The crows had brought Simon to the hill. He left his horse at the bottom and climbed up its steep face. He settled into an earthen cavity behind the ruins of a stone bunker. He peered through an opening. There were two duelers, one dressed in white, the other black, as well as their seconds, and a judge. The pistols were raised. The signal was given and a loud crack rang out. The crows jumped and cawed on the moss-covered stones above Simon. The duelers stood — unwounded — a lead tangle somersaulted down a mountain of the same, mounded in between them. Simon dismissed the obvious; he was unable to believe the improbable, a draw. And, the judge, Beth’s father?
The two-dimensional men on the hill thickened into a rounded quintet, working as one machine, pulleys and levers strung together by a shared principle, connected by a unifying theory: to perform a metaphor. Still, the task lay undefined, and its purpose cloaked in costume and formality. Conjoined twins, fused by the principle of balance, the duelers were at the heart of the mystery. Or was the father: the judge to blame? They stood admirably, unaffected by mortal existence, bored by the human echo in the hollow of time.
None of this explained why her father was there. It was a bad omen. This place was a place of fear, a trial. The men exchanged the guns for reloading. Simon watched the duelers. They moved the same, breathed the same; there was nothing distinguishable between them besides their appearance. Appearance had become arbitrary; death proven beatable. He knew it. What was left? Her father looked the same, but a wax copy, a facsimile of his former self. Something was wrong, Simon had gotten things wrong. He wasn’t dead, this wasn’t about dimensions; it was about something deeper. He was a part of it, concrete like the judge, not a symbol — not a diamond thought — but a personal shackle, unwanted, not a part of the scheme, but solid and unforgettable. This place wasn’t a world, but a kingdom of memory.
Simon changed. The kingdom dissolved, the men evaporated, there was only the boy. He blinked, Simon saw himself, but it wasn’t him. The boy was perfect like the cable to a gondola. His innocence transcended all violence, all war. There was no longer a war, hadn’t been for years, not in the original sense. Yet, there was a fight still taking place. He was a participant, a performer trying to complete the saga. How long had he been on the run? He didn’t know. Where was he going? Did it matter? It would find him when the time was right. He had no control. The lack there of was a relief somehow.
Simon stood up in the vacuum to engage with the boy, but the hill returned, the men stood at attention. The Duel — perpetual — returned to dictate the sun’s decent. This is how the tides turn, by opposite twins. The boy was gone.
Simon walked around the bunker, exposed himself to the machine. The duelers did not waver. Jeffers, Michael, and the judge turned their heads. Their eyes scanned, they twisted their lips with disapproval.
“Young man,” Said the judge, “you are underdressed.”
“Painfully.” Michael whispered.
“Magnificent!” Jeffers trembled.
“Hiding?” The judge repeated.
“From the Capitol.”
“Which Capital?” Michael asked.
“The Capitol’s scouts.”
(They didn’t understand.)
“The Capital of what?” The judge asked.
The judged looked down, resisted a thought, looked up, unaffected.
“For whom?” Michael grinned.
“Magnificent!” Jeffers gasped.
“The Capitol is the government we are at war with.” Simon said.
The judge closed his eyes to rub out his impatience.
“As I was saying; you are dreadfully underdressed. We are in the middle of important business.”
“Yes, yes, important business, very important business.” Jeffers said.
He fixed his spectacles.
“What kind of business?”
“Important business” The judge fired back.
“Truly, of the utmost!” Jeffers agreed.
“A complete waste of time.” Michael mumbled.
“Remember Michael what happened the last time.” The judge stabbed.
Michael tugged the kerchief tied tight around his neck that covered a deep scar.
“There is a score to settle between the two gentlemen.” The judge pointed to the duelers. “All debts must be settled, all honor must be restored.”
“Debts are paid and honor restored, quite right, debts and honor, balance is in order.” Jeffers stuttered.
“Who offended who?”
Silence washed over them. Stuck inside of their own minds, Simon waited for them to resurface. They attempted to rescue any information that could reveal how the duel started. No answers. Jeffers broke the silence.
“We are here you see, well, here you see, because we must participate. Yes, participate. We must participate because we always have, all of us. Yes, but some do actively, yes like you, actively participate in this exchange.”
“Shut up you fool!” Michael said. “He hasn’t any idea what you are talking about.”
Simon received no answer. They looked at him, pitifully, and confused; all they knew was the duel, no particulars. They feared the forests, the gorges, and the desert most. All they knew was the hill. They knew nothing of the war, of Simon’s misfortunes, or of the witches. They had no answers. They were pulleys and gears; too busy performing from the inside to recognize forms from the outside. Aristotle was a myth.
“It’s time.” The judge said.
He looked sad. Long ago he had done something wrong; it ate at him like a wound at his side.
Jeffers and Michael returned to their places beside the judge whom assumed his position at the table. Simon stood behind Jeffers and the judge and faced the duel. Aristotle returned and stood on the far end of the hill, between the two duelers. His green eyes cut the somber grey that had settled over the meadow. A cold breeze swooped down — the boy seemed to bend with the wind like a reflection.
“Who is the boy?” Simon asked. “Do you see him on the far edge?”
“Gentlemen raise your weapons!” The judge cried.
The duelers raised their weapons.
“Gentlemen, proceed on my signal.”
The judge lifted his arm in the air. Two explosions burst, Simon flinched. The two pieces of lead combined and fell. Simon eye’s fell with them. He looked up to the boy. Aristotle: emotionless. Simon continued to stare. Smoke tethered between them. Aristotle mouthed words as the judge spoke.
“Gentlemen, due to the results of this last exchange, have the honor of either the man wearing white or the man wearing black been satisfied?”
The boy mimicked the judge’s address.
The Second of each shooter went to retrieve their master’s weapon while the boy smiled at Simon. He slipped from the other side of the hill and was gone.
Simon stood stripped. The games were useless. He had played long enough. They had nothing to do with him; he had nothing to do with himself. Identity was the last prank. Jeffers had called him active, he had realized that he was more so concrete, like the judge, but the spectrum of his existence transparent. There had never been meaning for him. The cabin, Beth’s fortress, where had it gone? Everything was malleable. All contradictions.
“Where is the cabin?”
“You always have been my boy!” The Judge said, wet eyed. “I told those two buffoons the weather was going to turn. Like clockwork the clouds roll in. I tell you, young man, if there is sun in the morning, it is sure not to last. Awe well, that is just the way it is, just words from a traitor.”
In his mind Simon recalled the camp, the sewers, the rebellion. He saw the knight’s tattoo and the crows. He saw bombs, freedom: the totality of terror. He saw a witch and a trunk. He saw the Aristocrat. That sick twisted man without a jaw.
“Why am I here? Why are we here? What is the point to any of this?” He shouted.
“Don’t raise your voice at me.” The judge responded.
Jeffers peered through the chamber of his master’s revolver and mumbled to himself.
“Yes yes, why, the most beautiful word to flower from opposition… Opposition is the giver and the taker, the machine of machines, indeed the mover of all things. …Scales and balance, yes, scales and balance. Where was I? Why? Yes, debt and honor restored and enemies befriend enemies. Suppression begets suppression until the bridge breaks, until the bridge breaks.”
Jeffers slipped the bullet into the chamber and locked the carousel into place. His intelligence flickered from his beady eyes and ripened Simon’s. Michael reloaded, looked up, but lost his will to speak. They passed the guns back to their masters. The judge looked up to the sky, finding solace where the silver clouds overlapped, an embrace that obscured a blue sky he knew was underneath. The seconds took their places. The judge lowered his head and stood prouder than usual.
“Tell her that I’ve always loved her.” He said, without looking at Simon.
Simon felt worry.
“Gentlemen raise your weapons!”
Both duelers raised their weapons.
“Gentlemen, proceed on my signal.”
He held onto his lapels, smiled, pinched the brim of his hat, tipped it, and bowed to Simon.
The moment sat sticky, the breeze continued to blow, the judge took a second to wipe the sweat as it slipped from the canal between his mustaches. Simon turned his head; the boy was back, standing in the same place as before. Aristotle completed the circuit — Simon wanted to leave. It was time.
The judge threw up his arm and two bursts of blue flung themselves from each pistol. Simon closed his eyes. In the darkness he heard a buzz approach, like a propeller, coming right for him. He thought he would never get the chance to open his eyes again. But, the propeller never severed. He opened his eyes. The boy had both hands clasped over his mouth in horror (this wouldn’t be the last time, Simon knew). Simon looked down beside him, a bloody hole through the Judge’s neck. He wheezed and wheezed. Then silence. The breeze caught his hat and it tumbled down the hill. Jeffers and Michael walked up to their masters —both jealous — to retrieve the pistols. Unaffected with the gruesome death of the judge.
Simon stared into the judge’s lazy green eyes and watched the silver clouds from above reflect and move across them. It was like looking down from the heavens, through the clouds, and onto the grassy hill. The dual perspective was not without injury. Simon shook, his bones ached. His heart tore. He looked at the judge’s fading lips, curled into a half smile, and himself smiled by terror to complete it. Aristotle had disappeared again. The round was complete.