Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Cistaphasmatis by Charles Seper

Update: It's now available at the following Amazon locations in Kindle (mobi) format:


Epub format in the near future for those who own e-readers other than Kindle.

If you'd like to read this story long with others from Amazon that are in their AZW (mobi) format and don't have an e-reader, you can still read them on your computer by downloading the free Kindle For PC and Kindle For Mac apps from Amazon here:

Kindle For PC

Kindle For Mac

There are also Kindle apps for reading on iPad, iPhone, Blackberry, and Android.

This is a novelette I wrote some months ago of around 12,000 words. It's been completely reworked recently and is now available on Horatio Press via digital download for only a dollar.

Book Blurb:
The Cistaphasmatis is about a young man from Nantucket named Clifford who feels compelled to try and contact his deceased girlfriend on the other side of death's door using an age old mirror gazing technique in a home-built viewing chamber called a cistaphasmatis. About this time, he also finds himself becoming quick friends with the sexton at the graveyard his girlfriend is buried at, a retired Episcopal Priest named Bud Buchanan. Clifford soon finds that this priest has knowledge of the way the world works that's rather unique among men as Bud tries to keep Cliff from getting in over his head in "the void."

Excerpt 1

The main branch library in Nantucket has a large number of books on occult subjects, and it was here (unfortunately) that I found the title by Mr. Seagraves. It was called: Visions of the Sybil (seeking advice from the dead). This book held the answer to what I was looking for.

In it he described how the ancient Sybils in Greece used to sit in caves, usually over a fissure where the ground had split open and left a deep gulf. They thought it went down to an underworld that existed beneath the surface of the Earth, and here the dead lived. It was said that those who were deceased had an uncanny ability to see the future, and this is why kings consulted Sybils before going to war. The Sybil would sit in the cave with nothing but a small, dimly lit torch and would stare into the void of that gulf until she began to have visions. Other Sybils would look into a mirror or a pool of water.

I gathered from this book that when attempting to do this it was important to allow your eyes to sort of go numb. It's not so different from the way you look at one of those Magic Eye books to see 3-D objects. If you try to see the objects you never will. The harder you concentrate, the less likely you are to see anything. You have to be unfocussed and allow your eyes be completely relaxed.

The contraption Seagraves invented in 1821 aided him in doing this. It was like a sensory depravation chamber, basically just a wooden box painted black inside and just big enough for a man to sit in comfortably. It was actually a box within a box. He glued blankets around the entire outside of the first box and then nailed a second round of wood around it. The blankets acted like a buffer between the two layers of wood to help keep out sounds. He left an opening for a door, and inside the chamber he had attached a mirror to one wall. He brought one small, solitary candle into the chamber with him and set it on a shelf that stuck out below the mirror. The mirror was positioned above him so that he couldn't see his own reflection when gazing into it, only the blackness of the wall behind him and the dancing flame of the candle just below the mirror. Also, if he wanted to contact someone specifically, he found it helped to bring some small item the deceased person had owned before they died, something that they were very attached to, a wedding ring for example.

I found that other people had built similar chambers since his and referred to them as psychomantiums. Seagraves called his a cistaphasmatis, which as near as I can tell is from the Latin words cista meaning box or chamber, and phasmatis which means ghosts or spirits. His differed in one aspect however, and this I found to be strangely interesting. He claimed that trees had certain properties which the ancients thought of as magical, and that, being living creatures, they held the memories of all that happened on the Earth, not only while they stood, but from the generations of trees before them from which their seeds had sprung. It's possible that all plant life held memories, but trees could grow to be very old. Some had stood for well over a thousand years. He surmised that the oldest trees had absorbed more of humanity into them as well as something of the divine (although the reasons he gave seemed vague to me), and this was why ancient man all over the world worshipped trees, especially the very oldest of the oaks. They made some sort of conduit between man and the spiritual realms. If one were to build a cistaphasmatis, it would be best to build it of the oldest oak lumber you could find.

Fortunately, this is Nantucket, home to some of the oldest whaling ships that ever sailed. The ones from the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries were made from large oak timbers that must have come from very old trees. Very few of the most venerable whalers are left, but their timbers were reused for all kinds of things.

I knew of an old farm up for auction not too far away where the owner had claimed that the wood used for his barn came from the wreck of the Sheraton Whaler. The farm was such a mess that no one bid enough to make a sale worthwhile. I contacted the owner and made an offer for the huge barn door. It was off its hinges and laying against the side of the building, and truthfully, the entire barn was slanted to one side so severely that it couldn't possibly stand much longer anyway. They let me have it for next to nothing. The following morning I began construction of my cistaphasmatis in the back of my aunt's garage. I only used the old oak wood for the inside chamber. I used pine for the outside so it wouldn't be quite so heavy in case I had to move it, but it still must have been a little hefty at four feet in height, four and a half feet in length, and three feet in width. Instead of a door, I made the top hinged like a chest lid so I could simply slide over the side to get in and then pull the top back down. I also left a small air hole on the backside for the candle smoke to escape through and stuffed it with a piece of black foam so it would hardly be noticeable. I placed a pair of locks on it to finish the project. If anyone asked about it, I would simply tell them it was a storage bin for some expensive tools. By the following evening it was ready for use.

I waited till Aunt Caroline went to bed before I entered the cistaphasmatis. I wasn't nervous because I didn't particularly think it would work. A couple of weeks had gone by since I had heard Diana's voice at the cemetery, and that's just enough time for a person to forget how real an otherworldly experience can be. By now I had begun to convince myself that the whole thing had been a simple hallucination (whatever those are). Still I lit the candle and waited. Everything I knew of that Diana owned was burnt in the fire. We did, however, each have a copy of a photograph of us together that was taken by my mother last Christmas. This was the closest I could get to bringing an item she owned with me into the box.

According to Seagraves, part of the trick was to blank your mind, and I found this to be much harder than it sounds. It's amazing how little time goes by, just a matter of seconds, before some thought enters your mind or maybe a song, and the next thing you know you're in deep thought again. It must have taken me close to an hour of practice before I could manage to keep my mind free from thought for periods of just a minute or so at a time. This went on for several hours. Seagraves had come up with another aid for this sort of meditation. He used seashells large enough to cover each ear and glued them to a scarf-like strap that he tied around the top of his head to the bottom of his chin. He found that the airy sound they produced helped take him to the trance-like state that was needed. It was easy enough to make a similar head strap, but even though I had brought it into the chamber with me, I was very reluctant to use it. After all, I felt silly enough sitting in this contraption to begin with without having seashells glued to a strap around my head! Eventually, around 3:00 o'clock, I finally gave in and put it on.

I noticed immediately the effects of the shells. It was like focusing on someone else's breathing. Then again I thought it was also like a steady rain. You know, the kind that can lull you to sleep so easily. In only a matter of minutes I started to see something coming into view in the mirror. It was the outline of a woman. The light was so dim around her that I couldn't make out much. She walked with a heavy limp and had a cane or walking stick in each hand. As she came closer to the candle, which seemed to illuminate both our worlds, and although she was still difficult to see, there was no mistaking that face—it was Diana.

Excerpt 2

"Do you think you're the first person to gaze into a mirror and see another world? Man, that stuff's old hat. That's along the lines of parlor tricks any first year adept could do."

"First year what?"

"Clifford, people have been doing this sort of thing since the world began. Diana herself made mention of the Eleusinian Mysteries to you. It's an art that can, and has been, taught since time out of mind. Any fool can jump into the nearest sensory deprivation chamber and have a vision. But not just anyone can have a vision from God Clifford, and that's what I want you to understand. There are visions, and there are visions, just like most people have a dream that comes true at some point in their life, but not all of their dreams."

"So the other million dreams are just hallucinations?"

"I didn't say that. Most are fiction. Maybe being a character in a fictional tale is the best way for us to learn some things. But not all those tales are sent from God. You have to test them."

"And the same goes for the things you see in a mirror I suppose?"

"No; you can never trust anything you see in a mirror Clifford! You cannot force true visions. It just doesn't work like that. Visions have to come to you, and they usually come when you least expect them. I'm not saying that proper meditation in conjunction with prayer is bad or that it can't lead to a true vision. No priest would tell you that. Opening your mind to God should always be a part of prayer. People think prayer is talking to God when in reality you can't tell God anything he doesn't already know. Prayer should mostly be about God talking to you. That's what the true Mystics have always done. You've spent so much time reading all this occult nonsense. Have you ever spent any time at all reading about the lives and visions of the Mystic Saints? If you ever do, you'll soon come to realize that all these goofy theosophists and the like are just children playing as men. They're the biggest know-nothings since the priests of those Eleusinian Mysteries. And what's worse, the leaders among them know it. Oh they'll gladly sell you their books and take your dues, but they themselves have been practicing meditation techniques long enough to know that it all leads to the same dead-end."

We fell silent for a minute as an endless stream of bicyclists came by, apparently part of some kind of organized event, and I was glad. I needed time to regroup. Once they were out of earshot I was ready to go on.

"There's one problem with all this Bud. I know Diana. I know her as well as I know myself. I can see no good reason she would want me to deliver that small handful of hair to her unless she actually does need it for what she says she does. Who else in any world would care about having that hair for anything? What could they possibly do with it? I guess you'll say they want it for some sort of magic spell."

"First let me tell you that I don't believe you. You say you're sure this is Diana because you know her so well. But didn't you also just get done telling me that she was saying some things and acting in certain ways in that world beyond the mirror that took you by surprise? Wasn't she rather quick to rid herself of all her former religious beliefs on the word of some boy she had only just met?"

"Well, yeah, but—"

"And didn't you tell me that she was suddenly being alluring in a sexual way, a way that made you want to jump through the mirror?"

"But I didn't mean it to sound quite like that."

"Secondly, there's no such thing as magic. At least not in this world, not today. And probably not in that one. But I'll tell you one thing. She was right about the thin places. I know exactly what she's after, but I'll not tell you."

"Why not? Why shouldn't I know?"

"Because you probably wouldn't believe me. And because, if you did, I'm afraid you might try to prove it to yourself, and I'm just old enough that I would like one of my last great pleasures in life to be that of proving it to you."

I shook my head again. "You've lost me. I have no idea what you're going on about. How can you prove anything to me?"

"By letting me be the one who gets in that box tonight."

"It's called a cistaphasmatis, and are you nuts?!"

Excerpt 3

He was a man of his word. Bud pulled up in his pickup truck at exactly two o'clock. I opened the garage door manually as slowly as I could, not wanting the electric motor to wake Aunt Caroline.

"I hope you won't mind if we put these on your invention here," he said as he held up a pair of padlocks complete with hinges.

"No need," I said. "I already have locks on it. But why do you want them on there?"

"Maybe I don't want to be disturbed. Now how about that photograph? And the candle and matches?"

"I keep all that in a bag inside there. You shouldn't need the photograph anyway since you'll be carrying some of her hair. I think we're good to go."

The cistaphasmatis was lighter than I thought it would be, but it was still plenty heavy, and we struggled to get it into the truck. As we pulled away, I still had no idea where he was taking me. I didn't know it yet, but the real struggle was yet to come.

"You look awfully chipper for two in the morning," he said.

"I just don't feel the need for sleep very much lately."

"That's understandable. They say some of the Mystics never slept."

"Is that what I am, a Mystic?"

"Not quite. What you did was for selfish reasons. You wanted to mitigate your conscience after your girlfriend died for having tried to manipulate her for your own lascivious purposes. Don't get me wrong Cliff, I'm glad you still have a conscience and tried to make a wrong right, but that doesn't make you a Mystic. A Mystic has no self. He doesn't meditate to try and contact the dead or to know the mysteries of the universe. He has no motive whatsoever but to seek the face of God."

"Okay, I'll buy that. But what's with the lack of sleep?"

"That's a byproduct of having transcended reality. Everyone does it when they sleep, but it's normally a slow process that can take as long as eight hours or more. The best way I can explain it is that we all have an attachment to another world. Let's think of that attachment as being something like a rubber band."

"Wait, another world?"

"Yes; nearly all religions preach that this world is not our true home. Our bodies may be part of it, but the portion of us that makes decisions and has a will is from much deeper in the heart of God. When we die, that part of us will go back to God in some way."

"What about Hell?"

"There are a lot of differing opinions about that, more than I care to get into at the moment. But the thing to remember is that, the part of us that's the real us was not made for this world and can only stand to be in it for just so long before it has to come up for air so to speak. That's what sleep does. It's like a whale coming up for air. He lives in the ocean, but he was not made for the ocean. The ocean was made for him.

"But let's get back to that rubber band. The bible refers to it as the 'silver cord.' Throughout the day it winds itself tighter and tighter, and the longer we stay self-aware in this world, the tighter it gets. It can only get just so tight before it has to unravel itself. And the only way it can do that is by loosing the ties of consciousness in this world and going back to where it came from."

"Which is where?" I asked.

"To the timeless void, the great sea which is God and which is everywhere and nowhere, the place from which all things have their first form (as Plato would have put it). Before anything was anything, it was a thought in the mind of God, and it still is. 'In Him we live and move and have our being,' Epimenides said, and he couldn't have been far wrong even if his own concept of God and reality was a bit skewed. There are probably many worlds. A creator is always about the business of creating. But he not only creates, he sustains what he creates or there'd be no point in creating it. Think of all the worlds, however many there are, as horses on a carrousel ride and God as the hub in the middle to which they're all attached and which continually spins because he makes it so. The void is the closest thing to the imagination of God we can conceive of (and we can't conceive much). It's a place where anything can become anything else just as a particle can become any other kind of particle in the material world after it first enters the place scientists call 'nonlocality' where time and space cease to exist, and even that I surmise is just another word for the void. But even that world, the void, is not without its rules, though I suspect many of its inhabitants don't know them, and their dreams and visions are as false and phony as the church doctrines which came from the sword-tip of Constantine.

"They say that St. Francis, and others like him, never slept. When a man transcends the material world, it's as though he unravels that rubber band in the blink of an eye—that same rubber band that most people have to sleep all night to loosen. It's not only holy men who do this, but only the holy men find the Divine during their moments of transcendence. You'll find more instances of it in the bible than just about anywhere. Men to whom the heavens were opened, and the light of God filled them with a lifetime of truth in an instant."

"That's quite a sermon," I said, not knowing how much of it, if any, was accurate or simply conjecture.

"That's what you get for inviting a priest to come along."

"The priest invited himself, but I'm glad you're here just the same."

He had no sooner said this than we pulled up onto a sandy beach. I had been listening so intently to him that I hadn't paid any mind to where we were going. I had to spend a moment taking in my surroundings before I realized Bud had driven us clean out to the other side of the island, out to Coskata Pond.


shadowlands said...

All the best for the book Bill. I need to read this excerpt when less tired, with tea and biccies!

C W Seper said...

Many thanks me lady, and one to grow on.

Ann said...

Great story!

C W Seper said...

Hey Ann, how do you know Trudy Graves? That gal must get around. She follows two of the blogs I also follow including Shadowlands here (I think).

Got new carpets yet? (or whatever you're gonna put in there).

Ann said...

She's a FB friend. And I first met her as she moderates the Methodist Aldersgate group. She must have seen something you wrote to me on FB? Nice person. Good writer. And a blogger herself.

C W Seper said...

I don't know her. She just made me think of that "6 degrees of Kevin Bacon" thing when I spotted her on blogs and FB pages of people I know from various parts of the world who don't know one another.