Close your eyes and see sun beams make their obeisance before the dais of the eternal conifer king. Open them and see the garish overtures of neon signs slyly winking at those restless souls drifting aimlessly through the night. They shuffle into dim, smoky bars with the air of penitents and lay down their coins on an altar to the banal, a paltry offering in exchange for free-flowing fermented indulgences.
Somewhere, on a dark stage, the entrance of which is hidden by the gaping blackness of a narrow, peeling door that fades into the depths of a narrower, darker alley, a troubadour wields a melody as a cudgel.
“Can’t you see, the horror in eternity,” he sings in a cutting, crystalline tone that acts like a flagellant upon the soul, “To be alone, your soul laid bare. Screaming, writhing, does no one care?”
But as the soft notes float through space they are lost, overpowered by the tinny chords blaring from the speakers atop the cheap plastic big top of a travelling circus across the way.
“Vaudeville for the technological age!” a fluorescent marquee boasts.
“Featuring a sideshow of Flash and Sound!”
“Starring Ability brilliantly costumed and giving the performance of a lifetime as Talent!”
Back on the darkened stage, the troubadour finishes his song and a roaring chorus of silence rises up to greet him. Exhausted, he lets his shoulders slump forward. Locks of baby-fine hair, the color of noontime summer sun reflecting off the pale green underside of young leaves, fall like a curtain across his brow. The black of midnight descends as the two shining spotlights of his eyes are extinguished.
Here, in the lush darkness of his mind, images spring up unbidden. He sees flaming oak leaf missiles plummet from well-stocked arboreal armories. The languid tendrils of a breeze reach out and alter their trajectories. Cicadas sound an alarm while dragonfly generals surveil their carpet-bombing operation, resolute that the denizens of the forest floor will not survive. Stoic sparrow soldiers watch and wait for orders.
Up in the heavens, cloud wraiths howl, throw their grey manes about and strike their chests. The conifer king bows his head solemnly in acknowledgment of the sacrifice his subjects have made. The sea spirits beat a funeral dirge for the fallen upon the unyielding feet of granite cliff giants, whose eternal vigil stymies their campaign to grow their water demesne.
Growth. The minstrel’s eyes spring open and a shimmering pearl drips down the strings of his guitar, sending one high note up into the air, like the chirp of a small bird. It flutters about the ceiling, flapping its wings with increasingly desperate fury, then falls, exhausted, to the ground with an imperceptible downy thud.
Life without impact, death without notice: in the grand temporal scheme, is that an existence? If so, why?
Why — the unanswered question, hidden in plain sight.
Confusion. The artist’s mandate: be singular, have vision, but take from eternity, from the contributions of greatness past. Take. Just another word for thievery. Chew the flesh down until only gristle, and the pit of the soul, remain. But that particular seed is barren. Dropped into a pond, it plummets down to the murky depths frequented only by snaggle-tooth sea monsters, a vestige from time immemorial.
The troubadour’s eyes droop. The shadowy forms of his Eden-like vision coalesce in the twilight of his subconscious. There is peace here. And freedom.
Freedom. A myth? Be an individual. Produce. Create. But for others, under the direction of golden-calf idolaters who sell whatever appeases the hedonistic masses? That wasn’t freedom. That was lockstep, like the foot soldiers of the tide advancing and retreating on the orders a celestial commandant.
He: dictatorial, untouchable and not to be challenged.
They: swollen with the importance of their charge. The advanced line of the reconnaissance parties of dawn’s first light, shining their antiseptic credo only where directed. Lazy and weak, swerving hulking twilight demons whose bastions ringed the territory occupied by culture. Don’t acknowledge these strategic weaknesses; what is ignored cannot be vanquished. Live to fight another day. An easy mantra for a conscripted soldier who can see the pitched field his general has chosen as a battle ground. Impossible for the lone crusader fighting guerilla shadow warriors.
In the big top, applause erupts. A tableau has been unveiled, depicting sumptuary laws across the ages. A woman, her hear uncombed, her face unwashed, wearing little more than shapeless yards of burlap, faces a crush velvet goddess accoutered with garnet freckles and an elaborate rose gold coif. Sparks fly from the goddess’s fire-diamond eyes as the silver embroidery on her gown melts, leaving an abstract pattern of smoking black rivulets upon the melted fabric. She is reduced to a charred skeletal form: hollow, naught but ash.
The plebian woman’s body is suddenly alive with multi-colored tattoo ropes writhing and twisting upon her flesh like a mass of exotically-hued snakes. They ripple in time to the spasmodic gasps of her cackling laughter. “Progress” is written in a child’s clumsy, hesitant scrawl upon her breast.
“I am you.” she hisses triumphantly.
The curtain falls. The emcee steps onto the stage.
“Another spectacular trick by that master illusionist, Impetus.”
Blind with eyes wide open, the troubadour stumbles through the chilly gloom of a cavern. Faltering, he calls out for help. His own need comes echoing back to him.
Then a figure composed of the supple, winding curves of a babbling brook appears. It slinks towards him, leaving a white and turbid wake as it slices through the silty air. A beaming, luminescent moon sprite, the ever-present light in the darkness. She reaches out a supple hand just as he feels his heel sink into the soft nothingness of oblivion.
Understanding glitters in the depths of her opalescent irises. Roaring flames burst from the pit behind the troubadour, sweeping them both upward, tumbling, crashing, their limbs entwined and flailing, each forceful bush of flesh against flesh bringing the pleasant agony of friction’s heat.
Well-placed thrusts of fear stab the troubadour’s gut. An instinctual tocsin beats at his temples, blaring a countdown to destruction. Prescient warnings go ignored: there is the tender, gentle heat of a yielding mind, a probing body.
But her effervescence melts at the first sign of day, as a belching roar off in the distance warns of the prodigious hunger of the sprawling metropolitan beast waking from its fitful doze.
Suddenly, terror: it’s not a cave, but a furnace. And the heat turns from red to white to blue, a fresh wave of agony coming with each spectral shift.
The damper has failed and the bellows is set to automatic, the engineers caring more for efficiency than integrity.
The troubadour jolts awake, in darkness. Or is this the delusion?
Witchcraft. A dream. A pleasant seduction. A beautiful bud of truth unfolding. Grafted on a pricker bush, it withers on barren, wizened limbs. But reach out to reserve the seed and expose flesh to hungry, snapping teeth.
Purity. A dream. For how could truth, framed by hopes whose ornate veneer wears away to reveal delusion, remain pure? No, delusion: another word for a lie. A hideous blemish marring the perfect surface of the Ideal. An open, oozing sore turning a voluptuous beauty queen into a repulsive crone. Besides, the Ideal was unattainable. The masses, those divinely-inspired philosopher-kings, said so. So it must be true.
Madness. A dream. To root one’s hopes in the impossible. No, madness maddened: to see the gaping, bottomless chasm at the end of one’s quest and still press on.
A hollow, grating cord unchains itself from the troubadour’s throat and echoes raucously in the empty space: a cave, a theater, a tomb?
Confusion. An epitaph for a life lived constantly wondering at the contrast between dime store idols venerated by the slavish masses and those who give of themselves freely, with promise of reward and advancement, in service to that most beneficent master, Merit. A master now bow-backed and drooping with the weight of the ages. King of but an impossibly ancient few who hear, in the sounds of nature, a primal song, an ode to mankind’s talents, culled through the ages with advances so perfect they’ve made the original instinct obsolete. Buried in the recycling bin of spirit.
A last vestige dies now as the chill draft blowing through the dilapidated theater sweeps the dried-up dust of the troubadour’s soul across the stage. To be trampled on by callous heels even in death.
Somewhere in that far-off dream world a volcano erupts. The waters have long since receded, evaporating with man’s higher feelings, the climate become hot and arid. But man, in his tower — chrome not ivory — of technological wizardry needs not fear intemperate weather. He is connected even in his solitude; his presence looms large among the mountains that make up the horizon of knowledge.
A phoenix, lone and wondrous, takes flight just as the ash cloud blots out the sun. His wings are weighed down; he gags. Blind in the silt, he crashes, his grave unmarked by a mountain of rubble from under which he cannot rise again.
Back in reality, the penultimate act of the carnival sideshow concludes. The producers have saved the best trick for last.
“A stunning feat! A spine-tingling thrill of amazement! Unprecedented in human history!”
So shouts the emcee, bedecked, like royal news criers of old, in garments that flaunt the grandeur of his employer’s station. He is more outlandish than any court jester, exerting himself with the utmost conscientiousness, could ever hope to be.
“We give you the height of man’s talent!” he cries in the pleasant, braying tone of a jackass.
“Self-actualized man at last! Unlimited and unburdened by his base instincts and petty impulses!”
A curtain rises to reveal a boxy metal statue: a hulking chest and spindly limbs and a head bedecked with flashing lights and mismatched nobs. It is an illustration borne of the first cresting waves of a child’s imagination. But made into a monstrous chimera through the juvenile bumbling of inept tinkerers.
It lurches forward, lightbulb eyes blinking demonically, then grasps a guitar in it metal claws. An ear-offending, discordant note vibrates low in the air. The metal man begins to sing an old abiding ballad of love. Not the intense monomoniacal obsession of one with the unconditional adulation of another so popularly sought, but devotion, borne of reflection and conscious choice, to purity and truth in their most perfect forms.
Its vibrato is harsh and nasal, the words choppy and flat. Its lightbulb eyes blink out of time to the steady tempo strummed by its metal claw.
Applause erupts like a sonic boom.
“Ladies and gentlemen, consummate man!” the emcee crows, arms thrown wide in jubilation, as the curtain falls and darkness reigns.