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Losing Character

by Jesse Gordon

I do not want to die.

It is an irrational thought, one that flutters through my head from time to time, and I cannot figure out why.

Karl says I have nothing to worry about. Indeed, I can hear him now, hollering through the wrought-iron door of my self-imposed fortress (in this case, the armory). He tells me I was born just this evening, and so, like a newborn infant, my canvas is unpainted — I do not have to know fear if I do not wish to.

But I do know fear. I do know that at this moment there is nothing so potent as that which holds my emotions hostage, that which keeps my limbs frozen solid.

Come, Espen. Open the door. You’ll see. It will be okay. It’s all so simple...

He is lying, of course. It is not simple at all, and my mind reels. How can I know anything but stifling dread after opening my eyes to a mirror reflection and seeing myself looking back with the magnitude of a complete stranger? I know I am myself, but I am also someone else simply because I cannot account for my actions prior to this evening’s performance. I know there was something that came before — nothing truly begins from nothing — and yet... the borders of my mind are like the masonry walls of this chamber: opaque and impenetrable. I haven’t the slightest notion of what might lie on the other side.

There is a world out there, but I am disconnected from it.

This simply cannot be, I think. Getting to my feet, I cross the armory, which has been converted for my company’s use. All about are colorful costumes, props of all shapes and sizes, stuffed animals. I stop in front of a mirror, where flickering torchlight brings my reflection to life. It is me and not me; I am an actor, an athlete, an artist, a fool wearing a stolen skin —

I look away. Karl is calling to me again, banging softly against the door. Espen, he calls me. Espen — of course it’s your name. It’s our name. You and I, together. Espen and Karl... won’t you open the door now?

Moving away from the mirror, I continue to ignore him. I am not exactly sure what my name is — he says it is Espen, but I do not trust him. After all, he is the one being irrational, not I. He will tell me anything to get me to open the door.

I hate him. Like a brother I might have once loved through life until the tragic day when betrayal shattered the bond forever, I despise him and want him to disappear forever. At the very least, I want him to grow silent for a moment so that I may think.

The torchlight seems to grow fainter — or perhaps it is my own eyes growing weary. I cannot remember the last time I slept or had any food. My stomach rumbles, my head throbs, but it is a preferable discomfort. I would rather be barricaded in my little keep than exposed and vulnerable out there.

I sit on the cold stone floor, and I realize I have memories, stored up experiences dancing across the infinitesimal expanses of my synapses.

I close my eyes and see Karl and myself, alternating between feats of dramatic expression and athletic temperament. We are brothers, twin souls, almost the same person, at times. Performing before noble kings and teeming, enraptured audiences, we thrill and entrance; we are part of the troupe and part of each other. On countless nights between performances, when the caravan is parading across the desert sea, I see glittering sands stretching to horizons flecked with palm and jojoba, and stars humming softly in indigo skies.

I remember a woman, lithe and fresh, her hair spilling about my face as we embrace, laughing and touching... making love.

For a moment I am drawn away into the ecstasy of it all. My life seems ever so vivid in my memories — not like now, not in this place of perennial twilight that seems to hang in limbo between worlds. I want to escape permanently into the recesses of my mind, but I know better than to fall asleep... I know that I must keep alert if I want to find my way out of this labyrinth.

I open my eyes and get to my feet. Karl is banging some more:

Espen, please open the door. You are not well. I do not want to see you hurt.

I might have fallen, hit my head or been injured during a stunt, but I know who I am, and I know that somehow I have been kept prisoner before. All my precious memories, all the passion and exhilaration of life and love — I was only allowed to watch while Karl indulged himself. Good food, fine wine, voluptuous women... I know the taste of them all, and yet I have never been allowed to taste for myself.

Again Karl calls to me, tries to convince me that it is my imagination gone wild. He is treating me like an imaginary friend, but I wonder if Karl is not a bad dream himself.

I flex the muscles of my thighs, one leg and then the other. I curl up my fist and watch the knotted serpents writhe beneath the skin of my forearm. This is me, I think. Real as can be, alive and well and strong. I am no hallucination.

Therefore, there can be only one conclusion.

Beside the open prop chest is a rack of swords and daggers — part of the magic show. I go to it; the stuffed animals bear witness with cold, lifeless eyes as I draw one of the blades, take a few practiced swings in open air.

Yes, I will open the door for you, Karl, I think, but you will not like what happens next.

Armed (and bristling from head to toe), I approach the door, reach for the lock. I realize, as the bolt slides back, that I have no idea what Karl looks like. I should — but it is too late now. The door swings open —

— and I find myself gazing into another mirror, the reflection cluttered with random circus specters: painted faces, colored wigs, a musician, an archer, a fool, a gymnast — myself, arms outstretched, at the center of it all.

There is someone else too — an Elder. His hair and beard are white as snow; the many lines of his face have been woven into a mask of wisdom and compassion. I want to call him father, I want to call him God; his gaze catches mine immediately and I am mesmerized, unable to look away.

“There, there, Espen,” he says, drawing me forward with an elaborate gesture of his hands, a subtle symphony of whispered gibberish. “Gentle, gentle Espen... it is all right now. Your family is here, see?”

I am prepared to fight, I am prepared to behead every last one of the circus demons standing before me — instead the sword slips from my hands. I can hear it clattering on the ground as I step forward into the Elder’s embrace.

There are tears in my eyes.

“How did this happen?” asks the Elder, still stroking my hair, still murmuring his magic into my ear.

“I lost my character,” I hear Karl say, his voice subdued. I know he is as embarrassed for himself as he is for me. “I’m sorry... it will never happen again.”

Yes, I think, feeling the angst within me unwind. I was lost after all. I was lost, but you have found me. Oh, Karl... How could I have doubted you?

I close my eyes as the Elder casts his spell, as I sift downward, the imagined form of my flesh dissolving into smoke, my jumbled ego settling into the silent abyss of sleep, where I wait until it is time for me to rise again.

Copyright © 2007 by Jesse Gordon

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