The Hangman's Daughter

“You know what I done?"

A lantern flings shadows carelessly around the modest jailhouse. Wood planks, rough hewn. Dark bars stained bright by guilty palms.

In the next cell, a girl raises her head from the cot where she wasn’t sleeping. Her door yawns, she doesn’t, sits up.

“Killed someone,” she answers. 

“A girl,” he adds, pained, bodily. He shifts the kerchief at his neck, scowls, pulls it free, reveals raw flesh. “Not yet ten. ‘Bout your age.”

She stares, the color of her eyes impossible to tell in the dimness. Rain batters the roof, drips into deep puddles outside where someone hammers brutally.

“You drowned her dead.”

“Ought to been watchin’ her,” he croaks dryly, tests his wound, “keepin’ her safe. Just held her under.” 

A booted bailiff dozes near the window, hat tilted over his eyes.

“You hated her?”

“She was my sister,” he counters.

“You’re rotten then.”

“That one, rebuildin’ my gallows, he means to murder me. He rotten?”

“No,” she leans forward so as not to wake the bailiff. “He’s got to kill you. It won’t please him.”

“Sure about that?” He clears his throat, a constricted rasp. “Would you kill me?”

She recoils. “No.”

He shushes her, waves her closer. She starts to obey, halts, still in shadow. 

“Ever kill a fly?” he asks.

“That’s different.”

“What if it wasn’t?”

“You killed a girl like she was a fly? You’re evil.”

His voice lowers, each word at a cost. She unconsciously steps closer to hear. “It would be, if a thing felt wrong, you did it anyhow. But I had to. I was,” he hunts out the word, “compelled. You know what that means yet?” She shakes her head. “You will.” 

He draws a breath, sharp as a knife, eyes welling in agony, fixing on the bucket beside the bailiff, handle of a drinking ladle stabbing out of it. She follows his gaze, doesn’t hesitate, pads her bare feet to the pail. The steady hammering blunts the bailiff’s hearing, she fishes out the full ladle, returns to him.

She extends the water through his bars, careful not to spill. His arm shoots out, a striking serpent, seizes her neck. In that last moment he first sees her eyes.

He doesn’t hear the ladle drop, doesn’t apologize, doesn’t feel the last of his strength leave him as his throat swells shut.

The ruckus of a body crashing to the floor startles the sleeping bailiff to his feet. He kicks over the bucket. The ladle skitters out. Hinges scream as a sheriff bursts in from the porch, madly clutching his rifle. Hammering invades the jailhouse. They rush to the cell.

There sprawls their prisoner, blue at the lips, still as a stone on a dry floor, alone. The sheriff grunts at the bailiff, looks out toward the gallows.

“Best tell him to come in from the rain and see to his son. First hangin’ finally took.”

The Last Girl in the World

Luna wept, for she was the last girl in the world.

The motionless blue sphere suspended in a black sky was her solitary silent friend. She watched it twist brightly and darkly, though even its night half would glitter like it had its own stars. Luna wondered if that meant there were people there, like her, gliding over its surface in so many luminous families with so much air to breathe that no one ever feared it would run out.

She had drawn in her last breath so long ago she could scarcely remember its taste. The barest fragments of memory, shimmering somewhere in the transparent light that made up her mind. Colors like her father’s wisdom, her mother’s safe embrace. How Luna had loved hiding her light within her mother, feeling her own laughter echo inside her mother’s light, causing them to laugh harder together.

Gone now, both of them. All of them. She could no longer feel their light mix with hers. Her people were gone. Luna looked around her, at the surface of her world, fine dust and dull rocks threatening to mask the crystalline remains of her family’s bones. No light could pass through them now.

She would have joined them in death on that last day and been glad for it. But her parents insisted she take their breath and live on. She wanted to hate them for leaving her alone to flit amongst this barren cemetery for so many endless days and dreamless nights. But she knew they died with hope. For her. That something would change and she would be saved. Nothing ever changed. So she indulged in her grief and she wept.

Luna screamed when the creatures came.

Her dwindling breath rattled out of her in a horrified rasp, barely able to contain the last of it, racked, trembling in terror. It descended like an insect, a predatory invader kicking up froth in her ocean of magnificent, desolate tranquility.

And then they emerged. Hateful things. Dead things. No light passed through them, yet they moved like they were alive. They scurried so fast she had to focus, passing around her as if they couldn’t see her, their opaque senses trapped in mute meat. Luna wished she never lived long enough to watch these undead fiends tramp upon her family’s ashes. She almost expelled the last of her air right then, ready to join the world these impenetrable vermin were so eager to claim as their own.

She forgave them when they stabbed their flag into sacred ground. Red and blue and white like the carapace that covered the creatures themselves. But then one of them stood above where her father lay. She hovered toward the creature while it extended a slender appendage toward his remains and, to her fury, unceremoniously scooped them up.

Put them back, she wanted to roar, knowing this thing would never hear her. Put them back and I will forgive you. But it did not. As it bounded and lurched back to the craft it came in, Luna vowed to find some way to hurt it, to kill it if she could, even if it claimed her life.

Seething a trail of volcanic light, she followed it back inside its dread vessel with her father’s bones. And there, she made a most curious and fortuitous discovery. She could breathe. The air was different than she remembered, but it tasted sweet, like the voice her mother would use to wake her up, like the voice her mother would use to swear vengeance. Luna knew as she exhaled that the air was changing, that as she grew stronger these creatures would grow weaker.

If they brought this treasure of life with them, she could only imagine the untold volume of unpolluted air that awaited her at their home. She looked again to the motionless blue sphere suspended in a black sky, her frightful destination, and believed if she could but brave the journey, nothing could stop her from avenging the desecration of her family, nothing could obstruct her wrath.

Luna laughed, a bitter color like cracked ice that could carry with it no warmth. No one heard, no one tasted, no one here could.

Luna laughed, for she would be the last girl in the world.

The Eye, an Instrument

He closed his eyes. The engine idled. The actors inflected their lines again. He raised his palms to his face, seemingly without purpose. The pictures were picturesque. The lines were love. As he reached for it, it retreated. He was a clumsy hunter. He knew that.

The romances meant to inspire propelled him toward contrary climes. Every cinematic kiss was one he remembered knowing he would not know again. Alone, he began the journey home.

Our connections are tragic, measurable intervals. Ever, we are pried apart by competing distractions of pomp and bombast like suicide bomb blasts; around every corner, behind every eye. His eyes were open, guiding him toward his destination, unconscious contributors to his one drama.

Then, it began. Something unfamiliar. An unnamed emotion. A furrowed brow supported by a clenched jaw. The lines began to blur. The lights streaked and wavered when they should have been concise pinpoints in the night, stars, signals, brakes. They very nearly closed, mashing the entire world into a kaleidoscope of color and ambient forgotten feeling. Then came the wheeze, an intermittent wordless whisper that could have been a quiet laugh, but was not.

Forward still, he was propelled, gliding through the darkness, unsafe. The lights bombarded him, unrelenting. Or perhaps his eyes attacked all creation with their vision. Lenses for a fiery heart so fierce if he were to peel back his flesh for one incendiary instant the entire countryside would swim in fire.

He recognized the road; habit had seen to that. He smothered the unwelcome invaders upon his cheek. There was no number of days since he had last called them familiar. After so strangled and so brief a reunion he wondered if he might never know them again.

Such despairing desolation was not meant to be felt by men. Successes bereft of celebration. Cold nights where one wandering worries the atmosphere may abandon him and the dry lifeless void might suck the life from his lungs. These mighty blows upon the soul are meant for the moments before existence, when the spirit is white hot within the forge that was the birthplace of the world; not the brittle metal that welcomes mortal touch. Man is meant to break himself under the hammering.

But this one did not break. He would but lie scarred upon the anvil, sparking.

Why could she not have a name? But she did have a name.

The Feet of Aphrodite

The young man dashed up the stairs outside a yawning stone temple, its starless silhouette having guided him for miles against the backdrop of night. His legs pumped violently beneath him, an exhausted unconscious rhythm that eluded him if he dared grasp at it. Lightning flashed in the distance. He stumbled when its rumble of thunder pounded down an age behind the light.

Somehow, his hands supported the weight of his falling frame. The stairs were still damp. As his chest heaved, he noted the pools of rainwater gathered in the worn calderas of each step. It had rained and he knew it would rain again. Amidst this distraction, he did not feel the hands pulling him up to his feet. He peered around as if he had just been born. He must have reached the top. A robed priestess spoke to him but he could not hear her over the drumming of his heart. Creases of worry folded themselves into her brow. She appeared to call for some aid, but he brushed by her.

He staggered to one of the soaring columns that supported the open structure around the inner temple. Fearing his instant of respite would ensnare him for an eternity, he pushed off and ran across the polished marble slabs toward a pair of ornate doors. A stern priest, graying at the temples, materialized in his path and caught him by the shoulders. The dangerously cool touch of the young man’s perspiring flesh forced the priest to frown. He stared curiously at the holy man’s moving lips but could make no meaning of them.

“The goddess,” the young man rasped, “I must see her.”

The priest shook his head and firmed his grip on the young man. Refusing to be denied after such an impossible journey, he lunged forward. More arms entangled themselves around his, slowing but not stopping his progression.

Then, with a deep shuddering, the double doors opened like springtime pedals for the caress of the bumblebee. The young man halted as the gravity of the small event demanded the attention of every open eye. The temple’s attendants reluctantly released him, equally beset by awe. Not a soul present believed the wind responsible.

Freshly freed, he strode forward; though after his desperate adventure he found walking a foreign and ungainly task. They watched breathlessly as he slipped inside and pulled the portal closed behind him.

His breast still beat itself into unrelenting oblivion and in the austere quiet of that temple he there feared he would not again know the serenity of a peacefully drawn breath. That was until he beheld the altar of the goddess. By some miracle of architecture, streams of moonlight mingled with starlight poured themselves over the sculpture of perfect female form. The stone figure appeared to him a gem, lit from within, alive like paper before fire.

Mortal women were called beautiful for possessing any of her features even in singularity, but her grace existed beyond mere physicality. As he shuffled raggedly toward the dark and gleaming pool at the statue’s base, the young man mused beyond his fatigue that the true divinity of this goddess was perhaps cheapened in distraction by the lusty curvature of her naked physique.

He leaned doggedly upon the edge of the pool, his composure increasingly evasive. The young man choked upon gulps of air, his face contorting in unflattering fits. Had he the tears, he would have wept.


His gaze shot up to the goddess. Addled by fatigue, he did not question the first word he had heard in days but rather the notion he sully the sanctified waters of this sacred place.

“Drink, my love,” her voice a whispered song, like one lover singing another asleep after a frightful dream. “Step into my waters and drink.”

He could not but obey. With trembling care he removed his leather sandals, unsure of where the packed dust of the road quit and his own flesh began. Swarms of blisters stung like wasps as he dipped his beaten feet beneath the surface. At this, his eyelids forced themselves shut and two defiant tears streaked the grime of his cheek. The young man pitched forward into the pool, catching himself only by hands and knees, imagining the filth of his journey an aquatic cloud, billowing out unseen in the blackness before him.


With tortured determination, he lifted a cupped hand to his cracked lips and let the sweet liquid glide over his tongue and swallowed. That first draft granted him the strength to take another and after a short succession, he found he could finally breathe. He sat upon his heels, the rippling water lapping gently at his waist, and reared his head back to address the deity above him.


“How may I serve you, my love?” She sang to him with such dangerous divinity as to lend a man the feeling of equivalence with gods.

“I have come to beg from you a terrible boon.”

“Speak out, then.”

“I implore you free me from your love.”

“You, mortal, are mine to love as I please.” He could hear the frown upon her heart.

“Love, I fear, has become my one dreadful affliction,” he dug a thumb into his own arm and held it clumsily aloft, “a circulatory stain within my veins.”

“Why, dear one?”

He cast his eyes down into the darkness and well into the world beyond. “She belongs to another.”

“We cannot belong to each other, only ourselves.”

“Then free me from myself,” he pleaded. “I wish to be parted from this form in which she cannot find love. My fragile heart cannot bear another stroke of so cruel a fate.”

“Your words do your heart grave disservice, my love. For three days it has carried you to me faster than the hunted hare. It endeavors to live, even when you do not.”

“Then free me from my sight, goddess. I pledge to you the remainder of my earthly service if I could be but blind,” he wrung his hands in wounded frustration. “Must the whole world remind me of her?”

“Without your eyes, my love, would you then be free of her?” He sensed the knowing in her voice. “Would you not again recall the fragrance of her hair as you tangled yourselves in the warmth of my embrace? Would not her every taste dance on your tongue as you remembered her feminine sighs upon your ear? Would not the soft weight of her in your arms,” she hesitated.

“Please,” he cried, his arms falling open; his hands disappearing to the wrist in the formlessness of the water. “I can bear no more.”

“Then now you know the dire cost of love, dear one.”

He closed his eyes and breathed long breaths of defeat. “It is too great.”

“Yes, my love. Such is the curse of mortality.”

“You will not release me?” He gazed imploringly upward.

“No. I will not.”

“Then my pilgrimage is for naught. I am forsaken to doomed days.” He spoke as though the world were breaking apart over the vastness of void space.

“Stay such pain in my house, young one. Your fiery heart cannot now see I have many daughters.”

“There is but one I desire.”

“For now,” she repeated, her voice reverberated with calming patience. “I have feared you might chance upon one of my favorites before your impassioned heart whole enough to hold the love they command.”

The young man wavered as he knelt in the pool that now felt warm to his blood; speechless, a portrait of exhaustion.

“Rest now, my love,” she sang to him. “No harm shall befall you in my care.”

He knew neither the strength nor desire to defy her.

“You will not wake to a wintering world, but find in its stead a springtide of hope and vitality. Rest now; I shall sing to you a spell.”

The young man then slipped himself beneath the surface of the mirrored and inviting darkness, disappearing from the sight of any observer; though there were none.

There, at the feet of Aphrodite, he fell asleep and continued to dream.

King Geoffrey the Noble Fool

There was once a fortunate king called Geoffrey. His lands were green and bountiful; his people hard-working and happy. Yet somberly he would sit atop his throne and gaze for hours out the great window of his keep. His bride, a princess from a neighboring land, became concerned by her betrothed and his long, quiet hours in the tower.

“My love,” she said sweetly, “are you not happy?”

“No,” he replied gravely, “I am not happy, my love.”

Out of genuine kindness, she consulted a minstrel and brought him before the king. The minstrel’s joy rattled along the strings of his lute and echoed fiercely through the halls and hearts of the kingdom. With a flourish and a bow, the minstrel knelt before King Geoffrey.

“My king,” he asked earnestly, “are you not pleased?”

“No,” rang the ragged reply, “I am not yet pleased.”

The princess dismissed the minstrel with her heartfelt thanks and brought then a wise man before the king.

“My king,” offered the wise man, “your kingdom is a garden ripe with blossoms of every variety, the greatest flower being your loving bride who wishes naught but your happiness. Are you not content?”

“No,” sighed the king, “I am not content.”

This discouraged the princess. She dismissed the wise man and succumbed to worry. The king, though his days were spent tending an unseen fire, was not blind. He knew at once his unhappiness could not stay in the kingdom.

That very night, after kissing his bride on the forehead and bidding her sleep soundly, King Geoffrey stole away from the high, high walls of his kingdom and into the darkened countryside.

He strode alone until happening across a road at dawn the following day. There, he was at once surrounded by bandits.

The tallest bandit pointed his sword at the king.

“Rich man,” he shouted jovially, “I demand all you have.”

“My friend,” the king replied, “I have only the clothes you see and the heaviness of my heart.”

The bandit regarded the king carefully. “Then I shall have both,” he smirked.

In exchange for his clothes, the bandit gave the king a torn pair of breeches.

“Be no longer troubled,” the bandit offered in parting, “for now no man can take anything from you.”

And thus the king wandered through the wilderness; the sun and moon his only friends. The more he walked, the more his thoughts turned from his own unhappiness and toward days long since dawned and passed.

In the morning, the light on the wildflowers reminded him of the smile that could only belong to his bride. In the evening, as he dozed in a bed of leaves, he remembered fondly how nightly she would warm her frozen feet on his.

Many such days did pass until one came when the king stooped before a pool to drink of its waters. He was surprised to find the reflection was not his own. Whiskers had overgrown the face of this man wavering on the surface before him.

The king wondered, as he touched the glittering stones of the pool, if he would ever again feel the smooth skin of his love. He wondered if he could bear to again see her lips and not know their taste. The king wondered then, terribly, if he was a king at all. For what king spends his days dreaming of a kingdom without claiming it for his own?

With haste and difficulty, Geoffrey made his way back home.

He stopped a woodsman on the road outside the keep.

“Woodsman,” Geoffrey implored, “where are the castle walls?”

“Stranger,” he roughly replied, “ours is a friendly kingdom with no enemies and no need of walls.”

Geoffrey smiled unexpectedly. The castle seemed somehow more like home without the walls he spent years fortifying.

“Woodsman,” Geoffrey requested, “would you do for me a great favor? Go forth to the keep and instruct the princess her king has returned and wants nothing more than to fill her heart with happiness.”

The woodsman leaned grimly upon the handle of his ax. “Stranger,” he consoled, “these lands have not a king and no princess of whom you speak.”

Geoffrey had been struck dumb. The woodsman felt his sudden sorrow.

“My lord,” he offered, “you should know the princess left here long ago on the arm of a minstrel. The wise man said her heart was full of happiness for it contained not only her own and so, finally, her own.”

Geoffrey wept.

“My lord,” the woodsman begged, “why now do you weep? Your bride is happy and you are free to find peace and contentment.”

Geoffrey wiped his eyes dry. “Woodsman,” he said calmly, “I am not your lord and my tears are not entirely of sadness.”

“How then,” the woodsman asked, “might I bring you happiness on this bittersweet day?”

“My friend,” Geoffrey said, “my pleasure must be my own.”

The woodsman smiled and again took up his ax.

Geoffrey then retraced his path a short way upon the road and struck sharply into the wilderness; each step his own and for its own sake, but never without the hope of hearing his bride’s behind him.

The Hero Unspent

When he spoke it was with such hushed intensity that I wondered if I had not finally fallen asleep and his words were an incantation designed to keep me dreaming.

“Let me die tonight,” he said. “My whole life I have been dying to die for something.” The crickets answered him rudely, speaking over one another and never giving pause for polite conversation. He was accustomed to their incessant commentary and thus continued on himself. “It has been in the small moments, always, I have been gripped by it and has consequently stretched them into tiny eternities.” Here he paused just long enough for the fear to well up inside of me that he would stop speaking. “For I loved living so feverishly that I could conjure no greater sacrifice in its honor. Point of fact, as the years crawled along, young as I was, I began to fear I might never arrive upon the opportunity to die in service of a cause.” I imagine he smiled at himself in this bittersweet moment, but the moonlight glowed so dimly I could not make out the features of his face. “For hours I would study the shadows on the ceiling above my bed and wonder if any, even one, of my countrymen felt the same as I on those nights. Of course, the morning would steal away such dreamlike desires. But they always returned and like a poet remembering his verse for the first time, I was grateful for them.” I became suddenly aware that I was not alone in listening to him. Like children we were awed, as if he were an untamed animal wandering too closely by; both beautiful and mean in its magnificence. I knew then why I followed him with such conviction. The gods had unwittingly allowed one of their own to escape. Though I would one day witness the contrary, I did without a divided heart at that time believe no divine power could permit the death of such a man. Perhaps this is why I selfishly followed him so closely through the jaws of catastrophe. I hoped by proximity to gain the privilege of his protection. Again, he spoke. “Let me die tonight that each of you may live.” Without so much as another breath he plucked his rifle from its rest and stood up from where he lay on his belly in the grass.

Our tiny eternity had expired and it was with insatiable hope we carried on behind him through the trees and off toward morning.

An Exercise in Imagination

Imagine it for just a moment. Hell. Imagine it exists. Imagine it as the most puritan Calvinistic sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God hellfire and brimstone. No matter what you believe. If you’re Christian, sorry, bad news, the Muslims had it right. If you subscribe to any other religious affiliation, eternity turned out to be the scorned opposite of what you were banking on.

So there you are. In Hell. Suffering. The manner makes no difference. Details are not important. Imagine a lake of fire if that’s what comes easily to your corn-fed Western soul. All you know is torment and the details of any life you had lived are quickly lost in the everlasting punishment you now endure.

Then, something happens. Imagine it all ending. Imagine you find yourself sitting in front of a glowing screen, once again inside of a body, incarnate. You look down at your fingers. Imagine you can appreciate the minute bodily processes responsible for rotating your hand in front of your face. Imagine you can respect the complexity of your optical organs as they communicate the image to the proper neural pathways in your brain. Imagine then your hand feeling your eyes upon it. Imagine your own perception of yourself.

Imagine then the absence of pain. There is no torment. There is no visceral suffering. There is only the calm rhythm of your lungs as they supply oxygen to your blood so it can course through that fist-sized turbine in your chest as it pumps life through every capillary down to your toes.

Instead of blind suffering, you are at peace. Sitting. Comfortably. Lazily. Imagine being thrust back into this world of nature and balance. Even then, you are not forced to examine it from a distance. You are right there inside of it. Imagine this body of yours is completely capable of interacting with this environment and performing the will of your soul via these organs and tissues and electrical charges. Imagine then, that you are not bound by the oppression of any outside forces. Imagine you are sitting in this fictional chair before this fictional computer monitor with this fictional gift.

Imagine what you would do with that life. Imagine the ins and outs of your breathing not as some egg timer, ticking down the hours until it is over. Imagine this atmosphere as it is drawn in through your nose and expands your chest. Let it not go unnoticed. Imagine your life is in progress. The time isn’t ticking down toward nothingness, toward death and that zero hour where we all find out if these ideas we treasure of divinity and deity and dogma are truly heaven-sent or merely bullshit. Imagine your time is ticking up.

Imagine this heart of yours is keeping you in the game.

Imagine every breath shoved back out into the air is yours.

Imagine it drifting back into creation with your name on it.

Imagine this moment as something precious.

No one can take it from you unless you surrender it.

Killing time is murder.

Imagine you could choose.

Imagine you could choose anything for yourself.

Imagine that.

An Examination of Vulnerability

Men take great care to protect themselves against the violences of existence. Life oft thunders at the doors of our hearts, prying wildly for any imperfection, bellowing its discordant furies without rhythm or apology. The individual is a candle, dancing timidly as he burns; his being an opposition to the dark that yearns only to swallow him. Most are contented by a vein of wick and enough wax to endure the pale hours of night.

Such paltry contentment no longer sustains my being. For even in this security, existence is never assured. One finds only enough distraction to blind himself from a true life; honest, confident and free. When the eye squeezes focus upon every minuscule vulnerability, one merely winds the ticking clock of his eventual doom. He is resigned to the quantification of all things. Instead of exploring this gift of creation, he desires only to protect his current holdings, those he deems well enough for satisfaction. He then builds his fortress. Physical attacks are warded by armor. Adding, layering, hiding. Such devices only prevent the individual from discerning his own heart. Whatever the temper of steel, it can be broken. No matter how secret a word, it can be spoken. The man who never looks upon his own breast, for fear of exposing, already loses that which he seeks to protect.

Some exist merely by being. Some exist with ferocity; the heart pounding as a war drum. Much of my life have I spent being. I desired to protect myself from outside attackers; never realizing the serpent within had coiled himself in scaled knots about my visceral parts. It is with no artful skill that I now attempt to free myself. For freedom is truly my destination and I truly do not possess it. Thus begins a journey with no near end.

I have, in my life, employed emotional armament in the hope of preventing external jabs and thrusts from breaching my vulnerable areas. But in doing this, I smothered my own growth. I locked myself in with the beast and invited his cruelties with impunity. For my eyes turned only outward in an attempt to protect that which I did not understand, but by some instinct knew to be precious and beyond value. No deceits lead me to this path. I chose it for myself. I simply did not allow my eye a clear view of the consequences.

Honesty can make a man vulnerable, but only if he is honestly vulnerable. I utilized everything but honesty to fend off the attacks of existence. Sarcasm, cynicism, apathy; all of it misdirection. The magician moves swiftly and nimbly to provoke the illusion of magic. The audience is meant to believe, but never the performer. When the magician succumbs to his own illusions, he creates a keen-edged weapon and wields it upon himself.

No longer will I be duped by my own sleight of hand. An honest exploration of oneself will transmute vulnerability into strength. I am the alchemist and my heart is my gold. I seek not only a glimpse of myself but deep oaken roots into the fiber of my being, ergo I might grow strong and full and tall.

Before one begins such an adventure, he must not only know his destination but his purpose for footing out toward the horizon. I pursue an understanding of vulnerability and its trappings not to strengthen my defenses, but to strip them away in entirety. I wish to stand disarmed and defiant before my foe, knowing my hide impervious to his sharpest blade. This prize is not one easily attained. At present, I struggle savagely, blocking and parrying every strike, lest it penetrate my defenses and sink into my soft flesh. It is during this transition I am most vulnerable for I shall lay my sword and shield to the earth and begin the exacting process of removing a suit of armor I spent decades constructing. As each piece of my true form is lighted by understanding, it will burn and blister under a foreign sun and I may only vaguely recognize it as my own. But it is this hard-won familiarity I desire.

Unhindered by such burdensome defenses, I shall prowl with an animal grace and freedom of stride. Only in peeling away my helm will my eyes shine unobstructed and my ears prick at every clarion sound. Free of stale air, each breath of wind upon my face shall carry with it the howl of liberty after years of imprisonment. When I gaze upon my reflection in the pool, I shall know the familiarity of my own self in the stead of abysmal strangeness. I shall succeed in escaping exile from myself.

Vulnerability is an illusion of perception. A man protects the areas he deems most readily wounded. It is natural. But these are decisions he ultimately makes for himself, for no stranger with a forked-tongue could rob a confident man of his firmest strength. Adversely, if an individual decides vulnerability no longer exists, it will instantly vanish. They key is to decide for oneself the gravity of potential wounds. The most useful instruments in this task are understandings of honesty, confidence and the self-image.

Honesty is more precious to the heart than its blood. It exists within the self and equally without, each variety dependent upon the other. To exercise complete honesty with oneself directly involves the will to see that which does not readily wish to be seen. It is persistent effort, requiring constant attention. Often, one will only half-realize an aspect of his character, forcing the subconscious to its subtle art. The willingness to delve into these dark possibilities and unearth the root of oneself will prevent others from digging in grounds untilled. Only when a man possesses the ability to explore himself in naked honesty can he be fully honest with the rest of the world. If another body brings point to a fault, the honest individual will merely agree or disagree, free from the vulnerability of surprise. In this respect, the honest man will find no use in outward deception, for there is nothing to hide from the world if he hides nothing from himself.

True confidence is a derivative of honesty. Some possess a hollow confidence, heir to those never properly tested. It appears genuine, but can be spotted readily by an eye keen to real potency of will. Confidence is won by surviving the fires of trial and hardship. A man who honestly knows his own ends becomes confident in what he can accomplish. It is in reaching those ends, the threshold of breaking, that an individual finds strength in his ability to overcome. Vulnerability is defeated by confidence when it prevents the possibility of outside wounds. When confidence is earned and bestowed upon oneself, it can never be stolen or sabotaged by any outside element. There is no need for emotional armor when every incoming attack is calmly and confidently turned aside.

The self-image is born directly of confidence and like honesty, exists in duality. Inner self-image exists separate from the outer self-image and one should not be predicated by the other. An inner image or perception of oneself is reached through an honest understanding of his traits. This private image is founded solely by the individual and should be invulnerable to outside influence. The outer or physical self-image is most readily assessed and attacked by outsiders. Each individual is gifted with a body and it should be viewed as such; a gift. It is a vehicle for interaction with this world. It is the natural and living flesh of a natural and living environment.

Every society affirms its fickle and temporal concepts of what passes for physically attractive and what does not. Bodies are not chosen and they are not earned. Those who base perception upon the outer appearance are effectively blind. Likewise, he who obtains his self-image from the passing judgments of society gains nothing of substance, for his self-image can just as easily be shattered as it is bolstered. But the body is an animal. It possesses great strength and flexibility, the potential for change. One can largely mold his own animal appearance to suit his desires. The outer self-image is most easily assessed because it exists in the physical world and can be recorded by the naked eye. Once an individual realizes the outer self-image is the least important aspect of oneself because it tells so little of character and personal growth, he will cease to be vulnerable to attacks upon it. One cannot by wounded in an area he strengthens with honesty and confidence and clarity of perception.

Vulnerability exists in the mind and can thusly be dispelled by the mind. Honesty is not meant for moderation. A fullness of honesty fills the individual with strength. An open account of one's faults rids the individual of needless secreted vulnerabilities. Confidence derived from others is weak and rightly can be broken by others. Confidence given by the individual to himself can never be taken back by outsiders as it was never theirs to give. The self-image is effectively the realization of one's honesty and confidence. Society is powerless over an individual who creates this for himself in lieu of allowing it to be assigned him by his fellow man. These goals cannot be purchased or snatched up in an instant. The individual must seek them deliberately and purposefully. In this pursuit, vulnerability can be overcome and open strength its successor. The mind rejoices in honesty, confidence and belief in one's own image. One needs but turn his eye inward. When a man binds his own hands, the key to his fetters lies within his heart.