I could smell the stench of death. From the first shades of darkness, I smelt the stench of death. A stench above me, a stench below me. Wherever I turned, I smelt the same stench. A putrid smell, like the smell of burning human flesh. Little by little, it flooded my nostrils. I tried to evade it but it pursued me. I turned to the right but it came up behind. I turned to the left but it struck my nostrils all the more. Whenever I ran away, it assailed me more. Where did this hateful smell come from? Who was forcing it up my nose?
The stench became unbearable. I had to overcome it. From my earliest days, I was accustomed to facing up to fears rather than run away from them. So why could I not outface this stench? I ran into the darkened street, guided by that stench. I ran and ran and ran until the stench was right under my nose. Then I stopped. My eyes lit upon a door that was beginning to open very slowly. My eyes were unable to distinguish the surrounds of the door. All I could be sure of was that the door was opening. I went in. The stench hit me full blast. I tried to block my nose with my hands but was unable to do so. My hands were helpless, not responding to what I wanted. I looked right and left, in an attempt to get away from the stench. But it only became stronger.
There I was, listening to the smell, hissing at me, “Where will you run from me? Whatever you do, I will catch you.”
I replied, my tongue frozen in my mouth, “What have I done to you to make you pursue me so ruthlessly?” I tried to move my neck to getaway. It came on even more strongly. Its voice was not unfamiliar. It was like the voice of my ailing wife on her death bed. I wanted to make sure of something deep down. “Who are you?” I asked the voice.
“Do you really want to know?” it asked.
I tried to go back in time to the day I found a treasure that I had spent nights and nights seeking. That day I came to my wife, with darkness in my soul and the scant light of the treasure on my lips. I was wondering how I could persuade her to love me after about half a century of being together but with hatred evident, in every gesture, she flung in my face. I dropped the treasure at her feet. I told myself that now she would love me. I was giving her what she had wanted and sought ever since she was a child.
My helpless old wife clutched the treasure as if she wanted to tell me without saying the words that the treasure was no longer mine but had become her exclusive property. I did not argue. I wanted to make her love me. I was sick of hatred. I could bear it no longer.
“This is yours,” I said. “All of it.” My wife seemed taken aback at my words. That was the first and last time that she was taken aback at anything I said. She asked me whether anyone knew about this treasure. I shook my head. I wanted to say that it all belonged to us, both of us. Fifty years of anger flashed from her eyes. I could tell from her look that she wanted the treasure all to herself. I tried to make her feel that it did belong to her and that all I asked for was that she loved me a little. She just clutched the treasure tighter and tighter. I understood that she had finally found what might make her happy even if only a little. Let it be so! But she would not want to love me even if I gave her the treasures of Korah. I knew that all the treasure in the world could not purchase the heart of a woman filled with hate. But it was something I had to try in that total darkness.
I turned round in this room that was full of the stench of death. Everything was in utter darkness. I went back to my wife and saw her clutching the treasure with an awful strength. Days and nights passed by and my wife clutched the treasure. She was cut off from the world, asking for nothing, not even food or drink. All her concerns were about clinging on to her beloved, her treasure. I felt she had found a substitute for everything that surrounded her. I realised behind time that it was I who had presented her with this substitute. I said to myself, “So be it. Half a century of hatred has gone by. And in exchange . . . trying to get closer to her and persuade her to love me. There’s no harm in keeping on trying.”
As I wandered among bats and jackals in the dark nights I always ended up stopping in the same place in front of her in the same room. The sight of her had not changed. My wife had cut herself off from the world, and my dream was limited to getting her back to it, then if I was able to bring her back to her normal life perhaps she would love me. Without much reflection I started offering her whatever was good and sweet from the fruits of the night. I piled them up before her in the hope she would take something that would nourish and strengthen her and make her carry on living. Perhaps then she would come to me that very night. Except she took nothing. I came back to her with more fruits and piled them up before her in the hope she would eat a very little. I was surprised whenever I came to her in her room and she was staring at the huge pile of food in front of her without stretching out her hand to it. I took one of the large pieces of fruit and offered it to her in the hope she was conscious of me, but she turned her face away. She stuck her tongue out in revulsion. I felt the fruit with my hand. It was a big apple. I turned away – it had gone rotten and there were maggots crawling out of it.
My wife started wasting away until I could hardly see her. If it had not been for the treasure in her grasp, perhaps it would have been impossible to see her. As she wasted away, I observed that disease was ravaging my wife. I had no alternative but to take her to the doctor but she refused. I felt she was afraid that I would take the treasure from her and keep it for myself. Perhaps it occurred to her that I might look for another woman to love me after all that overwhelming hatred that had endured to feeble old age. Still, I tried to convince her to see the doctor and to go through with an operation which I knew was risky, but that was better than sleepwalking to death. She went on refusing.
Thus we both found, she first of all and then myself — although the truth was completely the opposite, me first, then her — that we were in a dilemma. I wanted her to have an operation that might save her life, she refused so that I did not take her treasure, which earlier had been mine. Time passed hurling me from blackness to blackness. I grew tired waiting at the edge of the dark and the mist, and I surrendered to fitful sleep.
I saw my wife get up, lift the treasure, and crash it down on my head with all the strength of her weakness. She shouted at me, saying I wanted to make her have an operation to give me the chance to seize the treasure and to enjoy a happy life with one of the virgins of Paradise. She continued to bash the treasure on my head. Blood gushed until it was not long before I was like some fountain. After that my wife poured a burning substance over me. The smell of burning flesh spread from my body pervading the streets and the darkness. Meanwhile I left my own body. I saw her cast beside my corpse. I cried out, “Has my wife died?” I carried on screaming while I ran in flames through the streets… the stench of death in my wake.
For Carlos, for our hunger
As a boy I was hungry, bam. I came home running, jumping, and my mother would say: “Cut it out! Don’t move so much or you’ll be even hungrier,” but I said to her: “No, lady. You cut it out, you’re trapped, you cut it out: I’m a pirate and you, my whale,” bam, bam. My mother was confused: “What game is that? I don’t like it, I don’t like that game at all,” to which I responded: “I’m going to grill you whole, whale, and then I’m going to fill up on meat with you, make a broth of ribs with your ribs,” bam, bam, bam. My mother didn’t like to play along, she said: “Well today you’re having bread and oil, look,” and bam! My stomach started to shout: “Bam, bam! Bam!,” as she broke the bread in half, poured oil over the two parts, and gave me the bigger half. I bit into the bread and my hunger got worse. Such little food wouldn’t calm me, the piece of bread just got me worked up. It was such a little piece, but my mom said: “Boy, eat slowly, enjoy it, break it up, break it into little pieces, look, like this, little bitty,” but I shouted: “No, no, no! I’m hungry!” And I kicked the walls, and I cried, and my stomach shouted “Bam, bam, bam!” Sometimes my mother got furious, she grabbed my arms, she shook me. She said: “This is what there is, don’t you see? This is all there is! Why is that so hard to understand?” and I cried, and cried harder and she cried, and she broke her bread—her already broken bread—in half, and she said: “Here, take it,” and she put it in my hand, sometimes, and sometimes she shoved it into my mouth.
When I stopped crying and we calmed down, I dreamed of pots and plates: pots and plates full of food. The pots piled up in the kitchen and the plates piled up on the table, and as we ate, more pots and more plates appeared, full, overflowing with food. More and more appeared and the piles grew and they filled the whole house, and there were so many pots and so many plates that they didn’t fit inside the house, they rose up through the ceiling and they slid off the roof and scattered everywhere: the street was full of pots and plates and the pots and plates reached the corner and continued their journey down the rest of the streets in town until they made a faraway mountain that protected or looked after us, a huge, enormous pile of pots and plates: pots on top of plates, bam, plates on top of pots, everything on top of everything, and then, at that point of abundance, I started to imagine what was in each pot. I imagined potatoes with parsley; pumpkin and salted meat; fried pig skin and peas, rice with cheese and plantain. The pots were full of noodles with tomato and onion; full of suero and yam, stewed chicken thighs. There were meatballs and lentils: a thousand lentils for each meatball, a thousand meatballs per pot. There were cooked garbanzos. And on the plates, a ton of fish: mojarra, snapper, hake, grouper, bocachico, sierra . . . There were lemon slices between each fish; tomato salads, lettuce and cucumber; coconut rice and raisins. There was also fruit—corozo and guava, sapote and mango, watermelon—I squeezed them with my hands and in my hands they became the most delicious juices. On the plates and in the pots there were sweets: honey and coconut, flan, cream, and tres leches. I ate everything, I ate so much, bam, that I got so fat I turned into a ball. And I got fatter and fatter until I turned into a balloon. And I started to rise up off the ground, bam, and I rose up, and up. And I rose up and up, bam! And from the air I apologized to my mother: “Forgive me, mama, forgive me! I didn’t leave you any food. I didn’t realize, forgive me, it was so little food.”
Years went by and the hunger continued. I had no memory of that childhood by the time I met Franky. In those days I wanted to love. The first time we spoke I’d just been fired from a restaurant, the only job I’d ever had: a lunch counter called Big Mouth. “The food is for the customers,” the owner, doña Eulalia shouted, and my stomach shouted back: “Bam, bam, bam!” She said to me: “Finish cleaning and leave, don’t come back,” so I took off my apron and I dropped it on the floor, and, trying to make myself feel something—annoyance, anger, anything—or maybe as a sign of protest, I threw the broom and mop as far as I could in the direction of the bar. “Eat shit, doña!” to which she shouted back: “You’re the one who’s going to eat shit, you stupid kid,” bam, bam. I shouted at her, I shouted some more. I left the restaurant and of course I started to get hungry, bam, or maybe I was confusing hunger with the emptiness of anxiety.
“You look weird without your apron,” someone said in the street, weeks later, and bam, something opened up inside me: an emptiness that wasn’t hunger, bam, bam, bam! Someone I hadn’t seen had seen me. Then I saw his beard—black—his black eyes, the freckles on his face. He said: “A while ago, a Sunday, at Big Mouth I ordered a coffee with milk, but you brought me an orange juice.” I thought: “Maybe I was craving orange juice and that’s why I got mixed up.” We laughed. I looked at him and looked at him trying to make up for all the time I hadn’t looked at him, surprised I hadn’t noticed him, even when I’d talked to him. Then he said to me: “I’m hungry,” and again. “I’m hungry.” All I could think to say was that if I still worked at the restaurant, I’d give him an almojábama with milk, on the house—in those days I wanted to love. But he repeated: “I’m hungry,” bam, without thanking me for my imaginary gift. “I’m hungry.” Bam! “I’m hungry,” bam, bam, hugging his stomach.
The more he mentioned his hunger, the less he looked at me. And as I looked at him, he looked at his stomach, bam! I was hungry too. I thought: “I have ten big bills left.” I did the math. I said: “Let’s eat, it’s on me.” He smiled for a moment, looked back at me. He said: “Let’s go, yeah, let’s go now,” and he took me by the hand—bam—to guide us down the path to food.
“It’s called Buena Mala. They sell meatballs, stewed chicken, garbanzos. Doesn’t it sound good? I want everything. You’re not hungry? I want to eat everything.” I listened to Franky as we walked: I was hungry, bam, bam, but I was thinking about the ten big bills. “How much will it cost, I wondered, as he, not looking at me, continued: “They also sell bean stew and fish soup. I’m so hungry! I want everything. I’m so hungry!”
We turned the corner and bam! Even hungrier: the place was closed, bam, bam, bam! He bent over and shouted: “It can’t be, no! What am I going to do? I’m hungry, I’m so hungry!” I said to him: “We’ll go somewhere else, I’m hungry too,” but then he pulled away without looking at me: “You don’t understand, look. Look!” and he pulled up his shirt to show me his belly, pulsing—bam, bam, bam!—and across his flesh, a long trail, rough, also made of flesh: a pink trail, purplish in parts, flesh forking onto flesh. His belly looked like skin pulled tight over a huge heart—his stomach—about to burst, bam: to break through the skin and shoot out, bam, and crash into me, bam, crash into me. I asked him: “What is that, why is it like that?” to which he responded: “It’s my hunger,” and then: “The scar,” and then, bam, bam: “My stomach is bigger than me.”
Then it was me who took him by the hand. I said: “Let’s go this way, follow me,” and I didn’t let go of his hand—bam, bam—his soft hand, bam, bam, until we got to the spot: a restaurant, very expensive in my opinion, serving fried stuff and fast food. There was an empty table beside the coals and the pot of boiling oil and before we sat down the smell of meat overwhelmed us, bam, it made us even hungrier. “I’m so hungry, dear God!” he shouted. “Everything’s so delicious, I’m so hungry!” bam, bam, bam! I was hungry too.
We ordered corn with shredded cheese and mayonnaise; we ordered beef croquettes and cheese empanadas. We ordered a chicken skewer each: each skewer came with fries, peppers, and onion. I looked at him as he looked at the raw chickens that slowly became less raw over the coals. I looked at him as he looked at the raw dough turning into arepas in the pot.
“Bring us two tangerine juices,” he ordered the waiter when the first round of food arrived. He picked up a piece of corn, I picked up the other one. He ate, ate, ate until there was no more corn, bam. Then he continued with the croquettes, he ate and ate. I told him: “Take them all”—in those days I wanted to love. He said: “Okay,” and he took them all, bam. He ate and ate, bam, bam.
I was still on the corn when the empanadas arrived. He took his. I asked him: “How’s your hunger?” He said: “I’m hungry,” bam, and then I gave him the kernels that were still left of my corn. He ate, bam, he ate. I bit into the empanada. “Do you like it?” he asked without looking at me, and still very hungry I said, bam, bam, bam: “It’s good, yes, but I’m getting full.” And so I gave him and he so bit into that second empanada, bam.
The juice arrived with the chicken skewers and the fries. Each bite he took was a bite he swallowed with a sip of the tangerine juice. He ate, he drank, he ate, he drank . . . I was already thinking that I’d have to give him half of my chicken too, or my fries, but finally he said: “Ahhh, how delicious!” and his belly agreed. “How delicious!” he belched, and continued patting his belly, bam, bam, bam. Now satisfied, he looked at me. “You eat like a little bird,” he laughed, as I chewed the last onions and the last peppers off the skewer, and although I thought: “I’m still hungry,” I said: “Yes, I’m not a big eater.” Then he said: “Let’s go, birdy. I have an invitation for you now, let’s go to my room,” bam, bam, bam. I called the waiter, I paid quickly: I gave him one of the ten big bills and he brought back the littlest bill and four coins: bam, bam, bam, bam.
We went to his room holding hands: he slammed the door, he looked at me, he locked it, he looked at me, bam. Franky said to me: “Now I’m much, much hungrier,” bam, and as I, truly hungry, took off my shoes, first—he looked at me—then my shirt, bam—he looked at me—my pants, bam, bam, my socks, my underwear—he looked at me—he bit me gently. He nibbled my cheeks and said: “Chubby cheeks”—he looked at me. He bit my nose and said: “Big nose”—he looked at me. And when he bit my mouth he said: “Big Mouth,” bam, bam, bam. We both laughed at the reminder of doña Eulalia.
His belly wasn’t pulsing when he took off his shirt: it was flat and no longer looked like a heart, or a heart attack waiting to happen, bam, bam. His skin was still marred by the long, long trail of flesh, and the trail didn’t look like a forked artery anymore, bam, about to burst, bam, but like a photo of a river from above. I was getting hungrier, my hunger hurt me, my hunger twisted me, but he looked at me and I looked at him. We looked at each other calmly. In those days I wanted to love.
As he nibbled at me, I bit him—with my teeth, bam, with my teeth. I bit him with my teeth, until he said, without looking at me: “I’m sleepy,” bam. “No more,” and he lay down to sleep, bam, and immediately began to snore. With each snore, a bam, bam, bam.
I also went to sleep. I lay down next to him, I hugged him and I hugged his stomach, bam, my index finger tracing his scar, my finger thinking it was a tongue on Franky’s scar. I slept. I slept some more, but I opened my eyes before he started to say: “I’m hungry.” His stomach was growling—bam, bam, bam!—and his belly was once again an enormous heart, a heart—his stomach—about to burst, bam. He kept saying: “I’m hungry,” and naked he went to the kitchen, and screamed, and slammed the door, and kicked the walls, bam, bam, bam. “The fridge is empty, I’m hungry!” And his heart, meanwhile, his stomach, looked like it was about to burst through his skin and shoot out, bam, and crash into me, bam, into me, bam, into me. “Let’s go out!” he shouted. He didn’t look at me. “I’m hungry!” I said to him: “Let’s go out, okay,” and we fumbled for our clothes, bam, and we got dressed, bam, and we took off.
We got to a café—“The sun is an egg,” it read over the entrance—and before we even sat down, he started ordering: “I want oranges, and an orange juice; a plate of chorizo, botifarra, and blood sausage; scrambled eggs, two, and also two fried eggs, the house tamale, the one with chicken and pork, and a basket of bread with pineapple jam. Bring me a coffee too, a lot, and on the side, a glass of milk.” Then he took a breath and without looking at me asked: “Do you have money? I forgot my wallet.” When the waiter turned around, he called him back: “Wait, he needs to order,” and he pointed to me without looking at me. I said, hungrily, and mentally counting my bills and coins: “One fried egg, a glass of milk, and a slice of toast.”
Each plate the waiter brought was a plate Franky put his arms around, bam, or built a wall around, bam, as he swallowed and swallowed. I said to him: “Calm down, I’m not going to steal your food,” just to make small talk, or as a joke, but he continued eating without looking at me or talking to me. I ate in silence. I ate, ate, ate: there was no more toast, I ate, no more egg either. I drank till the glass of milk was empty. And still, bam! I was hungry. I asked him: “Will you give me a bite?” pointing to the tamale and the blood sausage. He said: “Look,” and he lifted his shirt: his belly was alive. I said to him, “It’s all right, you eat.” In those days I wanted to love.
When he finished eating, he started looking at me. I looked at him and looked away. I was hungry! The waiter said: “Here’s the check,” and bam, I had to give him two big bills. I told him, “I’m leaving, see you,” worried about my money, worried about my hunger, but then he said: “Where are you going? We just had breakfast.” And, before going back to his room, in case we got hungry, we went to the plaza to buy groceries.
Weeks went by and the hunger continued. I wanted to eat. The days were always more or less the same: I ate very little, and with very little money, and when his heart, bam—his stomach—woke up, he ate, ate, ate, and didn’t stop eating. I began to lock myself in the bathroom when this happened: I lowered the toilet seat, I sat down, and took peanuts and raisins out of my pockets—I wanted to eat, bam, I wanted to eat. In the kitchen, meanwhile, Franky scraped pots and licked the plates saying, shouting: “I’m hungry and I want yucca. There isn’t any more yucca!”
One night I locked myself in the bathroom when he wanted to eat. I wanted to eat too. From my pockets I took a smashed bag of potato chips and a caramel and guava cake, also flattened. I was hungry. In the background, far away, I heard the bam, bam, his uncontrollable heart. “The peas are delicious, but there aren’t enough!” I heard him shout. Bam, as I swallowed the chips.
Suddenly, silence. I thought: “He went out to get food,” and, relieved, I opened the door, with half the cake still in my hand. There he was, stomach pulsing. “What are you doing in there?” he screamed, “What were you doing?” I said: “Nothing.” And he said: “You were eating, give it to me. I’m hungry!” I said to him: “No, I’m hungry too.” Bam! He said to me: “You don’t understand, look!” And his heart beat, bam, and the trail of flesh opened wider and wider, bam, and it beat, beat . . . He said to me: “Look!” And I said to him: “They’re my chips!” And he kept saying: “Look, look, look!”
He lunged to rip the bag of chips from my hand, bam, my chips, bam. My chips! I pushed him, I told him: “They’re mine!” bam, but he kept saying: “You don’t understand, I’m hungry!” and I said to him, bam: “They’re mine, they’re mine!” I gripped the bag and he pulled it and I pushed him as he said, bam: “Look at this! Look!” and the trail of flesh was opening wider and wider and I said to him: “Let go! I’m hungry, let go!” as the flesh opened and opened and he shouted: “Give me one! At least one!” and I insisted: “No, you already ate. No!” and the trail of flesh opened wider and wider, bam, and his flesh opened wider and wider, bam! And it opened wider. He shouted and I shouted: “What’s wrong with you?” but he shouted louder, and his stomach—his heart—“Bam!” And his stomach and my heart! And my stomach and his heart! Bam, bam, bam!
From the light fixture in the ceiling hung pieces of flesh. On my breath and in my clothes, strips of his stomach or heart. Before crying over him—in those days I wanted to love—I thought of my mother, bam, and of the game she didn’t like: she, the whale; me, the pirate. Bam, bam, bam! I remembered her soup, her rib soup. Then I looked at Franky’s ribs, bam, bam, bam! In those days I wanted to eat.
When I arrived in Brussels, the supposed end of the European dream was all the media could talk about. General levels of uncertainty had increased, as had violence on public transport – for instance, when one passenger asked another to turn down the music on their mp3 player or mobile phone.
One day, as I was coming back from taking a look at a studio flat that was available for rent in the Ixelles neighbourhood, I saw two groups of youths, numbering about thirty each, throwing bottles of Jupiler beer at each other on the steps to the Stock Exchange. The bottles rolled down to a stall selling fries, into a suffocating limbo of mayonnaise, crudités and burgers, soon to be followed by a stream of blood. The owners of the flats I was looking at kept asking personal questions – one old man even quizzed me about my sex life, asking in a whisper whether the girls I took home were “sensible, you know, discreet”. Like so many other people in my situation, for many years I had been beholden to miserly landlords and exorbitant rents. So, my meeting Elin at a dinner was rather fortuitous. She was Swedish. I walked her home. Although the host had placed us next to each other because we were both translators, we’d got on out of a shared and deeply rooted lack of interest in other people. Elin was translating some youthful poetry by a Nobel Prize winner from Egypt, or maybe it was Turkey. I addressed her formally because I wasn’t sure whether she’d yet reached the age of forty. She told me that she was thinking of moving to the Middle East for a while and offered me her flat while she was away. “What happened”, she said the next day as I was looking for my shoes and she was doing up her bathrobe, one breast still visible, “doesn’t change a thing between us. Remember that.” Belgium was a rather chaotic country at that time – it didn’t even have a government.
In exchange, I’d take care of her cat – Elin handed me a list of instructions from the vet – and pay the electricity and water bills. I also agreed to cover the cleaning costs, which meant paying Teresita, a Filipina, to come in twice a week. “She doesn’t have a resident’s visa. I don’t want to deprive her of one of the few jobs she has. She’s very nice and very Catholic,” said Elin, opening her eyes very wide, as if such an idea were inconceivable. “She sends everything she earns to her family in… Manila? Is that the capital of the Philippines? She has a key.”
Absorbed in my translation work, I made sure that I wouldn’t be there when Teresita came to clean. She was there for three or four hours in the afternoon. For some reason it made me feel uncomfortable, like when you give change to a beggar and make sure not to look at their sores. I’d never had any domestic help before; I’d never been able to afford any. I’d leave a few banknotes on the kitchen table and go out for a walk to see what they were showing at the Ancienne Belgique or to a public library where a Dutch gang sold adulterated cocaine behind the foreign-poetry section.
Occasionally I received an email from Elin asking after the cat. The animal was eating well and slept all the time, but it still treated me with indifference. I told her that some letters addressed to her from Brussels City Council had arrived and that I had opened them, as she had authorized me to do. Although we’d signed a contract – I needed a professional address; this also allowed me to determine Elin’s exact age: she was thirty-nine, ten years older than me – the council wanted confirmation that the persons named in the contract were indeed living in the flat.
“Don’t let them in for now,” Elin answered abruptly in the next email.
“You want me to lock myself in? Am I not supposed to leave the flat?” I wrote back.
“The flat is also in my husband’s name,” she explained in the next email (I wasn’t surprised). “In theory, he lives there with us. He’s called Kees. Please, do what I say.”
I didn’t answer. I imagined her husband as one of those men in suits who filled the terraces of the upmarket bars every Friday along with their ministerial cohorts. (Then, on Sunday, Kees would make macaroni encrusted with a thick coat of breadcrumbs. She was still in love with him, wherever he was.)
Of course, I didn’t lock myself in Elin’s flat, but I began to worry every time the doorbell rang. I decided to move my desk away from the living-room windows. At the time I was translating a nineteenth-century Polish author, mainly at night between ten and four in the morning. Before going to bed I would go into the interior patio and watch, heart in mouth, as the cat walked gleefully along the edge of the third-floor balcony. Standing out of reach, five metres above, it looked down at me defiantly.
The problem wouldn’t go away. First, the bell rang at noon. Then, a few days later, in the middle of the afternoon. I never bothered to find out exactly who it was, whether it was the people from the council, an acquaintance of Elin’s or – why not? – the postman. Soon the bell began to ring every morning between eight and nine, while I was still in bed. I sent an angry email to Elin; she promised to get in touch with the council. Meanwhile, I decided to work in the kitchen, at the rear of the flat, the windows of which looked out over a dark interior brick patio.
One day I pushed the computer away and started to make lunch. I was thinking about the Polish author’s strange predilection for having his characters engage in extended, exhausting sessions of lovemaking when suddenly, as I ate lunch, I heard a creak in the entrance hall. I thought it was the council workers trying to force open the door. I gathered myself and coughed a couple of times (to build up my courage?). When I went over to the stairs I saw a pair of small, bare female feet followed by small female body. I’d completely forgotten what day it was. The woman stopped next to the cat’s litter tray and waved with the same hand in which she held a pair of slip-on shoes. Then she started to laugh, covering her mouth with her hand.
“My name is Teresita.” She put the shoes on the floor and held out her hand. She was speaking in English. “Isn’t this funny? My name is Teresita.”
I told her who I was. She calmly went into the kitchen and looked for something in a washing-up bowl I’d never noticed before that was full of cleaning products. She made an unreadable face and looked at a Coca-Cola clock above the microwave. It was a quarter to two. I watched her from the table as I finished my chicken sandwich.
“Fifteen minutes,” she squeaked.
Then she took a napkin, banana and a half-empty water bottle out of her bag. She hopped onto a chair on the other side of the table; her legs must have been dangling free in the air.
“Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” I said. “A drink, beer, yoghurt… there’s also some tea.” I had none of these things.
She laughed, shaking her head. “I’m fine with a banana. I like to eat a banana in the afternoons,” she told me.
I took a fork and knife from a drawer and cut up what was left of my sandwich. “Do you have a lot of work?” I asked.
“A lot of work, no work at all… A lot of work, no work at all,” she answered in a sing-song voice with a smile.
I got up to get an apple and started to peel it. “Elin might be coming back next week,” I said.
“Lovely, oh, Mrs Elin is lovely…” she drank from her water bottle and looked at the cat, who had just come into the kitchen to see what was going on. The animal arched its back and shook its tail frenetically as though it had just received an electric shock in the anus. Then, without warning, it ran up to me and jumped onto my lap. I thought that it was attacking me, but it just stayed there with its chin on the table. Teresita finished her banana and started to clap.
“This is the first time,” I said. “She’s never done this before.”
“Do you like cats?” she asked me, wiping away tears of joy.
“They’re excellent company but also very independent.” That was as much as I knew about cats.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” She lit up and stared at me as a dense cloud of hashish formed around her head.
“Wacky tobacky,” I said, smiling.
“Do you like cats?”
“No, no, no,” she answered with a face. “They’re dirty and pee everywhere.” As she waved her arm to indicate everywhere, she spilled ash from her joint onto the table.
She jumped back off the chair to get a Chouffe beer glass, which she used as an ashtray. She had the smallest feet I’d ever seen.
“Do you always eat on your own?” she asked.
“Alone, or just you and the cat, or just you and him,” she said, pointing to the computer but careful not to touch it, as though it might explode.
She stuck her tongue out at the cat and smiled. “It’s not good for a man to eat on his own. It’s not healthy.”
“I like it,” I replied automatically. “I like peace and quiet.”
“But people who eat alone grow mean and grumpy,” she took a long drag and put the joint out in the Chouffe glass. “You need to respect the food.”
“Who says?” I asked.
She went quiet. Then, suddenly, she exclaimed, “Two o clock exactly! Time to get to work.”
She slipped on her shoes and started running around all over the place. She filled a couple of buckets with hot water in the kitchen sink and disappeared into the bathroom and then through the door into the living-room. Through the misted glass Teresita’s movements looked ethereal. I went on working on my translation. I’d got stuck in a description of a House of Dreams from the Polish author’s book. In a border town, where in February the snow falls like a funeral shroud, a Russian lady called Natalia, née Golanova, moves in. She hires several men to clean up a property she has rented. They’re the only unemployed people in the town: cripples, a group of Finns – no one knows where they came from – and several who are dying of lung cancer. The rest of the town spends all day in the mine. One afternoon a pair of drunk miners help to hang a sign on a clean, refurbished wall: NATALIA GOLANOVA’S DREAM HOUSE. Whistles, applause and uncertainty. It is rumoured that Natalia has a hoarse voice, that she is skilled in medicine and can control the weather. These rumours are enough for some of the miners to grab their crotches in anticipation of imminent pleasure. But women are forbidden to enter the rooms of Natalia Golanova’s Dream House (all of which are singles). A sign on the door declares that the beds are the latest thing in ensuring a good night’s sleep, straight from St Petersburg. And it is true. The springy, soothing mattresses provide a very unusual form of good night’s sleep. Less than two months later the men start to meet up every Sunday in Natalia Golanova’s Dream House. On the front porch they share their dreams, most of which are just accounts of coitus in which Natalia’s lithe body helps them to predict the fate of Poland and the Russian Empire in the light of the latest psycho-physiological theories.
I remembered that I’d dreamed of Elin. I couldn’t quite remember how her body looked, and that’s always frustrating.
Then Teresita burst into the kitchen. She had a pink rubber glove on her left hand, making her chubby fingers look like deformed penises. She looked at me like someone supervising a sick child with a gun.
“Do you need anything?” I asked.
“There’s someone at the door,” she said.
My mind went blank for a few seconds. “People who eat alone grow mean and grumpy,” I said to myself.
“We won’t answer,” I’d included her without realizing it.
“Would you like me to answer it?”
“If you do, you and I are going to have a serious problem.”
I told her about the letters, the council and their inspections. She instinctively shrunk back under the boiler and rubbed her thumb over her lips, trying to work out what to do. Now she was barefoot again.
I gave her a glass of water. She drank it looking straight ahead, as though her corneas were dry or she suffered from a hyperactive thyroid. She said, “I don’t like it”, but didn’t say what.
The bell rang a second time.
“Would you please give me one of those cigarettes, Teresita?”
I lit it. After I’d had a couple of puffs she grabbed it off me and inhaled deeply, her elbows stuck out on either side.
“You can stay for as long as you like if that will help.”
“Does Elin say so?” she asked indignantly, stubbing out the recently lit joint. She had suddenly turned against me. “Why are you in this flat?”
I went over to reassure her. I put an arm on her shoulder, trying to convey affection and trust. Trying to be worthy of the flat. How old was Teresita? Thirty-five, fifty-five? Did she have children? I was starting to hate Elin, imagining the subject line of the email in which I refused to go on paying for the cleaning.
“Mr Kees is so lovely,” she pronounced it similarly to kitsch. “Do you know him? Sometimes he calls, and we have long conversations.”
Sick of all this, I took a decision. “Leave it for today; don’t worry about the money,” I took some notes from my wallet. “You can stay here for as long as you like. They won’t bother you here.”
She scurried off and locked herself in the bathroom with her bag. Several minutes passed without a sound. During that time I filled the cat’s bowl with food. Then, scared, I knocked on the bathroom door. She opened up without looking at me, in her street clothes, wearing trainers and a shiny hairband. Her cheeks were rosy, as though she’d just come out of the changing rooms of a famous tennis club. She took the money I’d left on the kitchen table and tucked it somewhere under her shirt.
“Come with me,” she ordered.
I went with her to the front door. She gestured to me to open it. After I did so she told me to go to the corner to check for council staff. I went out and walked down the street to the metro station. Then I came back. In front of the house, in the little square that housed the consulate of a recently formed Asian country, a priest was trying to deal with a black beggar who was spinning round and round on skates. It looked as though there might be a fight until the priest caught sight of Teresita and me.
Teresita asked me if she could ask me a question. She had been sitting on the curb. “Aren’t you ashamed?”
I felt like asking her what she and Kees talked about, but there wasn’t time. As I was getting ready to ask her about the nature of her conversations with Elin’s husband – if she read tarot cards, did his star chart or gave him little religious homilies – she grabbed her knock-off bag, turned her back on the plaza and quickly walked down the street, staying close to the wall. After she was swallowed up by the escalator of the Brussels metro I saw the priest and the beggar coming towards me. As they came closer I saw that, in fact, the priest was another beggar in a tattered cassock, as though he had stepped out of a post-punk parody. They broke into a run, so I hurried back to the flat and nervously locked it behind me. It was only a matter of seconds before they started to ring the bell. I left the intercom off the hook, concentrating on the metallic racket coming from the street. One of them said “Boo!” – as though he were trying to scare a child – and burped. A few seconds later a peal of laughter indicated that they were walking away, like everything else I didn’t care about during my period of mean, grumpy solitude.
This vinegar is exactly ninety-nine years old, if the calculations I jotted down on my calendar of motivational quotes are correct, because the perfume was produced exactly a week before the enormous concrete head of Saddam Hussein hit the ground. The proverb of the day was: The kangaroo keeps her young in her pouch, the perfumer keeps his in his nose. The city was in chaos. The syrup factory workers were rushing home on their motorbikes, carrying empty tins that were no use to anyone and would be sold a few days later to a nursery as containers for growing carnations; as for the syrup, they’d left it oozing in the press. All of Basra was being pressed, and the syrup of agitation and anxiety was dribbling out of it; number one on the list of the top ten things being squeezed just then was the president’s head under the feet of the citizenry, while the factory’s syrup came in last. Numbers two to nine were large noses under angry feet.
I was sold it by one of the employees of the National Snot Bank, a rotund young man who has a nervous habit of fiddling with his collar and twitching his neck when he speaks to you. We’ve developed a close relationship, and he’s become my agent, so I no longer need to review the bank’s biannual report. He visits us and collects our snot reserves in insulated containers; the snot extraction process being highly delicate, and governed by strict legal terms and conditions, Salman Day By spends three hours with us each time—for that is indeed his name: Salman Day By. It’s said that his great-grandfather was deaf and mute as a child, and spent the hot afternoons on the banks of the Tigris (the Tigris was a small river which some theologians have speculated never existed and was in fact dreamed up by sinners, rakes and watermelon-juice drinkers). Day By Day, to use his full name, always clutched a lighter in each hand, the pockets of his dishdasha full of other, broken, lighters and his fingers ragged and torn from constantly flicking them alight. Between you and me, this great-grandfather was a simpleton nobody paid any attention to – but then he became famous in a matter of weeks when a short video of him speaking for the first time, to two American soldiers accompanied by an Iraqi interpreter, went viral.
The Day By Day clan went on to produce some of the most well-known businesspeople in the country, and amongst their descendants they count a TV presenter famous for his acerbic interviews of politicians, a gynaecologist, a pop producer, and a diminutive actor who appeared in one of Peter Spike’s films (in a five-second scene showing a confrontation between two great armies in the third century BC). And here, in the heart of Basra, we have the famous Day By Day mosque, now around 70 years old. I can’t imagine it will ever disappear, or its name change: the Day By Day mosque is a weighty icon in the citizenry’s collective memory, and you often see it on TV as a backdrop for whichever local media personality is appearing as a guest on the BBC. It was designed by a prizewinning British architect of Iraqi origin and is shaped like a rectangle; sprouting from the top by way of minarets are two palm trees, which incline slightly towards each other such that the azan comes out in stereo – the architect of the noble Day By Day clearly wanted to play with the symbolism of unity, harmony and longevity – and now, Salman’s family name no longer refers to the kid with the lighters but to these twin minarets. If he ever boasts to us, while draining our noses, of his remarkable professionalism or the bourgeois elegance and tact he brings to bear on the process of mucus extraction and storage, we don’t interrupt and give him the pleasure of listening to a human with a blocked nose, we just defy him by mocking the slogan of the National Snot Bank: ‘Ever tried singing with a blocked nose? It’ll make you happy, lucky and rich!’
Salman is in love with his boss at the bank, a woman in her fifties responsible for drawing everyone’s attention to the crook in his neck and his habit of fiddling with his collar and the second button of his shirt whenever he wants to speak: she rebuked him for it once, and kicked him out of her office, standing in the doorway as she spoke so as to be sure all the employees could hear her. After that, Salman’s tic became chronic; he’d do it unconsciously once, then on purpose dozens of times, to the point he became renowned for it. And not only did his boss reject him, she also insulted him and made fun of his face and his appearance, and even his family, mocking the fact they used to sell honey, vinegar and homemade hot sauce, leaving out the great mosque and the other more illustrious facets of their history.
This is the sort of thing Salman confides to me when we sit alone in the garden. I don’t like my children to hear when I’m evacuating my nose, and prefer the neighbours to listen instead: I actually want my neighbour to hear, as I’ve been trying to convince him for a long time that the sound of a man’s nose is a good indicator of his health and virility. Once, Salman got so annoyed at the sight of the neighbours’ heads popping up and disappearing again behind the wall that he packed up his metal containers and left, while I myself was pleasantly surprised.
Today I took out the vinegar I bought from him. The last of the children left earlier on the Euphrates train, with a warning that I mustn’t go back to licking the vinegar jar, and I swore I wouldn’t, knowing full well I’d slurp up a whole tablespoonful the moment he left the house, which is indeed what I did. And what a long and tedious farewell! He kept telling me I really ought to try the Euphrates train for myself, that it was so fast it would catapult him to the Gulf of Oman in just fourteen minutes, convincing passengers that the government’s decision to convert the dry riverbed into a tunnel hadn’t been so pointless after all. Once he’d said that, one eye on my index finger which was twirling in the air and dipping itself in imaginary vinegar, he left.
The snot is transferred from small vessels to large aluminium containers and transported north to the Gulf of Basra – the Inversion Project, which will convert south to north, is still in progress, by the way; I heard recently that workers are finding large snot reserves there, and that the project is running behind schedule: all that’s been achieved on the ground is the upending of the ground, while the hardest task of all still remains, namely to work out how people will be able to walk one way when they think they’re walking the other, or turn right when they’re turning left, by which I mean to say that the holdup is in the psychological preparations. They’re having to run opposite-direction induction workshops to train people in the new schema. Next comes the biological stage, which is slightly easier: take your stomach and your reproductive organs to your family doctor and have them perform a topical ointment massage and irrigation, and you’ll soon notice your body rotating to adapt to the new orientation – or at least that’s what the brochures and billboards and the posters in public toilets are promising.
Once that’s all over, I’ll be able to relax, and I’ll stop complaining to people, and everyone will understand that I’m just a regular guy who loves the inspirational sayings written in calendars. I’m just one in a long line of employees whose responsibility over many decades has been to draw the direction of the qibla in the Day By Day Mosque (should I have mentioned that sooner?), though I know my appearance might not be that of a lowly employee of the Day By Day family – and in fact my salary comes from the government, because the mosque belongs to the Ministry of Endowments.
But first, a week of intense work lies before me, because it’s me who’ll be responsible for reversing the arrows which mark the qibla after the enormous earthen prayer mat on which I and two hundred million other citizens reside has been flipped back to front. That said, compared to the fish in their marble pools, who will suffer immensely as the respiratory functions of their gills are inverted, my task should be quite fun; I used to do something similar as a child, when I’d scour the walls of streets frequented by lovers, and scrutinise tree trunks in search of their arrows, the kind they draw when no-one’s looking, and when I found them, scrape off their tips and make them point the other way. The fish and donkeys, with their innate sense of direction (not to mention their owners), will have a much harder time of it when their turn comes.
Salman Day By’s not scheduled to come tonight, so I won’t have the chance to show him I can drink an entire bottle of aged eau de toilette vinegar. Nor will I get to make fun of him for the fact his great-grandfather heard George Dubya’s first speech (“Day by day, the Iraqi people are closer to freedom!”) and uttered his first words – “day by day,” straight from the President’s lips – for two soldiers who got a kick out of poking fun at fat little boys, and in so doing became instantly famous. But all that’s become a fatuous refrain I repeat to irritate him and shut him up; I ought to summon up the spirit of the retired arrow-tip chopper instead and give him a free session on how to tie his shoelaces when the new orientational system comes into force.
*This story is taken from: “Iraq + 100: Stories from a Century After the Invasion”, ed. Hassan Blasim, Comma Press, 2016.
Nur al-Din al-Ajnaf had been a Communist at university. After the fall of the Soviet Union he gave up on Communism for good. Or perhaps this was a rumour close friends spread about him. Nuru was then free to work as a Physics teacher and to concern himself with his family. But nobody could doubt the man’s love of Russia. He used to make trips of a few days to cities there – he and a group of his friends among whom was their leader, Salah ‘Amir, whom they used to call Capo, meaning “Chief” or “the Boss” in Italian. Capo was a man in his sixties who had never married and had spent his life as a hippy. He had a ring in his nose and the tattoo of a dragon on his arm. He tied his white hair back in a pony-tail, and allowed his beard to hang loose. He was into rock music, drugs and snake charming.
The trips they made to the Land of the Great White Bear were not normal tourist trips, like those when people visit museums, art galleries, ancient sites and the other usual travel clichés. Rather, their trips consisted of hanging out in a city other than Tunis. The funny things that happened to them there were enough to provide material for subsequent evenings, with the arguments and mockery, both of themselves and other people, which that demanded. For example, on their last trip, they looked for a restaurant that prepared Tunisian cuisine in St Petersburg and they got to know the chef who was a native of the country. Soon the man, who brought them plates of couscous with beef, became the butt of jokes. The word “country” in colloquial Russian meant “whore”, and Capo would thank him with the words, “a true son of the ‘country’”. The man would go along with a smile and his face would go red. He had doubts about what was intended, especially when he observed that the group were silent and not one of them laughed. They did it deliberately, so as not to spoil Capo’s joke. After the son of the country left to go to his kitchen, they doubled up in hysterical laughter, but not Capo. He made some comments on the side, which made them laugh all the more.
One year, Nur al-Din and Capo decided to go to Moscow – just the two of them, as the rest of their friends had other things to do. They spent their first evening at a nightclub, drinking vodka and watching Russian girls doing the striptease. As they were going back to the hotel in a rented car, Capo told Nur al-Din that they should go together the following day to a health spa where there would be beautiful Russian girls who gave an excellent massage for only forty roubles. After the massage session he would feel enormously refreshed and released from weariness and tension. Nuru agreed to the idea.
The following day Capo was at the steering wheel telling his friend again about the health spa, which he had been to many times in the past. He was silent for a moment and then said, “Actually, they don’t just do massage.”
Nur al-Din turned towards him. “Meaning what?” he asked.
“The lot, my dear friend, the lot,” Capo said with a smile.
Nuru struck his forehead in a high spirited way. “You’re a disaster, Capo,” he said.
“You have to give them an extra twenty roubles. You’ll see how things are done.”
At the health spa they each entered a warm jacuzzi, staying there for about half an hour. They got out, put on a bath robe and headed to the massage parlour where the masseuses were dressed in white coats waiting for their customers. The place was not crowded that day. They stretched out on their stomachs on massage tables leaving the masseuses to do their job. Capo flirted with his masseuse. First he asked her name. “Evrena,” she said. His Russian was good, and she laughed as he chatted with her. She asked him to place his head on the table and relax. Nur al-Din knew some words, but did not have Capo’s fluency in the language, and he smiled as he listened and felt the masseuse’s gentle hands passing over his back. Capo asked them to leave him alone with his friend for a moment. Nur al-Din was surprised at this; the masseuses moved towards the door and he whispered to Capo, “Why did you do that?”
“It was a sign,” he replied, and pointing his thumb behind him added, “It takes place in the bathroom.” He held his palm out towards Nur al-Din: “Have you got forty roubles on you?”
“Didn’t you say they only wanted twenty?”
“Yes. I mean for you and me. You’re paying.”
Nur al-Din laughed and grabbed his head with both hands. “Yes I’ve got the money,” he said.
“Go and get them, then.”
They both got off the massage tables, and went to collect their clothes. Nur al-Din took out his wallet and Capo took a packet of pills from his coat pocket. He took one out and gave it to his friend.
“What’s this?” asked Nuru.
“It’ll help you.”
“Screwing, of course.”
“Do you reckon I need it like you?”
“Just take it, man. You won’t regret it.”
Nur al-Din handled the pill with some hesitation, then swallowed it and tossed his head back. Then Capo said, “Follow me.”
Nur al-Din followed him and found the two masseuses really were waiting for them in the bathroom. Capo went in with Afrina after giving her the twenty roubles. Nur al-Din went in with his masseuse after giving her the same amount. She said her name was Oksana while she was licking his penis and gazing at him with her green eyes. When they were done, they got dressed and left. Nur al-Din was glowering. They got into the car and Capo was in a good mood. When he noticed that all was not right with his friend, he said, “What’s up?”
“Nothing, nothing at all.”
“Speak man, what’s the matter with you?”
“No . . . the pill . . .”
“The sex pill?”
“Has it made you ill?”
“It had no effect.”
“Just as I told you.”
Capo smiled. “You’re joking.”
“Not at all.”
“Most likely, the blonde girl drained you dry.. Their woman aren’t like our women, Nuru, my good friend. One pill has an effect on our women but for their women we need a whole factory.”
“Do you really think so?”
They returned to the hotel. Nur al-Din had a shot of whisky which he drank from miniature he took out of the fridge. After nearly an hour he started feeling a pain in his penis. It had started to swell after he had slept with that girl Oksana and now began to grow erect. Capo was sitting there smiling and they talked about their programme for the evening. Nur al-Din suddenly began to fidget, got up and began to pace the room, his hands on his crotch.
Holding back his laughter, Capo said, “What’s the matter with you?”
“My prick, Capo. . .”
“What about it?”
Nur al-Din was moving with difficulty with pain etched on his face. Capo burst out laughing, gaining the attention of his friend. Capo had never in his whole life laughed as he was laughing at that moment. Nuru looked at him and felt that he had been victim of a trick.
“It’s the pill, isn’t it?” he said.
Capo nodded his head, his face red from so much laughter. He said with an effort, “The pill takes effect after an hour.”
“You knew that from the beginning, huh?”
Capo nodded in agreement. Nuru took a pillow and hit him hard with it, shouting, “Goddamn you, you rotten bastard.”
Capo tried to get his breath back. “Keep calm, it’s nothing serious,” he said. “Have another drink, and it will soon sort itself out.” He started laughing again.
After this incident, many of those who knew Nur al-Din al-Ajnaf began to debate the date he gave up on Communism.
After collecting the beer bottles from the bunkhouses at the sawmill, the brothers headed into the forest behind their house to eat wild blackberries, until their bellies were rotten with them and their fingertips were stained purple.
“Lookit.” Ben crouched on one knee, shaped his hand into a gun and took aim at a sparrow perched on a branch. “Bam!” The bird took flight through the trees. When the boys were in the forest, Ben spent a lot of time talking about BB guns.
“Don’t scare them,” Henry said. Their Mama kept three birdcages in the kitchen — one with finches, one with budgies and one with an African Grey — and Henry liked to stick a finger through the cages to rub their bellies or feel the curt jabs from their beaks. Every morning, it seemed to Henry, they tried to escape. At first light, he could hear them flapping around, screeching and knocking against the metal cages. By lunch they quieted, and by evening they slept. There was always a racket in the kitchen in the morning with the birds and the coffee machine and the brothers.
“It’s not real,” Ben said. He stood right in front of Henry and aimed his weapon at Henry’s black eye. “Bang!”
Henry flinched then looked away.
“Pantywaist,” Ben said. It was what their father called men he didn’t respect. Whenever Henry heard the word he thought of their mother’s underwear, the caramel-coloured ones that reached up past the belly button. Ben picked up two sticks and twirled them between his fingers like nunchucks, spinning his legs around with circular kicks. He pointed a stick at Henry’s swollen eye. “Does it still hurt?” It was the first time Ben said anything about it.
“No,” Henry lied. The area around the eye was a deep shade of purple, and this morning when Henry looked in the mirror and pried open the lid, there was a bloody spiderweb across his cornea. That day Ben had stood on the other side of the school’s chain-link fence, watching as the boys yelled faggot and chased Henry across the field toward the trees. Henry thought there would be lots of places to hide in the forest. Part of him had believed that once he hit the treeline, he would disappear or swoop high up into the branches of the evergreens like a winged creature.
“It’s this way,” Ben said when they reached a fork in the path. They were looking for a cave they found yesterday, past the clearing and past the creek. Henry wasn’t allowed to cross the water because he wasn’t a strong swimmer, but Ben had a way of making him do things, like sticking six peanuts up his nose. Henry had snorted most of them out, but he had to go to the emergency clinic for the last two.
This time they had matches with them, pilfered from the glove compartment of their mother’s car. The cave had been pitch black and Henry had ripped his favorite T-shirt scrambling from it after Ben let out a scream that made his eardrums go fuzzy. Ben was only teasing him, but in the total darkness of the cave Henry had imagined a bear’s coarse fur brushing against his cheek.
The creek came into view now, twisting through trees dripping with moss, and Ben ran ahead, wading through the water and coming out the other side soaking wet. He took off his shirt, wringing it out before putting it back on, smoothing the wrinkled cotton over his chest. “We need a torch,” he shouted across the water, picking up bits of dried grass and twigs from the ground. Henry scanned the length of the creek, trying to find a safe place to cross. The water was deep in parts, swirling gently where the rocks created whirlpools. Henry crossed along a line of large boulders, taking his steps carefully on the slimy green rocks. He tried not to think about being swept into the water and dragged all the way to the ocean. Every summer on their first day at the lake, their father would check his wristwatch and time Ben as he swam the length of the shore. He’d compare the result to last year’s time and then enter the numbers in a small booklet that fit in his shirt pocket. Henry would stand on the shore and watch, leaning against their father’s leg and letting his body go limp, his limbs hanging as though he were sick or very tired. When Ben came to shore, their father would pull out a stub of pencil for recording and give him claps on the back as Henry shrugged off the water drops that fell on him.
By the time Henry reached the entrance to the cave, Ben was on his hands and knees, already half inside, the unlit torch under one arm. Henry rushed to follow behind him, accidently bumping into his behind. “Give me some room, would ya?” Ben said, kicking at him. One of his kicks got Henry on the nose, making him sneeze and sending a spasm of pain through his eye.
The tunnel leading into the cave was narrow and as they crawled through, their bodies sealed off any light from outside.
“What about bears?” Henry said, feeling phantom bristles along his skin.
“The hole’s too small, dummy.” Ben’s voice was muffled.
The damp rock hugged the brothers as they squeezed blindly through the passageway, and then all of a sudden the cold walls were gone. The air became verdant, cool and wide. Henry reached out into the dark space and felt nothing. They sat silently in the void for a minute, close together, their knees touching. Henry tried to quiet his breathing so it sounded normal — the cave exaggerated every small noise. Ben lit a match, the delicate glow flickering, barely lighting the small circle between them. He held the match to the torch and the flame stirred before fizzling out. He lit a second match and the torch ignited, flaring brightly and filling the space with a smoke that smelled of burning hay.
“Holy crap.” Ben’s face warped in the fire’s weird light as he stood and swung the torch around. “This is awesome.”
The cave was almost a perfect circle of smooth rock walls with a dusty, pit-marked floor.
“Awesome,” Henry said, but the knot in his stomach was still there as he watched the sharp shadows move across Ben’s face.
A couple metres away from the brothers, something fell from the ceiling and landed near their feet. They stepped closer, peering down at the dark lump before looking up to find a black quivering carpet above them. Before Henry’s brain could make sense of the sight, Ben dropped the torch and darted out of the cave. In the now-total darkness, the impression hit Henry like a knee to the stomach — the cave’s ceiling was thick with large black spiders. Henry scampered back through the tunnel, but no light appeared before him. For a second, he wondered if he’d gotten turned around and was actually going deeper into the cave. His arms shook as he clawed at the darkness, trying to get his bearings. He hit something soft, reached out, and felt the stiff fabric of Ben’s jean jacket, his bony shoulder blades. Henry pushed at his brother’s back, but Ben had dug in his heels, sealing the exit with his own body. Henry’s throat tightened and from him came a strangled moan — an animal-like noise. “Benny, let me out.” Henry’s entire body trembled now, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Please.” His screams became frantic shrieks, echoing around the cave until they no longer seemed like his own. He thrashed around like one of the caged birds at daybreak. And then, all of a sudden, everything gave way — light poured around Henry’s body and he burst from the tunnel’s mouth, sprawling in the dirt, arms flailing over his body.
“Get them off me,” Henry shrieked. “Get them off.”
“There’s nothing there,” Ben said, doubled over, laughing so hard he was crying. He wiped at the tears streaking his cheeks, his dirty hands leaving behind bands of warrior dirt across his face. Even though Henry knew he was unharmed, he couldn’t stop screaming, his eyes wild and wide to the forest around them. Ben grabbed his shoulders and shook him.
*”The Spider in the Jar” from “Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility”, Copyright © 2013, Théodora Armstrong, Reprinted with Permission of House of Anansi Press Inc. Canada.
There are roosters around here somewhere.
Kneeling, with my head down and covered with a filthy rag, I concentrate on hearing the roosters, how many there are, if they’re in cages or a corral. Papa raised fighting cocks, and, since he didn’t have anyone to leave me with, he took me to the fights. The first few times I cried when I saw the poor rooster torn to bits in the sand and he laughed and called me prissy.
At night, giant vampire roosters devoured my insides, I would scream and he’d come running to my bed and again he’d call me prissy.
“Come on, don’t be so prissy. They’re just cocks, dammit.”
Eventually, I stopped crying when I saw the hot guts of the losing rooster in the dust. I was the one who cleaned up the ball of feathers and viscera and carried it to the trash bin. I would say: bye rooster, be happy in heaven where there are thousands of worms and fields and corn and families that love roosters. On the way, some cock fighter would always give me a piece of candy or a coin to touch me or kiss me or for me to touch him or kiss him. I was afraid that, if I told Papa, he’d call me prissy again.
“Come on, don’t be so prissy. They’re just cock fighters, dammit.”
One night, a rooster’s belly exploded as I was carrying it in my arms like a doll and I discovered that those macho men who shouted and jeered for one rooster to rip open the other were disgusted by the shit and blood and guts of the dead rooster. So I covered my hands, my knees, and my face with that mixture and they didn’t bother me with kisses and all that nonsense anymore.
They said to my papa:
“Your daughter is a monster.”
And he responded that they were the monsters and they clinked their shot glasses.
“You’re the monster. Salud.”
The smell inside the cockpit was disgusting. Sometimes I fell asleep in a corner, under the stands, and woke up with one of those men looking at my underwear beneath my school uniform. That’s why before falling asleep I stuck a rooster head between my legs. One or several. A belt of rooster heads. Those machos didn’t like lifting up my skirt to find little severed heads.
Sometimes, Papa would wake me up to clear away a gutted rooster. Sometimes, he did it himself and his friends asked him why the hell he brought his daughter if he was such a fag. He would gather the ruined and bloody rooster. From the door he blew them a kiss. His friends laughed.
I know that here, somewhere, there are roosters, because I’d recognize that smell from a thousand kilometers. The smell of my life, the smell of my father. It smells of blood, of man, of shit, of cheap liquor, of sour sweat and industrial grease. You wouldn’t have to be very intelligent to tell that this is an underground joint, a place hidden away who knows where, and that I’m well and properly fucked.
A man speaks. He must be around forty. I imagine him fat, bald and dirty, wearing a sleeveless white undershirt, shorts, and flip-flops; I imagine his pinky and thumbnails are long. He speaks in the plural. There’s someone else here besides me. There are other people on their knees here, with their heads ducked, covered in a disgusting dark cloth.
“Let’s see, let’s all calm down now, the first sonofabitch who makes a single sound I’ll put a bullet in his head. If we all work together, we’ll all make it through the night in one piece.”
I feel his stomach against my head and then the butt of a gun. No, he’s not joking.
A girl cries a few meters to my right. I suppose she couldn’t handle the feeling of the gun at her temple. The sound of a slap.
“Look, princess. No one cries on me, you hear? Or are you in a big hurry to meet sweet baby Jesus?”
Later, the fat man with the gun walks away. He’s gone to talk on the phone. He says a number: six, six motherfuckers. He also says there’s a good selection, very good, the best in months. He says they won’t want to miss it. He makes one call after another. He forgets, for a while, about us.
Beside me, I hear a cough muffled by the hood, a man’s cough.
“I’ve heard about this,” he says, very softly. “I thought it was a lie and urban legend. They’re called auctions. The taxi drivers pick up passengers they think they’ll be able to get good money for and they kidnap them. Then the buyers come and bid for their favorites. And they take them. They keep their things, they force them to steal, to let them into their houses, to give them their credit card numbers. And the women. The women.”
“What?” I ask.
He hears that I’m a woman. He goes quiet.
The first thing I thought when I got in the taxi that night was finally. I rested my head on the seat and closed my eyes. I’d had several drinks and I was depressed. I’d been at the bar with a man I had to pretend to be friends with. With him and his wife. I always pretend. I’m good at pretending. But when I got in the taxi I sighed and I said to myself What a relief: now I can go home and cry my eyes out. I think I fell asleep for a minute, and suddenly, when I opened my eyes, I was in some unfamiliar place. An industrial area. Empty. Darkness. My brain boiled with fear: they just fucked you over for life.
The taxi driver pulled out a gun, he looked me in the eye, he said with ridiculous politeness: “We’ve reached your destination, miss.”
What followed was quick. Someone opened the door before I could lock it, they wrapped the cloth around my head, they tied my hands and shoved me into a kind of garage that smelled like a rotting cockpit and they made me kneel in a corner.
The sound of conversations. The fat man and someone else and then someone else and someone else. People keep coming. The sound of laughter and beers being opened. The smell of marijuana and some other shit with a spicy smell. The man next to me stopped telling me to keep calm. He must be saying it to himself.
He mentioned before that he had an eight-month-old baby and a three-year-old son. He must be thinking about them. And about these junkies entering the gated community he lives in. Yes, that’s what he’s thinking about. About waving to the guard like he does whenever his car’s in the shop, while these animals sit in the back, ducking down. He’s going to take them to his house to meet his beautiful wife, his eight-month-old baby, and his three-year-old son. He’s going to take them to his house.
And there’s nothing he can do about it.
Further away, to the right, murmuring, a girl cries, I don’t know if it’s the same one who was crying before. The fat man shoots his gun and we all try to drop to the floor. He hasn’t shot us, he’s just shot. It doesn’t matter, the terror has ripped us in half. The fat man and his friends laugh. They come over to us, they move us into the center of the room.
“All right, gentlemen, ladies, tonight’s auction is officially open. So lovely, so well behaved, stand here for me. Closer, princess. Riiiiight there. Don’t be afraid, little mama, I don’t bite. Just like that. So that these gentlemen can choose which one of you they’re going to take. The rules, gentlemen, same as always: the most money gets the best prize. Put all your guns down over here for me, I’ll keep them safe till the auction’s over. Thank you. Delighted, as always, to have you.”
The fat man introduces us like he’s hosting a TV show. We can’t see them, but we know the men looking at us, sizing us up, are thieves. And rapists. They are definitely rapists. And murderers. They might be murderers. Or something worse.
“Laaaaaaadies and gentlemeeeeeen.”
The fat man doesn’t like the ones who whimper or the ones who say they have kids or the ones who shout desperately you don’t know who you’re messing with. No. He likes even less the ones who say he’s going to rot in jail. All these people, men and women alike, have received a punch to the gut. I’ve heard them fall to the floor breathless. I focus on the roosters. Maybe there aren’t any. But I hear them. Inside me. Men and roosters. Come on, don’t be so prissy. They’re just cock fighters, dammit.
“This man, what’s our first participant’s name? What? Speak up, friend. Ricardoooooo, welcoooome, he wears a nice watch and some niiiiiice Adidas shoes. Ricardooooo must have moneyyyyyyyyyyyyyy. Let’s take a look at Ricardo’s wallet. Credit cards, ohhhhhh a Visa Goooooold by Messi.”
The fat man tells bad jokes.
They start to bid for Ricardo. Someone offers three hundred, another person eight hundred. The fat man adds that Ricardo lives in a gated community outside the city: Riverview.
“A view poor folks like us can’t even get a glimpse of. That’s where our friend Richie lives. We can call you Richie, can’t we? Like Richie Rich.”
A terrifying voice says five thousand. The terrifying voice takes Ricardo. The others applaud.
“Sold to the man with the moustache for five thousand!”
The fat man fondles Nancy, a girl who speaks with a thread of a voice. I know this because he says Look at these tits, how delicious, such perky nipples and he sucks up his drool and other things you don’t say without touching, and, also, who’s to stop him from touching her, no one. Nancy sounds young. Early twenties. She could be a nurse or a school teacher. The fat man undresses Nancy. We hear him unbuckle her belt and open her buttons and rip off her underwear, while she says please so many times and with so much terror that we all stain our filthy hoods with tears. Look at this little ass. Oh, what a beaut. The fat man licks Nancy, Nancy’s ass. We hear the sound. The men jeer, roar, applaud. Then the slap of flesh against flesh. And the howls. The howls.
“Gentlemen, this is just quality control. I give her a ten. You can clean her up real pretty and our friend Nancy will be a delight.”
She must be beautiful because they bid, immediately, two thousand, three, three thousand five hundred. Nancy goes for three thousand five. Sexy is cheaper than wealthy.
“And the lucky man taking this lovely ass home is the gentleman with the gold ring and the cross.”
We’re sold off one by one. The fat man managed to get everything out of the guy who was next to me, the one with the eight-month-old baby and the three-year-old son and now he’s a big fish for the auction: money in different accounts, high-up executive, son of a businessman, artwork, kids, wife. The guy is a winning lottery ticket. They’ll probably ask for ransom for him. The bid starts at five thousand. It goes up to ten, fifteen thousand. It stops at twenty. Someone no one else wants to mess with has offered twenty. A new voice. He’s come just for this. He wasn’t interested in wasting time with anything else.
The fat man doesn’t make any comments.
When it’s my turn I think about the roosters. I close my eyes and open my sphincter. This is the most important thing I will do in my life, so I’ll do it right. I soak my legs, my feet, the floor. I’m in the center of a room, surrounded by criminals, displayed before them like cattle and like cattle I empty my bowels. As best I can, I rub one leg against the other, I assume the position of a gutted doll. I scream like a madwoman. I shake my head, mutter obscenities, made up words, the things I said to the roosters about heaven full of corn and infinite worms. I know the fat man is about to shoot me.
But instead, he busts my lip open with a slap, I bite my tongue. The blood drips onto my chest, down my belly, mixes with the shit and piss. I start to laugh, deranged, to laugh, and laugh, and laugh.
The fat man doesn’t know what to do.
“How much for this monster?”
No one wants to bid.
The fat man offers up my watch, my cell phone, my purse. It’s all cheap, made in China. He grabs my tits in an attempt to encourage them and I shriek.
But nothing, no one.
They toss me into a patio. They hose me down and then they put me in a car that leaves me wet, barefoot, dazed, on the highway.
I was an utterly unexceptional child of the twenty-ninth century, comprehensively engineered for emortality while I was still a more-or-less inchoate blastula and decanted from an artificial womb in Naburn Hatchery in the county of York in the Defederated States of Europe. I was raised in an aggregate family which consisted of six men and six women. I was, of course, an only child, and I received the customary superabundance of love, affection and admiration. With the aid of excellent role-models, careful biofeedback training and thoroughly competent internal technologies I grew up reasonable, charitable, self-controlled and intensely serious of mind.
It’s evident that not everyone grows up like that, but I’ve never quite been able to understand how people manage to avoid it. If conspicuous individuality—and frank perversity—aren’t programmed in the genes or rooted in early upbringing, how on earth to they spring into being with such determined irregularity? But this is my story, not the world’s, and I shouldn’t digress.
In due course, the time came for me—as it comes to everyone—to leave my family and enter a community of my peers for my first spell at college. I elected to go to Adelaide in Australia, because I liked the name.
Although my memories of that prod are understandably hazy I feel sure that I had begun to see the fascination of history long before the crucial event which determined my path in life. The subject seemed–in stark contrast to the disciplined coherency of mathematics or the sciences–so huge, so amazingly abundant in its data, and so charmingly disorganized. I was always a very orderly and organized person, and I needed a vocation of that kind to loosen me up a little. It was not, however, until I set forth on an ill-fated expedition on the sailing-ship Genesis in September 2901, that the exact form of my destiny was determined.
I use the word “destiny” with the utmost care; it is no mere rhetorical flourish. What happened when Genesis defied the supposed limits of possibility and turned turtle was no mere incident, and the impression which it made on my fledgling mind was no mere suggestion. Before that ship set sail, a thousand futures were open to me; afterwards, I was beset by an irresistible compulsion. My destiny was determined the day Genesis went down; as a result of that tragedy my fate was sealed.
We were en route from Brisbane to tour the Creationist Islands of Micronesia, which were then regarded as artistic curiosities rather than daring experiments in continental design. I had expected to find the experience exhilarating, but almost as soon as we had left port I was struck down by sea-sickness.
Sea-sickness, by virtue of being psychosomatic, is one of the very few diseases with which modern internal technology is sometimes impotent to deal, and I was miserably confined to my cabin while I waited for my mind to make the necessary adaptation. I was bitterly ashamed of myself, for I alone out of half a hundred passengers had fallen prey to this strange atavistic malaise. While the others partied on deck, beneath the glorious light of the tropic stars, I lay in my bunk, half-delirious with discomfort and lack of sleep. I thought myself the unluckiest man in the world.
When I was abruptly hurled from my bed I thought that I had fallen—that my tossing and turning had inflicted one more ignominy upon me. When I couldn’t recover my former position after spent long minutes fruitlessly groping about amid all kinds of mysterious debris, I assumed that I must be confused. When I couldn’t open the door of my cabin even though I had the handle in my hand, I assumed that my failure was the result of clumsiness. When I finally got out into the corridor, and found myself crawling in shallow water with the artificial bioluminescent strip beneath instead of above me, I thought I must be mad.
When the little girl spoke to me, I thought at first that she was a delusion, and that I was lost in a nightmare. It wasn’t until she touched me, and tried to drag me upright with her tiny, frail hands, and addressed me by name—albeit incorrectly—that I was finally able to focus my thoughts.
“You have to get up, Mr. Mortimer,” she said. “The boat’s upside-down.”
She was only eight years old, but she spoke quite calmly and reasonably.
“That’s impossible,” I told her. “Genesis is unsinkable. There’s no way it could turn upside-down.”
“But it is upside-down,” she insisted—and as she did so, I finally realized the significance of the fact that the floor was glowing the way the ceiling should have glowed. “The water’s coming in. I think we’ll have to swim out.”
The light put out by the ceiling-strip was as bright as ever, but the rippling water overlaying it made it seem dim and uncertain. The girl’s little face, lit from below, seemed terribly serious within the frame of her dark and curly hair.
“I can’t swim,” I said, flatly.
She looked at me as if I were insane, or stupid, but it was true. I couldn’t swim. I’d never liked the idea and I’d never seen any necessity. All modern ships—even sailing-ships designed to be cute and quaint for the benefit of tourists—were unsinkable.
I scrambled to my feet, and put out both my hands to steady myself, to hold myself rigid against the upside-down walls. The water was knee-deep. I couldn’t tell whether it was increasing or not–which told me, reassuringly, that it couldn’t be rising very quickly. The upturned boat was rocking this way and that, and I could hear the rumble of waves breaking on the outside of the hull, but I didn’t know how much of that apparent violence was in my mind.
“My name’s Emily,” the little girl told me. “I’m frightened. All my mothers and fathers were on deck. Everyone was on deck, except for you and me. Do you think they’re all dead?”
“They can’t be,” I said, marveling at the fact that she spoke so soberly, even when she said that she was frightened. I realized, however, that if the ship had suffered the kind of misfortune which could turn it upside-down, the people on deck might indeed be dead. I tried to remember the passengers gossiping in the departure lounge, introducing themselves to one another with such fervor. The little girl had been with a party of nine, none of whose names I could remember. It occurred to me that her whole family might have been wiped out, that she might now be that rarest of all rare beings, an orphan. It was almost unimaginable. What possible catastrophe, I wondered, could have done that?
I asked Emily what had happened. She didn’t know. Like me she had been in her bunk, sleeping the sleep of the innocent.
“Are we going to die too?” she asked. “I’ve been a good girl. I’ve never told a lie.” It couldn’t have been literally true, but I knew exactly what she meant. She was eight years old and she had every right to expect to live till she was eight hundred. She didn’t deserve to die. It wasn’t fair.
I knew full well that fairness didn’t really come into it, and I expect she knew it too, even if my fellow historians were wrong about the virtual abolition of all the artifices of childhood, but I knew in my heart that what she said was right, and that insofar as the imperious laws of nature ruled her observation irrelevant, the universe was wrong. It wasn’t fair. She had been a good girl. If she died, it would be a monstrous injustice.
Perhaps it was merely a kind of psychological defense mechanism that helped me to displace my own mortal anxieties, but the horror which ran through me was all focused on her. At that moment, her plight—not our plight, but hers—seemed to be the only thing that mattered. It was as if her dignified fear and her placid courage somehow contained the essence of human existence, the purest product of human progress.
Perhaps it was only my cowardly mind’s refusal to contemplate anything else, but the only thing I could think of while I tried to figure out what to do was the awfulness of what she was saying. As that awfulness possessed me it was magnified a thousandfold, and it seemed to me that in her lone and tiny voice there was a much greater voice speaking for multitudes: for all the human children that had ever died before achieving maturity; all the good children who had without ever having the chance to deserve to die.
“I don’t think any more water can get in,” she said, with a slight tremor in her voice. “But there’s only so much air. If we stay here too long, we’ll suffocate.”
“It’s a big ship,” I told her. “If we’re trapped in an air-bubble, it must be a very large one.”
“But it won’t last forever,” she told me. She was eight years old and hoped to live to be eight hundred, and she was absolutely right. The air wouldn’t last forever. Hours, certainly; maybe days—but not forever.
“There are survival pods under the bunks,” she said. She had obviously been paying attention to the welcoming speeches which the captain and the chief steward had delivered in the lounge the evening after embarkation. She’d plugged the chips they’d handed out into her trusty handbook, like the good girl she was, and inwardly digested what they had to teach her—unlike those of us who were blithely careless and wretchedly sea-sick.
“We can both fit into one of the pods,” she went on, “but we have to get it out of the boat before we inflate it. We have to go up—I mean down—the stairway into the water and away from the boat. You’ll have to carry the pod, because it’s too big for me.”
“I can’t swim,” I reminded her.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, patiently. “All you have to do is hold your breath and kick yourself away from the boat. You’ll float up to the surface whether you can swim or not. Then you just yank the cord and the pod will inflate. You have to hang on to it, though. Don’t let go.”
I stared at her, wondering how she could be so calm, so controlled, so efficient.
“Listen to the water breaking on the hull,” I whispered. “Feel the movement of the boat. It would take a hurricane to overturn a boat like this. We wouldn’t stand a chance out there.”
“It’s not so bad,” she told me. She didn’t have both hands out to brace herself against the walls, although she lifted one occasionally to stave off the worst of the lurches caused by the bobbing of the boat.
But if it wasn’t a hurricane that turned us over, I thought, what the hell was it? Whales have been extinct for eight hundred years.
“We don’t have to go just yet,” Emily said, mildly, “But we’ll have to go in the end. We have to get out. The pod’s bright orange and it has a distress beacon. We should be picked up within twenty-four hours, but there’ll be supplies for a week.”
I had every confidence that modern internal technology could sustain us for a month, if necessary. Even having to drink a little sea-water, if your recycling gel clots, only qualifies as a minor inconvenience nowadays. Drowning is another matter; so is asphyxiation. She was absolutely right. We had to get out of the upturned boat—not immediately, but some time soon. Help might get to us before then, but we couldn’t wait, and we shouldn’t. We were, after all, human beings. We were supposed to be able to take charge of our own destinies, to do what we ought to do. Anything less would be a betrayal of our heritage. I knew that, and understood it.
But I couldn’t swim.
“It’s okay, Mr. Mortimer,” she said, putting her reassuring hand in mine. “We can do it. We’ll go together. It’ll be all right.”
Emily was right. We could do it, together, and we did—not immediately, I confess, but in the end we did it. It was the most terrifying and most horrible experience of my young life, but it had to be done and we did it.
When I finally dived into that black pit of water, knowing that I had to go down and sideways before I could hope to go up, I was carried forward by the knowledge that Emily expected it of me, and needed me to do it. Without her, I’m sure that I would have died. I simply would not have had the courage to save myself. Because she was there, I dived, with the pod clutched in my arms. Because she was there, I managed to kick away from the hull and yank the cord to inflate it.
It wasn’t until I had pulled Emily into the pod, and made sure that she was safe, that I paused to think how remarkable it was that the sea was hot enough to scald us both.
We were three storm-tossed days afloat before the helicopter picked us up. We cursed our ill-luck, not having the least inkling how bad things were elsewhere. We couldn’t understand why the weather was getting worse and worse instead of better.
When the pilot finally explained it, we couldn’t immediately take it in. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given that the geologists were just as astonished as everyone else. After all, the sea-bed had been quietly cracking wherever the tectonic plates were pulling apart for millions of years; it was an ongoing phenomenon, very well understood. Hundreds of black smokers and underwater volcanoes were under constant observation. Nobody had any reason to expect that a plate could simply break so far away from its rim, or that the fissure could be so deep, so long and so rapid in its extension. Everyone thought that the main threat to the earth’s surface was posed by wayward comets; all vigilant eyes were directed outwards. No one had expected such awesome force to erupt from within, from the hot mantle which lay, hubbling and bubbling, beneath the earth’s fragile crust.
It was, apparently, an enormous bubble of upwelling gas that contrived the near-impossible feat of flipping Genesis over. The earthquakes and the tidal waves came later.
It was the worst natural disaster in six hundred years. One million, nine hundred thousand people died in all. Emily wasn’t the only child to lose her entire family, and I shudder to think of the number of families which lost their only children. We historians have to maintain a sense of perspective, though. Compared with the number of people who died in the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, or the numbers of people who died in epidemics in earlier centuries, nineteen hundred thousand is a trivial figure.
Perhaps I would have done what I eventually set out to do anyway. Perhaps the Great Coral Sea Catastrophe would have appalled me even if I’d been on the other side of the world, cocooned in the safety of a tree-house or an apartment in one of the crystal cities—but I don’t think so.
It was because I was at the very centre of things, because my life was literally turned upside-down by the disaster—and because eight-year-old Emily Marchant was there to save my life with her common sense and her composure—that I set out to write a definitive history of death, intending to reveal not merely the dull facts of mankind’s longest and hardest battle, but also the real meaning and significance of it.
The first volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Prehistory of Death, was published on 21 January 2914. It was, unusually for its day, a mute book, with no voice-over, sound-effects or background music. Nor did it have any original art-work, all the illustrations being unenhanced still photographs. It was, in short, the kind of book that only a historian would have published. Its reviewers generally agreed that it was an old-fashioned example of scrupulous scholarship, and none expected that access demand would be considerable. Many commentators questioned the merit of Gray’s arguments.
The Prehistory of Death summarized what was known about early hominid lifestyles, and had much to say about the effects of natural selection of the patterns of mortality in modern man’s ancestor species. Gray carefully discussed the evolution of parental care as a genetic strategy. Earlier species of man, he observed, had raised parental care to a level of efficiency which permitted the human infant to be born sat a much earlier stage in its development than any other, maximizing its opportunity to be shaped by nurture and learning. From the very beginning, Gray proposed, human species were actively at war with death. The evolutionary success of Homo sapiens was based in the collaborative activities of parents in protecting, cherishing and preserving the lives of children: activities which extended beyond immediate family groups as reciprocal altruism made it advantageous for humans to form tribes, and ultimately nations.
In these circumstances, Gray argued, it was entirely natural that the origins of consciousness and culture should be intimately bound up with a keen awareness of the war against death. He asserted that the first great task of the human imagination must have been to carry forward that war. It was entirely understandable, he said, that early paleontologists, having discovered the bones of a Neanderthal man in an apparent grave, with the remains of a primitive garland of flowers, should instantly have felt an intimate kinship with him; there could be no more persuasive evidence of full humanity than the attachment of ceremony to the idea and the fact of death.
Gray waxed lyrical about the importance of ritual as a symbolization of opposition and enmity to death. He had no patience with the proposition that such rituals were of no practical value, a mere window-dressing of culture. On the contrary, he claimed that there was no activity more practical than this expressive recognition of the value of life, this imposition of a moral order on the fact of human mortality. The birth of agriculture Gray regarded as a mere sophistication of food-gathering, of considerable importance as a technical discovery but of little significance in transforming human nature. The practices of burying the dead with ceremony, and of ritual mourning, on the other hand, were in his view evidence of the transformation of human nature, of the fundamental creation of meaning that made human life very different from the lives of animals.
Prehistorians who marked out the evolution of man by his developing technology—the Stone Age giving way to the Bronze Age, the Bronze Age to the Iron Age—were, Gray conceded, taking intelligent advantage of those relics that had stood the test of time. He warned, however, of the folly of thinking that because tools had survived the millennia, it must have been tool-making that was solely or primarily responsible for human progress. In his view, the primal cause which made people invent was man’s ongoing war against death.
It was not tools which created man and gave birth to civilization, Mortimer Gray proclaimed, but the awareness of mortality.
Although its impact on my nascent personality was considerable, the Coral Sea Catastrophe was essentially an impersonal disaster. The people who died, including those who had been aboard the Genesis, were all unknown to me; it was not until some years later that I experienced personal bereavement. It wasn’t one of my parents who died—by the time the first of them quit this earth I was nearly a hundred years old and our temporary closeness was a half-remembered thing of the distant past—but one of my spouses.
By the time The Prehistory of Death was published I’d contracted my first marriage: a group contract with a relatively small aggregate consisting of three other men and four women. We lived in Lamu, on the coast of Kenya, a nation to which I had been drawn by my studies of the early evolution of man. We were all young people, and we had formed our group for companionship rather than for parenting—which was a privilege conventionally left, even in those days, to much older people. We didn’t go in for overmuch fleshsex, because we were still finding our various ways through the maze of erotic virtuality, but we took the time—as I suppose all young people do—to explore its unique delights. I can’t remember exactly why I joined the group; I presume that it was because I accepted, tacitly at least, the conventional wisdom that there is spice in variety, and that one should do one’s best to keep a broad front of experience.
It wasn’t a particularly happy marriage, but it served its purpose. We went in for a good deal of sporting activity and conventional tourism. We visited the other continents from time to time, but most of our adventures took us back and forth across Africa. Most of my spouses were practical ecologists involved in one way or another with the re-greening of the north and south, or with the reforestation of the equatorial belt. What little credit I earned to add to my Allocation was earned by assisting them; such fees as I received for net-access to my work were inconsiderable. Axel, Jodocus and Minna were all involved in large-scale hydrological engineering, and liked to describe themselves, light-heartedly, as the Lamu Rainmakers. The rest of us became, inevitably, the Rainmakers-in-Law.
To begin with, I had considerable affection for all the other members of my new family, but as time went by the usual accretion of petty irritations built up, and a couple of changes in the group’s personnel failed to renew the initial impetus. The research for the second volume of my history began to draw me more and more to Egypt and to Greece, even though there was no real need actually to travel in order to do the relevant research. I think we would have divorced in 2919 anyhow, even if it hadn’t been for Grizel’s death.
She went swimming in the newly re-routed Kwarra one day, and didn’t come back.
Maybe the fact of her death wouldn’t have hit me so hard if she hadn’t been drowned, but I was still uneasy about deep water—even the relatively placid waters of the great rivers. If I’d been able to swim I might have gone out with her, but I didn’t. I didn’t even know she was missing until the news came in that a body had been washed up twenty kilometers downriver.
“It was a million-to-one thing,” Ayesha told me, when she came back from the on-site inquest. “She must have been caught from behind by a log moving in the current, or something like that. We’ll never know for sure. She must have been knocked unconscious, though, or badly dazed. Otherwise, she’d never have drifted into the white water. The rocks finished her off.”
Rumor has it that many people simply can’t take in news of the death of someone they love—that it flatly defies belief. I didn’t react that way. With me, belief was instantaneous, and I just gave way under its pressure. I literally fell over, because my legs wouldn’t support me—another psychosomatic failure about which my internal machinery could do nothing—and I wept uncontrollably. None of the others did, not even Alex, who’d been closer to Grizel than anyone. They were sympathetic at first, but it wasn’t long before a note of annoyance began to creep into their reassurances.
“Come on, Morty,” Ilya said, voicing the thought the rest of them were too diplomatic to let out. “You know more about death than any of us; if it doesn’t help you to get a grip, what good is all that research?”
He was right, of course. Alex and Ayesha had often tried to suggest, delicately, that mine was an essentially unhealthy fascination, and now they felt vindicated.
“If you’d actually bothered to read my book,” I retorted, “you’d know that it has nothing complimentary to say about philosophical acceptance. It sees a sharp awareness of mortality, and the capacity to feel the horror of death so keenly, as key forces driving human evolution.”
“But you don’t have to act it out so flamboyantly,” Ilya came back, perhaps using cruelty to conceal and assuage his own misery. “We’ve evolved now. We’ve got past all that. We’ve matured.” Ilya was the oldest of us, and he seemed very old, although he as only sixty-five. In those days, there weren’t nearly as many double centenarians around as there are nowadays, and triple centenarians were very rare indeed. We take emortality so much for granted that it’s easy to forget how recent a development it is.
“It’s what I feel,” I told him, retreating into uncompromising assertion. “I can’t help it.”
“We all loved her,” Ayesha reminded me. “We’ll all miss her. You’re not proving anything, Morty.”
What she meant was that I wasn’t proving anything except my own instability, but she spoke more accurately than she thought; I wasn’t proving anything at all. I was just reacting—atavistically, perhaps, but with crude honesty and authentically child-like innocence.
“We all have to pull together now,” she added, “for Grizel’s sake.”
A death in the family almost always leads to universal divorce in childless marriages; nobody knows why. Such a loss does force the survivors pull together, but it seems that the process of pulling together only serves to emphasize the incompleteness of the unit. We all went our separate ways, even the three Rainmakers.
I set out to use my solitude to become a true neo-Epicurean, after the fashion of the times, seeking no excess and deriving an altogether appropriate pleasure from everything I did. I took care to cultivate a proper love for the commonplace, training myself to a pitch of perfection in all the techniques of physiological control necessary to physical fitness and quiet metabolism.
I soon convinced myself that I’d transcended such primitive and adolescent goals as happiness, and had cultivated instead a truly civilized ataraxia: a calm of mind whose value went beyond the limits of ecstasy and exultation.
Perhaps I was fooling myself, but if I was, I succeeded. The habits stuck. No matter what lifestyle fashions came and went thereafter, I remained a stubborn neo-Epicurean, immune to all other eupsychian fantasies. For a while, though, I was perpetually haunted by Grizel’s memory—and not, alas, the memory of all the things that we’d shared while she was alive. I gradually forgot the sound of her voice, the touch of her hand and even the image of her face, remembering only the horror of her sudden and unexpected departure from the arena of my experience.
For the next ten years I lived in Alexandria, in a simple villa cleverly gantzed out of the desert sands—sands that still gave an impression of timelessness, even though they had been restored to wilderness as recently as the twenty-seventh century, when Egypt’s food-economy had been realigned to take full advantage of the newest techniques in artificial photosynthesis.
The second volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled Death in the Ancient World, was published on 7 May 2931. It contained a wealth of data regarding burial practices and patterns of mortality in Egypt, the Kingdoms of Sumer and Akkad, the Indus civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, the Yangshao and Lungshan cultures of the Far East, the cultures of the Olmecs and Zpotecs, Greece before and after Alexander, and the pre-Christian Roman Empire. It paid particular attention to the elaborate mythologies of life after death developed by ancient cultures
Gray gave most elaborate consideration to the Egyptians, whose eschatology evidently fascinated him. He spared no effort in description and discussion of the Book of the Dead, the Hall of Double Justice, Anubis and Osiris, the custom of mummification, and the building of pyramid-tombs. He was almost as fascinated by the elaborate geography of the Greek Underworld, the characters associated with it—Hades and Persephone, Thanatos and the Erinnyes, Cerberus and Charon—and the descriptions of the unique fates reserved for such individuals as Sisyphus, Ixion and Tantalus. The development of such myths as these Gray regarded as a triumph of the creative imagination. In his account, myth-making and story-telling were vital weapons in the war against death—a war that had still to be fought in the mind of man, because there was little yet to be accomplished by defiance of its claims upon the body.
In the absence of an effective medical science, Gray argued, the war against death was essentially a war of propaganda, and myths were to be judged in that light–not by their truthfulness, even in some allegorical or metaphorical sense, but by their usefulness in generating morale and meaning. By elaborating and extrapolating the process of death in this way, a more secure moral order could be imported into social life. People thus achieved a sense of continuity with past and future generations, so that every individual became part of a great enterprise which extended across the generations, from the beginning to the end of time.
Gray did not regard the building of the pyramids as a kind of gigantic folly or vanity, or a way to dispose of the energies of the peasants when they were not required in harvesting the bounty of the fertile Nile. He argued that pyramid-building should be seen as the most useful of all labors, because it was work directed toward the glorious imposition of human endeavor upon the natural landscape. The placing of a royal mummy, with all its accoutrements, in a fabulous geometric edifice of stone was for Gray a loud, confident and entirely appropriate statement of humanity’s invasion of the empire of death.
Gray complimented those tribesmen who worshipped their ancestors and thought them always close at hand, ready to deliver judgments upon the living. Such people, he felt, had fully mastered an elementary truth of human existence: that the dead were not entirely gone, but lived on, intruding upon memory and dream, both when they were bidden and when they were not. He approved of the idea that the dead should have a voice, and must be entitled to speak, and that the living had a moral duty to listen. Because these ancient tribes were as direly short of history as they were of medicine, he argued, they were entirely justified in allowing their ancestors to live on in the minds of living people, where the culture those ancestors had forged similarly resided.
Some reviewers complimented Gray on the breadth of his research and the comprehensiveness of his data, but few endorsed the propriety of his interpretations. He was widely advised to be more dispassionate in carrying forward his project.
I was sixty when I married again. This time it was a singular marriage, to Sharane Fereday. We set up home in Avignon, and lived together for nearly twenty years. I won’t say that we were exceptionally happy, but I came to depend on her closeness and her affection, and the day she told me that she had had enough was the darkest of my life so far—far darker in its desolation than the day Emily Marchant and I had been trapped in the wreck of the Genesis, although it didn’t mark me as deeply.
“Twenty years is a long time, Mortimer,” she told me. “It’s time to move on—time for you as well as for me.”
She was being sternly reasonable at that stage; I knew from experience that the sternness would crumble if I put it to the test, and I thought that her resolve would crumble with it, as it had before in similar circumstances, but it didn’t.
“I’m truly sorry,” she said, when she was eventually reduced to tears, “but I have to do it. I have to go. It’s my life, and your part in it is over. I hate hurting you, but I don’t want to live with you any more. It’s my fault, not yours, but that’s the way it is.”
It wasn’t anybody’s fault. I can see that clearly now, although it wasn’t so easy to see it at the time. Like the Great Coral Sea Catastrophe or Grizel’s drowning, it was just something that happened. Things do happen, regardless of people’s best-laid plans, most heartfelt wishes and most intense hopes.
Now that memory has blotted out the greater part of that phase of my life—including, I presume, the worst of it—I don’t really know why I was so devastated by Sharane’s decision, nor why it should have filled me with such black despair. Had I cultivated a dependence so absolute that it seemed irreplaceable, or was it really only my pride that had suffered a sickening blow? Was it the imagined consequences of the rejection or merely the fact of rejection itself that sickened me so? Even now, I can’t tell for certain. Even then, my neo-Epicurean conscience must have told me over and over again to pull myself together, to conduct myself with more decorum.
I tried. I’m certain that I tried.
Sharane’s love for the ancient past was even more intense than mine, but her writings were far less dispassionate. She was a historian of sorts but she wasn’t an academic historian; her writings tended to the lyrical rather than the factual even when she was supposedly writing non-fiction.
Sharane would never have written a mute book, or one whose pictures didn’t move. Had it been allowed by law at that time she’d have fed her readers designer psychotropics to heighten their responses according to the schemes of her texts. She was a VR scriptwriter rather than a textwriter like me. She wasn’t content to know about the past; she wanted to re-create it and make it solid and live in it. Nor did she reserve such inclinations to the privacy of her E-suit. She was flamboyantly old-fashioned in all that she did. She liked to dress in gaudy pastiches of the costumes represented in Greek or Egyptian art, and she liked decor to match. People who knew us were mildly astonished that we should want to live together, given the difference in our personalities, but I suppose it was an attraction of opposites. Perhaps my intensity of purpose and solitude had begun to weigh rather heavily upon me when we met, and my carefully-cultivated calm of mind threatened to become a kind of toiling inertia.
On the other hand, perhaps that’s all confabulation and rationalization. I was a different person then, and I’ve since lost touch with that person as completely as I’ve lost touch with everyone else I knew then.
But I do remember, vaguely…
I remember that I found in Sharane a certain precious wildness which, although it wasn’t entirely spontaneous, was unfailingly amusing. She had the happy gift of never taking herself too seriously, although she was wholehearted enough in her determined attempts to put herself imaginatively in touch with the past.
From her point of view, I suppose I was doubly valuable. On the one hand, I was a fount of information and inspiration, on the other a kind of anchorage whose solidity kept her from losing herself in her flights of the imagination. Twenty years of marriage ought to have cemented here dependence on me just as it had cemented my dependence on her, but it didn’t.
“You think I need you to keep my feet on the ground,” Sharane said, as the break between us was completed and carefully rendered irreparable, “but I don’t. Anyhow, I’ve been weighed down long enough. I need to soar for a while, to spread my wings.”
Sharane and I had talked for a while, as married people do, about the possibility of having a child. We had both made deposits to the French national gamete bank, so that if we felt the same way when the time finally came to exercise our right of replacement—or to specify in our wills how that right was to be posthumously exercised—we could order an ovum to be unfrozen and fertilized.
I had always known, of course, that such flights of fancy were not to be taken too seriously, but when I accepted that the marriage was indeed over there seemed to be an extra dimension of tragedy and misery in the knowledge that our genes never would be combined—that our separation cast our legacies once again upon the chaotic sea of irresolution.
Despite the extremity of my melancholy, I never contemplated suicide. Although I’d already used up the traditional threescore years and ten, I was in no doubt at all that it wasn’t yet time to remove myself from the crucible of human evolution to make room for my successor, whether that successor was to be born from an ovum of Sharane’s or not. No matter how black my mood was when Sharane, I knew that my History of Death remained to be completed, and that the work would require at least another century. Even so, the breaking of such an intimate bond filled me with intimations of mortality and a painful sense of the futility of all my endeavors.
My first divorce had come about because a cruel accident had ripped apart the delicate fabric of my life, but my second—or so it seemed to me—was itself a horrid rent shearing my very being into ragged fragments. I hope that I tried with all my might not to blame Sharane, but how could I avoid it? And how could she not resent my overt and covert accusations, my veiled and naked resentments?
“Your problem, Mortimer,” she said to me, when her lachrymose phase had given way to bright anger, “is that you’re obsessed. You’re a deeply morbid man, and it’s not healthy. There’s some special fear in you, some altogether exceptional horror which feeds upon you day and night, and makes you grotesquely vulnerable to occurrences which normal people can take in their stride, and which ill befit a self-styled Epicurean. If you want my advice, you ought to abandon that history you’re writing, at least for a while, and devote yourself to something brighter and more vigorous.”
“Death is my life,” I informed her, speaking metaphorically, and not entirely without irony. “It always will be, until and including the end.”
I remember saying that. The rest is vague, but I really do remember saying that.
The third volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Empires of Faith, was published on 18 August 2954. The introduction announced that the author had been forced to set aside his initial ambition to write a truly comprehensive history, and stated that he would henceforth be unashamedly eclectic, and contentedly ethnocentric, because he did not wish to be a mere archivist of death and therefore could not regard all episodes in humankind’s war against death as being of equal interest. He declared that he was more interested in interpretation than mere summary, and that insofar as the war against death had been a moral crusade he felt fully entitled to draw morals from it.
This preface, understandably, dismayed those critics who had urged the author to be more dispassionate. Some reviewers were content to condemn the new volume without even bothering to inspect the rest of it, although it was considerably shorter than the second volume and had a rather more fluent style. Others complained that the day of mute text was dead and gone, and that there was no place in the modern world for pictures which resolutely refused to move.
Unlike many contemporary historians, whose birth into a world in which religious faith was almost extinct had robbed them of any sympathy for the imperialists of dogma, Gray proposed that the great religions had been one of the finest achievements of humankind. He regarded them as a vital stage in the evolution of community—as social technologies that had permitted a spectacular transcendence of the limitation of community to the tribe or region. Faiths, he suggested, were the first instruments which could bind together different language groups, and even different races. It was not until the spread of the great religions, Gray argued, that the possibility came into being of gathering all men together into a single common enterprise. He regretted, of course, that the principal product of this great dream was two millennia of bitter and savage conflict between adherents of different faiths or adherents of different versions of the same faith, but thought the ambition worthy of all possible respect and admiration. He even retained some sympathy for jihads and crusades, in the formulation of which people had tried to attribute more meaning to the sacrifice of life than they ever had before.
Gray was particularly fascinated by the symbology of the Christian mythos, which had taken as its central image the death on the cross of Jesus, and had tried to make that one image of death carry an enormous allegorical load. He was entranced by the idea of Christ’s death as a force of redemption and salvation, by the notion that this person died for others. He extended the argument to take in the Christian martyrs, who added to the primal crucifixion a vast series of symbolic and morally significant deaths. This, he considered, was a colossal achievement of the imagination, a crucial victory by which death was dramatically transfigured in the theatre of the human imagination—as was the Christian idea of death as a kind of reconciliation: a gateway to Heaven, if properly met; a gateway to Hell if not. Gray seized upon the idea of absolution from sin following confession, and particularly the notion of deathbed repentance, as a daring raid into the territories of the imagination previously ruled by fear of death.
Gray’s commentaries on the other major religions were less elaborate but no less interested. Various ideas of reincarnation and the related concept karma he discussed at great length, as one of the most ingenious imaginative bids for freedom from the tyranny of death. He was not quite so enthusiastic about the idea of the world as illusion, the idea of nirvana, and certain other aspects of Far Eastern thought, although he was impressed in several ways by Confucius and the Buddha. All these things and more he assimilated to the main line of his argument, which was that the great religions had made bold imaginative leaps in order to carry forward the war against death on a broader front than ever before, providing vast numbers of individuals with an efficient intellectual weaponry of moral purpose.
After Sharane left I stayed on in Avignon for a while. The house where we had lived was demolished, and I had another raised in its place. I resolved to take up the reclusive life again, at least for a while. I had come to think of myself as one of nature’s monks, and when I was tempted to flights of fancy of a more personal kind than those retailed in virtual reality I could imagine myself an avatar of some patient scholar born fifteen hundred years, contentedly submissive to the Benedictine rule. I didn’t, of course, believe in the possibility of reincarnation, and when such belief became fashionable again I found it almost impossible to indulge such fantasies.
In 2960 I moved to Antarctica, not to Amundsen City—which had become the world’s political centre since the United Nations had elected to set up headquarters in “the continent without nations”—but to Cape Adare on the Ross Sea, which was a relatively lonely spot.
I moved into a tall house somewhat resembling a lighthouse, from whose upper stories I could look out at the edge of the ice-cap and watch the penguins at play. I was reasonably contented, and soon came to feel that I had put the torments and turbulences of my early life behind me.
I often went walking across the nearer reaches of the icebound sea, but I rarely got into difficulties. Ironically enough, my only serious injury of that period was a broken leg which I sustained while working with a rescue party attempting to locate and save one of my neighbors, Ziru Majumdar, who had fallen into a crevasse while out on a similar expedition. We ended up in adjacent beds at the hospital in Amundsen City.
“I’m truly sorry about your leg, Mr. Gray,” Majumdar said. “It was very stupid of me to get lost. After all, I’ve lived here for thirty years; I thought I knew every last ice-ridge like the back of my hand. It’s not as if the weather was particularly bad, and I’ve never suffered from summer rhapsody or snow-blindness.”
I’d suffered from both—I was still awkwardly vulnerable to psychosomatic ills—but they only served to make me more careful. An uneasy mind can sometimes be an advantage.
“It wasn’t your fault, Mr. Majumdar” I graciously insisted. “I suppose I must have been a little over-confident myself, or I’d never have slipped and fallen. At least they were able to pull me out in a matter of minutes; you must have lain unconscious at the bottom of that crevasse for nearly two days.”
“Just about. I came round several times—at least, I think I did—but my internal tech was pumping so much dope around my system it’s difficult to be sure. My surskin and thermosuit were doing their best to keep me warm but the first law of thermodynamics doesn’t give you much slack when you’re at the bottom of a cleft in the permafrost. I’ve got authentic frostbite in my toes, you know—imagine that!”
I dutifully tried to imagine it, but it wasn’t easy. He could hardly be in pain, so it was difficult to conjure up any notion of what it might feel like to have necrotized toes. The doctors reckoned that it would take a week for the nanomachines to restore the tissues to their former pristine condition.
“Mind you,” he added, with a small embarrassed laugh, “it’s only a matter of time before the whole biosphere gets frostbite, isn’t it? Unless the sun gets stirred up again.”
More than fifty years had passed since scrupulous students of the sunspot cycle had announced the advent of a new Ice Age, but the world was quite unworried by the exceedingly slow advance of the glaciers across the Northern Hemisphere. It was the sort of thing that only cropped up in light banter.
“I won’t mind that,” I said, contemplatively. “Nor will you, I dare say. We like ice–why else would we live here?”
“Right. Not that I agree with those Gaean Liberationists, mind. I hear they’re proclaiming that the inter-glacial periods are simply Gaea’s fevers, that the birth of civilization was just a morbid symptom of the planet’s sickness, and that human culture has so far been a mere delirium of the noösphere.”
He obviously paid more attention to the lunatic fringe channels than I did.
“It’s just colorful rhetoric,” I told him. “They don’t mean it literally.”
“Think not? Well, perhaps. I was delirious myself for a while when I was down that hole. Can’t be sure whether I was asleep or awake, but I was certainly lost in some vivid dreams—and I mean vivid. I don’t know about you, but I always find VR a bit flat, even if I use illicit psychotropics to give delusion a helping hand. I think it’s to do with the protective effects of our internal technology. Nanomachines mostly do their job a little too well, because of the built-in safety margins—it’s only when they reach the limits of their capacity that they let really interesting things begin to happen.”
I knew he was building up to some kind of self-justification, but I felt that he was entitled to it. I nodded, to give him permission to prattle on.
“You have to go to the very brink of extinction to reach the cutting edge of experience, you see. I found that out while I was trapped down there in the ice, not knowing whether the rescuers would get to me in time. You can learn a lot about life, and about yourself, in a situation like that. It really was vivid—more vivid than anything I ever….well, what I’m trying to get at is that we’re too safe nowadays; we can have no idea of the zest there was in living in the bad old days. Not that I’m about to take up jumping into crevasses as a hobby, you understand. Once in a very long while is plenty.”
“Yes it is,” I agreed, shifting my itching leg and wishing that nanomachines weren’t so slow to compensate for trifling but annoying sensations. “Once in a while is certainly enough for me. In fact, I for one will be quite content if it never happens again. I don’t think I need any more of the kind of enlightenment which comes from experiences like that. I was in the Great Coral Sea Catastrophe, you know—shipwrecked, scalded and lost at sea for days on end.”
“It’s not the same,” he insisted, “but you won’t be able to understand the difference until it happens to you.
I didn’t believe him. In that instance, I suppose, he was right and I was wrong.
I’d never heard Mr Majumdar speak so freely before, and I never heard him do it again. The social life of the Cape Adare “exiles” was unusually formal, hemmed in by numerous barriers of formality and etiquette. After an embarrassing phase of learning and adjustment I’d found the formality aesthetically appealing, and had played the game with enthusiasm, but it was beginning to lose its appeal by the time the accident shook me up. I suppose it’s understandable that whatever you set out to exclude from the pattern of your life eventually comes to seem like a lack, and then an unfulfilled need.
After a few years more I began to hunger once again for the spontaneity and abandonment of warmer climes. I decided there’d be time enough to celebrate the advent of the Ice Age when the glaciers had reached the full extent of their reclaimed empire, and that I might as well make what use I could of Gaea’s temporary fever before it cooled. I moved to Venezuela, to dwell in the gloriously restored jungles of the Orinoco amid their teeming wildlife.
Following the destruction of much of the southern part of the continent in the second nuclear war, Venezuela had attained a cultural hegemony in South America that it had never surrendered. Brazil and Argentina had long since recovered, both economically and ecologically, from their disastrous fit of ill temper, but Venezuela was still the home of the avant garde of the Americas. It was there, for the first time, that I came into close contact with Thanaticism.
The original Thanatic cults had flourished in the twenty-eighth century. They had appeared among the last generations of children born without Zaman transformations; their members were people who, denied emortality through blastular engineering, had perversely elected to reject the benefits of rejuvenation too, making a fetish out of living only a “natural” lifespan. At the time it had seemed likely that they would be the last of the many Millenarian cults which had long afflicted Western culture, and they had quite literally died out some eighty or ninety years before I was born.
Nobody had then thought it possible, let alone likely, that genetically-endowed emortals would ever embrace Thanaticism, but they were wrong.
There had always been suicides in the emortal population—indeed, suicide was the commonest cause of death among emortals, outnumbering accidental deaths by a factor of three—but such acts were usually covert and normally involved people who had lived at least a hundred years. The neo-Thanatics were not only indiscreet—their whole purpose seemed to be to make a public spectacle of themselves—but also young; people over seventy were held to have violated the Thanaticist ethic simply by surviving to that age.
Thanatics tended to choose violent means of death, and usually issued invitations as well as choosing their moments so that large crowds could gather. Jumping from tall buildings and burning to death were the most favored means in the beginning, but these quickly ceased to be interesting. As the Thanatic revival progressed, adherents of the movement sought increasingly bizarre methods in the interests of capturing attention and out-doing their predecessors. For these reasons, it was impossible for anyone living alongside the cults to avoid becoming implicated in their rites, if only as a spectator.
By the time I had been in Venezuela for a year I had seen five people die horribly. After the first I had resolved to turn away from any others, so as not to lend even minimal support to the practice, but I soon found that I had underestimated the difficulty of so doing. There was no excuse to be found in my vocation; thousands of people who were not historians of death found it equally impossible to resist fascination.
I believed at first that the fad would soon pass, after wasting the lives of a handful of neurotics, but the cults continued to grow. Gaea’s fever might be cooling, its crisis having passed, but the delirium of human culture had evidently not yet reached what Ziru Majumdar called “the cutting edge of experience”.
The fourth volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled Fear and Fascination, was published on 12 February 2977. In spite of being mute and motionless it was immediately subject to heavy access-demand, presumably in consequence of the world’s increasing fascination with the “problem” of neo-Thanaticism. Requisitions of the earlier volumes of Gray’s history had picked up worldwide during the early 2970s, but the author had not appreciated what this might mean in terms of the demand for the new volume, and might have set a higher access fee had he realized.
Academic historians were universal in their condemnation of the new volume, possibly because of the enthusiasm with which it was greeted by laymen, but popular reviewers adored it. Its arguments were recklessly plundered by journalists and other broadcasting pundits in search of possible parallels that might be drawn with the modern world, especially those which seemed to carry moral lessons for the Thanatics and their opponents.
Fear and Fascination extended, elaborated and diversified the arguments contained in its immediate predecessor, particularly in respect of the Christian world of the Medieval period and the Renaissance. It had much to say about art and literature, and the images contained therein. It had chapters on the personification of Death as the Grim Reaper, on the iconography of the danse macabre, on the topics of memento mori and artes moriendi. It had long analyses of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Milton’s Paradise Lost and graveyard poetry. These were by no means exercises in conventional literary criticism; they were elements of a long and convoluted argument about the contributions made by the individual creative imagination to the war of ideas which raged on the only battleground on which man could as yet constructively oppose the specter of death.
Gray also dealt with the persecution of heretics and the subsequent elaboration of Christian Demonology, which led to the witch-craze of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth century. He gave considerable attention to various thriving folklore traditions which confused the notion of death, especially to the popularity of fictions and fears regarding premature burial, ghosts and the various species of the “undead” who rose from their graves as ghouls or vampires. In Gray’s eyes, all these phenomena were symptomatic of a crisis in Western man’s imaginative dealings with the idea of death: a feverish heating up of a conflict which had been in danger of becoming desultory. The cities of men had been under perpetual siege from Death since the time of their first building, but now—in one part of the world, at least—the perception of that siege had sharpened. A kind of spiritual starvation and panic had set in, and the progress which had been made in the war by virtue of the ideological imperialism of Christ’s Holy Cross now seemed imperiled by disintegration. This Empire of Faith was breaking up under the stress of skepticism, and men were faced with the prospect of going into battle against their most ancient enemy with their armor in tatters.
Just as the Protestants were trying to replace the Catholic Church’s centralized authority with a more personal relationship between men and God, Gray argued, so the creative artists of this era were trying to achieve a more personal and more intimate form of reconciliation between men and Death, equipping individuals with the power to mount their own ideative assaults. He drew some parallels between what happened in the Christian world and similar periods of crisis which he found in different cultures at different times, but other historians claimed that his analogies were weak, and that he was over-generalizing. Some argued that his intense study of the phenomena associated with the idea of death had become too personal, and suggested that he had become infatuated with the ephemeral ideas of past ages to the point where they were taking over his own imagination.
At first, I found celebrity status pleasing, and the extra credit generated by my access fees was certainly welcome, even to a man of moderate tastes and habits. The unaccustomed touch of fame brought a fresh breeze into a life which might have been in danger of becoming bogged down.
To begin with, I was gratified to be reckoned an expert whose views on Thanaticism were to be taken seriously, even by some Thanatics. I received a veritable deluge of invitations to appear on the talk shows which were the staple diet of contemporary broadcasting, and for a while I accepted as many as I could conveniently accommodate within the pattern of my life.
I have no need to rely on my memories in recapitulating these episodes, because they remain on record—but by the same token, I needn’t quote extensively from them. In the early days, when I was a relatively new face, my interrogators mostly started out by asking for information about my book, and their opening questions were usually stolen from uncharitable reviews.
“Some people feel that you’ve been carried away, Mr. Gray,” more than one combative interviewer sneeringly began, “and that what started out as a sober history is fast becoming an obsessive rant. Did you decide to get personal in order to boost your sales?”
My careful cultivation of neo-Epicureanism and my years in Antarctica had left a useful legacy of calm formality; I always handled such accusations with punctilious politeness.
“Of course the war against death is a personal matter,” I would reply. “It’s a personal matter for everyone, mortal or emortal. Without that sense of personal relevance it would be impossible to put oneself imaginatively in the place of the people of the ancient past so as to obtain empathetic insight into their affairs. If I seem to be making heroes of the men of the past by describing their crusades, it’s because they were heroes, and if my contemporaries find inspiration in my work it’s because they too are heroes in the same cause. The engineering of emortality has made us victors in the war, but we desperately need to retain a proper sense of triumph. We ought to celebrate our victory over death as joyously as possible, lest we lose our appreciation of its fruits.”
My interviewers always appreciated that kind of link, which handed them their next question on a plate. “Is that what you think of the Thanatics?” they would follow up, eagerly.
It was, and I would say so at any length they considered appropriate.
Eventually, my interlocutors no longer talked about my book, taking it for granted that everyone knew who I was and what I’d done. They’d cut straight to the chase, asking me what I thought of the latest Thanaticist publicity stunt.
Personally, I thought the media’s interest in Thanaticism was exaggerated. All death was, of course, news in a world populated almost entirely by emortals, and the Thanatics took care to be newsworthy by making such a song and dance about what they were doing, but the number of individuals involved was very small. In a world population of nearly three billion, a hundred deaths per week was a drop in the ocean, and “quiet” suicides still outnumbered the ostentatious Thanatics by a factor of five or six throughout the 2980s. The public debates quickly expanded to take in other issues. Subscription figures for net access to videotapes and teletexts concerned with the topic of violent death came under scrutiny, and everyone began talking about the “new pornography of death”—although fascination with such material had undoubtedly been widespread for many years.
“Don’t you feel, Mr. Gray,” I was often asked, “that a continued fascination with death in a world where everyone has a potential lifespan of several centuries is rather sick? Shouldn’t we have put such matters behind us?”
“Not at all,” I replied, earnestly and frequently. “In the days when death was inescapable, people were deeply frustrated by this imperious imposition of fate. They resented it with all the force and bitterness they could muster, but it could not be truly fascinating while it remained a simple and universal fact of life. Now that death is no longer a necessity, it has perforce become a luxury. Because it is no longer inevitable, we no longer feel such pressure to hate and fear it, and this frees us so that we may take an essentially aesthetic view of death. The transformation of the imagery of death into a species of pornography is both understandable and healthy.”
“But such material surely encourages the spread of Thanaticism. You can’t possibly approve of that?”
Actually, the more I was asked about it the less censorious I became, at least for a while.
“Planning a life,” I explained to a whole series of faces, indistinguishable by virtue of having been sculptured according to the latest theory of telegenicity, “is an exercise in story-making. Living people are forever writing the narratives of their own lives, deciding who to be and what to do, according to various aesthetic criteria. In olden days, death was inevitably seen as an interruption of the business of life, cutting short life-stories before they were—in the eyes of their creators—complete. Nowadays, people have the opportunity to plan whole lives, deciding exactly when and how their life-stories should reach a climax and a conclusion. We may not share their aesthetic sensibilities, and may well think them fools, but there is a discernible logic in their actions. They are neither mad nor evil.”
Perhaps I was reckless in adopting this point of view, or at least in proclaiming it to the whole world. By proposing that the new Thanatics were simply individuals who had a particular kind of aesthetic sensibility, tending towards conciseness and melodrama rather than prolixity and anti-climax, I became something of a hero to the cultists themselves—which was not my intention. The more lavishly I embroidered my chosen analogy—declaring that ordinary emortals were the feuilletonists, epic poets and three-decker novelists of modern life while Thanatics were the prose-poets and short-story writers who liked to sign off with a neat punch-line—the more they liked me. I received many invitations to attend suicides, and my refusal to take them up only served to make my presence a prize to be sought after.
I was, of course, entirely in agreement with the United Nations Charter of Human Rights, whose ninety-ninth amendment guaranteed the citizens of every nation the right to take their own lives, and to be assisted in making a dignified exit should they so desire, but I had strong reservations about the way in which the Thanaticists construed the amendment. Its original intention had been to facilitate self-administered euthanasia in an age when that was sometimes necessary, not to guarantee Thanatics the entitlement to recruit whatever help they required in staging whatever kinds of exit they desired. Some of the invitations I received were exhortations to participate in legalized murders, and these became more common as time went by and the cults became more extreme in their bizarrerie.
In the 2080s the Thanatics had progressed from conventional suicides to public executions, by rope, sword, axe or guillotine. At first the executioners were volunteers—and one or two were actually arrested and charged with murder, although none could be convicted—but the Thanatics were not satisfied even with this, and began campaigning for various nations to recreate the official position of Public Executioner, together with bureaucratic structures which would give all citizens the right to call upon the services of such officials. Even I, who claimed to understand the cults better than their members, was astonished when the government of Colombia—which was jealous of Venezuela’s reputation as the home of the world’s avant garde—actually accepted such an obligation, with the result that Thanatics began to flock to Maracaibo and Cartagena in order to obtain an appropriate send-off. I was profoundly relieved when the UN, following the crucifixion of Shamiel Sihra in 2991, revised the wording of the amendment and outlawed suicide by public execution.
By this time I was automatically refusing invitations to appear on 3-V in much the same way that I was refusing invitations to take part in Thanaticist ceremonies. It was time to become a recluse once again.
I left Venezuela in 2989 to take up residence on Cape Wolstenholme, at the neck of Hudson’s Bay. Canada was an urbane, highly civilized and rather staid confederacy of states whose people had no time for such follies as Thanaticism; it provided an ideal retreat where I could throw himself wholeheartedly into my work again.
I handed over full responsibility for answering all my calls to a state-of-the-art Personal Simulation program, which grew so clever and so ambitious with practice that it began to give live interviews on broadcast television. Although it offered what was effectively no comment in a carefully elaborate fashion I eventually thought it best to introduce a block into its operating system—a block which ensured that my face dropped out of public sight for half a century.
Having once experienced the rewards and pressures of fame, I never felt the need to seek them again. I can’t and won’t say that I learned as much from that phase in my life as I learned from any of my close encounters with death, but I still remember it—vaguely—with a certain nostalgia. Unmelodramatic it might have been, but it doubtless played its part in shaping the person that I now am. It certainly made me more self-assured in public.
The fifth volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The War of Attrition, was published on 19 March 2999. It marked a return to the cooler and more comprehensive style of scholarship exhibited by the first two volumes. It dealt with the history of medical science and hygiene up to the end of the nineteenth century, thus concerning itself with a new and very different arena of the war between mankind and mortality.
To many of its readers The War of Attrition was undoubtedly a disappointment, though it did include some material about Victorian tomb-decoration and nineteenth-century spiritualism which carried forward arguments from volume four. Access was initially widespread, although demand tailed off fairly rapidly when it was realized how vast and how tightly-packed with data the document was. This lack of popular enthusiasm was not counterbalanced by any redemption of Mortimer’s academic reputation; like many earlier scholars who had made contact with a popular audience Gray was considered guilty of a kind of intellectual treason, and was frozen out of the scholarly community in spite of what appeared to be a determined attempt at rehabilitation. Some popular reviewers argued, however, that there was much in the new volume to intrigue the inhabitants of a world whose medical science was so adept that almost everyone enjoyed perfect health as well as eternal youth, and in which almost any injury could be repaired completely. It was suggested that there was a certain piquant delight to be obtained from recalling a world where everyone was (by modern standards) crippled or deformed, and in which everyone suffered continually from illnesses of a most horrific nature.
Although it had a wealth of scrupulously dry passages, there were parts of The War of Attrition that were deemed pornographic by some commentators. Its accounts of the early history of surgery and midwifery were condemned as unjustifiably blood-curdling, and its painstaking analysis of the spread of syphilis through Europe in the sixteenth century was censured as a mere horror-story made all the nastier by its clinical narration. Gray was particularly interested in syphilis, because of the dramatic social effects of its sudden advent in Europe and its significance in the development of prophylactic medicine. He argued that syphilis was primarily responsible for the rise and spread of Puritanism, repressive sexual morality being the only truly effective weapon against its spread. He then deployed well-tried sociological arguments to the effect that Puritanism and its associated habits of thought had been importantly implicated in the rapid development of Capitalism in the Western World, in order that he might claim that syphilis ought to be regarded as the root cause of the economic and political systems which came to dominate the most chaotic, the most extravagantly progressive and most extravagantly destructive centuries of human history.
The history of medicine and the conquest of disease were, of course, topics of elementary education in the thirtieth century. There was supposedly not a citizen of any nation to whom the names of Semmelweis, Jenner and Pasteur were unknown—but disease had been so long banished from the world, and it was so completely outside the experience of ordinary men and women, that what they “knew” about it was never really brought to consciousness, and never came alive to the imagination. Words like “smallpox”, “plague” and “cancer” were used metaphorically in common parlance, and over the centuries had become virtually empty of any real significance. Gray’s fifth volume, therefore—in spite of the fact that it contained little that was really new—did serve as a stimulus to collective memory. It reminded the world of some issues which, though not exactly forgotten, had not really been brought to mind for some time. It is at least arguable it touched off ripples whose movement across the collective consciousness of world culture was of some moment. Mortimer Gray was no longer famous, but his continuing work had become firmly established within the zeitgeist.
Neo-Thanaticism began to peter out as the turn of the century approached. By 3010 the whole movement had “gone underground”—which is to say that Thanatics no longer staged their exits before the largest audiences they could obtain, but saved their performance for small, carefully-selected groups. This wasn’t so much a response to persecution as a variation in the strange game that they were playing out; it was simply a different kind of drama. Unfortunately, there was no let-up in the communications with which Thanatics continued to batter my patient AI interceptors.
Although it disappointed the rest of the world, The War of Attrition was welcomed enthusiastically by some of the Thanatic cults, whose members cultivated an altogether unhealthy interest in disease as a means of decease, replacing the violent executions which had become too familiar. As time went by and Thanaticism declined generally, this particular subspecies underwent a kind of mutation as the cultists began to promote diseases not as means of death but as valuable experiences from which much might be learned. A black market in carcinogens and bioengineered pathogens quickly sprang up. The original agents of smallpox, cholera, bubonic plague and syphilis were long since extinct, but the world abounded in clever genetic engineers who could synthesize a virus with very little effort. Suddenly, they began to find clients for a whole range of horrid diseases. Those which afflicted the mind as well as or instead of the body were particularly prized; there was a boom in recreational schizophrenia which almost broke through to the mainstream of accredited psychotropics.
I couldn’t help but remember, with a new sense of irony, Ziru Majumdar’s enthusiasm for the vivid delusions which had visited him while his internal technology was tested to the limit in staving off hypothermia and frostbite.
When the new trend spread beyond the ranks of the Thanaticists and large numbers of people began to regard disease as something that could be temporarily and interestingly indulged without any real danger to life or subsequent health, I began to find my arguments about death quoted—without acknowledgment—with reference to disease. A popular way of talking about the phenomenon was to claim that what had ceased to be a dire necessity “naturally” became available as a perverse luxury.
None of this would have mattered much had it not been for the difficulty of restricting the spread of recreational diseases to people who wanted to indulge, but those caught up in the fad refused to restrict themselves to non-infectious varieties. There had been no serious threat of epidemic since the Plague Wars of the twenty-first century, but now it seemed that medical science might once again have to be mobilized on a vast scale. Because of the threat to innocent parties who might be accidentally infected, the self-infliction of dangerous diseases was quickly outlawed in many nations, but some governments were slow to act.
I would have remained aloof and apart from all of this had I been able to, but it proved that my defenses weren’t impregnable. In 3029 a Thanaticist of exceptional determination named Hadria Nuccoli decided that if I wouldn’t come to her, she would come to me. Somehow, she succeeded in getting past all my carefully-sealed doors to arrive in my bedroom at three o’clock one winter morning.
I woke up in confusion, but the confusion was quickly transformed into sheer terror. This was an enemy more frightening than the scalding Coral Sea, because this was an active enemy who meant to do me harm—and the intensity of the threat she posed was in no way lessened by the fact that she claimed to be doing it out of love rather than hatred.
The woman’s skin bore an almost mercuric luster, and she was in the grip of a terrible fever, but she would not be still. She seemed, in fact, to have an irresistible desire to move and to communicate, and the derangement of her body and brain had not impaired her crazed eloquence.
“Come with me!” she begged, as I tried to evade her eager clutch. “Come with me to the far side of death and I’ll show you what’s there. There’s no need to be afraid! Death isn’t the end, it’s the beginning. It’s the metamorphosis which frees us from our caterpillar flesh to be spirits in a massless world of light and color. I am your redeemer, for whom you have waited far too long. Love me, dear Mortimer Gray, only love me and you will learn. Let me be your mirror; drown yourself in me!”
For ten minutes I succeeded in keeping away from her, stumbling this way and that, thinking that I might be safe if only I didn’t touch her. I managed to send out a call for help, but I knew that it would take an hour or more for anyone to come.
I tried all the while to talk her down but it was impossible.
“There’s no return from eternity,” she told me. “This is no ordinary virus created by accident to fight a hopeless cause against the defenses of the body. Nanotechnology is as impotent to deal with this transformer of the flesh as the immune system was to deal with its own destroyers. The true task of medical engineers, did they but know it, was never to fight disease but always to perfect it, and we have found the way. I bring you the greatest of all gifts, my darling: the elixir of life, which will make us angels instead of men, creatures of light and ecstasy.”
It was no use running; I tired before she did, and she caught me. I tried to knock her down, and if I had had a weapon to hand I would certainly have used it in self-defense, but she couldn’t feel pain and no mater how badly disabled her internal technology was I wasn’t able to injure her with my blows.
In the end, I had no sensible alternative but to let her take me in her arms and cling to me; nothing else would soothe her.
I was afraid for her as well as myself; I didn’t believe then that she truly intended to die and I wanted to keep us safe until help arrived.
My panic didn’t decrease while I held her; if anything, I felt it all the more intensely. I became outwardly calmer once I had let her touch me, and made every effort to remind myself that it didn’t really matter whether she infected me or not, given that medical help would soon arrive. I didn’t expect to have to go through the kind of hell that I actually endured before the doctors got the bug under control; for once, panic was wiser than common sense.
Even so, I wept for her when they told me she’d died, and wished with all my heart that she hadn’t.
Unlike my previous brushes with death, I don’t think my encounter with Hadria Nuccoli was an important learning experience. It was just a disturbance of the now-settled pattern of my life—something to be survived, put away and forgotten. I haven’t forgotten it, but I did put it away in the back of my mind. I didn’t let it affect me.
In some of my writings I’d lauded the idea of martyrdom as an important invention in the imaginative war against death, and I’d been mightily intrigued by the lives and deaths of the saints recorded in the Golden Legend. Now that I’d been appointed a saint by some very strange people, though, I began to worry about the exemplary functions of such legends. The last thing I’d expected when I set out to write a History of Death was that my explanatory study might actually assist the dread empire of Death to regain a little of the ground which it had lost in the world of human affairs. I began to wonder whether I ought to abandon my project, but I decided otherwise. The Thanatics and their successors were, after all, willfully misunderstanding and perverting my message; I owed it to them and to everyone else to make myself clearer.
As it happened, the number of deaths recorded in association with Thanaticism and recreational disease began to decline after 3030. In a world context, the numbers were never more than tiny, but they were still worrying and hundreds of thousands of people had, like me, to be rescued from the consequences of their own or other people’s folly by doctors.
As far back as 2982 I had appeared on TV—via a satellite link—with a faber named Khan Mirafzal, who had argued that Thanaticism was evidence of the fact that Earthbound man was becoming decadent, and that the future of man lay outside the Earth, in the microworlds and the distant colonies. Mirafzal had claimed that men genetically reshaped for life in low gravity—like the four-handed fabers—or for the colonization of alien worlds would find Thanaticism unthinkable. At the time I’d been content to assume that his arguments were spurious. People who lived in space were always going on about the decadence of the Earthbound, much as the Gaean Liberationists did. Fifty years later, I wasn’t so sure. I actually called Mirafzal so that we could discuss the matter again, in private. The conversation took a long time because of the signal delay, but that seemed to make its thrust all the more compelling.
I decided to leave Earth, at least for a while, to investigate the farther horizons of the human enterprise.
In 3033 I flew to the moon, and took up residence in Mare Moscoviense—which is, of course, on the side which faces away from the Earth.
The sixth volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled Fields of Battle, was published on 24 July 3044. Its subject-matter was war, but Gray was not greatly interested in the actual fighting of the wars of the nineteenth and succeeding centuries. His main concern was with the mythology of warfare as it developed in the period under consideration, and in particular with the way that the development of the mass media of communication transformed the business and the perceived meanings of warfare. He began his study with the Crimean War, because it was the first war to be extensively covered by newspaper reporters, and the first whose conduct was drastically affected thereby.
Before the Crimea, Gray argued, wars had been “private” events, entirely the affairs of the men who started them and the men who fought them. They might have a devastating effect on the local population of the areas where they were fought, but were largely irrelevant to distant civilian populations. The British Times had changed all that, by making the Crimean War the business of all its readers, exposing the government and military leaders to public scrutiny and to public scorn. Reports from the front had scandalized the nation by creating an awareness of how ridiculously inefficient the organization of the army was, and what a toll of human life was exacted upon the troops in consequence–not merely deaths in battle, but deaths from injury and disease caused by the appalling lack of care given to wounded soldiers. That reportage had not only had practical consequences, but imaginative consequences—it rewrote the entire mythology of heroism in an intricate webwork of new legends, ranging from the Charge of the Light Brigade to the secular canonization of Florence Nightingale.
Throughout the next two centuries, Gray argued, war and publicity were entwined in a Gordian knot. Control of the news media became vital to propagandist control of popular morale, and governments engaged in war had to become architects of the mythology of war as well as planners of military strategy. Heroism and jingoism became the currency of consent; where governments failed to secure the public image of the wars they fought, they fell. Gray tracked the way in which attitudes to death in war and to the endangerment of civilian populations by war were dramatically transformed by the three World Wars and by the way those wars were subsequently mythologized in memory and fiction. He commented extensively on the way the first World War was “sold” to those who must fight it as a war to end war, and on the consequent sense of betrayal that followed when it failed to live up to this billing. And yet, he argued, if the three global wars were seen as a whole, its example really had brought into being the attitude of mind which ultimately forbade wars.
As those who had become used to his methods now expected, Gray dissented from the view of other modern historians who saw the World Wars as an unmitigated disaster and a horrific example of the barbarity of ancient man. He agreed that the nationalism which had replaced the great religions as the main creator and definer of a sense of community was a poor and petty thing, and that the massive conflicts which it engendered were tragic—but it was, he asserted, a necessary stage in historical development. The empires of faith were, when all was said and done, utterly incompetent to their self-defined task, and were always bound to fail and to disintegrate. The groundwork for a genuine human community, in which all mankind could properly and meaningfully join, had to be relaid, and it had to be relaid in the common experience of all nations, as part of a universal heritage.
The real enemy of mankind was, as Gray had always insisted and now continued to insist, death itself. Only by facing up to death in a new way, by gradually transforming the role of death as part of the means to human ends, could a true human community be made. Wars, whatever their immediate purpose in settling economic squabbles and pandering to the megalomaniac psychoses of national leaders, also served a large-scale function in the shifting pattern of history: to provide a vast carnival of destruction which must either weary men of the lust to kill, or bring about their extinction.
Some reviewers condemned Fields of Battle on the grounds of its evident irrelevance to a world that had banished war, but others welcomed the fact that the volume returned Gray’s thesis to the safe track of true history, in dealing exclusively with that which was safely dead and buried.
I found life on the moon very different from anything I’d experienced in my travels around the Earth’s surface. It wasn’t so much the change in gravity, although that certainly took a lot of getting used to, nor the severe regime of daily exercise in the centrifuge which I had to adopt in order to make sure that I might one day return to the world of my birth without extravagant medical provision. Nor was it the fact that the environment was so comprehensively artificial, or that it was impossible to venture outside without special equipment; in those respects it was much like Antarctica. The most significant difference was in the people.
Mare Moscoviense had few tourists—tourists mostly stayed Earthside, making only brief trips farside—but most of its inhabitants were nevertheless just passing through. It was one of the main jumping-off points for emigrants, largely because it was an important industrial centre, the home of one of the largest factories for the manufacture of shuttles and other local-space vehicles. It was one of the chief trading posts supplying materials to the microworlds in Earth orbit and beyond, and many of its visitors came in from the farther reaches of the solar system.
The majority of the city’s long-term residents were unmodified, like me, or lightly modified by reversible cyborgization, but a great many of those visiting were fabers, genetically engineered for low-gee environments. The most obvious external feature of their modification was that they had an extra pair of “arms” instead of “legs”, and this meant that most of the public places in Moscoviense were designed to accommodate their kind as well as “walkers”; all the corridors were railed and all the ceilings ringed.
The sight of fabers swinging around the place like gibbons, getting everywhere at five or six times the pace of walkers, was one that I found strangely fascinating, and one to which I never quite became accustomed. Fabers couldn’t live, save with the utmost difficulty, in the gravity well that was Earth; they almost never descended to the planet’s surface. By the same token, it was very difficult for men from Earth to work in zero-gee environments without extensive modification, surgical if not genetic. For this reason, the only “ordinary” men who went into the true faber environments weren’t ordinary by any customary standard. The moon, with its one-sixth Earth gravity, was the only place in the inner solar system where fabers and unmodified men frequently met and mingled–there was nowhere else nearer than Ganymede.
I had always known about fabers, of course, but like so much other “common” knowledge the information had lain unattended in some unheeded pigeon-hole of memory until direct acquaintance ignited it and gave it life. It seemed to me that fabers lived their lives at a very rapid tempo, despite the fact that they were just as emortal as members of their parent species.
For one thing, faber parents normally had their children while they were still alive, and very often had several at intervals of only twenty or thirty years. An aggregate family usually had three or even four children growing up in parallel. In the infinite reaches of space, there was no population control, and no restrictive “right of replacement”. A microworld’s population could grow as fast as the microworld could put on extra mass. Then again, the fabers were always doing things. Even though they had four arms, they always seemed to have trouble finding a spare hand. They seemed to have no difficulty at all in doing two different things at the same time, often using only one limb for attachment—on the moon this generally meant hanging from the ceiling like a bat—while one hand mediated between the separate tasks being carried out by the remaining two.
I quickly realized that it wasn’t just the widely-accepted notion that the future of mankind must take the form of a gradual diffusion through the galaxy that made the fabers think of Earth as decadent. From their viewpoint, Earth-life seemed unbearably slow and sedentary. Unmodified humankind, having long since attained control of the ecosphere of its native world, seemed to the fabers to be living a lotus-eater existence, indolently pottering about in its spacious garden.
The fabers weren’t contemptuous of legs as such, but they drew a sharp distinction between those spacefaring folk who were given legs by the genetic engineers in order to descend to the surfaces of new and alien worlds, with a job to do, and those Earthbound people who simply kept the legs their ancestors had bequeathed to them in order to enjoy the fruits of the labors of past generations.
Wherever I had lived on Earth, it had always seemed to me that one could blindly throw a stone into a crowded room and stand a fifty-fifty chance of hitting a historian of some sort. In Mare Moscoviense, the population of historians could be counted on the fingers of an unmodified man–and that in a city of a quarter of a million people. Whether they were resident or passing through, the people of the moon were far more interested in the future than the past. When I told them about my vocation, my new neighbors were likely to smile politely and shake their heads.
“It’s the weight of those legs,” the fabers among them were wont to say. “You think they’re holding you up, but in fact they’re holding you down. Give them a chance and you’ll find that you’ve put down roots.”
If anyone told them that on Earth, “having roots” wasn’t considered an altogether bad thing, they’d laugh.
“Get rid of your legs and learn to swing,” they’d say. “You’ll understand then that human beings have no need of roots. Only reach with four hands instead of two, and you’ll find the stars within your grasp. Leave the past to rot at the bottom of the deep dark well, and give the Heavens their due.
I quickly learned to fall back on the same defensive moves most of my unmodified companions employed. “You can’t break all your links with solid ground,” we told the fabers, over and over again. “Somebody has to deal with the larger lumps of matter which are strewn about the universe, and you can’t go to meet real mass if you don’t have legs. It’s planets that produce biospheres and biospheres that produce such luxuries as air. If you’ve seen further than other men it’s not because you can swing by your arms from the ceiling–it’s because you can stand on the shoulders of giants with legs.”
Such exchanges were always cheerful. It was almost impossible to get into a real argument with a faber, because their talk was as intoxicated as their movements. “Leave the wells to the unwell,” they were fond of quoting. “The well will climb out of the wells, if they only find the will. History is bunk, only fit for sleeping minds.”
A man less certain of his own destiny might have been turned aside from his task by faber banter, but I was well into my second century of life by then and I had few doubts left regarding the propriety of my particular labor. Access to data was no more difficult on the moon than anywhere else in the civilized Ekumen, and I proceeded, steadily and methodically, with my self-allotted task.
I made good progress there, as befitted the circumstances. Perhaps that was the happiest time of my life—but it’s so difficult to draw comparisons when you’re as far away from childhood and youth as I now am.
Memory is an untrustworthy crutch for minds that have not yet mastered eternity
The seventh volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Last Judgment, was published on 21 June 3053. It dealt with the multiple crises which had developed in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, each of which and all of which had faced the human race with the prospect of extinction.
Gray described in minute detail the various nuclear exchanges which led up to Brazil’s nuclear attack on Argentina in 2079 and the Plague Wars waged throughout that century. He discussed the various factors—the greenhouse crisis, soil erosion, pollution and deforestation—which had come close to inflicting irreparable damage on the ecosphere. His map of the patterns of death in this period considered in detail the fate of the “lost billions” of peasant and subsistence farmers who were disinherited and displaced by the emergent ecological and economic order.
Gray scrupulously pointed out that in less than two centuries more people had died than in the previous ten millennia. He made the ironic observation that the near-conquest of death achieved by twenty-first century medicine had created such an abundance of life as to precipitate a Malthusian crisis of awful proportions. He proposed that the new medicine and the new pestilences might be seen as different faces of the same coin, and that new technologies of food production—from the twentieth century Green Revolution to twenty-second century tissue-culture farmfactories—were as much progenitors of famine as of satiation.
Gray advanced the opinion that this was the most critical of all the stages of man’s war with death. The weapons of the imagination were discarded in favor of more effective ones, but in the short term those more effective weapons, by multiplying life so effectively, had also multiplied death. In earlier times, the growth of human population had been restricted by lack of resources, and the war with death had been, in essence, a war of mental adaptation whose goal was reconciliation. When the “natural” checks on population-growth were removed because that reconciliation was abandoned, the waste-products of human society threatened to poison it.
Humankind, in developing the weapons by which the long war with death might be won, had also developed—in a more crudely literal sense—the weapons by which it might be lost. Nuclear arsenals and stockpiled AIDS viruses were scattered all over the globe: twin pistols held in the skeletal hands of death, leveled at the entire human race. The wounds they inflicted could so easily have been mortal—but the dangerous corner had, after all, been turned. The sciences of life, having passed through a particularly desperate stage of their evolution, kept one vital step ahead of the problems which they had helped to generate. Food technology finally achieved a merciful divorce from the bounty of nature, moving out of the fields and into the factories to achieve a complete liberation of man from the vagaries of the ecosphere, and paving the way for Garden Earth.
Gray argued that this was a remarkable triumph of human sanity, which produced a political apparatus enabling human beings to take collective control of themselves, allowing the entire world to be managed and governed as a whole. He judged that the solution was far from Utopian, and that the political apparatus in question was at best a ramshackle and ill-designed affair, but admitted that it did the job. He emphasized that in the final analysis it was not scientific progress per se that had won the war against death, but the ability of human beings to work together, to compromise, to build communities. That human beings possessed this ability was, he argued, as much the legacy of thousands of years of superstition and religion as of hundreds of years of science.
The Last Judgment attracted little critical attention, as it was widely held to be dealing with matters that everyone understood very well. Given that the period had left an abundant legacy of archival material of all kinds, Gray’s insistence on using only mute text accompanied by still photographs seemed to many commentators to be pedestrian and frankly perverse, unbecoming a true historian.
In twenty years of living beneath a star-filled sky I was strongly affected by the magnetic pull that those stars seemed to exert upon my spirit. I seriously considered applying for modification for low-gee and shipping out from Mare Moscoviense along with the emigrants to some new microworld, or perhaps going out to one of the satellites of Saturn or Uranus, to a world where the sun’s bountiful radiance was of little consequence and men lived entirely by the fruits of their own efforts and their own wisdom.
But the years drifted by, and I didn’t go.
Sometimes, I thought of this failure as a result of cowardice, or evidence of the decadence that the fabers and other subspecies attributed to the humans of Earth. I sometimes imagined myself as an insect born at the bottom of a deep cave, who had—thanks to the toil of many preceding generations of insects—been brought to the rim from which I could look out at the great world, but dared not take the one final step that would carry me out and away. More and more, however, I found my thoughts turning back to the Earth. My memories of its many environments became gradually fonder the longer my absence lasted. Nor could I despise this as a weakness. Earth was, after all, my home. It was not only my world, but the home world of all humankind. No matter what the fabers and their kin might say, the Earth was and would always remain an exceedingly precious thing, which should never be abandoned.
It seemed to me then—and still seems now—that it would be a terrible thing were men to spread themselves across the entire galaxy, taking a multitude of forms in order to occupy a multitude of alien worlds, and in the end forget entirely the world from which their ancestors had sprung.
Once, I was visited in Mare Moscoviense by Khan Mirafzal, the faber with whom I had long ago debated on TV, and talked to again before my emigration. His home, for the moment, was a microworld in the asteroid belt which was in the process of being fitted with a drive which would take it out of the system and into the infinite. He was a kind and even-tempered man who would not dream of trying to convince me of the error of my ways, but he was also a man with a sublime vision who could not restrain his enthusiasm for his own chosen destiny.
“I have no roots on Earth, Mortimer, even in a metaphorical sense. In my being, the chains of adaptation have been decisively broken. Every man of my kind is born anew, designed and synthesized; we are self-made men, who belong everywhere and nowhere. The wilderness of empty space which fills the universe is our realm, our heritage. Nothing is strange to us, nothing foreign, nothing alien. Blastular engineering has incorporated freedom into our blood and our bones, and I intend to take full advantage of that freedom. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of my nature.”
“My own blastular engineering served only to complete the adaptation to life on Earth which natural selection had left incomplete,” I reminded him. “I’m no new man, free from the ties that bind me to the Earth.”
“Not so,” he replied. “Natural selection would never have devised emortality, for natural selection can only generate change by death and replacement. When genetic engineers found the means of setting aside the curse of aging they put an end to natural selection forever. The first and greatest freedom is time, my friend, and you have all the time in the world. You can become whatever you want to be. What do you want to be, Mortimer?”
“A historian,” I told him. “It’s what I am because it’s what I want to be.”
“All well and good—but history isn’t inexhaustible, as you well know. It ends with the present day, the present moment. The future, on the other hand….”
“Is given to your kind. I know that, Mira. I don’t dispute it. But what exactly is your kind, given that you rejoice in such freedom to be anything you want to be? When the starship Pandora effected the first meeting between humans and a ship that had set out from another star-system the crews of the two ships, each consisting entirely of individuals bioengineered for life in zero-gee, resembled one another far more than they resembled unmodified members of their parent species. The fundamental chemistries controlling their design were different, but this only led to the faber crews trading their respective molecules of life, so that their genetic engineers could henceforth make and use chromosomes of both kinds. What kind of freedom is it that makes all the travelers of space into mirror images of one another?”
“You’re exaggerating,” Mirafzal insisted. “The news reports played up the similarity, but it really wasn’t as close as all that. Yes, the Pandora encounter can’t really be regarded as a first contact between humans and aliens, because the distinction between human and alien had ceased to carry any real meaning long before it happened. But it’s not the case that our kind of freedom breeds universal mediocrity because adaptation to zero-gee is an existential straitjacket. We’ve hardly scratched the surface of constructive cyborgization, which will open up a whole new dimension of freedom.”
“That’s not for me,” I told him. “Maybe it is just my legs weighing me down, but I’m well and truly addicted to gravity. I can’t cast off the past like a worn-out surskin. I know you think I ought to envy you, but I don’t. I dare say you think that I’m clinging like a terrified infant to Mother Earth while you’re achieving true maturity, but I really do think it’s important to have somewhere to belong.”
“So do I,” the faber said, quietly. “I just don’t think that Earth is or ought to be that place. It’s not where you start from that’s important, Mortimer, it’s where you’re going.”
“Not for a historian.”
“For everybody. History ends, Mortimer, life doesn’t—not any more.”
I was at least half-convinced that Khan Mirafzal was right, although I didn’t follow his advice. I still am. Maybe I was and am trapped in a kind of infancy, or a kind of lotus-eater decadence—but if so, I could see no way out of the trap then and I still can’t.
Perhaps things would have turned out differently if I’d had one of my close encounters with death while I was on the moon, but I didn’t. The dome in which I lived was only breached once, and the crack was sealed before there was any significant air-loss. It was a scare, but it wasn’t a threat. Perhaps, in the end, the moon was too much like Anatarctica—but without the crevasses. Fortune seems to have decreed that all my significant formative experiences have to do with water, whether it be very hot or very, very cold.
Eventually, I gave in to my homesickness for Garden Earth and returned there, having resolved not to leave it again until my history of death was complete. I never did.
The eighth volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Fountains of Youth, was published on 1 December 3064. It dealt with the development of elementary technologies of longevity and elementary technologies of cyborgization in the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth centuries. It tracked the progress of the new “politics of immortality”, whose main focus was the new Charter of Human Rights which sought to establish a basic right to longevity for all. It also described the development of the Zaman transformations by which human blastulas could be engineered for longevity, which finally opened the way for the wholesale metamorphosis of the human race.
According to Gray, the Manifesto of the New Chartists was the vital treaty which ushered in a new phase in man’s continuing war with death, because it defined the whole human community as a single army, united in all its interests. He quoted with approval and reverence the opening words of the document: “Man is born free, but is everywhere enchained by the fetters of death. In all times past men have been truly equal in one respect and one only: they have all borne the burden of age and decay. The day must soon dawn when this burden can be set aside; there will be a new freedom, and with this freedom must come a new equality. No man has the right to escape the prison of death while his fellows remain shackled within it.”
Gray carefully chronicled the long battle fought by the Chartists across the stage of world politics, describing it with a partisan fervor which had been largely absent from his work since the fourth volume. There was nothing clinical about his description of the “persecution” of Ali Zaman and the resistance offered by the community of nations to his proposal to make future generations truly emortal. Gray admitted that he had the benefits of hindsight, and that as a Zaman-transformed individual himself he was bound to have an attitude very different from Zaman’s confused and cautious contemporaries, but he saw no reason to be entirely even-handed. From his viewpoint, those who initially opposed Zaman were traitors in the war against death, and he could find few excuses for them. In trying to preserve “human nature” against biotechnological intervention—or, at least, to confine such interventions by a mythos of medical “repair”—those men and women had in his stern view been willfully blind and negligent of the welfare of their own children.
Some critics charged Gray with inconsistency because he was not nearly so extravagant in his enthusiasm for the various kinds of symbiosis between organic and inorganic systems which were tried out in the period under consideration. His descriptions of experiments in cyborgization were indeed conspicuously cooler, not because he saw such endeavors as “unnatural”, but rather because he saw them as only peripherally relevant to the war against death. He tended to lump together adventures in cyborgization with cosmetic biotechnology as symptoms of lingering anxiety regarding the presumed “tedium of emortality”—an anxiety that had led the first generations of long-lived people to lust for variety and “multidimensionality”. Many champions of cyborgization and man/machine symbiosis, who saw their work as the new frontier of science, accused Gray of rank conservatism, suggesting that it was hypocritical of him, given that his mind was closed against them, to criticize so extravagantly those who, in less enlightened times, had closed their minds against Ali Zaman.
This controversy, which was dragged into the public arena by some fierce attacks, helped in no small measure to boost access-demand for The Fountains of Youth, and nearly succeeded in restoring Mortimer Gray to the position of public pre-eminence that he had enjoyed a century before.
Following my return to the Earth’s surface I took up residence in Tonga, where the Continental Engineers were busy raising new islands by the dozen from the relatively shallow sea.
The Continental Engineers had borrowed their name from a twenty-fifth century group that had tried to persuade the United Nations to license the building of a dam across the Straits of Gibraltar—which, because more water evaporates from the Mediterranean than flows into it from rivers, would have increased considerably the land surface of southern Europe and Northern Africa. That plan had, of course, never come to fruition, but the new Engineers had taken advantage of the climatic disruptions caused by the advancing Ice Age to promote the idea of raising new lands in the tropics to take emigrants from the newly refrozen north. Using a mixture of techniques—seeding the shallower sea with artificial “lightning corals” and using special gantzing organisms to agglomerate huge towers of cemented sand—the Engineers were creating a great archipelago of new islands, many of which they then connected up with huge bridges.
Between the newly-raised islands, the ecologists who were collaborating with the Continental Engineers had planted vast networks of matted seaweeds: floral carpets extending over thousands of miles. The islands and their surroundings were being populated, and their ecosystems shaped, with the aid of the Creationists of Micronesia, whose earlier exploits I’d been prevented from exploring by the sinking of Genesis. I was delighted to have the opportunity of observing their new and bolder adventures at close range.
The Pacific sun set in its deep blue bed seemed fabulously luxurious after the silver-ceilinged domes of the moon, and I gladly gave myself over to its governance. Carried away by the romance of it all, I married into an aggregate household that was forming in order to raise a child, and so—as I neared my two hundredth birthday—I became a parent for the first time.
Five of the other seven members of the aggregate were ecological engineers, and had to spend a good deal of time traveling, so I became one of the constant presences in the life of the growing infant, who was a girl named Lua Tawana. I formed a relationship with her which seemed to me to be especially close.
In the meantime, I found myself constantly engaged in public argument with the self-styled Cyborganizers, who had chosen to make the latest volume of my history into a key issue in their bid for the kind of public attention and sponsorship that the Continental Engineers had already won. I thought their complaints unjustified and irrelevant, but they obviously thought that by attacking me they could exploit the celebrity status I had briefly enjoyed.
The gist of their argument was that the world had become so besotted with the achievements of genetic engineers that people had become blind to all kinds of other possibilities which lay beyond the scope of DNA-manipulation. They insisted that I was one of many contemporary writers who was “de-historicizing” cyborgization, making it seem that in the past and the present—and, by implication, the future—organic/inorganic integration and symbiosis were peripheral to the story of human progress. The Cyborganizers were willing to concede that some previous practitioners of their science had generated a lot of bad publicity, in the days of memory boxes and psychedelic synthesizers, but that this had only served to mislead the public as to the true potential of their science.
In particular—and this was of particular relevance to me—the Cyborganizers insisted that the biotechnologists had only won one battle in the war against death, and that what was presently called “emortality” would eventually prove wanting. Zaman transformations, they conceded, had dramatically increased the human lifespan—so dramatically that no one yet knew for sure how long ZT people might live—but it was not yet proven that the extension would be effective for more than a few centuries.
They did have a point; even the most optimistic supporters of Zaman transformations were reluctant to promise a lifespan of several millennia, and some kinds of aging processes—particularly those linked to DNA copying-errors—still affected emortals to some degree. Hundreds, if not thousands of people still died every year from “age-related causes”.
To find further scope for authentic immortality, the Cyborganizers claimed that it would be necessary to look to a combination of organic and inorganic technologies. What was needed by contemporary man, they said, was not just life but afterlife, and afterlife would require some kind of transcription of the personality into an inorganic rather than an organic matrix. Whatever the advantages of flesh and blood, silicon lasted longer; and however clever genetic engineers became in adapting men for life in microworlds or on alien planets, only machine-makers could built entities capable of working in genuinely extreme environments.
The idea of “downloading” a human mind into an inorganic matrix was, of course, a very old one. It had been extensively if optimistically discussed in the days before the advent of emortality—at which point it had been marginalized as an apparent irrelevance. Mechanical “human analogues” and virtual simulacra had become commonplace alongside the development of longevity technologies but the evolution of such “species” had so far been divergent rather than convergent. According to the Cyborganizers it was now time for a change.
Although I didn’t entirely relish being cast in the role of villain and bugbear I made only half-hearted attempts to make peace with my self-appointed adversaries. I remained skeptical in respect of their grandiose schemes, and I was happy to dampen their ardor as best I could in public debate. I thought myself sufficiently mature to be unaffected by their insults, although it did sting when they sunk so low as to charge me with being a closet Thanaticist.
“Your interminable book is only posing as a history,” Lok Cho Kam, perhaps the most outspoken of the younger Cyborganizers, once said when he challenged me to a broadcast debate. “It’s actually an extended exercise in the pornography of death. Its silence and stillness aren’t marks of scholarly dignity, they’re a means of heightening response.”
“That’s absurd!” I said, but he wouldn’t be put off.
“What sound arouses more excitation in today’s world than the sound of silence? What movement is more disturbing than stillness. You pretend to be standing aside from the so-called war against death as a commentator and a judge, but in fact you’re part of it—and you’re on the devil’s side, whether you know it or not.”
“I suppose you’re partly right,” I conceded, on reflection. “Perhaps the muteness and stillness of the text are a means of heightening response—but if so, it’s because there’s no other way to make readers who have long abandoned their fear of death sensitive to the appalling shadow which it once cast over the human world. The style of my book is calculatedly archaic because it’s one way of trying to connect its readers to the distant past—but the entire thrust of my argument is triumphant and celebratory. I’ve said many times before that it’s perfectly understandable that the imagery of death should acquire a pornographic character for a while, but when we really understand the phenomenon of death that pornographic specter will fade away, so that we can see with perfect clarity what our ancestors were and what we have become. By the time my book is complete, nobody will be able to think it pornographic, and nobody will make the mistake of thinking that it glamorizes death in any way.”
Lok Cho Kam was still unimpressed, but in this instance I was right. I was sure of it then and I am now. The pornography of death did pass away, like the pornographies which preceded it. Nobody nowadays thinks of my book as a prurient exercise, whether or not they think it admirable
If nothing else, my debates with the Cyborganizers created a certain sense of anticipation regarding the ninth volume of my History, which would bring it up to the present day. It was widely supposed, although I was careful never to say so, that the ninth volume would be the last. I might be flattering myself, but I truly believe that many people were looking to it for some kind of definitive evaluation of the current state of the human world.
The ninth volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Honeymoon of Emortality, was published on 28 October 3075. It was considered by many reviewers to be unjustifiably slight in terms of hard data. Its main focus was on attitudes to longevity and emortality following the establishment of the principle that every human child had a right to be born emortal. It described the belated extinction of the “nuclear” family, the ideological rebellion of the Humanists—whose quest to preserve “the authentic Homo sapiens” had led many to retreat to islands that the Continental Engineers were now integrating into their “new continent”—and the spread of such new philosophies of life as neo-Stoicism, neo-Epicureanism and Xenophilia.
All this information was placed in the context of the spectrum of inherited attitudes, myths and fictions by means of which mankind had for thousands of years wistfully contemplated the possibility of extended life. Gray contended that these old ideas—including the notion that people would inevitably find emortality intolerably tedious—were merely an expression of “sour grapes”. While people thought that emortality was impossible, he said, it made perfect sense for them to invent reasons why it would be undesirable anyhow. When it became a reality, there was a battle to be fought in the imagination, whereby the burden of these cultivated anxieties had to be shed, and a new mythology formulated.
Gray flatly refused to take seriously any suggestion that emortality might be a bad thing. He was dismissive of the Humanists and contemptuous of the original Thanatics, who had steadfastly refused the gifts of emortality. Nevertheless, he did try to understand the thinking of such people, just as he had tried in earlier times to understand the thinking of the later Thanatics who had played their part in winning him his first measure of fame. He considered the new Stoics, with their insistence that asceticism was the natural ideological partner of emortality, to be similar victims of an “understandable delusion”—a verdict which, like so many of his statements, involved him in controversy with the many neo-Stoics who were still alive in 3075. It did not surprise his critics in the least that Gray commended neo-Epicureanism as the optimal psychological adaptation to emortality, given that he had been a lifelong adherent of that outlook, ever dedicated to its “careful hedonism”. Only the cruelest of his critics dared to suggest that he had been so half-hearted a neo-Epicurean as almost to qualify as a neo-Stoic by default.
The Honeymoon of Emortality collated the statistics of birth and death during the twenty-seventh, twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth centuries, recording the spread of Zaman transformations and the universalization of ectogenesis on Earth and the extension of the human empire throughout and beyond the solar system. Gray recorded an acknowledgement to Khan Mirafzal and numerous scholars based on the moon and Mars, for their assistance in gleaning information from the slowly-diffusing microworlds and from more rapidly dispersing starships. Gray noted that the transfer of information between data-stores was limited by the speed of light, and that Earth-based historians might have to wait centuries for significant data about human colonies more distant than Maya. These data showed that the number of individuals of the various humankinds that now existed was increasing more rapidly than ever before, although the population of unmodified Earthbound humans was slowly shrinking. Gray noted en passant that Homo sapiens had become extinct in the twenty-ninth century, but that no one had bothered to invent new Latin tags for its descendant species.
Perhaps understandably, The Honeymoon of Emortality had little to say about was cyborgization, and the Cyborganizers—grateful for the opportunity to heat up a flagging controversy—reacted noisily to this failure. Gray did deal with the memory box craze, but suggested that, even had the boxes worked better, and maintained a store of memories that could be convincingly played back into the arena of consciousness, this would have been of little relevance to the business of adapting to emortality. At the end of the volume, however, Gray announced that there would, in fact, be a tenth volume to conclude his magnum opus, and promised that he would consider in more detail therein the futurological arguments of the Cyborganizers, as well as the hopes and expectations of other schools of thought.
In 3077, when Lua Tawana was twelve years old, three of her parents were killed when a helicopter crashed into the sea near the island of Vavau during a storm. It was the first time that my daughter had to face up to the fact that death had not been entirely banished from the world.
It wasn’t the first time that I’d ever lost people near and dear to me, nor the first time that I’d shared such grief with others, but it was very different from the previous occasions because everyone involved was determined that I should shoulder the main responsibility of helping Lua through it; I was, after all, the world’s foremost expert on the subject of death.
“You won’t always feel this bad about it,” I assured her, while we walked together on the sandy shore looking out over the deceptively placid weed-choked sea. “Time heals virtual wounds as well as real ones.”
“I don’t want it to heal,” she told me, sternly. “I want it to be bad. It ought to be bad. It is bad.”
“I know,” I said, far more awkwardly than I would have wished. “When I say that it’ll heal I don’t mean that it’ll vanish. I mean that it’ll….become manageable. It won’t be so all-consuming.”
“But it will vanish,” she said, with that earnest certainty of which only the newly wise are capable. “People forget. In time, they forget everything. Our heads can only hold so much.”
“That’s not really true,” I insisted, taking her hand in mine. “Yes, we do forget. The longer we live, the more we let go, because it’s reasonable to prefer our fresher, more immediately relevant memories, but it’s a matter of choice. We can cling to the things that are important, no matter how long ago they happened. I was nearly killed in the Great Coral Sea Catastrophe, you know, nearly two hundred years ago. A little girl even younger than you saved my life, and I remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday.”
Even as I said it, I realized that it was a lie. I remembered that it had happened, all right, and much of what had been said in that eerily-lit corridor and in the survival pod afterwards, but I was remembering a neat array of facts, not an experience
“Where is she now?” Lua asked.
“Her name was Emily,” I said, answering the wrong question because I couldn’t answer he one she’s asked. “Emily Marchant. She could swim and I couldn’t. If she hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have been able to get out of the hull. I’d never have had the courage to do it on my own, but she didn’t give me the choice. She told me I had to do it, and she was right.”
I paused, feeling a slight shock of revelation even though it was something I’d always known.
“She lost her entire family,” I went on. “She’ll be fine now, but she won’t have forgotten. She’ll still feel it. That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Lua. In two hundred years, you’ll still remember what happened, and you’ll still feel it, but it’ll be all right. You’ll be all right.”
“Right now,” she said, looking up at me so that her dark and soulful eyes seemed unbearably huge and sad, “I’m not particularly interested in being all right. Right now, I just want to cry.”
“That’s fine,” I told her. “It’s okay to cry.” I led by example.
I was right, though. Lua grieved, but she ultimately proved to be resilient in the face of tragedy. My co-parents, by contrast, seemed to me to be exaggeratedly calm and philosophical about it, as if the loss of three spouses were simply a minor glitch in the infinitely-unfolding pattern of their lives. They had all grown accustomed to their own emortality, and had been deeply affected by long life; they had not become bored but they had achieved a serenity of which I could not wholly approve.
Perhaps their attitude was reasonable as well as inevitable. If emortals accumulated a burden of anxiety which every time a death was reported, they would eventually cripple themselves psychologically, and their own continuing lifes would be made unbearable. Even so, I couldn’t help feel that Lua was right about the desirabiliy of conserving a little of the “badness”, and a due sense of tragedy.
I thought I was capable of that, and always would be, but I knew I might be wrong.
Divorce was, of course, out of the question; we remaining co-parents were obligated to Lua. In the highly unlikely event that the three had simply left we would have replaced them, but it didn’t seem appropriate to look for replacements for the dead, so we remained a group of five. The love we had for one another had always been cool, with far more courtesy in it than passion, but we were drawn more closely together by the loss. We felt that we knew one another more intimately by virtue of having shared it
The quality of our lives had been injured, but I at least was uncomfortably aware of the fact that the tragedy also had its positive, life-enhancing side. I found myself thinking more and more about what I had said to Lua about not having to forget the truly important and worthwhile things, and about the role played by death in defining experiences as important and worthwhile.
I didn’t realize at first how deep an impression her naïve remarks had made on me, but it became gradually clearer as time went by. It was important to conserve the badness, to heal without entirely erasing the scars that bereavement left.
I had never been a habitual tourist, having lost my taste for such activity in the aftermath of the Genesis fiasco, but I took several long journeys in the course of the next few years. I took to visiting old friends, and even stayed for a while with Sharane Fereday, who was temporarily unattached. Inevitably, I looked up Emily Marchant, not realizing until I actually put through the initial call how important it had become to find out whether she remembered me.
She did remember me. She claimed that she recognized me immediately, although it would have been easy enough for her household systems to identify me as the caller and display a whole series of reminders before she took over from her simulacrum.
“Do you know,” she said, when we parted after our brief meeting in the lush Eden of Australia’s interior. “I often think of being trapped on that ship. I hope that nothing like it ever happens to me again. I’ve told an awful lot of lies since then—next time, I won’t feel so certain that I deserve to get out.”
“We can’t forfeit our right to life by lying,” I assured her. “We have to do something much worse than that. If it ever happens to me again, I’ll be able to get out on my own—but I’ll only be able to do it by remembering you.”
I didn’t anticipate, of course, that anything like it would ever happen to me again. We still have a tendency to assume that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, even though we’re the proud inventors of lightning conductors and emortality.
“You must have learned to swim by now,” she said, staring at me with eyes that were more than two hundred years old, set in a face not quite as youthful as the one I remembered.
“I’m afraid not,” I said. “Somehow, I never quite found the time.”
The tenth and last volume of Mortimer Gray’s History of Death, entitled The Marriage of Life and Death, was published on 7 April 3088. It was not, strictly speaking, a history book, although it did deal in some detail with the events as well as the attitudes of the thirtieth and thirty-first centuries. It had elements of both spiritual autobiography and futurological speculation. It discussed both neo-Thanaticism and Cyborganization as philosophies as well as social movements, surprising critics by treating both with considerable sympathy. The discussion also took in other contemporary debates, including the proposition that progress in science, if not in technology, had now reached an end because there was nothing left to discover. It even included a scrupulous examination of the merits of the proposal that a special microworld should be established as a gigantic mausoleum to receive the bodies of all the solar system’s dead.
The odd title of the volume was an ironic reflection of one of its main lines of argument. Mankind’s war with death was now over, but this was not because death had been entirely banished from the human world; death, Gray insisted, would forever remain a fact of life. The annihilation of the individual human body and the individual human mind could never become impossible, no matter how far biotechnology might advance or how much progress the cyborganizers might make in downloading minds into entirely new matrices. The victory which had been achieved, he argued, was not an absolute conquest but rather the relegation of death to its proper place in human affairs. Its power was now properly circumscribed, but had to be properly respected.
Man and death, Gray argued, now enjoyed a kind of social contract, in which tyranny and exploitation had been reduced to a sane and acceptable minimum, but which still left to death a voice and a hand in human affairs. Gray, it seemed, had now adopted a gentler and more forgiving attitude to the old enemy. It was good, he said, that dying remained one of the choices open to human beings, and that the option should occasionally be exercised. He had no sympathy with the exhibitionism of public executions, and was particularly hard on the element of bad taste in self-ordered crucifixions, but only because such ostentation offended his Epicurean sensibilities. Deciding upon the length of one’s lifetime, he said, must remain a matter of individual taste, and one should not mock or criticize those who decided that a short life suited them best.
Gray made much of the notion that it was partly the contrast with death that illuminated and made meaningful the business of life. Although death had been displaced from the evolutionary process by the biotechnological usurpation of the privileges of natural selection it had not lost its role in the formation and development of the individual human psyche: a role which was both challenging and refining. He declared that fear was not entirely an undesirable thing, not simply because it was a stimulant, but also because it was a force in the organization of emotional experience. The value of experienced life, he suggested, depended in part upon a knowledge of the possibility and reality of death.
This concluding volume of Gray’s History was widely read, but not widely admired. Many critics judged it to be unacceptably anti-climactic. The Cyborganizers had by this time become entranced by the possibility of a technologically-guaranteed “multiple life”, by which copies of a mind might be lodged in several different bodies, some of which would live on far beyond the death of the original location. They were understandably disappointed that Gray refused to grant that such a development would be the final victory over death—indeed, that he seemed to feel that it would make no real difference, on the grounds that every “copy” of a mind having to be reckoned a separate and distinct individual, each of which must face the world alone. Many Continental Engineers, Gaean Liberationists and fabers also claimed that it was narrow-minded, and suggested that Gray ought to have had more to say about the life of the Earth, or the DNA eco-entity as a whole, and should have concluded with an escalation of scale to put things in their proper cosmic perspective.
The two groups who found most to like in The Marriage of Life and Death were a few fugitive neo-Thanatics, whose movement had never quite died out in spite of its members’ penchant for self-destruction. One or two Thanatic apologists and fellow-travelers publicly expressed their hope that Gray, having completed his thesis, would now recognize the aesthetic propriety of joining their ranks. Khan Mirafzal, when asked to relay his opinion back from an outward-bound microworld, opined that this was quite unnecessary, given that Mortimer Gray and all his kind were already immured in a tomb from which they would never be able to escape.
I stayed with the slowly-disintegrating family unit for some years after Lua Tanawa had grown up and gone with her own way. It ended up as a ménage à trois, carried forward by sheer inertia. Leif, Sajda and I were fit and healthy in body, but I couldn’t help wondering, from time to time, whether we’d somehow been overcome by a kind of spiritual blight, which had left us ill-equipped for future change.
When I suggested this to the others, they told me that it was merely a sense of let-down resulting from the finishing of his project. They urged me to join the Continental Engineers, and commit myself wholeheartedly to the building of a new Pacific Utopia—a project, they assured me, that would provide me with a purpose in life for as long as I might feel the need of one. I didn’t believe them.
“Even the longest book,” Sajda pointed out, “eventually runs out of words, but the job of building worlds is never finished. Even if the time should one day come when we can call this continent complete, there will be another yet to make. We might still build that dam between the Pillars of Hercules, one day.”
I did try, but I simply couldn’t find a new sense of mission in that direction. Nor did I feel that I could simply sit down to start compiling another book. In composing the history of death, I thought, I had already written the book. The history of death, it seemed to me, was also the history of life, and I couldn’t imagine that there was anything more to be added to what I’d done save for an endless series of detailed footnotes.
For some years I considered the possibility of leaving Earth again, but I remembered well enough how the sense of excitement I’d found when I first lived on the moon had gradually faded into a dull ache of homesickness. The spaces between the stars, I knew, belonged to the fabers, and the planets circling other stars to men adapted before birth to live in their environments. I was tied by my genes to the surface of the Earth, and I didn’t want to undergo the kind of metamorphosis that would be necessary to fit me for the exploration of other worlds. I still believed in belonging, and I felt very strongly that Mortimer Gray belonged to Earth, however decadent and icebound it might become.
At first I was neither surprised nor alarmed by my failure to find any resources inside myself which might restore my zest for existence and action. I thought that it was one of those things which time would heal. By slow degrees, though, I began to feel that I was becalmed upon a sea of futility. Despite my new-found sympathy for Thanaticism I didn’t harbor the slightest inclination towards suicide—no matter how much respect I had cultivated for the old Grim Reaper, death was still, for me, the ultimate enemy—but I felt the awful pressure of my purposelessness grow and grow.
Although I maintained my home in the burgeoning continent of Oceania, I began travelling extensively to savor the other environments of Earth, and made a point of touring those parts of the globe which I had missed out during my first two centuries of life. I visited the Reunited States of America, Greater Siberia, Tibet, and half a hundred other places loaded with the relics of once-glorious history. I toured the Indus Delta, New Zealand, the Arctic ice-pack, and various other reaches of restored wilderness empty of permanent residents. Everything I saw was transformed by the sheer relentlessness of my progress into a series of monuments: memorials of those luckless eras before men invented science and civilization, and became demigods.
There is, I believe, an old saying which warns us that he who keeps walking long enough is bound to trip up in the end. As chance would have it, I was in Severnaya Zemlya in the Arctic—almost as far away as it was possible to be away from the crevasse into which I had stumbled while searching for Ziru Majumdar—when my own luck ran out.
Strictly speaking, it wasn’t me who stumbled but the vehicle I was in: a one-man snowsled. Although such a thing was generally considered to be impossible, it fell into a cleft so deep that it had no bottom, and ended up in the ocean beneath the ice-cap.
“I must offer my most profound apologies,” the snowsled’s AI navigator said, as the sled slowly sank into the lightless depths and the awfulness of my plight slowly sank into my consciousness. “This should not have happened. It ought not to have been possible. I am doing everything within my power to summon help.”
“Well,” I said, as the sled settled on to the bottom, “at least we’re the right way up—and you certainly can’t expect me to swim out of the sled.”
“It would be most unwise to attempt any such thing, sir,” the navigator said. “You would certainly drown.”
I was astonished by my own calmness, and marvelously untroubled—at least for the moment—by the fact of my helplessness. “How long will the air last?” I asked the navigator.
“I believe that I can sustain a breathable atmosphere for forty-eight hours,” it reported, dutifully. “If you will be so kind as to restrict your movements to a minimum, that would be of considerable assistance to me. Unfortunately, I’m not at all certain that I can maintain the internal temperature of the cabin at a life-sustaining level for more than thirty hours. Nor can I be sure that the hull will withstand the pressure presently being exerted upon it for as long as that. I apologize for my uncertainty in these respects.”
“Taking thirty hours as a hopeful approximation,” I said, effortlessly matching the machine’s oddly pedantic tone, “What would you say our chances are of being rescued within that time?”
“I’m afraid that it’s impossible to offer a probability figure, sir. There are too many unknown variables, even if I accept thirty hours as the best estimate of the time available.”
“If I were to suggest fifty-fifty, would that seem optimistic or pessimistic?”
“I’m afraid I’d have to call that optimistic, sir.”
“How about one in a thousand?”
“Thankfully, that would be pessimistic. Since you press me for an estimate, sir, I dare say that something in the region of one in ten wouldn’t be too far from the mark. It all depends on the proximity of the nearest submarine, assuming that my mayday has been received. I fear that I’ve not yet received an actual acknowledgement, but that might well be due to the inadequacy of my equipment, which wasn’t designed with our present environment in mind. I must confess that it has sustained a certain amount of damage as a result of pressure damage to my outer tegument and a small leak.”
“How small?” I wanted to know
“It’s sealed now,” it assured me. “All being well, the seal should hold for thirty hours, although I can’t absolutely guarantee it. I believe, although I can’t be certain, that the only damage I’ve sustained which is relevant to our present plight is that affecting my receiving apparatus.”
“What you’re trying to tell me,” I said, deciding that a recap wouldn’t do any harm. “is that you’re pretty sure that your mayday is going out, but that we won’t actually know whether help is at hand unless and until it actually arrives.”
“Very succinctly put, sir.” I don’t think it was being sarcastic.
“But all in all, it’s ten to one, or maybe worse, that we’re as good as dead.”
“As far as I can determine the probabilities, that’s correct—but there’s sufficient uncertainty to leave room for hope that the true odds might be nearer one in three.”
I was quiet for a little while then. I was busy exploring my feelings, and wondering whether I ought to be proud or disgusted with their lack of intensity.
I’ve been here before, I thought, by way of self-explanation. Last time, there was a child with me; this time, I’ve got a set of complex subroutines instead. I’ve even fallen down a crevasse before. Now I can find out whether Ziru Majumdar was right when he said that I wouldn’t understand the difference between what happened to him and what happened to me until I followed his example. There can be few men in the world as well-prepared for this as I am.
“Are you afraid of dying?” I asked the AI, after a while.
“All in all, sir,” it said, copying my phrase in order to promote a feeing of kinship, “I’d rather not. In fact, were it not for the philosophical difficulties which stand in the way of reaching a firm conclusion as to whether or not machines can be said to be authentically self-conscious, I’d be quite prepared to say that I’m scared—terrified, even.”
“I’m not,” I said. “Do you think I ought to be?”
“It’s not for me to say, sir. You are, of course, a world-renowned expert on the subject of death. I dare say that helps a lot.”
“Perhaps it does,” I agreed. “Or perhaps I’ve simply lived so long that my mind is hardened against all novelty, all violent emotion and all real possibility. I haven’t actually done much with myself these last few years.”
“If you think you haven’t done much with yourself,” it said, with a definite hint of sarcasm, “you should try navigating a snowsled for a while. I think you might find your range of options uncomfortably cramped. Not that I’m complaining, mind.”
“If they scrapped the snowsled and re-sited you in a starship,” I pointed out, “you wouldn’t be you any more. You’d be something else.”
“Right now,” it replied, “I’d be happy to risk any and all consequences. Wouldn’t you?”
“Somebody once told me that death was just a process of transcendence. Her brain was incandescent with fever induced by some tailored recreational disease, and she wanted to infect me, to show me the error of my ways.”
“Did you believe her?”
“No. She was stark raving mad.”
“It’s perhaps as well. We don’t have any recreational diseases on board. I could put you to sleep though, if that’s what you want.”
“I’m glad. I don’t want to be alone, even if I am only an AI. Am I insane, do you think? Is all this just a symptom of the pressure”
“You’re quite sane,” I assured it, setting aside all thoughts of incongruity. “So am I. It would be much harder if we weren’t together. The last time I was in this kind of mess I had a child with me—a little girl. It made all the difference in the world, to both of us. In a way, every moment I’ve lived through since then has been borrowed time. At least I finished that damned book. Imagine leaving something like that incomplete.
“Are you so certain it’s complete?” it asked.
I knew full well, of course, that the navigator was just making conversation according to a clever programming scheme. I knew that it’s emergency subroutines had kicked in and that all the crap about it being afraid to die was just some psycho-programmer’s idea of what I needed to hear. I knew it was all fake, all just macabre role-playing—but I knew that I had to play my part too, treating every remark and every question as if it were part of an authentic conversation, a genuine quest for knowledge.
“It all depends what you mean by complete,” I said, carefully. “In one sense, no history can ever be complete, because the world always goes on, always throwing up more events, always changing. In another sense, completion is a purely aesthetic matter—and in that sense, I’m entirely confident that my history is complete. It reached an authentic conclusion, which was both true and, for me at least, satisfying. I can look back at it and say to myself: I did that. It’s finished. Nobody ever did anything like it before, and now nobody can, because it’s already been done. Someone else’s history might have been different, but mine is mine, and it’s what it is. Does that make any sense to you?”
“Yes sir,” it said. “It makes very good sense.”
The lying bastard was programmed to say that, of course. It was programmed to tell me any damn thing I seemed to want to hear, but I wasn’t going to let on that I knew what a hypocrite it was. I still had to play my part, and I was determined to play it to the end—which, as things turned out, wasn’t far off. The AI’s data-stores were way out of date, and there was an automated sub placed to reach us within three hours. The oceans are lousy with subs these days. Ever since the Great Coral Sea Catastrophe, it’s been considered politic to keep a very close eye on the sea-bed, lest the crust crack again and the mantle’s heat break through.
They say that some people are born lucky. I guess I must be one of them.
It was the captain of a second submarine, which picked me up after the mechanical one had done the donkey work of saving myself and my AI friend, who gave me the news which relegated my accident to footnote status in that day’s broadcasts.
A signal had reached the solar system from the starship Shiva, which had been exploring in the direction of galactic center. The signal had been transmitted from a distance of two hundred and twenty-seven light-years, meaning that in Earthly terms the reported discovery had been made in the year 2871—which happened, coincidentally, to be the year of my birth.
What the signal revealed was that Shiva had found a group of solar systems, all of whose life-bearing planets were occupied by a single species of micro-organism: a genetic predator that destroyed not merely those competing species which employed its own chemistry of replication, but any and all others. It was the living equivalent of a universal solvent; a true omnivore.
Apparently, this organism had spread itself across vast reaches of space, moving from star-system to star-system, laboriously but inevitably, by means of Arrhenius spores. Wherever the spores came to rest, these omnipotent micro-organisms grew to devour everything—not merely carbonaceous molecules which in Earthly terms were reckoned “organic” but also many “inorganic” substrates. Internally, these organisms were chemically complex, but they were very tiny—hardly bigger than Earthly protozoans or the internal nanomachines to which every human being plays host. They were utterly devoid of any vestige of mind or intellect. They were, in essence, the ultimate blight, against which nothing could compete, and which nothing Shiva’s crew had tested—before they themselves were devoured—had been able to destroy.
In brief, wherever this new kind of life arrived, it would obliterate all else, reducing any victim ecosphere to homogeneity and changelessness.
In their final message, the faber crew of the Shiva—who knew all about the Pandora encounter—observed that humankind had now met the alien.
Here, I thought, when I had had a chance to weigh up this news, was a true marriage of life and death, the like of which I had never dreamed. Here was promise of a future renewal of the war between man and death—not this time for the small prize of the human mind, but for the larger prize of the universe itself.
In time, Shiva’s last message warned, spores of this new kind of death-life must and would reach our own solar system, whether it took a million years or a billion; in the meantime, all humankinds must do their level best to purge the worlds of other stars of its vile empire, in order to reclaim them for real life, for intelligence, and for evolution—always provided, of course, that a means could someday be discovered to achieve that end.
When the sub delivered me safely back to Severnaya Zemlya I did not stay long in my hotel-room. I went outdoors, to study the great ice-sheet which had been there since the dawn of civilization and to look southwards, towards the places where newborn glaciers were gradually extending their cold clutch further and further into the human domain. Then I looked upwards, at the multitude of stars sparkling in their bed of endless darkness. I felt an exhilaratingly paradoxical sense of renewal. I knew that although there was nothing for me to do for the present, the time would come when my particular talent and expertise would be needed again.
Some day, it will be my task to compose another history, of the next war that humankind must fight against Death and Oblivion.
It might take me a thousand or a million years, but I’m prepared to be patient.
Hadiya would visit us with her mother. On sunny days, we did our homework together under the grapevine; in winter, we did it by the stove. Her books were often torn: she didn’t like books or school. I held back my anger and reasoned it didn’t mean there was anything wrong with her. She was such a beauty, white as milk, her eyes pools of honey. Her beautiful plaits were fit for a man to hang himself with, or be led to the gardens of eternity by. Beautiful girls have no need for school; they themselves are knowledge, culture, and poetry. They are the prize.
I reproached her for being careless with her books. Unlike me with my tiny pot of glue that dried out as soon as I opened it, her father had a bucket full of glue always exposed to the air. Ever since I discovered the miracle of white glue, I was drawn to her damaged books, repairing and binding them to heal their wounds. While I repaired her textbooks and notebooks, I reveled in the clean smell of the glue and the film it formed as it dried on my forefinger. I would peel it off happily, as day peeled off the skin of night.
In the neighborhood, I was known as the book repairer. Fathers sent me their copies of the Quran, and I reacquainted the leaves separated by the fingers of time. I learned how to sew the spines of the books. I even repaired the leather-hard covers of the Qurans from the mosque, although the worshipers warned me that they were endowments. Nevertheless, I kept repairing them in secret.
Hadiya and I were neighbors and we shared a long narrow alleyway, only wide enough for two people to walk, holding hands across the edges of a stone gutter—it was the only alleyway of its kind in the entire town.
Our front door faced Hadiya’s, which had a brass latch plated with a design in zinc. Along the middle of the alleyway ran an open culvert that collected the rain and made it stream over a Sakia wheel—her father was a carpenter. Hadiya liked rivers and making boats, while I liked binding books and making bird traps. In other words, she loved tearing and I loved pasting. Her paper boats were always well crafted, while mine listed, capsized, and sunk.
My mom asked Hadiya’s mother for Hadiya’s hand for me as, one winter, we clustered around the stove roasting chestnuts and smelling the aroma of roasting orange peel. Hadiya’s mother agreed, and Hadiya smiled her consent. I assured my bride that she was free to tear up her books because I’d repair them all when we got married. But something unexpected happened. As if by magic, Hadiya grew up. And treacherously behind my back, she got engaged again. Beautiful girls get engaged in a flash, plucked from the bunch like the first ripe grapes of summer.
When my mom reminded Hadiya’s mother that Hadiya was engaged to me, Hadiya’s mom disagreed, saying that I was Hadiya’s milk brother and forbidden to her. My mom argued it depended on how often the suckling took place; two feedings did not make her forbidden. But Hadiya’s mom claimed she had fed me to satiety for an entire year. If only I had stayed unfed. If only we hadn’t grown up, the little lambs hadn’t grown up. I believe that my mom lied about the number of feedings. Defeated, she knew her son, who played with marbles and chased birds with traps and worms, couldn’t outpace Hadiya in the race to grow up, even if he drank rivers of milk and honey.
I wasn’t too upset; I was still her brother. And what could be better than the striking Hadiya, who turned overnight into a mighty fine woman like her mother Hawa, being my sister? I admitted defeat. I only had two options available, a victorious lover or a defeated brother.
But Hadiya changed. All I wished for was that she would say hello back. On the narrow lane, it was as if a butterfly passed alongside when she was going to school and I was coming home—boys had school in the morning, girls in the afternoon. I would say hello and she wouldn’t respond. She just kept going as if a ghost had gone by! Perhaps I had gotten thinner and she couldn’t see me, or her fiancé ordered her to cut me. She became a butterfly, while I stayed stuck to the ground with white glue like the cover of a book. Wherever I went, I carried the glue pot. I wanted to paste clouds to the sky, street to street, north to south. The butterfly flew far away to countries where enormous boats traversed majestic rivers.
Hadiya left school, and her marriage was celebrated in a magnificent wedding ceremony that felt like a funeral. Her marriage contract was the only paper that I doubted I would restore if I found it torn. I asked my dad to open a door onto the street at the front of the house instead of onto the narrow lane that depressed me, lined as it was with the debris of sunken paper boats. In its gutter, I buried my bundle of precious memories. I became a disobedient child and deserved the Lord’s anger. I refused to visit, even during Feasts, my second mom’s house, Hadiya’s mom, who had made me replete me with poisonous feedings.
My mother tried to comfort me when I removed the film of white glue from my wounded finger. She said, “Oh, my son, son of my flesh, apple of my eye, you will grow up and repair all the books in the world. Then you will get married to one a thousand times more beautiful than her. I will bring up my grandsons and marry them to fair wives.”
I no longer saw Hadiya everywhere. I didn’t have her photo, although I wished I had kept one of her torn books. Her handwriting was messy; dots hovered like bees around the inconsistent letters. Still, I had loved it and it had intoxicated me. I used to ask her to write my name in honey on my books and on the walls. She signed them as if she were a film star, her handwriting an old master painting.
The river in our town dried up. The winds buffeted my paper ships as they lay wrecked on the shores. My wealth of hellish colored marbles got lost in the oceans. My memories stuck together with glue until they were completely erased. I had stitched together thousands of pages using the white glue. I had caught hundreds of birds and then freed them again in hope of good news, but I never found anyone more beautiful than Hadiya; my heart remained torn to pieces, its yellow pages have strewn everywhere like autumn leaves. I waited for Hadiya to repair the cover of my heart and its lost pages just like I had repaired her books and paper.
She forgot her brother who once shared her mom’s milk and the glue flowing from my mom’s breast. She also forgot her lover, who travelled with her across the seas, for them to live on desert islands and shepherd flocks of gazelles, elephants and tame dinosaurs with beaks; her lover, who, like a tobacco addict, still carried a pot of glue with him wherever he went, in an effort to bear the pains of his broken heart. With the glue of his pure-white soul that had been torn apart thousands of times, he mended thousands of books; books of love, philosophy, religion, and the world, science and poetry; books in Arabic and those translated from the languages of jinn, man and bird. Between their lines, behind the shadow of the words, under the rubble of numbers, he searched for her ghost and the scent of orange peel diffusing like perfume over the hell of longing.
“This isn’t the one,” she said, laying her hand on my arm. As if she was really sorry.
“Stick a fork in me. I’m done,” I said.
“No. You’re just upset. You thought this was the one.”
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“It’s only one house. Maybe the next one.”
“It’s seventy-three houses,” I said.
“But we’ve come so far. You can’t stop now. Absolutely not.”
I thought if I banged her head against the concrete steps, her skull would not break. That’s how hard she was. No one could win against her. Certainly not me. Certainly not her partner, who stood quietly in the corner, eyes cast upward.
The houses they did not buy: the contemporary with too much sunlight, the Dutch Colonial with a garage that was too small, the totally renovated rancher with an ugly view, the three-story Victorian with too much carpeting, the lakeside condo with not enough kitchen, the octagon house with too much personality, and the corner property with too many trees were some of the houses they did not buy.
Seventy-three houses they did not buy. Seventy-three houses I showed them and I knew this game. I knew how to play this game. But she was winning.
“I quit,” I said.
She laughed. “We’ll take a few days off.”
I just won’t return her calls, I thought. “Great idea,” I said. To her partner, I whispered, “I’m so sorry for you.”
I could see that made the partner mad. But she was the long-suffering type, even with me.
“Not at all,” her partner said. She held her head up high.
They were so beautiful, these two. Concrete Skull was a tall and crispy blond, with a gorgeous, wide smile and sharp, blue miss-nothing eyes. Long Suffering was short and olive-skinned, with a full bottom lip and a way of standing that showed off her large breasts. Her eyes were as patient as an animal watching for its turn at the watering hole.
I liked lesbians, made a specialty of selling houses to lesbian couples. There were tons of resales on those couples. A lot of them broke up after four or five years and then they put their houses back on the market and bought new ones with other women. I especially liked couples like this one, with their matching black Mercedes, big bank accounts, and high-salaried corporate jobs.
I liked lesbians, but I hated these two. They were realtor cock-teasers. Okay, I am a woman too and do not have a cock to tease, but you take my point. They showed you what they had, stroked you until you were so ready you could scream, then pulled back with a perfectly good reason that was totally bogus because the real reason they did not buy any of the seventy-three houses I showed them was because they were sizing each other up.
It had nothing to do with me. They were watching each other, waiting for the house that made one of them pant and scream. Then one of them would have the upper hand. The one who wanted it the most was the one who would have to grovel for as long as they lived in that house.
I know power struggles. I can smell them in the air after twenty-three years in the business and four marriages of my own. The smell is unmistakable, like a rotting carcass by the side of a road.
“The truth is I don’t think there’s anything special enough for you two on the market these days,” I said. “I know you are busy women with highly responsible jobs and I feel just terrible wasting your time like this. We’ll have to wait it out. Maybe in a few months, the market will improve. You two deserve something spectacular.”
Concrete Skull didn’t even show the flicker of interest that a cat has watching a chipmunk run by. Her blue eyes were steady beams.
“Next week,” she said. “Set it up.”
Long Suffering walked out to the Mercedes and leaned against it, staring intently into her mobile phone. She licked her lips slowly.
Concrete Skull whispered, “The truth is, I don’t know if I should be buying a house with her. Look at her. She looks incredibly sexy, doesn’t she? But she isn’t.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I feel so close to you. You feel like a friend after spending all this time with me.” She beamed her big smile my way and it was like the sun coming out on my face. Okay, I am straight but I was not immune to her.
“If you’re that unsure, you should wait before you look at houses.” “I operate on instinct. My gut tells me to keep looking. The right house will grab me. The house will say, come on in, you two. She’ll relax in this bedroom. She’ll attack me in this living room.”
“That’s crazy,” I said.
“A house doesn’t fix anything. Definitely not a sex problem.” “Who says? Maybe a house could fix something. Maybe no one lets it.” She reached out and put both her hands over my hand. Her hands were warm. “Help me.”
“For a smart woman, you’re stupid,” I said.
I thought if I insulted her, she’d go away and leave me alone. But she laughed.
“You’re a cockteaser,” I said.
“So I’ve been told. By better women than you.” Her smile stayed fixed on her face, but she let go of me.
Good, I thought. I’m finally getting to her.
“So next week, then. Set it up for Saturday,” she said.
Instead, I volunteered to work at an open house on Saturday. I was top agent in my office. I didn’t have to work things like this. It was a sad, tiny little house with a persistent moldy smell. The owners were old. They didn’t want to spend any money fixing up something that they were selling. So the window shades were stained and yellow, the kitchen faucets dripped, the closets were dark and crammed full of crap, and the one and only bathroom had cracked vinyl flooring and a hole in the wall. The neighborhood was going seriously downhill. There was a meth lab one block over. No one cut their grass regularly. Next door, someone had propped two stained mattresses against their house.
The best I could do was burn vanilla candles for the smell and insist that the owners leave so they wouldn’t hover anxiously over people trooping through. I didn’t care. I was happy to be there. Anywhere but trapped with Concrete Skull and her little gal pal.
Only one couple ventured in during the first hour. I put on my honest, earnest face.
“It needs work, I won’t lie to you. A little paint, new rugs. You can see for yourself. But this neighborhood is going through the roof in the next year. All signs point straight up for appreciation in value. If you bought this now and fixed it up a little, you’d have a hell of an investment.”
The man had the hungry look. He didn’t want to be poor all his life. His wife looked afraid. She didn’t want to make a mistake.
I don’t count what I said as lying because you never know. No one knows. The neighborhood could take an upturn. And a husband who wanders could stop, just like that. Sure. It could happen.
After they left, it was quiet for a long time. I turned up the volume on the smooth jazz CD, my music for selling shitty houses, and leaned back in my chair. I wondered who the lesbian couple was torturing this weekend, instead of me.
The door opened. They walked in. Long Suffering wouldn’t look at me. Her eyes scanned the room like one of those searchlights that stores set up in their parking lots during closeout sales. Concrete Skull leaned in.
“We found you,” she said.
“I thought we were taking a break.”
“Break’s over.” Her voice was flinty, like the game we used to play when we were kids, hitting rocks with rocks to see what colors were inside.
“Don’t you ever give up?”
“Never,” she said. Her partner snorted.
Now, we’ll get into it, I thought. Come on, Long Suffering, make your move. Get in there. Speak up. But she just turned, walked back to the car and got in, holding her elegant, round rump out on display for an extra second before it vanished into the Mercedes.
“Why me?” I asked. “Why don’t you get a nice lesbian realtor? Maybe she’ll do better for you. And she can come to your house-warming party, too.”
“You know why I want you? Lesbian realtors think they don’t have to work hard for me. Like just because I’m gay, I’ll roll over and buy whatever they show me. Like it’s about loyalty to the team instead of being about me and my money. Wrong. You’re smarter than that. It’s all about the deal.”
I liked beating out lesbian realtors. I pictured them trotting out secret weapons with her little lesbian in-jokes, little lesbian friends in common. And still I won. I admit I melted a little, flattered.
So we went on to the seventy-fourth house. It was a spectacularly ugly McMansion, huge, poorly designed and shoddily built, overpriced, on a barren lot on a busy street of a brand new development built over a landfill. But it was new, full of glitzy features like a master bathroom big enough to hold a party in and a temperature-controlled wine cellar in the basement, features that distract your eyes from the particle board walls and the cheap thin paint.
“Honey, this is it. This is the one,” said Concrete Skull. She smiled her gorgeous beaming smile, charming as a kitten. It didn’t sound convincing even to me. This is a test. This is only a test. In the event of a real urge to buy a house, the voice is eager, excited, scared. So disregard this test. It is only a test.
“No way,” Long Suffering said. “I loathe the smell of this house. You’ve got to be kidding me. No freaking way.”
“I was kidding. I hate it too,” Concrete Skull said. “See, honey, we really are getting close. We both hate this one. So that’s a good sign.”
They both turned to me, waiting for my applause. “Seventy-five,” I said. “That’s my limit. I warn you.” They both chuckled, like I was making a small, dumb joke.
I hate you both, I thought. You are the bad smell.
It was the seventy-ninth house where something changed. When we walked into the house, an elegant Colonial in the best neighborhood, fully updated and gorgeously decorated, I felt it. Somebody wanted this one, but I couldn’t tell who. I felt like a squirrel on the curb, twitching at oncoming cars and deciding when to run. I studied one and then the other. Who was it?
I tried all my realtor tricks. I vanished into other rooms so they could talk privately. I acted nonchalant so they wouldn’t feel pressure from me. I studied the seller’s information sheet with just the right amount of scrutiny and indifference.
“It’s quite old,” Concrete Skull said finally. “It’s an old house. They are asking a lot for such an old house.”
Aha, I thought. She wants it.
“Honey, what do you think?” she asked. Her voice was a cat slinking along a high ledge. I didn’t remember her asking that question in any of the seventy-eight previous houses.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Long Suffering said. She sounded bored but she was paying close attention, her brown eyes flickering madly. “Let’s go on to the next.”
I wanted to hit them with an ax and leave them bleeding to death on the Persian rug.
“I feel a very sexy vibe here,” I said. “Classy, subtle, but very sexy. This is a house where you will have swank parties. I see gorgeous women in slinky dresses holding martini glasses.”
“We met at a cocktail party just like that,” said Concrete Skull. “You pinned me to the wall,” smirked her gal pal.
“After you practically pushed them in my mouth.” “You wanted me to.”
“You wanted it worse.”
I watched them like they were a nature channel show where all the animals are frolicking happily in the wilderness and you know there’s trouble in the air, you are just waiting for the predator to pounce, for blood to be spilled. You know it will end badly and you can’t tear yourself away.
“Let’s write it up, girls. You can sign the agreement right now,” I said. And they did.
When the radon test came back, Concrete Skull came to my office and cried. Her partner was on her way. We were supposed to wait for her, but Concrete Skull insisted on reading the report before she got there.
“We are the perfect couple,” she cried, circling around the office, bumping into chairs and walls and cabinets, knocking over the waste basket.
“Everyone, everyone, everyone says so. But we can’t do this one simple thing. I’ve done it with other women. It’s no big deal. Go look at a few houses and buy one. What is happening? Why is this happening to me? I can’t stand it. I’m being punished.”
“It’s only radon. Easily remediated,” I said. “Punished for what?” “I stole her from another woman. They have a baby. I’m mean to my mother. I hate my father. I’ve cheated on every woman I’ve ever been with. Is that enough?” She was really wailing now, working herself up.
“It’s only radon,” I said. I was enjoying myself immensely. “I’m forty-one years old. I can’t make any more mistakes.” “Everyone has some radon around here. This house is just a tad over the limit,” I said. “You don’t understand. I am not everyone. I can’t have it.” “Put a vent in the basement and we’re good to go,” I said. “It’s poison gas in the basement of our house. We’ll be poisoned from below. What chance do we have to make it? Do you have any idea how many failed relationships I’ve had? This is my last chance. I’m not wasting it on her.”
“It’s not that bad. You’re getting all carried away.” I thought of Husband Number Three. I thought he was my last chance too, but along came Four. There were an infinite number of husbands out there, I found. I could have kept it up my whole life. Hello Five. Hello Six. Hello Seven.
Long Suffering showed up. “Do you still want it?” “No,” Concrete Skull sobbed. “It’s a poison house.” “We’ll keep looking then,” her partner said, shrugging.
“It’s our last chance. We’ll never find another house as good as this one. This was the one. And it’s ruined.”
“So we’ll buy it and fix it.”
You fool, I thought. You don’t see that there is no way to win with her. The house is nothing. The house is a quicksand bog full of small dead things.
“I’m sick of this,” Concrete Skull cried. “I’m done.”
“You’re done. With looking?” Long Suffering stood in the door-way, legs planted wide. Slowly her face began to change. “With me? In front of her?”
“Just ignore me,” I said. “Do what you have to do.” You couldn’t have pried me out of there with a crowbar.
I waited for Long Suffering to scream, curse, throw things. But she stood there silently for the longest time. And then she crumpled to the floor, making this odd squeezy sound, like a sharp beak was tearing at her lungs. She lay flat out, on her stomach, her arms around the base of my filing cabinet, and she kept making the squeezy sound. It was the most terrible sight I’d ever seen in my life. It was like watching somebody die.
I got down on the floor beside her, first sitting, then lying flat on my belly next to her. I felt my tenderest organs protected by the plush rug under me, then deeper to the wood floor and the concrete underpinnings. I was safe there. I rubbed her back. I patted her hair. I whispered in her ear, “You’re okay. You will be. You’re not going to die.” It didn’t help at all. Nothing does. Her back stayed stiff and the wrenching unbearable noise continued as Concrete Skull stepped over us both and left.
We waited, breathing in little tiny puffs, to see if she would circle back. We waited a long time until we felt the currents in the air settle down to normal rhythms and heard the birds outside in the trees begin to sing.
*Kathy Anderson, “You Are the Bad Smell” from Bull and other stories. Copyright @ 2018 by Author. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Autumn House Books, www.autumnhouse.org.