You Win Or You learn (On Why I Moved to Asia, and Other Unimportant News)

I’m lying with my back on the tatami, clutching my throbbing skull while invisible cartoon Tweety Birds and disembodied snippets of random Elliot Smith songs drift up from the long-forgotten pockets of my brain. There are crickets chirping just outside the dojo’s huge, open barn door. There are crushed mosquitos to all sides of me. Somewhere, our collective furry friend whose real name I don’t know, but who I have taken to calling Mat Cat, is enjoying eating a dead bird.

I have just taken a knee to the dome.

The knee was accidental. These types of collisions happen all the time in Brazilian jiu jitsu class. They are the cost of training a combat sport. My training partner meant me no ill will. He was only passing my guard, and didn’t intend to snipe me out of nowhere with his Thor-like kneecap. I probably went at him a little too hard and he responded in kind. And as easy as that, boom… knee meet head.

sad-toddler-boy-600.jpg

I’m not going to lie. This shit hurts. I don’t go out completely, but I do lose my grasp on reality for a minute. When I come to, Mr. Smith is inviting me to “follow [him] down to the Rose Parade… throwing out candy that looks like money…

Part of me immediately wonders if I should run to the nearest hospital and get checked for a concussion.

Don’t sleep! You could die! 

I don’t want to die yet. I’ve only been here a month.

Did I mention that the dojo I’m training at is in the middle of a jungle in mountainous, beautiful Northern Thailand?

IMG_3803.jpg
Northern Thailand.

Whoa. Thailand?

Yes, I moved here recently. No, not to the place in the picture, but to somewhere else in Thailand. I have only been here a short time, but I already know it’s a place I could spend the rest of my life and still not have enough time to enjoy it.

It is true, my friends, fam, and fans (all five of you): I am no longer living as a selfie-absorbed American expat in Europe, where I’ve been for the past almost five years of my life, since I was twenty-seven years old. I’ve graduated to the next level. I’m now living the life of a selfie-absorbed America expat in Southeast Asia.

And I’m thankful for every second.

ffdf2812-23d9-41f4-abe0-6ebeac8c8919.jpg

I am thankful for the crickets and the tatami and the big open door. I am thankful for Mat Cat munching on her birds. I am thankful for the waterfall I swam under two weeks ago and riding on the backs of girls’ motorbikes through mountains that look like the masterpiece of an elite cake artist or possibly Bob Ross.

I am thankful for my training partners kicking the ever-loving shit out of me on a daily basis, making me feel like a white belt again every time I show up to train. I am thankful for my training partner’s knee connecting with my skull, which has led me to this epiphany. I am thankful, because there is a lesson here.

The lesson is twofold. Firstly, I will not defeat my training partner’s knee. It’s too late for that; it’s already connected with my skull, pushing play on buried memories of songs I haven’t listen to since college. I may not win this time, but I will learn. What will I learn? To keep my head up, like Pac said.

The second, and more important takeaway, is that I am grateful for the chance to feel this gratitude in the first place. I am grateful to be here, at all. Living, breathing, learning.

Because as recently as four months ago, I almost wasn’t.

Kurt-Osiander1
Kurt Osiander.

I Fucked Up A Long Time Ago

In the words of legendary Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor and hair model Kurt Osiander: I fucked up a long time ago.

The career path of a writer in the video game industry is murky even in the best of times. And by murky, I mean about as straight and clear as a canal in the middle of a medieval city, where the citizens are known to discard everything from their night soil to their unwanted young. Jobs are scarce. Competition is thick. We wear many hats, we deal with a lot of unspeakable bullshit even on the best case scenario projects, and we drink too much for a reason.

The game industry seems to only have two kinds of companies, with very little (if any) middle ground: companies that treat their employees like human beings, and the other kind. If you’re in the industry, especially as a creative, do extreme due diligence into the companies you work for. Otherwise, you may not find out until the ink on your contract is already dry that you’re working for scum.

1405344823_1.jpg
Screenshot from The Wolf Among Us, starring Dean.

I recently escaped one such nightmare job situation. I took the gig despite seeing massive red flags both toward myself and others (Thus Spake Kurt: “You fucked up a long time ago”). I’m not going to mention specifics here, as this website, at least, is not for bitching and complaining, but for sharing news about my books, and occasionally, my personal life.

Let’s just say, you know it’s going to be bad when multiple co-workers give you “the talk” during your first week, and warn you to reconsider working for a company you just moved across the world for. The place was a bucket of crabs on a good day. On bad days…

312

I Ignored the Red Flags

“Don’t ignore red flags.” We all know this point rationally, if not instinctively. But, I’m a stubborn man, and the only thing I hate more than admitting I’ve made a mistake is leaving things unfinished. I shouldn’t have taken the job in the first place. That much was clear from the moment I got there. But I liked the city, and most of the people I worked with. So, I gave it my all, wrote the best stories I could for the projects on my plate, and stuck it out for a year and a half – way past the point when the rotten smell grew overpowering and I should’ve made a quiet exit.

And what was the result? I ended up alone in a foreign country, mentally and physically at my breaking point, carrying so much stress around that my doctor started writing me prescriptions. I hadn’t written any new fiction in a year. I was self-medicating with alcohol and had barely lifted anything heavier than a beer in longer than I could remember. The only thing I did do that was in any way productive was Brazilian jiu jitsu, because it was the only thing that kept me sane.

Oh yeah, the same week I finally decided I’d had enough, and resigned from my job, my relationship with my now ex-girlfriend ended, too. Things had been on the rocks for a while, but I loved her deeply, and after four years and I can’t remember how many countries we lived in and traveled together to, I never imagined things could end with such a whimper… via Facebook Messenger, from a thousand miles away.

But, so it goes.  I guess I never was the marrying kind.

Reader-Question.png
Something something lemons…

It Got Worse Before It Got Better

Uncertainty prevailed. I was completely and irreversibly adrift. Were these the infamous lemons everyone had always warned life would give me? So they were. And I didn’t have even a pinch of sugar. I was the skinny guy in the photo above, who somehow got himself stuck under the local 300-pound purple belt with no way out, asking himself how it ever got this far.

If there is any place for honesty and sharing our Heart of Hearts, why shouldn’t it be out here in the Void of Voids? Everyone on the Internet wants to be smarter than, cooler than, and morally superior to the person they are in the real world. Maybe I should inject some realness back in this MF, stick a probiotic down her throat and try to healthy up her old, IBS-ridden guts.

I’m going to ditch the veil of this pen name for a minute and write an extremely difficult truth: that cascade of days that kept getting worse almost broke me. Interpret “break” however you wish.

Almost, but it didn’t.

balcony-how.jpg
Pic unrelated.

I Hit Rock Bottom

I was messed up. I was jobless, and more heartbroken than I ever imagined could be possible. I hadn’t slept for weeks. I was dropping weight faster than Khabib before weigh-ins. There was pain in my chest that wouldn’t desist. My medical evaluation was not good. Worse, I was on an expiring Visa, with little time left in Europe before I had to go home to the US with no future prospects, and only a few hundred euro in my bank account.

Now, back in the day, or maybe a parallel universe, perhaps things would’ve ended differently. Better men have snapped for less. But what studying jiu jitsu these past few years has taught me is that no matter how bad it gets, there is always an escape. So I held.

You may not know the escape. It may take you getting squashed ten or a hundred times in a row by bigger and cleverer opponents to learn there even is an escape to the specific bad position you are in, and then another thousand to master it.

But the escape exists.

sv52etq4eqwz
Fun fact, I made this meme.

Gettin’ the Hell Out of  Dodge

I left the nightmare job, I left the country I was living in, I left behind four years of a rocky long-distance relationship. I just… left. Part of me didn’t care where, or how I ended up. A smaller, but thankfully more vocal part of me, told me:

Survive.

Endure.

Escape. The escape will present itself. You only need to be clear enough to see it. 

You may not win this time, but that means nothing as long as you still have the opportunity to learn.

I took a short-term job to make ends meet. I got certified to teach English. I got into talks with a few game companies to try and find a permanent place to land after the freelance work inevitably dried up. Miraculously, it never did. The Big Dry never came. I got one gig. Then another. Then another.

I went…

freelance.

spider-man-001.jpg

Freelance!???!

Freelance. There’s something seductive about that word, like a new lover, or a gigantic wet burrito you know is too big for your stomach. It’s both satisfying and slightly intimidating. It is the one thing J. Jonah Jameson truly relishes to say to his employees.

Holy smokes, Bud. Ten years of working for other people. Am I really ready to do it on my own? Or is this the highway to Hell? I wondered.

It meant I might not know where my money was coming from in a month, and that I couldn’t waste it away on bar tabs or three scoops of gelato a day anymore. It meant I’d have to make my own way, rather than waiting on a paycheck. It meant if I couldn’t make ends meet, there would be no one else to blame.

Christ. Am I going to starve? 

What’s wrong with starving a little, anyway? Starving gives you abs.

It Was Worth It

No, that’s not true. Taking this leap rather than packing it in and going home or accepting yet another job I knew wasn’t a good fit, but that I may have thought was a safer bet, wasn’t merely worth it

…it was one of the best decisions I ever made. My mental and physical health improved within days of leaving my old, stressful life. They didn’t repair completely overnight. The project is still ongoing. I had a few not insignificant bouts with mystery illnesses, some of which were no doubt aftershocks of stress. Things aren’t perfect now, but they are getting better.

In the past few months, the games I’ve been involved with have been my favorite projects I’ve worked on in my career. I’ve been able to explore new countries. I’ve met incredibly kind and talented people. I’ve trained jiu jitsu at a bunch of new academies, in a bunch of new cities, with a bunch of awesome people. I’ve cut down to an average of one beer a week (like hell I’d ever give it up completely). I even got back on the grind, and finished my next novel (stay tuned for more on that soon).

The money ain’t bad, either. I won’t say how much I make at my current gig, but it’s more than at my last job.

No gi guard passing drills in Thailand.

The Universe Balances Itself Out

Which brings me to Thailand. How, and why did I end up here? If you’ve read this far, it will be no surprise that the past few months have offered me the chance for some deep introspection. It was at times a rough ride, putting it mildly. I needed a detox; spiritually, mentally, and physically. I needed more than an escape. I needed growth.

And growth was what I sought. I had the time. I had the freedom. Why not pull the trigger and go? So, I did. I made it my mission to become the Julia Roberts of wandering jiu jiteiros. Eat, Pray Love: The Male Version. Or maybe, Eat, Fight, Fuck; no, more realistically, it would probably be, Eat, Tap Out, and Go Home To Ice Your Shit and Watch YouTube.

But what better way was there to heal myself from the poisons of a toxic year, or a toxic few, or the increasingly toxic world, than to go somewhere I could live simply and cheaply, and just train?

IMG_3931.jpg
That’s a nice bridge!

I’d been dreaming of this move for ages. I’ve wanted to slow-travel through Asia and spend a few months (or years) living the life of a Kung Fu movie monk since I was a teenager. As you probably already know from your Instagram and YouTube feeds, Thailand is beautiful, and relatively inexpensive for Western travelers. It’s also one of the only Asian countries where Brazilian jiu jitsu is relatively easy to find and practice with high-level people, including professional fighters (of which there are a few at my current academy).

But my interest in Thailand didn’t begin with a hashtag. It has been lifelong. The Beach was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. I took a few Muay Thai classes back in college, and always told myself I would at some point dedicate time to learning the basics of the sport. The older I got, the more it became apparent that wasn’t going to happen unless I moved here (my main focus is jiu jitsu, but I’m slowly building up my fitness level so I can train both simultaneously; my goal is ten classes per week; I am currently at six). Also, Thai food is my absolute favorite. It has, since my arrival here a month ago, even dethroned the dank burritos of Southern California.

I’ll keep my present thoughts on exes and dating to myself.

Buddhist monks in Pai.

My Paradise

Everyone has a different conception of Paradise. For some, it is making millions of dollars they cannot take with them. For others, it is being able to have sex with lots of beautiful strangers without consequences. For many in my generation, it is fame or an elite career, which are both means to the same end, which is a perennial sense of importance. For the religious, it is meeting their creator and overcoming death and the relentless pain of loss. For most, I suppose, it is probably nothing that heady, and only means lying on a picturesque crescent of white sand sipping Coronas.

For years now, ever since I got back into jiu jitsu and started taking it seriously again, I have made it a goal to visit (or relocate) to Thailand as soon as I had the money and time. Thailand is one of the only places on Earth where there are MMA camps one can live and train at full time in jungled highlands or on tropical islands, where there is nothing else to do but hit each other in the face and wrestle in your pajamas.

IMG_3494
A buddhist temple.

Wrestling in one’s pajamas isn’t for everyone. I’m not even very good at it. I’m a lowly blue belt who gets beaten up by everyone here. I will never be world champion or have a wall in my house full of trophies. Training this sport won’t make me rich, and it won’t make me famous. It will never win me the Nobel Prize or make me a worthy suitor for the daughters of well-off New England families. In the grand eyesight of the universe, it is not altogether meaningful or important.

But for me, Paradise is merely the description of a place where I can grow. For without growth, what am I? And where do I have the chance to grow more so than here, on these mats, in the middle of this jungle, alongside veritable killers, including Mat Cat and her birds? There is no place I’d rather be at this point in my life. I may not win every day, but I will learn.

For now, that’s Paradise enough.


Mat cat scores a belt.

You Win, or You Learn

The title of this post comes from a commonly-repeated phrase in the Brazilian jiu jitsu world: you win or you learn. In combat sports, it means that there is no such thing as losing to a training partner or even in competition unless you do not adapt from your mistakes; even when you “fucked up a long time ago,” that doesn’t mean anything unless you allow it to.

It applies to chokes and arm locks, to double-legs and hip throws, and most certainly to getting trapped under a heavy opponent’s side control. But its true in a lot of other ways, isn’t it?

When it comes to shit jobs, you win or you learn.

When it comes to books you spend years writing that you fear few people will read, you win or you learn.

When it comes to relationships and the cruel twists of fate that determine who will become permanent fixtures in the blink-span of your life and who will only become a lesson, you win or you learn.

When it comes to finding what you want and making the moves necessary to grab it, you win or you learn.

You win, or you learn.

So bring on the knees to the face, and keep them coming.

The Top 12 Books I’ve Read This Year… So Far.

you and i books

Hi everyone.

I’ve got an hour to burn before I go to a work meeting so thought I’d fill the time picking my top 12 books that I’ve read this year… so far! It’s about halfway through the year but I still have about 40 books to read on my Goodreads schedule. Let’s see how many of these make the final cut at the end of the year. One of these books I haven’t finished yet but I know it’s worthy of the list. So without further waffling, here we go…

View original post 318 more words

Poetry: The Kid

Happy 85th birthday, Cormac McCarthy. 85 years. What a genius.

The video here is me reading my poem, “The Kid,” inspired by his novel Blood Meridian. One of my favorite horror stories of all time, although it usually isn’t classified as horror. To me, it certainly is. What else would you call a novel about a gang of ex-Army scalp hunters gone rogue during the Mexican-American War?

It is my belief that poetry should be heard, not read, and while mine isn’t that good, it’s a form of writing I’m constantly trying to practice and improve. Take a listen and let me know what you think in the comments.

Fiction: This Door is Locked

The cliffs stabbed like a crusted knife from dark sea to pale night. David pulled his step at the last second, barely avoiding a fall that would have smashed him to pieces on the jagged rocks a thousand feet below. He stumbled backward and vomited on the snow.

Few things were more unpredictable, or harder on the stomach than traveling through the Doors. An air car dropping too fast off a high platform, maybe, or launching into space on the equatorial fast track for the first time.

The Escher Door had dropped him on top of a devil’s tower, a five hundred foot-tall needle of black stone rising over a gnashing, alien sea. Beyond the salt water channel, at least ten miles away, a mainland of pale fjords marched away in every direction. There was nothing on top of David’s tall, miserable little island but a single tree anchored bitterly beneath the permafrost.

Fragmented images rose through the murky penumbra of his memory: Rose’s smile, an old man in a tower, a ship half-buried in snow.

I gotta keep moving, David told himself. If I don’t move, I’m gonna die. The Last Door is out there. All I need to do is find it, and I’ll be a fixture in the history books until the end of days. I’ll finally be able make some real money, buy Rose that cottage on the bluffs of Bolinas. I must be getting close. Maybe this time I’ll actually find it.

Maybe this time.

Instinct drove his hands into his pockets, where he found his supplies were almost gone. He had a few vacuum-sealed bags of Earl Gray, enough water to last another day or two, three protein bars, and a picture of Rose smiling under an umbrella on a rainy Budapest riverside. Their second date, David remembered, back before they were both starving professors trying to eke out a living in the oversaturated, over-priced wasteland of New York.

An old, hollow pain in his heart made David think about taking a running leap off the cliff’s edge, and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to splatter himself on those distant, glaive-like rocks, to feed whatever creatures lurked beneath the waves of this planet’s briny, black ocean, wherever this planet was. But he knew it was just the pain of seeing her face again.

This world, the world of the fjords, is the best candidate we have for being their home world. If I’m going to do it, it’s not going to be until after I find them.

There was no other way down from the devil’s tower that David could see. Returning through the Door was never an option, either. Escher Doors were one-way.

Where the hell is my ship? He could remember landing it, but not where, which meant the memory wasn’t very old or very recent, but somewhere in the middle.

The Escher Doors robbed you of your short-term memories. That was the price you paid to wander through them. But David had been wandering long enough that the oldest memories of his pilgrimage had started becoming fixed. It was only a matter of time until-

The wind howled, cold biting through David’s jacket, making his knees buckle and collapse. He fell onto his knees and vomited again on the snow, the empty contents of his stomach an embarrassingly small offering to the gods of this stark, frozen world.

Gotta find shelter. Fast. Too weak to try climbing. Body temperature dropping. I need something to eat. I’m so hungry.

The thought of food was enough to motivate him to move. He found his feet, brushed the snow and loitering bits of vomit off his beard and clothes, and began frantically searching for something, anything, that would point the way to the next Door.

But there was nothing. Soon the gray, glass bottle bottom sun sank behind the fjords, and David was forced to make camp, digging a tiny shelter in the snowbank under the foot of the island’s single tree that he hoped – no, prayed – would keep him alive until morning.

A green light caught his eye while he was digging, far off across the fjords and the bruised, purple sea, as the dusk finally deepened.

It was only a tiny, green glimmer, so miniscule that if David didn’t know what it was, he might have mistaken it for some bioluminescent animal prowling the shoreline. He watched the soft, jade light flickering on and off, as regular as a heartbeat, until he was done digging, then as he laid shivering in his shelter, waiting for sleep to take him. He watched it when he woke up at night to urinate, and again when the wind howled like a blizzard of throwing knives over the mouth of his shelter.

David knew the light’s source could only be one thing. It was one of the ten million-year lamps that guarded each Escher Door, the beacons set to guide the Wanderers on their long, endless pilgrimage.

He awoke to the grey light of dawn seeping over the fjords, and a soft, mechanical buzzing in his ear. David leapt up out of his snowy bed, and immediately kicked himself for being so easily startled. Each Escher Door was fitted with a resupply station to replenish those who traveled through it.

Rose would be laughing at me right now.

The pain of losing her was always the worst after waking up. Her voice echoed in his mind’s ear: I don’t want you to go. What if something bad happens to you?

He saw her wiping her eyes on the back of her wrists, took them, and kissed her on the eyelids.

Nothing bad is going to happen to me, babe.

What had the old man had said about redemption being the inversion of selfishness? David couldn’t remember.

The whirring sound grew louder with each handful of snow. His fingers scraped metal less than a foot down, and the bare corner of the small, spherical delivery plate of a food printer peered up at him.

The machine had sensed him exit the Escher Door and cycled on sometime during the night. David couldn’t blame a machine that was several million years old for taking a few hours to turn on. He only hoped that whatever it printed was still edible.

Thankfully, it was. The raw, dirty paste that fed from the printer’s nozzle into an insta-fabbed leaf cup tasted disgusting, but it gave him enough strength to get up and move around.

He washed his face and hands with the snow, placed the leaf he’d eaten out of in the printer’s recycling bay, and started looking for the path that would lead him to the next Door, which he now knew for certain was hidden on top of the devil’s tower.

Within minutes, David found the hatch.

It was an old fashioned trapdoor built into the ground and hidden under several feet of snow, not five paces away from the nutrient station. The hatch hissed open as he muscled through the ages of rust and time that had sealed it.

David crouched and lowered himself into the dark dampness of the ancient stone stairwell. It was several degrees warmer here than up top, and grew even warmer as he descended. Automated lanterns in the ceiling and walls flickered on as he passed. The lanterns had been one of the first subjects of David’s study when he began specializing in Wanderer culture back at the university in New York.

Feels like that life belonged to a different person, David reflected, as those old memories came back to him: of cramming to finish lesson plans, and braving hordes of students at office hours; of pinching every penny so he and Rose could make rent each month on that stupid, microscopic studio apartment that always stank of burning roaches; of practicing with the band, of missing practice; of the rare one or two days a year when they got a gig, and he could let it all go; of his fingers dancing up the worn neck of his Engelhart stand up double bass, the only item of any value he and Rose owned; of Rose’s eyes glimmering, inches from the stage, as if they existed only for him.

At last, the stairwell opened to a wide tunnel hewn into the glistening rock of the channel floor. Huge dripstones hung from the ceiling like a theater of forgotten puppets, overgrowing the ancient pictograms the Wanderers had cut into the walls.

Those mood pictures were the only form of writing the Wanderers had left behind. David had once published a theory that the indecipherable, swirling doodles had held religious significance, that they didn’t tell a story, but were more akin to visual hymns.

They are formless. Pure. Like jazz, they wander without knowing the road, only the destination.

But like all David’s theories, that one would likely go unfulfilled unless David found what he was looking for. The Wanderers appeared to have destroyed all written records of their history once the Escher Doors were built, including any discernable map to where the Doors led, which was why David’s mentor Dr. Liapis had informally given the long-since-vanished alien species their moniker. No physical remains of the Wanderers’ bodies had ever been found.

They went through the Last Door, David thought, gazing at the swirling, mystic spirals that graced the cave walls. And the Last Door is here. On this world. It has to be. All of my research pointed to the Fjord World being the end of the pilgrimage. It was some kind of last rite for their species, the last staging ground before moving on to their promised land.

I’ll never know until I find that Door. I’ll never know until I walk through it.

The tunnel went on for so long that David lost all sense of time. He was hungry again when he finally saw the tunnel’s endpoint, a filled-in halo of white light gleaming in the distance above him. The tunnel curved upward and David ascended into cold air.

The tunnel exited onto a snowbound isle in the middle of the fjord, a meter or so higher than sea level. The island’s only feature was an ornate stone archway guarded by a blinking, floating buoy that spat bursts of brilliant green light every few seconds – the same light David had seen from the top of the devil’s tower. A few scaly birds resembling Terran sea gulls nested on the buoy.

The Escher Door was a little one, built for local on-world travel, not the slightly larger kind that could jump you across entire arms of the Milky Way in the blink of an eye. Wherever it led was somewhere relatively near, and paying for the ride would cost only a negligible amount of David’s short-term memory. Any apprehension he might’ve felt was forgotten as soon as he stepped through, as was everything else he’d felt since waking up the previous afternoon: the cliffs, the tree, the shelter, the dirty paste, the tunnel and its incomprehensible wonders.

David forgot everything but jazz, and Rose.

***

A wall of cobwebs met him on the other side. He felt sick and tasted bile in his mouth. His memory came back much quicker this time, as did the pain of Rose’s absence. Some old argument effervesced from the buried annals of his mind.

If you don’t go, David, how will we ever have a future? How will we afford to have kids, a state-of-the-art home gym, to live in the Bay Area and buy a cottage on the bluffs of Bolinas, so you can busk with your band on Nob Hill?

I don’t know, Rose. I don’t know how we’ll do those things. But this feels wrong. It feels like I’m about to make the worst mistake I’ve ever made.

Then don’t go.

Don’t say that. You know I won’t.

I love you. And I’ll support whatever decision you make.

His fingers instinctively found the worn, smooth corners of the amber bracelet she had given him to match the necklace he got for her their first Christmas together. They had chosen amber because it was the only precious stone either of them could afford. The sunburst stones still held their cool, dusky glow, but the silver setting was tarnished and ruined. Three of the amber leaves in its spiraling tree motif had fallen out. David couldn’t remember when.

Still, it was the last piece of her David still had other than that old picture.

Rationally, he knew Rose might no longer be alive. Nobody knew how the Doors worked, if Door travel actually was as instantaneous as it seemed, or if there were relativistic effects like those that accompanied normal acceleration. Would he return to Earth to find that Rose had grown very old, like the twin who was left behind from Einstein’s infamous paradox? Or worse, that she was several hundred, or several thousand years dead?

You made this choice for a reason, he reminded himself. And now you’re going to see it through.  

He exited onto a huge plaza at the heart of a vast stone city nestled between the walls of a great fjord. A hundred tawny torches blazed silently from the walls of the abandoned metropolis.

The plaza was made of many small islands floating upon an oblong lake, all connected by causeways that formed a shallow quincunx of canals. The horizontal pattern mirrored the vertical one the city itself carved from either side of the fjord. It was the most awesome architectural marvel David had ever seen.

Thousands, perhaps millions of stairways, tunnels, and arched doorways dotted the sheer cliff faces, weaving a singular, flowing mood picture a hundred times larger than Manhattan. The telltale glimmers of uncountable lanterns sparkled in every groove and spiral.

At first glance, it looked like a giant, stone-wrought maze. But as David’s eyes studied the rolling, fluid images cut into the escarpment, he began to see that none of it was supposed to be connected at all.

A city of neighbors who could never meet. A multitude of Doors leading to nowhere and everywhere at once. But that was the point, wasn’t it?

As much as he wanted to stay and fall upward into the pale vertigo of that infinite city forever, David didn’t have time to stand around gawking. The sun had set, the moons were rising, and despite the queer calm of the air, he didn’t want to get stranded again without real shelter or food if the weather changed for the worse.

There was a small, minaret tower watching over the plaza of canals that looked different in style and structure than the surrounding buildings. Its light was yellow, not green, and it appeared to have been recently built.

David headed towards it, finding the most direct path he could across the interconnected islands of the plaza. When he was halfway across, he noticed that the yellow light wasn’t a beacon, like those guarding the Doors, but an indoor light shining through an open window.

Someone still lives there, David thought. Door Traffic Control, maybe? A caretaker? No. That’s a human structure.

Someone else is already here.

The possibility that he might not be the first to have discovered this world, that he wouldn’t be the first to wander through the Last Door, filled David with deep, existential dread. His fear was tempered only by the thought of taking a long, deep drink of clean water and filling his belly with something hot.

Dr. Liapis and I were the only two people who were supposed to know about this Door-path. No one else so much as speculated about it, let alone that it could lead to the Last Door. It was a shot in the dark, which is why he sent me all the way out here instead of coming himself.

A dark shape blotted the light in the window. David’s blood turned to cool sludge. Who the hell is that?

When David reached the foot of the tower, a distinctly human shape stuck his head out of the window and called down to him, in American English, “Look at you! You made it in one piece. Open the gate and come upstairs. There’s hot food and tea. The door’s automated. The password is Charles Mingus.”

David tried, but the door of the tower wouldn’t open. “Did you say Mingus? As in, the jazz bass player, Charles Mingus?”

“The legendary, the one and only. But just hold on. That old thing can be a real pain in the ass if you don’t know how to jangle it right. I’ll do it for you. Be right down,” the man said.

An instant later the door to the tower slid open, and David was enveloped in a bubble of warmth and light.

An old man stood in front of him, silhouetted against the light spilling out from the interior, but David could see him clearly enough to know he was no one who had ever worked in the very small, very catty academic field of Xenoanthropology, at least while David was alive.

The man was short, much shorter than David, and completely bald save for two slender gray quasar jets of hair sprouting from either side of his head. He wore a water-reclaiming outskin that resembled a suit of tight, but comfortable pajamas, and his eyes held the two-tone look of someone who is used to having two conversations simultaneously – one with the person they are speaking to, and a separate one about that person inside their own head.

The old man extended his hand. “Pleasure to finally meet you, Doctor Tovakol. I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”

David shook the old man’s hand and said, “Hi. Look, I don’t mean to be blunt, but…”

The old man cut him off. “You thought you were the only one here. It appears you are not.”

“All right,” David said. “So, who are you?”

“I’m Nobody,” the old man said.

Great, David thought. This guy isn’t just a lonely old nut living out here at the salty edge of bumfuck nowhere. He’s a cracked lonely old nut living out here at the salty edge of bumfuck nowhere.

“Is that your first name or surname?” David said.

The old man tilted his head, his tone losing its hint of jovial amusement. “Did I stutter, Doctor?”

“Look. I’m sorry. I’m really thirsty and I haven’t eaten in… well, I can’t remember how long, but it’s been a while. Can I come in?” David said.

The old man shrugged. “I thought you’d never ask.”

David followed the old man inside. “Wait,” he said. “I have to know something. Were you really the first one? Or have there been others?”

The old man paused, setting one foot on the stairs. “I was, and remain, the first and only human being other than you to ever take a living breath on this world. Not that it matters. It was never ours to discover.”

The old man’s humility made David angry. “So I was right. This was their home world? Or at least, their capital?” David said.

“This entire galaxy was their home. But yes, this planet was where they first evolved from the primordial soup. It remained sentimental to them, until the very last shedding of their lower culture.

“Now, please, Doctor. I’d prefer if we had this conversation upstairs,” the old man said.

They went up the tower, ascending a simple spiral stairwell lined with a hypnotizing array of stone panels floating in protective vacuum cases. At first David thought they were mood drawings, salvaged from some corner of the Wanderers’ civilization he had yet to see, until he noticed they were laser-etched.

“You’re mapping them,” David said.

The old man turned and looked down at David over his shoulder, stopped and leaned on the handrail of the stairs. “I was, yes. Or rather, I was trying to, until I learned the Door-paths can’t be mapped. Come along. These damned stairs get a little harder to climb each day, and soon I won’t be able to ascend this phallic eyesore at all.”

“But… “ before David could speak, the old man cut him off.

“If you wanted to ask why, you should’ve majored in philosophy. Come along now. This way.”

David kept his mouth shut, ascending the rest of the long, winding stairway in silence.

The tower’s penthouse was a circular room with panoramic windows looking out over the dusk-lit fjords. The only furnishings were a twin bed and slapped-together kitchenette, and a crude worktable.

Instead of the expected, stereotypical piles of dusty vellum scrolls, glass beakers, and spider-infested grimoires, the old man’s study was crowded with piles of curved, sanded wood in various stages of becoming large, stringed musical instruments.

David recognized the pieces instantly. He’s making standup double basses.

Here was the scroll, half-finished. There, the neck and belly, missing only the final polish. The vices of the old man’s workstation held the youngest iterations, naked in their raw hillocks of sawdust, while his completed works surrounded his bed like a guardianship of wooden soldiers.

“Curious, isn’t it? That two musicians should find each other all the way out here, at the fuzzy edges of spacetime. Please, give one a try,” the old man said.

David touched one of the finished basses, admiring the old man’s handiwork, tilted the hollow body into his arms and plucked out a few notes, the opening riff of Mingus’s Hog Callin’ Blues. The instrument’s sound was deep and elegant.

The old man beamed. It wasn’t pride David saw gleaming in his eye, but the deep respect of process. “You haven’t seen the trees of this world yet, but they are truly grand. The wood gives a different sound than what you get back on Earth. That’s all it is. My skill as a luthier is still light years away from decent. But the wood compensates for my shoddy craftsmanship. I suppose in another fifty or a hundred years, I’ll start to get the hang of it.”

David gave a polite smile. “You’ve got one hell of a hobby,” he said.

The old man went over to the kitchenette and put a pot of water on to boil. “Tea?”

David nodded.

“Earl Grey?”

David took a seat at the kitchen table. “Yes. Black.”

“How would I get milk out here, young man, or sugar, for that matter? Even these tea bags are probably a few centuries old, taking Door travel into account. Thankfully, they’re vacuum-sealed.”

The old man handed him the steaming mug. David sipped it, letting the heat spill down through his body. When was the last time he’d had a cup of real tea? Not since leaving the ship, he thought. Days? Weeks? Or was it years ago?

“Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty,” the old man said, taking a seat at the table beside him. “I don’t have all the answers, and the ones I have will not be satisfactory. You will just have to accept that you won’t know everything, yet.”

“I’m not sure I can do that,” David said.

The old man cleared his throat and began: “The Doors have funny effects on time. You and I both have passed through probably one too many for our own good. Because of that, there are at least three of us who know about this place: you, your professor, and yours truly. I’ve dedicated my life to studying the Freeway, ever since I was your age, and I still haven’t figured out exactly how it works, nor how I arrived before you did, you being the one who is actually credited with its discovery back on Earth.”

“I am?” David said.

The old man nodded. “You are. I have scarce communication with them these days. The Freeway isn’t as exotic a subject as it once was. Research into it barely receives any funding at all. The people’s imagination has seemingly moved on.”

David shook his head. “How? We barely know anything about the Wanderers back home. I’ve never even heard the Escher Doors referred to as the Freeway before you just said it. But, I admit, we know even less about the effects of traversing them, so, I’ll concede that anything’s possible,” he said.

“Ha! Wanderers…” The old man cackled. “I remember when I used to call them that. Of course, it’s been decades.”

What do you call them?” David said.

“Why, nothing. They were Nobodies. Like me.”

“I don’t understand,” David said.

The old man gave him a sympathetic look. “The enigmatic ancients you have traveled so far and sacrificed so much to study were a self-annihilating culture. Not suicidal, mind you – they sought to eradicate the idea of personal importance, of being someone, from their cultural id. It’s the entire reason they constructed the Freeway in the first place.”

“That’s a theory I haven’t heard before,” David said.

A fire lit in the old man’s eyes. “It is only my professional opinion, but it’s one I’ve formed over tens of thousands of hours of meticulous research, decades I spent here alone, freezing my bloody butt cheeks off and surviving off of protein paste so I could one day tell you about it. Do you think I would have chosen this path if I didn’t have at least a solid inkling of what’s going on?”

“I suppose not,” David said.

“The Nobodies’ civilization advanced to the point where they realized that rampant individualism was the driving force responsible for the worst evils of their world: greed, poverty, famine, war. Yet, it is in the nature of all intelligent beings to be self-interested, and technology only amplifies this primitive urge. Considering the level of technology they had, it was only a matter of time before they destroyed themselves, and the entire galaxy along with them.

“So the Nobodies started a gargantuan project, the largest in their history, to eradicate the ego from their species. They built the devices we call Escher Doors, a vast network of portals placed at seemingly random points throughout the Milky Way, which wipe the short-term memory of anyone who walks through them.”

“I think I follow you, so far,” David said.

“This network is what I have come to call the Freeway, because the Nobodies believed that traveling it was the only way for the individual, and thus society as a whole, to become totally free,” the old man said.

“Free of what?” David said.

“Of the baggage of egoism,” the old man said.

“And do you believe that?” David said.

A smirk curled up the side of the old man’s lips. “Does it matter what I think? You’re going to complete your journey regardless of what I tell you, even if I say with 100% certainty that doing so will mean not only erasing every last shred of your desire to become Someone of Importance… it will also mean you can never, ever return home.”

“You found the Last Door,” David said. It wasn’t a question.

The old man’s fingers tapped out a burning rhythm on the tabletop. “That is an interesting way to phrase it. The answer to your question is yes, but in my experience, that way of seeing things is not entirely accurate. The Doors work like jazz. You wander through them, experiencing riffs on a scale, but there is no definite structure, no pre-determined road to where you are going. The music can go on forever, or it can stop as soon as the musician – or the audience – grows tired.”

“Did you find it or not?” David said.

“Calm down, Doctor. I already told you I found the Door you’re looking for, and passed through it. But while it is true that all Doors lead to the same place, eventually, the Door you came here to find is certainly not the last.”

David was about to open his mouth and demand that the old man take him, but the old man put a gentle hand on his, all blue veins and pale wrinkles, and said, “I know what it is you want. Why you came so far. Why you gave up what you did, even nearly losing your life. I have no quarrel with any of it, Doctor. I understand. I was young once, too. I simply want you to be ready before I take you there, to be prepared for what will happen to you. And it sure as hell isn’t going to be before you finish your tea.”

They set out into the eternal twilight, two lone pilgrims wandering through howling drifts of snow and shadow, their own shapes cast indecisively, growing long, then short, then long again as they passed under the periodic lights of the city.

“It took me almost a decade to realize they never lived here,” the old man said as they walked.

“How?” David said.

“Tested the soil. No signs of carbon-based life ever having settled in these dwellings.”

A sudden wind bit into them, driving the cold deep beneath his skin. It never seemed to end, that cold; hadn’t, since he’d started wandering through the Doors; even the brief respite of warmth and light in the old man’s study hadn’t driven it away for long.

“Where are we going?” David said.

The old man pointed.

Far ahead of them, the ghostly tip of a high hill could be seen rising from the city’s labyrinthine skyline, conjoining the massive canyon walls into a single line of impassable, craggy white.

They began to ascend, and soon David could see the city’s shape falling away around them, a spiraling maze of concentric stone rings of which the hill they were now climbing was the center.

“So why’d they build a city they never intended to live in?” David said.

The old man shrugged. “Did you notice anything different about the doors of those houses we passed?”

David squinted to look at the distant, twisting avenues winding up the cliffs. All of the arched doorways had been intentionally sealed by piles of rubble.

“They’re blocked,” David said.

“Yes. They are,” the old man said. “All of them, closed until the end of time. Except, those aren’t houses. By the time this city was built, the Nobodies’ society had already advanced past the point where they lived in houses at all. They carried everything they needed on their backs. Every door you see in this city is an Escher Door.”

So they are, David realized. There were hundreds of them, thousands; uncountable portals leading to myriad worlds scattered further across space and time than the imagination could grasp.

This isn’t a city. It’s a transit hub. How did I miss it before? Or did I already know, and forgot?

The old man seemed to read David’s mind. “Yes, this place was the great hub of the Nobodies’ Freeway. And now every gate in the terminal is closed, every single Escher Door here, except the one you came through, is a collapsed, dead end.”

“Why?” David said.

The old man’s chest puffed. “Because I closed them. I was spending too much time wandering, and I had work to do. Funny, isn’t it? Traveling through the Doors was the one thing that prevented me from crafting my theory about how they worked.”

They reached the summit of the hill. A single, familiar light burned through the pirouetting snow devils, above an archway whose Escher Doorway was still open.

“I thought you said they were all closed,” David said.  

The old man cracked a smile. “Part of me wants to leave you to figure it out for yourself, but without knowing what I’m about to tell you, it will be impossible. Besides, I won’t get another chance to say it. This is the last time we will see each other, Doctor Tavakol, for a very long time,” the old man said.

“Tell me,” David said.

“We were both mistaken about how the Doors worked when we first arrived at this place. The Doors are purposeful errors in the spacetime quantum structure, like playing a wrong note on purpose during a concert. Except, spacetime is a self-correcting architecture. It is always stable. The Nobodies found a way to exploit that stability, by hacking one of its fundamental rules, that forward motion through time is an inherently destabilizing motion. The universe balances itself by constantly replaying its own melodies and harmonies so there are no wrong notes.

“You aren’t transmitted the way a photon is when you travel through the Doors. The act of the universe rebalancing itself is literally making you a false correction somewhere else, at some other time, to balance out the error you’ve made in the present by opening it.

“That is why Door travel costs memories, and why walking through that…” the old man pointed to the Last Door where it stood, now a mere fifty meters ahead of them across the hilltop’s flat, snowy plateau, “…will not take you where you wish to go.”

“Where does it go, then?” David said.

“Only where you need to,” the old man said.

They were almost to the Door now, so close David could practically feel its shimmering veil washing the pain of regret from his mind.

The old man grabbed his arm as he was about to step through. “David, please. The Nobodies went through this Door for the exact opposite reason we did, that you still feel you must. But I promise you won’t find them through this Door. I beg you to reconsider. This Door does not lead to Someone.”

David looked down at the veiny, pale hand grasping his arm. The old man’s sleeve had fallen back to reveal the ancient glimmer of a silver bracelet bearing the shape of a spiraling tree. Most of the tree’s amber leaves were long since fallen, but the few that remained still held their dusky, sunburst glow.

The old man winced and withdrew his hand.

But David couldn’t turn back, not after coming so far, after sacrificing so much. “If I don’t, I’m nothing. We both know I have to do this,” David said, and stepped through the Last Door.

The old man sighed. “I’ll leave the light on for you.”

***

The room was a tiny, hot mess high in the sky traffic zone of some ancient upper Manhattan smogscraper, the furniture all clinging to the corners between the poorly placed abutments and piles of discarded clothes, barely a hundred square feet if you included the bathroom and oven-less kitchen. The window was open, as always, an almost futile measure to beat the brutal heat of the New York autumn. Dusk had already settled, and far below, the slow, perpetual red storm of the city churned indifferently under sideways pillars of pollution. Somewhere in the apartment, a woman was crying.

David knocked on the bathroom door, wiggled the knob and found that it was locked. “Rose?” he said.

The sobbing ceased for a moment and resumed.

She’s pretending not to hear me over the noise of the fan. He knocked again. “Hey baby? Are you all right?”

Another long pause, then a faint, whimpering, “No.”

“Will you come out?”

A moment later the door opened. Rose stood in the doorway, her face framed by a halo of wild curls. She gave him a teary frown and hugged him like she’d never let go, said, “I don’t want you to leave.”

“I know, sweetheart. But we talked about this. This is what’s best for both of us. You said that. Remember?”

Rose nodded.

“Do you know how much I love you?” David said.

Rose pulled back, wiping her eyes with the back of her wrist. She nodded. “Yeah.”

He kissed her on the eyelid. “I’m sorry, baby. I wouldn’t have taken this assignment if I knew it was going to hurt you. We both knew this was coming. We don’t want to live like this forever, right? What about the cottage in Bolinas?”

A fresh wave of tears spouted. She buried her face in her hands, said, “I’m just going to miss you so much. What if something bad happens to you?”

“Nothing bad is going to happen. I’ll be back. I promise,” David said, feeling more false than he ever had in all his life.

She walked him out to the hall to pick up his bag, since there wasn’t enough space for it on the floor of their former – now Rose’s – apartment, then they stepped out onto the platform where the air taxi was waiting to take him to the university’s orbital fast track. He kissed her deeply, gazing long into the eyes of the last woman he would ever love, whose heart he was again breaking in pursuit of a dream, as he had countless, unremembered times before, as he would countless, unremembered times again.

I’ll fix this. I’ll be back as soon as I find it, he convinced himself. But as the air car lurched and fell away from the platform and the waving, weeping figure it held, another, deeper part of him said, No, David. You won’t. The mistake has already been made. Every choice is a door, and this door is already locked.

***

The cliffs stabbed like a crusted knife from dark sea to pale night. David pulled his step at the last second before he ran off the edge, barely avoiding a fall that would have smashed him to pieces on the jagged rocks lurking a thousand feet below. He stumbled backward and vomited on the snow.

The Escher Door had dropped him on top of a devil’s tower, a five hundred foot-tall needle of black stone rising over a gnashing, alien sea. Beyond the salt water channel, at least ten miles away, a mainland of pale fjords marched away in every direction. There was nothing on top of David’s tall, miserable little island but a single tree anchored bitterly beneath the permafrost.

Fragmented images rose through the murky penumbra of his memory: Rose’s smile, an old man in a tower, a ship half-buried in snow.

I gotta keep moving, David told himself. If I don’t move I’m gonna die. The Last Door is out there. All I need to do is find it, and I’ll be a fixture in the history books until the end of days. I’ll finally be able make some real money, buy Rose that cottage on the bluffs of Bolinas. I must be getting close. Maybe this time I’ll actually find it.

Maybe this time.

***

(First published in the Time Travel: Short Stories anthology from Flame Tree Publishing.)

Poetry: The Barghest’s Revenge

I.

The Barghest rose from stirring gloom
Through creeping shadows of my room
The dangling keys about his wrists
Like tiny bells foretelling doom.

O’er to my bed he slithered, black
His skin mottled like mordant wax
All tufts of hair in ancient cysts
Sprouting from nose, toes, ears, and back.

With a voice smooth as mercury
Thus he whispered, musically
“Find you the door that matches this,”
And in his hand offered a key.

The toothed, black spindle in his palm
Was twisted, sharp, nine inches long.
Heavy as ages in my grip,
It filled my ears with eldritch song.

“Go you to Edinburgh, my dear,”
The monster said into my ear
“In Robert’s Close, when moonlight-kiss’d
By his name, you must dig near.”

“There you will find a secret trove
Buried ‘neath the roots and bones
With this key I to you inflict
The chance to see your sweet love, Rose.”

I did not ask him what he meant
I did not call him when he went
Drifting like some poisonous mist
To dissipate into the vent.

A year had passed since Rose’s death
Nights I spent whoring, whiskey-vexed
Her shape was still equally missed
On unwashed sheets only half dressed.

For every love has its goodbye
All bright flowers wither and die
Time and death, we cannot resist
And sirens stir in the decline.

 

II.

I left my silver weapons home
‘Twas ten good years since they had shone
Our land dreaming and safe adrift
At last its final devils gone.

We cleansed the highlands and the low
Purged clear loch to Roman stone
Bags of copper spilled through our fists
With not a monster left to roam.

The last ones fled, or hid, or died
I can still hear every black cry
Those loathing hexes, gravely hissed
The Barghests’ were no milder kind.

And now I traveled those same roads
Until that Royal Mile I strode
Robert’s Close, could such place exist?
The cobbles cursed under my brogues.

In Grassmarket, at last I found
An alleyway, all spectral-bound
A name was written in dark script
Of a prince who’d never been crowned.

I scored a shovel for my work
In rusted iron, solace lurked
Imagining my future tryst
I staked it in the hardened earth.

Three feet deep, lay a small casket
A crude, wicker, coffin-basket
Its hard shell made my shovel slip
I kneeled down and unlatched it.

Inside the box, a woman’s skull
But no, not human, not at all
The fangs, the hair, those silver wisps
All bound within a crown of awls.

 

III.

The Barghest rasped into my ear
“How could they bury my love here?
Give her a grave as poor as this?
Monster hunter, it was but fear.”

“During your righteous purge for men
You toxified my family’s den
Never will my wife part her lips
To sing our babes asleep again.”

“See you why I had to infect her?
Why your Rose never got better?
The great trouble with fairness is
Blood for blood just makes us wetter.”

Oh how I raged, debased, and howled
I slashed them, punched them, kicked, and scowled
But my foe had returned to mist
I lay amidst a leering crowd.

I was street-side, covered in filth
A madman preaching madmen’s ilk
I closed my eyes and reminisced
As watchmen drove me up the hill.

Now in my cell, dank, black, and bare
I can taste the old, piss-sour air
I dream of secret doors promised
And retch at demons hidden there.

Of Smoke Rings and Authorial Responsibility

Dope article.

A Phuulish Fellow

Patrick Rothfuss, author of the Kingkiller Chronicles, has done a live-streamed Q & A. I thought I would address the genuinely interesting question Rothfuss raises between minute 47 and minute 55 of the linked Q & A – the degree to which authors (and creators of art generally) have a responsibility not to “poison the minds” of their audience with bad ideas and unfortunate implications. Case in point, Tolkien’s portrayal of tobacco smoking (which Rothfuss gets to around minute 52).

To be fair to Rothfuss, the format of a Q & A does not lend itself to working through the complexities of this question – and it is a complex question. At one extreme you have the notion that works of art ought to promote only wholesome messages and ideas – which is, to say, moral censorship, either of the self-limiting variety, or in some officially sanctioned form, a…

View original post 965 more words