Friday, September 02, 2005

A Slow Burn (updated 5/06)

"A monk said to Tozan, 'Cold and heat descend upon us. How can we avoid them?'"

Time is almost over. Though I'm surrounded by clockwork, the context of all those carefully portioned tocks and dings is lost. Once, those moments were so precise, pristine, each day an hourglass full of them, dripped off like tiny snowflakes into the whirling abyss, each fleck a microscopic shard rent from the intricate, interconnected whole like a blizzard in reverse. Those days when I was big, and when I was real. (Like you.)

It is not that I have no memories--I'm awash in the things in fact, and I lay here watching them dance feverishly around me like natives to the drumbeat of the machines, unconnected visions caught in garish pose by the flickering firelight. They are ghostly things, these thoughts, the wisps and drifting sparks of my expelled substance. I do not know how much is left.

Here's one glimpse: I am laying down my large body in blankets. My clammy, trembling body. It's a bed, but not like this one. There is someone there with me: a husband? wife? I am not sure which, nor quite sure of the difference now, nor why the difference is important. (Is it you?)

What is important to this memory, as far as I can gauge these things, is the cold. The cold was everywhere. I tried to pull my body under blankets, to wrap it like a cocoon. The person next to me (it must have been you) was hot, hot with anger and hot everywhere else too, but I couldn't be near. Under my layers of cloth and skin and fat, I was turning to ice. The cold was something inside me too, I realized, maybe more inside than out. Inside me and pushing me out. I understood the sensation no more then than I do now, but I know it was important because this thought comes back more than most of them. It plagues me, chases me through the dark and echoing labyrinths.

"Tozan said, 'Why don’t you go to the place where there is no cold or heat?'"

Here's another glimpse: the man placed his right hand above my chest and asked me to concentrate. The verse, he said would focus me, free me from logic. I'd submit to my thoughts, or ignore them maybe, or control them, if there's any distinction between those things. Anyway, he asked me to concentrate on his hand and also on my chest, and he chanted. He asked me if I felt anything, and I am sure I did not. He asked me once more if I felt anything. Focus, he said, and then I did. Warmth I felt, and then a satisfying heat, and then a climax of fire. Do not touch me, he said as I bounced my big body all around the room, glad of the heat and afraid too.

And there I am running. My legs burning now, the heat lifting me, floating me above the cold pain. My chest was not hot this time, or not burning as much, or maybe not in the same way. I could feel my legs burning inside though. If I went further, harder, this time maybe I could look down and watch them boil. I tried to do this, but my body fought back with its pain, brought me back with a soreness that craved, that sucked out the warmth from my heart. My feet thudded, and my chest throbbed in double time.

Not cold, you said as you touched me, but I disagreed. The cotton and wool around me, it made the warmth bleed out slower, but this helped nothing, it wasn't the problem. You shouted. You broke the thermostat, and I told you it was just as well, it wasn't the house. You were warm too, and that didn't help either.

Running but not in the dark, not through the shadows, not yet. In the light this time. (Like this thin illumination? No, in daylight I think, a fiery but distant sun.) My big body was a little smaller, a little denser, and I could keep the glow up longer, however dully. My body would burn faster if I could go further, if I could outdistance the chill, smother it with the fire of my blazing bones. A little further, a little more, fighting against the icy ache in my flesh. My heart was warming only a little, but I realized that this was something.

The man said that my heart was not hot, not cold, normal. He said to improve my diet. Nurture my spleen, drink enough water. He was wrong, and I didn't think he meant it anyway.

But watch this, he said, and picked up his right hand.

I did not ask about the man's left hand.

Each day I left the house I could go a little further. You kept pushing the water on me, and I hated it, so cold it could kill me. But the water fed the fire too in its way, and with it I could keep the glow going longer, if fainter. So a little less each time, I tried to drink. I could feel my flesh blaze sometimes, and that was a start.

We sat, you and I, in a damp, chilly field and watched a conflagration blaze distant in the sky. You were pushed close, or as close as our flesh would allow. I wondered why you did not feel the emptiness.

"The monk said, 'where is the place where there is no cold or heat?'"

Empty, but I could concentrate, become concentrated. I had been practicing the focusing trick, and chanting. I had been doing little else in the room I think. Was I there a long time? There was a bed (like this, I am sure) and I sat my body on it, small as bodies go, but it filled up the vastness of space in the inadequate rarefied way that explosions fill up the sky, pushed out by a cavernous emptiness. So I sat on the bed, collapsed on it maybe, and practiced. Was my chest warming this time? Moving faster?

Stars collapse when their big bodies can't support their burn anymore, when their substance becomes too riddled and crazed and worn, too full of a labyrinthine emptiness, to withstand the pressure of throwing their nuclear fire into the sky. They collapse and burn more conservatively, until, I suppose, there is no energy left to discard, leaving only a perfect, black, dense sphere.

Every time, I could go with less water, and every time go farther. I poured out the water you gave me. I poured out the icy liquid you'd fill me with, and I felt my heart, my head, my legs get warmer as I ran. The emptiness behind me, I was fleeing some, but not all of it. Not all, because it would sneak back into my joints and creep into my lungs. When I got back, you pushed more water on me, tears this time. I drew your body to mine, but you were draining the heat from me and I shivered. You're burning up, you said, but you were wrong, or at least you were not right enough. As you ran to get more water, I cried a little too: hot, dry tears. Maybe I was burning a little after all.

You were crying again. An accident, you said, but it was not an accident. You pressed our bodies together. You closed the door to my solitary room, leaving me alone on the bed, with the ticking machines. It was not an accident, but it didn't work.

He did not tell me about his left hand. When he turned from me, he was rubbing both of his hands together, and he looked surprised. His left hand was very cold, I think.

Though you were surprised at the idea, you thought it might help, the running. Make me happier, close the distances within myself, and the distances between us. Close them, even as I ran hard miles away from you. I was getting too big anyway, you said, and you were right about that. You brought me light clothes, a water bottle, a headset. You smiled at me as I closed the door and ran away.

The room was small, and I had nowhere to run, and my veins were pumped constantly with frigid quenching liquors. But collapsed on the bed, I could concentrate. I held my right hand, trailing its jiggling tube, to my chest as I recalled a man had once done (long before, I think) with his hand. I held my left hand under my head. I focused. How could I avoid the heat and cold?

Not just my legs, and not just my heart, but my head too this time. And there was no water at all. I had dropped the bottle at the door, and I knew that this time I would run until I got there, got past my chill, drenching body. The heat had pushed up from my legs, out from my chest. It entered both my hands, and surged in my head. I knew I was glowing incandescent, burning like a star. A few more paces. A few more. But then I collapsed, my face looking at the sky, at the distant sun, as the chill fought back, crashing over me in waves.


I focused, chanted, pressed my mind to keep the gelid tide from hollowing me out. My chest surged under my right hand, straining the buttons on my pajamas. Yes. Not just warmth this time, but real heat. I breathed in; my chest raced. Closer. Red hot, scorching, blazing. Breathed out. My chest was under my right hand, but where was my left hand? Another accident? What about the man's left hand? No.

"Tozan said, 'when cold, let it be so cold that it kills you; when hot, let it be so hot that it kills you.'"

The machines are comforting in their way, spinning little automatons, sucking breath in and out of my crumpling body. They push rivulets through their various internal courses, but they cannot prevent the implosion. It is only a body, after all.

Reduced, collapsed, I smolder like an ember or like a candle's blown-out wick, the luminescence sinking inward, hiding behind gray ash as the outside cools. Those cells that are left in my body, they burn up your miserable fuel a molecule at a time, pushing out the chilly water and spent carbon with each beat of the clock, tiny droplets in my processed breath, on my pallid skin. It is a slow burn, those bellows pumping in air to keep a steady glow somewhere deep in the infrared.

The sky is mostly empty really, decorated with only a few perfectly dense, nearly invisible spheres, which are very far apart. The canvas is flawed only by a rare spark from the far reaches, some distant body gasping its last. I can wait just a little longer, I think.



Keifus said...

I didn't write the story around the koan, rather I found the verse after I'd put the story pretty much together. It fit the theme beautifully. I butchered it though as a quotation. It was a rather cleverly structured piece of mumbo-jumbo, with footnotes to make a sort of poem-within-a-poem. Nor am I sure how to cite it properly. Oh well.

I could have maybe filled out the middle part by another page or so, but I was worried that the reader would get bored (I was starting to), but on an edit I'd try to flow the first half of it smoother. (And the 'dial inside me'--sorry.)

I'm amused by the thought of a meditation gone horribly wrong.


Ensley said...

This one didn't "do it" for me. A little too esoteric for my taste. I read almost to the half-way point and then started skimming and skipping. On the plus side, it demonstrates that your writing style has a wide range and I think that's important. It's hard to know in advance if a rather experimental piece will fly or die, yet I enjoy sampling experimental stuff and do some ocassionally myself.

Keifus said...

[gasp] didn't [choke] do it for you?!

I did like it, partly because it was somehting different, but I must admit it was getting thin in the center as I was stretching it out. Maybe I just needed more cheese?

(Definitely it needs some smoothing out. I don't pretend to do stream of consciousness well).

twiffer said...

think the redundancy works. i found the koan distracting though, inserted into the text. perhaps better as an introductory quote or something akin.

will take another pass later.

Keifus said...

Thanks Twiff. One thing I did like about hte placement of the verse in there is that it was an (albeit abrupt) transition to the ending couple of paragraphs and the present. But I'm not sure it actually needs to be in there at all--probably enough to have just read and digested it.

hipparchia moonlighting said...

I like having the koan in the story. In fact, I'd like to see it play a larger role.

A monk asked Master Dongshan, Cold and heat descend upon us. How can we avoid them?

I think there are two good places for this. Either as the first 2 sentences in the story (my first choice, I think) or just before or just after the paragraph that starts "It's not that I don't remember---."

Having the monk asking the initial question at (near) the beginning of the story is [1] an additional hint that this is a meditation session (the "focus on the hand" probably won't be a strong enough clue for a lot of readers). And [2], when you bring in the rest of the koan later in the story the transition won't be so abrupt, I think.

Then I think I'd put

Dongshan answered, Why don’t you go to the place where there is no cold or heat? The monk continued, “Where is the place where there is no cold or heat?

maybe somewhere near one of your "running" paragraphs, probably later in the story rather than earlier.

If you do decide to split up the koan into parts to be sprinkled throughout the story, I don't think I'd space them symmetrically, but I have a personal bias against too much symmetry, so definitely don't take my opinion as gospel here.

The ending is a bit too abrupt and a bit too sparse, but I think it's possible that moving part of the koan farther up towards the middle of the story may automatically convert part of the middle into part of the ending.

I liked this story better than the homecoming story, but part of that is because of my personal biases. One, I've done yoga and meditation for [mumble]ty years so I relate to this stuff. Two, I was absolutely freaked out by The Lottery when we read it in high school English class, and I remain remain freaked out by it to this day. So, just keep that in mind when you're deciding what my comments are worth.

Keifus said...

Thanks Hipparchia.

I like your suggestion of breaking up the koan. Actually could be a better lead-in to the story that way. I also had already made some changes to incorporate it more into what happens as well.

I'm going to mail it out tomorrow to the magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. If you want a revised version of the story, I could email it to you (, but I don't think I'll post it, based on teh discussion I had at the magazine's web site.

Not sure what this means for the blog. I'd sort of like to see if it's a potential problem before I address it. Not that I'm overly optimistic that it'll be accepted, but hey, why the hell not try? At least there's a semi-viable market for short fiction of this type.