After The Armor

I promised a long-overdue real-life TB-length post, people.  This is it.  So go hit the bathroom and top off your drink.

I was talking to somebody smarter than me last week, someone who may or may not have been (but okay was) being paid to listen to me talk and ask me questions.  Though there wasn’t a couch involved.  What a ripoff.  We were talking about a bunch of things, really, and we came around to discussing this post of mine:  Bawang Xie Jia.  It’s been almost three years and nobody’s guessed, so I’ll explain:  The title is a reference to a piece of classical Chinese music.  I’ve seen the title translated a few times, but the one I’m most familiar with is the one I used for the post, and that is “The tyrant removes his armor.”

The post is an expression of my wish to remove the armor that I have hidden myself inside for ages.  As I wrote it, I felt as though I was actually doing so.  What I was admitting to this very nice professional listener is that, despite my earnest wishes (and what I genuinely feel was one of the best pieces of writing of my entire life), I was obviously unsuccessful.

She said, “So you removed the armor.  What happened then?”

I looked at her.  “I don’t know,” I said, “honestly I took the armor off and that’s where the story ended.  I didn’t give much thought to anything else.”

She said, “The knight sets his armor aside.  What does he do then?  What’s the next part of the story?”

I sat there, dumbfounded.  I had no idea.  I’d never thought about how life continues without it.  Just getting rid of it was enough at the time in my mind.  (Never mind that I obviously didn’t do so.)

Finally she said, “I think you should finish the story.  Write it out.  That’s your homework assignment.”

“I think you’re right.  I really do need to do this.  I will.”

“I challenge you to do it.  In fact, if the old one is out there on your blog, why not put the continuation there as well?  See what your friends have to say about it.”

So I did, and I am.

This is what I wrote, sitting alone on a limestone outcropping fifteen feet above a wooded trail yesterday…

***

The warrior stands and regards his discarded armor.  Rent, pitted, rank with the filth of thirty years of habitation.  Hated and feared and needed – now lying upon the earth.

A soft, seductive voice, laced through and through with evil, whispers in his mind.  “You’re not yet done with battle, fool.  You need it still.  Take it up.  Only a fool or a madman faces life naked.”

The masked helmet grins hideously back at him.  It takes no great leap of imagination to envision the voice coming from the empty eyes behind that leering, jeering face.

Even were the voice correct, he knows that this armor is useless to him.  Never a good fit; long ago outgrown; torn and scarred through years of conflict.  And he knows better than anyone how many scars upon the armor were inflicted from within its confines rather than from without.

It’s to be a new suit of armor, then, or none at all.  He feels the scars on his body, knotted ropes crisscrossing him like bindings.  Some were nearly mortal wounds.  All obtained in spite of the armor.  The wind blows through his long, flowing hair, bringing the loamy smell of damp earth and the crisp scent of falling leaves.  Not the odor of damp metal or lacquered wood permeated with sweat and blood and fear.  He’s tried to cast aside the armor before.  Unsuccessfully.  His confidence foundered and he took it up again, binding and strapping himself inside his private prison, his walking penance.

The river is nearby.

Overcoming his revulsion to touching it again with the force of momentary resolve, he seizes the armor into his arms.  It feels strangely warm against his bare skin.  He walks to the water’s edge, wades out until the current pulls his flowing leggings away from his knees.  Piece by piece, he consigns the armor to the river.  He imagines it sinking, tumbling along as the current pulls it downstream until it finally comes to rest on the bottom, where the silt will bury it for a thousand years as it crumbles to dust.

The mask is last.  He looks hard into its hollow grin before heaving it into the air with all his strength.  In one motion he draws his blade and meets the mask midair, cleaving it in twain.  It falls into the river, riven in half, and slowly sinks out of sight into the murky water.

He wades back to the shore and cleans the water from his sword.  He holds it aloft before him:  the sword of his father, his father’s father, and those before him.  Humble warriors, but proud.  Proud to fight, proud to serve, proud to sacrifice and die.  This last most of all.  It was his father and father’s father who taught him to wear the armor.

He studies his eyes in the blade, staring back at him, regarding him, wavy with the temper of the steel.  Many would now say that, having cast off the armor, he had no right to the sword.  That casting aside the one had tainted the bright steel of the other; that he was unworthy to hold it or pass it to his own son.  That seppuku was demanded.  That he complete the ritual and close the circle by sheathing the blade in his flesh, there by the riverside.

The evil voice in his head is one of those who says these things.

He stares at the edge for what feels like hours before slowly and reverently sheathing it.  He prays briefly to his father and grandfather.  For forgiveness and understanding.  The blade will live on, will be passed to his son.  But he will teach his son a new way to carry and wield it.  To fight without armor and yet with honor – to fight with one’s whole heart and soul without fear of pain or loss or death.  To give oneself over to the edge of life.  In all things.

It is dark when he returns home.  The hearth is empty but he kindles a new fire there.  He reverently removes his father’s sword and places it in a position of honor above the mantle.  While it will remain there, ready for use, his long years of living solely by the sword and for the sword are over.  Should he need it, then his skill with the blade, forged and honed in years of battle, can and will protect him where armor could never have sufficed.

He stands, now, over the sleeping form of his son, and lays a hand upon his back, feeling the soft motion of his breath, and says another prayer.   That his son might learn from his mistakes, and grow to be a better and stronger man than his fathers before him.

Tomorrow he will put his callused hand to a plowshare; he will grasp the hammer rather than sword’s-hilt.  He will learn to grow and build rather than rend and destroy.  It will be difficult – it will be reversing the habit of a lifetime.  He will endure months and perhaps years of hardship and failure as he learns to do it correctly.  But having removed himself from the battlefield of his mind, he can see that it is now possible to make mistakes and yet survive – to make mistakes and thrive – to make mistakes, and yet prevail in the end.

He rests his head, thinking for the first time not of the fear or exultation of the battlefield, but of the small joy of a green plant pushing through the soil.

Tomorrow will bring a new life.

He closes his eyes, and dreams of rain upon his terraced fields, and his son leaning upon a plow by his side.  In his dream, both men are laughing.

Outside his dream…he smiles.

***

So.  To my mind at least, that’s the rest of the story.  Some of it I’d been flitting around in my brain ever since she said something; some of it only came out as I was writing yesterday; one particular but important line (“The evil voice is one of these”) only came out while I was typing it in just now.

I’m not 100% sure that I’ve moved far enough along in the story – surely there has to be more left to go, and I spent a lot of this just finishing the desecration of the suit of armor – but it does feel like there was a little “now what” tied up here.  I’ll see what she has to say when I see her again this week.

Clearly nobody can be completely without armor in every situation, but when is it okay?  Is it ever okay to hide behind it, if you know you’re susceptible to locking yourself away, any more than it’s okay for an alcoholic to have one little beer with the boys?  How does one really walk away from it?

In the meantime, if anyone has something to say, please do, in answer to these questions or anything else.  I feel like it’s someplace where I have a whole lot to learn, and a real need to learn it.

Thanks for listening.

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8 Responses

  1. I’m speechless. What a tale. Thank you for sharing it.

    Wow. Next to rendering ME speechless…and maybe Bad Pants…that is about the most serious praise possible!

  2. i started *bawling* while i was reading this. i have no idea who you are or what your real name is, but you’re a hero in my eyes. it’s possible to be a hero in your own life i think. most people don’t have that kind of courage.

    writing that reminded me of one of my favorite quotes:.

    “I read and walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching endlessly for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that person could be me.” – Anna Quindlen

    Wow. Nice quote.

    I admit, I sure as hell don’t feel very heroic nowadays. Quite the opposite most of the time. But at the same time I have to say I feel like I’m slowly moving in the right direction, at least…

    As for the crying…uh, on the one hand, “sorry,” and on the other, “whoa, that’s kinda cool!”

  3. I sit in awe. Truly.

    What an excellent exercise, and exorcism. The story is never over, the growth never ceases, but perhaps where before you’d pick up the metal armor, next time maybe you’ll reach for the chainmail. Then the leather hauberk, until finally you’ll be able to engage in necessary battle (only necessary, not sought after) nekkid as a Pict.

    That last line made me snicker.

    Thank you, ma’am. Gratefully.

  4. A few day’s ago you paid a compliment to something I wrote, and it was incredibly meaningful to me…and this is exactly why.

    One of the best things I have ever read. Not one of the best blogs, or best short stories, or best “with qualifier” things…one of the best things I have ever read.

    I will come back later and try to process more than what I took away the first time around. As a man, and as a father, there is a lot here to try and take away.

    I meant it. That one post of yours still blows me away. (And I WILL catch up on your new series, sometime, because it intrigues the HELL out of me.)

    And for that, this is why I hold YOUR praise in such high regard as well. Thank you, my friend.

    • When you get to “Line 9″…keep in mind that we apparently wrote them at about the same time.

      Which gives me shivers.

      Whoa. Okay, I haven’t touched it and I’m already there.

  5. Fantastic work, TB.

    Love the heck outta you. 😉

    Thanks and love ya back, lady.

  6. This is never over. When you have no battles left to fight, you have someone else to prepare for battle. Maybe his battle can be a little shorter and a little less “bloody” than those who came before him.

    Battles are so much easier when you have a battle buddy.

    You know what, man, you’re absolutely right.

    I think sometimes I worry about making sure he’s prepared than I do about myself – but how well can you really prepare those that come after you? You do what you can but at some point they have to face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on their own…

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