Excerpt: Book of Dreams 2nd Edition: Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction Short Stories

“Eternal Quest” [Excerpt]
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The house was a modest and unassuming three-bedroom ranch, but the grounds had always been maintained by a gardener‑‑the only luxury Tom had allowed himself despite his considerable inherited wealth‑‑and had been his most prized possession for the joy it brought both him and his friends.  Phil could not imagine why Tom had allowed it to sink to such a level of neglect, and felt an oppressive pang of loss that seemed to grow more powerful with every breath he took.  After surveying the grounds for a brief interval, he shuddered, blinked back the tears burning the corners of his eyes, and quickly paced back towards the house, unable to further endure the surroundings.
After fumbling in his pocket for the key, he found it and slowly opened the front door.  Walking in after a moment’s hesitation, he found the inside blanketed in darkness despite the bright sunshine outside. He groped to his right for the light switch, found it and flicked on the lights. Dark, heavy drapes hung over every window, and all the blinds were drawn. He glanced about and found the furniture much as he remembered it. In all, it was rather Spartan: a large, thickly cushioned wood-framed sofa with ample throw pillows with a matching love seat, a rustic lamp table with a burnished bronze lamp on it, a coffee table and a 25-inch old-style wood console television set that could only be seen today in movies set in the 1970’s. A layer of dust covered everything in an ashen thin blanket, making the television’s remote control unit on the coffee table look like a flattened, tailless dead mouse.
To the right of the living room, at the end of a short hallway, Phil could see some light bleeding out of a nearly closed door in Tom’s study.  He walked there with growing trepidation, drawn by the pressing need to help his friend, yet impeded by his strong emotions and the ghosts of memories both fresh and faded.  The room was exactly as he remembered it: a small desk in its center with book shelves covering every available inch of wall space.  He knew the bedrooms would be the same. Only the living room had escaped the advancing bookcases that branched out from the study like appendages from some monstrous octopus, slithering relentlessly towards the world outside. Unlike the living room, this room was free of dust and was obviously well used. Phil could detect nothing out of the ordinary. At Tom’s desk, he noticed various hand written notes and an open book, an old volume of Plato’s Republic, bound in tooled leather, heavily annotated in Tom’s crisp, clear handwriting and rather worn from use. A notebook computer sat atop Tom’s desk, next to the open book. It was still on but Phil did not have the time to try to guess the password to bring it out of sleep mode and display whatever Tom had been working on. In any case, he was sure it would only show whatever academic paper or book Tom was currently working on.

Turning his attention away from the computer, Phil opened the top drawer of the desk and found it full of numerous writing implements and blank sheets of paper. The second drawer contained a stack of various manuscripts, all bearing Tom’s name. The first one bore the title “Western Philosophy: An Ongoing Reaction to Plato’s and Aristotle’s Epistemologies.”  Phil grimaced, and thumbed through several other papers underneath it with equally useless titles. These represented an eclectic mix of scholarly work in a range of disciplines that included philosophy, physics, mathematics and biology.  He wrinkled his nose at these as well and slammed the drawer shut with a mixture of distaste and frustration.  In the last and largest drawer at the bottom of the desk he found a curious mixture of artifacts, books and papers.  Most seemed trivial, and some were unexplainable‑‑candy wrappers, old movie ticket stubs, theater programs, concert tickets, a couple of college literature and poetry anthologies, and sundry other items that could hold meaning only for Tom.  Underneath these, Phil found and extracted a small metal box; this he placed on top of the desk and opened, it struggling briefly with a somewhat rusty latch.  It contained some sheets of paper with writing, and assorted snapshots.  It was the latter he looked at first; his hands trembled slightly as he looked through pieces of his own past, their shared past now so seemingly distant and irretrievable. All their old friends were there, as well as dozens of pictures of Chrissie, Tom and Phil taken over a period of more than a decade, many around this very house and grounds, some at college, and a few of the many trips they’d taken together. Tom had, after all, kept these. This fact deeply moved him for reasons he could not easily understand. He finally lost control of the emotions he’d been unsuccessfully trying to rein in and wept, sobbing quietly for some time.

After a while, having regained control of his always volatile emotions, Phil put down the photos and turned his attention to the papers in the box. Some were letters; he recognized Chrissie’s handwriting and his own on several. These he did not read. Finally, he found a carefully folded sheet of paper at the very bottom of the box inside a smaller tooled wooden jewelry box. He carefully unfolded it and began to read a poem in Tom’s own hand on a half sheet of paper torn from a spiral-bound notebook:

Ode to Innocence
     Oh half remembered, fleeting, happy time,
     When nothing mattered more than love and play,
     Imagination was then in its prime,
     And life began anew with every day.
     A flower was then a joy, a mystery,
     And not a petal, root and simple stem,
     And life was full of wondrous fantasy,
     Untainted by the intellect of man.
     That time is gone now, It cannot return,
     The fruit’s been swallowed, its slow poison kills,
     And yet my fallen heart will always yearn,
     For that ephemeral time of unknown skills.
     Oh false god, knowledge, daily you destroy,
     All that was holy in me as a boy!

Eyes glistening, he folded the piece of paper and replaced it in the small, wooden box in which he’d found it, then placed the small box inside the larger metal box and took the box with him out of the room.  A close inspection of every room in the house turned up no clue such as might help unravel the mystery of Tom’s present condition.  He dutifully checked all other drawers and cabinets, paying close attention to the bathroom medicine cabinet for hopeful signs of any substance Tom might have purposely or inadvertently ingested that might explain his condition, but none was found.  His medicine cabinet contained only a fresh bottle of Mylanta, a half-empty bottle of aspirin and nothing else.

In the kitchen, all Phil could find was a brown, half-desiccated half head of iceberg lettuce and several half-liter bottles of spring water.  He even searched the spider-infested unfinished basement for clues, but Tom had clearly not been there in quite some time.  Aside from some large and complex cobwebs, all he could find there were dozens of filing cabinets stuffed with scholarly papers, both published and unpublished works, not unlike the dozens of similar manuscripts in Tom’s desk drawer in his study.  Although philosophical treatises were clearly the dominant field represented here, there were also published works on a mind boggling range of subjects from Anthropology to Zoology.  There were also hundreds of dusty journals lining bookcases along every wall covering nearly an equally dazzling range of disciplines. Inspecting several at random, he found that they contained articles published by Tom. If Tom had devoted his life to the pursuit of knowledge, he had certainly not squandered it away in idle thought.

Finding nothing in the house that might help to explain Tom’s condition, Phil made his way outside again, taking with him the metal box he’d extracted from Tom’s desk with the intention of giving it to Chrissie in the hope that it might bring her some pleasure–and some validation for her loyalty and love for Tom through the years.  After locking the door, he allowed the warmth of the sun to wash over him for a few moments before getting into his car and making his way back to the hospital; he immediately began to feel a better as if the sun were cleansing away the sepulchral chill and mustiness he’d experienced inside, burning away the fogginess in his mind.

*  *  *

Tom was unaware of his present condition and would not have been much troubled were he to have known it. Every minute of every day for more than a decade had been spent in trying to disassociate himself from the distractions of the flesh, in attempting to obtain the Platonic ideal of striving for truth through introspection‑‑of trying to see past the imperfect shadows of the physical world into the realm of the true forms. He was neither bitter nor troubled by the currents of criticism which sought for years to carry him away, branding him at first as misguided, then as a reactionary fool clinging with mindless tenacity to obsolete notions of reality, and finally as an amusing anachronism not needing to be acknowledged or explained away.

He was only mildly annoyed when his scholarly treatises were no longer published by the leading peer-reviewed journals of philosophy; if they could not validate his views, it was not a reflection on his work, only on the fatuousness of what passed for referees in academia these days. He had not obtained his Ph.D. in philosophy for anyone’s benefit but his own, and did not need the approval of his peers to legitimize his theories. And, in any case, his work in other fields where he also held terminal; degrees—physics, mathematics and biology—was published regularly. He had learned long ago to cast off his emotions, to develop and enhance the power of his mind by shedding off the yoke of the body’s destructive, distracting influence on the quest for truth. And his self-denial had paid off handsomely. His body had, of course, suffered in the process, but that was of little consequence.

The ancient Greeks, he felt, were misguided in pursuing the ideal of a healthy body and a healthy mind. To treat the body and the mind as equals was sheer folly. Certainly an infirm body would interfere with mental processes; the body must be given rudimentary nourishment and care, else it would die. But what is the logic in devoting endless hours in selecting one’s diet, in exercise, or, worse, in leisure? Who but a fool would add five years of life through constant pampering, exercise, and perfect nutrition while wasting ten years of life in the process? Flesh is the primordial enemy of the mind; its needs, wants and constant yearnings are an intolerable distraction which, far from being encouraged, must be eradicated through studied self-denial.  Surely anyone could see that. But it is far easier to deny an obvious fact than it is to admit it and then lack the fortitude to implement its logical conclusions. Such is the destructive power of the flesh, that it will obfuscate the mind, not only clouding reason, but making it serve its purpose through endless rationalization, ignoring anything that threatens its narrow, hedonistically defined comfort zone. How sad, he thought, that the old sophists, those cursed foes of truth, had finally won over the minds of modern humanity which prizes expediency, pragmatism, political correctness and the comfort of the status quo above its very soul.

Tom floated motionlessly in an endless void. He was deprived of sensory information, but his mind was keen and sharply focused.  While he could not touch, hear, see, smell or speak in his present condition, he was not in a state of complete sensory deprivation, for his mind could sense its surroundings, though not quite clearly, as if he were watching a poorly tuned old analog television set through oil-stained glasses. Though incorporeal, he was self-aware. He recognized his state as one of preparation for entering into a new realm of consciousness, a communion with the realm of the true forms–of absolute truth.

He’d been so close before so many times to attaining true enlightenment; but every time, some accursed facet of his appetites would drag him down to earth again, the profane weakness of the flesh damning him to the shadowy realms of the pedantic existence we call life. He knew the signs well by now; he recognized the halfway place between shadow and light wherein he’d dwelt so many times before‑‑a higher plane of existence leading to absolute truth.  Even now, he felt the power of the true forms, newly draped in evanescent shadows, thinly veiling their true essence this close to their source. Absolute truth, absolute beauty, absolute knowledge were all tantalizingly close, within his grasp.  If he could only sustain his mental strength a bit longer, he would be able to lift the cursed blinders of the flesh.

He was not a religious person; this was not for him a chance to commune with God. He did not, in fact, believe in God, at least not in the traditional sense.  Religion, for him, was no different than all the institutions and ideas derived from the minds of men and women:  it represents only an imperfect vision of a higher reality as filtered by the imperfect perceptions, conceit and self interest of humanity.  He believed in Plato’s view of the soul as perfect and all knowing before making its journey to the material world.  There may not be a physical River Styx for the soul to swim across on its way to the earthly plane–a river whose waters bring forgetfulness of the absolute truth with which the soul begins its earth-bound journey–but the principle is certainly accurate:  in being born we forget all that we knew when our spirits were free and existed in the plane of the true forms.  Through introspection, though, we reverse the mind numbing effects of our physical existence and recapture the glory of our preexistence.  This was Tom’s lifelong quest:  to regain the glory that his soul had lost in melding with the flesh—to perceive good and evil, absolute beauty, and absolute truth.

As he neared the final stage of his life-long journey, he floated like a weightless, shapeless cloud through which flowed many shadows on their trek from the realm of the forms into that of the material world.  As they flowed through him, they left behind the faintest hint of their true essence, not unlike the intoxicating waft of a good perfume worn by a beautiful woman that gently suffuses itself on a bystander long moments after she has passed by.

“Chrissie,” Tom thought, or rather felt, for just a moment, but then the moment passed, and he pressed on.

Yes, he knew this path quite well. He also knew that the mental power necessary to push onward towards the final veil in this halfway place would be great indeed, and would require a colossal effort. But he was patient, and determined to utilize the last reserve of energy in his dying soul, if need be, to push onward towards the light.


[*****END OF EXCERPT*****]
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 (C) 1978, 2011 Victor D. Lopez. All rights reserved.



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