by David Thomas
"Today is the day you become a man, my son."
"I'm ready, Father. Today, I'll enter the halls of the menfolk."
"Indeed. However, the way towards manhood is filled with peril. Remember that you must climb that lofty tree to bask in the sun's rays."
"How hard is the climb, Father?"
"It's an arduous one, my son, but remember that you must keep your eyes closed. No matter what you hear, never open your eyes, never be swayed from the path."
"What happens if I open my eyes, Father?"
The face of the boy's father went from calm to terrified. He quickly grabbed his son by the shoulders, his grip so tight that the boy winced.
"Never open your eyes, my son. Oh, heroes below! Don't rend my heart with such questions," the father released his son and composed himself somewhat. His voice had a shaky sense of calm when he spoke again. "Many have been spirited-away. They open their eyes and... poof...they're gone."
"What happened to them?"
"No one knows. When I stood upon that stump, I heard," the boy's father hesitated, his forehead drenched in sweat, and his expression fearful. He stared at his hands, which shook violently. "I heard voices, a great number of voices. Some I didn't know, but-but others were familiar."
The father lifted his head to regard his son. He was sweating more profusely now, and his eyes were wide and wild.
"Your grandfather spoke to me," the father said after a long silence.
"That's good!" the boy exclaimed, trying to lighten the mood.
His father only stared at him.
"My son," the father began, "your grandfather died when I was very young. I hardly even recognized his voice before the Trials, but when I heard it upon that stump, there was no doubt that that voice belonged to my father."
The boy swallowed but managed to maintain a sense of calm.
They passed the next several hours in complete silence and walked side by side under the grey, overcast sky. The way before them was flanked on both sides by massive, black trees bearing no leaves, and the sounds of nature were strangely absent. The queer silence had the boy's eyes darting while his heart thudded against his chest. He said nothing, but the urge to retreat, to flee back to his home, ensnared him. The words of his mother and young sisters rang in his ears, and he desperately wanted to return to them. The boy turned to his father, who scanned their surroundings with narrowed eyes, and the boy's unease further increased.
Eventually, they came to a clearing amongst the trees where a stump lay. Horror overcame the boy when he saw the sea of white bones that surrounded the stump, and his body refused to continue. He felt as though a thousand eyes gazed upon him, and the boy watched his father walk toward the stump and stand beside it. The bones didn't crack while his father moved, and this made the boy narrow his eyes quizically.
"Shall we head back, my son, or will you cross the threshold!?" the boy's father shouted. "Do not be seized by fright, but remember what I've told you: keep your eyes shut. Warriors from our unending lineage have stood where you are standing. I have stood where you are standing, and I, too, was enthralled by fear. However, you must disregard your misgivings, for our forefathers' courage burns within you. If you have no faith in yourself, then have faith in me who has faith in you. I wouldn't put an obstacle before you that you couldn't overcome."
Against his instincts, the boy approached the stump and stopped before his father. His father gestured towards the stump, and the boy sat thereupon, eyeing his father.
"I will not fail you, Father," the boy said, trying his best to restrain his trembling.
His father smiled, and he tenderly embraced his son.
"My son," the boy's father said, his face taking on the stoic air that the boy was used to seeing. "The time for weakness has passed. From today onward, weakness is the anathema, fear is for the weak, and doubt is for the ill-disciplined. These great perils must be bled from your body, and a visage like my own must embrace you. This is the trial of all men. I must leave you now, but if your will begins to crack, recite The Prayer of Strength."
The father closed his son's eyes, seeing the worry that lay within them.
The boy slowly felt his father's presence fade and heard his father's footsteps steadily disappear. The wind blew softly, but it quickly grew into a tempest. The boy felt the power of this sudden gale, and the warmth in his limbs swiftly fled. He shivered uncontrollably, and the sound of his chattering teeth filled the air.
"Haha! Namprata, I knew you would survive this trial!" Namprata's father said boisterously.
The boy's shivering temporarily stopped, and he opened his mouth to answer his father, but the words died in his mouth. Namprata began to shake violently, and his heart raced at an uncontrollable pace.
F-father never calls me b-by my name...
Terror took hold of Namprata's core, and his cold-borne shivering was replaced by fear-borne tremors. The urge to open his eyes was overwhelming, but Namprata squeezed them shut and held them there tightly.
"Come, Namprata. Let's go home and celebrate your victory. Now, open your eyes..."
The voice posing as Namprata's father was soothing, reassuring, and Namprata clenched his fists to resist the urge to see his father.
"I don't fear you," the boy replied, projecting a facade of strength. "I will keep my eyes shut."
"But I am your father, Namprata," the voice replied woundedly. "You need not be afraid, for I have scoured the area. This trial is over; you are a man now. Come, open your eyes..."
A warm hand touched Namprata, and the boy froze.
H-how can this be? My father has a scar going across both palms, a scar he received when he was younger, but this hand it...That's impossible! This thing couldn't have known about my father's scar unless...
"Namprata! Namprata!" came the voice of the boy's mother. "Namprata, stop this foolishness and come home this instant. Didn't your father already tell you that you passed this trial? Come, open your eyes so we can go home."
Hearing his mother, Namprata immediately eased the tension on his eyes but suddenly stopped.
Mother...Wait...my mother was weeping when I left, and only the men know of this location. How did she discover this place? No...that is not my mother...
"Namprata! Namprata!" the voice of his mother wailed.
Rustling quietly came from behind Namprata, and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He wanted to turn around, to see what strange thing slowly crept up on him like a thief in the night. The voice of his mother continued to shout and rave while his father's voice tried to desperately calm her. However, a low animalistic growl came into being right next to Namprata's right ear, and the distinctive roar of a lion erupted from that direction.
Namprata's mother and father shrieked, and he shot up frightfully. The cries of his parents filled his ears, their voices desperate and gruesome. The sound of flesh tearing became audible, and it took all of Namprata's will to keep him from opening his eyes. Tears streamed down his cheeks, and he tried to call out to his parents, but only a stream of garbled syllables left his mouth. Eventually, only the sound of the feasting lion remained.
"Mother? Father?" Namprata whimpered meekly.
The feasting stopped, and Namprata's heart dropped. Slowly, step by step, the footfalls of the lion approached him.
Run! Run, you fool! Run!
Terrified and not knowing what to do, Namprata began to chant the Prayer of Strength.
"From the earth, I am gathered. Through the forge, I am shaped. With the hammer, I am perfected. As I have iron within, so too must I have iron without. From the earth," the steps of the lion were within arms reach. "I am gathered. Through the forge, I am," the lion stopped, and Namprata felt the heat of its breath upon his face. He paused momentarily, trying to find his courage.
Before he could continue, Namprata felt the canines of the lion ease across his neck. His tears fell even faster, but he didn't move a muscle.
"Hey, get away from him!" came a voice from Namprata's right.
Namprata felt the jaws retreat and heard the lion readjust itself. A gust of wind blew across his face, and the lion groaned painfully. Several more gusts flew past his face, and the lion fell silent. Someone rapidly approached him, their panting very laborious.
"Heroes below! What are you doing out here, boy," said the voice of an old woman.
Thinking this voice was an illusion too, Namprata said nothing.
"O heroes, I did not arrive in time to save this youngster from the clutches of death. Why? O Rezifal, hero of fate, why do men subject themselves to such injustice? They pursue manhood and think that stoicism is the key. Numb yourself, they command! Separate yourself from sensation and temptation, but for what!? Why do they crave hardship when the world is full of it? Why subject your sons to travails that will dull their minds as humans? What? Do they believe that women desire such men, a man who can't enjoy a warm embrace, a man unable to smile, a man made rigid like iron? With time, iron rusts in the open air no matter how one cares for it. Eventually, it will turn red, begin flaking, and break. Thus is the fate of such men. Can't they see that!? Are they blind, or do they choose to close their eyes? Dear boy, forgive my tardiness. Had I come earlier, I could have rescued you from the jaws of death and filled your head with the truth."
A warm hand touched Namprata, but he did not stir. Instead, he considered the old woman's words. Namprata didn't understand the entirety of this speech, but certain elements swirled about inside his skull. Before these elements settled, another voice suddenly filled his ears.
"You must choose, Namprata," the voice of an old man said calmly.
Namprata bunched his eyebrows but didn't speak.
"I know you can hear me, Namprata. You're sitting on that stump, thinking that I'm merely an illusion, but you have not solved the riddle yet. You could sit there for two days, three, a month, a year; it doesn't matter. In the end, you wouldn't be any closer to your goal. Heroes below! How could you be when your eyes are closed, and you ignore everything around you! Close your eyes - that's what your father said - but does he know why you keep them closed? He does not, else he would have opened his own," Namprata heard the old man approach him. He groaned gently as he sat beside Namprata and spoke. "If you were born in utter darkness and your mother and father, as well as all of your other family members, said that that darkness was natural, you wouldn't question it. You'd be a fish in water, never cognizant of the medium with which you travel. However, one day you manage to see something besides darkness and discover that you'd been blindfolded the entire time. You examine the world in all its shapes and colors, and the truth overwhelms you. 'How did I not discover this before? How many years have I spent in darkness when I could have been in the sun's rays?' Why are your eyes closed? What do they not want you to see? That is the riddle. Now...open...your...eyes..."
As the old man spoke, Namprata thought about his words and the words of the old woman.
What would happen if I open my eyes? Would I die? There are bones around me after all, but when my father walked over here, I didn't hear him crush any of them. Then, they were an illusion, a manifestation of my fear, a manifestation of all fear. If this is true, what do I have to fear?
You will fail your father. If you open your eyes, you will fall from the path he has set before you.
That's just it, though. My father put me on this path, and now I must walk upon it? A man cannot walk the path of another - my father said that himself. So, why would I continue down my father's road when I have to find my own...
Namprata, after shedding his hesitation, wiped his face and opened his eyes.