Oh hey there, loyal Readers. I’m now starting my career as a writer (fingers crossed) in California. So, with new beginnings come new looks and blogs. It took me quite a while to move everything over to a new more slick design, but now I live over at The Caffeinated Sloth. I hope you enjoy my writing and will continue to follow me over there.
Lately, I’ve been really interested in people. Well, I suppose I’ve been interested in people my whole life. We travel to see different places and better understand the people in those places. So, as you may have noticed from the Forever Below piece I wrote a few weeks ago, I’m trying to do more character studies in historical time periods. Many of these pieces are strange and somewhat broken, much like we humans are. I’m hoping to turn these into much larger stories in the future, but for now, you just get short stories:
The Coward of Klis
A bead of sweat drips from my forehead, carving a path over my skin as it descends down my arm to the bowstring pinched between my fingers. The air becomes dry and I take it into my lungs with shallow, infrequent gasps. Through the slits of the stone walls, my eyes try to make sense of the enormous black shadow growing across the valley. As the rich, green earth is absorbed by the black, I know that death has come for us. The captain cries “Hold!” once more as the shadow creeps closer, every advance causing my heart to beat faster in my chest. My eye looks down the shaft of the arrow as the shadow begins to stretch and bend around the base of the mountain. I wonder what the men around me are thinking. Do they know we will die? Are they prepared for death? Do they know what they have done to God to end up in such a place? My focus shifts as the shadow turns into a billowing cloud of smoke, and visions of my childhood begin to play before me.
My mother stands by the kiln and wipes the sweat from her brow. Her hair is tangled and bunches around her broad shoulders. She spits onto the floor and curses at a man who is two coins short of what he owes. She raises the hammer into the air and the small man backs away and runs out the door, nearly knocking my small body to the ground. She wraps her rough, callused hand around my arm so tight that I think it will break, “What are you doing in the forge, child?” She smells of smoke and iron, dirt and fire, creation and destruction. She hits me hard across the face and I feel the blood raise to the surface. I break from the grip of her muscular arm and run out into the streets of Spalato. A moment later, I hear the sound of the hammer dropping back onto metal. My grandfather sits on a small, wooden chair outside of the shop as he does everyday, and I climb up into his brittle arms. He pats my head and reminds me in his crackling voice, “Your mother is fire, she is very beautiful, but very wild and dangerous. You must learn to be more careful.” I tongue the inside of my swollen mouth as I try to understand. Then, in a secretive tone he smiles and asks, “Would you like to hear a story?” I love my grandfather’s stories; they are my reason for living. “A story about my dad and The Crusades?” I ask. His smile suddenly fades and my grandfather seems as if he is a thousand miles away. Seconds pass like hours, and the street around us are silent until a nobleman on horseback trots by in the direction of the palace. My grandfather’s eyes fill with life again, “I know, how about a story of a fearsome horse tribe in a far away land?” My eyes beam wide with curiosity as he begins, “Far away from Spalato, in lands beyond all the forests, rivers, and mountains of Europe, there is a tribe of men who worship horses. The men and the horses become one, the men even sleep on top of the horses! For many years, the men lived in many different small villages, and they attacked each other in the dark night. Each of the tribes wanted to take the land of the other, and so for many years, the horse tribes fought and killed each other. Then, a great warrior united all of the tribes into one large tribe called the Tatars. That man’s name was Genghis Kahn.”My grandfather’s hands make sweeping motions through the air and then turn into large fists, “He became a great and villainous man who led an unstoppable army across the plains and valleys. Other villages and cities knew when Genghis Khan was nearby because even the earth beneath them shook in terror. As the army moved, thunder was their shadow and their song.” My grandfather’s eyes fill with both admiration and disquietude as he tells me one last thing about the Khan’s great army: “A Tatar without a horse is like a bird without wings.” As his story ends he picks me up off his lap and sets me back onto the ground, but his story confuses me, “But grandpa, what happened to Genghis Kahn and his army?” His becomes serious once again, “They are still out there, but you have nothing to worry about, the shadow and thunder of Genghis Kahn live far, far away.”
A war-cry wakes me from my memories. No, not a war-cry, the scream of a horse falling to the ground; an arrow finding the meat of its neck. The shadow is no longer a shadow, but a legion of Tatars on horseback. Men fire arrows into the hearts of men and the horses they sit upon. The army is infinite, and with each man that falls another takes his place. In an instant, the shadow surrounds the base of the mountain and I know it means to swallow us whole. Closing my eyes, the world changes to percussion and crashes: The thud of an arrow against a shield, the hooves of horses upon the ground, the metal of armor chiming as it moves around me, the groan of a man trying to climb over the stone walls… I open my eyes just in time to loose an arrow downward. The arrow finds his shoulder and the man falls off the wall and rolls down the steep cliff beyond. The next hours pass as arrow after arrow is let loose from my grip. Blood wells to the surface as the bowstring breaks the skin on my thumb, but the shadow remains infinite while my arrows quickly dwindle. Men on the walls push large, heavy rocks that gain enough speed to cut small lines through the shadow’s legion of men. There is a shout from a man outside the walls in a foreign language. I fire my last arrow in the direction of the voice, but the man keeps shouting. My eyes grow wide with fear, I know the man, he is Kadan; grandson of Genghis Khan. I shout back and the fighting seems as if it halts around me, “Kadan! Kadan!” The shadow outside the wall becomes still for a moment. The man that is Kadan shouts up from the ground below as men continue to climb the hills. His words are distant and guttural but the soldiers around me begin to shake with a single word: “Bela.” The Great Khan’s grandson believes that King Bela IV of Hungary is hiding inside of Klis, we will all surely die today. Why have I come to this place? What legacy had my father left me?
A priest with a pinched face and an ever-disapproving glare shuffles hurriedly in my direction, “You have missed your lesson once again! How do you expect to become a Templar without proper devotion to God and His Word?” My dislike for the priest makes me feel a need to argue, “I apologize, I was distracted with weapons training. Isn’t it more important to train to be a great warrior for God if I am to join the Templars? Skilled warriors aren’t trained on books.” His face distorts into anger, “It is not ‘a book,’ it is ‘The Book.’ Your Godless mother taught you nothing before she gave you to the church.” His words remind me of the day she sold me to the Church. I had screamed and cursed at my mother, telling her that I hoped she would burn in her own forge. The resentment I had for her was strong, but had faded over the years. As I look at the malicious priest, I want to tell him that my mother did what she could, and that it was not her fault that she only knew how to create hard, indestructible things. Instead, I turned and walked away; a coward. I walk across the courtyard towards my room and try to quiet my anger towards the priest. When the evening begins to set, I take my sword up to the castle walls and practice my slashes and thrusts. I pretend to be my father as he fights against the heathens in Jerusalem, “In the name of King Andrew II, who God has chosen to take back the holy city of Jerusalem, lay down your swords and repent!” My sword swings and hits the stone walkway of Klis, and I realize there are tears in my eyes. “Why did my father die? Why did the heathens fight against God’s will?” I decide I will follow my father someday and gain vengeance for my father, but first I must train to fight the Tatars who have already arrived in Hungary. I pick up my sword once again and make my own war cry, “In the name of King Bela IV, dismount your horses, lay down your weapons, and repent!” I decide that I will stop the great army of Genghis Kahn. I will defeat the unstoppable army of my grandfather’s story.
And now, the grandson of the great Khan has come to Klis to claim the head of a man who is not here. A man who I have never met. A man who people tell me I must die for. I refuse.
The shadow will not take me. I see corpses all around me, and the air smells of dirt, blood, and horse shit. A templar to my left spits and calls the Tatars a pack of heathens. Are these the heathens my father fought? Are these the unholy men that the Father asks us to fight? My mind feels as though it will be torn to pieces. Does God truly wish for me to die here for a foreign king? Did God want my father to die across the seas for a city made of stone like any other? Are these men outside upon horses any different from those of us inside? Must they not eat the same food to survive? Do they not also sleep as the sun goes down? I will not die here. I will not die for my father. I will not die for The Father. Spears and arrows pour over the walls. I watch the red cross on a man’s uniform fade to red as the white disappears from around it. The walls are thick and keep us protected from much of the sharp wooden rain that pelts against the fortress. Countless men climb the steep cliffs all around the fortress and crash over the wall like a wave upon the beach. I smear the blood from my thumb across my neck and hide under the corpse of the man whose cross is no longer a cross. Blood seeps from his body and covers my own. My body shakes as I cry. I tell myself that I cry for my father who died in the holy land. I tell myself that I cry for my mother who abandoned me. I tell myself that I cry for the priests and men who will surely die. These are not why I cry. I cry tears of shame and fear and godlessness, and I know that I must not cry. The shadow moves through the fortress and removes the white from this place. I do not cry. I do not breath. I must be dead or they will know that I am not. The Tatars realize that Bela IV is not here and they leave Klis. For hours I lie underneath the corpse of a man who was once my brother.
I stand up and look around. I am the only person left alive. The shadow is gone and death has not found me. The shadow is gone, but their is no white left in Klis. My world is red, the corpses are red, my uniform is red, and I know that God has left this place. I am not with God anymore. My hands scrub violently at the red on my uniform. I stand alone, and then I leave alone, and this place and God forget me.
I think everyone has a particular image of Venice: The sparkling waterways, couples on romantic gondola rides, flowers and ivy crawling up the lattice work on the sides of the river. So, that is what I was expecting, and that is exactly what I saw while I was there. However, in my opinion the best part of travel is getting to know the people who live there. For them, the city is normal, the city is just “home.” I was standing in front of the Bridge of Sighs when this story played out in my mind. A dark story of a man who was corruptible and as human as any of us can be, even in a place as romantic as Venice:
In the Doge’s Palace men in impossibly clean robes speak about me as if I do not exist; I am already a ghost. They speak of my guilt, and they speak of the man that I erased. They speak of the woman I love, the woman who loved another man, the woman who did not know that I existed for her. I placed my hands around his broad, drunk shoulders and I threw him into the inky night waters. The lights of Venezia stretched my long, thin shadow until I was with him when Venezia splashed and covered him and became still once more. The river took him and then only I existed in that place. Another shadow appeared and then many more until I could not escape the shadows that surrounded my own.
Now, I stand in the Doge’s Palace, and men speak about me as if I should not exist. Bound in shackles I’m shuffled from the courthouse to the prison beyond. The covered, ivory-colored bridge is the only separation between myself and my new eternity. The men that flank my sides with swords upon their belts stop upon the bridge and urge me to look out the window; one final look at the wretched city, one final look at the city of my scorned love…one more look at the Venezia I still love. The water dances with the movement of gondolas upon the grand canal and my mind dances with it.
My father, a sullen and pragmatic merchant, made his fortune on selling woolens and Balkan slaves to the Egyptian Turks in return for spices. When the Ottomans shut down the trade route to Egypt, he simply turned his business ambitions to Flanders. If the whole world had burned around him, he would have found a way to sell the rialto of Venezia itself. When my love for art eclipsed any trace of business acumen my father hoped to see grow in me, my father pushed me from his mind. However, his wealth became my freedom. I spent my mornings in the piazza del Marco painting lively couples and merchants with pinched faces. My favorite, however, was the Triumphal Quadriga, the four chariot horses brought here from the sack of the Byzantine Empire. They dance in unison, a lithe trot forever captured in time. Art spoke to me through it’s timelessness; an artist exists forever through his work. I painted thousands of pieces each year, but none of them captured me as the statues had; none of my works were timeless. In the quiet hours of the night, long after the grand canal had lost it’s fire, I would take my paintings and vanish them beneath the water, and in that way, they would become timeless within the canal itself; beauty from mediocrity.
The streets of Venezia were full of traders, their boats and carts full of woolen garments, spices, and sugar. Each man desperate to make a fortune in the ever-growing market. As I painted, women walked by speaking to each other of trivialities and giggling. Men shouted and bartered with less than a modicum or decorum. It was there in those busy streets that I often lost focus and the paintbrush failed in my hands. And yet, the tranquility of Venezia is the close neighbor to it’s chaotic business. The floating city fades into a soft murmur just a few walkways and bridges away. I often would set my easel in one of these alleys, where the only sound would be the emerald water folding upon itself as it hit the edge of the stone walkways. It was there that I created art, it was there in the quiet alleys along the canal that I existed.
It was in my 18th year that I saw her reflection within the water. Yellow danced across the surface as it gently moved, blurring her image into soft edges. I feared that if I raised my eyes she would vanish. I feared that raising my eyes would transform the soft edges of her reflection into a rigid and grotesque physical form. And yet, I looked and she was magnificent. Her brown hair curled and draped around her shoulders, her smile was the cool summer breeze, and her eyes were the first light of day. Perhaps you might think that I am being melodramatic, but I only mean to say that she was everything to me in that moment, and I knew I must have her, and also that I must never have her. I spent the summer scouring the side streets and canals for a sight of her, and when I found her I would watch. I could never have spoken to her, to speak to her would have been to ruin her, to ruin the immaculate visage of my muse. In the evenings I painted her by the light of lamps. No medium could depict her, no canvas could capture her grace. One by one, the grand canal took her. Venezia had taken her down below into its cool embrace a thousand times over, and it desired a thousand times more.
The cool nights of October set upon Venezia in an instant, and Venezia hid itself behind unmoving faces. Masks covered countenances and falsified equality for every man and woman. My own mask felt rigid against my cheekbones as I walked into the stiff night air. I had seen her there in a moonlit alley, her golden mask was the sun; she wore metaphor upon her face. Her mask fell away from her face as a man stole a kiss. My mask smiled on as my face contorted with rage beneath. I watched, unable to break the unbreakable hold that she had over me. The night faded into the morning hours that belong to dreams, and I found him there by the canal. I found him and I pushed him and I rid that kiss from existence as he sunk down to thousands of visions of her below the water. He must have known then, he must have seen her looking back at him through thousands of eyes that held the first light of day.
The guards stand in silence, they do not push me onward, they do not hurry me along. They wait patiently as I take my last view of the canal. Perhaps they know, perhaps they know that I wish that I had not let him sink beneath the night waters of the canal. Perhaps as they watch me look at the small barred window they know that I wish it had been her. I wish I had grabbed her on that night and sunk her into the depth. Now, I shall never see the light of day, I shall never see the river, and when she dies, and when I die, she will be forgotten. The river will forget her, it will forget the yellow dress, it will forget her smile, it will forget her eyes, and she will have not existed. No. She will exist, she will exist in the thousands of falsities I gave to the waters, and I will exist in that place with her.
I’m kind of all over the place when it comes to learning things. I constantly pick up books on topics I know nothing about, and often spend hours lost in the labyrinth that is Wikipedia. Two of my favorite topics to look into are Neuroscience (the study of the brain) and zombies (the ones you have to shoot in the brain).
The elasticity of the brain is incredible. Basically, we are higher evolved thinkers than other primates because our ability to cook food rather than constantly foraging provides us with a larger number of neurons in the cerebral cortex. Our brains are a firework show of neurons lighting up as they are used throughout the day. I always laugh when I hear people parrot the myth that we only use 3%, 10%, or some other small portion of our brains. The truth is, we use 100% of our brain on a daily basis. According to studies done by neurologist Barry Gordon, at least 45% of our brain is active at any point in our life (given that you are not suffering from any type of brain damage). I’m also fascinated by the way that neurotoxins like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin alter our emotions and the way we interpret our environments. A hug from a friend shoots flares up in one sector of the brain, while playing Call of Duty lights up a completely different part. Our brains have the ability to develop, adapt, and even self-repair to some extent; they are the most enigmatic and ever-mysterious part of human anatomy.
Zombies are also extremely interesting to me. Not many people know, but the true origin of the zombie folklore comes from Haiti. In Haiti, bokors (tribal witch doctors/sorcerers) would create a powder containing tree frog poison, crushed spiders (for skin irritation), crushed human bones, and blowfish poison (which contains tetrodotoxin). The poison in the mixture causes the inflicted person to completely pass out and lose all bodily function (caused almost entirely by the tetrodotoxin). The victim’s breathing and heartbeat fades almost entirely out of existence giving the appearance to the victim’s loved ones that they have passed on from this world. Only then does the bokor dig the victim’s body back out of the ground, give the victim a dissociative hallucinogenic drug (harvested from the Datura plant, nicknamed “zombie cucumber”) which causes the victim to
return to life awaken in a psychotropic and suggestible state of mind. The bokor then suggests that the newly made zombie should do whatever his new master bids him to do if he wishes to stay alive. Over time, the zombie franchise has taken off from it’s first film White Zombie (1932) to the current TV mega-hit series, The Walking Dead. Zombies, in modern society, have become one of the most popular franchises of fantasy/fiction (or as a future bi-product of advances in medical engineering..it’s only a matter of time people). People are obsessed with zombies…we even have races.
I think if you asked most people today how to kill a zombie, the majority would answer “You gotta destroy the brain.” Zombie pop-culture has done a terrific job of solidifying this major rule of zombie-survival. However, is it really enough to just say “destroy the brain” without ever specifying? The brain is an intricate organ, every piece has a specific function. Less than 200 years ago, we thought it was one solid piece conducting our entire body, but then Phineas Gage (shown above) came along and accidentally led to the field of Neuroscience. Gage was a railroad worker for the Rutland and Birmingham Railroad. One day as he was compacting a charge using a tamping iron, the charge exploded and shot the tamping iron up through Gage’s skull, firing straight out the top. Somehow, Gage made an incredible recovery, even though the iron shot through his frontal lobe. Aside from an alteration in his behavior (he was more prone to temper), Gage suffered very little mental degradation and change. It was from this case that doctor’s really began to ask, “Is the brain really only one part, or do different parts of the brain control different aspects of the human anatomy?” If Phineas Gage had been killed in a post-apocalyptic zombie reality, would he have come back to life? Would zombie-Gage really need his frontal lobe to chase down the living? The answer is yes, he would definitely still be able to run you down as you try to make it to a safe-house. For a zombie to carry out the two responsibilities given to them by the absence of death: running after the living and eating said living people, zombies need only two areas of the brain to remain active. The first of these two areas is the Cerebellum. The Cerebellum is the part of your brain that is responsible for motion, balance, and motor memories. So, since zombies are not typically higher thinking sorts of individuals, they are probably relying entirely on motor memory. Basically, without the cerebellum, you aren’t going anywhere. The next is the Hypothalamus. The Hypothalamus controls the second part of the zombie code: hunger. The hypothalamus is only the size of an almond, but is responsible for body temperature, parenting and attachment, fatigue, sleep, thirst, and hunger. So, in a zombie it is pretty much redirected to be responsible for
body temperature hunger, parenting and attachment hunger, fatigue hunger, sleep hunger, thirst hunger, and HUUUUUUNGGGGGRRRRR.
All of this is to say, the next time you are out at a bar, having a couple of drinks with friends, and talking about how to survive a zombie apocalypse, just remember that you have three options: Aim low (just behind the eyes and the nose) to hit the cerebellum and cut off zombie movement, have insane precision (to hit the walnut-sized Hypothalamus) to cut off hunger, or learn how to run very, very fast.
Just remember this all you future-zombies, if you had just spent a bit more time outdoors, you may not have been eaten alive.
About two years into living in Asia and backpacking through South East Asia I developed a serious case of homesickness for California. The sickness progressed to its most fierce stage while I was on a beach in Vietnam filled with Russian tourists and staying in a bedroom shared with 12 drunk Swedes. Only a month before, this scene would of been an ideal place to rest my head. The two best reasons to travel are to go to new places and to meet new people, but suddenly the idea of four-day friendships and sleeping in a different bed every night became exhausting. I stayed abroad for another month and a half, visiting friends in Australia and then backpacking through New Zealand with my siblings. Getting off the plane on American soil was euphoric. I even asked the customs agent for a handshake after getting the “ok” to come back into the country.
Culture shock doesn’t get enough credit, it is a huge deal. The brain struggles to connect everything you have learned with what is considered the social norms of a new place. You learn the societal norms and mannerisms through a dissociative reaction to what your current understanding of the world. The world suddenly changes, and therefor you must change and adapt as well. I’m great at evolving, but pretty terrible at changing (as I think most people are). When I returned, I made a strong subconscious effort to remain in the backpacker mentality: I never changed my mindset to “home,” I didn’t go out to look for steady work, I crashed on free couches and beds, and I continued looking at everything in my
old new environment with my traveler’s global (or arguably Martian) perspective. I struggled with cell phone texting etiquette, I said “Hello” to people on the street and got strange looks, and it took me quite awhile to feel normal without a backpack. Above all, the culture shock I’m having the most trouble with is this:
This is the remainder of my plate of food from a restaurant in Mammoth, California. I had eating a quarter-pound cheeseburger and half of the fries they had given me. The picture is the leftovers of that meal. In this picture, I would say that it is 1 1/2 potatoes, which means that the meal, in addition to the quarter-pound burger, came with 3 potatoes worth of french fries. My observations are obviously skewed by living off smaller portions for years, but this meal would have been three days of food for me in South East Asia. My question is this, “If someone put 3 full potatoes on your plate, would you eat them in addition to your burger?” This isn’t a rant, it’s just an observation of my American culture shock, but it does become upsetting when you learn that the US has 40% food waste per year.
My point is this, “home” loses it’s deep-rooted sentimentality when travel expands your views of the world. The burden of knowledge weighs heavy on the mind of those returning to their origins. As the Bohemian-Austrian novelist, Rainer Maria Rilke, stated, “The stranger who comes home does not make himself at home but makes home itself strange.” If all of my experiences have evolved my way of observing the world and processing it, then perhaps it is impossible to ever leave the backpacker’s mindset that I have internalized over the years. All of this weighs heavy on me as I remain in California but no longer of California. It makes me wonder, what exactly was I homesick for? Comfort? The Past?…Non-squat toilets and hot water showers? Perhaps I am the boy playing tag with his friends. He places his hand upon the tree and announces that he is “safe,” but how much longer can he hold onto the tree before he heads back out to play again?
Nietzsche has a theory called “Recurrent End.” According to his theory, time is a flat circle in which we repeat our lives over and over again. I’ve already lived the life I am in now, I’ve already wrote this post I’m currently typing on my laptop, I’ve already finished the cup of coffee in front of me…and will do so again.
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine”? If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you.” -Nietzsche
I am possessed of this thought. I have lived an exceptional life thus far, and will continue to live one until the day I die. This is not the first time I have returned to California, this is not the last time I will do so, and if I am born into this moment once more, I wouldn’t change a thing. Small flat circles within the larger circle of my life, repeating infinitely forever. Perhaps this is a scary thought for some, and even I only playfully tinker with this theory, but if it were true, what a beautiful kaleidoscope our speck of lives would be.