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.
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.
Oh what? You thought I was done writing just because I came back to California. Like I’ve said, writing isn’t a thing you just do, it is a compulsion.
I’ve got to say, being back home is already making me a bit anxious. I’ve now slept in the same, comfy bed for three nights in a row, I ate a hamburger bigger than my head, and every time I go over to a friend’s house I am constantly looking around for where I left my backpack (it’s like a piece of my anatomy just disappeared). Switching from the transitive to the sedentary is a horrifying experience for some of us. Unpacking felt like “nesting,” even though I unpacked into a washing machine rather than into drawers.
Once you get back all the questions start again: “What is next for you?,” “Are you gonna get a job?,and “How was the trip?” (which only 10% of people who ask you that actually want the full answer). The point is, some of us don’t think about answers to questions, some of us just drift around and experience as much as we can, we feel nothing, we feel everything, but the pertinent question of “what’s next” doesn’t ever cross our path as the float on…until it does.
Back in the beginning of December I was greatly affected by what I had seen in Laos. American bombs lie in fields and have waited patiently over 40 years to explode and kill children who never even saw them fall from the sky. I wrote a vignette called “Volatile Land,” and it continued to weigh heavily on me. Over the next few weeks I considered joining an organization to help, or even starting my own. Not sure where I would even begin to start something that might actually be able to do some good in the world, I decided to put the idea in my figurative pocket while I finished up the remainder of my trip. The next step would be to talk to some people when I got back to California who might have a better idea of where I should start. That plan didn’t last long. I lost sleep over the next 3 weeks, all of the simple freedoms that I enjoyed turned bitter in my mouth at the thought of those going without. By the time I got to Australia I was openly talking to people about my intentions to begin a bomb clearance organization focusing solely on Laos. It was incredible, every doubt I had was immediately extinguished by the positive response and helpful advice I received. Within a single week I had met a robotics engineer, two cold fusion scientists, and plenty more intellectuals with great ideas for the best approach.
Now that I am back in California, I have begun contacting (and attempting to contact) government figures, ex-military specialists, and other NGO heads. Everyone I run into wants to pitch in with skills, contacts, or funding. It’s wonderful that the altruism that inspired me to keep traveling is alive and well here in California as well.
I really do feel like I am lost at sea in this, but I’ve never felt so full of purpose and determination. A friend asked me, “So, what is the end goal for this?” My response is this, “I want to get one single bomb out of one field in Laos.” Success to me will be weighed by one life changed for the better, and if we can prove that we can do it for one village, then the goal will change from there.
So, I hope that answers the question of “What’s next, Jordan?”
The wheels of the bike wobble as they struggle down the straight path out of the city. The bike makes a sound like an old man stretching, his bones cracking and popping as he moves. A motorbike speeds past, three geese gently dangle by their legs as they crane their necks away from the gravelly road.The little girl holding the geese’ legs smiles and then waves to us with her free hand. Small barber shops, restaurants, and bungalows line the path that leads to the beach. “Hello, how are you? Where you from?” Owners try to hail us as we drive by, even the bicycles we ride on don’t deter them from their industrious nature. By the time we get to the beach, over twenty different shop owners have called out to us. The beach crashes gently upon the shore as we sip cold smoothies from our lounge chairs. Vendors approach us every other minute, each with a fiery, unrelenting approach to salesmanship:
“You want massage?”
“No, thank you.”
“Sunglasses? Very cheap.”
“I’m wearing sunglasses.”
“I have a drink in my hand.”
“You want a book?”
I’m running out of excuses…
Back in Hoi An, the deep orange of the sun sinks into the river, setting the river aflame. The Vietnamese have a legend that a giant dragon stretches out across Asia: Japan is the dragon’s head, China the tail, and Vietnam is the body. Whenever the head or tail shakes, the stomach will have problems. I can only wonder how often the head and tail must uneasily shake. And what does that make the USA? The orange of the river fades with the sun, but instead of transforming into the black water of a post-twilight evening, the water takes on a multi-colored glow. Lanterns hang above the “Vietnamese Tailored Suits” signs in shop windows, they hang across the balconies of restaurants filled by patrons looking out over the water, and they hang from the small dragon boats that line the river’s edge. The river is full of the soft, distorted glows of red, blue, green, yellow, orange, and purple. The dragon scales of Hoi An shimmer in rainbow colors under the bright, full-moon light. Women and children sell small candle-lit lanterns in red boxes to float down the river. Small candle-lit lotuses bloom one at a time with each purchase.
As the restaurants die down, the bar life comes ablaze. Flashes of light spasm in the full spectrum of colors as a hit pop song rattles the corner amplifiers. With each strobe of varied color, I see glimpses of people living absentmindedly of the cost tomorrow might bring. Tonight they are young. Tonight they are fueled by fire. Tomorrow they will burn. Tomorrow is hundreds of years away. An overhead light spreads small red pin dots out through the crowd. The dots converge, twist, and then diverge again. Hundreds of sniper rifles trained on the hopeful hearts of entranced dancers. One by one they are picked off and the club dies down to a few survivors. People shuffle back onto the empty streets in search of their hostels to sleep into the afternoon.
The dragon takes the fire, churns it through his stomach until it forms into a perfectly round orb, and then it spits one large fire back into the Eastern sky to rise back over the world once again.
“Helloooooo!” The voice is distant and sounds out across the large stretch of dark green water. “Hellooooooo!” It’s five in the morning and the small bamboo-crafted boat is a silhouette as it cuts a path through the water towards the large junk boat I sit atop. “Hello! You want Pringles?” she yells up to where I sit on the boat two floors up. “No, thank you.” Her boat is filled with cookies, chips, cigarettes, and alcohol, it is a miracle of weight distribution, and a demonstration of a gift of spacial awareness that could easily take her to the top levels of Tetris. I wonder how much money Vietnam has earned off drunk tourists deep-set need for Pringles. I take a deep breath as she turns her small boat-market towards the next junk boat. “Hellooooo!” By the time I exhale another small woman in an identical bamboo boat repeats her predecessor’s questions. This time I ignore her as politely as I can and turn my gaze back to the sunrise.
The engine and generator rumble gently behind the boat, throwing small circular rings out into the otherwise tranquil waters. Caramel-colored Vietnamese coffee peaks through my slowly tanning web of fingers, wrapped around the glass cup to absorb it’s precious warmth. The rising sun peaks through two round mountain tops; a bright yellow yoke birthed between it’s cracked egg shell. This is the part of the world where the sun is born daily. As the sun pulls itself higher into the sky, color pours over the mountains and into the bay. The world I find myself in shifts from a quiet grey to shades of green. As light fills the surroundings with color, people being to awaken as well. Before long the boat is awake. The staff serves breakfast to groggy guests as the boat imperceptibly pushes itself towards the island shores of Cat Ba.
The forest envelops the eight of us as we hike up to the top of the mountain. The natural stone steps provide easy access to the top, but also force us to change the pace of our steps as we climb; a large step that clenches my quadriceps as I force myself upward, then a two quick steps to change my footing on a sturdier rock, and then crossing back and forth between stones that split the path. All of us move in a single-file march up the hill, all of us except one. Our guide looks human, he speaks Vietnamese, but he is most definitely a monkey masquerading as a human. He throws leaves and flowers at us as he passes me, then he grabs the sunglasses off of the tattooed British traveler from Cornwall. Before he can ask for his glasses back, the guide has jumped off of the stone path and grabbed onto a dangling vine of a tree. Without any effort, he is up in the treetops looking down and laughing at us. Once we reach the summit, he lavishes in the attention he gets from other tourists. He poses in impossible yoga positions on top of precarious rocks as camera shutters click in unison. A small tower with a “Do not climb” signpost compels me to decline it’s suggestion. The steps are sturdy, but the handrail is rusted and jagged. Don’t grip the sides, don’t grip the sides. At the top, I step forward and my leg doesn’t meet anything solid. The top of the tower has several wooden boards positioned across a 30 meter drop onto the rocks below. I steady myself and look out over the green, rolling mountain-scape that spreads in every direction. A small sliver of the sea hides just shy of the horizon; a perfect place to kayak.
We grab kayaks from a floating restaurant. It’s foundation is a series of plastic crates and buoys that cause the wooden boards to rise and fall with the sea. “Don’t go out of the bay, the ocean water is strong and dangerous,” the restaurant owner warns us as we place our feet into the long, red kayak. We know as they warn us that the ocean is the only place we can go, our rebellious streak continues. The ocean pitches and throws water into the kayak, but the paddles still push us forward around small top-heavy ocean islands. Each one of the islands is built of dark grey stone at it’s base that widens as it rises up to the forested top. I imagine a chess board beneath the surface of HaLong Bay, only bishops and pawns still in play. I wonder where the King is? Perhaps he has been tipped and the game ended long ago, before all the water. Hidden beaches lie around some of the larger chess pieces, each one a soft secret whispered only to fishermen and kayakers. The sun begins to dry the salt that the wind has blown past us, drawing small lightening patterns of white over our arms and shoulders. This is the mark of the ocean accepting us in this place. Our kayak gently splits the water as the sun continues it’s journey to the West, eventually aging and being put to rest by my family and friends in California. A new sun will be born tomorrow, HaLong will hatch a new yoke that I will warmly welcome before sending it to all of you.