New year, new face, renewed self. Despite all the horrible news in the world, I am positive: already much good has also come out of the bad, with millions organizing and becoming active voices in their local, regional, national, international communities. That alone is inspiring, but on a more personal level, I am also coming alive and active in different ways. Looking forward to exploring that here! Stay tuned for a change of pace, and a change of space.
We stood back fifty or so paces from the forest’s end, unsettled. We were used, by now, to the monolithic presence of trunks—wide as towers—the stunted, dark-dwelling shrubs/undergrowth. The phosphorescent moss. Even when we encountered ravines, crevasses, one could always make out the other side, dim glow-light at least. Here, though, there was none of that. Beyond the last few wall-like mammoths of living wood, for the first time in seven months, there was only unnerving blackness. No one wanted to go further. “Alright, break!” I called.
The others set down their packs, squatted or bounced, stretched their legs. Moved around.
“Thom, with me please,” I said. Our blond mop of a cartographer stepped up and uttered my favorite word: “Sir.”
I exhaled long, steadying myself. “Let’s have a look at this, see what it is, what we have to do about it.”
“Yessir.” A slight croak, covered by confidence, or feigned confidence.
We stepped forward, a heavy reluctance trailing around our ankles. The comforting pillars around us gave way to emptiness, and suddenly, after over 6 months of marching among primeval giants, we looked out into void.
We stood at the edge of the earth. Below and in front of us, the forest floor dropped off steeply and disappeared. Above us, the air was dark and still, and I could see the ancient timber sinews stretching out beyond our lamplight, patches of moss dimly visible along them. I could only assume that somewhere far above us, great branches arced out into the abyss to join with their twins on the other side—the twins I could not now make out. Hence it remained black, impenetrable beneath the leagues-distant canopy.
Yet when I looked at last out from my vantage point at the edge of the trees, it was not into mere darkness, no. I stared into something terrible and atavistic. A great, vibrating emptiness. There was nothing out there, nothing beyond the dim rim of our light. Our torchbeams reached/struck out into blank space, searching, searching—
I remember as a child shining my little dynamo torch into the night, hoping to see the beam trace its line into the dark. This was like that, save that where, as a boy, I caught hazy cloud-sketches of leaves, branches, here our little light was swallowed by infinite black. No object to reflect anything back to us. No trees, no other lip, and looking down, no bottom. Just, for a little distance, the earth on our own side sloping into emptiness.
By Thom’s calculations, rough as they were without stars, we were some 1600 leagues from our starting point, and theoretically nearing the other side, the end of our long trek. The mythical deep forest, through which we had moved these past months, and to which we had grown accustomed, had enveloped us, cocooned us. Shielded us. As we marched deeper, further from sunlit lands, the life that moved in the deep grew stranger. We grew used to the unusual, expected the unexpected. Now, though, that same primordial bastion of strange, unexpected life had just thrown up something unexpectedly unexpected. In the middle of the boundless forest, a strange place absent of vegetation, life.
Thom spoke up, a breathy whisper that barely carried, trailed off as if swallowed by the void: “It’s…”
I rocked my head in a small nod. One way or another, all the other gullies, cracks, and canyons we had faced had a way across, even if it meant going down through them. But here—here was an abyss with no boundaries.
No. That could not be. Somewhere on the other side of this monstrous null space, was land. Trees. And after that, Asia. There could not be, on our round planet, a crack in space leading to nowhere. An end to reality. There would be no end to our journey, until we reached Formosa.
Shivering, I shook off the despairing mantle and said to Thom, “Look. Nothing within reach of our light out there.”
Thom uttered, trance-like: “No.”
“Nor right, nor left. Only down.”
“Even that’s more tumble than trot, sir” he added, coming out of his stupor.
“Well. Let’s get back to the group.”
The others, of course, were disbelieving. I told them they could go look if they liked, and most of them did. They returned, sobered. I spoke up: “Now. What are our options? Thom, where are we, do you reckon?”
“Ah, by my calculations—rough, mind you, hard doing this with no stars—we’re maybe 1600 leagues from San Fran. Mostly west, a little south.”
“Alright, 1600 leagues and seven months west-southwest. Where does that leave us?”
“Well, if we’ve kept our bearings right, we’ll be nearing the other side, relatively speaking. Maybe another 400 to 450 till we reach Taihoku Prefecture. We’re four fifths of the way there. Still long, but…”
“So then another month and a half ahead of us.” Grumbles followed my estimate, though not from everyone.
“Except that there chasm got us blocked.” That was Pierce. Pessimist, but a good man in a scrape. Followed orders, too.
Jill Tomlin chimed in. “Well, yeah. Praps. But we ain’t tried to go around it yet. An’ it don’t take much down here to be dark as Satan’s arsehole. Could be there just ain’t no moss t’other side to light us up our way.”
“Could be. Could be we don’t know.” Jameson, always practical, stood up, brushing off his pants. “Way I see it, we test first before giving up. Find out if there is another side we can reach easy from here. If not, we find out if we can go around.”
“Sure,” I said. “Good thought. So here’s what we’ll do.”
“On my mark,” I said. Jameson held the flare rifle to his shoulder, waited. The others stood nearby, a few paces back from the abyss. “Fire!” I shouted, and Jameson’s flare raced out into the dark, a gleaming bead. We traced it as it flew, arcing up over nothing and then slowly down, down, down, down. No sound as its light fell away.
Everyone was silent, taking it in. “Thom?” I asked.
After a few seconds, he replied. “300 meters out. Nothing. Too far anyway for our ropes.”
“You see it. Just keeps going, getting smaller. Like a little star.”
“Yeah, a little star swallowed by the empty ether.” Pierce sounded grumpy. “All this work, we have to turn back.”
“Alright, now. We’re going to split up. Jill, Thom, Pierce, you’re with me. Jameson, you’ve got the rest. We’ll go north, you go south. Travel light, leave our main packs here. Take only the minimal supplies and tools. Try to get as far as you can in half a day, following the rim, then stop, turn back and meet here. Red flag I’ll nail to the tree to mark the location. Let’s go.”
Some four leagues later, we halted not far from a small outcropping that jutted/stuck into the abyss. We had kept just inside the line of trees during our march, and the deep, unsettling blackness of that endless dropoff had faded to an uneasying hum. Stepping out from behind their shield, the vast alien emptiness of it poured onto us, threatened again to drown us, sweep us away. There was nothing beyond the rim of the abyss, a great nothing that rested here in this secret part of the world like a monstrous, lurking predator. Hiding behind the trees, we had dimly felt its presence, but coming out to the edge was as if it had suddenly turned its gaze on us and was hungrily preparing to pounce. It was too big, too vast to exist, and yet it did. It was the incongruence one wants to ignore, but that is too real, cannot be pushed under the carpet.
We stood in silence. Shining our torches further north, we saw only continuation. And beyond, the dim glow of tree-moss diminishing into the near distance and the dark. Jill was the first to speak. As always, it was poetical. “By zounds I done seen enough o’ this void. It ain’t ne’er gonna end. Long’r than God’s cock it is.”
I nodded. “We”ll turn back here, then. We’ll place a marker, first, though. Thom.”
Thom stepped, fumbled in his pack, pulled out a folding spiked rod and unfolded it, attached a small version of our expedition’s flag to it, and jammed it hard into the soil. The banner picked up and fluttered nicely in the fair constant wind that poured through this abyss.
We left the marker and the remains of the boar jerky remonte-esprit we consumed on that outcropping, and turned back toward the place where we first met the abyss.
Jameson stepped forward, wiped grime and sweat from his forehead. “Took you long enough, sir.”
“We stopped for tea on the way.”
He chuckled at my reply. “What’d y’see?”
“Just keeps going north. No way of knowing how far, nor if it’s getting any narrower.”
“Or wider,” added Thom.
“Or wider,” I confirmed. Jill rolled her eyes and said “Not like that’d be useful fer us to track.”
“What did your team find, Jameson?”
It wasn’t a stair. Not exactly, not as we knew it. Not hewn (rough or smooth), not built—more a vague jumble of boulders and earth. But it would do. No way north, no way south, no way across, and too far out to turn back now. I turned up my lamp, looked back at the crew, and stepped down onto the first monolithic step.
This story was a response to the writing prompt “Overnight, the world’s oceans have been replaced by vast forests inhabited by strange creatures. You are on an expedition to find a lost ship in what used to be the middle of the Atlantic“.
In retrospect, I think starting at the lip of the Trench means that I sacrifice the potential buildup of atmosphere that would come from describing a long trek through dark, ancient forest, and thus the emotional surprise of removing the claustrophobic insulation of the trees all of a sudden. Instead, I end up focusing more on the act of exploring, the decisions made in the face of such a radical departure. I’m not sure if it’s as interesting, in the end. Certainly not as dramatic.
I also toyed with the idea of ending on evidence of some strange civilization (i.e., the stairs are actually carved or built, and clearly not of human proportions, and the team decides to descend all the same).
“Dude! This is gonna be great!” Paul says. He’s practically vibrating.
Grant rolls his eyes. “You checked the systems, right?”
“Three times. You were with me.” Grant sighs. He doesn’t like being reminded to do his job. Especially when he’s already done it. But Paul is a little puppy. He wants their experiment to work, and there, on the verge of success, he can hardly contain himself.
“Alright,” Grant motions to the machine. “It’s ready.”
Pete moves into the circle made by the displacement arms. “This is gonna be awesome!” He drawls out the syllables of the last word in a sort of singsong. “I’m gonna catch a dinosaur!”
Grant snorts. “Good luck with that. You’re only going back a year first. We gotta make sure everything works before we do anything drastic.”
“No fun, man. Way to ruin the mood.” Paul laughs a little, then pulls the plexiglass shield down around himself. Grant speaks up again: “Remember, the plan is to go back, verify the year, make sure everything checks out, then activate the retrodrive circuit and come back.”
“I know, dude, I know.” Paul’s voice sounds muted behind the shield. “I’m ready. Let’s get this done!”
“Alright.” Grant moves over to the console. “Activating base field.” He flips some switches. “Priming temporal circuits.” He raises one hand so Paul can see it above the monitor. “Firing chronodrive transmitter in five…four…three…two…one.” There is a sizzle and the smell of ozone and Grant peers around the edge of the flatscreen. Paul is gone. If everything goes right, he should be back in five minutes, as they agreed to avoid confusion.
Paul, however, finds himself suddenly not in the lab where expected, but floating in the barren void of space. He exhales a silent shout of surprise—a reflex which probably extends his life a few seconds. Almost immediately, his eyes and open mouth dry out as their moisture boils away, and his body contorts weirdly as his muscles suddenly swell.
He reaches for the retrodrive switch on his forearm. But moving has become difficult, his joints painful and stiff. He cannot quite get there. Still, he has time before it all goes black to reflect on what might have gone wrong, to realize, sinkingly, “Astronomical motion. We forgot fucking astronomical motion.” And then, briefly, to wonder why he doesn’t feel colder.
Note: This piece was originally posted as a response to the writing prompt “Time Travel is finally invented, but you can only move through time and not space” on www.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts.
(There Will Be Spoilers)
There’s a sequence of scenes in Water for Elephants (Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, dir. Francis Lawrence) which set up a serious tension for the characters with no clear happy resolution. In them, the three main characters interact variously with a newly acquired, unresponsive and possibly untrained circus elephant. These scenes show us the violence and rage roiling in August’s soul; the gentleness, care, and willingness to do what is good and right of Edward Cullen—er, Jacob—the pain and love in Marlena, among other things. The tension hinges upon these elements as well as the silence of the elephant, and seems to point toward a collision not far ahead.
What this sort of quadrangle of a relationship does—really a triangle, for our purposes, since Marlena doesn’t figure in it at this point—is present a problem that the viewer wishes to see resolved happily. The elephant, being a gentle and generally well-behaved but possibly untrained animal, is perceived as innocent. Jacob, the veterinarian-cum-elephant trainer, as sympathetic hero, cares for the elephant but can’t get it to perform (he doesn’t know how to train elephants, or how to deal with trained elephants). August, the circus owner and ringmaster, needs the animal to perform to recoup his investment and save his circus (and his own and Marlena’s lives, financially speaking). Yet he doesn’t know animals or gentleness—his method is to beat the animal to make it afraid and submissive. When the elephant misbehaves, he takes an elephant hook to it, opening large wounds, and then menaces Jacob: if the elephant won’t perform, Jacob gets fired, and the elephant gets killed and fed to the other animals.
After the beating of the elephant, we are faced squarely with this problem. Jacob clearly won’t stand for such treatment of an animal, and will likely stand up to August, but we know that this will probably end badly for both him and the elephant; and even if Jacob doesn’t do so, the elephant will lose, and so will Jacob and August and the whole circus. August, who is a complex character full of love, passion, anger, and business, clearly won’t stop (or can’t control) his violence even though he equally clearly regrets it. And it is equally clear that such violence may soon be brought to bear on his wife, Marlena, given what we have seen of the edge of it during one of August’s drunken moments. And again, Jacob has the hots for her, and she may feel the same though she guards her feelings and for the moment seems to know better than to let them out. Which all still means that both she and Jacob may come under August’s scrutiny and rage at some point.
The moment after the beating, when Jacob is standing by the wounded elephant, trying to comfort and assuage it and figure out what to do, is strung taut with anxiety. We, as an audience, have no idea how things will develop or resolve. The situation seems untenable, and the characters probably doomed, though through animal sympathy and the likability of both Marlena and Jacob, we hope nonetheless for some happier resolution.
Yet the film will give us neither of these things, not fully. Here, the filmmakers are too cowardly to let things play out amongst the characters and see what happens, whether tragic, triumphant, or bittersweet. Instead, deus ex machina: a drunken Polish roustabout to whom Jacob is talking while caring for the elephant is too inebriated to understand English, so Jacob gives him a command (“Move your leg”) in Polish, and the elephant, surprisingly, responds. Jacob notices, tests again, confirms, and then races to show August: the elephant miraculously understands Polish! Problem resolved, tension alleviated.
This is, however, a cop-out. While it is indeed conceivable that a circus elephant was trained by a Polish trainer before being sold, etc., the discovery of this fact at such an opportune moment in the story smacks of the writer(s) feeling written into a corner, unwilling to write what might organically come out of the characters’ situation and so seeking a way to happily (if temporarily) resolve the problem they’ve created.
The world is not often so clean and neat, though. Sometimes, sure. All sorts of different outcomes for all sorts of relationships and situations do exist. Some are happy, others less so. But the artist’s foremost duty is to truth of feeling and expression, and such a magical, happy, make-everything-better coincidence—which may occur only rarely, and in any case circumvents the “natural” development of plot and character interaction—rings flat. It is, in the end, avoidance of what is difficult to face, via means unavailable to any real human being. That is, the artist (writer, director, whole ensemble) has access to the magical, reality altering tools of his or her craft, and can thus dictate what happens in a story in ways that we real people cannot in our own lives. Yet to do so in such a way as to seem magical, amazing, and completely outside of the already-established logic of character interaction and in-world causality is crass and wrong.
Instead, it is the artist’s duty to face what is difficult in story, poem, song, and to present it, unflinchingly. That is how truth gets told and art is expressed, performed, created.
A couple of recent conflicts have gotten me thinking. No, not thinking. Understanding? Perhaps. Realizing maybe. I realize, for instance, that it is hard to find a good word for the sort of processing-plus-coming-to-understanding/awareness/aptitude-plus-knowledge-and-maybe-skill I’m trying to describe.
What is so difficult about naming the functions and processes of mind? Is it the language? For English, one of my teachers said, concerns itself with nouns, objects. Well, and transforming nouns into actions. “Elbow your way through a crowd.” A sensei of mine was fond of a particular fact (true? dunno), that Sanskrit has a word for, as he said, “when your mantra begins to repeat itself”. I don’t know what that phrase means. But I think his point was that some cultures have become quite knowledgeable about internal states and movements, and this is of course reflected in their languages. Anglophone culture, he was partially suggesting, is not one.
But the conflicts that have come up and been resolved got me to gain a level or two in understanding certain things; namely that I don’t need to (and now don’t really/now can easily recognize when I) fear other people’s emotions, reactions, responses, opinions, etc. Which is spurred by understanding that for the longest time (Whoa-oh-oh-oh) I did just that.
Meaning basically that honesty and upfront-ness is much easier in tense situations, and I can ignore that oft-present need to paint my feelings and thoughts to hide my feelings or needs or wants like I’m guilty of something. Also meaning that I can state my own opinions and hold them with confidence, and that in general I can let go of the habit of worrying whether I’ve hurt or offended someone. I haven’t. Or if I have, I can tell, or ask, and I can deal with the situation calmly and without drama.
God, that’s so much easier.
The USA Today website has a frontpage article today entitled “Can you forgive Lance Armstrong?”. I’m not going to link to it. It doesn’t need more traffic.
My point: who cares?
Lance (can I call you Lance?), you and I have no connection. I don’t care that you “cheated” at sports. That’s the world these days. Most, or many, top-level athletes do that. You did it better than your competitors. So what? Maybe there’s still room for genetics in the midst of all that. I don’t know and I don’t really care. It’s not an earth–shattering issue to me.
And you don’t know me or care who I am. So why would my hollow forgiveness matter to either of us?
So, USA Today, I’ll thank you to take your article and stuff it somewhere dark, remote, and tiny, where it won’t intrude on the front page, masquerading as a topic vital to the world.