BY AMBER SPARKS
The return is the most difficult part; the thin membrane that separates the world from the quest is harder than diamonds. The hero pushes, he leans, he tries to reorder his atoms in the shape of a shepherd, a monk, a maiden. He slips through the world barrier sideways, but his sword catches on the air and shatters the calm into pieces. The townspeople whisper and bring him t-shirts and photos to sign; the hero smokes a cigarette and tries to look casual. His heart is already hurting for the high grasslands, the mysterious marshes, the dark forests with demons to catch and trails to follow. His heart is already beating faster in the slowness of the world.
The wound in his side smells rotten, stinks like death. He lies on his back like Prometheus, chained by pain and exhaustion. He watches the hawks circle overhead and thinks of his love, of the gold in her voice and hair, her hot pink toenails pushing into his calf while he tries to shake her awake from her nightmare. Her breasts soft round peaches in satchels. He groans and tries to rise, but stars rush to his eyes and he falls back. Dirt mixes with blood and pus. Hot winds blow through him, and he gropes for his cell phone. He needs a rescue. It is the truth, in the end: all heroes need rescuing after the quest is through. All heroes fall into themselves like empty clothes when the aim stops burning, when the last light has left the lining of their throats and they begin to be ordinary again.
They ride out of hell with their prize held high. Swords out, car windows down, they sweep inevitable as locusts through wild, through wind, through wet and ocean that would drown a dead man. They fly faster than angels, as just in their cause. But they are followed by the stink of fear, by hurt, because they are only human, strange and soft a thing as that can be. Shields hard, they flee because they cannot fight. Swords high, they flee because they will die, but not yet. Not yet not yet today.
And there, in the clearing filled with light, the ultimate boon. It glitters flat, scratched and faded, this odd plain object of their quest. So much blood has soaked the ground in the seeking for it. The gods have starved in hunger for it. Heroes have shed their lives for it, villains paid whole souls for it; all the while no one wondering what will become of the world when it is found. No one wondering where the rain will fall, if all the tables are heavy with plenty and the soldiers as gentle as lambs.
At the top of the tower, a mirror. A face glowering back in the dim light, heavy-browed and dark with shame. A prophecy of doom, of twin destroying twin, son murdering father. The fields are on fire outside. The burning crops smell like late fall back in the town, like the homecoming bonfires, like the children’s stray voices, begging a penny for the Guy. Like closed eyes and deep breaths. Like the womb.
Things that will tempt you to stray from the path: a woman, a battle, a bag of gold, a sword, a gun, a stack of jeans, a powder brick, a crown, a letter, a baseball, a pipe, a half-pipe, a fortune-teller’s tell, a green monster, a monstrous ambition, a starring role, a huge breakfast, a bottle of wine, a bed and a fire and a very good book. The hammock your dad strung between the two big oak trees; the space that he made for you where his knees drew in, when you were so small you could press your whole face into one rope square and watch the ground swaying, swinging up to meet you again and again
It doesn’t really matter who she is, whether wife, mother, sister, aunt, grandmother, stepmother, goddess, saint, faerie, queen, angel. The point of her appearance is to give them respite, to vary the pace and to provide a dream for reference. Later, when they are tired as earth, when they are hungry as fire, when thoughts are murky and dark as the great ocean depths-the dream will give them succor. Later, the dream will give them strength. When back on their feet, sword in hand, they will worship but not understand the lady. They won’t understand that she is stronger than warriors, for her strength is endless and boundless. They won’t understand that she needs no weapons-only this vast reservoir of dream to draw upon, to bottle up and distribute to wandering heroes. They will brush this great gift from their boots like dust at the end of the day, and she will not mind. She is made for this fate, after all. She is the world’s loveliest vending machine.
Head out the door and stop for a moment; notice the copse of trees to your left and the town on your right. Remember how far you’ve never been before, notice the dead trees among the living and hope this is not a bad omen. Shudder slightly. Turn right. Find the dark magician in his foreclosed exurban home, and do battle. If you survive, leave the house and take the second left. Drive twenty miles to the nearest gas station and while you are filling up, find a tearful old lady who begs you to catch the thief who stole her purse. Explain that you are not the police and that you are on a quest, but feel so sorry for the old woman, who reminds you of your grandmother back home, that you give chase anyway. Catch the thief, who turns out to be a servant of the dark magician. Find out from him where his boss’s lair is now located. At the first fork in the road, take a right. Drive ten miles through darkening, dense air and roll up your windows when the smog starts to push in. Continue to drive, seeking the lair but lost, mapless, blind, unsure what to do or where to go and positive you’ve made all the wrong choices. Blame the old lady, blame the thief, blame your father for not stopping you and your girlfriend for urging you on. Cry like a girl. Be glad no one can see you, but of course this is a quest and so everyone can see you. Everyone is watching. Everyone is waiting for you to get on with it. Get on with it.
Wizards use many weapons with varying degrees of proficiency, but do not use armor or shields. A wizard casts spells, which must be chosen ahead and prepared ahead of time. A wizard need not be strong, but a wizard must possess intelligence, and rest well before casting spells. A wizard may purchase a familiar, to assist him with magical tasks and provide companionship. A wizard may also present magical boons and tokens to help the hero on his journey, if the wizard so chooses. The wizard may not interfere with the hero’s quest in any other way, though out of love and loyalty the wizard may choose to say the hell with it, and join the hero in saving the world or doing his best to try.
It starts with a stranger, or a close friend, but never a casual acquaintance. There must be something impassioned about the relationship, a love or a danger or both. There must be something to prove to this messenger, this strange herald who is unable to take up the task and must pass it on to another. Fate must choose, or judgment must choose, or love must choose, or all three in conjunction with the right or wrong planets. The new hero must be very lucky, or very unlucky, or perhaps he does not believe in luck at all. Perhaps he has already decided, long ago, that if such an offer were made he would grab at the chance. Perhaps he has sought such an offer. Perhaps he has fastened his hopes tight to this day, has kept watch for the moment when his best friend’s eyes, or the stranger’s eyes, or his father or uncle or brother’s eyes move heavenward, just slightly, before coming to rest on the hero’s ready shoulders at last.
The hero who is not yet the hero sits on a hill near the pasture, thinking of brighter things than cows and corn. He fills his dreams with sports cars, with travel, with books that look different than the books here and women who look different from the women here. He flicks his lighter, tips his cigarette with fire. He sighs to see his father approaching. The day will be ordinary, he supposes, like every day. The day will be chores, will be one big chore to forget and resume tomorrow.
The hero who is not yet the hero watches his father and worries he is starting to resemble the old man. He worries his life will be tedium, corn and cows, bills, endless mouths to feed, worry lines etched deep into a sun-spotted brow. But he doesn’t worry too much; he changes the channel in his head and thinks of his girlfriend’s hair, bright gold in the sun and sparkling like champagne. Of her eyes, blue and round as marbles. Of her breasts, downy and small. He thinks he could stick around for breasts like those.
He smiles and takes a last drag, grinds the cigarette butt into the soft dirt, watches the sun creep up into the sky, little by little. He thinks, yes, it would be worth it, to stick around here for breasts, for his father, for sunrises like these. For the beginnings of days to cycle back around and renew themselves, warm as embers, familiar already as home on the day he came into this world.