Three Variations on a Theme

environment leaves light mud
Photo by Christopher Gawel on Pexels.com

The Stone)

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.

 

The Mud)

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.

“No! NO!”

The cold sludge crept up my neck. Closed across my chin. I could taste it.

“NOOOOO–”

My cry became a gurgle as the filth flowed its way into my mouth, and filled my vision with darkness.

 

The Vulture)

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!

Sculpting Light

lighted candle
Photo by Rahul on Pexels.com

The Matter Tool

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-Forms

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.

Voids

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!