By Kyle Miller
We could see the tower through the trees, but we weren’t yet close enough to see the monster inside who was likely to be my death again. I had lost count of my attempts, but this time I had help.
The wind whipped up all sorts of sounds in the underbrush and brambles surrounding the tower, a scrubby maze of dead brown and winter black. We heard voices, gunshots, and hammer blows. My companion wondered aloud about our safety, but the wind snatched his words like a passing thief. We found the blackened remains of campfires and an empty pill bottle teasing us with its amber glow, the only brightness in this desolate maze. I should have known the way, but the paths seemed to shift with the moon. Scraps of timber looked menacing under the low light of snow-bearing clouds, and every tree grew horns and eyes and tentacles.
I jumped, but my companion shook his head: It was only the hairy vine of a poison ivy plant. If I had been in higher spirits, I might have laughed.
My companion saw the doorknob this time. It was sunken into the trunk of a tree with no bark, submerged as if in liquid, and still sinking. I turned to see if my companion was ready, but he was already gone.
Friends don’t stay long in this place. When you finally find a bit of comfort, like an ember in the ashes, they vanish before you can even share a word.
Would the doorknob turn this time? I hoped I had done everything right. I followed the steps, because there was something trailing me. I could hear its occasional screech, like the working of a rusty pump. I knew its haggard face. I remembered the smell of its boggy, sopping hide as it pushed the air from my lungs with the weight of a single paw. I reached out and turned the knob before it sank beneath the wood.
The tower built itself brick by brick over my heart, once again. I had turned the right knob.
The monster in the tower was now close enough to feel, if not see, hear, or smell. The tower was old, I had gathered that much before: Older than me, older even than the trees under which I had just walked. The windows were streaked and spotted and cobwebbed, and I pushed my hands through the webs and looked below. I saw the place I had been standing a moment before, the tree with the doorknob, the sooty black shape of the creature that had followed me. For one awful moment, I thought it would find the door, but the knob had already sunk to the bottom of the wood for someone else to find.
From the view out the window, I guessed I was on the second or third story of the tower. I wandered from room to room, gallery to corridor to twisted stairwell, and found what I first thought was an attic. In fact, it was situated in the middle of the tower—an oubliette full of serpents and their young, and the bones of humans and beasts. As I crawled through on hands and knees I felt the warmth of nostalgia blooming in my chest, and then there I was, or once was: My own corpse, not yet bones.
It’s not at all like looking at yourself in the mirror.
I took what I could from my corpse, including a staff with a worn yet familiar leather grip. I fought through rising nausea and kept crawling, striking the serpents with my new weapon. They shrieked and beat their feathered wings in my face.
When I reached the other end of the cellar and got to my feet, I was spitting feathers and nearly stepped in a pile of dung freshly laid on the mouse eaten carpet. It smelled skunky, still fresh. How many more doors stood between me and the monster of the tower? I could hear the bass trumpeting of its summons somewhere above, and then I knew I was in trouble. I would never be able to defeat it by myself. My staff was splintered, my clothes threadbare, and my head busy with fears and doubts. Worries built themselves thought by thought across my mind. They made walls, stairwells, and mazes. I wanted to go back, get out, but that doesn’t happen here. If you go back, you’re only made to go forward again, through the same dark forest, to the same cold doorknob adrift in the wood.
I could feel myself contemplating the meaninglessness of it all, the first sign of the point of no return. I slapped my own cheek, hard.
It’s as if there is a small wind-up engine inside us all, and we are driven onward no matter how meaningless the future may be. I only wonder who does the winding, and if one day it will stop.
I rummaged through the drawers and mirrored cabinets of the first bathroom I could find, searching for the amber gleam of a pill bottle. I found a tall black bag and emptied its contents onto the floor, shaking each bottle until I found one that rattled. I tore off the lid and found two pills inside, one light and one dark.
You take a brain-colored pill to call for help (and how long did it take for me to learn how to do that?); a dark pill to send them away; a kidney-shaped pill for pain; a sweet pill for exile; and I don’t yet know what the smallest pill does.
I found a brain-colored pill and swallowed it dry.
And I waited.
A woman’s voice called out: “Are you there?”
I asked for her name, and she told me it was Gayle.
Gayle said she was there to help unbuild the tower in my heart, however long it took, no matter what happened, but I knew she was lying to make me feel better, because no one stays for long. But it worked. I felt better almost immediately. Maybe there would be another Gayle after her and one day I would kill the beast and crumble the tower.
There are small gifts of hope here, the currency with which we embolden our hearts and strengthen our souls.
I was like you once, Gayle said, and you will one day be like me, helping someone who has never been here before, helping them to the next circle of light long after you have already gone beyond. And you’ll sit down beside them, offering your cold hands to the bonfire, and they will listen to your tale. You will talk quickly, and they will listen carefully, and hope you finish before you must go. Because if you cannot, they may never see you again and thus never come to learn how you killed the monster in the tower.
Four sparrows bring the news each day on sheaves of withered paper. The print is small, crowded on the pages as if there might not be enough pulp for more paper, and angular, as if written with the sparrows’ feet. They only ever write about the ones who don’t make it, but I keep hoping there will be some clue, some hint to decode in the names and places, a morsel to lead me from the labyrinth. I’ve taken the first letter of each name, the last, scrambled and unscrambled them. I’ve drawn maps out of the places of one soul’s repeated deaths, tracked him from the bottom of the bog to the top of the tower, and there’s nothing. Never a clue.
What am I doing wrong?
I’ve made camp in the old windmill, the one that doesn’t creak. A giant’s black hair, tangled in the blades of the windmill, pulled the whole thing to a stop. The gears are silent. It’s as good a place as any to gather my thoughts and wonder why I ever get up and go on. It’s so much safer to sit still.
Yesterday, I walked away. Though my foot wasn’t healed, I felt strong. It was the longest of my lives. I resolved to challenge the tower and kill the beast that dwells there.
My mail boots clattered and rattled down the windmill steps, and immediately the tower teased me from the horizon, like a mess of one- and two-story houses stacked on top of each other. All the doors are missing. They’re out in the woods somewhere, I know that: Paid for it with a life.
I took a pill, one of the black, kidney-shaped ones, to pull some of the pain out of my foot. Black wasps hovered over the cobbled path, darting in and out of sight, their long, grotesquely thin bodies sketched against the ground. They made me sick, and I spit at one and missed.
I was suspicious of everything in the cornfield, every turn, every clod of soil, every fallen ear. I wondered if some of them might not have the ability to hear or see, and once I saw what looked like a table laden with fruit at the end of a long corridor of corn. I was not tempted to investigate.
I made it to the narcissist’s mirrored chamber, but she was not there. I remembered too well my death in that place. It sticks in my head like a sickness. Misery loves nothing more than its own company, and she will keep you there forever. I saw that she had kept someone else there, and the poor man had not yet returned to gather his belongings. I kneeled and put my hand onto the cool silk vest, the amber pill bottle, the purple lyre, but I hesitated. Maybe this one would be returning, maybe he was right behind me, nearly naked, covered with the frond of an elephant fern and armed with a rusty pike, and I was about to steal his only chance at a full life.
I took nothing, but that hasn’t always been the case. Leaving the mirrored chamber, I pulled the envelope from the tiny pocket sewn into the inside of my jacket. He was all hair and bones by the time I found him, and I decided that if he had planned to return to his body and reclaim his possessions, he would have done so long ago. I opened the envelope and removed the furry paper from inside. A love poem. If I return to the place of my death each new life, it is to recover this poem. At the bottom, the author drew a tiny snail in immaculate detail, devotion to the complex texture of all life, that layer of meaning deprived of all who come here, and—above it—a heart with a tail like one of the snail’s telescopic eyes. I don’t mind that I was neither the sender nor the recipient. All tenderness is worth preserving.
I took another step and never noticed the sting, because my injured foot was partially numb, but as the toxin rose through my leg, I felt it burning my blood. One of those grotesque wasps, I was sure. Most of my deaths have been at the talons of an owl the size of a house or the fangs of a decanter plant, and to die from something so small, so unnoticeable, maddened me—still angers me, here in my next life.
I threw things. I bawled. I scorched my throat with screams. How did I come to this place, I wondered. A few memories, perhaps quickened by the toxin, leaped through my mind: running my hand through a cat’s fur, the golden green world as seen through sunglasses, sex. In that odd moment, I remembered the singular pleasure of sex. With men, I think, and women, and maybe both at once, a warm nest of flesh, nuzzled on all sides. But that memory looks pale now, like the moon by day, just a smudge of chalk.
If I could escape, would there be anything to which to return?
I pulled out the last of my pills. One for exile, one the color of a brain, and three small, flat pills like drops of blood pooled in my palm.
There is a section in the news for those who choose exile, and it is always empty. There is something in us that despises annihilation. It is a kind of courage, I think, a love stronger than fear, a love of complexity far greater than simple nonexistence.
I took the small red pill.
My world became a heated globe of red pressure, split into equally sized fragments by my eyes. I was full of spite and pain and poison, looking for something to sting. I saw a network of veins and arteries, a maze of lambent blood, and I swung low. But as I neared, it grasped a pendant hanging at its throat, and the sun glinted on the metal and blinded me to its blood. I was enraged. I swooped past, it swatted, and I landed on the back of its hand and pressed my body against its flesh, hoping for blood. It squeezed me between thumb and forefinger, but not before I spilled death in its veins.
I know very little about the structure of time, but I couldn’t help but think I had just killed myself.
When I came to in the windmill, naked and alone, hungover with the weight of my emotions, I began again from scratch.
That night, I ventured out, recovered my belongings, and returned to camp. I opened my amber pill bottle and threw the smallest pills into the fire. I hesitated over the others, wondering if they weren’t all cursed, but then I remembered something I read and swallowed a brain-colored pill dry.
A moment later, I was no longer alone.
I’m writing this and leaving it in the windmill under a sparkling stone. There is no hint to decode, no map to be drawn. Only two lessons, spelled out in words as strong as flame: do not take the smallest pill, and ask for help.
I discovered what I was doing wrong.
A ghostly figure sat across from me at my fire, his antlered helm visible above the tips of the flames. I think he smiled.
“Have you been to the tower?” I asked.
“Yes, and I have returned alive.”
“What about the beast?”
“In my world, it is dead.”
I was in awe. But shouldn’t he have left, wasn’t that the escape?
“There is always more. That is but one leg of the journey. But listen. I must be quick. Let me tell you how to kill it. Let me tell you its secret weakness.”
“Wait,” I said. I rose and joined him on his side of the fire. My cheeks burning with shame, I took an envelope out of my pocket and asked him if he had ever lost something he could not replace, like a letter, like a poem.
The corn grows tall and wide, right up to the first floor of the tower. When the wind blows right, I can smell the pale scent of the husks and hear them speak. How many deaths did I experience in that maze? Doesn’t it best every warrior once? That is what we are here, isn’t it, where each day and each new life is a battle against the final state of torpor, of giving up, of sitting still? Weary, hungry warriors encounter what seems to be a cornucopia of nourishment, no matter that it’s in the middle of a cornfield. But this is only the ass of the smorgasbord beast, whose tail is meant to mimic a feast. Those plums and loaves are merely painted sacks of flesh, but then it’s too late, and there it is: The dark curve of its head rising above the green like a sickle, and it is not the corn it will reap.
The tables are always turning here.
In this place, all succor, all beauty is merely mimicry. That’s why when you meet someone like me, you don’t know whether to be afraid. You don’t know if I will lead you to another iteration of your death or to a shortcut you might never have seen, a path by which you can avoid the mazes of corn or the corridors beneath the old plantation.
Here’s one now. I can see the trim of his tattered velvet robe, stepped upon by men and rats and dire crocodiles. The violet mud from the bog has not yet dried on his boots.
“Heading to the tower?” I ask. He must hear my voice like a dream.
“Help,” he says, and I tell him my name. It’s best to show them as quickly as possible that you’re not there to harm them.
“Gayle,” he says. “Can you help me?”
I nod and show him the way to my camp. I offer him pills, but he pulls his own bottle from his robe and shakes it as if to say, ‘I have enough.’
“You’ve been to the tower?” he asks.
“Many times, and past it.”
“And does it end? Does this place end?”
But he already knows that if I knew there was an end, I wouldn’t be here. “You will be here for the rest of your lives.” He weeps, and I wish I could touch him, just a tap on the shoulder or a second’s embrace, I really do. “But you can get to a place above all this, where the sky is blue, the sun sets, and the corn smells sweet.”
I smell the field again and recall the last life I had, when I met the wandering minstrel with the purple lyre. A minstrel, here of all places. What hope he wrought. We took on the corn maze together and came out the other side laughing. The smell of corn brings him back to me.
There is no leaving this place, I tell the robed man at my fire, but I find all the victory I require in contentment. We cannot control the realities of this place, except when we can, by changing our attitudes and perceptions of it. But by the time I finish, he’s already gone.
I am full of words and supposed sagacity, a wise woman wearing the pendant of the sun, and yet I waste a young warrior’s time. Was this his one chance at salvation? Did he use his final pill to parley with a haughty crone who robbed him of hope? The elder comes to a plateau, and the mountains ahead obscured by mist, mistakenly believes she has reached the apex. She attributes sudden wisdom to herself and unintentionally leads youths astray. She is unaware of the inevitable fall from mastery.
Everyone has a hidden weakness.
I get up, dust myself off, and leave my bottle of pills for the next warrior who pitches his tent here. I grab my pendant, a nervous tic, and go to the tower, hoping to be of some help, but no ghosts call.
If I told them there was an end, would it strengthen their resolve?
I have always been hard on myself, and that is why, I think, I have made it this far, if distance can be measured in a place with no end. The truth is, dear warrior, that I am afraid. Afraid of that blackened land beyond the tower. I have beaten the beast and seen the long path ahead carpeted in bones. I have trampled those skeletons, only to have another rise up beneath me and lift my very soles off the ground. I have seen the thing that lurks in the crags beyond, and it wears my face.
I wander out of the tower, from which I am now free to come and go, and step into a junkyard. This place is new to me, nestled in a corner of the cornfield I’ve never visited, where the stalks are burned away and little blackened nubs stick out of the hard earth, their roots like tendrils. Somehow they still give the impression of life, of motility. My lungs pull in the weird air of this meadow of garbage, and I recognize the sensation of discovery. This nook feels strangely empty. Unoccupied.
I have never been to a place like this before.
I sift through some of the trash: tarnished cans, a muddy sink, the boiled bones of a tiger, and mirrors. So many mirrors. I begin lining them up to take inventory, and the sky doubles. I haven’t seen myself in quite some time. Certainly not in this life. Doesn’t that pendant look nice around my neck?
This is as good a place as any to make camp.
Maybe I’ll build myself a little shelter.
Once, I saw a message scrawled in chalk on the splintered floorboards of the creaking windmill. Once, I saw a word spelled in shells on a lakeshore, a word that broke the spell of a sandworm’s petrifying gaze. Once, I swallowed a dull gray pill and heard the whisper of ghosts. We find ways of reaching one another in our shared dungeon. We’re writing an encyclopedia of our collective wisdom on the subject of our malady, far greater than the knowledge of one old woman. Its pages are spread across the landscape, words written small and large across forest and bog, tower and field, revealing ways to ease the pain.
I have once again outdone myself. I have such high standards. Instead of a shelter, a lean-to or a tent, I have built a whole house. A chamber of mirrors.
When I step inside, I feel strange, somehow permanent, where before my connection to this place was ever only tenuous. I feel like a piece of this world, like furniture, an armoire of weathered oak, missing a handle and one drawer askew. Perhaps I have stayed too long.
And now I realize my mistake. I have built my house inside-out. The mirrors are all facing inward, and I cannot look anywhere but into them.
I do hope someone comes to visit soon.
Open the encyclopedia. Find the entry marked me. Break my mirrors.
About the Author:
Thrown out of Fairyland for crimes against the Realm, Kyle is a naturalist and writer living in Michigan. He can usually be found in the dunes or forests, turning up logs looking for life. Past incarnations include zookeeper, video game critic, retail manager, stablehand, and writing tutor. His fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, and Honey & Sulphur. You can find more at www.kyle-e-miller.com or on Instagram: @temple_of_the_word