An experiment in literature, philosophy, and the wonders of the internet

Monday, November 21, 2005

New Babylon and the Yggdrasill

New Babylon and the Yggdrasill

Breaking one of the basic rules of literary (especially allegorical) description, the towers of New Babylon were not glimmering white spires. They were white, it’s true, and could be called spires if one appreciated a certain archaic quality of language, but they did not glimmer by any stretch of imagination. Surrounded by a constant curtain of smog, only the impossibly high peaks of these towers could be seen from a distance. As a traveler drew closer, even these enormous needle points were obscured by the oily cloud which filtered the sunlight into a pale, just visible yellow haze. Closer yet, however, and the formerly vague shapes that formed the bases of these precipices snapped sharply into view. The conical walls of the towers formed asymptotes, drawing nearer and nearer to the invisible central column which, near the top anyway, couldn’t be any thicker than a length of thread. If one had been born in the city and had never ventured to the surrounding plains, one might believe that the towers really were true asymptotes, reaching ever upward and never coming to a point and an end, but they did miles above the city. The spires were pockmarked with windows, even at the uppermost floors where no human being could go for want of floor space. Lights glinted on and off in these windows, not supernaturally but florescent and business-like – a room would be illuminated for a time before the light would click off and then on, but in another room a few windows away. Around the base of any given tower the people of the city could hear the muffled hum of an office – shuffling footsteps and innumerable murmuring voices forming that white noise only just recognizable as human. The sound, though constant, would shift and move with the lights in the windows as the unseen speakers moved from room to room, their purposes as obscured as their faces. The greatest mystery about them was the fact that none now knew the original builders, and the only ones who may have known their source were trapped inside. The windows began about thirty feet above the ground and there were no doors. None entered and none exited the buildings. Depending on the citizen, the towers were revered or reviled but no one was apathetic toward them despite the mystery of their existence and their inscrutable motivation, or perhaps because of this very mystery. They implied a vast and vital power, their dominance and their hum a symbol of the city. It was known that they had existed for at least twenty five generations and probably much more, but there was no record of a time when the city had existed without the towers. The man-made peaks were great in number but not densely packed; their relative positions were balanced and aesthetically placed – in some incomprehensible way this one precluded that one, which naturally led to another one a few blocks away.

The beginning of the upheaval went unnoticed for the most part by the population. Contrary to what is often postulated in the present day, the towers were not brought low by human sabotage. Whether what happened was divine will, pure chance, or an inevitable natural reaction to such hubris I dare not guess, but I was there and I know that no human being could bring down the towers in the way that they were. The only greater challenge to nature’s might than the towers themselves is the claim that humans could have destroyed them. It began with a few sprouts at the top of the central and greatest tower, the one from which all others flowed. The only indication of anything unusual at the ground level was an increase in chatter heard from the towers. The indiscernible voices rose to a frantic jabber, punctuated by one voice in particular (never before had individual voices been heard from the column). The voice was gruff and authoritative, and though actual words could not be made out it bespoke a furious rage and a profound disappointment. These rebukes were usually followed by a pitiful and remorseful howl, taken up first by one voice and spreading to the others, a bestial cry that shocked and frightened any passers-by. Though every citizen acknowledged the greatness and importance of the towers, whether they were in favor of them or not, this sudden change highlighted the insignificance of the spires in every day life. These angry voices continued for several weeks, but people found their employers continued to expect them on time, their families still needed food, the busses stayed on schedule and the sun shone indifferently. People commented on the change, of course, but it wasn’t until the first twig, as thick as a pencil cracked the pinnacle of the ivory precipice that a sense of unease began to spread. Though tiny, the towers were so thin at the top that this hole smaller than a penny sent the needle point crashing down, a forty foot spear whittled to almost nothing at the end. The surrounding roads were closed for a time, but when a few days passed without incident and the debris was cleared away life began as normal, and the silence that had overtaken the tower began again as before, in full force.

As they tend to do, the politicians of the city divided along two clear lines. There were those who proposed repairing the tower and there were those who claimed it was time the towers were destroyed, but both of these positions where empty rhetoric. The sylvan source of destruction remained far out of sight, and the logistics of a repair were beyond consideration, and the city’s violent past was testament to the towers indestructibility by earthly hands. There is nothing so appealing to the public psyche as a claim to great power, even a meaningless, impotent declaration.

As the weeks passed an apprehensive fear came over the city and the growth expanded; what had started as a single twig was now a finger on a black and gnarled wrist of wood, tipped with delicate but copious green leaves, which in turn eventually connected to a bigger yet limb, the size of a human waist, and more branches were appearing on all sides of the edifice regularly. It grew the wrong way around, it seemed, starting with the uppermost leafy canopy and slowly but surely working its way to the trunk. Falling debris was no longer unexpected and none ventured near the base of the tower anymore except for the construction workers assigned the ironic task of clearing the rubble to make way for the then nonexistent traffic. The reported a ghastly silence from the interior of the column, broken by noises which made the silence all the worse – cries of terror and a weird ghostly creak. Some claimed they could hear a hacking sickly cough coming from the innermost chambers, the death rattle, perhaps, of the original builders or at least their descendents. There was a change in the other towers as well – somehow the inhabitants seemed less indifferent to their surroundings. They were, if possible, more secretive than ever. Approaching any given monolith, shouting voices could be heard not unlike those heard, but if one came too close all of the lights in the windows would suddenly be extinguished and the debaters would immediately cease. Many fled the city, unable to bear the uncertainty, but most stayed, whether out of stubbornness, morbid curiosity, or the desire to see the end of the towers. They would see the end, and by this time the branches extended far enough to be viewed from the ground.

Eventually the canopy grew to be at least three hundred feet in diameter, though the trunk had not yet made much progress. That changed extraordinarily quickly one early morning – the sun was just peeking over the grassland – the city was awoken by an ear-splitting crack. Those who lived in sight of the tower saw that the fracture began at the very bottom on the northern face, the stone walls pushed apart by a sudden branch thrust out about ten feet. The crack spread up to the top of the remnants of the tower, and finally the trunk revealed itself in full, the bark expanding like a massive inhalation of breath in a tremendous explosion, the chrysalis of stone sent flying in all directions. Within minutes, the rest of the towers followed suit, and an artificial meteor shower rained down upon the plains. Revealed beneath the other towers were massive tendrils of writhing wood which briefly retained the shape of their encasements before crashing down and burrowing beneath the surface to form the roots of the tree.

The city was utterly destroyed. There were no survivors, and all that now remains of New Babylon is the tree – the World Tree, the Tree of Life, the Yggdrasill. Humanity of course survived this relatively minor chastisement, and within one hundred years people claimed that the tree had been planted after the destruction of the city in commemoration of the victims of the tragedy, not realizing that it had in fact been the very means of destruction – the Vesuvius, the fire and brimstone, the nuclear bomb. From greatness springs pride, and from pride springs death. We must not forget, however, that this is not the end of the cycle. For from death springs life, and from life springs all. This is the lesson of New Babylon and the Yggdrasill.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Tom

I’d been waiting twelve years when I finally got the phone call. The funny part was I hadn’t even realized I was waiting until a week before the agent called me to inform me that the mission had been resumed. Of course I’ve been thinking about the mission’s first manifestation and have often wondered what life would have been like had it have been a success, but twelve years is a long time, and sometimes its easier to let dreams die. Sometimes it can be a good idea. My actions in the first mission have faded in my memory, probably as a result of the “medication” prescribed by my recently unmasked captors. How subtly have I been deceived!

It was this medication, I now know, that prevented the Organization from contacting me previously. All agents work under a condition of anonymity, of course, so I couldn’t very well seek them out. Meanwhile, those little pills I’ve swallowed so willingly for “headaches” have been interfering with the GPS the Organization grafted onto my skull. Only when I stopped taking the pills were they able to locate me precisely enough to deduce my phone number.

The lies I have been fed these dozen years! Not just the simple untruths – you cannot blame the layman for his ignorance of the Organization’s unseen and pervasive hand. No – the lies, that’s the worst part. Not just to me, but to my beautiful Veronica and by extension our children – unless, she too… no, I cannot think that. The weavers of these fabrications are clearly aware of the Organization, set on obstructing it, and, most horrifyingly, apparently at least as powerful and invisible. They have been deceiving my family for far too long, and in the near future I will rescue my loved ones. It will certainly shock my wife and children not only to learn of the Organization’s existence but also the degree to which I am involved with them. Of course I couldn’t tell of my past life, for their safety and the world’s, but it is now impossible to keep my secrets hidden. None can have seen what I have seen and oppose the Organization’s Operation Sisyphus.

I am spending the night in the same hotel room I stayed that fateful night twelve years ago. Just as I hoped, the secret compartment beneath the floorboards (courtesy of the Organization of course) remains unmolested; I have my old notes and better still, a map pinpointing the equipment I hid around the Phoenix valley. It is simply a matter of digging it up.

I eagerly await my next contact with the Organization. If the past is any indication – but oh, it was so long ago – I will receive my instructions along with a thick dossier on the subject in a black envelope slid under or placed beside the door, if it will not fit. It is curious, due to my irregular waking hours, that the agents never visit while I am awake, but seem to slip me the crucial data the moment I drift off, but this is merely to maintain the anonymity of the mission. The fact that they can instantly tell the moment I fall asleep is indicative of their omniscience, for I have torn the room apart searching for cameras to no avail. Most likely they have implanted a device to monitor my heart rate, and the only real mystery is when they did it, and how many other people they are similarly monitoring. I know that they had been watching me long before I stumbled across them, and I’ve seen the files they have on civilians, seemingly randomly selected – rooms and rooms of paper.

Until I receive my instructions I am a man divided. My shock is being replaced with rage, and I lust for vengeance against those who have impeded me, deceived me, and may easily stoop to harming my family in order to stop me; I cannot, however, allow my anger to compromise the mission. In any case, I have a feeling I will be able to complete my task and get my revenge simultaneously, and my family and I will live through the purges and on into the Organization’s coming Utopia. The best thing, I think, is to get some sleep; the clock has just passed the four o’clock mark. In the morning, when my orders have arrived, I will be able to assess my situation with a clearer mind.

Three o’clock in the afternoon. I’ve been sleeping for eleven hours but I’m exhausted. My jaw hurts, and my mouth feels sickly sweet and gummy, like a chain smoker’s, but I haven’t smoked since I was a young man. There was something… there! Just as I thought, a black envelope slipped under the door… and… something else… that package! How did it get on the table? I didn’t bring it. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised – of course any agent could easily infiltrate a room like this one. The package is obviously linked to my instructions whatever they may be. Yet I remember a time when I refused to believe in the Organization, and again, when the dream defeated seemed to fade every day. But finally they’ve returned to me, and none can tell me they don’t exist – what more proof do you need than the package on the table, the letter on the floor? And in any case, wasn’t I there? Didn’t I see the disaster? The building consumed in a blossom of flame, flowering at the foundations while the uppermost floors crumbled in on themselves, like an avalanche on fire. And that summer night in the rain, the agents’ guns going off like concentrated thunder and lightning rolled into a little lead ball. I didn’t have a gun that night – I didn’t have the nerve, but I’ve got the nerve now.

I open the letter. Printed from a typewriter is a list of names and cities. Some of them I recognize, some of them I don’t. Some are names I haven’t thought of for decades.

Doctor Jacob Hansen, Phoenix, AZ

Marjory McDonald, Phoenix, AZ

Timothy Douglass, Santa Fe, NM

Patrick Schlitz, Portland, OR

…And so on. There are twenty-five names. I turn to the package on the table. It’s wrapped in brown paper, and there’s a strip of duct tape holding it shut. I use my pocketknife to tear the paper along the seam.

I knew from the weight and feel of it as soon as I picked it up what it was (odd that I should think of it and then it should appear) but once I get the paper off the gun fells immensely satisfying in my hands. Again, odd – the Organization is usually far more specific in their instructions, but I suppose you can’t get much more explicit than a gun and a list of names. My suspicions have been confirmed – fifteen of the twenty-five people had topped my list of suspected adversaries. Vengeance will be mine, after all, and I shall collect my family and we shall live in secret, doing what we must until the Glorious Day dawns. Smiling to myself, I take the gun and get in the car. I’m going to be visiting St. Jude’s Hospital, which I am only too familiar with. My memories of the place are dim, or rather, crackled like an out-of-focus television set, but I remember the faces of the doctors, ever happy and encouraging. I’m looking for an old friend, Dr. Jacob Hansen, I practice saying. It’s been too long since I’ve seen his smiling face.

Samuel

My father confronted his mortality head on when he was 35. Not a depressive man but rather an agonizingly rational one, he thought through every issue that occurred to him and acted on his conclusions. So it was that he drove to Dick’s Sporting Goods that November day, selected a small pistol from one of the back aisles and (having never before fired a gun in his life) shot the back of his head out in our basement. I was only 7 years old and did not understand nearly everything that was happening at the time. The only reason I know anything of the circumstances of my father’s death is the oddly courteous note he left for my mother and me. I was young enough when my father shot himself that he remains a ghostly figure in my life – influential in an almost tangible way but too dim in my memory, so I will never fully understand the ways in which he lives in me. What I do actually remember about my father is his salt and pepper hair, his broad shoulders, his great height, and most vividly, his clear and lucid eyes, which twinkled constantly and straddled the line between blue and gray. Yet it was through his suicide note that I found what I believe was the best characterization of my father. I had never read the note until my mother passed away when I was 34 (over 15 years ago) and have kept it in the lowermost drawer of my writing desk since then. The anniversary of his death is drawing near, and I find myself pulling the letter out with greater frequency, as is my wont this time of year. There is no need; I memorized the note over a decade ago (having copied it dozens of times in fact) but I take comfort in reading it in his own handwriting.

It is not with sadness that I recapitulate this final letter from my father. To be sure, there was a time, when my mother had just passed away and I was reminded of the tragedy of my father’s suicide by my discovery of the letter, but since then I have come to appreciate the note for allowing me to learn who my father was after all of these years. It is difficult still, however, not to wonder what might have been, but it is likewise important to remember that what might have been is not necessarily better than what actually was.

“Dearest Doris and Samuel,” my father wrote.

“Do not panic. I have been thinking about this for some time and have come to the conclusion that life is not worth living. I apologize for what you surely realize now to be my ulterior motives in suggesting your camping trip. It was necessary, for I wished to inform you myself without unduly alarming you by warning you of my intention. Today, Saturday, about an hour after you left, I drove to Dick’s in Hutchington and purchased a small firearm. The moment I finish this letter I will telephone the police to tell them about my body (though I will not, of course, tell them your whereabouts. I couldn’t bear for you to hear about this from a police officer.). I will then descend the cellar stairs and shoot myself in the head. As I said, I have given this quite a bit of thought, and am entirely prepared.

“This is neither of your faults. This is not a demonstration of dissatisfaction with my life or either of you; it is simply the conclusion of a rational train of thought. I love you both, and I love my life for you being in it.

“The real question is what am I giving up, and what am I gaining in return? Well, first and foremost, I give up my life with you, little Samuel; you are only seven years old – I will never see you grow up. Yet I could never really see you grow up anyway – as children grow older they become more sullen and withdrawn. I would lose you as acolyte, and you would lose me as a role model. For I could never live up to your idealized standards of greatness, the only way I can is by becoming ideal myself. Better for me to fulfill your ideal merely as a dimly remembered exemplar, made that much more glorious by my sacrifice. Someday, son, I earnestly believe that you will come to the same conclusion I have, but that day is probably a long way off. I sincerely hope you realize it before it’s too late – even earlier than I is better.

“Sweet Doris, you must know that I love you more than anything else – for you I would do anything, and it was that reason in fact that kept me from enlightening you to my purpose. My will is putty in your soft embrace, and I did not want my weak emotions to interfere with the logical will of a purely rational man. Again, I’m sorry, but it is not too late for you, too, to make the decision I made.” My mother in fact did commit suicide, an overdose of sleeping pills at the age of 55. The state of the note when I received it suggested that she had read his letter on as regular a basis as I do, if not more so.

“Life will get better again for the two of you,” my father continued, “though the pain of existence will never fade – it is invincible and omnipresent. This is my essential thesis. No rational creature can exist and not be in pain, for reason knows a deeper, more spiritual pain possible only through the dual gift-curses of empathy, communication, and probably worst of all, self-awareness. The irony, of course, is that it is these exact traits that make it seem as though life is worth living, but this is a fallacy. Consider the age of the earth, or better, the universe. Consider also the amount of time the universe is likely to stretch into the future. The brief snippet of consciousness we are allotted is as nothing next to the amount of time each of us will spend not existing.

“In fact the only objects of note that I lose in giving up my life are pleasure and pain. Pleasure is a worthwhile sacrifice – after all, it is not as though I will be able to pine for the days when I could experience pleasure, and I lose all pain in the deal as well. It is so clear, once you apply your mind, that all pain stems from the intrinsic absurdity of the ethereal consciousness trapped in the material world. Don’t think of me as being gone, for I exist in your memories but more importantly in your histories – I have made you who you are – and even before I pull the trigger of this gun it is in you that the better part, the more vivacious part of me resides. I have not gone anywhere, I have simply returned to where I came from. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

“With all of my love, and looking forward to seeing you again,

Your Father, Husband, and Greatest Ally,

Stuart”

He shot himself, just like he said he would. There was no sign of depression or apprehension. He set up a tarp so that there wouldn’t be a mess, and when we had returned from our camping trip, my mother found the note before we ever saw the body, which had already been brought down to the morgue. My mother was called to identify the body, but of course this was a mere formality. My father, once he made up his mind, acted, and to this day I believe he was the bravest person I have ever known.

Dave

At 25 years old, Dave had found happiness. It was a tremendous discovery, he felt, but if pressed he could not tell how or where he had found it. When he was asked, he found himself giving cryptic answers which, though others might not have realized it, were absolutely true. “Happiness is at the bottom of this coffee mug,” he’d say, or “Happiness is on the other side of that building.” On the rare occasions that people would take his advice, they seemed to be disappointed, but this he couldn’t understand – he’d told them exactly where to look for happiness, but they couldn’t find it. Yet there it was!

He talked about it like it was something he could see, which was even more confusing to his close friends. “What does it look like?” his roommate Alice asked him once. Dave shrugged. “It’s hiding behind that couch in the living room,” he replied, “Why don’t you go look and tell me? I’ll even help you move it.” He laughed, and in his laugh was all the evidence Alice needed to believe that he really had discovered what she was beginning to think of more and more as a painfully shy, fuzzy little creature.

They pulled the couch out, and the smile that had marked Dave’s face since that fateful day grew even wider. “Aha!” he cried.

“You see it?”

“Don’t you? Tell me what you see.”

“I see $.27, two dust bunnies, and that shot glass we lost before.”

“Ha!”

“Hey, don’t laugh at me! What do you see?”

“I see some change, some dust, a shot glass, and happiness.”

Alice was getting frustrated. “How do you know you’re not hallucinating it?”

His laugh was even louder and longer. It was robust, and seemed somehow to contain millennia of unadulterated mirth, which is far too many years to cram into the laugh of one barely a quarter of a century old. “Trust me, I know. There’s nothing to hallucinate.”

“You mean it’s invisible?”

“No, but it’s hard to describe. Sort of like, if there was such a color as greenish-orange, and it had wings.”

“I don’t get you.”

“It’s a metaphor, that’s not what it’s really like. Well, not quite anyway. I told you it was hard to describe.”

“This isn’t one of those mystic Zen things, is it? Like, happiness is where you find it?”

“Of course happiness is where you find it, if it wasn’t there then you couldn’t find it, could you?”

“Well, where is it? I don’t see it.”

He gestured with his eyes.

“I know it’s behind the couch, but can you point to it?”

“Oh, it’s not there anymore. You scared it off. Didn’t you see it run into the kitchen? It’s probably curled up behind the trash – I can’t figure out why it likes that spot so much – or maybe it’s in the cupboard. It’s surprised me a couple of times in there.”

Alice was thoroughly exasperated. “Well, I have to go to work. Have fun with your figment.”

“Oh, Alice,” he said as his eyes (which seemed somehow deeper since his serendipity) turned slightly downward in a show of pity, a veneer of sorrow over his lately boundless joy, “Don’t be like that. Hey, Happiness! Come say goodbye to Alice!”

Nothing happened. There was no sound of feet, or breeze of motion, no adorable furball skittered into the room.

“Aw, isn’t that adorable?” Dave marveled. “It never fails to amaze me.”

“You’re crazy,” said Alice.

“Maybe.”

She sighed her goodbyes, but as she closed the door behind her she couldn’t help but smile.

Some stories!

Hey guys. So I decided I'd start using this blog again as my very own publishing company. I've been writing a lot of short stories recently and having a lot of fun. It's hard not to want to show them to the world, and this way I get to do that while keeping a relatively low profile (all week I've been using a more direct but less socially acceptable method, that is, telling everybody I see that I've written a series of stories and that they must read them.) Well, anyway, I'm going to post each of my first three completed stories as seperate posts. Enjoy!