Short Story // A Helpful Plaque
Two doors. One leads to certain death. The other leads… elsewhere. In front of each door stands a guard. I am permitted to ask one guard a single question. Based on the given answer, I must select which door to open and enter. I will die or continue my journey.
And get this: one of the guards always lies. The other always tells the truth.
Thankfully there’s a small illuminated plaque nearby with all of this detail explained for anyone who approaches. I mean, otherwise, how would you get your head around the set-up? Yes, we’ve all seen Labyrinth, but you can’t go assuming that every pair of doors you’re forced to choose between will a) have a ‘certain doom’ option and b) feature attendant sentinels who represent the extremes of truth and untruth.
The first version of this story was written from the perspective of the lying guard, a monologue revealed by its conclusion to be a mirror of itself: every utterance a falsehood, its intended meaning the opposite of its literal. The dishonest guard is forced to join the city patrol against his will, but falls in love with another trainee –the truthful guard. The only way they can be together is to be posted here, where they may never speak to each other.
In the lying guard’s actual words, he dreams of joining the city patrol, despises the truthful guard, is in agony when he learns of his posting at these doors, alongside this hated colleague. He claims, of course, to always tell the truth.
Here’s an excerpt:
I always wanted to be a guard, right from the time I was a tiny child. There was no other dream I cherished so dearly. I held it close to me, refused to let it go.
My parents tried to dissuade me. They begged me to stay, to learn, to spend my time in libraries and classrooms, thinking and debating and laughing. I sneered at their vivid descriptions of louche literary salons and poetry in perfumed cafés, asked them who exactly they thought I was.
Sweat. Dirt. Spit. Blood. These are the sights and the smells I want to surround myself with, I told them. The sound of marching music. Bellowed orders. Screams of terror, of pain. Of men together, fighting, taunting. That’s who I am, I said.
I left, with my head high. Dignified. Intent.
And so on.
But my friend Jim pointed out that if the narrator guard always lies, it’s not simply a case of his words meaning their opposite; pretty soon serious structural and conceptual questions arise. I wrote that the lying guard said the two met during training, that he immediately hated the truthful guard, when he really meant he loved him. Jim asked why, if the guard always lies, would he say truthfully that he went to guard school? Would he honestly admit that he met the object of his desire? Surely he never went there. The two never crossed paths.
What sort of life would the lying guard have led to this point? Why would he always lie? What twisted mental tortures must he face each day? Does he lie at the sentence or paragraph level?
I pondered. Recalibrated. Wrote this instead.
I face the doors. The guards. A choice. I consult my phone, google ‘two doors lying guard one question Labyrinth answer’. The first result is Labyrinth Two Doors Riddle Solved! so I ask the right question, take the right door, avoid certain death.
Through the non-fatal door, it’s dark. I squint, and as my eyes adjust to the gloom, I see another set of doors. Another pair of guards.
I approach. The guard on the left, I note, is Gwyneth Paltrow. The other is Jorge Luis Borges. Beside them, backlit, a helpful plaque.
Anthony Hildebrand’s short stories and articles have appeared in National Flash Fiction Day anthologies, numerous websites, and in newspapers and magazines on topics ranging from fish farming to shipping to science and security. He was the writer-in-residence for the Warwick Words Festival of Literature and Spoken Word, 2012-2014, and is a former journalist, editor and occasional comedian. He likes cricket, noise pop and noir.
Anthony says that…‘A Helpful Plaque is about choice, or the illusion of choice, and about the light creeping around the edge of doorways to illuminate our way. It was inspired by Labyrinth, by reading on a softly glowing Kindle Paperwhite while getting my kids to sleep and built on the unsteady foundations of self-doubt and revision.’