I’ve been researching some Daoist (I will be referring to The Dao as that not The Tao as I have done so before) stories, specifically allegories. I came across the story titled The Yellow Millet Dream about the scholar and poet Lu Dongbin who lived in China around thirteen-hundred years ago – for how long, who knows as it is said that he lived for centuries. Lu, like Seneca of the Stoics, didn’t seem to fit the stereotypical mould of being the straight-faced, emotionless zen character. Instead, he was a partying ladies man whose wisdom was so fantastic that he was elevated to immortality, being declared one of the Eight Immortals. Whether or not this is literal immortality, spiritual in some astral form, or metaphorical through his works depends on belief.
What I find to be quite comforting is that every one of the Eight Immortals in Daoism have their own flaws and quirks, making them ultimately as organic and imperfect as the rest of us. It makes sense doesn’t it? Instead of being perfect, we work towards it but sometimes we cannot escape our nature and if a thing is in our nature then it is something to accept and nurture humanely that benefits the common good. Obviously if your imperfection is a hankering for human flesh and genocide then I’m sure you can find a better outlet in perfecting beef tartare or acting where at least you can bring joy through method acting, I suppose. We are, ultimately, the universe experiencing itself following The Dao and therefore, all is as it should be, or rather in it’s nature to work towards harmony and balance within its own ability and self.
However I’m digressing. Lu Dongbin, before he was warding off the dark with a sword of protection or mastering his internal alchemy, he was simply Lu Yan, a travelling poet.
He met an older man, a Daoist, at an inn. He dozed off while the dinner – millet -was cooking on the fire.
When he awoke, he left the village and went to town where he took and passed the imperial exam. He worked hard and was promoted again and again, soon becoming a minister in the government and marrying a rich wife, then becoming prime minister. His success attracted enemies, and he was betrayed, lost his friends, lost his office, his wife, his fortune and his children. Dying of poverty he awoke to discover that although he thought 18 years had passed, it was just a dream, and the millet was just coming to a boil.
The elderly Daoist caused him to have this dream so that he could learn an important lesson about life.
The lesson, of course, is that the material is immaterial. Success as defined by society does not grant any meaningful happiness based on itself alone. While recently a study came out to say that money can indeed buy happiness, if your unhappiness is caused by a lack of meaningful human connection, throwing money at the problem may not be the best way to go about it. Sure you can get yourself a ticket on a singles cruise to the Bahamas but if you do not look within first for help, you may end up staying in your cabin watching Too Hot To Handle crying into your silk monogrammed hankies.
Success is like beauty and exists within the eye of the beholder but sometimes – if not all the time – the world around us tries to gaslight us into thinking otherwise. Perhaps it happens to us all without even realising it, so then, I suppose, the real trick is to take the time and ask the question:
We often find that we keep ourselves busy just to avoid thinking.
It’s one of those wierd coping methods we all have and fill our lives with work, activity and Netflix to keep sane when we try to run away from our own thoughts. Is it cowardice that keeps us from looking where we don’t want to look? For me, I can’t sit on the bus without music or risk the creeping invasion of overthinking and hollow gut feelings of a strange dread. It makes those moments before sleep the most terrifying parts of the day. Those moments where there’s nothing else to think about other than exactly what we’ve been trying to avoid.
Then perhaps, is this why we find that some people have such a hard time on holiday? A panicked pause between stuff – a silence of the mind leaving nothing but the echoes of exactly what we don’t want to hear.
“You’re going to be alone.”
“They hate you, you know.”
“What was that earlier? Did you notice that?”
“Have you checked yourself for lumps?”
So what can we do to combat this? When the panic strikes it seems entirely hopeless to escape the thoughts and patterns until we find something to distract us from them. Here, I think of a song I heard recently that I forget the name of, the core concept was: be like a squirrel.
A squirrel gathers nuts and acorns for winter, one at a time. They don’t attempt to tackle the enormity of the task all in one go, this tiny animal takes things as they are, one piece at a time.
You’re going to be alone – we call a friend or look for a social outlet.
You’ve failed – you’ve not attempted.
They hate you – you haven’t asked.
And so on…
Of course, easier said than done but we approach these problems and each of our worries and troubles like a squirrel, acting with one acorn at a time. It’s the core of stoicism: progress everyday. As long as we can make progress in some way everyday, then we are achieving. Even if that means spending an entire day in bed, trapped by lathargy, we are making progress by taking that time for ourselves in some way. Even a relapse, we think of them as backsteps but in fact we are falling forward, with each new thing to trip over, a new lesson and thus: progress.
Recently, I lost someone. Not literally, but it was a rather definitive break up for the sake of prioritising healthy choices and recovery over relationships. Which is fine of course, a reasonable and logical choice. Yet for us both, I think, when we both felt such a pull towards each other, it makes for a difficult ending. But like the Jedi philosophy (psuedo-Taoism), says, nothing is ever really gone just transmuted. A feeling of loss, transmuted is a lesson in ressiliance and a smile of gratitude for the experience in waiting. So how do we transmute?
The answer is another question with a more satisfying answer: how does the squirrel meet it’s problems? One nut at a time.
There’s a joke in that, I’m obviously far too mature and serious to make (wink).
People seemed to enjoy the first half of this so I thought I wouldn’t wait a bit before posting the second and final half. I’d be interested to know how people feel about it, I’ve been meaning to get back into writing fiction and any feedback would be appreciated. I hope that someone takes something from this story, sees the message I tried to sneak in, I hope it means something to someone other than myself. Of course, if not, it was an interesting read, all the same.
From then on, as she remained silent. So, I am alone in Orphan House as my wife and my children live their lives separate from the machinations of the true work. The twisting walls and ever-changing madness of the great gallery will protect them and keep them. So peaceful they are that the children have not stirred since their mother put them to bed, and my wife remains so in her chair in the library. Time and space bend in the halls of Orphan House and it slips away like sand through fingers so much so that it seems like months since they became still. Yet, of course, as the God of my kingdom, I know it to be only moments.
‘Will it always be like this?’ I asked the hooded avatar in its cliffside residence, waves crashing against the rock just outside of the perfectly rectangular stony cavern. ‘This lonely?’ I continued, sat in the brown leather armchair in the arrangement of contemporary furnishings. Sat opposite in a matching seat was the avatar of my most trusted mentor. Far removed from the throne on the beach with the true body like a pale kraken, this skeletal reaper, with face obscured by smoke from a black pipe seemed almost convivial. Yet, I thought, even that towering glorious monster would not be the true extent of the king’s true physique as I pictured in my minds eye, some infernal twisted serpent slumbering soundly at the bottom of the ocean. It waived a nonchalant hand through the smoke and drew near; placing the pipe down in an elegant crystal ashtray upon the rich wood coffee table at the centre of the arrangement. Lifting from the chair, It strolled silently over to the precipice of the sanctuary – where I was no more a God as a termite -, bare muddied feet patting on the smooth rock face. The waves, crashing against the cliff, pushed chill winds into the cavern and as It reached closer to the mouth, the black cloak billowed wildly. There was a moment of pure silence and total stillness. I awaited the answer, rising to my feet. Seconds that felt like eternity ticking over in that cold silence in the no longer howling, Howling Isles. Then it came: the dreaded answer. My pale host, let out a dry tobacco lined chuckle before extending white, skinny arms out wide and falling forward into the quiet icy sea. Upon the crash, the Howling Isles resumed its turbulence.
The eleventh winter in Orphan House has come, and I fear that the mighty fortress kingdom that I have forged is returning to its natural earthly form. The wide aperture in the roof has become lush and green and provides me with its fruits – a strange entrance from the outside. It has been so long, or perhaps not at all, since I tasted sweet things. Through the endless travel through oblivion and the dancing of my brushes, I found little interest in the simple pleasures that once meant so much to me. As a child – even with the nightmares and the endless spouting of lies from men in white collars – it was the sweet taste that helped the colours of the world come together for but a moment. I scratch at my beard and feel for where I remember my eyes to be and smile softly. I rush to my wife’s side to find she is not there anymore. Alas, it was to be expected, her departure. In my panic I race to the nursery and the children are no longer there either. My sweet daughters had left their beds and there was nothing about the room. No trace of their existence and the sweet from the apple in the attic turned to ash. So bitter and foul was the taste that I could cut off my tongue. How could a god be so ignorant, so blind? They had been taken by the deep dark, by the rage of the lords themselves for my own hubris. Or worse yet, she had taken the children and left the fortress, a foolish betrayal out of a fearful panic, exposing their young minds to the poisonous lies of the outside real.
I staggered through the winding labyrinth of the house wailing. I cried out to my patrons, so many now, numbering in the thousands with their icons covering every surface. ‘My lords!’ I shout, scratching on canvas after canvas, an affront they could not ever ignore. ‘Answer me!’
Then I fell. I fell for so far and for so long into an abyss. As God of Orphan House, artist and sorcerer supreme, I had forgotten the rule. I had forgotten that those on my walls, decaying and bowed, had become of far greater import. Spartacus, god of the pit, had, in his grand revolution forgotten whose hands fed him. The true household gods of Orphan House, those who I had invited from further afield than the outside, had been disrespected. Was my realization enough in that endless abyss to warrant the punishment served? All my powers, so mighty in the real, equated to nothing at all in the face of true divinity. Perhaps I was mad after all. It was one of the last words my wife spoke before she stood before the great Eel King. Perhaps she was right; or rather is right; or rather is right, now. How far had I fallen? I could not say. As I tumbled down the abyss, biting winds rushing against me skin, I wandered if I had indeed been falling since I first picked up the brush. It was the price of truth. It had never been clearer to me, after all these years of crafting portraits for the gods, it had never been so transparent and brilliant.
Awaking on the cold ground of the basement, I thought myself dead. My clothes were dusty and my skin had lost all elasticity. In my quest for more answers, I pressed against the boarded windows of the second floor to hear the churnings of the outside. Their machinations louder than ever before. My punishments were not over, I thought. They were coming, and as I charged through my winding halls, the paintings finally spoke to me after so much silence when I needed their voices most. So loud they were, as the shouts from the outside erupted into a crescendo and the canvases crashed from the walls. Louder and louder, like the world was collapsing, the hand of Chronos crashing down through the open roof and through the boards and into the library. Down it came, through the library and into the central hallway and down further, smashing the grand staircase in two. My great kingdom crumbled inwards like a collapsing soufflé and so, with all my strength and the chanting of the art of the endless universe itself, I charged at the vicious inevitability with all my power. Sparks of brilliant purple and splashes of deep crimsons filled the tearing reality and as Chronos, with his hand of time aloft roared for more battle, it stopped. There was only silence once more.
Silence: the national anthem of Orphan House. It had been this way even when it was full of life not of the unearthly kind. When it was simple and gentle. When my wife and I would sit in the kitchen and laugh at the fluttering larks outside the window. This was a time when the three-hundred-acre estate was protected by just the simple boundary. When the outside was free to impose its laws and the truth about their pointlessness was unknown. I would still visit Boston then. We were far enough away from the city that the smoke of the docks and the industry was a distant memory. Even the Atlantic became somewhat of a myth in our simple home. Our children, so safe within the property lines, used to play in the woods from morning ‘till night. My wife would read for hours and hours in the library that I had had created for her, while I painted landscapes of lush verdant still life to her satisfaction. Now, of course, I paint for another’s satisfaction and we are rewarded with more than a smile of hers could ever dream of. We were rewarded with the beauty of this kingdom that I was crowned regent. Its halls adorned from floor ceiling with art and magic that the outside fallacy could never love or understand.
Chronos had retreated and the nation of Orphan House was saved and the twisting faces and figures upon the canvases cheered in congratulations. The chattering jaws and gnashing teeth thanked and greeted their savoir as I marched through my lands and showered me in roses and bright confetti. I bowed graciously to the mighty delegates of the unknown but my revelling was cut short. A crashing of wood and metal from the foyer stamped on this fantastical celebration. The last thrashing of Chronos, that bitter bastard. I forced my legs to move faster than they have ever moved before and rushed to the pristine central staircase. Upon my arrival, I witnessed the ultimate horror that no creature from a million abysses removed could ever compete with. My heart leapt into my throat and tried to force its way into my mouth. I could do nothing but make a foul guttural noise as the wooden boards, before nailed so firmly to the frame, fell from the doors with a series of thuds. The chains slipped from their hooks like dead snakes, sliding with a horrendous jangle to the floor. As each element of my fortifications came down, poisonous bright white light spilled into the hall through empty window panes. Then, finally, with a gentle rattle of the brass handle, double doors open wide. It was the final act of the lord of time, commander of the encroaching chaos. The outside had come in.
A few months ago now, I wrote a short cosmic horror story based on Lovecraftian conventions and the indie horror game Layers of Fear. I had some feedback off colleagues who are avid readers and the criticism was that it’s obtuse and self-indulgent; the imagery being overshadowed by my big brain being oh so clever. It meant a lot to me, though, and it holds a lot of themes within it that serve as an allegory to me. It presents an attitude and indulgence of the character a moral to exist within your own nature. It’s a story about falling into ones own obsession and being obsessed with the self and power above all.
I’ll be posting it in sections as it’s quite long, so without further ado, here is my attempt at a anti-vice manifesto…
In the house, it’s considered rude to not pay respects to the household gods. Naturally, in the household, the one whose word is law, is god. In Orphan House, I, Henry Boyd, am God. This would be far more outstanding if, perhaps, if there were more than four residing in the former children’s home turned Olympus, yet considering that its realities and formations still bend to my will, surely that still renders me biblical in nature. My paintings adorn the Victorian walls, bursting from their frames, too weak to hold the nightmares in and keep them from spilling out onto the bare boards. What is art but a reflection of ourselves? A twisting expression of eldritch nightmares on canvas; pure like the massing void. As I bend the space-time of the grey brick husk, its corridors turning like a corkscrew, my art spins with it. The cascading colour and swirling oils form maddening vortexes that scream for me. The wood, plaster and paint scream its sweet noise, like a hurricane of bees in a room of the finest honey.
I had been truly blessed. Blessed with the truth of the real. The outside would demand for rational but they would never understand that the truth is irrational. It cannot be reasoned or bargained with like a market seller, fat on the endless and pointless material trappings. I am enlightened and I know the truth that all is pointless. Over and over again, a million times have we died and been reborn anew, our lives logged and archived in an infinite library until even the volumes themselves are burned away to be rewritten. I am not Henry Boyd. Not really. Nor are you whoever you think you are. We are the sum of all our parts; our parts the sum millions of variables; the variables the sum of fixed odds. Fixed divine odds based on the ticking of a clock.
In the house, I paint. I paint the worlds that I visit through the tempests. Some exist in our own native majesty while others exist as splinters, sanctuaries and graveyards. There are even those that exist as blank canvases themselves, awaiting an artist – or the artist – to mark their endless expanses. They have seen me, the inhabitants of these foreign planes. They inspect me with curiosity as I peer in fear. These eternal creatures, scars on reality itself, undying even in the face of the great inferno at the end of time. Even in my capacity as a sorcerer of the real, God of Orphan House, I am afraid. They are why I paint.
I painted before. I painted beautiful things, things that would warm me in the winter and do away with the scratching in my skull. Now I paint them and their lands for the promises we made, for the wonders I would see, for the raw power that made me a god. It is my tribute for when my temporary fleshy prison expires, I will be reborn and rewarded. While Chiron takes me and Chronos crumbles my fortress, the art shall be exposed to the ignorant. It will adorn their galleries and while they wander about, fat and doe-eyed, they will feel the abyss staring back at them – as I did.
The sixth summer in Orphan House has come and the chains on the doors to the outside are holding steady. While my kingdom contorts to my will and my art stalks the corridors, I sense a plot. The crawling of a horde of ants under my skin comes to me in the night, as I stare up at the void through the wound in the roof. I say to my wife, sitting still by a window in the library, ‘can you see them? Can you hear them?’ She doesn’t respond. Her silence is cold and damning. I give up, time and again, I give up. I daren’t wake the children in the late summer evening to ask them about the outside. They are fearful enough without the worry of the noisy meat threatening their father’s fortress kingdom. So small and gentle, they are too pure for the reality in which they find themselves, those two.
When my wife used to speak to me, she used to sweetly ask for sweet things for me to paint. She wanted me to paint her flowers in the greenhouse – closed off now, the glass proving too weak to defend from the outside. A florist by trade she would create the most beautiful of arrangements of brilliant sunset hues. Everything was brighter then, before the truth of the real was known. Before I took her to see the Eel King on the muddy shores of the Howling Isles. She was silent then, standing in front of the rocky thrown with the eldritch lord upon it.
The giant lord gripped the arms of his throne with white, webbed fingers; his fleshy thick surf slicked tail wrapped around the stone and trailed along the mud and into the shallow. The lord, resembling a nightmarish parody of the beauty of sea sirens with an arthropodal torso and skeletal arms, cloaked in billowing black fabric breathed the cold sea air deeply. The pale god, my patron, demanded satisfaction with not even a word from his wide, fang filled mouth. His eyes, sunken in shadow under the black hood, slowly opened from a deep slumber; each refreshing blink sounding against the rolling of the ocean waves. His eyes, black as night, stare down at me with light from the grey sky above twinkling in them like distant stars. Perhaps they were stars, it would come as no surprise. His long claws scratched gently on the carved arms of his throne, the stone itself scarred by his scrapings. On my knees in the writhing mud, I presented his portrait – and still my wife was not moved. There were no bright colours nor sweet smells in truth. Only monochrome landscapes and the thick stench of fish. The only speaker on the beach of the Eel King was the wind that sung through the rocky crags, cliffs and caves of Howling Isles. So far from the real were we, in that place, that it could hardly be said we were anywhere at all. Scraps of land in an eternal black ocean barely discernible from the void, where the sun was forever trapped behind a thick covering of fog and stormy clouds. A broken reality – a splinter of the whole truth, a truth that neither me nor my wife would ever have eyes wide enough to observe. Perhaps the king knew. Him and his fellows across the starry oceans and fractured dimensions in between. When he swam in those freezing deep waters and into galaxy, I wonder, does my serpentine lord-patron see it all? Travelling along the infinite universal currents? From this chilly outcrop to the planets of glass tumbling around dying crimson suns.
Of course, I took her to the land of the Eel King. Of all my patrons and visitations, it was the most comfortable and seductive. I had to make her understand this if not the truest further gravity of the eternal, the endless inhale and exhale of the expanding electric jelly. The unspeakable horrors of the void that even I, sorcerer of the art, could not bear to witness for even more than mere moments. The crushing pressure of their voices that thunder through the endless cosmos would begin to tear at the coiling of my brain and hammer at my skull. No, she would not be able to comprehend even the slightness of her own dimensions within the infinitum, let alone that of our divine observers who would peer at us with a million twitching, celestial eyes. The screeching of their songs would burst our fleshy human ears so that we may never seek to hear something so beautiful again.