The excitement was almost palpable. The annual Tower Climb event would take place the next day. People waited. The next morning, a select few of them would receive the summons. Whether these summoned people were lucky or unlucky depended on a person's point of view.That night, a young boy found it hard to sleep. The youngster had just turned fifteen last week so he had the potential for being one of the selected ones. The fight that went on between sleep on one side and hope and fear and excitement on the other kept him twisting and turning past midnight. Finally, sleep won. He woke up in the morning. The compulsion was there. It meant that he had been selected to be one of the participants of the Tower Climb. It meant that his summer holidays were going to be eventful. "What are you doing today?" his mother asked him at breakfast "I have been selected," he said. "For the Tower Climb?" his mother's voice and expression held excitement and anxiety at the same time. His father smiled, a quiet, proud smile, remembering the time when he too had been summoned, and had successfully completed the Tower climb. He thought of the crystal that he had brought from the Tower. It had happened quarter of a century ago but felt as if it had happened yesterday. Soon after the breakfast, the youngster's parents bid him a fond farewell as he left the house carrying a flask of water in the hip pocket of his trousers. Water was the only thing that the climbers were allowed to take with them. The morning breeze played with his hair and the soft sunlight caressed his face. Invigorated, his walk to the Tower turned into a leisurely jog. Then he saw the Tower. The Tower stood there in the grassy field, silent, majestic, its walls ebony black, with ivory stares spiraling around it. High up, almost at the end of visibility, huge crystals of various colors decorated the crown of the Tower. O such wonderful crystals! They shimmered in the sunlight, dazzling the eyes, making the world appear more beautiful than it probably was. Surprisingly few people stood around the Tower. It looked as if not many people had been summoned by the Tower this year, or – sadly – not many of the summoned people had responded to the summons. None had started the climb yet. Everyone seemed apprehensive. Finally, an old woman moved forward and started climbing. Several people moved forward in the wake of the old woman. Just then, a strong gust of wind caused the crystals to move vigorously, hitting against each other. A beautiful, soothing sound, like the best of wind chimes, filled the air. Just them, a crystal broke loose and dropped from the Tower and shattered, spreading many colored and many faceted shards everywhere on the ground. Some of the people that stood there rushed forward, scooped up as many of the beautiful shards as they could find and went away happy, without bothering to climb the Tower. When the ground had been picked clean of the shards, a few more people moved forward and began the climb while some of them waiting on the ground looking upwards expectantly, waiting for another crystal to fall. The youngster saw all this. He approached the Tower with trepidation. The stairs looked so smooth. And they didn't have a railing. How could he climb them? What if he lost his balance when he was high up? But then he touched the Tower and felt a pleasant thrill send shivers down his spine. He put his fears away and started climbing. It was hard to tell time on the Tower but approximately a quarter of an hour must have passed when he reached the quarter mark. He stopped for a rest. He observed other climbers ahead of him. He stopped to wipe beads of sweat off his forehead. He had an urge to look down but an inner voice seemed to tell him not to. He continued climbing. He looked up and found that he was quite close to the old woman he had seen earlier. "Is this climb worth the effort?" the old woman mused loudly. "Didn't you see the beautiful crystals?" he responded. "Yes but we could have got parts of those crystal while staying on the ground and avoiding all this exertion and danger," she countered. "Didn't you see those people gathering the shards?" "There definitely is some difference between whole crystals and shards," he said reasonably, "else no one would even think of climbing the Tower." The old woman looked at him. "How old are you?" she asked. "Fifteen." "You are wiser than your years," she said and continued climbing. Soon, he was panting with effort. He looked up. The crystals looked as far away as they had looked from the ground. Just then, he saw someone climbing down. It was a middle-aged man. "Did you get a crystal?" the boy asked the man excitedly. The man made a face. "Not worth it," he said. "I am tired of the climb and I am going back. I can always get shards on the ground." And he went down out of sight. The boy became more than ever aware of his aching muscles. And he thought of the comfort of his home. "You know what? The man may be right," he said to the old woman. "Do you think we should climb down?" There was no response. He looked up. The old woman was way ahead of him, out of earshot. He clamped his jaws tight and speeded up his climb and soon caught up with her. He was feeling hot and thirsty. He took out the flask of water from his hip pocket and took a swig. Then he offered it to the woman. She nodded her thanks, took a few sips and returned it to him. They climbed silently for some time. "What do you expect to get out of this climb?" The woman broke the silence. "Knowledge," he said, without stopping to think. "And you?" "Inspiration," she replied just as promptly. Then they reached the half-way mark. "Want to stop a bit for rest?" he asked the woman. "No. Let us keep going." They continued climbing. It was then that he started noticing a change. Gradually, the climb was becoming easier and easier. It seemed almost as if the orientation of the force of gravity had changed. Instead of being centered in the ground, it now seemed centered in the Tower itself. Climbing didn't seem like climbing any longer. It was more like crawling on the ground. Moving required less effort. Even before he could adjust to this, there was something else that unsettled his senses further. When he looked at his climbing companion, the woman didn't seem as old as when he had first seen her. Probably my imagination, he thought but he had to revise his opinion when he saw her gray hair gradually changing shade and becoming darker and darker right before his eyes. Startled, he moved his attention to himself to see if there was any physical change in him. And there was. He seemed to be growing. He was taller than before. His limbs seemed stronger and fuller. He touched his face and he could feel his chin covered with hair. "What's going on?" he exclaimed and found his voice to be deep and resonant. And suddenly, he found himself at the top. He looked at his young companion who had been an old woman a while back. And the young woman looked at the fully grown adult male standing with her. They smiled at each other. And at last, he looked down. He was above the world. All space was one. All time was one. He could see the past and the future. He saw all sorts of people from all places and all times come up to the Tower, some to climb and some to go away after picking up a few shards. He even recognized some of the shard pickers. Freud was there, staring intently at a multicolored shard dangling in his hand. There was Darwin trying to build a whole crystal out of some broken pieces. There were others he did not recognize. He saw all this and more. Then he looked at the crystals that were now within arm's reach. Which of these crystals shall I pick up? He thought. The he realized that it did not matter. Each crystal contained all the other crystals within it, the way an infinity can contain an infinite number of infinities within it. He plucked at a crystal and it came away easily in his hands. As he watched in wonder, a new crystal grew in the place of the plucked on. He looked at his companion and saw that she too had a crystal in her hand. She looked at him and smiled. He smiled back. Then the young man and young woman climbed down the Tower.
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Despite malicious rumors to the contrary, I do indeed know a good thing when it strikes me forcibly in the shnozz. Ahmed Kahn's prose is such a good thing. As long as he keeps submitting his wonderful stories, I'll keep publishing them as the lead-off batter for the anotherealm lineup. He hits a home run every time and is a sure Hall of Famer. Ahmed: I thank you and the readership thanks you. - GM