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He Awoke From the Dead for the 13th Time

A short story

Another straight fiction story. I think stories are best presented without as little advance context as possible, so please see below for any notes.

He Awoke From the Dead for the 13th Time

He awoke from the dead for the 13th time. The first time it was jarring, but, like any experience, it becomes mundane. Now he notices the little things, like the cool grass underneath his body when he first achieves consciousness. The particular colour of the sky, which is always in the early stages of twilight when his eyes open.

His sword lay beside him, or sometimes under him, depending on how his body landed. But its handle was always in his hand. He need only strengthen his grip to regain control of the blade, and then he was ready again.

All the wounds from the previous day were healed. But the simple clothes he wore were tattered and torn and dirty from all the previous fights. He had no ornaments, no jewelry, nothing to mark his character except for what he was born with. He wore a white shirt, now dingy and streaked with sweat, dirt, and dried blood. The same could be said of his tan cotton pants and his dark brown leather boots.

His hair had grown long, and his beard went unchecked. But he did not smell like someone who had been long unkempt. His skin was smooth and fresh. His eyes were clear and bright. He was as ready as he was the first time he stood in front of the tower.

Behind him was the sea, always in turmoil, always crashing against the cliffside he had climbed to get from the shore to where he stood. You could see no other land on the horizon. But there were huge dark clouds always far out at sea, threatening to swoop in and bring intense storms with them. He had come from that way, in a small boat not designed for such long and hard journeys. He had conquered the sea like he had conquered everything else.

In front of him was the tower, overlooking the cliffs and the ocean. Behind the tower there was a field, but he knew that only from peripheral glances. He never looked beyond the tower. He needed to first conquer the tower. Specifically, he needed to conquer what was in it.

He had set backs before, so having been killed twelve times already was not a discouragement. Discouragement was something he had already conquered. In his journey to the center of his being he had faced so many difficult challenges, and some had taken him many tries to win. Particularly difficult was the dragon who represented his fear. Every time he faced it, it was bigger and more threatening, and he had to overcome fear before he could overcome the dragon. He managed to swim through the suffocating ooze which represented hopelessness. He out-thought the maze, and the puzzles inside it, which represented his intelligence. He even made it to the end of the rapid river which represented his luck.

He overcame every single obstacle as he winded his way from the world of petty concerns, like alarm clocks and bad television, towards the core of his soul. The whole time, right from the start, he knew it would come to this, to the place he was at now. Not that he knew exactly what it what form it would take, but that there would be a final challenge. The challenge.

When he first arrived it was sunny and the sky was clear of clouds, even though the sea was choppy and fighting the waves nearly sapped him of the last of his strength. Strength that was already in short supply from having rowed from so far away for so long. There was barely enough room among the rocks to climb out of the boat and begin climbing the cliff that jutted abruptly out of the water. The boat floated away once he was free of it, and he couldn't have cared less, now that he had reached this place.

He climbed out of the boat onto a jagged rock, and then went from one rock to another as he made it up the cliffside to where it abruptly leveled off to an area of grass. No more than ten yards from the edge was the tower.

The tower was only about fifty yards high and thirty yards around. It tapered off slightly towards the top, but widened out again sharply where the top floor was. It was capped by a cone shaped roof. There was one door, not quite centered, facing the sea. The tower was an off-white colour, paint over bricks. The cone shaped top a rusty dark copper colour. The door was of old wood. No lock or even a door handle. One merely had to pull it open to gain entry.

Inside there was a spiral staircase, leading up at a leisurely incline to the top of the tower, staying close to the side so that small windows without glass could illuminate the way. The first time he went up the stairs, it was mid afternoon, so the sun provided more than enough light. There was a dusty atmosphere inside the tower, so the sunlight formed beams in which one could see particles of dust floating in the air. There was also something else in those sunbeams, like memories or hallucinations which couldn’t be looked at directly. He felt that he saw red banners and playful times and something about comfort, but he could never put it all together.

Then he reached the top. The entire top of the tower was one round room, with a tall conical ceiling and ringed by large glassless windows. The floor was made of cold grey stone tiles in a mozaic pattern. They fit so close together that there was barely a groove between them. It felt that there was more open space inside than bounded by the outside, but somehow it was all still enclosed in this tower. The view out to sea was incredible.

But there was no time to consider the view in great detail. Here was the final challenge. He stood at the top of the stairs looking across the room to see himself standing there waiting for him. Although his opponent wore the same clothes, they were clean as new. His opponent radiated a confidence, as if he had been prepared for this moment his whole life.

As the final challenge, it made sense. The two of him paused to brace themselves for a great battle, then both rushed at each other to meet in the center of the room and clash swords.

The battle went on for a long time, as was to be expected, and in the end he lost. Whereas he became weary with battle, his opponent maintained his energy. Every move he thought of, his opponent saw coming. The struggle was not to win but to merely stay competitive. The death blow, when it came, pierced him under his sternum and came out his back. He fell to his knees and then slid off the sword by his own weight.

The was no indication of how long he had been dead, but just as in dreams where one simply knows things that aren't otherwise made clear, he knew it was only a day. The sun was setting, the first storm clouds appeared on the horizon, he looked for the first time on the scene that he would look upon again and again for many days to come.

Before entering, he made a plan. He must be better than himself. He must strive for something more, to think ahead of himself. To be more lucid in his thinking. Let himself move without conscious will. It was very vague sounding, but in his travels he had already conquered doubt and hesitation. With new resolve, he entered the tower, and there he was again, ready to greet himself. This time the battle was shorter, and the end more dramatic. With one swift turn of the blade, his sword was knocked from his hand. And then with another powerful blow, his head was severed from his body.

Twilight again, and more storm clouds. He wondered if the storm would reach the shore before he won this battle. So many challenges before had required that he change his thinking, so he was reaching for that new way which would lead him to victory over himself. He yearned for the ultimate rebirth. But perhaps that in itself was the problem. Maybe the way through this challenge was to make peace with himself. He had overcome his capacity for violence before, early in his adventures, but perhaps that was not enough. So this time he went in and lay down his sword at the door and attempted to engage his opponent peacefully. Again his head came off.

On the third day when he woke, he noticed how his sword was being placed in his hand, because he had put it down the day before. Making peace was not the way. So this time he resolved to be different. To do the opposite of what he would normally do, in the hope that he would find maneuvers his opponent would not expect.

The fight lasted for quite a while, but he found it hard to think of things that he couldn’t think of. His opponent was equally capable of being unexpected. This time the end came when his back was turned, and the sword of the other came out through his heart.

The next day he felt foolish for his previous day’s plan. Obviously he couldn’t beat himself by rejecting who he was. He had to know and understand who he was to rise above it. When he went in on the fourth day he resolved to react, to learn, to see what his opponent would do, and then counter it.

They stood a long time staring at each other. Slowly they approached. He felt like maybe there was some merit in his theory because of his opponent's appearance of caution. It was hard to tell who made the first move, because they both looked ready for a fight and both made subtle gestures to provoke the other. With both sides being so defensive, the battle lasted very long, and, in the end, it was his weariness which defeated him. He collapsed to his hands and knees, nauseated from exhaustion, and the blow that killed him came down from above, slamming downward through his back.

His idea for the fifth day was to fight badly. If he was looking into a mirror, then maybe he could trick his reflection into fighting poorly. The only thing that delayed his death on this day was his opponent toying with him.

Awakening on the sixth day, he realized that this would take perseverance. He conquered that on the sea on the way to the tower, so he knew he would be able to last as long as it took to figure out how to beat himself. He went in with no plan on the sixth day, and fought like he had on the first day. Predictably, he also lost as he had on his first day.

On days seven through to twelve he relied on his intuition, on his intelligence, on his faith, on his love, on everything, and on nothing at all. Now it was day thirteen, the storm clouds were so close that the light of day was flat and grey and he could feel a fine and cold mist in the wind brushing against his cheeks. Wind made the grass around him bend and swirl in random directions.

There seemed to be no more plans. Perhaps it was impossible to beat himself, and to accept that was the only way through this. But if he went up without a fight, he would die without a fight. He knew that.

So he went up to fight. He didn’t go up to win, but to fight. Perhaps he was destined to spend forever fighting himself. Perhaps that was the point. And if that was what it was about, then he was prepared to do it. There wasn’t a question in his mind as he climbed the stairs. There was nothing to think about, there was only the fight to be done.

But this time was different. His opponent had changed. It was still himself he faced, but the person standing across the room was a woman. He knew that changed nothing in terms of the fight. She would still win if he drew his sword. But why had she changed? For the first time since he had come to the tower, he spoke. He didn’t want to, because speaking debases the importance of a situation, and words always destroy their own meanings. But he had to know.

“Why?” he asked.

“Why not?” she replied, with a smile that was calm and sincere.

“But what’s the difference if you defeat me as a man or as a woman?”

“Why do you think I will defeat you?”

“You always have. I think you always will, even if I think you won’t.”

“Have you thought about what you will do after you defeat me?” she asked. That made him stop. He hadn’t really looked at the field beyond the tower. Now he looked to the windows behind her. The tower was high enough and the ground flat enough that he couldn’t see the field itself, only the sky beyond the horizon. The grassy field on the other side of the tower from the cliffside went on for a long ways, possibly even forever.

He had come all this way in search of perfection. If there was more to do after he defeated himself, then he wanted to do it. But if there wasn’t anything else to do, then there is only one option left, and he could have it without having to defeat herself. He lowered his sword and walked towards her as she walked towards him.

“All you have to do to be perfect, is stop.”

He knelt and her sword went through his heart.

Thank you for having read my story.

This story is very different from anything else I write in that it's so overtly symbolic, has a fluid reality, and is basically kind of hippy. It actually came to me in a dream, sometime in my early twenties. I didn't dream it quite as explicitly as the final version is written here, but when I woke up, I had a collection of remembered images in my head, and I just knew how they fit together and why. I sat down and wrote it out in a couple of hours that morning, and didn't change anything after that except to tighten up the phrasing and edit out mistakes.

It seems like it's explicitly written to convey a specific sentiment about who I am, or what I think about the nature of being, or in some way a parable for something. But I honestly have no particular insight into what, if any, message this story conveys. I've deliberately never questioned it, or sought to break it down, because I feel certain any answers would be so much more disappointing than the questions. Take from it what you will.

And there you have it.