in this cave for far longer than I had intended and I turned to rush back to my companions. But as I tried to move my legs I found that I could not. Glancing downwards I was shocked to find that my legs had changed, somehow they had been transfigured into motionless stone!
I tried to reach down, to pull my legs free of their earthy confines, but my arms would not extend down to them. I looked to my hands and they were as sculpted stone as well. As panic set in I tried to shout out for help, but no sound emerged from my mouth, for it was stone as well. I tried to look around for anything to save me, but my eyes would not shift, for they were stone as well. All of me was stone.
Though I could not move I was now somehow back on the ledge looking down into the valley. I was an immobile statue, yet still cognizant and aware. I saw my dear friends making their way down the path without me. They went into the valley and began to build their homes, their farms, their mills.
They developed and grew, they married one another, they had families and established a community. They were happy. They were successful. And not a one of them paused to wonder about me. Once every so often I saw one pause as if trying to remember something lost in the periphery, but then they would always shake their heads and go back about their day.
I wanted to cry. But rocks cannot cry.
I had a dream that I stood in a muddy field, grouped with a great mass of individuals who were carrying thick and long beams of wood to a far off destination. Every person was being assigned a single beam, their own personal cross to bear. They all received it, bore it on their shoulder, and then made their way with it down a grassy trail.
I received mine and felt the weight of it push me an inch down into the mud. It was about half as wide as a man, and long enough that its end dragged along the ground. I turned and began to follow the others, filing my way down that same long road. In time I became accustomed to the labor, and after shifting the beam around found a position that was stable. I peered ahead and saw that the way continued for quite a long while, round bends, up and down valleys, and at times the road would became narrow and pockmarked, though never entirely broken.
I made good progress, and even passed a few of the other journeyers along my way. I saw that the road would soon follow a hill that rose, curved right, and then dropped back down to our current level again. I had the realization that I could make better time by taking a shortcut through the field at the base of that hill, which would rejoin the road at the far end of the hill. And so I turned away from the main thoroughfare and ventured out over the unbroken ground.
At first the going was easier. The grass was less beaten down here and provided a firmer foundation for my heavy steps. As I continued, though, the grass became increasingly sparse and my feet began sinking into the soft earth. I had to pause and catch my breath as each step required extra effort to first dislodge from the vacuum of muck and mire.
I had extended about twenty yards out into the field before my first real misgivings began. The effort of lifting one foot out of the mud was driving the other a little deeper in return. Thus each step went further and further, and if that continued I soon wouldn’t be able to lift my way out of the mud at all. My beam was now slowing me like an anchor as well, its long end dragging through the soft earth with every step.
I began wondering about heading back the way I had come, but turning this my wooden keel seemed far more difficult than continuing, so I took a few more tentative steps. Perhaps I would find my way to a drier patch of ground soon?
But no, I had barely gone three paces more and I was already dropping all the way to my thighs. My last step never stopped sinking, it just kept descending slowly and so I floundered my legs, pumping them as if swimming upwards. It made it hard to keep my balance, especially with how the beam jostled and thudded across my back.
I lost my posture entirely and fell forwards. My hands flung out instinctively into the ground, the fingers splaying out to keep me stable.
There was a sense of dread growing that I refused to acknowledge. I had been stupid, but I was going to wriggle out of this and–
I realized that I was still continuing to sink. Even with all four of my limbs pressed into the ground the mud continued to crawl up my skin, cold and sinister.
“NO!” I commanded, feeling the panic setting in. The weight of the beam was just too much. Until now I had had a sense that I mustn’t lose it, but now that didn’t matter. It was pressing me down, burying me in this mire and I started rolling my shoulders, trying to dislodge it.
It would not move. It was planted too firmly in the soil.
I tried to duck down and roll out from underneath it, but it dropped with me and only pinned me still lower. The scent of the moist earth was filling my nostrils and I felt it crawling up along my belly and chest.
Just my neck and head remained above the earth. My arms and legs churned violently through the mud to no end.
The cold sludge crept up my neck. Closed across my chin. I could taste it.
My cry became a gurgle as the filth flowed its way into my mouth, and filled my vision with darkness.
I had a dream that I was at the bottom of a large crevice, a shaft in the rock that had plunged a few hundred feet down to where I stood. I had no knowledge in the dream of how I came to be here, but here I was and with no way out.
I did not even need to ascertain that there was no exit in this dream, somehow I knew it was so. There would be no scaling the rocky walls, no friend to lower me a rope. This was my world, though I was not discontent with that fact.
What was troubling to me, though, was the intense hunger that I was consumed with. These were no common hunger pang, either, they were sharper than any I have ever felt before. I felt that if I did not find any food soon I would collapse and perish.
Desperately I looked all about me for something to eat. At first I saw nothing, but then as I looked upwards I noticed an immense number of plump white birds roosting in the holes of the rock. They looked extremely fat and delicious, and I tried throwing stones to hit one of them. They were too quick for me, though, and too clever to ever stray far enough downwards where I might reach them with my hands.
In desperation I began rooting around in the dirt, looking for any mushrooms, and I was even considering trying to eat the moss that grew along the rock walls. Before I could, though, a single black vulture slowly wafted down the chasm and landed at my feet. It was a massive fowl, standing as high as my own waist. And in its beak it held one of those plump, white birds.
It looked me in the eye, then dropped the carcass at my feet, taking a half-step backwards as if to make clear that this was meant as an offering. It never took its eyes off of me, and there was something deeply unnerving in its look. There was a deep cunning in those eyes, a frightening intensity, and a hungry desire.
Even so, I wasn’t about to pass up my only opportunity for a proper meal, and so I cautiously lowered to a crouch, extended a single hand out, and took the gift. I never took my eyes off that vulture and it never took its off of me.
With our gazes still locked on one another I tore into the flesh of that white fowl and found it was ever more delicious than I had hoped. The meat was soft and succulent, and at the slightest pressure of my teeth it burst apart in a torrent of sweet flavors. Every succeeding morsel was the best I had ever tasted, and all too soon I held the last remaining bite of the meal between my fingertips.
Though I wanted to devour that morsel as well I knew I should be gracious, and so I placed it in front of the vulture that still waited at my feet. The vulture hissed, seized the piece and flung it to the side. Evidently it could not eat the flesh of the white birds itself, though it could catch them. With a sudden pity I realized it must be hungry as I.
The vulture hopped forward, extending its mouth out towards me expectantly. With that clarity that exists only in dreams I understood it meant for me to give it a bite of my own flesh. That was the meat that it could eat. Though that naturally gave me pause I knew that if I refused then the vulture would not bring me anymore food. And so I extended my arm and watched as it plunged its beak into my flesh. It tore off a chunk and swallowed the whole thing down at once, then happily flew away.
The next long while continued to pass like this. The vulture continued to bring me the birds, I ate them, and converted them into human flesh that the vulture could take from me. It was a horrible dependency we had for one another, I suppose, and yet I somehow found it deeply satisfying.
Unfortunately my ravenous appetite never was abated. Whenever I was not feasting I sat with my head turned upwards, waiting to feast. The vulture was a skilled hunter and soon learned to never cease in bringing me my next meal. At first I tried to ignore the fact that the number of those birds was beginning to diminish, but after only a matter of weeks I could not deny that my gluttony was driving us to ruin.
Where before every nook and cranny of the rocky walls had been overflowing with my winged dinners, now I could scarcely see so much as a feather in all that schism. The vulture struggled to find them, too, and more and more regularly it would come to me exhausted and empty-beaked. It would still approach me for its regularly-scheduled feeding, but I would kick at it and drive it away.
“You can never have anything from me until it you have made payment first!” I would shout at its retreating form.
When it did find food for me I now devoured the entire thing in haste and was left all the more dissatisfied for having tasted so little… with so long to go before I would eat again. I grew faint and weary, and took to sleeping while I waited for the vulture to return.
One time I awoke to see it looming before me, slowly approaching with that same sinister glint in its eye. It paused when it had seen that I had awoken, but after a moment continued forward again. I tried to lift my hand to shake my fist at it but I found my arm would not move. I tried to kick out at it but my leg refused to answer.
I glanced downwards and saw all of the vulture’s bite marks up and down my body. I realized it had systematically weakened my sinews, devoured my muscles, damaged my nerves. All to the point that I now lacked any power to fend it off. It was in that moment I realized my body was more the vulture’s than my own any more.
And still it came forward.
On Monday I mentioned that myths commonly abstract a story’s themes, which signals to the reader that its topics are universal principles rather than individual narratives. It’s important to do that early in the myth, so that the reader understands the proper frame of mind to read from.
In each of today’s piece my intention was to present a sequence of events that was too bizarre to be taken at face value. I did things like beginning each by saying it was a “dream,” I made strong use of supernatural events, I limited the use of character and plot, and I used a narrative voice that was emotionally distant from the intensity of the moments being described.
Most commonly when a reader picks up a new story the main driving question that pushes them through to the end is “what happens next?” But by utilizing these specific tactics I hoped to change that question into something more like “what is this about?” Thus the different experience presented in a myth has something to do with how the writer writes, but also in how a reader reads.
The other thing I wanted to accomplish with this piece was present the same theme in three different ways. There are shared elements between the details of each, such as a solitary central character and a setting based in nature, but what ties them together most strongly is the themes that they all share. Each features a character with initial promise, who encounters something new or strange (a slab of rock, an inviting field of mud, a vulture), and who ultimately loses their way. These are myths about losing one’s place, of being distracted from the right way, of being overwhelmed, and of being consigned to a destruction.
These are sobering ideas, and frankly myths often are. Even the ones that are happy tend to be happy with a heaviness. There just seems to be little point in engaging the reader’s intuition to teach a principle, unless it is a principle that carries some weight.
Before closing, I need to mention one other element shared in these stories: the way that each of them introduces the reader to a new idea and then asks them to follow the logical continuation of that novelty. In fact this is a tool of story-writing that I’ve been using in all of my pieces for this current series. Come back on Monday where we’ll examine this more fully, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
The “matter tool” was small and held in the hand like a paintbrush. Its small, flat tip had the curious ability of being able to both deposit and siphon matter with the flick of a switch. Thus, where a traditional artist would etch the mere image of a hill and valley, the “matter tool” was utilized to actually create literal hills and valleys, tunnels and towers, and all manner of strange geometric patterns.
Intriguingly, the ease of use also disvalued the tool. As creation was effortless, many people made rampant and effortless creations. Always the same sorts of things: bridges, tunnels, mazes, pretty geometric patterns, few endeavored to try something outside the box. Of course the true artist learns not only how the medium has been used in the past, but also how it can be used to create that which was never conceived of before.
That brings up a question, though, does the artist actually create or merely discover? There is an idea expressed that the sculpture is already existing in the rock, and it has only to be uncovered. I watched a sculptor working on a large slab of granite, noting that it was nothing more than a cocoon. As the artist created a rough-form I noted he was merely removing the larger parts of the encasing excess. As the finer details were etched onto the face I saw that he was merely pulling the clinging residue off the polished form that was within. All the artist had to do is find it in there. Perhaps we are all of us pristine sculptures burdened by excess yet to be removed.
I looked back to see what had become of the “matter tool”, and now found a new use for it. It was the complement to the sculptor’s work. Taking it in one hand and grabbing a block of stone in the other I began hollowing out the rock’s interior. I twisted and gouged its insides, transforming the block into a mold for the figure of David. It was a sculpture’s negative. When I was done I closed up the bottom of the hollow cavity and set it on a pedestal in an art gallery. All anyone could see was the flat external faces of the rock, unknowing that the art was within. I knew later sculptors would come to dig the form out of it, that is what they know to do. The irony, though, was that since the sculpture was the absence of stone, digging it out would destroy it.
Our Purpose on Earth is to Measure Mountains
Of course, while some people wish to carve the stone, others seek only to measure it. I now stood on the peak of a mountain on a windy, blue day. Beside me were geologists with their surveying instruments, measuring angles to distant peaks and scrawling on notepads a tome of figures. That done, they took the numbers and from them calculated the exact altitudes of the main land features all around them. They too are not creating, only discovering. They do not invent the heights of the landforms, they only discover what the inherent measurements already residing in them are. Their artistic work is the numbers and the data, all which serve as an image representing the original form, just as a sculptor’s figure is an image to represent the original form.
Why do we measure and draw the world? The world already exists, yet we seek to discover and recreate it constantly, seeking for lessons from the natural ways things are. Do we study the ascensions of mountains that we may learn how to raise our own selves to a higher nature? Do we weigh the mass that they bear upwards so that we may learn how to better balance our own burdens?
Of course, if you’re going to measure this world you have to get up high. The taller you get, the more distant your horizons will be. Not only that, but you have to stand clear of clutter. You may be elevated to a peak and have miles of rolling landscape ahead, but if you stand near a wall, though only seven feet high, then all the miles of open plains and the distant mountains behind them are hidden. All you can see is the wall.
There are intangible walls as well. You might be in the clear open, but veiled in the darkness of night. To be visible, every form requires that first it must not be obstructed, and secondly that it must have a medium of light to carry its image to the beholder. Otherwise it may as well not exist at all.
Light, of course, extends forever. However its visible range is quite limited. For what begins as a concentrated streak of illumination quickly spreads apart so finely that it appears to dissipate and loses all definition. What if light were to be more cohesive and physical?
I imagine to myself volumes of light, rectangular prisms that maintain a consistent form, with well-defined faces and edges. It does not fade at any end, but rather holds the same intensity throughout until it comes to an abrupt closure at bounds of one foot by two feet by three feet. Each of these volumes is capped by a thin sheet, which is the source of the light. The sheet is very thin, more so that paper, and is a malleable substance, though sturdy enough that it can hold a shape and not tear. Each one is perfectly translucent.
The volume of light seemed somewhere between a wave and a solid, it was in appearance very soft and hazy, as though millions of minute dust particles were lazily floating within its form. I decided to test the physicality to the beam, and so I turned one of the sheets downwards and let it go. It dropped a short distance and then remained suspended in the air, supported entirely by the light-volume that now rested on the ground. I placed another sheet above the first, turned downwards in the same manner, expecting it to stack. However, because the screen of the first was transparent, the light of the second passed through it, resulting in the first sheet rising until it collided with the second sheet, each of them resting together on a stack of light twice as high as either originally projected. I added a third sheet and the column of light was three times the height now.
For the fourth sheet I did something a little different. I angled it so that its column of light entered my main one at a shallow slope. When I let go it held its place, creating a branch from the trunk. I placed several more extending off of this branch until it grew out five light-volumes out to the side. From this I realized the usual requirements of balancing a fulcrum did not apply to this light sculpture, as the light was entirely weightless. For the next while I continued adding more and more sheets in every imaginable angle and connection. Branches grew off of branches, beams were stuck in upside-down, sheets were folded to form curves in large dome-like arcs. Gradually I had constructed a sprawling web all around me.
At this point I had explored stacking the sheets as thoroughly as I cared to, and now turned my attention to further pursue folding the thin sheets and seeing what became of the light that emanated from it. I grabbed a fresh sheet and curved it up into a concave curve, resulting in a volume of light that resembled a cone. The light did not pass beyond the intersection point that was the tip of the cone, instead it remained bounded within, increasing in intensity where it overlapped.
An interesting property I noted was that where the light was more intense, the surrounding space around it grew more dark. I do not mean it appeared darker as an illusion, but rather it literally grew darker, as if to counteract and balance the light that it neighbored. I decided to invert the darkness and the light, now resulting in a room that was filled with hazy light everywhere, except for at my cone of darkness, that darkness now being more intense at the peak of the cone and the room-light more intense where surrounding that peak.
I changed my dark cone for a sphere, and that sphere grew and became a world. It was a world that was nothing but a hollow, dark void within, but over which lay a thin crust of light and matter. All flora and fauna, all that we perceive the earth to be, all of it was within that thin crust of light. As before, it was apparent that this opposing crust of light was in direct balance with the void beneath, as if all our nature exists only to balance out a core blackhole.
At first the void was perfectly uniform in its distribution of nothingness, but in swirls and eddies it started to intensify in some places and lessen in others. Where the void-sphere deepened in its nothingness, the crust of life grew outwards and burst with life, bulging out thicker and upwards, literal mountains growing before my eyes. Elsewhere the void-sphere lessened in its deep nothingness, and so, too, the crust thinned and faded, until void and crust blended into a neutral gray haze that was neither form nor lack of form. The depths of the void continued shifting and the areas that were intense grew more intense still, eventually all pooling together to a specific point, all the rest of space consumed by the gray monotone.
All my attention was wrapped on that single deepening point of intensity, watching as all of the life and creation became intertwined in one another, such that I lost any ability to distinguish between rock and plant, all blending into one column pressing out into space, a union of both of geology and botany. So tightly were they coupled that all their colors, the greens and blues and reds and browns and yellows, all of them bled together and became a pulsating and glowing white light. The column extended with increasing rapidity and soon became a single beam of infinite light extending through the heavens, a single photon to raze and burn through all the cosmos.
As I said in my post on Monday, sometimes a story can exist outside of a traditional character arc or chronological plotline. Sometimes it can be freeing to start with an image and just run with it wherever it wants to go. To the mind this serves as both active exercise and relaxing meditation all at once, and it promotes both emotional and mental wellness and stability, which is already its own reward. It’s not too often that we get to act as both the inventor and discoverer at the same time, but that is the reality here. What is happening is your subconscious is composing, and your conscious is observing. Your conscious does not know what the subconscious is going to construct, and so it is entirely possible, and likely, for you to end up surprising yourself.
Also, it’s entirely likely that your little stream-of-consciousness journey might bring you to some personal insights that are helpful in your life. The sequence that I wrote above was something I pursued on a whim once, with no specific message or intent in mind. Even so, there are elements that came up in it that I personally find thought-provoking, calming, and useful.
As you might have noticed, the irregular transitions make for a piece that feels a great deal like moving through a dream. Though it is a more grim subject, I do think it is important to explore the alternative, too, the motions and motives of a nightmare. On Monday I will discuss about how to bring meaningful elements of these into your stories and will follow it up with an example on Thursday. Until then, sweet dreams!