This story is by Joseph Couper and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
I’ll never know what was special about that night, what call had borne the gift or curse of a bright escape that I would yet come to fear.
Yet in a night made wan with trivialities, something had already felt out of place before I even lay my head upon the pillow. A gentle but feverish hum whispered the soft lullaby of its coming.
That night I dreamed like I had never dreamed before. I floated alone in a field of white with only my awareness as companion. Freed from sight I felt the magic of the universe such as I had last known as a child, and that divine wonderment that we so quickly confuse for enlightenment. My senses awakened in glorious intensity, as vulnerable and shimmering as the virgin skin of a healed wound. For eight extraordinary hours the true nature of the world broke upon me like a wave crashing in the shallows, and in owning its secret I became its master.
I awoke still lingering in revelation, my whole being exposed like first love to a desperate need for more. Fearing it was just some beatified wet dream that had passed with the dawn, I spent the day fitfully anticipating what would follow.
My life thus far had passed without any seeming claim to or need of transcendence; if it was unexceptional some might call it ideal. Free of ennui or want, undistinguished by blemish or excess, it quietly reveled in that steady comfort that releases us from expectation. But now I had touched some divinity— or had been touched by it— and needed to feel its blessing again.
With the setting sun I elevated the simple process of going to bed to a sacrament. I drew the curtains reverently, turned my covers with the tenderness of a caress, and wore my nakedness like vestment. After readying myself I surrendered my head and my consciousness upon this newfound altar and was transported.
A world of remarkable complexity was laid before me; complete and self-possessed but shivering in my presence as if it had been awaiting only me before springing to life. For weeks I explored its limits, transforming first myself and then my new domain with increasing force of will. I built vast plains and bottomless seas, cities replete with life formed from experience and imagination, and heavens within heavens. Freed of consequence I went from being Adam to the God that had created him.
Such centrality was intoxicating and I was consumed in its power. Trees and buildings bent toward me as if I sat in the eye of a frozen hurricane, water changed its course to be at my heels, clouds materialised and dispersed with a thought, and the cosmos realigned at my whim. I was Xerxes among the Persians, Augustus crossing the Elysian Plain.
Far from diminishing the devotion with which I approached my waking life, I found the two systems were in constant dialog. I was the critical mass at their center which maintained a mutual orbit. During my days my conversation sparkled, my step lightened, answers came easily and people surrounded me. I fucked with new-found passion and collapsed in a mist of ecstasy when finished. At night I discovered any revisions I had conceived had been fulfilled and details captured from my experience already realized.
I confronted anything that could trouble my sleep with desperate jealousy, avoiding all stimulants and refusing to drink so much as a beer after lunch. My coffee maker and television gathered dust in the deep corner of a cabinet. Late nights out with friends disappeared in favor of a glass of mineral water left accumulating condensation on the bar. Such things were merely a plague sent to steal my state of grace.
I was at the peak of my powers, my realm almost complete, when I realized that I had yet to see my new self in the dream state. I wondered what majesty would the face of God reveal? I searched out every mirror, window, and still pool but to my disappointment they yielded only the same soulless shadow. I filled every reflection there was with that wonderful and menacing chimera and when my plea was still refused I summoned more. What mischief could deny me this simple wish in a world of my making?
That’s when the first sour notes of disquiet reached me with the subtlety of a distant scent on the wind. In all my power I felt as if I had been gifted someone else’s fate, an ill-fitting disguise that I wore with increasing disdain. What was divinity without self? It was unthinkable that God didn’t know his own image, so in lacking it I could not be God. A limited omniscience called into question everything I had assumed about what was happening to me and brought to light the thinness of the reality I had constructed.
I was fascinated by the ease with which my discomfort settled upon me like a sheen of sunburnt skin not quite ready to slough. It’s itch only made me more determined to see my image clearly and discover what truth lay behind the mystery. It was impossible that the first thing that I had been unable to control in a cosmos of unlimited power was myself. I hurt with the knowing of it.
My dream began to distort to match my discomfort. People seemed to leer rather than adore and the sunset dimmed at my approach. Slowly I eradicated anything that could remind me of my inadequacy until I was alone in a nightmare of my making.
With only myself left to bear the brunt of this infatuation, I sought my image with renewed intent. Convinced that I just needed to find the perfect medium, I filled the world with reflective surfaces of impossible clarity until there was nothing that wasn’t dedicated to the purpose. Still unable to achieve my goal I collapsed, naked and broken in a dreamscape of mirrors. I had been willing to shape a cosmos without consequence but shattered when it revealed the shallow topography of my own soul. And a God wept to find himself so weak.
Unable to wake, my urge unsated, I peered through clouded eyes to the farthest stretch of my vision and started, disbelieving. An object hovered alone, impossibly distant in the endless corridor conceived by my madness. In an endless space laid bare to my obsession it’s dissonance filled me with fascination and dread. No more than a speck in the penumbra, I nonetheless knew what it would be before I rose to seek it out.
With omniscient eyes I saw that same shadowy reflection in whose multiplicity I had hoped to find clarity peering from every surface. Where once they had felt like companions on a common quest, they now seemed witnesses to my crippled hubris. A silent army, they held their breath along with their judgement as my feet drifted off the ground. I hovered in communion with the distant object, chest slightly forward as if being pulled along by my core.
Recovering some dignity, I tried to cover the span in the blink of my will (as I had so many times before), but was prevented from doing so. Some hidden intelligence wanted to make clear that even amidst a world of my own construction this one entity was beyond all control. I was allowed to approach only at its whim.
Finally I was close enough to see it clearly. It was a mirror, as I knew it would be, but gargantuan: ten stories tall and almost the full width of the corridor. A broad frame decorated with excessively ornate moldings ran around its edge. In large letters across the top, made vivid with supernatural clarity, was written “Homo, Fuge!”
I approached tentatively and began to circle it, careful to avoid the glimpse for which I had so recently yearned. From the giant scale and free-floating position to its rococo appearance, the mirror radiated singularity in a desert of sameness. Its dark back was dead and wooden, a vacuum in counterpoint to the brilliance of its glowing façade.
As I completed my orbit I paused in front of the last of the frame, drawing strength from that moment of peace before the plunge. Exhaling, I averted my gaze and slowly floated to the center of the mirror before staring deeply into that which that until this moment had been my sole obsession.
The face that returned my stare was instantly recognizable as my own, but constantly shifting as if made up of a million facets each reflecting those specters which surrounded me. It was strangely terrifying: a mosaic of all possible truths given form in my image.
We stared at one another for what seemed like an eternity— I too absorbed to speak and my alter ego apparently waiting, although for what I didn’t know. As I watched my own face transform with the shades of all consciousness I realized that if it had seemed that if this dreamworld had been the clay and I its demiurge, it was in fact I who had been reshaped beyond all resemblance.
At the instant of that recognition my counterpart in the mirror spoke.
“Among those leaps and degradations that write the history of each era, there are myriad lives that bind it together. They are the water upon which anomaly ripples. It is in their midst that genius, that spirit of a time, is truly found: not in the one that exceeds the potential of a people, but in the cumulative will that drives them. As the anima of those ages, free to bless and curse the destiny of humankind by their example, we must touch the mundane as much as the spectacular.”
“In the search for your true self, you have found not only that visage which you sought but also that of the age in which you live. Look upon the vibrant world which you have reduced to a realm of mirrors and decide if you would use your newfound powers to return it to splendor, or if you will free yourself of all virtue and expectation and fade.”
It pointed to the inscription above, as if in benediction.
“There was once another man who was offered a glimpse of himself freed of illusion and touched by the spirit of his time as you have now been. Confronted with his own divinity he was asked the same question that I now put to you.”
“Are you ready to touch the mystery of your potential and accept the mantle it bears? As you have discovered, success as much as peril offers the danger of grievous descent. In the access to our addictions, wants, and demons we assail a battlement as absolute as any void.”
“If you would be but a man, follow the advice above and flee. But if you would be reborn a genius then pass the threshold of this mirror and join us here.”
Finally comprehending the meaning of my journey and the burden it bore, I froze. Confronted with such omnipotence, I made the only choice I could.
I awoke to find the sun streaming through the window, walked whistling and naked to my kitchen and smiled to myself as I cleared the dust from the coffee pot.
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