Monday, April 28, 2008

Soma: Part 1

Early in the spring time Soma walked up and down the dusty roads of a small town outside of nowhere. Luckily the dry Arizona heat had taken the day off. Sedona, Arizona is famous for its “New-Age” tourist traps, vortexes of positive energy, astrological predictions, psychic readings and the Secret. All of it bunk spirituality that sometimes worked thanks to positive thinking and the placebo effect. The man called Soma had come here to escape. He had been on the road for less than a week, but had traveled hard. He still had not been in any kind of automobile. He had made it further than you might expect.

He had walked for so long he’d escaped the densely populated city and had moved into area of uncharted home businesses. He stopped in front of a house to read a sign that had caught his attention: Free trips into outer space – inquire inside. “Hmm this could be interesting.” he thought to himself. Clearly there was no launch pad or alien spacecraft hidden behind this quaint small town home. He wondered what kind of scam these people were running and decided to check it out. So far his trip to the American southwest had been mediocre at best. He really would have enjoyed a journey into outer space, but a good laugh would probably do him just as well.

Soma walked through the gate of the low white picket fence into the front yard. It was quite a scene. There were lawn ornaments galore, bird houses and a small pond complete with a waterfall. In the pond, fish of all colors and sizes swam about and some even jumped up out of the water. The fish’s bounding desire to breathe fresh air seemed natural. The temptation was familiar to Soma, the temptation to escape from safety, leave your home, taste freedom, even if it put your life in danger. But all these fish can ever expect is a momentary escape. They always inevitably fall back into their watery prison. “And the story is no different for me,” Soma thought to himself

After a brief stand still in this strange and cluttered front lawn, Soma eventually began to walk down a curved path towards the house. He passed by wind chimes, bird baths and a sundial. He looked down at his watch and saw it was 3:30 p.m. He assumed the sundial would have told him the same, if he had known how to read it. Statutes of pagan gods stood next to the Virgin Mary. “Good lord this front yard has a lot going on.” Soma noticed, “it’s all eye candy used to draw you into their trap.”

Finally, after having stood spellbound for what seemed like an age, Soma approached the front door. As he reached to turn the knob the door swung slowly open. Rather spooked he peered inside, expecting nick-knacks. He was surprised by what he saw. Inside the door there was a small front room, somewhat like the reception area you might find in a medical facility, except there were no chairs to sit in and no T.V. hung up in the corner. No sign of any cheeky clutter. Truth be told, there was hardly anything in this room at all, only a small desk with an even smaller man sitting behind it. The man behind the desk was frantically drawing what appeared to be a map onto a sheet of paper. Behind the desk there was a door.

Soma approached the desk. The man did not acknowledge his presence until after he was standing directly in front of him. Soma reached his hand out to ring the call-bell, but before he could ring it the small man snatched it away.

With a flourish the man finished a line of his work and then spoke up cheerfully, “Welcome my friend! Have you come to inquire about your journey into outer space?”

Soma tried to muffle laughter as he replied, “I suppose, but if I’m going to be off into outer space could I please use your bathroom first?”

The man replied in all seriousness, “I’m sorry sir but you should have thought of that before you left, you’re going to have to wait. This way please.”

He motioned the aspiring cosmonaut behind the desk towards a door which opened again without being touched. “Please step inside. Someone will be with you very shortly.”

Soma felt himself being shoved into the room, but when he turned around to protest the only thing he saw was the tiny man sitting back down at his desk and the door slowly slamming shut behind him.

The room he was in was darkened. A small opening lined the top of the walls and a stream of light shown through from underneath the ceiling. The effect was that it emitted only enough light to illuminate the top half of the room. Slowly Soma’s eyes adjusted and he saw beneath the light, in the darkness, a man sitting crossed legged.

On the man’s right there was a stack of perfectly square paper. On his left was a large and growing pile of origami cranes. There must have been hundreds of tiny paper cranes already lying there. As Soma’s eyes refocused onto this strange scene he saw the man’s hands working at light speed, folding and turning and shaping each successive piece of paper into the form of a crane. The man did not look up from his work and he never paused, even to breathe.

His movements were mesmerizing. Soma felt his brain begin to swell. He remembered an oriental tradition, involving these origami cranes. If one person can fold one thousand of them, they will be granted a wish for having done a good deed, a sort of mental training exercise, in discipline and in patience.

There grew inside Soma the intense feeling that something sacred was happening inside this room. The man’s folding hands seemed to be gaining speed. Faster and faster he turned paper into cranes, each one similar, but slightly different than the last. Faster and faster the pile of square paper on his right shrank as the pile of cranes on his left grew. As his momentum carried him forward his movements seemed to reach a critical speed. He folded faster and faster but Soma’s eyes and his mind could not keep up with how fast the man’s hands were moving. For Soma the entire scene was played in a kind of time-lapse slow motion. Slow motion at super sonic speeds; Soma caught the occasional glimpse of a crane appearing, as paper rising up off the floor into the folding man’s hands then delicately placed onto the pile among the other cranes.

Faster and faster, more cranes, less paper, less paper, more cranes.

“There must be seven hundred cranes there to his left, no maybe eight hundred by now.” Soma guessed. His mind was racing, “Soon he will finish with his pile of paper.”

Suddenly Soma knew positively, there will be exactly one thousand cranes folded when this man is through.

Soma began to fear what would happen when the folding reached its end. He considered interrupting but feared what might happen then even more. “I will wait and see this through until the end.” Soma decided. He remembered he was supposed to be traveling into outer space.

Soma sat and crossed his legs directly opposite of the man folding paper into cranes. He squinted at his watch. It read only 3:31. The second hand had actually stopped, the watch was broken. “Damn it” he whispered quietly to himself. He thought “O well, I will take it to a watch maker sometime soon. Hopefully he can fix whatever has gone wrong.”

Forgetting about the broken watch Soma again focused his attention on this strange crane folding man; very soon he was going to finish his folding. Anticipation began to rise in Soma’s chest. He was excited, not because he thought he was going to outer space, and not because he thought this man would immediately have a wish granted for him. He was excited because of some energy inside the room. This powerful force made it impossible not to feel the sense that something important was about to begin.

Then: tick, complete silence, no more ruffling paper, Soma’s breathing stopped, time itself stopped, the blood in his ears stopped pumping shhhh……the hush sounds all ended sh. Silence. Sh. Ehhh-tock. Soma’s watch clicked one second as the last crane fell from the man’s hand onto the pile. The folding man stood up and blinding light burst through the walls and ceiling. Then an overwhelming darkness swallowed the entire room…

Soma: Part 2

Soma awoke lying on his back, his vision refocused. He had no idea how he was moved but he awoke inside a different building. This one, perfectly square, had a high ceiling and hanging lights and two rows of large wooden benches. It looked like a chapel; in fact there was even an altar, a pulpit and a glorious pipe organ climbing up the walls.

Soma looked up; there were ten rows of ten hanging lights, bare bulbs illuminating absolutely everything within the chapel. Hanging from each light bulb was a thread. Strung evenly across each thread were ten cranes. One thousand cranes, ten each hanging from ten rows of ten light bulbs, in a perfect square above the chapel. The doors and windows were all shut. Soma’s breath was completely taken away by the fantastic scene hanging above him. The air was perfectly still.

When his breathing returned, there was only its gentle breeze blowing through the chapel. The crane’s slow and tiny movements delicately echoed Soma’s being, which ever so slightly spun the cranes up and down and around the tiny threads that they hung neatly on. Soma pursed his lips and whistled and the paper cranes danced to his song. He stood up. The cranes hung half way up to the ceiling, much higher then Soma’s head. Soma thought he would rush over to a window or to the front doors and throw them open and let the wind whirl in and sing to these miracle cranes that somehow, by their creation, had brought him to this mysterious place. Soma rushed toward the far wall to look outside to see where he was. When he got to the window, he was absolutely amazed by what he saw.

He was in outer space. Outer Space! The Chapel was in orbit around the Earth. He looked out and saw the entire world. It was at his fingertips, big and bright as day, right outside of this window. Soma forgot about the cranes. He could not believe what had happened. “Where have I gone?”, “What have I been through?”, “It’s 3:42, on what day?”, and “How the hell did this chapel end up in outer space?” So many questions raced through Soma’s mind, with no hope for any answers.

Soma decided he should look for someone. He thought his chances of finding someone in a chapel, even one in outer space, were pretty good. There always seems to be someone in any chapel, silently praying to his or her god, secretly wondering if their prayers are even being heard by someone or something in the first place. Thinking more about it, he thought this chapel might be part of a very large cathedral or a castle. If this very large cathedral or castle did have people in it, Soma’s realized his best chance of meeting them was to call them and for them to find him. So, he looked for the bell tower. He walked back around the altar and found a rickety spiral staircase.

By the time Soma walked up to the top of the long staircase and was outside he was dizzy. As he emerged, he was stunned by the solar wind whipping through his hair. A blasting inferno heat wave swooshed past his face, warming it as the space-castle flew in its cold orbit around the Earth. Looking up into the height of the tower, he saw the enormous copper bell. He wondered if anyone has ever heard this bell ring out before. “Well, all will here it ring now”, Soma thought to himself. He moved over to the middle of the room, stood against the wall and began pulling down on the rope. BONG! BONG! BONG!

Once at a time, the bell rang and rang out across the solar system, spread throughout the galaxies and awoke the universe. Soma, high up in the bell tower, could see each sonic boom rippling through space. He yanked that rope desperately. It was like an addiction; he needed to hear that bell ring, he needed it to be louder, faster, he needed more people to hear it. Soma felt it was his duty to sound this cosmic crescendo, but he did not know why. Each time the mallet struck the inside of the bell, Soma felt like his head was being pummeled by a large fist. He rang and he rang that bell until his head was numb. His brain shook inside his own head. His face felt bruised. Soon he slumped down onto the floor beaten, too exhausted to continue. The bell continued to ring as it swung back and forth. The ringing had reached a climax and now the intensity and volume slowly decreased.

“Everyone and everything that exists will have heard my call,” Soma thought, “but would anyone or anything answer?”

Soma then felt utterly alone. His faith that someone was with him inside this chapel drained away, spiraling downward like a jet plane left with no fuel. His confusion began to frighten him. “Outer space?”, “fish”, “cranes”, “bells” what does all this mean?

As his mind spun out of control and his brain nearly smashed into the wall like the gravity of his momentum should have had it, a lighted and beautifully flowered Angel slowly swooped down and merged with the orbiting bell tower, landing softly with her winged shoes. The bell still rang, swinging back and forth.

“Do you have the map?” she asked loud enough to be heard over the bell.

“The map?” Soma questioned.

“Yes! the map!” the Angel demanded.

“What map?” Soma was incredibly confused and frightened by this luminous being. He thought, finally able to free his mind from its concentration on the sounds of the bell. He felt in his pockets. Eureka! In his back pocket Soma found a folded paper. It was the same paper that the small man at the desk was drawing on when he arrived. Soma thought, “He must have given this to me when he shoved me into that room.” As he unfolded the paper he saw that it was indeed a map. Timidly he stretched his arm out and offered the Angel the map that had silently been given to him earlier.

“The map is for you, Soma” said the Angel.

“What am I supposed to do with it?” Soma asked as he retracted his arm.

“Find the key. You will, if you search for it in the only way that you know how.” The Angel began to ascend slowly backwards towards where she came from. Saying finally, “The cranes Soma! Free the cranes!” and then the colorful lights reflecting her and her flowery dress smeared as she whipped away out of view as the castle swooshed past her in its orbit around the globe.

He looked down at the map. He guessed it was a map of the space-castle and as he studied it he began to feel right about that. It was simple enough to understand. He found the chapel, pews, alter, staircase, exits on three sides leading to hallways and more rooms, and the pipe organ, with its keyboard to the right of the pulpit.

He thought furiously about the trouble he had gotten himself into. Why had the Angel left him? Would he be stuck here for eternity, which would surely come soon for him, since he had no means to survive?

The bell still rung in his ears even as the mallet barely made contact with the brass and all the noise subsided. As the noise of the bell died away, another noise began to rise. It was coming from below, down the stairs. It was like a constant hum, a million thrills of the tongue. Like a flock of birds, cranes even. It couldn’t be. Soma jumped to his feet and spun down the uncertainly stable spiral staircase. The noise grew louder and seemingly more urgent as he neared the bottom of the steps. Finally Soma reached the ground level and looked up to the ceiling in utter disbelief.

The one thousand paper cranes had become real, living, flying, squawking birds, all struggling for their freedom. They were still tied together, ten each on a line of thread attached to the light fixtures hanging from the ceiling. The Angel had told Soma to free these cranes with a key. The cranes seemed to be suffering, each one flying in its own direction pulling and choking the other cranes flying unsynchronized, all of them caged in this small building, tied to the ceiling, paper cranes newly freed as real birds still imprisoned by their former state of being. “I must find that key” Soma thought. He pulled out the map and stared at it.

He tried pulling open the exits but found that they were all locked. He walked through the pews and looked underneath them for the key or some kind of clue, a trap door, an arrow to point him the right direction. What had the Angel said about finding the key? Soma racked his brain and remembered, but he was still confused. Look in the ways that I know how?

He walked over to the organ and sat down at the keyboard. The organ probably had over two hundred stop knobs, wooden knobs covered in ivory. “What a beautiful instrument” Soma thought. He pulled out one of the stops and a loud low sound emitted and echoed throughout the chapel. The sound mixed with the squawking of the disturbed cranes still flocking haphazardly high up in the ceiling. Soma was distressed by their predicament and wanted desperately to help set them free.

Soma remembered how the paper cranes had danced to his whistle. Then it occurred to him; the loud ringing of the bell tower must have been what had awakened the cranes from their papery sleep in the first place. Perhaps a blast of sound from another devotional instrument could set them free for good.

Soma began pulling out all the stops of the organ. The opened valves allowed air pressure from the reservoir into the wind chest and the sounds of the organ started to rise inside the chapel. The birds grew frantic and swooped and swooned through the vibrating air as the sound built upon itself and grew louder. As Soma pulled out more and more stops, the volume rose so high that the walls began to shake and some of the light fixtures fell from the ceiling, freeing the cranes from their bondage. As Soma pulled more and more stops out and the sounds grew louder and louder, he realized he still had to find the key he was supposed to be looking for. At that moment, a key dropped out of the stop his hand had just pulled out. Amazed he picked it up and looked at it. It was golden with a broken eggshell etched onto the wider part at the top. He pulled out the last remaining stops and the organ was sounding so loudly that the vibrations in the air made it difficult to walk and impossible to think.

With the key in hand, Soma stood up and made his way towards the front door, struggling through the impressive force of the hysterical music he had unleashed. He used the rows of pews to pull himself forward, like climbing a mountain horizontally. As he neared the summit he dove for the doorknob as the pipe organ blasted him from the walls and nearly rattled his whole body to pieces. He inserted the key into the keyhole and turned the knob. The door swung open and the vacuum of space rushed in. The cranes washed out like water flowing from the mouth of a river into the ocean. As they exited the cranes mysteriously flapped their wings and pulled themselves off into a cosmic flight toward places Soma could only imagine.

As Soma dangled, hanging onto the door knob over the brink of the final frontier, he longed to grab hold of one of the crane’s skinny legs as they rushed past. He wished he could fly with them to wherever they were going, but that could never happen. He let go of the door knob and felt himself falling back into a deep nothingness, endlessly falling and repeatedly slamming his body and mind through layers and layers of atmosphere and clouds and finally landing softly on his back in a hammock in the backyard of a small home in Sedona, Arizona.

There, Soma slept for what seemed like hours. Eventually as the sun was setting a woman wearing a beautiful simple dress tapped his shoulder and he awoke with a start. There was a flower stuck behind the woman’s ear and he noticed how familiar and lovely she looked as she smiled at him.

“What has happened to me?” Soma asked sheepishly.

“You’ve been to outer space and back and now you are truly free” the woman replied.

“But how?” Soma wondered aloud.

“Prison is in your mind. The key you found unlocks the shackles you have on your soul.” The woman nodded her head in assurance, then turned and left him.
Soma reached into his pocket and fingered the key. He pulled it out and with it came an origami crane attached to the key by a seamless loop of golden thread. He inspected the crane closely and noticed it was numbered “1001”. He slipped the paper bird and the golden key back into his pocket and walked happily off into the sunset, in search of a bathroom.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Soma: part 3

Soma headed west, towards the outskirts of town, away from the shops that would be closing up for the day. People smiled at him as they walked home to be with their families. Soma tried not to think about them or what had happened earlier. All he wanted was to be alone. The day had been so strange, like dreaming you are asleep dreaming, and only waking up once. The world seemed somehow different now; more surreal, less rigid, like the physical laws of the universe had quietly relaxed their grip, allowing for a bit more freedom. However different the external world might seem, Soma’s bodily functions remained unchanged, and he desperately needed to find that bathroom.

He eventually came to a rundown filling station at the edge of the desert. Two gas pumps stood beneath an overhang in front of a small general store. A garage was attached to the building, and car parts spilled out of it onto the driveway. The front door was propped open by an old wooden chair. A cool springtime breeze blew into the store; it swept a small cloud of dust up into the air. The cloud curled and collapsed into itself as it rolled over like a wave. The scene was momentarily reflected by the last gleam of sunlight, which was suddenly cut off by the horizon as the sun set and dusk fell over Arizona.

Soma walked through the door and saw a man inside, a lanky fellow in overalls sitting on a stool behind the counter. He was picking at one of his fingernails with a pocket knife. His hands were dirty, covered in black grease. He looked up and nodded casually at Soma as he came in. Soma walked over to the counter.

“What can I do ya for, sir?” the attendant asked; sitting up straight, ready to do business.

“I’m looking for a bathroom. Have you got one?” Soma replied.

“You bet. The key’s there, hanging up” he said, indicating the far wall. “Round back’s the toilet” he added, pointing with his thumb over his left shoulder.

“Thanks.” Soma said and grabbed the key and spun it around his finger as he walked around behind the station. He found the bathroom. It was filthy, of course.

When Soma’s feet hit the ground outside of the bathroom, he was able to breathe again. He delivered the key back to its place on the wall and browsed the aisle for some vittles to satisfy his grueling hunger. “A bag of trail mix will do” he thought to himself, as he picked one up off the shelf. Soma grabbed a large bottle of water and approached the counter with his big bag of mix. He put his things down on the counter, the man and him standing opposite each other.

“This be all?” the man said, looking down at the items.

“You bet. Couldn’t afford to buy the crude stuff you’re selling there” Soma said, indicating the sign through the door, selling gas for six dollars a gallon.

“Don’t I know it” the man grumbled. He finished punching the register and came up with the total, “that’ll be three fifty, for ya there.”

Soma rummaged through his pockets feeling for some cash. He still had the crane and the key in one pocket and the map in the other. He came up with a five dollar bill and handed it over to the man.

“You on foot then?” the man asked as he fished for Soma’s change.

“Ya, luckily I’m traveling light” Soma said and nodded as he stuffed his purchases into the backpack he had been carrying.

“Where’s a man like you staying?” the attendant asked.

“Any place I can find.” Soma said, remembering that he did not have a place to stay tonight. “I’ve just woken up from a deep sleep. I’ll be out on the road tonight I suspect.”

“Woo-doggy, the desert can be a harsh place to travel through, especially alone, and at night to boot!” The man handed Soma his change and saluted, as if to say goodbye and good luck.

Soma’s mind had floated away; he was stuck in deep thought. His legs stood rooted to the ground he stood upon. He held the change out in his hand, his elbow pinned to his side and his forearm extended in an awkward frozen position. The man standing across from him squirmed uncomfortably. He waved his hand in front of Soma’s face to see if he was ok. Soma eyes just gazed into the distance, his vision lost on the horizon and his mind beyond in outer space.

The filling station attendant began to worry. He thought his customer might be seriously ill. He leaned over the counter, intending to poke Soma in the face. Surely that would bring this fellow to attention. As his index finger neared Soma’s head, Soma snapped back to reality. He looked wide eyed at the man crawling towards him over the counter, with his finger aimed at his forehead. The man froze in place when he noticed Soma’s awareness. An awkward moment passed. Soma looked at his feet and stuffed the change into his pocket, as the man leaned down off the counter and back onto the stool.

As Soma was about to turn and leave, he drew the crane out of his pocket and continued to stand in front of the counter, speechless, still partially lost in thought. The attendant noticed the crane. “Where’d ya, did ya…where did the bird come from?” the man finally managed, a bit unnerved.

“It’s kind of a long story, I don’t think I could tell it all.” Soma replied.

“That’s fine.” The man said, and paused before continuing. Hesitantly he said, “You know there’s a guy, makes lots of those cranes. He comes in here for band aids on occasion, for all the paper cuts, ya know?” the man said, with a nervous chuckle. “His name is Chief Woebegone.”

Soma’s eyes widened a bit. “I might know this guy, any idea where he calls home?” Soma asked.

The attendant thought for a moment, and then he said, “Oh ya, he lives on an Indian Reservation for sure. In fact, I do believe he lives on the Havasupai Reservation down in the canyon, about twenty miles west of here.”

Soma nodded thanks to the man, and left rapidly, with a plan. He was going to follow the crane folding man into the bottom of Havasupai Canyon. Soma had read about this canyon in some pamphlets he had leafed through at a local diner.

The Havasupai Canyon was formed by a tributary of the Colorado River. Over millions and millions of years the Grand Canyon and other smaller side canyons, like the Havasupai Canyon, were carved in the dry sedimentary rock of the Mojave Desert. Havasupai Canyon takes its name from the Havasupai people, or The People of the Blue Green Water who have lived there for generations. There are many spectacular water falls and unspoiled glassy blue-green ponds along the lush river bed.

The people themselves are economically devastated. Its population survives on marginal subsistence agriculture and government cheese. There is a hotel for visitors, with no phones or electricity. Many people would rather skip the twelve mile hike and depressing local scenery altogether. The long walk to the village is a treacherous one. A sturdy mule can manage to navigate the uneven terrain, but truly, your ass is better off on foot.

Soma thought of this unspoiled natural habitat, with its dying culture, as he headed down the darkening dusty road. He knew he had lots of walking to do before got there. It was twenty miles to the plateau, and another twelve into the canyon itself. By morning Soma thought he could make it at least to the plateau, where he could rest before beginning the decent. Soma was lucky to be walking at night. The sun would beat him to death during the day. But now he walked into the evening twilight, full of energy and hope. The questions that had plagued him earlier were of no importance to him now. Time travels, castles, cranes, they were all illusions. But the man had been real. And the angel, that woman, she had also been real. Soma thought, if only he could find the man he saw folding cranes, not for an explanation of what had happened before, and not for instructions about what comes next, or about how to find the angel, but only because Soma had gained the freedom to choose to do what he truly wished to do.