The Importance of Heroes

I’m currently in the process of painting (yet another) portrait of Cleopatra, and it really got me thinking about how important heroes are in our lives. Children love to surround themselves with idols and role-models. They have posters of their favorite bands, movies, and athletes. They read about them, follow their careers, and aspire to be them. But what do our heroes have to say about us and the way we choose to live? Has any band formed without idolizing another, I wonder? My guess is no.

In addition to the Power Rangers, Ace of Base, and Carmen Sandiego (don’t judge, I was a 90s kid) decorating my childhood walls, I also idolized the famous Queen Cleopatra. She, more than any other childhood hero, has shaped my life in more ways than I can count. It would be impossible to know just how much.

For those who don’t know the backstory: I found my passion for ancient history around second grade, several years before I was captivated by Cleopatra. I knew of her, but I had always thought of her as a traitor and an unskilled ruler. After all, she was the last queen of Egypt… so she lost Egypt’s independence to the Romans, right? (In retrospect, I realize that many children’s history books do not mention her beyond that single fact). One day, my mom rented the Elizabeth Taylor “Cleopatra” for us to watch together. She knew I would appreciate it, being obsessed with anything Egyptian by that point. But the movie was not at all what I expected. I still remember asking her whether Cleopatra was “good or bad” at the end of the film. I had expected to see an irresponsible villain, but instead saw simply a woman. Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued. I began to read more about her and the more I learned, the more I grew to appreciate her.

And the rest, you may say, is history.

But how, exactly, have I been shaped by my childhood hero? For starters, I immediately began learning Greek. I had made up my mind that I wanted to study history when I got to college. I began reading everything I could find about Cleopatra, which drastically increased my vocabulary, writing proficiency, etc. I didn’t like many pieces of art depicting her, which were inspired by ancient slurs, and began painting my own depictions. The list goes on and on.

I still have a deeply rooted love of languages. I grew up bilingual, but learning Greek was the first time I learned a language strictly for fun. I did, indeed, study history in college. Not only did it affect my major, but my entire professional life thereafter. I still enjoy academic pursuits, and while one may argue that those are character traits more than influences by childhood heroes, the subject matter is certainly influenced. And as I stated at the beginning of this post, I do still paint. In fact, Cleopatra was the subject of my very first painting.

It’s likely that a lot of these interests may have manifested themselves through another means, but the results would certainly have been different. People we admire have the power to inspire us, and inspiration is what drives us in our creative pursuits.

And Cleopatra was just one of my childhood heroes, though the only one that I have retained into adulthood. I can’t imagine how different of a person I may have been without them all.

I know a lot of people with children. And while many of their  kids’ interests are fleeting and trivial, some are not. Some will plant seeds within them that won’t mature for many years to come. I only wish that more kids looked up to those who have helped shape the world in positive ways. Scientists, authors, etc. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be fans of others. But being a fan is not the same thing as idolizing. Those who inspire us are the ones who will shape our lives.

Who are your heroes and how have they shaped your life?

Visionary Fiction

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Visionary fiction is a relatively new genre in the literary world. To be completely honest, I did not even know about it until very recently. My publisher and Amazon both classified The Island of Echoes as a work of visionary fiction (in addition to science fiction and adventure), but that was the first time I had ever heard the term. Nevertheless, I am so glad I did, as it’s a wonderful genre with a beautiful message at its heart.

According to that lifeblood of human knowledge, Wikipedia, visionary fiction developed as a separate genre around the year 2000. It’s defined as “the literary form that illustrates and demonstrates the process of growth in human consciousness.”

A number of authors have since joined together to form the Visionary Fiction Alliance so that the genre can be further developed and its many works, old and new, properly defined. And there are many of them, as eclectic as the authors who wrote them!

I have been busy learning more about the genre and discovering its many wonderful facets. Not surprisingly, it’s right up my alley. Although The Island of Echoes is more of an adventure story in setting and concept, the underlying messages of the book perfectly reflect the tenets of visionary fiction. I hope you’ll join me in exploring this wonderful new genre (and I hope you have just as much fun doing it!). If you stumble across any books worth checking out, please pass them along!

The Death of Cleopatra

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The Roman stood at the very center of the throne room. His eyes scanned the chamber, taking in every carving on the columns, every piece of stone in the intricate floor mosaic. All his. Every grain of sand in Egypt was now under his control, and the thought made him smile. As requested, he was alone in the room, with only the stomp of his elevated sandals to keep him company. For he was a short man, a trait he had always found uncomfortable. His tall shoes may have compensated in his youth, but he would need them no more. He was now a colossus among men.

He casually walked to the golden dais. A beautiful motif of carved lotus blossoms encircled the platform and the entire structure glittered with gold leaf. The throne itself was delicate in appearance. Carved of wood with cushions of Tyrian purple, it was embellished with tortoiseshell and lapis. How many men have stood before it trembling over the last 300 years, the Roman wondered. It was amazing how little power the structure held without a king, or queen, upon it.

He settled onto the cushions. His simple Roman toga did not match any of the opulence around him, but he knew that it didn’t have to. His great-uncle, the powerful Julius Caesar, had made that mistake. He was too firm in his approach to power and the Senate had stabbed his dreams away. And the lesson was learned. The Roman had accomplished all that his uncle could not, and the people would not hate him for it. They would reward him. He closed his eyes and imagined the throngs shouting his name. “Octavius! Octavius!”

It wouldn’t be long before he returned. His triumphal parade would be a spectacle remembered for generations. Mountains of gold, hundreds of captured soldiers. But his heart trembled at the thought of his main attraction. She would be chained and forced to walk through the streets as the crowds spat in her path and pelted her with garbage. “You whore, Cleopatra!” they would shout. And she knew what was coming.

Cleopatra herself witnessed her sister in the same position not long ago, when the younger woman waged war against Julius Caesar and lost. It was Roman custom, and Cleopatra deserved nothing less. Octavius smiled. He would be seen as more powerful than Caesar and Antony alike, both of whom succumbed to her charms. And he would exploit it. His writers had long been spinning the web of propaganda against Cleopatra, and she had lost. She would now go down in history as the whore of the Nile.

“My Lord!”

Octavius opened his eyes in irritation and embarrassment. It was unbecoming of a Roman to be seen on a throne.

“I said I didn’t wish to be disturbed,” he growled through clenched teeth.

“Forgive me, my Lord, but you should come quickly. The Queen… there was an incident.”

The blood rushed from Octavius’ face. His jaw tensed as he rushed past the attendant. He sprinted to the elaborate mausoleum where Cleopatra had been holding funerary rites for Marc Antony. The large bronze doors stood ajar, a feeble flickering of torchlight escaping out into the night. A small group of soldiers were standing outside the structure, their faces betraying fear and shame.

Octavius didn’t need to ask what happened. He knew she was plotting it, but his men were supposed to guard against it. His gaze chilled them to the bone as he entered the mausoleum.

Cleopatra lay atop a polished sarcophagus at the center of the alabaster chamber. The room was beautifully decorated with garlands and dozens of potted plants. Low tables of food, amphorae of wine, and burning incense stood throughout the room. He knew it was all tested for poison, so how did she do it? He approached her body. Her two attendants lay at the foot of the sarcophagus, equally dead. Despite their still forms, the three women looked peaceful, as if they had simply taken a nap. Their faces were absent of all the pains of poison.

Octavius leaned over the Queen’s body. She was regally dressed in a gown of gold. Her most elaborate crown framed her beautiful Grecian features. Her eyes were accented with kohl, her lips, almost smiling, were tinted red, and her cheeks had a shimmer of gold. She truly did look like a goddess.

In her hands, she held the crook and flail of Egypt, the symbols of the pharaoh’s power. And then he noticed the pricks of blood on her arm. Snakebite. She had somehow smuggled snakes into the room. His frustration was slightly subdued by an appreciation of her cunning. He gave her one last look and sighed. There was nothing he could do.

He turned to deal with his incompetent soldiers when his foot struck a lever hidden among the plants. It sent one of the pots crashing to the floor. He saw it before he felt it, a dark slithering across the stone. He looked down at his ankle, where blood was already running down to his sandal from two points. He panicked. The snakes were still there.

He rushed past the other plants in such haste that he tripped over one of the low tables of food. Another bite, this time on his arm. He saw the other serpents hidden throughout the room, agitated by the noise. Already he felt a numbness is his foot. He tried to stand but his leg would not respond. He collapsed again and shouted to his men.

“Get the serpent masters here now!” he commanded.

Two soldiers rushed into the chamber to carry their general out. Octavius looked up at Cleopatra one last time. Her delicate smile and serenity were a mockery of his exasperation.

“You bitch,” was all he could whisper as his soldiers dragged him away, his mind already light-headed with anxiety and the poison in his veins.

Spiritual Atheism

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Something that I have always struggled to convey to people, even those who know me well, is my attitude toward spirituality and atheism (more precisely, the combination of the two). It seems that the vast majority of individuals believe that they are incompatible. And I can understand why. On paper, atheism is a lack of belief while spirituality is having belief. But the world is never so black and white, and this is one gray area that I truly enjoy embracing. As such, it’s one of the primary philosophies in my book.

At the risk of shameless self-promotion, one of my favorite quotes from Island of Echoes states that “the organization of something as immaterial as spirituality is bound to fail.” But that does not mean that I frown upon concepts of spirituality. I simply don’t believe that organized religion has any real value in the world. In fact, as Richard Dawkins points out in his documentary, Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life, organized religion does a lot more harm to a person’s psychology than atheism.

I enjoyed the documentary and agreed with much of its content, but it annoyed me how often umbrella terms describing all atheists were used. Unlike Dawkins’ other films, this one was particularly aimed at discrediting ideas of sin, the afterlife, and the soul. People who believe in ideas beyond the tangible were ridiculed in no uncertain terms. I wish it was an isolated incident, but sadly I see the trend across many organizations, including humanistic ones. It saddens me to see atheism being portrayed as an “all or nothing” club.

A closed mind is a very unhealthy thing. It leads to radicalism and ignorance, two things that almost always end up with disaster. Now that our world is becoming more atheistic, and with more people discarding the tenets of organized religion, should we begin a dialogue about keeping an open mind from the other side of the coin?

Auras are a perfect example. For millennia, people have believed that our bodies give off a tangible field which is felt by others and which demonstrates our feelings. It was a ridiculed concept by scientists… until it wasn’t. What changed? Electricity. With the knowledge of electrical currents came the discovery that our bodies do produce a tangible electrical field, one that indeed does change in intensity and size depending on our emotions. Does that mean that science books now list auras as proven concept? No. But does it mean the ancients were completely wrong? Also no.

While it’s true that I do not believe in a deity of any kind, why should that discredit the idea of a soul or an afterlife? I’m not saying that I do, but I also don’t see why the concepts need to be tied together. At one point in Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life, Richard Dawkins discusses how energy never truly disappears. It simply transforms into something else. That’s a scientific fact. Our bodies produce energy. That is also a scientific fact. So why is it so far-fetched to say that the energy our bodies produce will transform into something else upon death?

Our universe is a wonderful place. I hate seeing religious people telling others what to believe, but it also bothers me when non-religious people tell others what they shouldn’t believe. So long as violence, hate, and oppression are not promoted, there’s no harm in belief beyond the tangible. There’s too much left for us to discover and explore to set the rigid boundaries which people have a tendency to do. I think it serves us well to keep an open mind about spiritual concepts and I’d love to see other atheists feel the same. At the end of the day, kindness and respect will do a lot more than forcing your viewpoint on someone else. There are many uncertainties out there… let’s embrace them together.

The Pyramid

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1871 – East London

Charles huddled into his scarf as he walked down the narrow cobblestone street. As pretty as the snow was, he could do with less of it. His thick wool scarf had practically frozen to his face in the 10 minutes since leaving the pub, and he wasn’t even halfway home yet.

He knew the area of London well. Wapping. It wasn’t the side you wanted to be on in the daytime, much less at night. But the beer was cheap and it wasn’t too far of a walk from his closet-sized apartment. Unfortunately, it also meant that establishments were few and far between.

He passed countless old buildings and warehouses. The wind whipped into his eyes as he turned down an alley. Anything to get away from the brunt of it. He leaned against the brick building and took a few breaths. It took him a minute to see that the door to the building was ajar. Perhaps it was abandoned.

The door creaked as he pushed it in. The building looked like an old storeroom, though there was little in it. Cobwebs and dust surrounded everything he could make out. Large amphorae stood against one wall and moldy furniture and broken beams lay scattered throughout the area. He tried one of the chairs. It held. This place would serve nicely until he warmed back up. He noticed a metal sign under his foot. He brushed off the thick sawdust with his boot.

‘The Froggit & Froggit Co.’

Whatever it was, it looked like it either moved or shut down. No sooner had he dropped the old sign down that Charles heard footsteps approaching outside. He jumped up and hid amongst the large amphorae. Maybe the place wasn’t abandoned after all.

The door creaked back open. He huddled into himself and held his breath. Someone entered the building. No, several people. He heard hushed voices, though he couldn’t make out any faces. Black cloaks with abnormally large hoods concealed the new arrivals from his view. They proceeded quietly to the other end of the storeroom.

There, among some large statues and pieces of broken wood was a doorway on what appeared to be a heavily slanted wall. They opened it and headed inside. He hadn’t even noticed it upon his arrival.

Charles rushed out of the shadows as soon as the cloaked figures retreated. The rush of adrenaline had warmed him up rather quickly and he was ready to head out. He made his way for the exit and proceeded to open the door. And that’s when he realized the visitors had locked it behind them. His stomach sank a bit as he looked around. He tries to force the door but it was no use. His efforts made quite a bit of noise, all of which seemed to echo and expand among the lifeless expanse around him.

He had no choice, he would have to head to the other side and hope for another exit.

He made his way slowly. The floorboards creaked with every step. He was nearly at the other doorway when he realized it wasn’t attached to a slanted wall at all. The warehouse opened into a much larger structure. The small area he sat in had only been the entrance. The warehouse itself was very large, rising up several stories. A few plain windows broke the seemingly endless expanse of brick rising up to the ceiling. But there, in the middle of the cavernous building, stood a large wooden pyramid.

The slanted wall he saw was merely one face of the structure. An elaborate double door stood open where the cloaked figures had entered. Charles dared not follow, nor even approach. A flickering of firelight escaped from within. He walked around the pyramid instead, hoping to spot some back door to the warehouse. Whatever the pyramid was, it clearly didn’t belong in a dusty old building in Wapping. It was huge, its wood clean, polished, and painted. It looked new compared to the dilapidated surroundings it sat in.

With no escape route, Charles huddled in a corner of the warehouse, the abundance of old junk keeping him well out of sight. All he had to do was wait. His head still spun from the beer and his sense of time was impaired. It wasn’t long before he began to doze off.

He opened his eyes a few minutes later. Had it only been a few minutes? Something had woken him. Then he heard the sound of singing. The voices seemed faint and far away, but the chanting was unmistakable. The hymn flowed out through the open pyramid doors. It was beautiful, like the sirens of ancient Greece. They stopped and began again several times, as if the singers were practicing their song, while Charles drifted in and out of consciousness.

Hours passed before Charles awoke. He slowly opened his eyes. His mind was still swimming with the memories of beautiful hymns and he felt very relaxed amid the strange surroundings. But all of that went away when he felt a kick on his boot. He quickly turned and looked up to see a group of men and women, dressed entirely in black. Their heads were shaven clean minus a single shock of hair which hung like a ponytail. They looked down menacingly at him, and it was only then that he noticed the large curved blades which they held in their hands.


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“Get those paintings up!”

Athan looked up at the approaching voice. Commander Sola was a deceptively short and frail woman for the domineering personality within. She marched through the dilapidated gray corridor with hands clasped behind her back, her tight olive-green uniform glittering with gold medals.

All around them, workers quickly filled the numerous cracks in the wall with grout while painters were busy concealing the discoloration. Athan reached down into a wooden crate that was delivered just minutes before. It contained a stack of generic paintings, framed and ready for hanging. Beautiful seascapes, flowers, and galloping horses were prominent in the art, but it did not take a close examination to realize that they were not true paintings but reproductions printed on canvas. Athan hung the frames in a neat row against the still-drying wall of the corridor.

Commander Sola paced the room. She despised last-minute changes. Her radio clicked and she brought it to her ear. Athan couldn’t hear the voice at the other end, but he spotted the Commander’s black brows furrow.

“Alright, I need all painters out, and take this crate with you” her voice echoed. “Private,” she addressed Athan, “you have three minutes to finish.”

The young man nodded, pressed a few nails between his lips, and quickly hammered them into place. His comrades had vacated the little hall without a trace by the time the last painting was hung. And it was just in time. The doors at the opposite end of the hall opened without warning. The young man searched Commander Sola’s face for guidance. “Stay put and follow my lead,” she directed quietly as a small group of regally clad individuals entered the chamber.

Commander Sola bowed low to the middle-aged man at their head.

“Your royal highness,” she addressed him. “What a pleasant surprise it is to see you.”

“Sola,” the man acknowledged her, but his eyes fixated on Athan, who stood with his head bowed low. “Who is this?”

“Forgive us, your highness. We did not expect you to come through this way. This young man is one of the palace’s inspectors. He was just making his daily rounds to ensure that all is as it should be.”

“Ah,” the King replied, losing interest. “I don’t believe I’ve walked down this hall recently,” he looked up at the freshly hung art. “Who did these works?”

“These paintings were donated for display by the Royal Academy of Art. They were painted by the top students of this year’s class.”

“Amazing work,” the King observed. “Such talent.”

“Come through this way, your majesty,” Commander Sola quickly directed to the opposite end of the hall. “Surely you want to see more than a simple corridor. The next room has far grander works as well as another marvelous view of your fair city.”

“Then let us proceed.”

Athan dropped his shoulders with a sigh when the group left. He had never been so caught off guard by the royalty, but he knew Commander Sola would be pleased with their quick thinking. He left the hall in the opposite direction and entered a large room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the city outside. Dozens of metal and glass skyscrapers reflected the brilliant sunlight, so that the city appeared like a jewel on the land. The streets between them were teeming with brightly clad individuals. Athan stopped to marvel at the scene.

The room’s opulence matched the beauty outside. The walls were decorated with carvings and gold leaf and the domed ceiling depicted an intricate scene from mythology.

Soldiers stood positioned throughout the chamber. One of them brought his radio to his lips. “Confirm royalty in west corridor.”

“Confirmed. Royalty in west corridor,” came a response.

The soldier nodded to his comrades and the door to the adjoining hall was locked. They began turning off the lights as they prepared to vacate the chamber.

One of the men pushed aside a large blue window drape to reveal a concealed lever. He pulled the gear down and Athan witnessed the now-familiar illusion of the window screen being deactivated. The brilliant city outside vanished as the windows darkened. Small stone buildings, identical and without character, now dotted the landscape. There was no sign of the majestic skyscrapers. The streets were empty save for a few patrols marching down the main avenues. The only other movement came from the countless wisps of chimney smoke.

Athan looked out at the bleak vista. He had once been a part of that life. He would still be huddling beside a feeble fireplace amid the approaching winter storms had he not begun working in the palace. The sight of his old life used to bring a pang of pity and sadness. Now, he felt only bitterness at the memory resurfacing. Like the soldiers around him, he turned and walked out of the room without a second look upon the landscape. They closed the doors behind them, already thinking of other things.

The Lake

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Lauren walked through the woods, each step cracking the dried twigs that littered the area. The earth was dry and lifeless. Only the trees provided a sense of solace from the gray sky overhead. She tightened her cardigan against the chill air. The surroundings were unfamiliar. She could not even recall how she found herself among the trees. The bewilderment was not unlike the moment after waking from a dream, its details quickly fading away. She brushed the blonde hair from her face and continued forward, with only the sound of her crunching footfalls to keep her company.

The terrain remained unchanged in every direction. It wasn’t long before Lauren began to feel a sense of anxiety in the pit of her stomach. She had not gotten lost since she was a little girl, but the same sense of overwhelming doom she had felt then returned two-fold. There was no adult to help this time; she was completely alone.

It was unlike her to leave home without a trusty large purse of essentials, much less wander through unfamiliar terrain without anything at all. She rechecked her pockets for a phone or car keys. Nothing. Her pace increased as she made her way through the woodland. It was unusually cold for the time of year. She had just admired the start of autumn as she drove home from work a few days ago, yet here the trees were mostly bare, their leaves already dried and crisp.

“Hello?” she called out in desperation, her steps quickening to a jog. “Hello!” There was no response.

She spotted a glow through the gray trunks, the unmistakable reflection of water. It was a lake so still, it seemed like a giant mirror spreading across the clearing. Lauren ran to it and scanned the distant shoreline for a hint of houses, roads, or landmarks, but saw nothing more than endless woodland. She looked up at the sky in desperation.

Turning back to the forest, she instinctively took a step back in surprise. There was a bench just a dozen feet away. A cloaked figure sat hunched upon it, head bent down. She must have run right past it.

Lauren approached the dark antiquated bench. Even its bolts had long since rusted over. The figure remained motionless. Its cloak was deep burgundy, almost brown, and composed of thick, rich fabric with intricate patterns weaved into the exterior. The hood rose slowly to peer at Lauren, the stranger’s face hidden in shadow. The young woman froze in her path.

Old dark hands rose to pull the hood back, revealing an elder woman within. Her face was a dried riverbed of cracks. Her prominent nose came to a hook and her gray hair formed a neat bun. Her gaze seemed to penetrate Lauren, revealing the young woman’s every detail, every flaw. It seemed like ages before the stranger motioned to the spot beside her on the bench. The newcomer cautiously approached and settled onto the antique planks. There was no emotion on the wise old face beside her; the cloaked woman simply observed.

Lauren was about to speak when the stranger reached into her cloak. There was a tattoo on the elder’s wrist, a simple cryptic symbol resembling something like a stylized leaf or feather. The woman opened her rich covering to reveal an intricate picture frame lying on her lap. It sparkled with gold leaf in contrast to its monotone surroundings. Enclosed in the frame behind a pane of glass was a photograph. It was yellow with age and not any picture she had seen before, but there was no mistaking that the woman in the frame was Lauren herself.

The stranger rose casually and knelt at the edge of the lake. Her sinewy fingers placed the frame atop the water’s surface. It balanced perfectly as it floated from shore. Lauren felt her heart pounding as she watched the scene before her. The old woman remained silhouetted against the lake in perfect stillness while the frame continued to float down its watery path.

Lauren joined the stranger at the lake’s edge, but her eyes never left the distant frame. She could almost see herself behind the glass in place of the photograph, floating silently, staring up at the sky. The frame slowed its path and rotated calmly on the water. The old woman gazed forward with utmost concentration.

The frame suddenly stopped its slow spin and disappeared into the watery depths, sinking in silence. A heavy weight settled over Lauren. The old woman sunk her head, as if in disappointment.

Lauren’s fright and anxiety increased with every passing second. Her breath quickened, her chest pounded. Her thoughts became overwhelmed by dark memories, events that had long been forgotten. Each one refreshed the malice, jealousy, and anger she had experienced in those moments, and they settled upon her like a physical mass atop her heart.

The two women stood at the lake for some time, but nothing more was said. Lauren could only gaze up at the sky through teary eyes.