On the third day he wins a lightsaber duel, Obi-Wan kills him. He cuts his throat with the knife that had been sitting on the kitchen table, sliding it through his skin, and Anakin feels the prickling of raindrops on his neck, and looks at the ceiling in bemusement. It can’t rain inside. Then he thinks that he might be crying, even though he can’t remember that he was sad, and is embarrassed. And he might have felt the traces of tears on his eyes or cheekbones before they slid all the way down, past his chin to his neck, but tears make more sense than anything else.
Then he feels the skin of his throat part like a ripped seam and he touches his fingers just above his chest, and his hand comes away wet and warm and sticky. He doesn’t look at the wetness because he realizes his essential mantra-if he pretends it isn’t there, he can make it go away. But his chest is soaked and he realizes that his tunic is damp and sticking to his, and when he peels it off, it’s stained the color of mulberries, and his throat is dry. The inside of his throat, anyway. The outside is quite wet.
He tries to look at his fingers now because maybe (just maybe) this is one of those situations that does need to be acknowledged, but his hand won’t lift above his chest and it doesn’t seem as if his neck is in good working order, so he can’t crane down to see what is dripping from his fingers. He wonders if he might be paralyzed, and tries to call to Obi-Wan, who is sitting right beside him, caressing a glass of juice. Obi-Wan smiles when he sees Anakin’s gaping, useless mouth, and sips the juice.
Master, he tries to say, but the word dies in his throat with a choke and a bubble of warmth and wet. He can feel his shoulders start to round inwards, and Obi-Wan reaches out one hand and touches it to his neck, bringing his hand back. He smears the wetness across his cheek like scarlet war-paint, and his eyes glitter. He takes another drink of juice as he watches his apprentice die.
Already, Anakin can feel the signs upon him, and wonders, vaguely, why everything else isn’t dying, too. He knows with the certainty of any teenager that he is the center of the universe, the only difference here is that Anakin is very close to being right. But nothing but he and the struggling flies caught on the glue-strip seem to be dying. He coughs and sees the blood splatter the linoleum, and his eyes curve upwards, searching for something to see as he dies. He hopes that they will find Obi-Wan, because even if his Master killed him, he is still his Master and one of the few people worth looking at if the worlds were going to end.
But instead, he can only see the fly-strip hanging by the kitchen window, and watches the flies, with their emerald and violet-tinted eyes, struggle. Black legs break as they try hopelessly to pull them from the glue. He thinks, absently, that the glue must be very sticky, rather like his blood, coating his chest and back and especially his neck. Surely it has to be sticky to keep the flies’ legs and bodies caged on paper when they try to fight out, to escape, buzzing, through the window. But he also wonders why the flies struggle so much when they must realize that they are going to die. After all, insects are part of nature, and one of the things Obi-Wan taught him about nature was that most beings recognized their time and didn’t fight their own death. Because there was only the Force, after all.
He is very proud of the fact that he is not struggling, only dying, and as the world becomes shadowed around the edges of his eyes, that satisfaction seems just as real and tangible as his own blood. Obi-Wan would be proud of him. He has finally become a real Jedi, able to accept his circumstances, even if they included death. In fact, this thought pleases his so much that he tries to smile, but his face is falling off, the skin sloping off his bones, and all he can manage is a kind of skeletal grimace as his body unwinds from life.
His last thought before he dies is this, I didn’t know that we had fly-paper.
Blurred. Everything is blurred in this wonderland. He tries to speak but his mouth has been sealed up with cement and gravel, and he will never be able to open it again, ever. Because good Jedi never do the things that he has done, and good Jedi don’t live the way he has. And if a mouthful of rocks is the only punishment he has for being so bad and wrong, should Anakin be grateful or disappointed?
He is gone again when he feels the pricking of a needle on his neck.
This time he wakes up all the way, and moves his lips weakly, searching for the cement that had been there, but was no longer. The first thing he sees when he opens his eyes to pale lights is Padmé, seated by his bed, smiling at him. Her hand is on his, and once he realizes this, he can feel the gentle pressure. His hands are rough and callused, and he raises one finger to stroke the inside of his palm, because she is soft and gentle, easier to touch.
“I was dead,” he says, and realizes that he can speak, his mouth is not bricked up anymore. How delightful! He smiles in spite of his attempts to be somber, and Padmé’s lips widen as she tries to be kind.
“You were,” she said softly, “but it’s fine now, my love. I’ve fixed you.”
She holds up the sewing needle and he touches his throat apprehensively. She is right, of course, he can feel the yarn that holds him together, done in uneven stitches all around his neck.
“Do you want to see?” she asks, and he nods, feeling the yarn stretch when he tilts his head back to far. He knows that he will have to be more careful with his movements, because he does not want to spoil what Padmé has done for him, does not want to ruin his resurrection just because he nodded too enthusiastically or moved his neck to far to meet her lips.
She helps him out of the bed, her hands gentle in all the right places, and even though he is the sick one, she leans against him, allowing him to support her. He read somewhere that men like feeling that women need them, and he recognizes the feeling a little in himself. Maybe Padmé is trying to give him that, that feeling of strength, and he wraps his arms around her and moves his lips to the back of her neck. She gives a surprised moan and pushes herself upright and away from him, her touch no longer gentle but rough, as if she is disappointed with him for trying to please her. Anakin attempts to apologize but the cement is back in his mouth again, he can even feel the grind of the gravel against his teeth, and how the little pieces of rock have cut his gums. The sealing must have been a true marvel of engineering, to stop his only from speaking when he truly had something to say.
He stands in front of the mirror, Padmé’s hands tight as vises on his shoulders, holding him upright but not contributing anything to his jellied knees or falling spirits. He looks in the glass and sees that she had stitched his throat up with rough black yarn and that he is all attached again, everything where it should be. And even though the yarn is awkward and ugly, and it will force him (because Jedi almost always have some view of the future) to wear long-necked shirts to cover it up, Padmé saved his life, and he feels that saving him demands some sort of thanks, but just with his apology, the words are too important to get through.
Padmé seems disappointed with his response and she frowns.
“I’m sorry if you don’t like it,” she says, “but it was all I could find on such short notice…and I was never very good at sewing. Anyway, you’re very lucky, Ani. You were already in hell when I found you.”
His speech is back, so he asks, “How did you get me out?”
Her smile is disarming. “I really didn’t,” she says. “They just agreed to let you go, because they said that you’ll burn forever there anyway. They said that you can’t cheat your destiny, Anakin, and they were right. And if you can’t be properly grateful for what I’ve done for you, maybe I’ll send you back to hell myself.”
Her face is beautiful and her words are cruel.
“That is what you did to me, after all, isn’t it, Ani?”
There are a thousand things he wants to say:
I never meant to do it, it wasn’t me.
Please, Padmé, I’m so sorry.
But I love you. I love you so much.
And most importantly:
Is this really happening to me?
That’s what he tries to say, as he forces his mouth open around the crackling cement and then gapes because even if he managed to open up, he cannot force words out of his rock-filled mouth, and when he strains, some little pieces are sucked into his windpipe and some just cut his all up inside until, when he gets his mouth to open again, all that comes out is blood.
Padmé sighs when he sees his jaw and lips locked in a permanent circle. She picks his lightsaber from his belt, his fingers skimming over the hilt in mute study, and he knows, knows, knows what his wife wants to do with it, so he runs. His legs are not locked, after all, he is not one of the flies struggling in the glue-paper, so he can run. He only hopes that, as he takes off, long legs pumping, that he can run faster than her. He dodges familiar and unfamiliar pieces of furniture, his leaps carrying his over footstools and abandoned bowls resting on the carpet. He is aware, in the back of his mind, that he is running on the pure energy that the Force is giving him, and that his strength will soon be gone, and that Padmé will be able to do whatever she wants before she catches up with him, because he’ll just be lying on the floor. One look back, and he can tell that she knows it, too, because she is watching him with this patient, indulgent look on his face, telling him that if he isn’t a fly, he’ll drop like one soon enough, he will be completely hers.
The way he always should have been.
As if the realization itself has sapped all his strength, Anakin crumbles and falls, his hand two inches from the door and escape. Padmé stands still for a moment, watching his legs and arms skitter on the floor, trying to thrust himself up to just make those last inches. She watches his futile attempts for a moment and then comes closer, the hilt of his lightsaber shining. She kneels over his face, and it is beyond him even to reach up and touch her, to replace that smugness on her face with love.
“Poor little fly,” she says. She places one hand down on his shoulder and presses him against the floor. He can smell the fresh flowers in her perfume as she bends over and kisses his gently on the lips, the gentleness suddenly gone when she bites him, and strikes him across the face, but he could taste her for a moment, and he thought, I will remember this forever-that we were in love. I will taste this all through eternity and hell won’t seem so bad.
Padmé’s voice rises slightly as he calls for others to come in, and in a moment, they are joined by Obi-Wan, bloody kitchen knife in hand, and Qui-Gon, somehow resurrected from his pyre, holding a thin, budding sapling. They nod understandingly when they see Anakin pinned to the floor, and Obi-Wan raises his knife in suggestion.
Padmé nods. “For a moment,” she says, and holds out her hand to receive the blade. Obi-Wan gives it to her, safe, wooden handle first, and Padmé’s beautiful face is visible to him once more as she lowers the knife to his neck. He first hears a sound like the plucking of a harp string, and then warmth trickles down his neck. Padmé snaps a second taut stitch, and then more, until there is only one holding him together, the centerpiece. She hands the knife back to Obi-Wan and smiles at him. He smiles back and Anakin notices that Obi-Wan may be walking around, but he is just as dead as Qui-Gon should be. His face is cold and stiff with the grave, and his limbs bulge like gaunt sticks from his body.
“I know it’s hard to watch me do this to your Padawan,” Padmé says, “when you could be doing it yourself, but just remember, you got to kill him last time, for all he did to you, so it’s my turn now.”
“I know,” Obi-Wan says. “And he is your husband, so this is justified. But if you ever bring him back again, I want a few hours alone to kill him.” He nods at Anakin’s stiff form on the floor. “For the Order.” He smiles and his lips are bluish-purple with death. “For everything, my young Padawan Learner.”
They share a look of perfect understanding, and Anakin has just gathered up the strength to twitch when Padmé crouches and pushes against his shoulders hard enough to bruise, and Qui-Gon drops the sapling to clench his feet around Anakin’s legs. Padmé activates his lightsaber with perfect ease and at least this time when Anakin dies he has her face to look at, and Obi-Wan’s, and the sapling on the floor, curling up and wilting as he dies.
“My love,” he chokes out, and she pats his on the cheek as she drives the lightsaber slowly through him.
So he is in hell again, but most of the stories about it did not seem to be true. He is burning, yes, but there is no fire and no cackling demons around him. No one throws any stones and when he looks down, he cannot see any white worms eating their way mindlessly through his body. The fire is all underneath his skin, insatiable, and it makes him quiver all over. He thinks, helplessly, that hell is more like a very tight and itchy sweater than an oven. But tight, itchy sweaters are underrated as methods of torment, and so Anakin suffers, and burns.
He burns for three thousand years.
“I don’t know why you’re here,” Anakin whispers. He always whispers now. The cement in his mouth has disappeared, but hell has sapped all of his strength, and it takes everything he has within him to speak. He doesn’t know how she manages to talk so much all the time, but he is newer here, strong, and he always talked more than she did anyway.
“It wasn’t my choice,” Shmi says, and the only sign of her being tortured is the slight strain in her voice. “But if this is where you are, then it won’t be too bad. We can keep each other company.”
“You shouldn’t be here,” he says, the same thought in different words, because he is still trying to wrap his mind around that idea. He can understand why he is here, because after all, he had done nothing he was supposed to do, and should never have existed, and it is fitting that something wrong should suffer and die even after death. But his mother was good, and better than him, and he thinks that the only reason she will burn for all eternity is because he loves him and cannot let him go.
Shmi touches his shoulder, and her hand is the one thing in all of hell that is cool and safe to be around. “Neither should you, Ani.”
He shakes his head from side to side. “This is the one place where I should be. This was where I was sent. It’s my destiny.”
Anakin can see his mother getting angry, here eyes growing dark and his flickering aura steadying with intense red waves. It is like watching a gas fire begin, and she grow brighter and more vivid with an emotion to lean on.
“This was never your destiny,” she says. “The Jedi were wrong, and I was wrong to let you go. This is all a mistake. You were meant for greater things than this.”
And while this is a very sweet thing to say, and Anakin loves her all the more for saying it and trying to make it real, he knows that it is not true. Because since it happened, it must have been his destiny, because death and what comes after is truly the end of everything. There are no other paths for him to follow, and the Force never made a mistake for him to try and remedy. So hell was his destiny, but it was not hers, and he is still terrified of who else he will draw into this place.
He begins to cry and the tears sizzle on his skin, adding more pain that he does not feel. “You shouldn’t be here!” he sobs, and leans against her, his tears dampening her rough peasant shirt. “You shouldn’t be here but I’m so glad you are because I want someone to be here so bad, I want you to be here so bad, I love you, I love you…”
Shmi holds him like a child until he is done crying. When he opens his eyes, he sees whiteness behind them, a beautiful opening in the darkness, and believes, gratefully, that he is finally going mad, that after this, everything will be easier. The doorway opens wider until it is a glaring contradiction to everything else around it, and he uncurls his fingers from his mother’s shoulder, staring at the space behind her. A tiny flower rests in front of the doorway, blossoming pale lavender petals.
“Look,” he says softly, and she turns and gasps. “What is it?”
“I don’t know,” Shmi says, and he can hear the soft accent in her voice this time. “But it is so beautiful.”
“It looks like life,” he says, and notices that his voice is changing, too, it is stronger again. Cement and whisper have both disappeared, and he is speaking the way he always should have spoken. “Life. I’d do anything to have my life back from here.”
Shmi is smiling. “Because this isn’t your destiny,” she says, and he knows that tone with her. It’s the motherly tone he once identified her by, and Anakin doesn’t understand how after centuries in hell and years away from him, she can still remember that voice so easily. “Are you going?”
And now he laughs and cries at the same time, because of course he is going, and his body is actually growing cooler. He can feel the fires underneath his skin dying out, and Shmi’s hand on his elbow, once the only thing that felt cooler than his, is like a hot iron, and he can’t stand it. He tries to gently shake it off, but her grip is strong from hard labor, and he can feel her fingers burning into his skin.
“Mom!” he exclaims. “Stop it! You’re burning me!”
“What?” she asks, surprised, taking her hand off, and when he manages to pull his eyes off the gateway to life, he gasps in horror at the sight of her face while she falls to her knees at the sight of his. Because he has been life-touched, and everything has been restored, while Shmi is still a monstrosity after hundreds of years in hell, and her face is burned and charred, with torment written on every line. He knows that he is alive, now, however, because she is staring at him in mute worship, and then lowering her eyes, ashamed to look. But he also understands that he is not any kind of god, he is only restored to how he looked in life, but that is so much better than anything here that it is glorious beyond comparison. Yes, he dimly remembers that when Shmi first came, he fell to his knees, too. But she had dropped down beside him, recognizing his aura and maybe his eyes, and asked where they were, and when he told him, they cried together.
But Anakin can’t fall beside his mother now because he can’t even stand to look at her anymore. He can’t kiss her or touch her or love him anymore because she is only just like everyone else now. He is alive now, or very close, and it is no responsibility of the living to worry about the dead. But he has to leave quickly, before the doorway disappears and he is left alone with a dead woman for company.
So Anakin runs towards the doorway, his cool footsteps sending steam up from the floor, and as he bends to pluck the flower from the foot of the door and throws it back at Shmi without looking, wanting her to at least have something real and better that she could touch, but he also knows without looking that the flower burns up before it reaches her, and as he passes through the doorway, he can hear his mother’s screams as he leaves her alone to hell.
He thinks that maybe he will pray for her.
And now he is dressed in black drab, firmly snapped up to cover his neck and his wrists, the sackcloth low and dragging near his feet. His eyes are dragging along the floor, and he is painfully aware that everyone is staring at him. No one ever stared at him in hell, not until Shmi had worshipped him in the end, because he had been exactly like the rest of them. But now he is marked, he knows that somewhere underneath his face, they can see the mark of the beast, and they all hate him now. They will stone him and send him back to hell, he can feel it in the thunderous atmosphere. Anger is crackling underneath the surface of the crowd.
Sabé, in the high judge’s seat, frowns at Anakin and adjusts her dark robe. The crowd murmurs in approval of the frown-yes, yes, they say, Anakin can almost hear them, he is a monster, he came from out of death, we need to send him back.
“Are you ready to speak?” Sabé asks him.
“I don’t know if I can,” Anakin answers frankly. “Sometimes I can’t say anything because it seals up my mouth.”
Sabé shakes her head in disapproval. “No one is doing anything to you, Anakin.”
“They are!” Anakin insists. “It’s been like this for years. It’s part of me now,” he adds, but Sabé is shaking her head again, slowly, staring at Anakin as if the words out of his mouth are reaching new lows. Anakin is becoming uncomfortably aware that he is the mutant in the room, that even if there is nothing wrong with his physically, everyone else can see something inside of him, or about him, that he cannot.
“You are you and only you,” Sabé explains. “And you cannot blame the actions you choose to take on the Dark Side. You had a choice. You will always have a choice.”
“But this is different, this was why I was born,” Anakin tries, but now he is even getting to the point of wishing that the concrete in his mouth will come back so he can prove to Sabé that he is an innocent in all of this, that the Force has used him, and hurt him, that the Darkness left Shmi in hell, not him.
Sabé smiles sadly at him, knowing that he is a lost cause and that no matter what Anakin is told, he will never understand. “That doesn’t take away your responsibility. Anakin Skywalker, you have been tried for the crimes of abandoning your mother, who loved you, in hell, for bearing the mark of the beast, and for destroying what millenniums of Light had created. Jury, what is your verdict?”
Anakin turns to see the jury, hoping that he will find sympathetic faces to give him an idea of his fate, but all of the faces in the box are on fire, and Shmi, scarred and mutilated, reads in a raspy voice, “We find the defendant… guilty. Of all charges.” He looks at her and he sees that she has no eyes anymore, that her eyes have been swallowed whole by hell, and that now there are only hollows in her blackened, charred face.
“I sentence you to live, Anakin Skywalker,” Sabé says calmly, nodding at Shmi to sit back down. “Your punishment is to live forever behind black eyes and to destroy all that you touch. Wake up, Lord Vader,” she said suddenly, her voice differently pitched. “The Emperor says the damage you sustained is over now.”
“My damage?” he whispers.
“Behind black eyes,” Sabé says cruelly. “That is your punishment.”
“Please,” he said. “Take it away.”
“Anakin, Anakin, Anakin,” Obi-Wan scolded from his place behind, in the seats. “What can a poor fever-dream possibly do to help you? You’re dead now, and Vader is born. He is ready to wake.”
And from fever dreams and injections, Vader awoke in his new life-suit, and saw that the Empire had truly begun, and so had his second life.
Now he looked at everything from behind black eyes.
If we shadows have offended
Think but this and all is mended
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear…
--Shakespeare, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”