Title: Colorado Mandala
Author: Brian Heffron
Colorado Mandala comes from poet Brian Heffron, who departs from his established genre with a novel of the seventies recommended for fans of literary fiction.
—Diane Donovan, Midwest Book Reviews
With refreshing depth, distinct literary merit, and highly original poetic phrasings that spill from the pages like paint, Colorado Mandala is poet Brian Heffron’s debut work of literary fiction that mines the complex landscape of post-Vietnam America to unearth the deep connections that bind individuals together, and also ferociously rip them asunder.
Illustrative, luscious, seductive, and engaging, this rare piece of craftsmanship will stir the senses of any one who thirsts for artistic expression, or who longs for an era in our country now utterly, irretrievably gone. With underlying notes of romance, adventure, historical authenticity, and the poignant passages of coming-of-age, Colorado Mandala both elevates and transcends an era of America to seep into the heart and soul of the reader as flawlessly as a sumptuous poem.
In the heady, hippie backdrop of Pike’s Peak, Colorado, in the tumultuous 1970s, three souls swirl together in an explosive supernova. Michael is the flinty-eyed, volatile former Green Beret, whose tour in Viet Nam has left unbridgeable chasms in his psyche and secrets that can never find light. Sarah is his fair-haired paramour, the ethereal, Earth Mother widow of a fallen soldier and single mother to a ten-year-old son Stuart. Paul is a young wanderer, who soon quickly bears the mantle as both the minister and the scourge of their damaged love. As they are drawn together, and torn apart, each is changed forever. And our hearts race along with them, through the raw and rocky Colorado terrain amidst alcohol-fueled discord and the blood sport of man and beast.
Laying bare the loss and acceptance of a pioneering age, Colorado Mandala shines revelatory light on the crazy, glorious, and romantic notion that each generation conceives anew: that love can be a spiritual gift shared openly among all who feel it, rather than coveted, or hidden, or hoarded. If you wish to go barefoot again and climb an unspoiled Colorado trail, look no further. If you have been longing for something to wake you up in simple, clean language, a shimmering story awaits. Awaken to what you have always known: simple truths show you the way home. With his gripping and unforgettable Colorado Mandala, it is clear that Brian Heffron knows the way. Simply follow his trail.
A sandstone spur, dry red rock poking up out of the thickly timbered forest slope like the knob bone on top of a human shoulder. In the surrounding woods, a thin opening channels in between rising stone walls toward the ancient oval cave opening. Three human figures: a man, a boy, and a man, all roped together in single file, enter this thin stone gorge looking from a distance like the Morse Code instruction: .-.-. Within a moment, the knoll swallows this message into its hollow cavity.
Michael led in, then Stuart, and I followed. Ten feet from the cave entrance he flipped on his carbide helmet light. Stuart and I did too. The path in was a ramp down. The only light came from the erratically moving shafts of our helmet lights. Stuart was silent. Awed, I think.
The first thing I noticed was the air. It was much colder than on the surface, and noticeably more still; completely windless and smelling like a dugout cellar. The air was now the same temperature as the chilled stone walls I felt as I made my way along. My helmet occasionally scraped against the rock ceiling.
The path turned into a natural stairway. Michael's headlamp caught my expression as I zoomed my hand-light up and down, examining the complicated forms and structure of the cave. We continued down. Occasionally, the rope between Stuart and me would go slack, and I would come up on him. He was so much like his mother: courageous, curious, trusting and vulnerable. I smiled when I'd found him examining a damp stalagmite with its matching stalactite dripping down on it from above. His eyes were wide open, running his hands up and down and all over it. Smart hands that I could tell loved to learn. His exuberant smile told me he was thirsty for new experiences.
"You haven't seen anything yet!" I told him, and we kept going.
The stone stairway went down, turned, then suddenly opened up to a large, gymnasium-sized hallway; our hand-lights roved over hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites. This space was the interior of the entire red-rock knoll outside, a giant, windowless and dark cathedral, a space that both beckoned inward and warned away, simultaneously.
The roof was seventy feet up, and made of huge wedged-in boulders. We wandered around the cavern floor exploring, but still roped-up. Stuart seemed very comfortable scrambling around the boulders, but I did notice his breathing was getting heavier. I figured it was just because he was dressed so warmly.
"This way," called Michael, "we'll go further down to the King's Chamber, and then over by the river." His voice bounced off the cavern walls in staccato notes and tones.
I stewarded Stuart along, following Michael as we headed down another thin path. The ground was very dusty until the path finally opened onto a circular well-like hole with a thin ledge spinning down to the bottom. The hole was fifteen feet across, and rose and sunk from us like an elevator shaft. The walls were damp; in some places even running slick. Stuart looked over the edge and straight away retreated to an interior wall.
"It sure drops a long ways," he said, looking up at me questioningly. I just smiled and after a beat, he smiled back at me.
To make our way down, Michael edged his way out onto the ledge and sidestepped down. I had the rope and belayed his weight by wedging my feet. When he got to a wide shelf, he would tug the rope and I would send Stuart along and we'd both belay him until he reached Michael. I watched the line feed out as Stuart edged his way down the thin ledge, but he never stopped, which is a good sign. Gutsy little guy, I thought.
It took twenty minutes for all of us to reach the bottom of the shaft. Down this far, the air smelled metallic, and for the first time, I perceived the swooshing sound of running water. We drank our own fresh water from canteens and Stuart got a chance to catch his breath.
"Are you alright, Stu?" I asked.
"Yes—it’s just this air. Too thick."
He took out a metered dose inhaler and took two short puffs to clear his airway. I knew he had asthma and Sarah had warned me to watch for symptoms, but he seemed to be handling things all right on his own.
Michael was distracted flashing his light around our present spot. A silver gleam sometimes caught and reflected back a beer can.
"People sure leave a mess," said Stuart.
"Yeah, said Michael. "Actually, I think some of these are mine from when O'Choate and I were in here. I'll pick them up on the way back. If you two are ready, I say we head on down to the King's Chamber."
Stuart coughed for the first time. A raspy sore sound, but then he got up and we both followed Michael's lead.
Slowly, we strung out along a new path, still ramping down, but more gradually this time. I had grown accustomed to the blackness by now. This was probably the twentieth trip I'd made below a hundred feet, but each time, it took me a long while to get used to the darkness, going down into the blackness.
The tunnel we were following was headed down to the most beautiful room in the whole Rock Spur system. Unfortunately, because the room lies off a cliff face, the only access points are thin, worm-like tunnels.
Our path did just this—the ceiling came swiftly down to where we were all on our knees crouching, then lower and lower until all of us were slithering along like snakes.
About ninety feet into this tense worm tunnel enclosure, I began to feel an irresistible desire to stand up. Something the miners used to call "miner's worry." It always made me speed up and in a second, I was almost on top of Stuart.
"You okay, buddy?" I asked him.
"No sweat. He reached into a pocket and pulled out his inhaler. Putting it to his mouth he took another puff. In a second he was fine and we kept going. But after ten more slogs of crawling his pace slowed again.
"I don't like it here, Paul." His breathing was irregular, coming in huffs: "It’s too small."
"Can you reach your inhaler?" I asked.
He didn't say anything but I could see him reach around to his pocket and take it out. Again I heard him pump out a shot and his breathing gradually slowed to normal.
"Can you keep going?"
"Yes." His voice was raspy but he started to move again almost immediately. I was trying to remember how much more of this wormhole remained.
In a moment, the light on his little helmet vanished around a bend and I felt better that he would make it out. But as I came around the same bend I could immediately see the soles of his sneakers, and I knew he had stopped again.
"Are you okay, Stu?"
"No. Can't breathe."
"Stu, I know you can do it. Just press on and we'll be out of here soon. I promise."
Again he started to move, his elbows dragging him forward in short bursts and then stopping again while he tried to fill his lungs with air.
"That's it. Nice and slow. You can do it." I encouraged him, inch by inch. It was agonizing, but at least he was moving. Then he stopped again. This time, when I touched his legs, they were frozen stiff and I could hear him taking in air in great violent heaves, with a squeaky moan escaping with each weak release of breath.
"Stuart? What's going on back there? Where are you doing? Keep on going!" It was Michael, blaring away from thirty feet ahead in the tunnel. His voice was authoritative, shouting out these orders in clipped commands. I could see his hand-light illuminating the next corner of the wormhole searching for Stuart.
I spoke very softly. "Stuart, you are okay. I'm right here with you." He turned his head back to look at me. His breathing was unnaturally forced, frightened and coming in great hollow gulps.
inhaler---doesn't---work anymore," he sputtered.
"Damn it, Stuart, answer me!" Michael yelled. He couldn't reverse his view to see what was going on.
"Michael!" I shouted out to him, "Stuart can't breathe. He's having an asthma attack! We've got to go back and get out of here!"
"It's a lot further back than it is ahead. Let's get him to the King's Chamber. It's huge and there's plenty of air in there, maybe he'll breathe better." Michael and I both knew this place like the back of our hands.
"Okay." I said and crawled up to be closer to Stuart.
"Get him going, Paul. The longer he just lays there, the worse it will get." Michael tugged the line leading to Stuart until it was taut at the boy's ribs.
"Easy, Michael!" I yelled. Stuart was still heaving, his face pale white, his hands clammy. His eyes stared back at me, but he couldn't speak.
"First of all relax, buddy. I'm with you now and I won't leave. Everything is going to be all right. We'll start moving again now. This tunnel is only a little longer and Michael's already at the end. Go ahead. It's not far."
He understood me, turned slowly and began crawling in the direction of Michael's flash- lit wall where the tunnel curved. Here the wormhole was barely larger than the inside of a steel drum. It took Stu a while to make the turn, but when he saw Michael's headlamp at the end of the tunnel that kept him going like a lighthouse beacon.
I followed closely behind him, gently giving his feet traction, until we reached the tunnel's end and emerged into another large cave room all together.
Here there was an even deeper shade of darkness, more difficult to penetrate. I could feel Stuart desperately wanting to stand up again, to stretch out his legs and arms so I released him and we all did, and it felt damn good. But then I made Stuart lie back down on my denim jacket on the dusty floor. Even here, his breath was still coming in broken sobs.
The King's Chamber is not as large as the stadium hall. Size is not its greatest feature; rather, it is the location of the room. The King's Chamber is placed like a rookery in a giant underground cliff face. From it, one looks down and out onto the largest, most majestic hall of all: the Water Hall, so-called because of the rushing water noises of the subterranean river that is its floor. The King's Chamber was the peak experience of the entire Red Spur Cave system.
And fortunately here, there was plenty of air. In a few moments, Stuart's breathing difficulties eased considerably. Michael stayed with him as I went out to the chamber's edge and squatted down to think. All around me, even in the pitch darkness, I could sense the enormity of this underground grotto. My shirt was damp with sweat, and the sudden breeze coming up from the river chilled me to the bone. We needed to get Stuart out of here quickly, I thought, it’s way too cold. And this is Sarah's son!
"Michael, come here for a second." Michael left Stuart and squatted beside me.
"Point blank: we need to get him out of here and we need to do it now. He's scared to death; his breath will never normalize in that state."
"Well, he won't go back through those tunnels. I told him he has to, and he looked like he was going to bite me."
There was a pause. We kept our heads turned away so as not to blind each other with our helmet lights.
"Michael, he's just a little boy. And he's having an asthma attack. Asthma is triggered by nerves so please don't make it worse."
"I know, but he's going to have to go up eventually. Unless you want to drop him down into the river and float around until it decides to come out, wherever that may be."
"Yes," I said, "we can take him out into the creek."
"What?" Michael turned his light onto my face, then quickly away. It was as if what he saw there startled him. I felt my confidence rise.
"We can take him down into the river, rappel down, then dive under and take him out into the stream at the base of the knoll."
"Where would we come out? Did you ever do it?" He knew I was serious.
"Yes, in a way. We would come out in the deepest of the Seven Falls ponds. Dwayne and I found the opening from the pond side in once, but I think we can find it out from this side.
"This is a mad plan, Paul. Suppose you can't find it?"
"You two can stay up here 'til I do. If I can't, then I'll come back up and we'll use the tunnels."
"It's still crazy. How far do you have to swim underwater? I mean, he's got enough problems without having to hold his breath."
"I know, Michael, but it's a good forty-five minutes to the surface if we climb, and that's if he climbs. It could take hours if he can't help. He could be outside in twenty minutes if we go through the river."
"Shit," he said. "Shit."
"All told, it's about twenty yards underwater, including the ten feet to the pond's surface on the other side."
"Fuck. I don't know." Michael sighed. Then, finally, "Damn it, I guess we have to try."
In a minute, I was roped up to rappel. Michael held me on belay as I took the first step backwards off the cliff. I bounced out and down. The surface was granular and cracked as my boots slammed in. The rushing river sound got closer and closer until I could see the texture of the water's surface in my headlight. Then I was in it. My jeans went tight around my legs, but it was only up to my thighs. I released my roping.
"Michael, I'm down." I could see his light wavering above me. "I'm going to dive now. When we came in, we were right below the chamber so it should be around here."
"Okay, Paul. We'll be up here."
I dove and found only the bottom. The water was cold, but I stayed under to orient myself. After a few dives, I figured out where the opening was. Sucking current revealed it. I broke the surface and yelled to Michael, "I think I've found it. I'm going to follow it to make sure it comes out. I'll may be gone a while, so don't worry."
"Right" was the only reply.
Gulping a huge breath, I dove. My elbows bruised as I entered the water tunnel. It was pitch black, but I remember it was very straight so I swam ahead, full force, my climber's legs propelling me. It went on and on, until gradually I could make out the walls a bit, then the grey opening where the tunnel met the pond. Then I was out of it, up the ten feet to the surface faster than my lungs could expel my last breath.
The sky was a welcome sight. My appearance in the pond was like a champagne bottle popping for the couple lying naked on the shore.
"Hey!" yelled the man, bolting upright, which is probably the only thing he could think of to say.
"Don't be alarmed. I've just come from a cave behind this wall. A child with us is in trouble. An asthma attack. Please, please, go ahead to town and bring help! Oxygen!"
The man reacted immediately and stood up. He scoured the ground for his clothes and began to dress. The woman still sat on her blanket, amazed. I was getting tired of treading water.
"Please leave the blanket so we'll have something to cover him with. We'll go down the Bar Trail, so send help back that way. I'm going back inside now, okay?” The man was still trying to get his pants on.
"Folks! Answer me! Will you get help?"
"Yes," he called out, "yes, of course. Come on, Janet, let's go! We have to get..."
I gulped, dove, and headed back inside. The difference between air temperatures was astonishing. Outside, it was mid-seventies, clear and sunny. Inside, it was fifty degrees, stale and dark. A shiver ran through me as I hit the surface in the cave.
"I found it," I yelled. I swam towards the light 'til my feet hit the ground. Climbing out, I realized I was exhausted. It felt good to lean against the rock face.
"Okay, Michael! Send Stuart down!"
The river was slightly colder than the air. The current was not swift, but because of an irregular bottom, I had a little difficulty standing. Above me, I watched as a spot darker than the darkness dropped slowly towards me. Stuart was not holding the brake rope at all. Michael was lowering him.
"Keep your knees bent, Stu, push yourself off the wall. That's right, buddy," I coached. A little above me was a rock outcropping.
"Hold it, Michael, stop there. Stuart, grab on. Sit down on that rock and hold tight."
"Are we getting out? I want to get out of here." His breathing was still irregular and he was very frightened. His voice shook and he sounded about half his age. I could hear Michael above, already beginning to descend. He stopped by Stuart, untied him, and lowered him down to me.
"Arrrre wwwwweeeeee goinnnnng nowwww?" the shivering little boy asked again as I cradled him. He was scared and he was sniffling now.
"Yes, Stuart, we are going out. But first, we have to go underwater. You'll have to hold your breath and keep your arms tight around my neck. Can you do that for me, buddy?"
"Your neck?" interrupted Michael. "Are you crazy? You must be exhausted. I'll take him." Michael made movements to take Stuart from me.
"NO. NO. NO. No. No. Not with him." Stuart wouldn't let Michael near him. "I don't want to go with Michael. He called me a baby." His breath began to sputter again, this time in both anger and more oncoming asthma. "But I'm not a baby."
"No, of course you're not, Stu. But right now, my big buddy, you and I are going to dive down and out of here and come up on the outside again. Okay?"
"Okay," said Stuart. "But I'm not going with Michael. He called me a baby."
"Jesus Christ, Michael, what is wrong with you?" I whispered to Michael angrily as I slung Stuart around into a piggyback.
"Not the time," he replied. "Later. Now, tell me where this opening is and I'll follow you."
I described the suction of the current and that the tunnel was very straight. Michael wished me luck and watched as I waded in. Once afloat, Stuart was dead weight on my back.
"Kick with me, Stu," I said, and he did.
As we approached the far wall, I gauged my breath, preparing. Turning around to him I said, "Are you ready, Stu? Here's what we're gonna do. We both have to take the biggest breath we ever took in our whole lives and then hold on to it! Okay, buddy?"
He nodded. Tears had left streak marks down his cheeks. I wiped them away and hugged him to me as hard I could. He clasped me back hard, sobbing.
"It's okay, buddy. Now we need to dive down and swim as fast as we can to a tunnel that comes out on the other side of this rock wall!"
He almost smiled amidst his shivering. What a brave young lad, I thought.
"Now it's a long way, but together we can make it!" I hugged him again and I could feel his breathing ease. "Especially if you help by kicking with me. Can you help by kicking with me, buddy?"
I released him from the hug and he looked me directly in the eyes. "I can do it, Paul."
"That's the spirit, buddy!"
I slung him around over my shoulders again so he could lie on my back. He laced his fingers together in a clasp and then looped his arms around my neck. We were ready.
"Now take the biggest breath you ever took Stu, and pinch me when you've got it. Start now!"
I felt the pinch and dove down with all the strength I had left. Both of us were kicking furiously. When we reached the tunnel opening we flailed into its dark sucking entrance like spastic fish. Inside this watery wormhole Stuart's fear returned and he clasped my neck tighter and tighter. It seemed much longer than my first trip and midway through, I heard bubbles go by my ear.
Damn! Stuart had lost up his breath and was now sucking water. I spun around to face him, but he was holding on so tight it was hard. Finally I was able to pull his face close to enough mine. Quickly I squeezed his nose shut with my fingers and, covering his mouth with mine, I gave him the last of my breath. His chest filled up. I turned back around and swam hard, dizziness invading my consciousness. For a second I though I might die from lack of oxygen, but then I suddenly got another burst of power from some secret internal source.
Emerging from the tunnel into the daylight-topped pond I threw the yoke of Stu's arms off and scrambled headlong for the surface. I was swallowing water fast and knew if I didn't get fresh oxygen soon I would drown right here. The top was white and clear like a glass ceiling. When I hit it, I alternated between coughing and throwing up water. Stu popped up beside me with breath to spare. I have never seen a child smile so wide. Holding him close again, I swam to the pond's shore and pushed him out ahead of me. We both emerged covered in brown muck.
The woman was waiting with the blanket. She wrapped Stu in it while I collapsed on the bank. My eyes closed, sucking air. It took me a full five minutes to catch my breath and calm my shuddering body. When I opened them again, Michael was standing there dripping wet and looking down at me.
"Stuart's okay," he said immediately. "How about you? You okay?"
"Yeah, fine," I answered. "Now let's get him home."~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
After Brian Francis Heffron achieved a bachelor of Fine Arts in Writing from Emerson College, he has navigated across the Atlantic Ocean under sail (and found Gibraltar), was Director of Photography on “The Imported Bridegroom” a tiny Indy film that received a national theatrical release, created a heart-rending poetry blog within the Notes section of his Facebook profile that drew an avid, dedicated, and international audience, and all the while he wrote, produced, and directed hundreds of hours of television programming for KLCS-TV, a PBS Station focused on education.
On Valentine's Day 2010 he published a handmade poetry chapbook that sold out in three weeks! "Sustain Me with Your Breath" then became, and remains, a promotional e-book sensation.
Heffron followed that up with “Something You Could Touch”, a one hour spoken word poetry CD that broke sales records in its category.
Heffron has also won Emmys, Tellys, Aurora, Videographers and the Davis Award, among others plaudits for both writing and television.
Brian Francis Heffron’s debut novel, Colorado Mandala, mines the complex landscape of 1970s post-Vietnam America to chart the love triangle of a former Green Beret, his lover, and a young wanderer. Colorado Mandala straddles the line between literary and young adult fiction, and distills the author's poetic sensibility into a deeply lyrical work of art.
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