Once, for many years, in truth, I felt that the first time I met him was the most significant day of my life. I suppose it still is, but for entirely different reasons. He threw me an apple from the top of a wide marble stairway, calling out to me, "You looked like a lad that could use a moment to catch his breath." The apple was delicious, and I felt in that moment as though I had been elevated out of my ordinariness and transformed into something noteworthy. His stature was so grand, his eyes so bright with intellect and power that I was awestruck. I was later to learn that he loaded his pockets with these apples in the morning, and that his act, apple-smiting, as I came to call it, was as exceptional as the disposal of coffee grounds.
I had been clerking for my province's office in the capitol, riding my bike along the Grand Thoroughfare with a dispatch for the Central Archive when I spotted him. He had exited the Pavilion of Industry with his factotums, nabobs, and counselors orbiting in his great gravity. He paused and took in the sunlight for a moment before descending the stairs to the street below, while I stood astride my bicycle, immobile. "You're quick, lad. You should come to my offices and clerk for me." I was given a card and told to phone the following day.
As a child, I had read exhaustively of his military conquests. How The Great Man had turned back the Barbarians as they sought to breach the Frontier Wall. How, during the Third Western Campaign his army had been destroyed, and only he and his cadre managed to escape across the river in a hastily constructed coracle, miraculously raising a new army in the spring and destroying the Western Menace once and for all. Should you have met me during my thirteenth summer and have been unlucky enough to encounter me in the presence of a sandtable, I could have reconstructed every one of his battles for you, with a running commentary comprised of military fact and an imaginary flag bearer who accompanied him everywhere, a flagbearing cadet who bore an uncanny resemblance to me.
In time, working in the long galleries and offices of his mansion, I grew to appreciate his artistic achievements and civic accomplishments. The cathedrals he created, the pipeline that brought fuel and water from the south, the safety laws for workers. Though he was not officially part of the Commonwealth, his mansion was a seat of government unto itself - I was only one of hundreds that worked there. Some had only laid eyes on him a single time, being given a piece of fruit, or catching a passing glimpse. Others would proudly display a personal note bearing the chop of The Great Man over their desk – "Jenson, Please pull hydrological data for the Divide Aquifer and forward to my office." These notes would be framed by a group of craftsmen in the annex dedicated to the task. I was assigned to the Document Group. I was called on to document the various elements of his Historical Mural, the largest work of art known to humanity, which adorned the exterior of the Archive. I rewrote the Consular Guide to the stripes of color along the avenues that directed commerce though the city, a scheme he had contrived. My diligence and logic on the project gained the notice of The Great Man himself, and I became his attaché.
Working at his side, in the constant presence of that Engine in the form of Man, I learned other things. That the twinkle in his eyes was a parlor trick, something he could turn on like a player piano when he sought to dazzle. That behind those glorious tales of military adventure lay something viscous and repetitive. A conversational misstep might mean an afternoon lost to a homicidal cataloging of the men he had killed, sometime organized by theme. The men he had killed with a knife, a rifle, by cannon fire, with his bare hands, with a single hand while others looked on. I would look down at the agenda of things to be done that day – correspondence that needed to posted immediately, dignitaries to be hosted, architectural plans to be reviewed, and know that none of it would be completed. I would look down at my book and know that when the story of hooking a man by the jaw with The Great Man's spear was over, a story that according to my own records he had personally told me over a dozen times, I would be working late into the night by lantern light, composing the unwritten letters and drafting notes of apology, impressing all of it with the Great Seal, the Great Man and I both frauds.
I saw fraud conducted wholesale. I saw fraud reduced from one of the Major Sins to a commodity, like wheat or copper or fuel. As the years went by, and I became fully versed in his endeavors, the ubiquity of this fraud became a constant. The architects that actually designed the cathedrals. The engineers that conceived of and constructed the pipeline. The artists under the shadow of his signature. He was a conqueror, whether it was recorded in the Annals or not. I signed orders for forests to be cleared, despite a glut in the lumber market. He liked the idea of his name felling forests. I oversaw the reordering of the days of the week. I double-checked on the assassination of a shopgirl that had snapped chewing gum in his presence. She was to be killed with a block of ice. That was specific.
As it was rumored, his appetites knew no limit. He enjoyed the rumors. There was a group of artists that helped in the invention of the rumors. Sometimes, one of these rumors would reach him and he'd insist on actually carrying it out. These were usually part of his rich history of sexual peccadilloes. He would call the stableboy around the corner and fuck him over a saddle tossed across a gate, then hurry along to a meeting with his generals. That was Wednesday afternoons at two. He would call a group of quadruplet sisters into his office and act out a grand erotic opera that was popular at the time. Pictures of that particular escapade were leaked to the press. In their home village, the girls gave birth to four sets of quadruplets. The sisters were crushed by toppling a wall onto them, a public execution. The sixteen cousin-children were sent to capitol the to be raised as the Great Man's children.
His children, of whom there were many, were indolent, entitled, and useless. They were a drain on everyone around them. A large portion of the Great Man's holdings went to operating the apartment block where the children lived, in relative luxury compared to the general populace. Why were they so universally useless? I heard scientists and philosophers speculate that the Great Man's acts were so energetic, so elevated above the plane of the everyday, that the reciprocal effect was bestowed upon his offspring. Any nursemaid could have told you the obvious truth. The Great Man was so busy being great that he was never a father to his children, and they grew up as uncultivated as the weeds they were.
And this was the fundamental truth about The Great Man, that he was the Father of us all, and that with our collusion we were made into children that clustered around the perimeter of his globe-striding feet. That with every Great Act, he became larger and more capable, and we became smaller and more ineffectual. Yet, inside the walls of his house, the truth was apparent – we did the work. We build the cities and won the wars. A farmer could have told you the truth, that it was the Farmer that worked the Land, and brought in the crops for sale to the Grocer, The Great Man did nothing but loan his face to the design on the Grocer's bag. But no one cared what the Farmer thought, because one thing was certain and simple – the Farmer was not The Great Man.
I am uncertain what we gained from the Great Man. Perhaps having him stand between us and the world took a weight off our shoulders. Perhaps he gave a face to history. He became an intermediary who supposedly toiled on our behalf, for the commonwealth. He was a being of sufficient stature to negotiate with the universe for us.
But I know the cost of The Great Man. That cost is the tax he placed on greatness, a tax that all of us paid for his own aggrandizement.
Maybe there is a path to greatness for all of us.
Maybe there isn't.
But I know that if that path to greatness exists, that if there is a path we all can walk to being great men and great women, then I know to a certainty that The Great Man does not lead the way towards that path.
Instead, the Great Man stands in the gateway of the garden, blocking the way.
That which occupies a gateway is, by definition, a gate.
Which is why, last night, with my pistol, I opened the gate for all of us.