This is the ending to the side story in High Noon, my desert adventure. Any critique is appreciated, but I'd really like any feedback about the philosophical content of this chapter.
Apis Learns to Be Himself
Peer Gynt stood at the bow of a ship sailing placidly on a sea that couldn't be bothered to acknowledge any presence other than its own.
The message had come to him as he was enjoying a cup of tea with a wealthy rice farmer on the porch of the estate overlooking the fields. The farmer's errand boy returned from town with a pile of correspondence for the farmer and a small wrinkled brown paper envelope for Peer. “The mirror in Apis's room is growing misty and soon his reflection will survey us from the other side alone. Please hurry,” Columba had written.
“Damned poet. What does she mean by this nonsense anyway?” Peer grumbled, though the words stared him in his face with perfect clarity. He closed his eyes and his jaw tightened. “It seems that I need to travel to the desert, Vasu. How do I go about procuring passage on a ship?”
On the deck of the ship, Peer leaned against a twisted cane and frowned at the amount of noise the crew was making in completing their duties. “The sea is calm. Why is there such need for so much noise and haste?” he snapped at the bosun.
“Shut yer gob, old man. What do ye know about this business anyway...” the leathery man replied.
“You think I haven't done my fair share of sailing in my lifetime?” Peer challenged.
“You? That's a laugh.”
“I captained ships transporting poetry and salt to the natives of the Western Jungles during the Migration.”
“Did ye now?” The bosun let out a hacking laugh.
“I most certainly did.”
“How'd ye like to give the orders, then?”
“I do believe I could run a tighter ship than this embarrassing mess.”
“I'm sorry that you do not approve of the manner in which I run my ship, Mr...Mr...” said a long-haired woman dressed in a scarlet jacket adorned with gold buckles from behind Peer.
“Gynt.” Peer said.
“Mr. Gynt, of course. Back to work, Jonathan.”
“Aye Captain.” The bosun saluted the captain and swaggered away.
“Seeing as how I made an exception to allow you passage on this ship, Mr. Gynt, I would greatly appreciate your patience with my methods.”
“You're still a child. How'd you get to be a captain?”
“I work hard, Mr. Gynt.”
“You're the practical type, then. Always scheming and never leaving time to just sit and be?”
“Vasu warned me that you were a strange one. 'Being' gets one nowhere.” The captain's steely eyes narrowed. “Anyone can 'be'.”
“It takes effort to be oneself, though.”
“That's outdated thinking, old man. There is no such thing as self any longer.” Peer sighed and stared out over the water. “Excuse me, then.” The captain strode across the deck. Peer seated himself on a wooden crate and watched the crew at work. At the highest point on deck stood the captain, surveying her domain with a cold sense of ownership that reminded Peer of the people of his homeland.
“Where were you born, Captain?” he called out. She raised her thin, dark eyebrows at him.
“In a port city at the foothills of the mountains.” Peer smiled. He wondered if he would have adopted beliefs similar to that of the captain if he had not been transplanted to the desert as a child.
Columba met Peer with a carriage at the docks of the infant village that lay several miles from the beginnings of the desert. She, white haired and owlish, greeted him solemnly with a firm handshake. They spent the carriage ride across the desert in silence, Columba reviewing, altering, and approving official documents for the majority of the time. Peer found himself frightened of looking out the windows and gazing upon the desert, afraid of catching sight of the ghoulish phantasms of the past that he was certain were dancing around the carriage. He noticed a bantam tear slide down Columba's cheek and felt his own eye mimic hers. When they arrived at the front steps of the palace, they were greeted by the youngest of the two princesses, a woman of twenty-five years. Columba bid Peer to make himself comfortable in the quarters that were perpetually reserved for him and excused herself as the duties of the throne were pressing. The princess gave a watery smile and embraced Peer. She began leading him to his chambers. He stopped and asked her, “Where is he?”
“I'm not sure if anyone's allowed in right now.”
“Is he in his official chamber?”
“Then he's in the old schoolroom?”
“I'm not supposed to-” She sighed and said plainly, “He wouldn't let them care for him anywhere else.”
“Thank you.” Peer navigated his way through the twisting corridors of the palace to the hallway adjacent to the garden, which now stretched out into the desert for miles. The princesses floated along behind him, insisting that she enter the converted bedchamber before he did. They arrived at the dusty corner of the palace that had been used for nothing other than the king's private study for decades. The princess approached the four soldiers standing guard over the door to the chamber and requested entry. The guards declined and the princess drew a deep breath.
“Don't you see that Peer Gynt is here. Let us in immediately and stop undermining me. Even if you
are not, I
am aware that I have just as much authority as my mother or my sister!” she snapped. The guards uncertainly allowed the two into the room. Peer's eyes watered and the burden of his aching back seemed twice as heavy when he caught sight of Apis bundled up in a small bed pushed against a bookshelf, his eyes closed, but his chest moving with the irregular rhythm of labored breathing. “Father...” the princess breathed softly, kneeling at his bedside. Apis opened his eyes and placed his hand on his daughter's cheek. When he noticed Peer standing at the doorway, silent and wringing with tension, a touch of a smile permeated the expression of his face. “Peer is here to see you.”
“Yes, I see that.” Apis's voice maintained its usual rich tones with only minimal evidence of strain.
“My sister is arriving tonight. She's braving mother just to see you. Will you be glad to see her?”
“I will be very glad.”
“Are you feeling well enough for visitors?”
“I'll leave you, then.” The princess kissed her father's forehead and glided from the room. Peer and Apis spent several minutes in an intimate silence that drew warmth from the history that enveloped the room.
“Well, old man, come sit beside me.” Peer moved to the ornate chair resting beside the bed. “I feel fit and fine, do you know that?”
“I'd expect nothing less.”
“I'm sure I must look much better than you.”
“No, I'm still the better looking of us.” Peer and Apis smiled. “Had any trouble with those wily sphinxes lately?”
“Oh no, you're late. I whipped them into shape long ago.”
“That, I doubt very much.”
“Well,” Apis let out a hacking cough, “ you know one must...” He allowed his speech to drift away lazily as he rearranged his head on his pillow and blinked slowly several times. “You're going to be king, Peer,” Apis said.
“What do you mean? I already am,” Peer jested grandly.
“King of this land.”
“You have a terrible sense of humor,” Peer scoffed. “Do you know that?”
“Ah, false, my friend. I have a sparkling sense of humor when I choose to use it. What you mistook for an attempt at humor was, in fact, an attempt at sincerity.”
“You are an old man, and you are talking nonsense.”
“I am talking more sense than I ever have. I do not quite understand why all of this has been revealed to me at this time, but I can not hope to do more than I am capable of now.” Peer let out a wobbly laugh and shook his head. “Peer, listen to me now, even if you've never listened to me in our years together. Will you hear my last words to you?” Peer sighed.
“Listen to me with all the sincerity that you can muster.”
“As you wish.”
“I've named you my heir.”
“I'm no ruler.”
“Oh, you'll only be king in name. Of course Columba and our daughters after her will have true control of all affairs of the kingdom. You will heed them as you sit on the throne, though I have delegated certain responsibilities to you.”
“I will not sit on your throne.”
“I think you will if you listen to what I have to say. My wishes have already been carried out, Peer. You will remain on this earth as you are now, untouched by death, until you learn to accept the vulnerability that accompanies being oneself.”
“You are being absurd. You can't keep me from death.”
“No, but the magic of the sphinxes can hide you from death for a short while.”
“You cursed me?!” Peer rose shakily, his eyes flashing. “ I shouldn't be surprised. Not that you would do something so ridiculous.”
“Calm yourself. You are my oldest friend. I have not cursed you; I have given you an opportunity that man is seldom given.”
“You don't know what you're saying. I've been myself my whole life. I've done many impressive things in my time. I've left my mark.”
“Your deeds die with you, Peer. Only your self remains after you're gone.” Peer lowered himself back to the chair, shaking his head bitterly.
“That's backwards, old fool.”
“Who are you?”
“I am a traveler. I am a man of many trades.”
“That's what you are.”
“There's no difference.”
“Your collection of skin deep masks is much too extensive, my friend.”
“Exactly what are you accusing me of?”
“Forgive me, but I must exit my glass house to throw stones at yours. I, however, am dying and withered so I don't suppose it matters all that much. You have spent your life striving to achieve greatness through your deeds. You've been a diplomat and a poet and an astronomer, never satisfied with yourself. You feel that you must move mountains and rearrange the stars...that if you fail to do anything short of such deeds, if you fail to remain in the hearts and minds of entire generations through these deeds, your failure will cause your life to fade from history, will ensure that you will never have existed. You believe that when you die, the manifestations of your productivity will long outlive the man you were and the impressions of your self in others. The truth, Peer, is that your deeds, the palaces you have built, die twice as soon as your self does.”
“You are a doddering old invalid.”
“Why is it that your self must be suffocated by the masks you wear. You play the scholar one moment, the artist the next, the prophet after that, but you never play Peer. You never are Peer Gynt...never yourself.”
“My self, my true self is black as coal...not fit to be brought to the light.”
“You are so very foolish, Peer. We are very alike, friend. We share this fatal flaw and since I have, on my deathbed, discovered it in myself, I have been able to think of naught but the fact that you suffer as I have. You, overwhelmed by worldly possibilities, by time, and by human nature find that nothing can be certain. You have no way of divining if your self is fit for this world, for someone's love and so you hide it away. But death is certain. Death, the cessation of the corporeality one's self within one's own body, is certain, and therefore, the self is certain. My self, though it is leaking slowly from my body as I lay dying, is safe at rest in my wife and my daughters. Safely stowed away for when I can no longer carry it, which does mean that I am venerable, but not that I am alone or useless.” Apis paused and blinked as he struggled for breath. “Forgive my weak philosophy, friend. I've never really been much good with words.” Peer drew a deep breath in preparation to speak, but released the air in a short burst, rose from his chair and exited the room clumsily.
Peer approached the doors to the palace's library. His entrance was blocked by two guards who moved swiftly in front of the handles of the large, sharply curved double doors. “I must see the queen,” Peer announced, the urgency of his anger and bewilderment surprising the soldiers.
“No one is admitted when the queen is attending to matters of the kingdom...her own orders,” one guard droned flatly. Peer, in a passionate display of willpower, made one sweeping shove towards the guards, managing to knock them away from the entrance to the library. He threw a door open and stormed inside. Columba, upright and serene, sat at a desk nestled in between two bookshelves, penning decrees. Peer marched to the desk, with the guards staring after him in bewilderment, and slammed his fist against the tabletop, which elicited no response from Columba.
“Your husband...” Peer began, his words echoing and amplifying the betrayal and pain laced into his syllables. Columba continued her work. “Your husband has gone mad in his illness. He is spouting raving tales of-” he stopped when Columba laid down her work and raised her head slowly.
“I know what he has requested,” her voice was unassuming and gentle.
“This is lunacy. Please tell me that his blasted imagination has run away with him.”
“I am quite sure that everything he has told you is the truth.”
“This curse, then?”
“It is no curse. I will speak candidly. I opposed his plan in its beginning stages, but I see his logic and will honor his last wishes.”
“I will leave this place. I will leave this madhouse and you will never see my face again.”
“The entire palace guard has been informed to stop you should you attempt escape.”
“You would hold me here against my will?”
“You would defy your brother's dying wish?” Peer fell silent. Columba's eyes roved across his face, reading the minute impulses and mapping the thoughts that shot through his mind.
“He's always had his identity lain out for him. He's had no variables.” Peer's voice cracked and wavered and his head fell forward heavily. “I can't believe that he understands what he's suggesting. And I don't understand what he wants from me, what his mad plan could possible achieve.”
“Forgive me, but I do believe that you are meant to find the answers to your questions for yourself.”
“I'm to remain here, then? Indefinitely?”
“Posing on the throne like a grinning idiot and mucking up the smooth operations of the real leaders of the kingdom?”
“Peer...” Columba closed her eyes and smiled lightly.
“May I ask -”
“No. No more questions. I hope you listened well to what Apis told you.”