Sword of Damon Cleese

26 04 2012

[fiction]

Damocles was, naturally, quite enthralled with the prospect of standing in as archon of the day.  Five servants attended him in attiring himself for the evening feast.  It would have been six servants, but the sixth servant was Damocles, himself, and the ruler with whom he had traded places appointed himself to the role of waiting on tables.  It seemed that a direct and literal trade of roles was out of the question.  The real archon still had a job to do after this charade was over, and he still had a reputation to go with it.

Then, it was time.  Two heralds preceded him into the hall, and a train of attendants followed.  The doors opened, and everyone stood, as though for the bride at a wedding.  He appeared before them in his lavender robes, with real gold thread woven into elaborate patterns of what probably was supposed to be olive branches.  Stately, he walked up to the dais and took his place at the table.  Just before sitting, he had a second thought and readjusted the positioning of the salt boat.  Then, he sat, and the rest of the assembly followed.  He patted the arms of his chair with great satisfaction.  Gingerly, he leaned back into the seat, as though the back might give way at any second.  There, in the front row, instead of serving appetizers, was the real archon, Dionysus the Second, sitting on a bench and smiling at him with great satisfaction.  Had the roles been actual, Damocles would have ordered him beaten for his insubordination.  Apparently, the archon had no intention of keeping up more than half of the bargain.  At least he was dressed down for the occasion.  Dionysus locked eyes with him in a hard, unfaltering stare, until Damocles had to look away.

To Damocles’ right sat the wife of the archon, sitting as far from him as room would allow, folds forming in her neck as she held her head back like an adder ready to strike.  To his left sat the archon’s daughter, leaning away from him to talk in low tones with a friend, while surreptitiously hiding her face from him with a hand or a linen head scarf.  Opportunities for lively conversation were lacking.  Near the other end was a friendly cousin of Dionysus, with whom Damocles had chatted often.  He called out the man’s name, and the man sat there, ignoring him, staring down at the table top.

Damocles drummed his fingers on the table with irritation, until a nervous adolescent servant girl arrived with his dinner upon a silver plate.  He tried to graciously accept her service by thanking her, but she gave him a worried look in return, and her eyes, ever so briefly, glanced up toward the ceiling and then down again.  He watched her retreat, and he noticed, again, that the archon was giving him the cold hard stare.  There seemed to be meaning in his look.  Damocles had learned to read what people were trying to say by their looks, especially when there was something unusual about it.  He struggled to understand the stare of Dionysus, until he realized that it wasn’t a stare to give meaning, but it was a stare to hide meaning.  The man was fixing his gaze in order to avoid looking at something else.  He recalled the server glancing up, quickly, and he realized that she was either trying to tell him something, or else there was something up there that she was trying very hard not to look at.

Up above him, Damocles caught a glimmer of something metallic catching the light of the fire that burned in braziers about the room.  Then the object turned and became dark.  Then it turned and caught the light again.  A moment of horror fell upon him, and he dashed his wine and food to the ground in his scramble to get out from under the thing.  At a safe distance, he looked up and saw that a very large sword, possibly the precursor of what would later be known as a falchion, a sword that could double as an axe, seemed to hover high over his seat, suspended point-down by nothing but the air, itself.

“What the…?!  How…?  For the love of life, somebody take that thing down!” shouted the horrified Damocles.  He looked over at the archon, and saw a smile beginning to curl upward the corners of his mouth.  “How did you do that?”

“Don’t worry, Damocles,” said Dionysus, “I assure you, it’s very securely held in place by a single horse hair.”

Almost whimpering, the distraught Damocles asked, “Were you trying to kill me?”  It’s an important question, because if the archon wishes to kill someone, he usually gets what he wants.

“Perhaps,” Dionysus replied, coldly.  “It’s just that when you came in here flattering me like the sycophant that everyone knows you are, I felt the need to teach you a lesson.  You think the life of a wealthy man is secure and full of every happiness, but it’s not.  The more I have, the more I have to protect.  The more power I exert, the more people want to kill me.  I couldn’t let you experience all of my wealth and pleasure without giving you a sense of the danger, could I?  You wanted to know what it’s like to be me.  Even though we traded roles, no one would ever try to kill you, because you still aren’t really the archon around here.  If an assassin walked through that door right now, he would still be out to kill me, not you.  So, I added a little spice to your experience.  You want to be an archon?  Okay then!  An archon you shall be!”  Then, he called to a servant, “Take it down.  I want Damocles to have it, so he’ll remember.”

Damocles got his sword and continued to be a servant in the house of his ruler, and Dionysus went back to being a ruler, ever mindful of the constant threat that comes with having what other people covet.  By the way, does anyone know which of the two lived longer?  Perhaps Dionysus was wrong and outlived the other by several years, due to an unfortunate plague.  Perhaps he was right and died a few years earlier.  Both have been dead for thousands of years, now, so the difference in their respective times in the grave amounts to about one percent or less.  They’ve both been dead for maybe two and a third millennia, and one wonders that they ever discussed how one might be likely to die one or two decades earlier.  The difference is negligible.  Even the entire kingdom is entirely dead.  Even their lineage is lost.  The corpse of Damocles has been no safer than the corpse of Dionysus for more than a couple thousand years, already.

It’s really not just a problem for the rich, though.  Our king, God, has set us up in much a similar situation, wherein he watches us pursue and enjoy riches for a time, with the threat of our mortality ever hanging over our heads.  We all have a certain consciousness of it.  For some, it’s a jeopardy that causes us to cast all to the floor in disdain.  Who cares about such things with death barely suspended over us?  For others, it is merely the aging process, a commonplace thing that everyone experiences.  If cancer were universal, then they would be calling that a commonplace process, also.  Perhaps it is time to illustrate the extraordinary life of death, the unnatural nature.

Therefore, we shall extend this tale.  Besides, I concocted the tale years ago when I was just a kid, and it’s still bouncing around in my head.  I might as well let it out, so here it is.

Half a world away, thousands of years later, a similar sword, or perhaps the same sword, appeared once again, floating in the middle of the air.  It was first discovered by a couple of farm boys on a breezy, sunny day.  The way it caught the sunlight acted as a beacon, drawing them near.  This time, there was no horse hair to suspend it.  It hovered about four feet from the ground, over a field, near a stand of oak trees, pointing menacingly toward a nearby town, which will remain unnamed.  The two boys studied it circumspectly, doubtlessly feeling a little intimidated by it.  At first, they tried throwing rocks at it, which is, for some strange reason, always the first thing boys seem to do with most foreign objects.  They probably threw rocks at the first cat they saw, the first bird, the first rusty can and the first girl (a sister, of course).  The sword was unyielding, and they tired of the game quickly.  Next, they tried touching it, then pushing it and hanging on it.  With all of their efforts, it would not budge in the slightest.

The sword was first discovered at about noon by two kids who should have been in school.  Four hours later, the first adults heard of it.  Twenty-four hours after that the first adult  believed enough to have a look at it, when the number of kids who had seen and told of it reached critical mass, which is to say that once every kid in town said that they had seen it an adult finally took them seriously.  Two weeks later, someone from the local news agency heard of it enough times on a slow news day to go out and have a look.  By the evening news, the story had gone viral, and the whole world knew about it.  By dawn of the next day the sword was gone without a trace.

Two days after the sword’s disappearance, the world forgot about it.  Two months later the locals stopped talking about it.  It wasn’t gone long before someone found it again, on the other side of the town, twenty miles away, pointing toward the next town on the highway.  The poor woman who discovered it was lucky enough to have survived by swerving hard at the last second when its golden hilt glinted in her headlights in the predawn hours.  The sword was back on the world stage.  Experts arrived from all over the world to give opinion on it.  Someone brought a tractor to see if it could be moved by any force, which it couldn’t.  The thing just hovered there, indestructible and absolutely immovable.  On its blade was some foreign script, which, when transliterated, said, “mene, mene.”  A quick internet search (insidiously cited by the press as an expert analysis, though it was none other than that infamous site known as Wikipedia) showed that it derived from an ancient phrase, “mene, mene, tekel upharsin,” meaning, roughly, “your days are numbered, and your empire will be divided and given to the Persians.”  By itself, “mene, mene,” only meant, “your days are numbered.”  Of course, no one knew what it meant.  Some doomsday addicts made a great deal out of it.  Screenwriters were already brainstorming it into a full-feature film.

So there it hovered, two miles from the nearest town, pointing directly at that town. The local hotels flooded with curious visitors, and the local residents cleared out as quickly as they could.  Clearly, the town was cursed.  No one knew what the sword was about, but many feared it.  One man, in particular, watching the news from his rented room in the town, did know what the sword was about, and he feared it more than anyone.  After two restless nights and a third that left him swimming in his own sweat, he packed his bags and hit the road yet again.  That night, the sword disappeared from sight and was not found for a few days.

A door to a bar opened, and an eighty-year-old man staggered into the room looking like he could just as easily ask for cyanide as ask for a beer.  He plopped his disheveled self onto a stool and regarded the patron next to him.  “I don’t know why, but it seems like the only place to meet people and talk about things is a bar,” he said.

“That’s not true,” said the other patron, a dumpy middle-aged man who had only just begun his binge for the evening.  “There’s always the confessional booth at a Catholic church.  Then, you have internet chat rooms, brothels, orgies and… I forget what else.”

“Now, I don’t feel so bad,” said the old man.  “Maybe I’ll try a confessional booth, next.  Actually, that might not be a bad idea.”

“Now, don’t go running off too soon,” said his new friend.  “I have ears, too.  Besides, I haven’t heard any good gossip in weeks.”

So the old man told him his story.  Damon Cleese, as he turned out to be, had put a great deal of effort in his younger years toward uncovering a certain cache of stolen treasure.  His friend, Danny Nice, had figured that trains of stage coaches in the area had been robbed all within a ten-mile radius of a craggy region, back during the rough days of the wild west.  The band of robbers responsible had been caught in a trap, possibly because of their predictable pattern, and all of them went to the grave, taking the secret of their stash with them.  Their stolen goods were never recovered,  but a simple analysis of terrain and distance suggested that they probably did have a hideout in the area, from which a person could ride for half a day or less, rob a wagon train and get back by dusk, without overburdening the horses.  Hence, the stolen goods must be stashed somewhere in a narrowed area, and because they were never recovered, those stolen goods must still be there.

With two months of searching, Damon and Danny finally found the cache of goods in a cave, just sitting there waiting for the return of their robber barons.  Most of it was in gold coins and moldy notes.  There were a few rusty guns and other items of interest, but the thing that caught Danny’s attention the most was a shiny, heavy sword with a gold hilt encrusted with jewels.  They counted out the coins and divided the spoil evenly, but a small boulder, not much bigger than a large sow, fell from the ceiling of the cave and landed on Danny’s arm, crushing it badly.  Damon rushed to his aid, rolling the boulder off and wrapping the poor arm in a sling and a poultice.  Danny immediately went into shock, shaking and pallid.  His friend covered him in a blanket and did his best to make him feel better.

By the next day, Danny was feeling well enough to attempt a ride back to the nearest town on horseback.  They took as much of the loot as the horses could reasonably hold, and they headed off down the trail.  A mile down the trail, Danny began complaining of his aches and pains, and eventually he became too weak to remain on a horse.  He noted that his urine was strangely brown, and later he found he had no more urine of any kind.

“Damon,” Danny told his companion, “I don’t know why, but I think I’m losing more than just my arm.  I can’t pee anymore, Damon.  I’m a sick man.  You need to go for help.”

Instead, Damon insisted that they stay where they were for a while, to allow for him to convalesce.  Truth be told, he was afraid of leading rescuers too near the rest of the stash and having to explain how the injury occurred.  By the time they returned, there might not be anything to return to.  The days whiled by, and Danny got worse.  Finally, Damon agreed to go for help, but Danny insisted that it was already too late.  He was about to die.

“Forget about dividing the stash,” Danny said, “You can have the whole thing.  Just promise me you’ll bury me with the sword.  Just give me the sword and you can have everything else.”  Then, he died.

At first, Damon tried to carry the body back, but in the heat of the day it began to smell bad.  He couldn’t just leave it for the vultures, so he opted to bury Danny where he was.  After digging the hole, he was about to place the sword over the body, when he began to think about it pragmatically.  In truth, the dead body could never care what happened to the sword, and it was, after all, quite beautiful and would probably fetch a couple thousand dollars, should he choose to sell it.  Why bury a perfectly good relic like that?  It would be a shame!  So, he kept the sword and buried the body.

“Seems reasonable to me,” said the dumpy man at the bar.  “I would’ve done the same.”

“Anyone would have,” said Damon, “but it would have been a terrible mistake.”

As Damon was turning to repack his things, he heard the voice of his old companion speak to him from the grave.  “I said you could have everything, didn’t I?”

Damon turned around and saw the sword hovering there, pointing right at him.

“Take the whole thing, I said.  Just bury me with the sword, I said.  Was it really too much to ask?  I couldn’t have just this one thing?  Are you so bent on wealth that you would rob a dead friend?!” the voice scolded in rage.

With that, Damon jumped on his horse and rode away as fast as he could.

“Ah, I see.  You’re saying this all has to do with that freaky hovering sword that’s been on the news lately,” the other patron said with a slight slur to his words.

“Yes, that’s the one.  That’s Danny’s sword,” said Damon.

“So why don’t you go back and bury it?” suggested the patron.

Damon eyed the man skeptically.  “I don’t know, but I think it would kill me.  Would you try to take a weapon from a ghost?”

“Have you tried an exorcist?” the patron offered.

Just then, someone stormed into the room, shouting, “The sword!  I just found it, about a mile up the road, pointing this way!”  The bar cleared in seconds, everyone being in a hurry to go find the sword or to get far away from it as fast as possible.

Damon gripped the edge of the bar tightly and whispered, “It’s getting closer.  It’s almost here.”  He looked to the side and found his companion still sitting there.  They and one unconscious fellow in the back of the room were the only ones left.

“Interesting,” remarked the other, “So this thing has been following you all these years.  How long has it been?”

“Fifty-five years,” Damon answered without even having to calculate it.

“Fifty-five years?!  The blasted thing sure is taking its time, isn’t it?  How old are you, anyway?” asked the other patron.

“Eighty years, last June,” replied Damon.

The other patron roared with laughter.  Damon was obviously upset by his reaction. “Sir,” said the other, “You’re not going to die by the sword!  You’re going to die of old age!”

Damon got to his feet and replied in anger, “You might think this is funny, but once it’s done carving me up, it might come for you, even if I have to haunt it myself!”  Then he stormed out.

That night was the worst of his life.  The mysterious hovering sword had, apparently, been covering miles and miles of uninhabited and rugged terrain, slowly approaching him unnoticed for all of these years.  Finally, it happened upon civilization, and nothing anyone did to the sword could stop it, and nothing Damon did to get away from it could increase that distance.  After leaving the bar, he journeyed for five hours to a roadside motel, where he attempted what he figured would be his last chance at sleep before the sword arrived.  Somewhere out there, a mile away or less, the sword was still coming.  He could only guess how much time he had left.

Damon miscalculated.  The sword, like death, does not come by a human schedule.  We can see it coming and estimate the end to some degree, but sometimes it arrives much earlier than anticipated, and it makes no apology for its impolite punctuality.  The door to the room crashed open, split down the middle, with the blade shining in the moonlight that streamed through the window opposite the door.  Damon screamed in abject terror.  Even then, it just hovered in place, stationary, like it never intended to advance further.  The movement was slow, like the movement of shadows cast by the sun.  If Damon moved to the other side of the room, though, it repositioned itself quickly to maintain its aim at his heart.  Needless to say, it was a long night, and he could not get past the sword and reach the door.  Every time he moved, it cut him off.

By dawn of the next day, the sword was less than an inch from his flesh, and he found himself seriously imploring to God for his salvation.

The reader, at this point, will be happy to note that the poor man did not, in fact, die from the sword.  Rather, he died of a stroke, a complication of his old age, just before the sword could hurt him, and the sword had nothing to do with it.  What a relief!  All of this time, Damon feared what would happen when the sword reached him, but instead of dying, as he thought, he died before it could happen.

[/fiction]

Ah, but a mysterious hovering sword is so much more fearsome, is it not?  If we all had hovering swords threatening to take our heads off at every turn, we might consider it a fact of life, and, instead, be more terrified by death of old age.  On a serious note, though, the fact is simply that whatever ultimately kills us, that thing and its destiny are on a determined and unstoppable collision course for our lives.  Whatever it is, it definitely exists, and it will definitely get here in due time, and it will definitely kill us.  Cheery, isn’t it?  The real sickness, then, is not that we fear death, but that some of us are so consumed by our present riches that we do not notice the steady progression of doom.  Thousands of years from now, no one will care what riches we owned, no one will know who we were, and nothing will matter about the fact of our former existence.  All that will matter is whether this human soul, the thing that some people are dumb enough to insist does not exist, is in a place far better or far worse than it is now.

Salvation from death is not an issue.  There is no salvation from death.  It’s the death after the death that we might resist.  This life is just a temporary endeavor, more like a game.  We pass through it briefly, to serve a temporary purpose, and then we enter the afterlife, where the story really begins.  Thanks for playing this game with me, and I hope you find what you came here for, even if it isn’t what you think you came here for.

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