Close your eyes!
Any moment the veil of visible light
will be rent by the radiance dancing through the world,
too joyful to contain itself, bounding between atoms, bouncing off gravity, bursting blinding to break our
seven little slices of rainbow.
Close your eyes!
Your heart might catch the resonance of the universe
and vibrate until it breaks with joy
into singing dust.
Close your eyes!
Stay in the still darkness
where joy does not burn with sorrow
and knowledge never sears with mystery.
Close your eyes.
Close your eyes!
Consider these words you are reading, arbitrary collections of sound whose connection to the actual experiences they evoke is tenuous at best. Yet working from that huge, interconnected jumble of experiences juxtaposed with bits of language that you have had over many years of life, you have been able to learn distinct words, rules of grammar, and systems for effectively communicating with language in endless novel situations. Trying to reproduce this feat of richness and flexibility, many artificial intelligence researchers today are considering neural networks, modeled after the human mind. But neural networks struggle to generalize grammatical rules and structure out of the webs of linguistic information they are trained with. I propose that artificial neural networks can face this challenge and better learn and process the systematic grammar of natural languages by drawing on the rich structure of the real world in perceptual information, because the structure we discover in our perceptual experiences is what we use during our human language learning process to build up systematic concepts around the new words we encounter.
That’s the beginning of this final thesis defense paper that I wrote for an Intro to Philosophy class in 2017. It explores some ways that computer scientists and linguists are trying to model the human mind in a computer so it can understand language, and the challenges these models have in capturing the full flexibility and structure of language. Then it outlines a new philosophical approach, where I try to combine a naturalistic view of language as useful labels for perception with a Christian dualistic view, where language can access absolute truth. Maybe computers can discover some of the structure of language by exploring the structure of the real world around us.
It’s 14 pages long and I’m trying to mash in lots of concepts in that suddenly small space, but it’s also meant to be something that any curious educated person could read and learn a few things about language, philosophy, and computer science from. If you’re up for my philosophizing, you can read a PDF of it here.
There is a star somewhere
that can burn me whole,
one form, all fire, pure –
Sunder and melt me to brilliant light
to mingle with its own radiance.
A woman and her son are on opposite sides of an age-old war between secret societies, but she refuses to release him without a final ultimatum. A short story, 4700 words, set in my blood magic world called Haem.
My beautiful son,
Your mother is an Anuvite. You know that, of course – you have just never accepted it, despite my whole existence to the contrary.
But no matter – I have given up trying to convince you. Your mother is also dead, or she will be by the time you have read this. My companions in Anuva are coming for me as you insisted they would.
Your mother says no more. She is silent in her zeal to love selflessly, proud to plunge into oblivion for her son. But I, Refoan Omzynyes of Anuva, say to you: you cruel, blind fool. How do you presume that you can love your bride, sacrificing for her and glorying in her and crushing your soul for the smallest chance to make her life better, when you cannot even love your own mother? Of course, you would insist that I am not so worthy of love as Couryan is. Very well, then. Let us examine that hypothesis. I am not worthy of love, being an Anuvite with her fingers entangled in metal and numbers, so you never bothered to love me (though you could have if you had wanted, naturally). Meanwhile Couryan is worthy of love, being a very pretty Suyn girl with Sight, ethereal and half-lost in heavenly worlds – and so you will bother to love her, and you are sure that you can.
I have a different hypothesis. I say that I am worthy of love – I will even say I am as worthy as Couryan, an almost perfect Anuvite as she is an almost perfect Suyn. That you didn’t love me shows that you couldn’t love me, and so you cannot love Couryan. You will break her heart, too. She will also fall prey to her own companions, her Suyn companions, too gloriously devoted to her heavenly worlds to see or care that they come for her. But at least she is yours to crush.
Your father was a Suyn spy planted in my Anuvite cell. I realized this soon after I realized I was pregnant with you, but I had you anyways. You were my son to have, my chance to remake the situation. I was too good of an Anuvite to use our Anuvite technology. On you, at any rate: as it turned out, your father’s Suyn blood magic calling to the gods of Couryan’s heaven could do almost nothing against our Anuvite metal bullets that we’d shaped with our own hands.
There was little patience in Anuva for a young woman raising a child on her own while trying to contribute to the work. Our city Odiry was expanding back then, and they needed some way to cross the Huaryens river that ran just on the outskirts. Either we of Anuva would build a bridge, or Suyn would come in with their magic, muse over their Sight for a while, and then command the water or the animals or do something else deep and mysterious. We were fighting hard with them for Odiry’s public works department – no time for a small, whimpering child. I had you anyways. I stayed at home with you. I kept you out of the fight over Odiry, the bridge, the Huaryens itself. I chose to let you play in the Huaryens instead, bringing you there on bright summer days while I tried to rush through our engineering manuals and sketch out plans, distracted by your hair turning from blond to red and gold and by your first words: water, bird, grass.
When you were five Suyn got into the police department while we weren’t paying attention and framed and exposed our cell, and we were all being hunted down. Anuva’s scholars advised us to remain composed, stay together, keep our covers and let them question us so Anuva would not lose its foothold in Odiry altogether. Suyn didn’t have strong enough cases against most of us as it was, but they would if we fled in the night and were mysteriously missing the next day. But the scholars were true Anuvites and could not order us or force us. My colleague Zoanos, who went without sleep for days calculating forces and drafting the bridge that we built over the Huaryens, chose to stay in Odiry and was executed by Suyn. Not because of anything Zoanos did wrong – because my other colleague Diefen, who worked in her same division of the public works department and had rejected her years ago because Diefen was too intimidated by her brilliance, had become terrified and fled rather than choose his way rationally and hold his ground to protect his companions. We hated him. And then I followed him out of the city, for your sake, so that Suyn would not find you if they found me and make their usual ridiculous assumption that I would try to force a young child who couldn’t choose for himself into Anuva, where we are all there by choice.
You and I wandered for years. I had chosen to wander, and so I chose to make it an adventure, hoping that you would choose so too. And you did – you looked at the huge sunsets that washed over the fields of wild wheat near Namyuenes and saw fire, glory, and wonder; you laughed for delight at the swarms of indistinguishable grey-brown birds descending on spilled food in Renoin; everywhere there was nature or animals, you were happy, while my ears rang for lack of city noises and buildings clattering up from the ground and numbers rolling through my mind. I found an apartment in Sofyues, where one window looked out on a little garden of flowers for you, and the other at a building with Nurevian facades for me to stare at and dissect. We stayed there for four years before I saw, like a ghost, the face of the woman who had arrested Zoanos. You know her face very well: it is well reflected in her granddaughter Couryan.
We left the apartment with you in tears for your flowers – though you refused to acknowledge either the tears or the flowers as we left – and we wandered again. Your soul healed in the emptiness and continual surprises of the wild lands we traveled through, while mine clutched at every schedule, list, and semblance of order I could create in the rolling irregularity of nature. We came to Somony, which was so full of Anuva that every government department had one of us leading it and every grid-spaced, evenly paved street had a number. I felt safe, and I thought you would adjust soon and perhaps enjoy your lessons more coming from a teacher in a school than from your mother, but we only lived there for two years before Couryan’s grandmother was hovering in the corners of my eyes again. We moved to Eneyues. You asked me why we were moving again. I told you that there were people who hated me and wanted to hurt me, and might hurt you as well, and I had to protect us. You asked why they hated me. I said I couldn’t tell you for your own protection, and that I would tell you when you were older. Which was stupid, and set you on fire with curiosity, but what could I tell you? About Suyn and Anuva, hidden in every corner of your beautiful world, locked in eternal mortal combat? That your mother was Anuvite and you too were hunted and torn from every place-that-might-become-home because of Anuva, because you were with Anuva, because as far as they were concerned you were Anuva regardless of anything you did or chose?
I want you to make your own life, my son – and if that life is with Couryan of Suyn, then go live that life with all your being and energy and love. But if you cannot love, you cannot love Couryan and you cannot have the life you desire. You’ll only trap yourself again with a binding to pain you did not choose.
We went to Eneyues, which was also teeming with Anuva, and I threw myself into the cell there to make something more of my life than just fearing, running, reacting. I needed to be proactive. Unfortunately, Couryan’s grandmother was also proactive, and she was there in a few months. I packed up again – and then my Anuva colleague Tonoas appeared at my door and demanded to know why I was leaving. I told him about Couryan’s grandmother and a little about my connections to the disaster in Odiry, and gave a very impressive speech about how my priority was to protect my son first, and then he told me, “Well, of course. That’s my priority too, and that of any other sensible Anuvite I know. Stay right here and just see how safe your son will be.”
They started to trail Couryan’s grandmother, close in around her, pin her down. Tonoas tarried in our neighborhood, drifting by every now and then to intimidate any hypothetically present Suyn, and then he tarried in our apartment, and then my bed. As far as I was concerned, I had made the world I wanted: it was Anuvite, ordered, full of freedom for me to work and to love, and for you to go to school and learn all you wanted about the sky and birds and flowers. Even what the Suyn said about sky and birds and flowers – that they were messengers of heaven, not carriers of wildness, strange powers, and fear. Nature’s wildness started to infect you, and you thought it was heaven. The Suyn told you it was heaven, and you chose to say yes.
I didn’t know this was happening and that the Suyn were getting to you, even though the signs were obvious, because the signs were you. Nurturing plants in the dirt for hours while oblivious to your own safety, watching flocks of migrant birds from improbable secret hideouts you’d found, constantly yearning for open and fresh air and leaving doors and windows open to send disarraying drafts through my papers – that was your soul, your true will. I was happy for you because you seemed as full of freedom and delight as I was. As far as we were concerned, I had chosen Eneyues, and you had chosen Eneuyes, and I had chosen you, and you had chosen me, and I had chosen Tonoas of Anuva and you had chosen Couryan of Suyn.
I think you told me once, or else I overheard or saw when looking through your letters, that Couryan was like a bird herself or a sunset or a flower – beautiful, ephemeral, capricious – only she knew. Nature didn’t know its own nature – it simply was, blindly. Couryan saw who she was and sought for it with all her heart and mind. She did in fact See: she had Sight, she could See for all of nature and know what it was, and then push it towards its truth. You could say that Couryan chose who she was – except that her choice was always aligned with her Sight and always aligned with Suyn. She never wanted anything else, never worked, never struggled, never suffered. The choice was always sitting there fully formed in front of her for her to pick up.
In this case, the choice was you. You were obviously in love with Suyn’s loves, the wild unordered things – you fit in her Sight of heaven. And she fit with your common, mundane sight of heaven, with her golden hair and delicate, open face. You spent a great deal of time together at school, and then at Couryan’s house while I was delighted to suddenly have plenty of time to be with Anuvites and work for Anuva. Two years passed, Couryan’s grandmother only making very occasional appearances. Then my colleague Nonoany was murdered.
Anuvites have exceedingly little patience for murder. Suyn can have the same level of distate for it, for sure – unless the murder is part of their Sight of heaven, in which case it is as beautiful as a wave throwing itself into a beach or a tree crashing in a forest. Evidently, Nonoany’s body crushed by the stones of her house and splattered with blood was beautiful. And so Suyn made it so.
We of Anuva immediately went on the hunt for Suyn, trawling through every street of Eneyues for who could have done this to our companion. We can have a great deal of patience for killing, too, when it comes to someone who has broken every rational moral law by murdering an innocent human being. And so we eventually came to Couryan’s house – Couryan and her grandmother’s house. You were there when we got there. You were there with Couryan, playing with blood, playing with magic.
Everything was clear in a moment. An Anuvite mind is always running, collecting data and finding patterns, clicking together pieces of puzzle on the edge of awareness until suddenly a sharp image leaps out from the pieces and crashes through into your consciousness. It happens when I’m working on an engineering problem, trying this way, trying another way, this number or that number or this particular configuration or what can possibly – yes. The insight breaks through and consumes me for a moment. In the space of a second my will is one with the universe.
You crashed into my mind, you and Couryan and Suyn and Couryan’s grandmother and me and Nonoany – you with Couryan, you with blood and Suyn magic – you with the same Suyn magic that had killed Nonoany, you part of the same group we wanted to kill to avenge her – and I grabbed you and rushed past my Anuvite companions out of the house, firing my gun into the ceiling to distract them, except that some of the bullets bounced off and came hurling down into them, and I heard Tonoas scream, all of them screaming, really, either from their wounds or their shock. I didn’t even stop to get anything from our apartment. I just left. With you, horrified and terrified and angry with curiosity, but safe.
And you were right to be angry, and I knew it. I had snatched you away from the home, the people, and even the things you loved, violently and suddenly. I knew I’d have been angry if I were you. I couldn’t bring you back – you had already marked yourself as complicit in Nonoany’s murder by being with Suyn and using Suyn magic, and now I had branded myself a traitor too by trying to protect you and possibly hurting Anuvites in the process. So all I could do was tell you the truth about these mysterious people who hated me. You were thirteen; you were beginning to become a man with a fully-formed will.
I told you about Anuva, and I told you about Suyn, and I hoped that your experiences with Suyn might help to balance out the bias in whatever I said about them. I told you that I was Anuvite, and every choice I’d made to protect you I’d made because I was Anuvite and I was determined to make a good life for us and not give up my will into fate. I said I was sorry, deeply sorry for all you’d suffered because of me. I told you that I knew what you were feeling about Couryan because I was feeling that way about Tonoas. (You hugged me then, your red-brown-gold hair against my cheek and your awkward, stretched-out adolescent body pressed into mine its echo.) I told you that I didn’t want to force you into anything, that you weren’t Anuva unless you chose to be, and you shouldn’t let yourself be Suyn either unless you chose to be. In a perfect world you wouldn’t have already been treated and made to suffer because people thought you were Anuva or Suyn: but it was not a perfect world. It still isn’t a perfect world. Is Anuva, that I love so much, about to kill me now because I ever chose Suyn?
You hugged me. But you didn’t say anything. You released me, and we continued on our way down the endless road. We came to Denyory eventually, where I thought we might be safe because it was so Suyn. Surely Couryan’s grandmother and her granddaughter wouldn’t think to follow us there.
I don’t know how quickly they did, because you never told me. You ate your meals with me, and then you went out into the fresh air to do whatever you did. You had to go out, of course; I wanted to stay hidden, and somebody had to buy all the mundane things we depended on. I hated not having those small regular chores I could control to mark out my days and weeks, but I did it because I thought we were less likely to be caught by either Suyn or Anuva if I stayed inside.
I slowly started to integrate into the tiny local Anuvite cell, easing my way in with another name. You were probably part of the Suyn cell at that point. You were sixteen and very handsome, with strong arms from working in the ground and delicate fingers for handling flowers. Only my hands are strong – for writing, for drawing, for holding books, for adjusting machinery, for knitting even fabric and handling small, precise guns. I have good eyes, too – especially for surveillance, after Tonoas’s training. So I started to go out sometimes to watch for Anuva, hiding in dark corners and buildings and simply observing for hours at a time. I tipped them off to a plot to murder an Anuvite, and they started to trust me. Life seemed to be working. It was moving, at least. I was always afraid, and every hour you spent away from me made you seem more alien and opaque, but years were passing without Couryan’s grandmother appearing. My plan was working.
I’ve deduced by now that I didn’t see her only because they’d decided to get me through you, instead. I slipped out of Couryan’s grandmother’s fingers too easily when she went for me directly, but if my son could catch me instead? Remove a pesky Anuvite whose existence threatened heaven, and make a Suyn with nowhere else to go but that heaven. It was clear. I could see it even then. I just didn’t dare to speak about Suyn and Anuva again with you – to force your will, or see what it truly was. I wanted you to be free, and I was afraid to see how you were free. I remained in our apartment or my surveillance cubbyholes, silent.
I saw you one day, kissing Couryan. Your passion for her was too beautiful, too full of life – I snatched bits and pieces of it and then had to look away from the pain of it and my reverence for it and the knowledge of what it entailed. I was determined to let you love Couryan if you would. You came home every day with the same blank-faced and somber expression you’d learn to put on, and I wanted to throw my arms around you and scream at you to go and love Couryan and leave me to suffer in joy. But I was afraid of what it might do to your love, and of course what it might do to me, if it might spring the trap being built around me. Still, I couldn’t contain myself. I started to be sloppy as I left my cubbyholes, hoping you would see me. At home I didn’t pry about how you’d spent your day, but I talked to you about sunsets I knew you’d find beautiful and small daily rituals I knew you enjoyed, hoping you would notice.
Don’t you see that I loved you? I desperately needed you to realize it. But if you ever did, it only makes that way you’ve treated me that much more unlike love.
I think Couryan saw me first. I’m guessing that she started to pressure you into finally acting and getting me out of the way. I just kept letting her see me, and letting you see me, and aching for you to figure out for yourself that your joy would only expand mine. But you remained silent and stone-faced.
Then one night you suddenly turned to me and said, “Mother, you need to be careful.” Your face had emotion in it. In a moment, I was blinded with hope. “You’re so exposed here like this with no one protecting you if the Anuva from Eneyues ever want to go after you. You need to…” You trailed off.
You were giving me a chance. You had built in an escape plan, for me.
“You can’t trust Anuva to protect you,” you said. “You were afraid they’d kill you. They want to kill you, not protect you. You need to…”
You looked me in the eye. “You need to get out of Anuva. They don’t care about you; you need to get out of it before they kill you.”
In a moment, I wasn’t blind anymore. I saw clearly.
But my silence just encouraged you. You’d spent too much time with Couryan, who actually indicates agreement by silence; I never do that, I speak my mind. But you just continued, “You need to find someone else to help you. I could help you, I have so many friends here. Just leave Anuva, stop relying on them – I know you must be relying on them to protect you here. Then my friends can help you…”
This was the out you gave me. This was your idea of a chance. Of a choice, even, a free choice. Leave my very self, the reason I suffered and you suffered, the only thing that held the pieces of my life and memory together, the only reason you even exist – and have my son. Or lose him, the last person I love, as he kills me with his own trap that he made for me, but do it as myself.
This was your idea of a choice. This was your idea of giving someone a choice. This was your idea of love.
How will you love Couryan? What kind of choices are you going to give her? Perhaps you are already giving her something delightful like “keep your Sight and the aura of otherworldliness it gives you that keeps me so madly in love with you, or else lose me if you ever come just a little too much more down to earth”? Maybe you’re giving her the wonderful freedom to kill an innocent, frightened woman made foolish by love, or else make herself despicable to the man she loves by betraying everything he thinks she stands for? Or perhaps you’ve already participated in her liberation, her choice to seduce the strange Anuvite boy before she was even a woman with her grandmother egging her on, rather than go against everything she knows and leave alive the woman whose existence threatens heaven?
I have had to make such choices. I’ve made them over and over again, for you. I’m Anuvite and I have to make my life out of my choices, somehow, even if they are terrible, if they are not real choices at all. But my family and my companions, the people of Anuva, should fill my life with real choices. We are here together to give each other freedom and make the fickle world with its fleeting sunsets and wild flowers hold us down a little less. But Suyn wants to hold us all down, to fix us into their tapestry of heaven or cut us out if we don’t belong. Make our choices for us so we never even have to think about freedom.
Maybe you think that you love me. Maybe you think I should consider that better than hating me purposefully. No, it’s not better. If you think you love me, you have so misunderstood love that you are twisted and dangerous and you will trap Couryan forever in the frozen vision of heaven where she is already losing herself.
But you made your choice. And I made my choice. I said to you then, calmly, “I can’t leave Anuva. The people who want to kill me aren’t the only Anuvites. I’m still safest with them.”
You pled with me a little more. Not that much. You did at least make it obvious that you intended to do away with me by telling the Anuvites of Eneyues where I was, probably making it seem like killing me would make the whole Suyn structure in Denyory collapse. Instead, of course, your purpose was to get me out of the way and potentially have evidence to convict a whole cell of Anuvites of cold-blooded murder. If it came out that I was Anuvite, all the better – they were even killing their own. It was the kind of thing that got Anuva dragged out into the open, exposed to the horror of the public like had happened in Odiry.
Assuming the Anuvites of Eneyues would forget about the oddly helpful anonymous tip-off, however. They know you and Couryan and her grandmother, and the minute they got any whiff of you they’d start going after you too, as my Suyn collaborator. They’d only become angrier when they realized I had been innocent. We’d all be dead in the end, justice done.
Except that I told them first. I wrote a letter and sent it to Tonoas and everyone else from the cell whose addresses I’d had. I told them that I was a Suyn spy, that I had killed Nonoany, and that you were innocent. You were always a double agent, secretly working for Anuva while pretending to be Suyn like your mother. You embedded yourself deep into Suyn to keep your true loyalties safe and to learn as much as you could. But now you’re about to marry a Suyn girl, and you’re not sure you can keep up the deception any longer.
The letter’s in your handwriting, you see. I didn’t teach you how to write for years for nothing. It’s written in your voice, in your handwriting, with your signature, or at least what your handwriting could be extrapolated to have become in the three years since Tonoas has seen it.
This is the out I’m giving you. This is my idea of love. I’m going to die anyways – I’m sitting right now in the room where my letter in your voice said that I would be. The Anuvites are likely coming from Eneyues now. This way or your way, they are going to kill me – it is coming at me from every direction, unstoppable.
But maybe I can still make the world a little more free for you. You can stay with Suyn if you want, or you can choose my story for yourself and join Anuva of Eneyues. You could join them and then beg to simply be left to live in peace, severing connections to both organizations. A real choice always involves more than two options. You could also use the opportunity to ambush the Eneyues Anuvites as they travel back and help make the world a better place. You could do nothing, simply let them kill me and return in peace. You could join them and try to overthrow the Denyory Suyn. You could ambush them and try to overthrow the Eneyues Anuva. You could do anything.
But whatever you do, your bride is waiting for you, and you love her. You want to love her. You want to love her as much as I know I love you.
And this is how I think you can love her that much, creating your own love out of your own choices. Be Suyn, be Anuva, be anything, but this woman that you would transform your whole life for? Let her be free too.
I think it should go without saying at this point that I love you, and that I am of Anuva, both forever, until death. You should realize that by now. And so I choose to die for you.
“The world is evil, but the will is strong.”
This month I’ve faced many trials: stubborn narrators, confusing symbolism, disobedient characters, writer’s block, fear that what I’m writing is rather boring, and most of all, tricky questions of font choice. But in the end I managed to write 30,000 words as I challenged myself to at the start of July. In fact, I wrote 30,135 words, and I did it in only 25 days!
My resulting draft is only the beginning of the novel – there’s still a lot more to go – and it has a lot of problems. I need to do some major rethinking about how I’m going to present some aspects of the story, and I need to wrangle my narrator into shape, too – he sounds much too young and much too gloomy. (I have discovered that it is very wearing for me to write a story that’s so serious all the time.) But I still like the idea, and I feel like my draft has some promise. There are scenes in there that I’m proud of, even if they’re kind of awkward right now.
So can I read it?? you ask. Not yet! Not nearly yet! This is probably the most unpolished draft I’ve ever written, but I’m proud of that fact – I generally find it very difficult to put something bad down on paper, but this NaNo I managed to keep going, keep writing, keep pressing on even when I wasn’t completely sure that last paragraph actually had anything to do with anything. However, I’m hoping to keep working on this story, and if I manage to finish it and get it into decent shape, perhaps you will be able to read it.
Anyways, now that I’ve finished Camp NaNoWriMo, I’ll return to posting something here at least every week. As always, if there’s something you’re particularly interested in hearing me write about – something about Sheesania, something about books, something about religion, whatever – let me know.
This is a random short story, about 3 pages long, that I originally wrote in March 2013. As I was daydreaming one morning while washing up, the first line occurred to me, and I started to create a story in my mind starting from that first line. This peculiar symbolic tale is how it ended up.
Fire or Light
This story starts in complete darkness. You can see nothing, nothing at all but blackness, devoid even of swimming, shadowy memories of past light. For all you know, you could be in a room so small that the walls are almost touching your head and the hands at your sides, or in a room so large that you could not find the walls for a long time.
Then, with a swashing sizzle, I light a torch. You can see the brilliant, living fire. It blinds you for a moment, doesn’t it? But then, slowly, objects fade, still shadowy, but their outlines visible, into view. My face must look grotesque in the unpredictably flickering light of the torch, adding lumps to my nose and blackness under my eyes.
“Can you see where you are now?” I say. I move the torch close to the walls, and now you must be able to see the grains of the earthen walls, enlarged and blackened with shadows.
“You cannot see them right in the glare of this torch,” I say. “Touch the wall and feel it as it really is.” I imagine that you can feel how hard-packed the soil is, and when you dig your fingers into it, pull some out, and loosen the dirt in your hands, you must feel the smooth lumpiness of it. You press the soil back into the wall. I gather from your exclamation and the way you rapidly jerk your hand away, brushing it off and shaking your fingers, that you felt something wet and slimy, something unknown and strange, there.
“It is an earthworm,” I say. “I know you are not afraid of earthworms.”
I walk around most of the room with the torch, and you can see that it is small, but not claustrophobically so. But where is the exit? Where is the door? Where is the ladder to the trap door? Or is there no trap door but merely a trap?
“Do you wish to see what is above?” I say.
I can feel, I can hear quivering in your voice, your hesitation. The small, underground dirt room, the earthworm lurking in the wall, the light from the deceptive torch – they may not be pleasant, perhaps, but they are known. But above? What could be above? You don’t know anything, and even if I told you something, what evidence would you have to prove that I am trustworthy?
I say: “Do you wish to stay in this little room, your eyes being tricked by the torch, unable to tell what you are touching, overwhelmed by the smell of smoke and fire and kept from being able to breathe the scent of the soil, your hearing of the outside marred by these infinitely thick walls and your hearing of the inside marked by the sputters of an impulsive torch, your mouth dry with dirt and smoke? I agree that it is much better than some things that could be outside; stay if you will. But I know that what is outside is much better, if it is ever so much larger and ever so much more complicated. I will tell you this: there is more light.”
Does the thought of light tempt you? Perhaps it does, because you say that you do want to venture outside. I walk to one wall of the room, and there, brandishing my torch, you can see the very bottom of a flight of stairs. You cannot see farther than where the torch throws more shadows than light. For all you know, the door could be directly after the flickering boundaries of the ring of light ends; or the flight of stairs could go on forever and ever up. The stairs are uneven, as well. Some are thicker or thinner than others; some tilt to the right or the left, or upwards or downwards. Again, I can hear the hesitation in your voice.
“I am here to go up these stairs,” I say. “No – that is not true. I am here to go up these stairs with you. If you will not go, I will stay and wait a little longer. I can wait; I have already been waiting a long time.”
It has been a long time indeed. I do not know if you can tell how long you were in the darkness; how long you existed merely with the torch; how long you waited, curiosity satisfied for the moment, after having felt the walls; and how long you were quite happy to stand and remain in the familiar darkness before inquiring about the way out. But I can wait. If I were impatient, I would not be who I am.
You finally agree to go up the stairs, and I begin, carefully feeling and stepping my way up the stairs – they are hard, but ultimately they are of shifting soil, and I go cautiously. You are behind me, occasionally pressing a hand to the wall for support. The torch reveals stairs, and more stairs, but in its playing, flickering way. It shoots one way, and then the other; it flashes bright light on my face, and then leaves it in gloom. I keep it low, so we can see our way, but at the expense of seeing our ending.
Even though I am ahead of you, I can imagine your discomfort. Are you worried that with all these stairs, one is sure to be unsteady and make us fall all the way back down? Are you worried that the stairs will go on forever? Or are you worried about what you will find at the top? Are you thinking that perhaps it would be a good idea to go back? A safe idea, I assure you, but not necessarily a good one. If you ever hope to escape from that room in the earth, you will have to go up these stairs sometime.
Do your fears disappear now as I raise the torch to reveal a door of wooden planks? Or are you looking back and seeing the great length and steepness of what we have left behind? I will wait until you have turned your face back to the light – the rough, red, unrefined, capricious light – of the torch to open the door. Yes, you looking again now, and so I reach forward and lift the catch that holds the door. This door must have been set in wrong, for when I lift the catch, it begins to slowly drift towards us with a wailing creak. You step backwards quickly, then wildly grasp at the wall for support – you must be remembering again that long flight of stairs.
“Don’t be afraid,” I said. “I left room for the door to open. Here, it’s open now. Do you see the light out there? Come on.”
Can you tell how different this new room is? Can you feel the cool stone under your feet? Can you hear the airy emptiness? Can you smell fresh-cut wood and maybe a distant sweetness of flowers? Most of all, can you see the cracks of white light shining here and there, sending glowing beams onto the floor? Does the torch seem dim and crankish now, as it spits here and there for seemingly no reason?
You ask where you are. I respond, “Look around; you’ll see where you are in a moment.” This place is so bright after the last one – I am sure you can see at least the outlines of most of the objects within it. I am sure you can see the arches curving like eyebrows over the tall room, the deep, octagonal wooden basin at one end, the rows of polished benches, the dais at the other end, raising itself up in even stairs, culminating in a great rectangular table covered by a cloth, shadowy guardian candles on either side. And between those candles is a tall, thin sculpture, curved and carved, but unrecognizable in the remaining darkness.
Do you know where you are now? Of course you do. You have been going to this church since you were a baby; you were baptized in this church; you went to this church every Sunday of your life – that is, until last week. This is why you can tell that something is amiss. You ask where the great stained-glass windows are, and what that sculpture on the altar is.
“The stained-glass windows are boarded up,” I say. “That is why there are only cracks of light coming in. They were boarded up because your priest, Father Louis, was afraid they would be broken by the revolutionaries. As for the statue – well, I shall show you the statue.”
I go to one of the hidden windows, a low chunk of stubborn light shining me in the face as I pass. I raise my torch. Is it a surprise to see that torch again? Is it strange to see its red, shifting light next to the calm, white-yellow, steady beam coming from outside? Well, I shall do something now that you may consider even more strange. I lift the torch to the boards covering the window, and touch the fire to them. They flare into flame, spitting and hissing. Perhaps it passes through your head that the flames sound like the revolutionaries themselves, the way they spat and hissed at the glass windows of the church.
I go to the next window, and light the boards covering that one on fire. And the next, and the next, until all the windows are covered with flame. The fires grow and lengthen, sending a swimming red glow over the whole room. You must be able to see better now, but the question is, are you seeing what really is? Do the cool floors really have that bloody glow to them? Does the baptismal really have such a protruding lip on the edge? Is the cloth on the altar really white or not?
“Look at me,” I say – I must say it loudly, over the roaring of the flames.
You look at me. I imagine what you must see: a strange, shadowy face in a sharp, angular form, hung with the same red glow that drowns the whole room, perhaps even appearing warlike and violent, holding high the torch that is a microcosm of the inferno flaming about the walls – spectacularly unpleasant.
Then I go to the baptismal and immerse the torch in it. It dies with a hiss, and I bring it up again, soaked, dripping. There is a small basin next to the baptismal that I pick up and fill. As I go to the first window, I pass by you. “Feel the water,” I say. You immerse your hands, and you must feel and see how it is cool and clear to the bottom of the basin. You take your hands out, and they drip on the floor.
Now I go to the window. I heave the baptismal water at the roaring flames, and they spit. I splash water all over the window, and you see that all the boards have been burned away, leaving the glowing panes of glass in the brilliant colors of the rainbow. How serene and strange it must look next to a window aflame with now even angrier fire! Again I fill the basin from the baptismal, and immerse the next window in water. It is left fresh, dripping, the uninhibited sun glowing through with steady glory. And on and on I go, dipping the basin full of baptismal water, and splashing it on the fiery windows until all their flames are gone and leave only clear glass.
The room grows brighter and brighter. There are colored shapes on the white floor, but I am sure you can see now that the floor is white, you must be able to see the bright purity of it surrounding the shapes. The baptismal, undisturbed by the water I take from it, is now clearly a perfectly proportional octagon, a delicately curved lip on the edge. The cloth on the altar is white as snow. And that sculpture on it – you can see it better now. It is a wooden sculpture of a woman holding a torch, as angry and violent, angular and sharp as I appeared in the glow of the flames. In fact, the jut of her nose and the thrust of her arm are eerily similar to how you remember me. At the very bottom of the sculpture, on its base, is carved in large letters: “REASON.”
I step next to the sculpture that shows me as I was in the light of the flames, and the bright sunlight from the stained-glass windows falls on my face. “Look at me,” I say again.
I am not sure what you see this time – different people see me differently. But however I appear, I am very beautiful. My face is perfectly even, my eyes are clear and sharp, all of me is flowing even as it is symmetrical. Yet even now, you can tell in the tilt of my nose and the lines of my arms that I am the same person you see in the sculpture and saw in the fire.
“You see me now as I really am,” I said. “You did see me before, when we were underground, and when you looked at me in the light of the fire. But here I am as I really am, in the light of the windows.”
Do you realize now that this was all a dream?
Are you waking up now as the picture of me standing tall in the light next to the sculpture of me in the fire fades away?
Will you shiver at the strangeness of a cryptic dream and lock the memory of it away to be forgotten someday to make room for something more straightforward?
Or perhaps will you smile at the memory of something ridiculous concocted from random elements of an overactive imagination, messily juxtaposed in sleep?
Or perhaps will you even laugh at the impossibilities that your sleeping self had taken as somber fact, reasoning that such windows would be boarded from the outside and after all, one could not burn the boards off like that?
But when you go to breakfast and learn that the windows of your church had indeed been boarded up for fear of the revolutionaries, will this uneasy memory stir? I think it will. Yet the question remains: what shall you do about it?
Shall you see me in the eager fire of the human revolutionaries?
Or shall you see me in the light of the stained-glass windows baptized out of fire, something beyond your own humanity?
Some bombs went off at a prominent location near my house yesterday, as I was playing the piano. In truth, I got up right away and ran to the back room of our house because it’s safest…but once I had waited for a while I did go back and keep playing, with smoke in the distance.
smoke – clears – sirens – wail
I sit – my fingers still on
the piano keys –
even after the shining
dreams continue to shine
they cast a glow over dark reality
catching hidden brilliance
I’ve been writing a lot of haikus lately, and so in this poem (as with Mild Clock) I decided to play a little with the structure of a haiku.
Capture this moment:
hold it, keep it like a jewel,
for you cannot know
how long it will last
How can this woman
pushing rudely into my
lane smile so sweetly?