Three Variations on a Theme

environment leaves light mud
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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!

The Basketball in the Water

body of water under blue and white skies
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Fidgety Frank. Denise always came up with nicknames to help her remember new patients, and alliteration was one of her favorite methods. Of course, “fidgety” would be a fitting description for many of the assorted lot that made their way through her office, but Frank managed to carry it to a degree that put the rest to shame.

He had not yet told her that their meetings were a waste of time and he would be moving on, but the speech was coming soon, she was sure of it. Maybe he would actually leave, maybe he wouldn’t, she wasn’t about to lose any sleep over the matter either way. As she said to all of her patients that threatened to leave therapy early, there was no shortage of potential clients waiting to take their place. The quitters were the only ones that had anything to lose, not her.

And if Frank left it would be his loss. His need was desperate, that much was clear. She didn’t know what exactly unresolved baggage he was carrying inside, but she could see in his eyes how desperately a part of him wanted to share them. There was just that other part that kept getting in the way. The loud part. The part that would shortly be telling her there wasn’t any purpose in continuing their work. For Frank’s sake she truly hoped that the wounded part of him would win out and get the help that it so desperately needed.

“So what are we talking about today?” Frank squirmed in his seat, seeking a position of comfort that ever eluded him.

“What would you like to talk about?” Denise countered.

He sighed deeply and shrugged. “I’d rather talk about something real this time, this chitchat that goes nowhere doesn’t do me any good.”

She smiled, but suppressed the eye-roll. “I appreciate your honesty. Why don’t we talk about your father? You mentioned in your bio that he—”

“No, there’s nothing to talk about there,” Frank quickly interjected. “Look, maybe this isn’t going to work out, maybe…”

Oh, here it is, she thought, but then he didn’t finish the sentence.

“May I be honest with you, Frank,” she leaned forward meaningfully.

“I suppose so.”

“Right now you’re blocking me. And the only reason you have to block me is because there is something to talk about there. That being said, I want you to know that I respect this role of you.”

His brow furrowed in confusion. “What do you mean this role of me?”

“The part of you whose job it is to protect yourself from being hurt. For better or worse, it’s just trying to keep you safe right now, and I think that is very admirable of it.”

A long pause, and then “Well…maybe he’s right to.”

“What is he afraid would happen if he let down his guard?”

Frank wasn’t fidgeting anymore, but he looked uncomfortable with the introspection. Clearly he wasn’t accustomed to much soul-searching.

“That I would not like what I learned of you?” she prodded.

He shook his head.

“That you would not like what you learned of you?”

One corner of his mouth pulled back in a pained expression.

“Maybe—maybe I’m better off not knowing myself too well,” he offered slowly.

Denise closed her eyes and nodded while breathing deeply, simulating the emotion that must be behind such a statement. “That sounds very hard,” she sympathized, then opened her eyes. “But in your heart do you believe that to be the truth?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged.

She paused, deliberating how to move forward. She wouldn’t ask about his father again, not yet, anyway. It was in the forefront of his mind now and his subconscious would find a way to bring the subject back to light if it decided he ought to.

“I want to pause for a moment and get a sense of where your emotions are coming from in this moment, alright? You told me you had that conference to attend earlier this week, the one with that special speaker you were anxious to hear. How did that go for you?”

He shrugged and shook his head. “Maybe I assumed too much. He wasn’t very interesting, actually.”

“No? Did you try to have that conversation you wanted with him about your company’s new sector? The electrical contracts?”

“No, I wouldn’t have been able to stand it. I mean, now that I’ve seen the guy I can’t believe I never recognized how conceited he was before.”

“He talked a lot about himself?”

“No, not that,” he paused to think. “More to do with how he said it. You know what I mean? Like with everything he had this air of authority, like his opinions were the gospel truth.”

“Opinions that you don’t think are right? Opinions related to your branch of engineering?”

“More just opinions on life,” he clarified. “He seemed so confident about having all the right answers.”

“Opinions on life that you don’t agree with, then? Such as?”

Frank put on a face like he was trying to remember a specific example. She was quite sure he already had that example in mind, though.

“Yeah, there was one, I suppose,” he said casually. “Like he started the whole thing off with this humorous electrical story, something to break the ice with the audience, y’know? And he talks about how great his dad was, and how he could always depend on him. Said when he was a kid he blew out all the fuses in his house with a school project, and his dad had to call in sick and spend the whole morning to fix his mistake and make it all right.” Frank was rambling on at a pretty good rate, anxious to get his thoughts out. “And he kept flashing this grin, y’know, a long-suffering ‘how could my father have ever put up with me’ sort of look. He even said something at the end about ‘that’s just how it is for dads, right?’ Like their role is to always fix up after their kids problems.”

She squinted. “Remind me…you don’t have any children of your own?”

“No, but I know well enough that kids need to be able to handle their own issues. You can’t just solve it all for them.”

“Sure,” she nodded. “Sounds like something you’ve put quite some thought into.”

“Oh, I don’t know, I guess I just never want to treat my kids like how I was raised.”

There it was. He had brought it back up on his own. “How were you raised?” she asked offhandedly.

This time Frank spared the act of pretending to not have a story already in mind. “So I remember these times where my dad told me to wash our dog. Now I was real little, like maybe five or six, and we had a big dog and he hated getting those baths. He would growl at me and I was scared of him biting my hand off or something like that, so I’d just pull out the hose and spray him from a distance and let him shake himself off. I even poured out some of the soap from the bottle so it would look a little emptier. Course my dad could tell right away what I’d done. He just shook his head and took me back to show how it was ‘supposed’ to be done. He’d grab the dog tight and scrub him down, said I just had to show the mutt who was boss, like he did. Every time he knew I wasn’t going to wash the dog right, yet we kept on playing this charade where I’d get scared, and pretend to do it how he wanted, then he’d pretend to be surprised that I’d messed up and get frustrated about it.”

Denise grimaced sympathetically. “I see. Correction wasn’t really about empowering you to be better, just about making you feel worse already?”

“Yeah,” he said grimly.

“It was often that way?”

He nodded.

“What’s the earliest memory you have of him correcting you like that?”

“Oh…probably that same one. The times with the dog.”

“So around five or six you said?” she made a quick note on her clipboard. “When is one of the last times you can remember an example of that?”

Frank fidgeted again. “Oh—um, well I’m not sure exactly.”

“You don’t have to know exactly. Just what’s the latest example that comes readily to mind?”

Frank continued to fidget. She was sure that once again he already had a memory in mind, he just hadn’t decided if he was going to share it yet. She waited, giving him time to process, but gradually his eyes glazed over and became lost in the world of his own thoughts.

“Frank?” she prodded.

He shook himself back to the present. “I guess…” he said slowly. “I told you when we first met that my dad died in a boat accident. You remember? Well I was maybe thirteen or fourteen. We were on this big yacht that my father’s boss had rented out for his daughter’s wedding. Everyone was in their best clothes and I was playing in the back with my brother and the son of one of his work friends.”

He paused, so Denise nodded, encouraging him to continue.

“Well there was a little pool with a basketball hoop on the back, and we had taken one of the balls from that and were just goofing around with it. Just playing around like kids.”

He paused again, this time with a pained and divided expression, as though torn about continuing. Denise could also see the two halves of him as distinct beings, one trying desperately to reach through the passionless mask that the other tried just as desperately to hold on his face.

“So what happened?” she finally asked.

“The basketball we were playing with fell into the water… In our roughhousing it somehow went over the edge and bobbed on the surface farther and farther behind the boat. And then I heard someone running behind me and it was my dad, still dressed in his tuxdeo, complete with his jacket still on and everything. He just, looked at me…sadly…and then dove into the water to go and get that ball.”

“Your father—went into the water to retrieve a basketball?” Denise asked incredulously. She paused, drumming the end of her pen against the clipboard as she thought. “And he didn’t come back?”

Frank cast his eyes down bitterly. At first he was still as a statue, but slowly his whole body trembled and silent tears started to drip into his lap. “Those clothes just soaked in the water like a sponge. He hadn’t even taken his shoes off.” Frank gave a shuddering gasp and the tears came harder. “I—I feel so confused. I hate him so much for doing that, but I know I shouldn’t.”

“Because he left you to feel all the guilt of it?”

Frank considered this, head still bowed, then slowly nodded. “Why would he do that? I can still see his face as he ran by me. He looked so—determined. So condemned because it was like he had to dive in and he knew it was going to be dangerous. It’s not fair for him to put that shame on me, he shouldn’t have felt so obligated to fix my mistake that he would risk himself like that. I didn’t even mean to knock it in. It really was an accident.” He looked to her with a need, as if waning her to absolve him.

“I believe you,” she said, but she was still thoughtfully tapping her pen against the clipboard. “It wasn’t really a basketball that fell into the water, was it?”

***

As I said in my post on Monday, every story is combined of elements both authentic and fabricated. At the time I was referring to how the actual structuring of a story will need to ground itself in realism to be relatable to the reader, but also incorporate fantasy to fill in a meaningful narrative. However, as I wrote about that topic I was reminded that there is also a power to stories that allow their characters to stray between the lines of authenticity and fantasy as well.

In this story Frank has more than one part to him and more than one truth to express. By concealing the details of the event for which he feels most guilty, he is also revealing just how deeply his emotional trauma runs and signaling to the therapist that he needs her to dig there. A masterful writer will imbue characters with dialogue that accomplishes more than one purpose with every line. Dialogue can will always exist on the obvious surface layer, but it can also speak to deeper layers as well. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, though, and it would be well worth taking some time to examine this tool in greater detail next week. Come back on Monday when we’ll look closer at multilayered communication in a story.