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Methods of Ascension

Method 1: Subconscious Modification

It wasn’t unusual for my brother to send me strange videos he found on the internet. If I’d had enough to drink, sometimes I’d even watch. They were all about pain, in one way or another, and often made me feel as though someone had poured concrete down my throat. There are afterimages burned into my memory that cannot be removed; grainy flashes of a woman swallowed up by an escalator, handing her child to a stranger before being pulled under; black and white street fight footage that ends with a neck snapped back and blood leaking out into a storm drain; a man’s legs removed by hidden explosives, then parts of him floating out of the sky as if his missing bits were confetti.

My brother never provided commentary, just the videos themselves—the emails subjectless, their bodies empty. This went on for years without much encouragement on my end. Then one day it stopped, and we stopped speaking altogether, not for any one reason, but partially because I remembered that I didn’t have to be friends with a person I didn’t care for. It’s not a requirement—there are no laws against not speaking to your family. But I guess he couldn’t help it, because six months later Robert started sending me new videos, and it became clear that in those six months something inside him had changed.

When his message arrived, I realized that I had—only for a short amount of time—forgotten he existed at all. I did not feel good about this fact, but it was the truth, and I try not to avoid the reality of my feelings. The first email had a subject: I think you’ll like this, it read. Please keep an open mind, was all the body said.

The embedded link materialized a new window that showed a website from another era. The background was black and stuffed with poorly spaced lines of yellow text. The font was so hard to read that when I glanced away from the screen, the words remained in my vision, burning neon bright, hovering in empty space. The text was spliced with uncaptioned, low-res images of paintings and sculptures I did not recognize. The paintings showed deer with too many horns, too many heads, angelic beings offering severed limbs to fire-sheathed deities. There was a video in a box at the bottom of the page. It was a man speaking to the camera. I learned later that this man’s name was Rudyard Vespra.

Vespra sat in an office with wooden walls. The French doors behind him were curtained, leading somewhere unseen. His appearance and accent were vaguely European, although from what part of Europe I couldn’t say. English was not his first language, that was certain. It was clear in the syllables he emphasized. The way he said cosmology. He spoke about the pictures on the website, about the angels and the deer and the things they symbolized, the pool of shared-consciousness the artists pulled from to make them real. He discussed, at length, the mythology associated with divine structures and their representation in ancient Near Eastern art. It was mostly incomprehensible, but there are lines he spoke that I can’t unremember. His face remains in my head.

“You are the master of your own mind,” he said. “You can reshape your reality. What you need is already inside you, it’s only a matter of finding the holes in your dreams.”

These lines were a prelude to the sales pitch. A monthly fee bought access to Vespra’s program; to videos, lectures, worksheets, and books. The program’s end goal was unclear. It was broken up into three distinct stages. Methods of Ascension, that’s what he called it, and it cost a thousand dollars. I got an email from Robert a week later, asking me for money.

• • • •

Robert had lived in the cabin since after my dad died. Dad built the cabin in the northwoods, a half-hour drive from the border, hidden in the deep, deep part of the state, where people sometimes went to disappear. We spent weekends there growing up, fetching bottles of beer for my dad and his only friend that I remember—a guy named Kelly—out of an army-colored cooler while they stood on the dock, starlit and wobbling. They pulled hooks out of the lips of fish and told stories about the cars they’d owned. I remember cleaning bluegill right there on the shore, using the tip of the knife to feel for bone, and then we’d wrap the filets in tinfoil and light a fire and watch the sparks fall into the lake.

I guess this is a long way of saying, I still had bitter feelings about the fact Robert was the cabin’s sole owner. Rob gets the cabin. That was all the will said. I had just recently come to accept that I would never go back, and like all my memories, the cabin would become only a bundle of neurons packed into the grey parts of my brain. But then a new email arrived, and Rob told me that the program was going well, but he had, in a series of events that were still quite blurry, managed to drink himself into a stupor and fall asleep in the shed. He passed out after ashing a half-smoke cigarette on a rag soaked in turpentine. He woke up sweating—crisped but untouched—walls made of fire and snow coming down through the ceiling.

I never believed in miracles, he wrote, but I understand now that there are unseen forces at work in the world.

He was going to rebuild the shed, making it better this time around, but he wondered if I had any free weekends, if I could help him insulate, run electrical and hang sheets of drywall that were too heavy to lift on his own. For some reason I agreed—I think I wanted to recement the ghost of that place, add depth and dimension to the images in my mind—so we set a date, and a few months later I was driving up two-lane highways through a snowstorm, gumming sunflower seeds and drinking gas station coffee to keep from fading away. The highway was bordered on each side by black forests, the trees leafless and sickly—my headlights made their shadows bend. The snow sucked color out of everything.

Fifteen miles out and my car made a garbage disposal sound and the road started to lean driver’s side. A red exclamation point chimed on the dash like the thing was having an epiphany. I found a gravel lot patched over with ice slicks that glowed in the moonlight, and from the back left tire I removed a rusty nail the size of a pinky. The nail was square-sided, dull, and called to mind images of hands with bloody holes in them. I lifted the liner in the trunk and removed the spare tire and jack and when I circled back around there was a deer—a buck—standing in front of the car. In the headlights, its eyes took on a yellow shine and I noticed something off about the antlers. They were the wrong shape. They turned in spirals like a ram’s horns, but these antlers were spindly, thin, lined with rigid points. I had never seen anything like it. Behind the deer, between the grey trees, more yellow eyes floated in the air. A car passed down the highway and I followed the lights. When I turned back from the road, the deer, and the eyes, were gone.

Method 2: Quantum Thought

The cabin was like a time machine. Six years and Rob hadn’t changed anything except the TV—now grown to the size of a wall. When I arrived, after midnight, the door was open, and I found Rob passed out in my dad’s old recliner. In the weak light of the television, it was hard to say where the chair ended and Rob began. He’d put on weight since I’d last seen him, or maybe he had lost it. All I knew was that he looked distinct from the person I remembered. Commercials came and went on the TV and the changing light made his limp face seem animate. Only it wasn’t—he was snoring. There was a beer snugged into his crotch.

I dropped my bag in the kitchen, found a blanket that smelled like my dead mom and folded myself on the couch, my knees bent, spine curled as if everything had gone in reverse for a very long time and I was back in the womb waiting to begin again.

I woke up staring at the chin of a dead deer. My father had shot it before we were born, and the deer felt to me like a fundamental part of the house, like the ceiling joist and floorboards. Remove that deer and the frame would split, nails would burst forth from the walls. The cabin was full of dead things: in the corner, a cougar my dad won at a raffle prowled a rock on an end table; a trail of muskie, shellacked and open-mouthed, made a circle around the wall.

Rob was still in the chair, only he was awake and blowing on a cup of coffee.

“Howdy,” he said.

We finished the pot of coffee and set about hauling boards of sheetrock from the bed of his truck to the half-built shed. For a while, it was mostly just the sounds of us breathing heavy. But at some point, I told him that I was proud of the work he’d already done, and he admitted to hiring out the electrical, which I did not hold against him. The sky was clear and by the time the truck was empty, even with snow on the ground, we were down to our t-shirts and gloves.

We weren’t working for an hour when Rob started going on about his dreams. At this point, I’d mostly forgotten about Vespra and the program, but it came back to me when Rob mentioned Freud. I had never seen him so much as look at a book.

Rob said, “Did you know that the buildings inside of your dreams are the same as the buildings inside of mine?”

He held one of the drywall sheets while I screwed it into the studs. The depth was set wrong on the drill, so I turned a screw too far into the gypsum and it buckled, popped loose. I think I just looked at him. I don’t think I knew what to say.

“Freud said that the buildings inside our dreams are pulled from a collective pool of unconscious architecture.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“It’s an evolutionary development. The blueprints are engrained in our DNA. Every single person. If you learned to dream actively you could walk the rooms of these dream places and every time you returned, they’d be exactly the same.”

“I genuinely don’t understand.” I zip, zip, zipped a line of screws into the drywall and Rob took his hands away. It floated there like a kind of magic.

“There’s all this stuff that I never knew about the mind. I’ve become so much more aware of what limitations I’ve imposed on myself and what limitations are external. The program has really changed my life.”

“Are you working again?”

“Define work.”

“Being paid for a service you provide.”

“In that case, no.”

We cinched a few more boards into place and then decided we’d done enough work to have earned a beer and some lunch meat, so we ate quietly and watched a show about how they put the filling inside of jelly donuts. The whole process is automated. I rolled a slice of turkey into a tube and used it to push around some relish. At some point, Rob cracked beer number two and that started the ball rolling. The last board we hung ended up crooked.

“We’ll fix it tomorrow,” Rob said. The sun began to set and the orange light spread over the frozen lake like a forest fire and our breath turned thick and white. It got so dark out there at night that if the stars were hidden, you could lose track of your own body, which I was occasionally happy to feel. But the clouds were sparse over us and the booze got me to a place where it was possible to mistake the snow for stars falling.

In the cabin, ice spread across the windows in fractals. Rob showed me our dad’s liquor cabinet, which was not for drinking, he said. It hadn’t been touched in years. He treated the thing like a shrine.

Rob made a fire in the fireplace and we talked more about the program. It was quasi-spiritual self-help with a good amount of astrology and dream talk mixed in. There were daily exercises, nonsense mantras, required readings all designed to aid in the formation of a New Mind Reality. I had done my share of therapy, so the concepts were familiar, only here they were dressed-up with odd words and phrases meant to sound scientific. Subconscious Modification. Quantum Thought. Dream Architecture.

He asked if I wanted to watch one of Vespra’s videos. He was on a schedule and, with all the work we’d done, he hadn’t had a chance to watch the daily lecture.

I said sure, and he connected his laptop to the TV and clicked around for a while. Then Vespra’s head appeared on the screen. He was in the same office. Everything below his shoulders was off-screen. I put a shot of whiskey in a glass and poured a beer over it.

The lecture began with a symbolic exploration of a movie I’d never seen. On the surface, he said, it concerned a planet colonized by humans in the far future and their encounter with a race of subterranean beings capable of opening doors into other dimensions. But thematically, symbolically, it was about the meaning hidden in dreams.

I fell asleep not too long after that and when I woke up again, Vespra was still talking.

“Obviously the art we create and the dreams we dream are linked,” he said. Something moved behind the French doors in his office. Shadows grew and shrank behind the fabric covering the windows. “Think of the collective unconscious as a vast, interdimensional portal that we each contain a portion of. Things slip through the portal in me and they come out through the portal in you. Have you ever watched a film, read a book, heard a song, and thought, ‘I came up with that. That was my idea’? It’s because we share an underlying mind, all of us, one that began with our primordial ancestors and has built upon itself, reiterating eternally.

“You may not have known about this portal before beginning my program and that’s okay. I’m here to help. I’m here to help you access those hidden parts inside yourself, so you can release your full potential, release what has always been inside since the beginning of time.”

The video ended and I thought Rob was snoring again, but then I turned and saw that he had his palms pressed into his eye sockets.

“I fucked my whole life up,” he said, heaving a little. Then he started crying so hard he couldn’t breathe. I stayed quiet. He’d get it out of his system, and we’d move on, pretend it never happened. “Why couldn’t somebody just tell me what to do?”

He said more words that aren’t worth repeating and eventually the crying stopped.

“Would you like another drink?” I said when it was over.

He said yes, and then he said, “If only I had something like this when I was eighteen.” He pointed at the TV. Vespra’s face still lingered there. “This shit, if I had had this shit, I would have been fine.”

We kept drinking for a bit and then I tripped trying to get to my room in the basement, impressed a knee-shaped dent into the paneling. Someone had moved the light switch in my old bedroom, so I left my bag unpacked and fell asleep with my clothes on.

The first time I woke up, the room was a carnival ride and the only thing that stopped the spinning was closing one eye and thinking about solid things like tree roots and boulders.

I woke up the second time, still drunk, to the sound of chanting. A clock ticked away on the nightstand, but I could not read it. I squinted but there were still too many hands, four or five of them spinning in unison. The chanting was a series of muffled phrases—guttural throat sounds repeated over and over. The voice was unfamiliar. It came down through the ceiling. The still drunk part of me thought maybe Rob was choking and calling out for me to save him. I couldn’t see anything, but I knew the shape of the basement by heart, so I navigated blindly to the staircase. The chanting grew louder. The closer I got, the less it sounded like actual words. The basement stairs did not have a door at the top, and I could see patterns of light giving form to the kitchen. Rob was still watching television, I realized, and when I reached the top of the stairs the TV light went black and the chanting stopped entirely. Then the room turned deep blue and my eyes took their time adjusting. Vespra’s head was still on the screen, only the office behind him was gone, erased—he was speaking from a void, a black empty space. I saw too that his eyes had been removed. The holes where his eyes should have been were stuffed full of a yellow paste. The paste was not solid and it ran down his face in thin streaks, dripping off his jaw into the world beyond the frame. He moved his mouth, but no sound came out. There was light like a silver ball wedged into the back of his throat. The only sound in the room was the paste dripping.

Rob was where he’d been before, in the chair. At first, I thought he was asleep, but little shivers passed through his limbs and his head would nod and shake in a way that seemed like responses to Vespra’s silent questions. The skin of Rob’s arm was merging with the chair—it rippled, creasing in places as it spread away from the meat of his body. The chair had grown larger and deeper somehow. It swelled around him like a blister filling with blood.

And hanging below the deer head was a black shadow that I did not notice until it began to move. The shadow had the shape of a man. The shadow had antlers like the deer, many of them, too many to count, but unlike the deer’s these antlers wound together in miniature spirals, spinning inwardly around a central piece of white.

“Huh,” I thought, maybe even said out loud. “I’m dreaming.”

And then I floated my way back down the stairs and let the room twirl for a while.

Method 3: Dream Architecture

This all occurred at a time in my life when I had made the unfortunate habit of drinking to the point where—when I woke up in the morning—it was often difficult to distinguish between my dreams and memories. In bed, still wearing my boots, the things I had seen the night before came back to me in flashes, but they were far away, and maybe they belonged to someone else.

Rob had a batch of eggs going in the kitchen and I watched him pour bourbon into both of our mugs of coffee and I did not say anything to stop it. He crushed stale tortilla chip over the egg and rained down hot sauce over our plates like it was napalm.

“Fuck me,” I said as the weight of every selfish thing I’d ever done or said condensed into a single feeling, mixed up with nausea, pretended to be a hangover and planted itself in my gut.

“You said it.” He sopped up yolk with an untoasted piece of bread. A fat yellow drop fell from the toast and splattered on the counter.

“Weird, weird dreams, man.”

“Did you pay attention to the buildings?”

“It took place here.”

“Interesting.” He cocked his head and thought it over.

We took our time finishing the eggs and coffee and then dragged ourselves back to the shed, where we did not fix the crooked drywall and instead got to putting up the other sheets and they were all a little crooked too. My hands were shaking—I stripped so many screws I had to hand the drill to Rob, and he took over while I was in charge of holding things in place.

“Kelly invited me out to the shanty tonight if you want to come.” Rob’s hands were full, so he kept a screw clenched in his teeth.

“Kelly’s alive?”

“Sure, yeah.”

“Holy shit.” I hadn’t been fishing in years. “That sounds great.”

“He’s out there almost every night. Sometimes he brings me the things he catches.”

“I can’t keep track of who’s dead and who’s not anymore.”

“That happens,” Rob said.

The work was slow, but we got it done and the snow started falling outside the shed and it was the bright kind that fell down slowly. When we finished, our clothes were covered in sheetrock dust mixed with sweat and we stood and looked at the walls for a good long time, marveling at our ability to accomplish anything together.

“How’s your wife,” Rob said.

“No idea,” I said, pretending that the crooked boards weren’t crooked. We didn’t say anything else. I think it was him paying me back for not mentioning the crying.

Back in the cabin, I stared at the dead deer on the wall. The antlers are wrong, I thought. They should be spirals, but when I went to tell Rob about the antlers, I couldn’t remember what was wrong about them. He told me to get dinner out of the freezer. It was vacuum-sealed meat with a date on the label.

“Venison?” I said.

“Could be,” he said.

We ate and drank and the fire made the room glow. Rob told me about the second Method of Ascension.

“Quantum Thought is a way to change how the mind addresses itself. You can channel positive energy from other minds and quantum spaces. Let’s say you’re thinking about killing yourself. Let’s say you are always thinking, ‘I should kill myself,’ over and over every single day. Well, with quantum thinking, all you have to do is find an access point, which are located deep within the buildings in your dreams, and once you’ve found one, you can jettison the negative thought patterns and you can pull in only the thoughts you want to think.” He was sitting in my dad’s chair again.

“And it works?”

“It’s not as simple as just doing it. The process requires a lot of practice. Accessing your dream buildings isn’t as easy as it might sound.”

“It doesn’t sound easy at all,” I said. Everything I felt was lumped together, inseparable, confused.

After what seemed like years, the sun finally went down and we packed up a cooler. We put on ski masks and trudged down the hill toward Rob’s four-wheeler parked out on the ice. Rob drove across the lake and I sat behind him, wrapped my arms around his heavy coat. The wind made it impossible to speak. He removed a flask from his jacket and handed it to me. The edges of the lake were black—the trees on the shoreline merged into a vast wall. The shanty grew out of the ice as we drove, and as we sped along, it took on the appearance of a lonely headstone.

Up close, the shanty was maroon in color, and its age showed in the long gashes taken out of the paint, the rotten wood visible below. The structure was full of clasps and interlocking parts so it could be broken down easily and built back up when winter came again. A generator sat on the ice, rumbling, and making the air smell like gasoline. Inside we found Kelly staring at the hole in the ice and gripping a fishing rod. He looked exactly as I remembered him, almost impossibly so, like he’d been in a freezer for twenty years and only recently thawed out. He was missing an eye too. No patch. No prosthetic. I couldn’t remember if that had always been the case.

He said hello and I said that it was great to see him and how long had it been. No one knew, so we dropped the cooler and started fishing—the three lines traced little shapes in the water. The shanty was so small inside, our knees were touching. Kelly sat across from me. I couldn’t stop looking at his eye socket. I couldn’t believe how young he looked. The veins in his cheeks were purple.

“What happened to your eye,” I said. I crushed an empty can beneath my bootheel.

“I’m not sure I know what you mean,” Kelly said. His hands stayed incredibly still.

“How’s it been tonight,” Rob said.

“Not a single bite,” Kelly said. “I’m convinced it’s empty under there.”

Rob and I got more and more drunk and did not catch any fish. The three of us stared at the hole in the ice. The scene cast my mind into the past, made me think of my dad and Rob and me all together, doing this exact same thing, looking at our boots, waiting for the floats to dip beneath the black water. I tried to generate some nostalgia, an image or memory that might change the way that I felt about my brother, that might ease my guilt, that might make it seem like this visit had done some good, but my head was full of slush and poison and I couldn’t come up with any single moment that hadn’t been tainted by the present.

Outside, the generator sounded like a growling animal. Kelly remained in the same position. When I looked at him, I thought I sensed movement in the hole where his eye should be. Something strange kept happening with the single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. It would go dim and then brighten for an instant making it so little dots burned into my vision. When the bulb flashed, Kelly’s skin washed out and seemed to momentarily sag off his bones.

“Has Robert told you about the program?” Kelly said. “It seems like a useful tool in a lot of ways.”

I said, yes he had, and I turned to let Rob speak further on the program’s usefulness. But he stayed quiet, staring down at the hole in the ice.

“I’m sure he’s mentioned the methods used to ascend from the skin realm,” Kelly said.

“He didn’t use those words exactly,” I smiled. Rob had wrapped Kelly up in this too. How long had they been doing this, coming out here at night, getting drunk and talking about this shit?

“He’s not informed you of the four primary methods of ascension?”

“I thought there were only three.” I looked at my brother. He didn’t speak. He stared at the hole in the ice.

“As Robert told me, there are certain requirements that must be met before the fourth method can be revealed. But in this case, I think we can make an exception.”

“I wanted to tell you earlier,” Rob said. “But you weren’t ready yet. There’s so much you don’t understand—about me, about how the world works. You have so much power inside of your body, but you need help bringing it out. You can change who you are.”

“What the hell does that mean?” I said. Kelly was still moving his mouth like he was speaking but he wasn’t making any noise. “You’re telling me I need to change? Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Don’t take it personally,” Rob said. “We’re all imperfect vessels. It’s only a matter of what we’re filled with.”

Fuck off,” I said. My voice was louder than I wanted it to be. My fingernails had turned blue. “I was doing just fine until I heard from you again.”

“Kelly, why don’t you tell him about the fourth method,” Rob said.

“Yeah, sure, go for it. Tell me more about the fourth fucking method, Kelly.”

The light dimmed and then flickered brightly. Kelly stared at the hole in the ice.

“You know about the buildings in your dreams? The gateways they contain?” Kelly looked up at me. The iris in the eye he still had seemed off-center.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said.

“Where do you think those gateways lead?” Kelly said. “How deep do you think they go?”

The booze in Rob’s flask tasted acrid and rusty.

“And if you take them as far back as they can go, what do you think you’ll find? Who do you think will be waiting for you there?”

I stared at the hole in the ice.

Kelly said, “The fourth method of ascension requires the assistance of an outside party.”

“I’m sorry,” Rob said. “But we need to help you. Let us put your body to better use.”

The hole blinked.

“Jesus Christ,” I said. The light in the room went black.

I couldn’t see him, but I could hear Kelly’s voice: “Gateways always lead somewhere. Buildings always have builders. Who do you think creates the holes in your dreams?”

The light blinked back on and I saw that Rob was gone. I stared at the hole in Kelly’s head. It filled, from the inside, with a gummy yellow paste. And then I remembered the dream, with perfect clarity, and I remembered that it was not a dream at all. The paste flooded out into the snow.

“Would you like to find out? Would you like to meet the dream builder?” Kelly knelt down and ran his fingers through a small crack in the ice. The light in the room turned yellow. The paste gushed in spurts from the hole in Kelly’s face. His hand, now the same color as the ice, grasped a latch and turned it. There were hinges sunk into the ice that I hadn’t seen before. Kelly pulled on the latch and a rectangular slab of ice lifted on the hinges like a door. Beneath the door was a set of black stairs descending down below the surface, down into the bottom of the lake. I could not see what was below the staircase.

“Ascend with us,” Kelly held out his hand. It was yellow and dripping. His skin was beginning to fall apart. Horns made of bone grew out of his head in spirals.

I blinked and the spirals were inside my eyes. I left the shanty and stumbled out onto the open ice and tried to find Rob or the four-wheeler, but both were gone. The snow was coming down in heavy sheets, so I did not know what direction to run. I chose randomly and tried to find purchase on the ice. I ran until I could no longer see the shanty behind me. I ran until the snowfall began to slow and the clouds drifted enough to reveal a hole in the sky where the moon should have been.

And below that empty space, out in the middle of the frozen lake, was a building—a structure—that hadn’t been there before. It did not conform to my earlier notions of what buildings could be. It spread out from the ice like something organic, rising above the tree line, blocking out the stars. The structure groaned as I drew nearer. The dimensions were all wrong—the walls narrowed near the base, like a pyramid upside down.

A single figure approached the building. I was too far away to see clearly, but I knew it was my brother. If I had started running then, I could have caught him. I think he would have heard me too, if I had shouted—he might have stopped and come back, but I did not run, and I did not call to him and Robert continued across the ice. I watched from a distance as he approached a hole in the structure that was either a doorway or a mouth. In my boots, I felt a heartbeat pulsing. I watched him for as long as I could. He walked slowly toward the hole, his outline fading in the shadow of the doorway, and then he was gone.

And I couldn’t help but walk closer, to see what it was that he had entered, and the more I walked, the more distinct the structure became. There were lines on the walls, intricate carvings fitted together like puzzle pieces. The carvings had shapes that were familiar, and I wasn’t quite sure they were carvings at all. Drawing nearer, these shapes began to move—they danced and writhed, withered and twisted, and it became clear to me then, what exactly the building was made of.

Dan Stintzi

Dan Stintzi received his MFA from Johns Hopkins University and was a member of the 2019 Clarion class. He lives in Wisconsin with his wife and dogs. Find more of his fiction at danstintzi.com.