First a note about the painting, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, that serves as a symbol for Joni Mitchell and her songs, and for the short story below. The focus of this post, I believe, is on love and beauty.
“For Plato – and so for the members of the Florentine Platonic Academy – Venus had two aspects: she was an earthly goddess who aroused humans to physical love, or she was a heavenly goddess who inspired intellectual love in them. Plato further argued that contemplation of physical beauty allowed the mind to better understand spiritual beauty. So, looking at Venus, the most beautiful of goddesses, might at first raise a physical response in viewers which then lifted their minds towards the godly. A Neoplatonic reading of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus suggests that 15th-century viewers would have looked at the painting and felt their minds lifted to the realm of divine love.” (Wikipedia)
Genesis of the Story: I wrote this story with the intention of practising the narrative arc, and of applying the “seven points” rule to structuring a short story. (See The Narrative Arc ).
The Seven Points: The Beginning; the Inciting Incident, followed by a crisis; the Midpoint/Reversal (2nd Crisis); the Climax (Crisis 3) ; the Falling Action; the Resolution; the End. I have to admit, however, that I did not pre-plan the story. I used the guidelines to re-structure the story after getting it down. Perhaps I was creating the structure subliminally, as I was writing the first draft.
At the Joni Mitchell Pool
Jeanie is one of these inch worm types. One toe in; one toe back. The cold has always been alien. From birth, really. Even today, with the water temperature around twenty degrees. Babies are gurgling in mothers’ and fathers’ arms in the pool, for God’s sake.
Cassius with the lean and hungry look is descending the stairs. Italian background, perhaps? You can’t help but notice him. He’s wearing long black tights. Nothing else. She sees the bulge as he mounts the cement block. Has he come from the yoga centre up the top? The Breathing Space? That would explain the tights.
A shallow dive from his perch on high. Shallow depth at this end, mind. Heart-stopping … gasp…! The thin man’s head emerges intact, midway down the pool. No problem. She breathes out, a sigh of relief.
Breaking the ice is the problem for Jeanie. Rubbing water on her legs, her arms. It doesn’t help much. She flinches. Retreats, as a small child jumps in, splashing her.
Immersing the neck and the head is the worst. Actual pain. What a waste, if you’ve just washed and primped your hair. Still, it’s over once your hair is wet.
She knows … knows it all…. Enlightenment, even, doesn’t help.
Cassius is doing laps. Such style. Such graceful ease, the arms arced at the elbows, breathing in and out on either side.
She’s immersed now in delicious liquid. The whole body baptised. Is the water getting warmer? Or has her body adjusted to the cold? There are warm spots in the water. Do adults urinate in the pool? Babies and children, perhaps? She thinks of the French word for swimming pool: “piscine”.
Jeanie notices people. The matriarch with the white cotton hat. Standing in the water up to her neck. Watching. Greek background? German, perhaps? The middle-aged man with white hairs on his shoulders, like a bear. A new baby makes swimming motions, safe in its father’s grasp. Little arms and legs moving back and forth like a turtle. The French family, doing perfect Australian crawl.
Cassius is heading for the block again. Another shallow dive. Effortless. She breathes through it this time, knowing now that he knows how to avoid smashing his head on the rocky bottom. Crimson blood rising to the surface.
The white-hatted woman stares at him. Frozen. He meets her gaze. She points to the signage at the steps of the pool. Dozens of small icons. Jeanie follows the direction of the sharp finger. Hard to see from here. A dog with a slash across it? A diver with a red cross through it? Is there one for urinating? She thinks not.
‘Diving is not allowed in here,’ the woman scolds, ‘it says so on the sign.’
‘I know how to do it,’ he says, ‘without hurting myself. From years and years of practice.’
He’d chosen a space when it was clear of bodies too. No children in the way.
‘It is to protect others,’ she says. ‘Children … from getting hurt.’
Jeanie can see both sides, now. She’s seen teenagers jumping and skylarking from the high cliffs at the Surf Club side of the rock pool here. No one’s ever said anything to them. Not even the lifesavers.
As she treads water, half-wading, towards the end of the pool, she meets his gaze. Dark eyes. Intelligent. Brooding?
‘It’s just a case of fear,’ she murmurs, ‘about people hitting their heads…’
‘I don’t care,’ he says, ‘about other peoples’ fear.’ She flinches inwardly, desiring to know more. Perhaps he’s read that recent book she’s seen somewhere: The Subtle Art of Not giving a F*ck”. Four-and-a-half stars on Amazon. She might download the kindle version. Much cheaper, really.
‘I’ve recovered twice from brain damage,’ he lets slip out, ‘anyway.’
She wants to ask questions, find out more about him, but he’s off, probably sorry that the words have escaped his secret mouth. Smoothly tanned, his hair a little longer than the norm, but neat.
She watches as he springs out of the pool at the deep end. Lithe. Self possessed.
On the rocks that lead down to the water’s edge, Cassius sits in a lotus position, facing out to sea. The Pacific Ocean, not always, though, she thinks. Sometimes even antagonistic.
But today it is tranquil. Calm as its namesake.
In profile, like a sphinx, Cassius is lost in meditation. Upright, lean and spare, solar plexus taut, his body merged into head and bust. Toes sticking out at the end of legs that have disappeared.
What is going on inside of him? Inside his belly? Inside his brain? His mind?
She has read about the kundalini, a dormant energy inside all of us. When she googled it, she found the word “dharma”, ancient Buddhist teachings, and the expression:
“The figure of a coiled serpent—a serpent goddess not of gross but subtle substance.”
Lovely words that have stuck in her mind. Words of poetry. Not to be confused with reality, of course.
Looking at the sphinx man, she imagines the snake uncoiling secretly within, tries to see the movement on the outside of the belly. Nothing. Not a move. Not a flicker. The surface hard and still.
Other words come to her now, slipping like small blue sea creatures out of the slumbering unconscious of her mind. Something about the thousand-petalled lotus at the crown of the head. Waves of light and energy coming from the lowest point in the body, to the seventh at the top.
“And with each awakening, the psyche of the person will be transformed.”
She moves away to the other end of the pool. To the shallows. When she looks back to the rocks at the deep end of the pool, the sphinx-like man has gone.
The next day was Friday. There was nothing in the flat to eat. She hadn’t eaten breakfast, so by lunch time, Jeanie was ravenous. She dressed to go to lunch and then a swim in the pool. She walked to the end of the beachfront and ordered a late lunch at the restaurant on the esplanade above the pool. Expensive, but it couldn’t be helped. She would take half back for her flat-mate.
She’d planned to go for a swim straight after lunch. But something led her to look at the program for the Yoga classes in The Breathing Space, next-door to the restaurant.
A sign on the wall read: “The world is the great gymnasium, where we come to make ourselves strong.” Swami Vivekenanda.
From the moment she walked into the yoga room, she felt a lovely warmth that engulfed her whole body. She found a spot in the corner at the back of the class, placed her beach towel on the floor, and sat cross-legged on it. The warmth of the room was in part from the sun streaming in. But there was something else. She took off the tee shirt she’d worn over her swimsuit, sat on her haunches, her palms face up on her thighs.
Straight-backed and peaceful, she thought of the sphinx-man at the pool.
The meditation teacher was a plump, motherly type in soft cotton harem pantaloons and a flowing jacket. Belly fat oozing over her waist. She exuded warmth and love. Her voice soft and maternal.
She began to feel quite spiritual. It wasn’t necessary to close your eyes, the matriarch was saying. Better to remain open, so as not to fall asleep.
The motherly leader came and moved one of the lit candles to glow in front of Jeanie. Then she placed a strip of paper at her feet with a wisdom mind mantra on it: OM A RAPA TSA NA DHIH: “May the wisdom mind find you” or something like that.
Jeanie felt her heart swelling within her breast. Pink, green, orange, all the colours of the rainbow filling in the shapes in the video at her forehead, flickering on and off, in tune with the woman’s voice.
She thought once again of the serpent goddess of subtle substance, and wondered if this was she. In manifest form.
The lulling voice of the teacher was telling them they could lie down now.
Ah, great! Horizontal.
The leader was talking about love now. About sending love rays out towards specific people, and to acquaintances. They were being asked to transmit love direct from the heart.
This meditation session was all about love, she realized.
Jeanie wondered how she would know if the objects of her love had received the message or not. It didn’t seem to matter.
She thought of the sphinx-like man and decided that he would be the object of her transmitted love. Why not? she thought. He was an acquaintance, if she saw him again, she would recognise him from the brief encounter at the pool.
Perhaps it was he who had brought her here. She never would have thought of coming, otherwise.
Was he real, or was he an illusion, like so much about life and love?
This story was first published on Denise Baer’s blog: (http://baerbookspress.com/), along with other song theme-based stories.