“Well then tell her that she intends to get out of here, mister,” the Israeli policeman called out. He was standing, arms folded, at one entrance to Mandelbaum Gate when I explained to him that we had come with my mother who intended to go through after being allowed to pass. I pointed over the Jordanian side of the gate.
That was at the end of the winter. The sun was hinting at spring. The dust between the mounds of rubble was covered in green. Rubble heaps to the right, mounds of rubble to the left. Children with pe’ot (side curls) playing amidst the piles and the green stirred a sense of wonder in our children’s hearts. Our kids had come with us in order to say goodbye to their grandmother. “Children and hair braids – how on earth?!”
In the heart of that old neighborhood we always called “Musrara”, there was an expanse of dusty asphalt which formed a wide courtyard. It was marked off by two doorways: the “here” door and the “there” door. These gates were made of stones from ruins and flattened tin, and were whitewashed by plaster. Each was wide enough to ensure proper passage for the “exiting” or the “entering” car.
Stressing the word “exit”, the guard said, as if he wanted to teach me a lesson; “What’s important is leaving the Garden of Eden, not getting in over “there”.” The customs officer did not want us to miss the lesson either. When everyone was kissing mother goodbye, he said: “Whoever exits from here never comes back”.
And I think that such unsettling thoughts also plagued mother during her last days with us. When our close friends and family members gathered the night before the trip to Jerusalem she said, “I lived in order to see my mourners (those who would eulogize me) with my own eyes.” And in the morning when we slid down the sloped alley to the car, she turned her gaze behind and gestured toward the olive and apricot trees at the door of her house, musing, “Twenty years I’ve lived here, and who can count the number of times I’ve gone up and down this alley!”
And when the car passed by the cemetery on the outskirts of town she turned to her deceased dear ones and let out, like an inner whisper, “Why isn’t it my fortune to be buried here? And who will place flowers on my granddaughter’s grave?”
In 1940, when she had gone up to Jerusalem, a fortune teller had told her that it would be her fate to die in the holy city. Would his prophecy come true in the end?
She was seventy-five back then and had not yet experienced this feeling of terror that was taking over her heart and injecting utter emptiness into her soul; a feeling like the pangs of a suffering conscience – missing one’s homeland. And if one were to ask her, for example, to explain the meaning of the word “homeland”, she would undoubtedly become confused just as she did that time she first came across the word in her prayer book and didn’t know whether to say it meant house, or at a minimum, laundry tub. Or perhaps it meant the piece of land – the Kuba crater – that had come down to her from mother (her friends laughed at her when she wanted to take the laundry tub with her but she did not even dare to think of the Kuba crater). Or maybe “homeland” was the cries of the milkman that came with the dawn, or the din-don of the oil vendor’s bell, or her sick husband’s coughing voice, or nights like the nights when her children were home – those who had gone with their families and abandoned her doorstep, leaving her alone.
Of all places, this lintel was her house’s doorstep, the one on which her last gaze rested, and the one that was privy and could attest to the countless times she stood on it, day in, day out – to see her children off, having gladdened their hearts, or to sing them a song; a tender, mother’s song, with tears in her eyes:
Dark-feathered chick, your expression grew
Into that of a bird; to sing and to nest were your teachings
Now you have grown, your wings have lifted your feathers,
You have flown, and I troubled over you for nought.
Even if she were told that “homeland” was each and every one of these things all together, the term’s riddle would not have been solved. But now, when her legs are stepping over to the “no-man’s land” and she is expecting them to let her move and step forward – now she turns to her daughter and says, “How my soul yearned to sit and rest, if only one more time, on that lintel!” Her elderly brother, who had troubled himself to come from the village to part from her, gave an instant nod, his face pained and puzzled. For indeed, this was the mysterious thing which caused him to mourn and his sister to suffer; that which she could not uproot from the ground and take with her – this thing that was most dear to his heart as well. A neighbor of ours said to him: “When all’s said and done you’ll be forced to sign on to their vendor’s contract. The law’s on their side!”
But the old man turned to me and said: “Listen, my dear, one day my father, my younger brother, and I were watching over the field. Suddenly a flock of thrushes engulfed the field. My little brother took a hunting rifle in his hands, to show that he was a real man. A loud laugh burst from my father (you remember how your grandfather laughed, my dear?). When he saw the son of his old age thus, he called out, “Hunting thrushes is a man’s job, my boy!”
But the little one was immensely stubborn. He held on to the rifle without relaxing a muscle. Sometime later he came back with a live thrush in the palm of his hand. The wonder of wonders! We were dumbfounded. And he, the little wild thing, was jumping with excitement. He was so proud of this chance to hunt that had come his way. “But we didn’t hear the gun shot!” my father called out, to which the little hunter replied, “I put a spell on the rifle, Dad!” And my father and my father’s fathers made me swear never to tell his secret – which was: he saw the thrush in danger when it was caught between the teeth of a big cat. Without a second thought, the boy bolted after the cat amid the boulders and the corn stalks, until he caught it and rescued the feathered thing from the predatory jaws.. .voila! And they expect me to sign on to a contract to sell (out) these memories? They have no power in their laws to do such a thing – none!
My advice to you is not to come to Mandelbaum Gate with your children. And it’s not because the ruined houses fascinate or entice them to cast about inside for a magic lamp or adventures like Aladdin’s. In fact, it’s not even because of the Hasidim’s waving sidecurls (pe’ot) that cause children to ask intriguing questions. They shouldn’t come with you because the road that leads to Mandelbaum Gate does not stop at it, even for a fleeting second, for those entering “there” or exiting “here”. There are American luxury cars whose passengers are healthy and dressed up, either with a blaze of color around their necks or in their army uniforms.
There are the cars of the “cease-fire people”, and of groups of U.N. inspectors. The rest of the passengers are ambassadors and representatives of Western states, with their presidents and their presidents’ cooks, their drinks, and their beautiful women. They do stop briefly by “our gate” so their drivers can exchange greetings with “our” guard — as cultured people do. And after passing through the no-man’s land, they stop briefly by “their gate” and exchange greetings with “their policemen” too, such that in this space of good manners and culture there is a back-and-forth Israeli-Jordanian competition.
The “he who goes from here” death sentence does not fall on these travelers; nor do they come under the Garden of Eden law of “he who enters does not leave.” For this way the honored observer can take lunch at the “Philadelphia” hotel over there, and dinner at the “Eden” hotel on this side, while his smile never skips off his face.
When my sister turned to the soldier – to the one who stands by “our gate,” to ask his permission to accompany mother to the Jordanian gate, he replied: “It’s forbidden Ma’am.” But I see those foreigners entering and leaving as if this were their home!” “Everyone is allowed to pass through these gates except Jews and Arabs. Except for the natives, my good lady.” He then said, “I must ask you to move out of the street. This is a main road bustling with traffic -.” He broke off in mid-sentence to joke with the passengers of a car pulling up (was it an “exiting” or an “entering” car?)
But we didn’t see what was funny here.
“Everything comes to an end, even in a time of parting!” said the customs official. An old woman leaning on a stick set out from “our gate” in the direction of “their gate.” She slowly crossed the “no-man’s land,” turning her head back from minute to minute, waving her hand and advancing further. And why should it be precisely now that her conscience knocks at her?
A soldier in a kaffiya and band burst out from among the ruins on the opposite side. He approached the old woman who was entering and stopped to snatch a bit of conversation with her. The two of them looked over to our side. We stood here with the children waving our hands. A soldier who looked deprived because of his exposed head stood in front of us and talked with us as well. He repeated that it was forbidden to go one step further.
Why did he say, “It’s as if she’s crossed the Valley of Death from which we don’t come back. That’s the reality of war; borders and Mandelbaum Gate. I must ask you to move over to the other side of the U.N. car”?
And suddenly a small body, squirming with life sprang out — leaped like a ball thrust into the air by a soccer game kick, streaking conspicuously towards the rival team’s goal post. The body leaped out and started to run ahead of us, cutting across the “no man’s land.” With a shock we realized that this was none other than my little daughter running after her grandmother, yelling, “Grandma! Grandma!” Look – the “no-man’s land” is already behind her and she’s reaching Grandmother..and Grandma is lifting her up in her arms.
From afar we saw how the soldier in the kaffiya was looking at the ground. My eyes were moist and I can attest that the soldier stood there pecking at the ground with his foot. And as for the soldier who stood with us, he also lowered his head and started scuffing the ground. The guard who was standing by the office doing nothing faded back and went inside. The customs official started looking for something in his pocket which he had apparently lost all of a sudden…
A great miracle happened here. A little girl cut across the Valley of Death from which none return. And see, in spite of everything she does come back to us crowned with triumph over the present reality of war, borders, and Mandelbaum Gate.
A girl ignorant of all of this, who doesn’t understand the real difference between the soldier in the kaffiya, and this one here with no head covering. A small, innocent girl! And because in those days there were no open hostilities towards the remote lands, how could the silly little one not think, as she was accustomed to, that she was still in her country? Here she saw her father stand on one side and her grandmother on the other. Here were cars galloping back and forth across the “no-man’s land” just like they did by her house. Here people speak Hebrew, there they speak Arabic. And therefore she speaks in the two languages, in the one with her great-grandson and in the other with his horse. The customs official despaired, it seemed, of finding the thing he had lost (there is an end to everything, even to embarrassment), for he suddenly stopped the exhausting search, moved in his place, and said to the soldier as if to comfort him: “an innocent child.” “I must ask you, good people, to move away from the street lest one of your children fall between the wheels of the stampeding cars.”
And he moved back first.
Do you understand, therefore, why I advised you not to come to Mandelbaum Gate accompanied by your children? Their logic is so simple and uncomplicated, but so healthy!
*Translated from Arabic into Hebrew by Sasson Somekh, 1955
**Reprinted in Iton 77 No. 196, May 1996. 18-19
***Translated from Hebrew into English by Stacy N. Beckwith, August 1999
She’s getting naked. Something either very bad or very good is happening. Happening to me. Whatever it is, my parents can’t find out. I’m at a friend’s house. Nothing strange there. But my new friend, half gringa, half local, is taking off her uniform, her sports bra, her thong, her shoes. She leaves on her socks, short ones, with a little pink ball at the heel. She’s naked, her back to me, staring at her closet.
It’s awkward and dazzling. Painful. My head down like an ashamed dog, an ugly, short-legged dog, I try to look the same as I did a moment before, when we were both dressed, when that image, the one of her body, hadn’t exploded like a thousand fireworks in my brain. Diana Ward-Espinoza. Sixteen years old. A meter eighty tall. Star player on the volleyball team at her school in the United States. Radioactive green cat eyes. The bright white smile of the people from up there.
Diana, pronounced Dayana in gringo, talks and talks, always, nonstop, mixing English and Spanish or making up a third language, very funny, making me squeal with laughter. With her, I laugh as if there were nothing wrong at my house, as if my dad loved me like a dad. I laugh as if I weren’t me, but a girl who sleeps peacefully. I laugh as if brutality didn’t exist.
She repeats the words the teachers say like tongue twisters and never gets them right. Maybe it’s because of this, because they think she’s dumb, or because she lives in a little apartment and not in a majestic house, or because her mom is the English teacher at the school and so she doesn’t pay tuition or because she jogs through the neighborhood in tiny shorts, blue with a white line that makes a V on her thighs. Because of all that, or for some other obscure hierarchical logic of the popular girls, no groups have accepted her. She’s blonde, white, she has green eyes, her tiny nose is dotted with golden freckles, but no group has accepted her.
They haven’t accepted me either, but with me, it’s the same as always: fat, dark, glasses, hairy, ugly, strange.
One day our last names are paired up in computer class. One right next to the other. That’s everything. I learn that BFF means Best Friends Forever.
Then we’re best friends forever. Then she invites me to her house to study. Then I tell my mom I’m going to spend the night at Diana’s. Then we’re in her tiny room and she’s naked. She turns around to cover her cream-colored body with a denim dress. She turns on music. She dances. Behind her, the gigantic American flag on her wall.
Covered in a fine white fuzz, her skin has the appearance, the delicacy, of a peach. She talks about boys, she likes my brother, about the exam we have the next day, philosophy, about the teacher, he’s funny, but what the fuck is being? About how she’s never going to understand things like I do, about how I’m the smartest person she’s ever met and about how she, okay, let’s be honest, she’s good at sports.
She stops in front of the mirror, less than a meter away from me, on her bed, pretending to be absorbed in the philosophy textbook. If I wanted to, and I do, I could reach out my index finger and touch her hipbones, sliding down to where her pubic hair starts, I’ve never seen golden pubes, and find out if what glimmers there is wetness.
She ties up her ringlets, like Mary had a little lamb, she paints her lips with a gloss that smells like bubble gum and she criticizes her hair, her ears, a pimple I say I can’t see. But I can’t look at her and she notices and she complains: you’re not even looking at me, stop studying, you already understand what being is.
She grabs my chin and raises my head to make me look at her. I smell the bubble gum on her lips. I hear my heart beating. I stop breathing.
“See this pimple? Here? Do you see it?”
My tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. I swallow sand. I nod.
We have lunch with her brother Mitch, her twin, who is so handsome that my jaw falls open when I have to talk to him. He’s had football practice. He takes off his sweaty shirt and doesn’t put on a new one. We eat alone, like a family of three. Diana sets the table, I pour the Coca-Cola, and Mitch mixes the pasta with sauce and heats it in a pot.
I suppose that their parents, both of them, are working. I know that Miss Diana, her mom, my English teacher, has another job in the afternoon at a language school. I don’t know anything about the dad. I don’t ask. I never ask about dads. They tell me that Miss Diana leaves food for them in the morning, that she isn’t a good cook. It’s horrible. We cover our plates in Kraft parmesan cheese and we laugh hysterically.
Mitch has an exam too, but he doesn’t want to study. In the dining room, which is also the living room, there are photos on the walls. Mitch and Diana, little, dressed as sunflowers. Miss Diana, thin and young, in front of a house with a mailbox. A black dog, Kiddo, next to a baby, Mitch. The kids at Christmas, surrounded by presents. Miss Diana pregnant. Diana, in white, at her First Communion.
There’s something sad in these photos, it’s in the lighting, typical of gringo photos from the seventies: maybe too many pastel colors, maybe the distance, maybe everything that isn’t pictured. I feel a sadness that doesn’t belong to me. Mine is there, but this is a different one. This life—the sunflower children, the beautiful baby beside the black dog, everything that looks so perfect—isn’t going to turn out so well. No. Despite their blond heads, their athletic bodies, their pink cheeks and their bright eyes, it’s not going to turn out so well.
There’s something desperate, somber, about Diana, about Mitch, about me, about this little apartment where three teenagers are sitting on the floor listening to music.
We play records: The Mamas & The Papas, The Doors, Fleetwood Mac, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Moody Blues, Van Morrison, Joan Baez.
Diana tells me how her parents went to Woodstock and she pulls out a photo album where, finally, there’s a picture of her father. Mr. Mitchell Ward: red mustache, long hair tied with a headband. Ultra gringo, as big and beautiful as his kids, looking at a girl, Miss Diana, almost unrecognizable so smiling, so natural.
Then, behind that page, there’s another photo that makes us all go silent: the dad, dressed as a soldier: Lieutenant Mitchell Ward.
He went to Vietnam.
The two of them, Diana and Mitch, say the words at the same time, like a single person with a voice that is both masculine and feminine.
He went to Vietnam.
He went to Nam.
The shadow reemerges, that suffocating lack of light, a silence like an angry sea. The three of us hug our knees and look at the record player. The Doors play, we like them. We sing a little and Diana translates: People are strange when you’re a stranger / faces are ugly when you’re alone. Mitch puts on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and during the song “Madame George” I lie down across Diana’s legs. Mitch rests his head on my stomach. We play with each other’s hair.
No one studies that afternoon. We listen to Mr. Mitchell Ward’s music, we take turns changing the records and putting them carefully back into their plastic sleeves, into their album covers and into their spots on the shelf. The movement is slow and sacramental. I imagine that the kids hadn’t been able to say goodbye to their father and that this, lying on the floor and listening to his beloved records, is the prettiest goodbye in the world. And I’m part of it and my heart bursts.
When “Mr. Tambourine Man” comes on Diana cries. I feel for her hand and I kiss it with a love so intense that I feel like it’s going to kill me. She bends down, she rocks me, she finds my mouth and just like that, listening to Bob Dylan, and through tears, I give, I am given, my first kiss.
Mitch watches us. He sits up, he leans over, he kisses me and he kisses his sister. The three of us kiss desperately, like orphans, like castaways. Hungry puppies licking up the last drops of milk in the universe. The harmonica plays Hey Mr. Tambourine Man play a song for me. We sit in the twilight. This is happening. There’s nothing more important in the world.
We are the world.
We’re almost naked when, from the other side of the door, Miss Diana rummages in her purse, looks for her key, rings the bell, calls to her kids in English.
Diana and I run to her room. Mitch goes into the bathroom. We’ve grabbed all our clothes, but the record is still playing. Miss Diana, brutally, removes the needle and the apartment goes silent. When she opens the bedroom door, Diana and I are pretending to study. Mitch comes out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, with his hair wet. No one admits to having put the record on. Their father’s record. The records of Lieutenant Ward, who was in Nam.
Shouting in English. Miss Diana is very red and looks like she’s about to cry or to burst into a thousand pieces. I hear words I don’t understand and others that I do know the meaning of, words like fucking and fuck and records and father. The kids deny everything and she walks over to Diana. Her hand is open, she’s about to hit her, and I, desperate with love, shout for Miss to stop, that it was me, I put the record on. She doesn’t know what to do or say. Her hand is frozen in the air like the Statue of Liberty without a torch and she remembers that she’s my teacher and that I’ve seen her do something she shouldn’t have done, something that stays within the walls of houses, something parents do to their kids when no one is looking.
She leaves without a word.
Diana looks at me. I look at her. I want to hug her, to kiss her, to take her away from there.
She pulls back her hair and says:
“We’d better start studying for philosophy.”
We stay up all night studying or pretending to study. She, who doesn’t understand any of it, falls asleep in the early morning and I, in the dim light, study her. She looks like Ophelia, from the painting, and also like She-Ra, He-Man’s sister. I pull off the covers to look at her whole body: I wish I were so tiny I could crawl through her half-open lips and live inside her forever. Even the chipped nail polish on her toenails moves me, it excites me, it captivates me. I’d kiss her every pore.
I’m no longer me.
I fall asleep. I dream that Diana is being chased by some black dogs, that she asks me for help and I can’t do anything. I hear screams, a man’s screams. Even with my eyes open I still hear them. I want to get up, but Diana hugs me tightly and whispers: It’s okay. It’s okay.
Daylight arrives with its sounds. Clinking dishes, cleaning up, and, finally, the door slamming behind the mother. Diana gets dressed without showing me her body, but as I’m putting on my uniform she turns around, lowers the zipper a little, and writes on my back with the tip of her finger then zips me back up. She smiles. I wear an I love you on my back.
I tell Diana that I have to go to the bathroom. She tells me that I’ll have to wait to go at school. That’s impossible. I got my period in the night, I need to pee, my stomach is upset. I can’t wait.
I have to go.
The apartment has two bathrooms. One, for guests, is in the living room, and the other is through the master bedroom, behind the door that’s always closed. Mitch is in the front bathroom and Diana says that her brother takes a long time and I’m too embarrassed to ask him to hurry up. I can’t do it, much less after yesterday, I can still feel Mitch Ward’s lips on my loser neck and my loser belly. I’d rip off my hand before I knocked on that door.
But I can’t wait any longer, I’m cold, I break out in a cold sweat, I have goosebumps. My legs feel weak.
I have to go.
Diana insists: I should go at school, that I can’t use her parents’ bathroom, that even she isn’t allowed in there, but I know I won’t make it, that I’ll shit my pants on the way to school and the uniform is white and I’ll die.
It’s urgent. I can’t wait any more. I’m not well.
I have to go.
She pulls me out of the house. Let’s go, there are bathrooms at school, we’ll be there in just a minute. My forehead is drenched in sweat. It’s about to happen, I’m going to shit myself. I tell her that I forgot my book and I go back into the house. I press my legs together, god, help me. The only thing I can think about is getting to a bathroom to keep from shitting myself, so that Diana and Mitch won’t see me stained with my own excrement. I have to get to a bathroom or I’ll die. If I shit myself I’ll never love or be loved again.
I open the door to the master bedroom. Inside it looks like an aquarium filled with thick water, embalming fluid. Threads of dust float in the air and there’s a smell that’s stifling, itchy. Sour and sweet and rotten, tear gas, a thousand cigarettes, urine, lemons, bleach, raw meat, milk, hydrogen peroxide, blood. A smell that does not come from an empty room, from a master bedroom.
I’m about to soil my underwear, this is the only thing that gives me courage, the only reason I take another step into that smell that’s now like a living creature violently slapping me. Another step. Another. Now I’m feeling nauseated, now it smells like when there’s a dead animal on the side of the road, but I’m already tangled in the guts of that animal, inside it.
I’m dizzy. I grab onto something and that something is a table and that table has a lamp on it which falls and breaks to pieces on the floor. Then, springing up from the bed, with the speed and force of a wave, a lump knocks me to the ground. I can’t see. The light is weak, sickly. I don’t know what’s on top of me. Some shapeless, terrifying thing has fallen on top of me. It’s on my chest and I can’t move. I try to scream but no sound comes out.
It has a head, it’s a monster. Its face, with angry yellow teeth, is stuck to mine. It smells like carrion. It mutters things I don’t understand, makes animal noises, grunts, snorts, it drools on me. It paws at my neck and squeezes and I see in those red eyes that it’s going to kill me, that it hates me and I’m going to die. I’m going to die.
Please, I say inside my head, please.
Then Diana comes to the door, Diana She-Ra, He-Man’s sister, my savior, comes to the door and shouts something I can’t understand and the beast that’s strangling me raises its head toward her and lets go of me.
I start to scream, I vomit, I piss myself and empty my bowels, there, on the carpet.
The light that comes in through the open door lets me see what was on top of me, killing me. Lying on the floor, it looks like a panting pillow.
She approaches it. She doesn’t even look at me. She picks him up and I see stumps waving just below his thighs and under his left elbow. Diana tucks him in bed like some atrocious child, who in reality is an emaciated, bald man, with bulging eyes and waxy skin. His right arm, the veins of his right arm, are covered in scabs and red wounds. She rocks him and comforts him and kisses his forehead, as he cries and they both repeat over and over I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.
I stand up as best I can. Mitch is in the door, looking at me hatefully. I go out into the living room, I dial the number to my house. My dad answers. I hang up the phone.
I walk to my grandma’s house. There, I lie, I tell her I’m sick, that I couldn’t hold it, that I shit my pants at school. Yes, that’s what happened. As I shower, I cry so hard my chest hurts.
Philosophy is the last exam of our last year of high school. My mom writes an excuse for my absence so I can retake the test another day. I get the highest score. I find out that Diana won’t be graduating with us, she didn’t show up for the exam. They say she’s going back to the United States.
I call her. She doesn’t answer my calls.
I wait by the telephone. She doesn’t call.
I never hear anything else about her. Until recently. I open my Facebook page and find a message from a former high school classmate:
“Hello, I’m sorry to give you this news, but, did you know that Diana Ward was killed in an attack in Afghanistan? She and her wife were in the U.S. Army. I wanted to let you know because I remember that you were good friends. How sad, isn’t it?”
I was away from my children for a while. They’d gone to the seaside with my sister and my mother, I stayed in the city, my mother was angry at me because I wrote and showed myself nowhere often enough. I’d talk about work appointments, none of which existed. I lived in a small hotel whose caretaker reeked, the smell of her body and her dress had risen violently with the heat. I’d head to the office every day, but I worked very little, I mostly went to the office to pretend I was a man, I was tired of being a woman. Everyone seems to enjoy entertaining for a while a role that isn’t theirs, the role I played was that of a man, I’d sit at the filthy office table and eat at an osteria, lazily hang out on the streets and in cafés with friends, come home late at night. I’d surprise myself thinking how different my life had once been, when I cradled my children and I cooked and I washed, how there’s always so many ways to live, and each of us can make a new being of ourselves, at times even enemies of each other. Then I got bored of that new role I was playing too, I’d be living the same life without any of the pleasure in it. But I wouldn’t go to my mother’s, at the seaside, I wanted to be away from the kids, be alone: I thought I couldn’t show myself to them as I was at that moment, with that loathing in my heart, I felt like I’d loathe them too if I ended up seeing them. I often thought it was like elephants and how they hide away to die. They hide to die, they spend a long time in the jungle looking for a secluded spot, full of trees, to hide the shame of their big, tired body dying. It was summer, summer was hot, blazing in the big city, and whenever I cycled on the tarmac under the trees, my heart was choked by a feeling of loathing and love towards every road, every house of that city, and several memories were born of different natures, burning like the sun, as I fled, ringing my bell. Giovanna was waiting for me in a café: when I left the office, in the evening, and I’d sit next to her at the table, I’d show her my mother’s letters. She knew I wanted to die, that’s why we no longer had that much more to say to each other, but we still sat one opposite the other, smoking, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. I wanted to die because of a man, but also because of so many other things, because I owed my mother money, and because the caretaker stank, and because summer was hot, blazing, in the city full of memories and roads, and because I thought that I could be of no use to anyone, in that state.
So my children – just as they had lost their father one day – would also lose their mother but it didn’t matter, because the loathing and shame assault us at a certain moment in life, and no one has the power to help us when they do. It was a Sunday afternoon, I’d bought some sleeping pills from a pharmacy. I walked all day in the empty city, thinking about me and my children. Bit by bit I was losing awareness of their young age, the timbre of their young voices had died in me; I told them everything, about the pills and the elephants, of the caretaker and what they should do when they grew up, how to defend themselves from what would happen. But then I suddenly saw them as I had last seen them, on the floor, playing with bowling pins. And the echo of those thoughts and words resounded in the silence, I was stunned by seeing how alone I was, alone and free in the empty city, with the power to harm myself as much as I desired. I went home and took the pills, I dissolved all of their contents in a glass of water, I couldn’t figure out if I wanted to sleep for a very long time or die. The caretaker came the following morning, she found me asleep and after a while went to call for a doctor. I stayed in bed for a week, and Giovanna would come every day and she’d bring me oranges and ice. I’d tell her that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive, and she’d smoke in silence and watch me, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. Other friends would come too, and everyone gave me a piece of their mind, everyone wanted to teach me what I had to do now. But I’d reply that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive. Giovanna told me to leave the small hotel and move in with her for a while. She lived alone with a Danish girl who walked around the place barefoot. I didn’t feel like dying now, but I didn’t feel like living either, and I lazily hung out at the office or in the streets, with friends, people who wanted to teach me how to save myself. In the mornings, Giovanna would slip on a prune-coloured towelling robe, brush the hair away from her forehead and wave at me with disdain. In the mornings, the Danish girl would walk barefoot into the bedroom, and start writing all the dreams she’d had the previous night on a typewriter. One night she’d dreamt that she picked up an axe and killed her mother and father. But she really loved her mother and father. They were waiting for her in Copenhagen but she didn’t want to move back, because she said we all need to live away from our roots. She’d read out loud to us her mother’s letters. Giovanna’s mother had died and she had arrived too late to see her die, when she was still alive they had tried to no avail to talk to each other. I’d say that a mother is only needed by children when they’re small, to feed them and cradle them, but then she’s pointless and it’s pointless to talk to her. You can’t even tell her the simplest of things and so what can she do to help? She becomes a burden with that silence that is born out of trying to talk to each other. I’d say that my children no longer needed me, because they no longer needed to be fed and cradled, kids with dirty knees and patches on their shorts, and they weren’t old enough to be able to talk to each other either. But Giovanna would say that there’s only one good way to live, and it’s to get on a train headed to some foreign country, possibly at night. She had everything she needed for a trip at home, she had several thermos holders and many suitcases of all sorts, and even a sick bag for the plane. The Danish girl would tell me to write down my dreams, because our dreams tell us what we’re meant to do, and she’d tell me I should think back to my childhood and talk about it, because the secret of who we are is hidden in our childhood. But my childhood felt so remote and distant, and so remote was the face of my mother, and I was tired of all this thinking about myself, I wanted to look at others and understand what I was like. So I started watching people as I lazily hung out in cafés and on the streets, men and women with their children, maybe some of them had once had that loathing in their heart, then time had passed and they’d forgotten. Maybe someone had waited pointlessly on the corner of a street once, or someone had walked for a whole day in the silence of the dusty city, or someone looked at a dead person’s face and asked them for forgiveness. One day I got a letter from my mother, telling me that the kids had scarlet fever. And so the ancient motherly anxiety paralysed my heart. I took the train and left. Giovanna came with me to the station, and she smelled the smell of trains with desire, brushing the hair away from her forehead with her disdainful smile.
With my forehead stuck to the glass, I watched the city move further away, empty of any evil power by now, cold and harmless as spent embers. The ancient, known motherly anxiety was turmoiling inside me along with the thundering of the train, crushing like a storm the Danish girl, Giovanna, the small hotel’s caretaker, the sleeping pills and the elephants, as I wondered bemusedly to myself how I could’ve been so interested in such trivial things for a whole summer.
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.
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.
Yasha Hein woke up while it was still dark – long before the alarm clock rang – because of a strange quietness that was filling him up from within.
During the evening of the previous day he had already felt a little unwell: a sort of pre-flu state. All of his joints and muscles had ached, he had had a headache, he had kept coming over dreadfully weak. The thermometer had showed 37.2 – not exactly a high temperature, of course, but subfebrile, which is even worse. At bedtime Yasha had taken two effervescent soluble aspirins, put some nasal drops in his nose to be on the safe side, even though it wasn’t blocked for the time being, and asked his wife to draw iodine grids on his chest and back – so that he didn’t develop a cough, because there was no way he could rest up in bed the next day, he had to get to work without fail, no matter what.
And so now Yasha was sitting in bed, wrapped up in a blanket, feeling appalling. It was as if his chest and stomach – but not just his chest and stomach, his whole body – were filled with congealed, sticky cotton wool. Or cold apple jelly. But the main thing was – this quietness… This strange quietness. Something inside him was clearly out of order, and out of order in a serious way. Now Yasha had to find the broken cogwheel that was preventing the whole complicated mechanism of his thirty-five-year-old body, faulty at times, but nonetheless relatively orderly, from working normally – find and eliminate the fault. By medicinal means. Perhaps even with antibiotics – he had to get to work at all costs.
Yasha stretched out on the bed and lay motionless for five minutes or so, listening closely to himself, feeling himself over, as it were, from within, carefully studying every organ to see if it was healthy.
His throat wasn’t sore. There was no cough or blocked nose, and his eyes weren’t hurting at all. Even the headache of the previous day had completely gone – in short, it wasn’t like a cold at all, not like flu really either. More likely there was something wrong with his blood pressure – ups or downs of some kind… Yasha’s health was dependent on the weather. Or his heart – he had had tachycardia since he was a child, after all.
Yasha reached out for his watch. He waited until the second hand was on the twelve, and took his left wrist in his right hand to check his pulse. Then he put his hand to the artery on his neck. Then to his chest.
Then he touched the bony shoulder of his wife, who was breathing heavily beside him, and said quietly:
‘Ira, I think I’m ill.’
‘A-hm,’ came a mumble of suffering in reply, and she rolled over onto her other side.
‘I’m ill,’ he said more loudly.
‘You’re always ill. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Let me sleep,’ but she did open her eyes. ‘What is it this time?’
‘There’s something wrong with my…’ Yasha said haltingly, and licked his cold lips with the tip of his tongue. ‘My heart doesn’t seem to be beating.’
‘Good Lord, what sort of nonsense is that?’ with an effort Ira forced the words out through a heavy yawn, and closed her eyes once more.
* * *
Yasha got up and went into the kitchen. He pressed his hand to his chest once again. Quietness, absolute quietness from within. He switched on the electric kettle – it began hissing malevolently, demanding water. Yasha filled it and switched it on again. And it was then that he was seized by genuine panic. ‘If my heart really has stopped,’ thought Yasha, ‘that means I’m about to die. In a second. Well, in two seconds. I won’t have time to drink my tea. I probably won’t even have time to take the cup off the shelf.’
Yasha pattered across to the kitchen cupboard and grabbed a cup. Well then, I did have time. But what does that tell you? Absolutely nothing. It could happen any time all the same, at any moment. If the heart isn’t beating, that means the blood isn’t moving through the veins, and that means… what? Some problem with oxygen. A shortage of oxygen must develop, and so a man can no longer breathe and soon dies. Yes, a man stops breathing… Yasha held his breath. And suddenly realised that he didn’t actually have to breathe at all. That is, he was capable of breathing, but solely out of habit, and if he wanted, he could even manage quite happily without doing so – as long as he liked.
‘An ambulance! Call an ambulance!’ He ran back into the bedroom where his wife was asleep.
‘What are you yelling for?’ She finally woke up fully and looked weary and bad-tempered.
‘I need an ambulance! I’m not breathing!’
‘You need to go to the madhouse, Yasha. What’s all this nonsense you’re talking? Don’t addle my brains.’
Yasha leant against the chest of drawers and covered his face with his hands. She climbed out from under the blanket, stuck her bony feet into slippers with plush pompons and gave him a look that was almost sympathetic.
‘If you really need one, call it yourself. Ring them and say exactly that: “Hello, I want to call an ambulance, because I’ve stopped breathing, and my heart’s not beating either.” Maybe someone will come, too. They may even give you sick leave, on account of your disability. When you’re sick in the head, that’s serious too, after all. How can a man like that work? A man like that…’
At this point Yasha switched off as usual, stopped listening. The loud, steady drone, moving around with his wife (back and forth across the bedroom, then into the bathroom, the kitchen, and back again into the bedroom), sounded almost reassuring – meaningless words like husks, devoid of any sense, devoid of any core.
Coming up for fifteen years before, Yasha had married this woman, not really for love exactly, but for something of the sort. Or maybe not for love, but simply because of being young. Or being stupid. Or because that was the way everything was heading, and she was ten years older than him, and her mother was thirty years older than him, and both of them knew very well how to deal with a twenty-year-old, long-nosed boy. In short, the motives by which Yasha had then been guided weren’t very clear to him now. However, if he had wanted to clear the question up, he would, of course, have done so with no difficulty – and if he still hadn’t done so, it was solely because he didn’t feel any such need. And whatever there had been there, at the beginning, there was now a lot that bound them – the years they had lived together, the things they had bought together, the rows during which they had sucked one another dry – day and night, like demented vampires – their shared tiresomeness, shared irritation, and very much more besides.
Just a year after the wedding, swiftly and inexorably – the way Cinderella loses her expensive accessories at midnight, the way a werewolf grows a coat of hair at full moon – she had turned into her mother. And her mother was a highly strung and touchy individual, and unbelievably garrulous.
Take flight? Yes, in his time Yasha had cherished a dream of liberation. Yet not one real attempt at escape had he actually undertaken. Instead, he had developed a simple means of psychological defence, a sort of know-how; whenever she spoke for longer than a few seconds, he would press an invisible little button in his head that was responsible for the perception of human speech. The sound of her voice remained – but in such a form that it meant no more than, say, the noise of surf or the squeal of car tyres when someone put the brakes on sharply.
Upon mature consideration, Yasha decided not to call an ambulance after all: by the time they’d arrived, by the time this and that had been done… he could be late for work. Apart from that, who said competent doctors worked in ambulances? Those gloomy fellows, tired and short of sleep after the night shift? The best thing now, thought Yasha, is to calm down a bit, have some tea and go to work. And then in the evening go to a private health centre and see a good specialist.
The indignant buzzing that filled the entire room and was insistently trying to filter through to him, finally swept away all the obstacles in its path and at last invaded the zone of Yasha’s perception: ‘… what, can’t you hear… as if… cook some eggs… can’t you hear… like a statue… some eggs… as I’ve got up anyway… get cold… as I’ve had to anyway… go…’
* * *
The magazine called Fun Magazine would first open, then close, then open, then close, like a faulty lift stuck between floors. And this had been going on for about three years.
Nonetheless, people continued to work on FM. The instability of the situation got on the staff’s nerves only to begin with – they gradually got used to it and settled down. ‘Do you know, has he already found it?’ colleagues would ask one another quietly. ‘Apparently, yes.’
Their financial director was something of a magician. At least, he certainly possessed one magical quality: he always found finance.
Yasha arrived in good time for the emergency meeting. To do so, he ran all the way from the Metro, and then ran down the long, boring corridor of the editorial offices too. In actual fact, it wasn’t so much punctuality that made him resolve upon this heroic race, as the secret hope that such a warm-up might have a stimulating effect on his heart, but… In his chest there was still that same cotton-wool quietness.
The editor-in-chief, Vladimir Vladimirovich Stayomov, conducted the meeting very briskly, finishing in five minutes. It was only a couple of weeks before that FM had enjoyed its latest resurrection, for which reason Stayomov (or, to friends, simply Stay-home) was clearly in a good mood: his shiny button-eyes looked at his subordinates in a friendly way, and with what a dashing movement did he toss back onto the crown of his head the unruly forelocks which dangled down to the left in long, black strands, reluctant to cover the moist editorial bald patch.
After the meeting, a lot of people headed for the canteen, as usual, for a bite to eat. Yasha dragged along after them at first, but changed his mind halfway there. The memory of his recent breakfast was still too fresh… the tea pours into his throat in a warm, unbroken stream, washing down the last slippery bits of fried egg… it doesn’t have to be swallowed at all… the liquid flows freely down the oesophagus… with a slight gurgling sound – like a spring stream through the bars of a drain-hole…
Yasha stood there for a while, then moved off slowly down the empty, yellow-walled corridor. Clambered clumsily into the little plywood box of his workspace. Turned on the computer. Something inside the case gave a painful bleep, and then a disenchanted squeak, and the room was filled with a loud, oppressive buzzing. Yasha opened Word. Stared miserably at the flickering screen, lay his hands on the grey, beslobbered keyboard with repugnance. Felt with his index fingers in the customary way for the little ridges on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys – the celebrated ‘touch’ method. Today he had to write a big to-order exposé (commissioned, actually, by FM’s new investor). It would run under the rubric ‘Topic of the Week’. And then he would be given a bonus.
‘The main thing is not to think about your breathing,’ Yasha said to himself, ‘not to think about your heart. Think about taxes. And about corruption. I’m writing about taxes, using the ten-finger method, writing ever so quickly, writing – and not breathing… but it’s all right, I’m simply over-excited. I’m writing very quickly – and not… writing quickly, and going to see a doctor straight away.’
The white screen chirped irritably and was plunged into darkness. Jolly green seaweed appeared against a black background. Little yellow fish swam up from out of a distant, otherworldly ocean and stared at Yasha senselessly from the monitor.
* * *
The working day was already almost over, but Dr Zuckerbaum was in a bad mood. His impending liberation from the cramped white office where he had been conducting his surgery promised nothing pleasant: frozen vegetables or ravioli for dinner, an empty evening, an empty home, an empty bed. Dr Zuckerbaum had recently lost his wife.
Dr Zuckerbaum may not have been the best cardiologist. But on the other hand he did have a big heart. By virtue of this latter fact, he often married his patients, weary Balzacian ladies with heart defects. And by virtue of the former, he often lost them, and was greatly upset every time. However, it is worth noting that the unfortunate former fact was a hindrance to the doctor only in his personal life, and told on his work not one bit. His attitude to his work was a serious one. Zuckerbaum sympathised sincerely with all his patients, and the utterly human warmth of his manner compensated in full for his professional incompetence in some matters. The patients liked him, and in the commercial medical centre ‘Heartmed’ he was considered the top specialist.
Yasha Hein liked and respected Dr Zuckerbaum too, and, although Zuckerbaum’s consultations weren’t cheap, he went to see him from time to time about his tachycardia.
Tachycardia would have seemed a pleasure to him now – better a hundred and fifty beats a minute than none.
In the registry, Yasha was informed that Zuckerbaum had already finished his surgery.
‘Mine is a very very serious case Miss a question of life and death,’ Yasha began jabbering in alarm, ‘Miss you don’t understand Miss I really do very much need…’
The withered, fifty-year-old Miss raised her wise eyes to Yasha, examined his distrustfully and said:
‘Wait, I’ll just give it a try – if he’s still in the office… Hello! Lev Samuilovich? It’s the registry here… There’s a patient here bursting to see you… And I’ve already told him it’s finished… He says it’s very urgent – although, to be honest, it seems to me… Just a minute… What’s the name? His name’s Hein. What? Very well, he’ll be up right away…’
Yasha grabbed the ticket from her hands and rushed to the office.
Dr Zuckerbaum was a responsive man, and that day he had no desire whatsoever to go home either, so he had decided to stay a little late. Particularly as Yasha’s was such a simple case – banal sinusoidal tachycardia. Listening to the complaints, taking the pulse, prescribing Isoptin and walks in the fresh air – it would all take about ten minutes, no more.
But Dr Zuckerbaum was mistaken.
An hour later he tried for the last time to take Yasha’s cardio-gram – on a different, newer machine; without any particular hope of success he fingered Yasha’s wrist, then decisively detached the sticky suckers from his legs and chest. He stared sadly at Yasha and said:
‘I’m very sorry, young man…’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Yakov Markovich! You and I are grown-ups, are we not?’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Unfortunately, it comes to all of us sooner or later…’
‘But what’s the matter with me, Doctor?’ Yasha asked again, and for some reason giggled.
‘I’m very sorry. I’ve done all that I could.’
* * *
‘What is there to think about? First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna declared, plunging Yasha into a state of agonising déjà vu.
The last time his mother-in-law had pronounced those same words was fifteen years before. She hadn’t very much liked the youthful, useless Yasha with the traces of recent adolescent zits on his forehead. More than that, she hadn’t liked him at all, and had even found him repellent – like all the rest of Irina’s admirers who had ever had the misfortune to drop in for half an hour to have some tea, and to squeeze into the narrow space between the table, the fridge, the windowsill and the wall.
However, it was the very time when Yasha had been invited to tea that maternal instinct and common sense had unexpectedly united in Klavdia Mikhailovna in the most unhappy way for Yasha, and won certain victory over her personal sympathies and antipathies. In other words, Klavdia Mikhailovna had finally come to the conclusion that it was high time her daughter set herself up with, firstly, a family, and secondly, an apartment.
Yasha had an apartment.
Squashed into the stuffy corner of the five and a bit square metres of his beloved’s kitchen, Yasha had felt like a luckless little insect, stuck fast in the middle of a small, but sound and very professionally spun spider’s web. The wall of the kitchen beside which the guest had been made to sit was furnished with a gigantic radiator (a peculiar bonus for the residents of five-storey apartment blocks of the Khrushchev era), and the heat rising from his back to his head had deadened his consciousness and plunged Yasha into a state close to fainting. The spider-mother had looked into his eyes with a fixed and angry stare. Under the table, through a hole in his slipper, the spider-daughter had been stroking the big toe of his right foot with her elegant, hairy little one. He hadn’t had the strength to resist.
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna had said then.
‘Very well,’ Yasha had submitted.
Over the following fifteen years, her attitude to her son-in-law hadn’t undergone any particular changes – as before, she didn’t like him. Maternal concern and common sense had remained with her too, and so at the family conference, urgently convened by Ira in connection with ‘the unpleasantness Yasha was having’, Klavdia Mikhailovna declared:
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office. And draw up a death certificate – so that you can register your entitlement to inherit the apartment.’
‘What, go with him?’ wondered Ira.
‘You can do…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna began, with doubt in her voice. Yet after some reflection she added, ‘But actually you’d do better to go by yourself. After all, the case isn’t very… sort of… typical. And all they ever want to do is find fault. And in general, what use is he? He’s an intellectual, isn’t he, can’t even stake a place in a queue: he’s too shy to ask whose turn it is before him,’ his mother-in-law glanced quickly at Yasha, who was sitting in an armchair and pretending to watch the game show The Weakest Link, ‘that is, he used to be too shy, I meant…’
Yasha coughed nervously.
‘Well, all right, you mustn’t speak ill of the dead,’ again she gave her son-in-law a sidelong glance, ‘may he rest in peace… although… that’s not clear either…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna fell into an embarrassed silence. But, as ever, not for long. ‘Incidentally, about rest. Do forgive me, Yasha, for indelicacy, but we ought to give some thought to the funeral too. Because this isn’t the way these things are normally done somehow.’
‘But how can you give him a funeral?’ exclaimed Ira in annoyance. ‘I mean, he’s sort of… it’s not as if he’s actually deceased.’
‘What, want to bury me alive, do you?’ Yasha interjected. Klavdia Mikhailovna ignored her son-in-law’s comment. She gave her plump mouth a scornful twist. Then she started jabbering in a falsetto, mimicking her daughter:
‘Oh dear, really, how can we, it’s not as if he’s, I mean, he’s sort of… What is he then, in your opinion?’ she asked, in a normal voice now.
‘I don’t know.’
‘“I don’t know” what?’ Klavdia Mikhailovna grew angry.
‘It’s a moot point.’
‘Aha, a moot point…’
‘Why do you keep on repeating things after me, Mama?’ Ira grew angry in her turn.
‘Who’s dragging the whole team down?’ the television presenter enquired.
‘Because I’m lost for words, that’s why I’m repeating them,’ the mother-in-law snapped. ‘And so what are you going to do with him?’
‘Well… let him live here for the time being. And later on maybe everything will sort itself out… well, later on, that is, we’ll see.’
‘Well, thank you,’ Yasha butted in once more, ‘I’ll never forget it.’
‘Who gets frightened by elementary questions? Who’ll have to leave with nothing?’
‘Why are you acting the goat?’ his wife pulled him up. ‘Now why are you acting the goat? This is no joke, you know! It really is a serious problem! It really isn’t clear what’s to be done with you! What do you yourself suggest?’
The telephone rang in the kitchen.
‘Well, what are you standing there like a statue for? Go and pick it up,’ his wife commanded.
Yasha left the room.
‘Statistically, the weakest link in that round was Mikhail,’ a pleasant male voice filled the silence that had arisen, ‘he answered only one question. The strongest link was Arkady. He gave the greatest number of correct answers and banked money. However, we shall see…’
‘He has no business being here,’ whispered Klavdia Mikhailovna, nodding in the direction of the kitchen, ‘this isn’t the way these things are done at all – letting the deceased stay at home.’
‘Olga, why do you think it’s Mikhail that ought to go?’
‘Well, I don’t know, Mama…’
‘Well, Mikhail seems kind of overtired to me. I don’t kind of sense any potential in him somehow. With some of his answers to some of the questions he’s kind of bringing the good name of the team into disrepute, and he’s got no sense of its spirit…’
Yasha returned to the room, his face grey with worry.
‘Who was it?’ inquired his wife.
‘You are the weakest link. Goodbye!’
‘Turn that bitch off!’ said his mother-in-law in exasperation.
‘From work,’ Yasha replied quietly.
‘… but all the same, Olga really upset me, because I don’t know why she had to get personal and be so rude about me bringing the team’s name into disrepute and…’
Ira turned the volume down.
‘In any event, it’s no use our thinking about a funeral for at least a month now,’ said Yasha, not without malicious glee.
‘And why’s that?’ his mother-in-law narrowed her eyes.
‘Because I’ve been…
* * *
That ill-starred day when Yasha was hurrying to the doctor’s, he had submitted his article without reading it through. And so he had failed to notice a dreadful blunder he had committed in his haste. The section editor had failed to notice it as well; perhaps he had been late getting away somewhere too, or had been thinking of some matter of his own, or, most likely, had simply trusted Yasha and read his text inattentively. The publishing editor had failed to notice it too, because he trusted the section editor implicitly. To be fair, it should be added that Yasha’s blunder was noticed by the proofreader, yet he considered quite reasonably that it was nothing to do with him, because his business was spelling and punctuation marks. And Yasha had put all the punctuation marks in correctly. In short, the article went out quite happily in its original form. And the name of the investor (Spichkin was his name – but does that really matter very much?) who had recently undertaken to fund the magazine, and who had actually commissioned this very article, accidentally migrated from a list of oligarchs who meticulously paid their taxes into a list of inveterate tax-dodgers.
The denial that was published a day later looked pathetic and unconvincing.
Spichkin was upset. He called the financial director an idiot, the editor-in-chief a two-faced bastard, and Yasha a bloody Yid, and he left for Tibet to take his mind off it. But for some reason he became even more upset in Tibet, got depressed, came back a day later and stopped his funding. Fun Magazine closed down.
Not entirely, however. Once again the financial director briskly set about searching. At an emergency meeting of the editorial board it was decided to continue publishing FM for the time being in a heavily cut-down electronic version.
And after the meeting, Stay-home rang Yasha Hein at home and inquired irritably why he wasn’t at work. Yasha briefly explained the situation, apologised, and promised to bring his death certificate in to the personnel department in the very near future. Stay-home’s bewilderment was palpable. He paused for a while, breathing hard into the receiver, and was already on the point of saying goodbye, but then changed his mind and decided to say what he had phoned for after all. Clearing his throat well, he informed Yasha that, because of ‘the business with Spichkin’, he, Yasha, was, firstly, dismissed at his own request, and secondly, before leaving, had to work out a month’s notice in the office in accordance with his contractual obligations.
Yasha was silent. Stay-home waited, breathing hard, for a little longer, then sighed heavily and finally forced out of himself, half-questioningly:
‘But… in the light of your circumstances… your sad circumstances… you probably won’t be able…’
‘No, no, everything’s in order. I’ll work out my notice. Of course.’
Yasha was a responsible person and considered the fulfilment of contractual obligations to be his sacred duty.
‘Well then,’ Stay-home became perceptibly more animated, ‘if you really can?…’
‘Yes, I really can…’
‘All right. See you soon, then… er, er, er… and… please accept my condolences.’
* * *
The gaze is intelligent and stern. And a little tired as well – because of the dark rings under the eyes. The long, uncut, wavy hair is in some disorder, but the hairstyle doesn’t spoil the face at all, on the contrary, it lends it a certain charm, a sort of mysterious quality, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just that black-and-white photographs are always a little mysterious. It’s a good photograph. Big, glossy. But the wreath, on the other hand, is a cheap little one. Some revolting plastic daisies and bluebells…
Yasha was standing in the vestibule of the editorial offices and examining his own photograph, framed in black, with sorrow and pride. This must be the way an elderly father feasts his eyes on the photo of a son who has recently left for the front.
Since the previous day, an astonishing calm had set in in Yasha’s soul. Yes, in the evening, after his mother-in-law had gone home, after that awful discussion of the impending funeral, he had had another panic attack: and what if this isn’t a dream after all? But the attack was shorter than the previous ones, and this time Yasha didn’t even think of pinching his nose, biting his fingers, and banging his head against the wall in order to wake up. Instead he took some valerian drops, walked to and fro around the apartment, sat in front of the television and fell asleep.
Yasha was received well at work and he was very touched. Firstly, a fine obituary was put on the Fun Magazine website. Secondly, his colleagues greeted him cordially, despite the fact that, thanks to him, they found themselves once more ‘in a state of suspension’. They all expressed their sympathy – regarding both his dismissal and his sudden demise. The men shook Yasha’s cold hand warily, and with particular solicitude somehow, while the women offered him some handmade chocolates. Then everybody went off to the canteen (for some reason he wasn’t invited), and Yasha remained alone in the room. He turned the air-conditioning off. He used his mouse to prod at a small black rectangle with the inscription: ‘A special correspondent of the magazine dies [read more].’ He read it through once again.
Then he opened the news feed: it had been decided not to give him any more responsible tasks, and his duties in the coming month included the regular posting of fresh news on the FM website.
* * *
‘In Kamchatka the All-Russian Alpine Skiing competition “The Volcanoes of Kamchatka” is starting…’
‘In the Koryak Autonomous Area fifteen reindeer-herders are missing. The search for them goes on for a sixth day…’
‘In the capital of Indonesia an international forum on questions of infrastructure opens…’
‘In France a coach carrying Belgians has crashed…’
‘Federal benefit receivers want to receive benefits…’
‘In Novgorod the Great a memorial athletics meeting has taken place in memory of Marshal Meretskov…’
‘In Saransk the Russian Greco-Roman wrestling championships have come to an end…’
‘Madonna and Roger Waters have sung for victims of the tsunami…’
‘In Hong Kong there have been races for solar-powered cars…’
‘The corpses of the fighters in the ruined building may have been destroyed by fire…’
It had been for two weeks now that Yasha had been obediently appearing day after day in the offices of the closed Fun Magazine, delving into the news feeds, posting things on the website – but utterly mechanically, without any pleasure, ‘without zest’, as the editor-in-chief would sometimes say.
The news of this transient world no longer engaged him.
Over the past two weeks, an invisible slender crack between him and all other people had grown menacingly, it had turned into an insurmountable obstacle. Yasha had become absent-minded, and, coming in to work, he had forgotten to ask colleagues how things were, then had stopped offering his hand, and then completely stopped greeting people at all. His colleagues, in their turn, had been looking at him strangely somehow. Yasha remembered how, a year before, everyone had looked in exactly the same way at the secretary Olya, whose time had come to take maternity leave, but who had just kept on coming in with her huge belly, and it had already looked even indecent somehow… And every day, when meeting her, the staff had been more and more surprised, and had enquired ever more persistently after her health, and had looked almost censorious. She had been an irritation. You couldn’t smoke when she was there, she mustn’t be upset, but the main thing was, her time had come.
People stopped smoking in Yasha’s presence too, although he didn’t ask them to at all. And they spoke in muffled voices. And looked at him as if… as if his time had come too. His time had come.
Everything had changed at home as well. Without waiting for the conclusion of the red tape over the inheritance, his wife had organised refurbishment of the apartment so as, in her expression, ‘to freshen everything up’. There were newspapers spread out on the floor now, soiled with lime, glue, and God knows what else, there was the stench of dust and paint, and standing proudly in the middle of the living room was a battered stepladder. There too, next to the stepladder, stood the folding bed on which Yasha, banished from the conjugal bedroom, now slept. (‘You can go to prison in Russia for necrophilia, you know,’ Ira explained calmly, putting an old, striped mattress that bulged in places on the folding bed, ‘and apart from that, you’ve been snoring too loudly of late. At least I’ll get a good night’s sleep this way.’)
Running into one another in the kitchen in the mornings, Yasha and his widow experienced a certain awkwardness – and every time it seemed to Yasha that he was something along the lines of a house-sprite.
Then the gloomy, hung-over hulks of the decorating team would arrive. They felt no awkwardness, and simply paid Yasha no attention. They unceremoniously caught him with their elbows in passing. They drank vodka in front of him without embarrassment (when his wife was out, of course), and gloomily stole salami from the fridge. And didn’t speak to him as a matter of principle. With the exception of the one instance when the red-faced foreman Lyokha, breaking into a disarmingly genial smile – from which, in the course of the previous night, the two front teeth had disappeared – asked Yasha for ‘a loan’ of twenty roubles. But Lyokha the foreman had been in such a drunken state at that moment that he could quite easily have addressed the same request to a cupboard or, say, a light fitting.
‘They probably reckon my time’s come as well,’ Yasha thought in anguish, and didn’t give him the twenty roubles.
* * *
There was an interesting programme made by the BBC on the ‘Culture’ channel – American astronauts were talking about how they felt in a vacuum – and Yasha settled down to watch, although really it was time to go to work.
‘For the first two days you feel awful nauseous,’ a round, ruddy physiognomy, seemingly specially destined to be put into a spacesuit, reported joyfully, ‘because all the fluid in your organism is freed from the effects of the law of gravity and comes up; so we always have bags with us… But sometimes they don’t help,’ the physiognomy gave a vile smirk, ‘and then everything flies all over the place. And then it floats around the ship until the end of the flight, and you get to feel real awkward, well, you understand…’
‘An exercise room’s essential on the ship,’ declared a shaven-headed beanpole with unnaturally thin lips, ‘it’s real important in space to maintain your physical shape. Doing sport in conditions of weightlessness is much easier than on earth. There’s only one problem – sweat. Water behaves completely differently in space. It doesn’t flow down, but turns into these little balls, you know? And you’re sitting there, pedalling away on the exercise bike, and these little balls are crawling over your back, and at every abrupt movement they fly off in different directions…’
‘The closet.’ The first physiognomy occupied the entire screen once again. ‘I’d say the main problem for any astronaut is specifically the closet. In conditions of weightlessness it’s real hard…’
Yasha switched off the television, went into the corridor, put on his boots and started to cry.
Something had suddenly torn inside him. The continual hassle, the stress, the humiliation, the craziness of recent weeks, this awful inescapable dream (or was it a dream? – yes, of course it was), this refurbishment – up until now he had somehow endured it, with difficulty, and yet he had, but space… Beautiful, radiant space, without beginning or end, which had attracted him since childhood and was his most beautiful dream… Now he had been deprived of it. It’s nice rocking about in weightlessness with a book in your hand, floating here and there in the ship’s cabin and, finally, clinging to a porthole and spending a long time gazing at the distant Earth, at the fiery tails of comets rushing by… But no, of course not! Gripping a smelly paper bag in a trembling hand, dodging the little balls of sweat flying past, nausea, headache, a toilet with straps and a ventilator – that’s what there was there, in infinity!
It wasn’t that Yasha was intending to go into space – it’s obvious that he wasn’t intending to go there at all. Nevertheless, until now space had seemed to him something like a final opportunity, like an emergency exit in the very last resort. When there was nowhere else to go.
‘What a life,’ Yasha thought out loud, and went into the living room with his boots still on. He leant his head against the steamed-up window. ‘It’s time to go to work… What a life… What a stupid dream… But I suppose I can probably do the same as the one in that film, Groundhog Day, now,’ Yasha opened the window and clambered up onto the ledge, ‘what’s his name… it starts with an M…’
Yasha closed his eyes and jumped from the eleventh floor.
The morning street greeted him with its customary, deafening, grating sound. How many days was it now that there had been some mysterious work going on around the apartment block, either building work or repairs, and the whole building proved to be surrounded by a deep, man-made ditch, across which, here and there, rotten little wooden bridges had been thrown. A short distance away, the lightly frozen autumnal earth was bulging with formless brown heaps.
Yasha got to his feet and brushed off the yellow leaves that had stuck to his trousers. Balancing with his arms and looking straight ahead, he carefully crossed over a bridge. And only when he found himself on the other side did he look down squeamishly. In the bottom of the pit, some little Tadzhiks in orange uniforms were swarming about. In a cloud of steam and dazzling sparks, one was drilling into some rusty pipes that poked out of the ground like a fragment of the charred skeleton of some gigantic prehistoric animal. The others were unhurriedly digging.
Digging, digging the earth.
When he was already at the entrance to the Metro, Yasha suddenly decided that he wouldn’t go to work. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.
He stood for a while.
Two frozen girls were frenziedly thrusting some bits of yellow paper into the hands of passers-by. A fat woman in a green beret was cheerfully selling sausage rolls. But for some reason there was the smell of rotten fish and seaweed, like after a storm at sea – even though there was no sea anywhere near the Metro. Perhaps it was from the upturned autumnal earth, from the holey sewage pipes that this distant smell came…
‘It’s time I went,’ Yasha thought, and drew the air in through his nose, ‘to the sea somewhere… travelling.’
* * *
And for long years he wandered over the earth. He lived in various countries and various cities, and hundreds of women shared their beds with him. With some he remained for a long time, and they aged and died beside him; while from others he parted, leaving it to them to age and die in solitude.
And different peoples gave him different names. Many, very many names did he change. And for so long did he wander that he could remember no more who he had been first, and who he had been afterwards, or whether he was alive or dead, or what held him so firmly on this tedious earth.
And so long did he wander that all the peoples aged and vanished from the face of the earth, and the cities turned into sand and stones. He saw the earth settled by astonishing new animals. And he himself remained the only human amongst them.
*This story is taken from: An Awkward Age by Anna Starobinets, Hesperus Press Limited, 2010. First published in Russian as Perekhodnyj vozrast © Limbus Press, St. Petersburg (Russia), 2005.
In the year 3000AD, after many years of wars – world wars, civil wars, religious wars – after the heavens grew angry and smote the waters with meteorites from a vengeful hell, then there came thunderbolts, volcanoes, and hurricanes, along with centuries of disease and famine. Mankind almost became extinct on Earth. All the continents with their inhabitants were wiped out. The oceans dried up, leaving deep and terrifying canyons. The only survivors lived in a large underground cave dug out by a meteorite centuries before.
Only one hundred were left. They wore animal skins and armed themselves with stones. They rested their heads on their arms as pillows when they slept and ate grass from a small green pasture that grew by a stagnant pool. They had no names and no language but communicated with signs, and referred to each other by numbers. Eighty men, fifteen women, and five children were all that remained of humankind.
They had no need for language to perceive that they were the last remnants on Earth, the last hope for the regeneration of humanity. They huddled together like a herd, clinging to life with what claws they had left, and vowed to stay together to save the planet. They went out to pasture every morning and chewed the grass like sheep, rolled on the ground by the pool like dogs, then went back at sunset to settle down in the cave-like bats. One day, after everyone was back in the cave and they had started counting, as usual, to make sure everyone was safe, they were startled to find that Number 9 wasn’t there.
“Where has Number 9 vanished?” they asked.
The survivors were wide-eyed in alarm, their hearts trembled in fear and their faces showed real anxiety at this strange disappearance since no one had disappeared for more than ten years. After hours of disheartened and sullen silence, Number 9 came into the cave with a broad smile and his brow covered in sweat. Like a statue, he stood smiling in front of them, and before anyone could reproach him for his absence, he opened his arms as if to pray, like the people who believed in the Lord of Heaven before all of them were wiped from the face of the Earth.
He smiled again, rather stupidly this time, and his hands revealed a silver-coloured pendant with rusty edges and a large heart in the middle attached to a leather strap. Everyone looked at the pendant with great interest and amazement. Then a giant of a man with enormous limbs and grey hair stepped forward. It was clear from his beard and his wrinkles that he was the oldest man there. The man, who was called Number 100, looked at Number 9 angrily, as if to say, “Where have you been?” Number 9 just raised his arms to show him the pendant.
Things changed after that. Number 9 became the centre of attention and acquired a new and singular importance. He was the only man that wherever he sat or went eyes followed. Everyone wanted to be friends with him and hoped to get close to him and take pride in his acquaintance. He was the man with the silver pendant; lucky the one who laughed with him, luckier still the one who went out to pasture with him at dawn. Luckiest of all humankind were those he let touch the pendant – something that seldom happened.
Women fought to win his affection, his heart, and his pendant. One woman made eyes at him, another tried to lure him with her enormous breasts and a third stripped naked in front of him. The most daring was a woman who pounced on him while he was asleep.
Jealousy poisoned relationships between the men and their eyes showed signs of hatred and resentment, envy and malice. Deep inside, they harboured evil designs and thoughts of violence to come. Then they split into camps. The old man Number 100 and some of his number supporters thought that the pendant was a wicked innovation and should be thrown into the pool. Others, led by Number 10, disagreed. They believed in freedom and his right to private property. The rest were neutral. In this way, the cave was divided for the first time.
One morning two men had an argument. One of them liked the man with the pendant, while the other hated him. The argument escalated, grew heated, until finally, the first man killed the second by crushing his skull with a large rock. A court was convened, the people naked but for animal skins. Number 100 ruled that the pendant should be disposed of immediately. Number 9 refused to hand over his pendant so they sentenced him to death for breaking the law. They dragged him to the pool and four strong men sat on top of him to drown him. After that, the pendant was taken and handed over to Number 100, the leader, who was meant to get rid of it and put an end to its baneful influence. It was a shock as devastating as a funeral when Number 100 appeared the next day wearing the pendant on his chest like a bride. Two nights later Number 100 was murdered and the pendant disappeared. Suspicions spread like wildfire and people traded accusations. Many groups were formed – those for and those against, the greedy, the hateful, the envious. They divided up, entrenched, regrouped and fell out, disagreed and clashed. Then they fought and slaughtered and exterminated each other.
A few months later the only survivor was a young boy. He sat in a cave holding a small silver pendant with rusty edges that had wiped out the last remnant of humankind.
The giant is starting to rot and Minerval still has no news from the man that’s dreaming it. The programmer must be sick, she thinks: if he were dead the forest would dissolve and then the rest of the dream would too, like the time that old man’s brain turned off with her inside it. She can tell he’s sick because he’s not printing the objects she saves. As the giant rots, the objects fall apart as if they were living things too.
The programmer defines himself as such: I steal objects from people’s dreams and I print them in 3-D. That’s why he programmed Minerval, his pearl hunter in a sea of brains. She prefers to define herself as a cartographer of dreams: I can’t leave my world but I can broaden the limits of the map. Every night is an exploration as if smoke excreted from the pores of the hot soil allowing her to see only one step ahead of her. First, she expanded to the dreams of his neighbors in his apartment building, then the block down, then out into the neighborhood, but mostly she explores the dreams of the creator himself. Now his brain is failing, and Minerval doesn’t know what to do. She stumbled on the giant two nights ago, by chance, but in the terrain of dreams, chance is arguable. Now she finds her way back to it thanks to the smell. The giant fell on his side, in a clearing in the woods near a town of carpenters. His eye sockets are empty and full of ants. His eyes must’ve been the size of large beehives, all that remains now is a trace of bloody honey. A kid could sleep inside that cavity. Minerval tries to climb up the giant, but his flesh is slippery. It would be great to print the skull in actual size, she thinks. But how do I save it, and what titanic machine would be needed to print it out? Then she remembers: the programmer is sick, maybe dying, and all of this is his fever dream.
She’s frightened when the dream blinks in and out, as if a silent ray of sunlight were momentarily melting all the dream’s participants without their realizing it. The carpenters’ faces fall, the giant’s rotten flesh drips, the blackened trees collapse. For half a second everything blurs: the forest, the town, the animals and the rocks. Then everything goes back to normal without the living or the dead ever noticing, only she notices. These interruptions occur when the dreamer wakes up, and when he goes back to sleep. In the interim, the dreamer and his dream each carry on with their respective lives, and at night the dreamer returns again to the wide uncharted world of his dreams. Due to the frequency of the glitches, Minerval knows that the programmer is being startled from sleep again and again, without fully awakening from his swampy fever.
Ignorant to their precariousness, a handful of carpenters approach Minerval. We called a father from another town, they say, it took him a few days to get here. It’s an old man with no legs, carried along by his companions. He looks at her with curiosity for a second (What do they see when they look at me? Minerval wonders) and then he turns his gaze to the giant. Let me touch him, Father Niebla says. They set him on a tuft of pine needles near the giant’s mouth. With his hand covered in powder he touches the swollen tongue that sticks out from between the giant teeth. We have to bury the giant before it’s too late, Minerval tells him. He’s rotting and he’s going to poison everyone. That’s going to be hard, answers Father Niebla with tears in his eyes, because this giant was the god of this place. Without him there’s nothing and if he dies we’ll all die with him.
Where should I go? Minerval asks. Anywhere they know what we should do, answers Father Niebla. Before they carry him away he takes some knives and pliers from his apron. I’m a carpenter too, he says as he pulls out one of the god’s teeth. So they’ll believe you, he says. The tooth fills Minerval’s entire hand and it has holes in it. An interference in the dream momentarily liquefies the tooth, her arm, and the father, whose cranium melts then solidifies a second later without him noticing: he wishes her luck. So that it won’t be too heavy on the journey, once Minerval is alone she saves the tooth in the file with the objects she’s collected to be printed in 3-D. Father Niebla’s powder stains her hand, and as the hours pass her face and chest are marked with powder too.
She travels from the carpenters to the blacksmiths and from the blacksmiths to the fisherpeople, and then to a place the dreamer has never visited. The forest gives way to a rocky desert and the rocks finally slope down to the sea. Beyond that, a city rises up. In the boat provided by the fisherpeople, she finds a net made of fish bones which she saves. The programmer has instilled in her the joy of finding objects that have never existed before. The thing she likes most is a blanket made from bees that gather and scatter, a warm hive that protects whoever wears it. The bees are golden and they communicate with each other, and with Minerval. When it gets cold she puts it on. Lately, there are more and more holes in it. The climate inside each dream is random and doesn’t obey any rules that a program like Minerval can understand.
Her job is to burglarize dreams. Children’s dreams are the most fruitful, fast currents that pull her into caves full of hidden treasure. From these places come the best trophies: the oddest, most dangerous things, the things she keeps for herself. She has also explored animals, but their dreams are more confusing and they tend to break her code. After these visits, she returns to the main dream mentally muddled and physically exhausted, but the sophisticated pieces she sends to the printer are worth the effort.
The programmer sells the 3-D printed dreams and his clients buy them without really knowing why they find these strange objects so fascinating. They are at once decoration, tool, and art. From time to time, someone buys the product of their own dream and they place it, feeling both satisfied and disturbed, in some privileged spot in their apartment. When this happens Minerval makes a special nighttime visit: without exception, the object reappears in the dreams of its creator, but this time as an artifact from the real world. This is Minerval’s greatest pride, she can say: I made it real, I took it and introduced it into the world, I’m the real creator.
But ever since the programmer got sick she hasn’t been able to visit other people’s worlds: if he dies, like the giant, she will die with him. She’s willingly locked in this world, immense, but limited to only one person, her creator, and the constant contact feels suffocating. It’s an eternal, lethargic present tense, murky, and imbued with the smell of death from the god’s decayed tooth.
Have you ever dreamed again and again about a city on the horizon that only exists in your dreams? The programmer does, and Minerval reaches this city, in the blue hour between night and sunrise. The planks of the port are as hot as if it were midday. The programmer has glimpsed this city so often in dreams that the edges are frayed and gleaming, whereas the unexplored urban depths are a dull gray fog that Minerval illuminates with each step.
The city is walled and there’s no way to enter without being seen. The program makes it difficult to abandon her human form, presumably because the programmer wanted to prioritize the search for objects. The guard on shift opens the gate with a key that resembles an open hand. He’s drowsy from the suffocating heat and Minerval seizes the chance to steal the key from him after he locks the door behind her. The lengths some dreams will go to defend their objects is surprising. They might fire him for this, she thinks, and then: it’s just a dream. It’s hard for her not to feel sorry for these creatures, without knowing whether they’re even as real as she is.
She knows who she’s looking for: a merchant on the shore told her before she sailed to visit, an expert in gods that had once solved a problem involving a failed offering. In exchange for the tip, Minerval gave him one of her most prized objects: a brush with organic bristles that cleans the hair as it untangles it; she hardly used it and the bristles were beginning to fall out.
The glitches in the dream are becoming more and more frequent: as she steps into a doorway she is no longer in the city but in a jungle, and when she gets through the door she’s once again in the city. In the last few minutes before a dreamer awakens, their dream becomes so chaotic that all its elements combine: the wing of an airplane could turn into a bridge, the rain becomes blades of grass, animals may morph into loved ones. But the programmer still isn’t waking up and it’s getting hotter and hotter as if a bonfire were melting the bricks from the walls of the alleyway. She finds the theologian in a lethargic state, nodding off in a leather chair.
Minerval slaps him and a cloud of powder rises from his cheeks. How do I bury a god that died in its creator’s dream, she asks the program. The theologian looks at her, his eyes transparent: each dream has its own god. But this god is dead, Minerval responds, I saw him rotting. Gods don’t die, says the theologian, they are just replaced. You have to harvest the soul of the dead god and transfer it before it’s lost. How do I do that, Minerval asks. The theologian points to a translucent shrine, where a silver spatula sits, indented on one side like a spoon. Minerval saves it with her other objects. The dream blinks and the roof dissolves: I’m not going to make it, she thinks. Does this mean you’re Minerval? The theologian asks with a melted face. The glitch is not corrected and his glass eyes fall from their sockets.
Minerval disposes of herself, breaking out of her human form. The heat helps soften her body and she moves like a spirit over the water and the desert, floating above the sails of the ships and the tops of the trees until she reaches the heart of the forest.
By the time Minerval gets there the giant’s body is a skeleton covered in worms. She brushes them aside (as they intermittently fuse with the bones) and clears the skeleton of spiders and roots. She slides the spatula over the divine bones: the god’s soul is unctuous and pools up in the spoon like cream. The leaves of the trees burst into flames. And now what, she asks herself. The trees fall down, the giant ribcage rises from the soil like fangs. Minerval takes the cream and rubs it on her face that’s no longer there, on her phantom chest, over her arms that are not really arms. Then everything goes still, like the last circular reverberation of a stone falling into water.