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Thomas J Burnham

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By Thomas J Burnham
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Rated "PG13" by the Author.

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A spiritual journey - W.I.P


The ancient forest loomed impenetrable as a camp-fire glowed red a few yards away; the only sign of warmth for miles around. In the clutch of winter the unfathomable had taken shape, which, when coupled with uneasiness, agitates men's minds. In the burning glow of wood the soldiers sat wearily with their brown packs and thin jackets. Avoiding speech, they turned to the mild heat of the flames and blocked everything else away.

Seated on a stump was the lieutenant, whose thoughts of family life had long been extinguished, and who in turn could find no end but his career. A thinning crown of auburn hair and statuesque facial features distinguished him from the rest, though in any other way besides rank he was actually no better than any other man. Since eighteen the military had served for him as a prop, a noble falling on the side to do good, though he had never personally found the courage to take to heart whatever he felt. With nothing but dim grasping at some now long lost enterprise; some hold on a nobility he had never achieved, he dared not jettison what possible hope remained. Little did he know that this very hope was what was holding him back. Nor would he have wished to look beyond; the veil is life, after all, no matter how threadbare.

Next to him was a young footman. From a rich family, he had shirked his studies and chosen a life of privation over doing nothing. Lascivious and cruel, he had never adapted to the cold air and harsh winds and seemed destined to be bitter the rest of his life. Black hair and cold, jet eyes marked his countenance, and in his fox-like face was the comingled vanity and spite that speaks volumes of nothing.

Lastly, barren of expression, was another footman. Newly initiated into the ranks, he was in his late twenties and yet had the appearance of a boy. Fair, though not beautiful, he was in all ways a spiritual being, with no inner life whatsoever, and a pure, wholly innocent laugh that brought tears to his eyes. Unlike his two fellows his mind did not chew over weak thoughts, regrets, yearnings for completeness and so on and so forth… While there might have been a time he had been self-conscious of himself, the atom of desire had flown through, and disarmed his reflection. While it was not up to the quick, it had loosened him on to create new values, new beliefs, - a fragility of impulse he could not shake.

The threesome had separated from their troupe in a snow-storm at night, during which a party of marauders had attacked the camp. Chaos flew with the snow; rifles rang and men fell. By the time day had broke it had appeared they were the only ones to have survived, and several miles away from where they had originally been; evidently lost. They had struggled home south for some time before coming into contact with the unfathomable: the hedge of trees that constituted the edge of the unknown forest.

It is odd how the self-conscious man differs from the unreflective one. For one who examines every bit of his life, who considers the objects of his affections, who thinks about his passions, who weighs and balances every moral dilemma - he may be called reflective. Indeed he may be called moral. And yet it may be speculated as to what object his introspection boils down to. For when one looks into ones self he cannot really be said to do anything. And is not action the sole ingredient that makes life itself worth living? What is the purpose, then, of introspection when it asphyxiates life, causes one to do nothing at all? But then, perhaps, there are some things - these passions, morals, beliefs even - that lend it a kind of credit. But then they are not the things themselves, now are they? No, they are the mere patterning, the passing image, and it is here that one is somehow supposed to extract some sense or didactic knowledge as to how to live life, even, change his character in some uncertain way. The unreflective man, as he does not think about these things at all, remains ignorant, going full tilt toward life. In the end he comes to a bad end, but if he had pursued his passions moreso, if he had attended to the objects of his affections with all his soul, then in that case is it the self-conscious or the unreflective man who lived life most correctly?

Now faced with the dark, somewhat menacing aspect of the forest they were apparently faced with a sudden and obvious choice: either to enter the forest and possibly arrive at an oasis, or to struggle through the intricate ravines whence they came and possibly die in the course of their progress.

Looking a little further into the wood they could occasionally spot dim figures beneath the snow covered boughs, possibly of people or animals, that looked like shapes from a recurring dream. It was rather unsettling, though strangely bereft of any real fear.

"We stay put I say. We mustn't be too far from what remains of the encampment, and the smoke from this fire should signal where we are to a rescue party once they realize our scouts haven't reported back," said the lieutenant.

Growing flushed with a bright flash of self-satisfied brilliance at this line of reasoning, he turned his challenging gaze to the rest as if they dared besmirch his eloquent declamation.

"The marauders could come back," said his subordinate in a smoky hiss, automatically sending a damaging blow to the lieutenant's self-esteem.

Grown quiescent, the lieutenant was replaced by his subordinate, who, growing morbid, became progressively irrational.

"Blast this wood! Gives off so much smoke!" Suddenly he was moving around, as if thinking of a possible solution. "Those devils…they'll probably come back…no doubt they'll send scouts 'round to mop up what's left!"

The lieutenant stirred.

"They've probably thought they've killed every man last night!"

"Ah! Shut up old fool; they're bloody damn savages! They won't forget any remaining scraps."

He was biting his lower lip now. His fingers quivered, though he tried to hide them. Finally he reached an enlightened course of action. Gathering some snow off the ground, he began throwing it at the tepid fire.

"Imbecile! We'll freeze to death!" said the lieutenant, with intensity he hadn't known he was capable of.

Suddenly, the fire that had temporarily stricken the angry young man flickered out like lightning. In a bout of hopelessness he cursed the world and proclaimed everything fruitless. In a few minutes he returned to his brooding, arrogant self. A few minutes later, a lazy though hateful banter emerged from his lips. For a few minutes he remained the only man talking to the lieutenant, many times insulting him directly, though mostly just demanding some sort of commiseration from him. No one respected the lieutenant. Just as no one respected the spiteful youth. In the arms if an officer could not gain the admiration of his own men it was his own fault, not theirs. For years he had hugged his commander's coat-tails and prayed a genuine decision would not pass down to him. One would have wondered at how he had ever gotten to the position he was in, were it not for the fact that he was fairly well-disciplined, orderly, and diligent.

The silent, spiritual young man, like a stilled ship in a dead sea, found himself addressed.

"And you fool? What in hell's name do you think we should do?"

The edge of the statement was dulled by the speaker. It felt more as if it were coming from out stuffed insulation.

In his childhood the young man had heard stories from his grandmother of a sylvan folk who lived in the brush of ancient woods. Not blind to the various shapes and figures that danced along the edge of his sight, he was naturally inclined to follow the course of his imagination. "Go through the wood."

Astonishment dawned on each of the two others faces. Already having been struck by the young man's eccentric behavior on many prior occasions, the two men's surprise remained undiluted. In all their thought, in all their reasoning, in all their seeming self-consciousness of their position, they had never factored in the forest, not even once; only as something unfathomable, something out of the equation, as though mortality itself lay there.

Strangely enough, since no real emotion dissuaded them from that particular course, one must wonder at why they had not at least considered passing through. The lieutenant, at least, certainly had the basic battle strategy to know that in all likelihood the ravines through which they had come were likely guarded by the enemy now, and that ambuscades were almost certainly laid in to prevent anyone coming through them. The generals south new well enough their foe, and would not allow a single man through until a week after their party had been unheard from. For then the marauders would have better things to do. The lieutenant knew all this, and yet had somehow still prevaricated against the only practical choice!

Earlier in this story I have stated that that the forest looked somewhat menacing, and a reader may very well read into that fear on the part of the men. When I say that they had no real fear I do not contradict myself, for in reality there are many orders of fear. And let me tell you this: the nature of the two men's metaphysic was such that, when confronted with life, with life itself uncovered, they did have fear, though such fear again that it was not worth the life of them, (for their existence up till then had been superficial), and so, was no longer real fear, but something infinitesimally less. In the past it had appeared to them only as something stultifyingly supernatural, a fear not worth even thinking about, until now. Robbed of their ignorance, no longer able to afford appearing any more foolish, (for it is all about appearances, mind you) they could do nothing but go along with whatever the young man told them.

Now, taking this free choice as an invitation into the unknown, they entered the forest with grim uncertainty. At first light still shown brightly in soft beams, but as they passed into the black recesses less light shown, or at least dimmer. As the lieutenant and his subordinate grew unsettled they felt a deep, welling anxiety suffuse their entire bodies. A strange excitement, too, accompanied this sensation, and as the hours passed they came to feel it less as something unbearable, as something giddy, cheerful, and, eventually, happy. There was a sense of something childish in the wood; partly a fragrance, something immature, chaotic, harsh or hurtful even. At first the lieutenant and his subordinate held back behind the young man. Fear of something overtook them, though once more they could not say of what. As they proceeded in dumb file the tops of the trees began to melt and snow began to fall down; strangely, though it could not have been a few hours they had been walking in the wood, day had passed and only the light of the stars came shining through. The snow continued to fall and melt. The temperature changed. A feeling, like that of water spilling from an upturned earthenware pot, permeated all three minds. Then, an opening in the trees up ahead, as though all their thought had led up to a supreme breakthrough. Then the event occurred. As explosive as subdued. It had seemed as though only now, after years of bleak and barren existence, that they had come into contact with the true , the undeniable, something beyond and yet unto themselves. A strong wind swept down from the dark gray grass of a hill, and brought with it a dark verdurous odor. Slowly, a summer warmth leapt invisibly with the fragrant breezes and stars, now shining yet more brightly. All this worked an impressive spell upon all three, though the spiritual young man was still far more open to it than his two other companions. Neither could shake off the still uneasiness and foreboding that yet clung to their frames. Fear of evil (for it most probably was evil, though this narrative is not so much concerned with that) yet overwhelmed what possible good (for good it was!) they might have yet imbibed. Suddenly, atop the dark hill, they saw them. Dark clad pilgrim-shapes in soft robes. As the moon alighted on the hill one of them descended slightly, removed his hood, revealing his white, silver lit brow, and glanced his piercing blue gaze at them. Then, raising his delicate hand, moon-kissed and holding something - like malice -, ordered an act of evil. The lieutenant and his subordinate were struck. Pierced and filled with intense fear, they fell to the ground unconscious. The spiritual young man, however, was spared.

Awakening, the lieutenant and his subordinate were instantly seized by a tempestuous rage. They had fallen to an evil act! Silver had pierced their breast! And yet also with it, an unabashed joy, like a breath of freedom (as after the death of a hated parent) that surged through their trembling bodies like an irrepressible flame. A feeling, like blue incense, infused their minds. Mixed with pain, mirth and joyous rage, it felt as though their feet found new paths to tread upon, working with an extreme physical and emotional joy. It had seemed to them as though all their previous life had at the moment been wiped clean, like a babylon sunk to the depths, and now all their present and future life was hanging in the air.

Then, a softness and lazy felicity overcame them. Idly treading the many moon-lit paths that snaked beneath the gloomy spring boughs, they eventually found them. Among smoke-filled tents and divine fires they found them. The sylvan folk whom the young man had imagined all his life in his dreams: pure, thoughtless star-lit dreams, lit by a passion like the crest of an emerging sun from an eastern horizon underneath a purple sky! Greeted and clapped by earnest hands all around, though equally tempered with a gracefully natural composure and state of mind, they were ushered in by the shadowy robes into the very heart of their demesne.

Seeing them up-close now had a startling affect on the two. For the first time they realized that they had seen these figures in their past, in dreams, in the motions of their lives. It was always after a particularly tragic event that had affected them, in the aftermath of which they had always received intimations, no matter how vague, of these people. Now that their conception had been given form, it over-powered them in an especially poignant way. It was the passing of grief through their systems, mixed within which was the rising red sun of an undiscovered emotion, dissolving the cloudy haze. Those intermittent bursts of anguish, formerly so rare, were now stilled before them, captured in the newfound darkness of these faces.

The folk were handsome, in an unearthly, alien sense; lean, dexterous, sad and happy, wretched and heroic, scarred and painted. All were pale, though a vigorous strength emerged from within them. In the deep blackness of their aqueous eyes was a well of thought that sparkled with the same sense of excitement and giddiness they had formerly felt. And yet also something cold, like hoarfrost spreading across a pane of dark glass. And yet even in this too there was a reminder of that breathy spring, and the black ice was alive with an icy flame of its own. Indeed, the stars seemed lit by a distant flame each, by which light the moon reflected and illuminated the whole earth. In fact, it seemed they were seeing everything for the very first time.

Divorced now from their mutual malignancy, one of ignoring the world and another of slandering it, a new vision enraptured their souls. Just a few hours before morn, in a perfect dark blue sky, the moon appeared to them as living bone, and the life-force of the earth, the roots of the trees and the grassy sod, seemed to enter their own being so that they felt no longer tired, but filled with the expectation of a new dawn. In the leafy twilight that ensued, they observed the dew forming on the tree-leafs and felt that it was compelled by a purpose all its own. In the cold dawn they found a new strength and vigor; the sun, lukewarm and and mellow in its intensity, gathered energy and supplied their bones with it.

In the brimming sunlight of a summer's day they found a meadow to run in. The lieutenant and his subordinate walked, no longer idly, but expressly, of something they reflected of the universe. Their joy had caught a new flame of kinship. The sylvan had disappeared for now; existing only as a memory. Now a warmth and sincerity of laughter, and benign smugness of expression drew itself in the length and measure of their bodies and faces. They talked freely, about what they felt, about all the things around them; hardly a pre-examined word passed their lips, and this allowed for a special unreservedness to be fostered. With like kindness and admiration they peered at each other; communicating at times without a word.

In the air was an exultant smell, of winter having passed, of the orange sun consuming the sky and grasshoppers and hornets buzzing across the browning fields. As the noon stretched in that hot, lackadaisical uninterested manner, the two began to pass out of the forested area and into dusty terrain.

The two companions found, for the first time in their lives it seemed, a reality that nourished their souls. It encapsulated and comforted them, yet was alien ( though any reality would appear to them as alien) though not threatening in any way imaginable. And this was what was wrong. The ease in which they were settled tormented them, though they did not presently feel it. The reality they had found was true and poppy to the soul, but unless they could surmount their position alone, they would return to their former melancholy; perhaps to never escape.

Suddenly the world changed about them. The forest now seemed out of sight, as though it had never existed (though it had). Now a sprawling desert seemed to envelope them, at first as they passed, of a grey and rolling ennui, then as a red, blistered plain of mojave colors.

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