(This story was originally written by Gary Gunter in 2002)
For the longest while, I considered the biggest drawback of my immortality to be the necessity of having to constantly find new friends. After about fifteen years, twenty at the outside, my companions, true to form, no matter what the age I was living in, would increasingly realize that, although they were wrinkling steadily, no corresponding progression in my own features could they find. Then the questions would follow, driven by their abiding suspicions and nagging doubts, all of which they desperately wanted to abandon, if only they could persuade me to explain the apparent paradoxes.
Now, you might imagine that my existence would be somewhat allayed of its stress were I to reveal the true nature of my abilities to the world at large, reassured that the governments and militaries of the mighty nations would find little in my novel biology to gain their interest. No reasons to compel me to become the ultimate Soldier of Fortune, correct? A mind engulfed in a body that doesn’t seem to die under any circumstances would have little use, yes? A weapon like that, unique in all the world, couldn’t possibly hold the attention of any group and its righteous agenda for long, could it? No, I didn’t think so.
Pardon my mockery on the matter—unfortunately, I have journeyed up and down the streets of civilization enough times to know what darkness awaits in the shadowy beating hearts of at least some of my fellow countrymen. The Devil’s minions are always about, whether it’s the 3rd century BC or the 3rd millennium AD.
[Sidebar—Yes, I am painfully aware that those acronyms have changed recently, out of an overwhelming “sensibility” toward all nations, credos, and religions. Oh, dreadful PC—such an unruly and misdirected beast you have invented for yourselves, the impetus of such lofty ideals originating more out of petty, yet lucrative, litigation than anything its practitioners would deceive themselves into labeling as noble and philanthropic. What cynicism you have made out of your legal systems. But, then there is always a new pair of eyes to receive the blinding wool.
Even with all this time on my hands, I would never be so misguided as to think I could sway the least fool who believes he (or she) can disseminate all of Mankind’s (I mean Humankind’s) solutions within the stuffy walls of the courtroom. But wait, the beast is beginning to turn on its master. Quick, save yourself, toss the legal types toward its maw. Oh go on—it will heal and restore you beyond your wildest dreams. You would be amazed how refreshing society could be once again when purged of the law offices of X, Y, and Z on every forsaken corner. In the meantime, thank you, I will continue to use the old acronyms, the ones that prevailed before the common era (or should I say error). Now back to my story. Incidentally, for you youngsters, PC only meant Personal Computer for the briefest moment in time].
The only situation that could make my conundrum any worse would be the prospect of having to live interminably under the yoke of an endless stream of cruel wardens. No, my secret will be staying with me as long as I have any say so in the matter. [After all, this is but a journal, meant only to be revealed to the world at large upon my untimely death. If you are reading these words now, you can be certain that I have most assuredly passed from your presence]. Besides, I have a few talents up my sleeve which I have yet to share with you, my reader, allowing me to extricate myself from virtually any situation I find to be, shall we say, a bit too confining. Those details, like so much else, will have to wait until later. For now, let’s get back to my friends.
But first, I suppose introductions are in order. It’s not that I was being rude; it’s simply a matter of not knowing where to start and, because of this, I’m not quite sure as whom I shall introduce myself. Currently, I go by the unassuming moniker “Lance McAllister.” Am I Irish? Not by a long shot, although the kind of blood that’s actually keeping my skin and bones alive is anybody’s guess. I suppose it could be Irish as much as anything else, though, somehow, I doubt it.
Actually, I came upon the name by opening up the phone book one day in the spring of ’68, somewhere around Atlanta, if I recall, scanning down the list of tiny little names until I found one I halfway liked. I’ve been wearing it ever since. That doesn’t mean it will be with me tomorrow, should trouble find me again, as I’m sure it will. Then I suspect I’ll be gliding my finger down a list once again.
Incidentally, ’68’s change of ID was due to an unfortunate death of a second party at my own hands, at which time I went into hiding for a short while, venturing back out into society as a new (though not improved) version of my former self, only after the smoke had long since cleared. I shall share the whole sordid affair at a later date. In the meantime, as you come to know me, you’ll see how much I prefer keeping a low profile, throwing the hounds off the scent, as it were.
So these friends I keep referring to—they were an eclectic bunch of blokes, and we enjoyed each other’s company as much as any group of men could, I suspect. The cycle was always predictable though: the growing suspicion in their eyes, first in this individual or that, then in the whole group at a glance; the inquisitive stares, and the quiet conversations; the knowing looks and the pointing of fingers. I never could be certain when the whole cauldron might boil over into undisguised animosity. The day of reckoning did arrive, however, and there I was, caught in the thick of it, yet again. On that pivotal evening, which I still remember well enough, much of what transpired would guide me in all my subsequent decisions regarding intimate company and how long to keep it.
My then cherished acquaintances, who had become so dear to me over the years, stopped just shy of physically attacking me in their pursuit to arrive at the truth regarding my eternal youth. That night, chilled as we were by the final embraces of a protracted wintry season, with all outside hoary and bound for frost until dawn, the blokes and I were enjoying several bottles of cheap table grapes together, as we often did, gracing our favorite English pub, The Serving Wench, just south of London proper.
In response to what must have been someone giving the nod, five of them pressed in tight, all around and on top of me, their ignoble host, a suffocating mob closing ranks, at my own humble table, to boot, breathing their insinuations, accusations, demands to hear a suitable explanation—all this, no less, just after I had bought the last two rounds. I attributed much of their quarrelsome demeanor that night to cabin fever, a way of relieving their frustration at having been shut in for so many weeks. It is difficult, however, to defend against such veracity, even when it is muddled in drunken conclusions whose darts don’t quite hit the mark square on (but certainly strike close enough to the bull’s eye).
Ultimately, in order to free myself from the group’s mass hysteria, I confessed to them, drawing them round about me with wide eyes, near whispers and barely restrained animation (acting really isn’t the high art form it seeks to become, if only for self-respect among its practitioners); yes, it was true, I said, dejectedly, yet enthusiastic to an extent, they were quite correct in their skepticisms about me. They had Found Me Out. This was received with more than a couple of raised mugs, followed by a round of raucous revelry and swaggering dance, then finally, a willingness to be done with the whole thing by gathering about me once again, ready to give a good listen to what they hoped might be my plausible explanation.
Indeed, I did (hiccup, belch) draw of a potion that would bestow upon each one of them, regardless of their present years (sputter and swagger, slopping of ale all over floor), a cessation (slurring of words, dramatic pauses, loss of concentration) in the aging process. All I asked in exchange for the information I was, against my better judgment, now inclined to divulge, the means by which they might endure time without end, was that each bloke ante up one of his livestock. [These I later happily disposed of at one Lady Weatherly’s, the keeper of the local orphanage house, before embarking on the journey. Ms Weatherly was that rare breed who, as head of a children’s home, actually loved her little charges. She had a heart of gold, and a coffer as empty as a watering hole in a Texas drought. At any rate, that kitchen probably gave off delightful aromas for months to come, involving pot, rump, and rib roast, the likes of which the children had not enjoyed in some time, all compliments of my merry band of idiots]. But there was slightly more to the inebriated proposition than just offering up one’s skinniest heifer—there was some hiking to do, as well.
Sharing with them, in genuine secrecy and feigned stupor, a purely fabricated tale regarding this fabled brew, residing in liquid form within the dancing waters of a hidden pool, adjacent to the meres belonging to what we now call the Lake District, I drew out, in an instant, the gullibility of my pals. The particulars of the topography weren’t as important as the overly explicit description of distance, sacrifice, and large undertaking by everyone to be involved.
By the time I was finished with my long-winded account of the essential rigors involved in becoming immortal, I had, by design, pruned my following down to just two. Of these, one slipped and fell along the way, breaking his ankle, ultimately left behind at a roadside inn that was wanting of a paying resident. He, of course, was only able to secure a room by way of the little coin he had to his name, reluctantly parted with by ostensible comrades, the joyous men who, overwhelmingly, had chosen to gain passage into the eternal by way of barter. The cows and pigs reluctantly parted with would ultimately come back to them in the shape of a delivered bottle or two, filled to the brim with “everlasting life.” Amen.
In the end, as the booze wore off, perhaps it was a lingering doubt in the efficacy of my story that ultimately kept most of them at home. Preferring a cozy tavern, a warm bed, and the idea that an end to one’s travails on this earth might be preferable to the discomfort and shivering required by those on the road to Shangri-La, they settled in for the rest of the cold winter, hugging their wives tighter at night, happy in their knowledge of the secret shared among friends.
Well, they had been deficient of a worthy explanation and I, being of grand imagination to begin with, delivered a splendid load of old cobblers which, in due course, led only myself and a duped procession of one into a small valley’d area not far from the mountain tarns made famous centuries later by several poetic types. Had I not been immune to the hardships of this, and any other journey, I would have been hard-pressed not to believe that I had been taken in by my own joke. Nature, however, is unparalleled in the telling of riddles. I was happy to see the mighty struggle my traveling companion willingly undertook, never questioning the validity of my tale.
It was one of those strange perverse predilections of history that should assign the name of “Coleridge” to my faithful follower. He was no lake poet, however, probably uneducated beyond, say, the modern-day kindergartener; his open-mouthed appreciation of the splendor all around him, however, was enough payment in my book. I should think a poet might want to write on the topic of unadulterated belief one day. ’Tis a wondrous thing to behold, and would make a most pleasing sonnet.
In the clear, deep water of a refreshing hidden pool—one I had passed by many years earlier and which had moved me with its unassuming tranquility—this was where Coleridge was to find the answers to his most sincere, if rather simple questions, regarding life in all its boundless mystery, just as I had promised. In the absence of the genuine article, the placebo principle can achieve astonishing results. I say none of this disparagingly. It might surprise you to discover about me what I can call nothing other than a wholesome curiosity for what comes next in my own existence. Why should I deny Coleridge similar fascinations when it was so easy for me to grant them?
During my effortless escape from the described oppressiveness of this inquisition, I envisioned, not without humor, the scene which I could have brought about, had I been so inclined, taking place along the banks of any tributary I had singled out as being the magical one. Had I assigned the place of “stepping over” somewhat closer to their own beloved pastures, perhaps several more of my anxious friends would have lustily slurped from their cupped hands, the powerful elixir “…that pools, fleetingly, by the steep south canyon walls of that ancient and mystical place known only to myself and three others as Mer-Narriamsterenthicus (had I really just thought that up on the spur of the moment?)…under the gentle light of the pale full moon.”
I quickly would have cleared my throat at that juncture, trying to rid my countenance of the giddy expectation I felt for the farcical display they would have provided me, without hesitation, much to my undying chagrin. It would have made for most splendid entertainment, I assure you. How quickly they would have all memorized the enchanting and strangely familiar incantation I would have imparted to them, remembered most likely from some old fairy tale, probably recited by their great grandcestors, yet only remembered by me. I alone could reach my hand into the somewheres of the way-back-whens; what I could effortlessly bring into the present never failed to amaze me, as well as those in my circle of influence, which was, by choice, generally quite small.
“It is imperative,” I would have stated emphatically, earnestly pounding one fisted hand into the palm of the other, “that these verses be quoted, word for word, without error or pause, immediately after the consumption of three handfuls of the panacea…lest you negate, and even accelerate in the opposite direction, the restorative aspects of this spell.”
The only thing I could fancy as becoming injured or bruised in those jovial proceedings would have been their individual and collective pride. I supposed, once the first one passed on, the deceived group would have ultimately fingered me as the scapegoat for his untimely demise, even though he might have achieved to the ripe old age of 74, or 83, or 96, if by no other means than sheer willpower. Ahh, but then, our time here is never enough.
Coleridge peered deep into the water, while I stood beside him, my arm around his neck, my hand resting on his small shoulder. I had to admit, I loved this boy as if he were my own son. I wanted grand things to happen for him. Faith plays such a large part in the recitation of one’s chapters. Each of us simply has to decide what is the most deserving of that faith. Is it religion? Humanity? One’s own self? Those are easy questions for you to answer, but, back then, humanism was still just a glimmer in society’s eye. God ruled all men with a rigorous and unwavering hand. I deduced that Coleridge already feared for his soul in the afterlife, feeling that perhaps he had just struck a deal with the Devil. It was up to me to put those fears to rest.
“It was destiny that you alone should arrive here, my boy.”
“Do you really think so…Sir?” I suppressed a grin upon hearing such a title proffered on my behalf, one he had never used before. I assumed he was viewing me with newfound veneration, quickly forgetting that night, not so long ago, when we drank ourselves into a fond stupor quite along with the rest of our cadre.
“Don’t address me as such, Lad, for it is not I you have to thank, but only yourself. Such persistence I have not otherwise seen. Many a better man would have fallen by the way side long afore now.” I gave the small round shoulder a little squeeze.
“What do I do now, S… I mean, how shall I call into service what you have brought me all this way for?
“I am leaving you alone for a little while, Coleridge. This moment is a sanctified one. You make all things right with your god now, y’hear? before you go to sipping what will give you eternal peace of mind. And remember, if ever you should use your life for ill will toward others, the magic…” I lent no levity to the situation, “…well, the magic will be gone.”
“Is it then…mystery?”
“Ordained by the angels, themselves, Coleridge.”
“But why me? I’m nothing special.”
“You’re no less than the King, himself, Coleridge. Don’t you ever forget that. Do you understand?” He shook his head timidly. I stayed beside him a moment longer in silence, then grabbed his tiny neck in my hand and gave it a gentle nudge. “Our paths crossed for a reason, Son. You have been chosen.” Then I let go of him, and walked away, leaving him there alone, staring into his destiny.
I didn’t come back for Coleridge, and I suspected he knew that I would not. I was confident that he would make his way back to the little settlement we had left behind us only yesterday, especially given the idea that he would think himself invincible now, including an invulnerability to the elements, causing a doubling of his efforts where he might have otherwise perished.
Some would maintain that what I perpetrated on Coleridge was a cruel joke of the meanest kind. I disagree. He had little to look forward to in his own life other than continuing the trade of his father, namely the herding of beasts. I had given him a unique and novel feeling of hope and inspiration. He had been the youngest of my friends, as well as the most salvageable. It was correct that only he should wind up here, drinking the fruit of his diligent efforts. I believed Coleridge would go on to do great works because I knew his heart. It wasn’t pastoral, but it was pure. I had granted him the adventure he had been longing for. Now, if he could just get all those empty containers filled.
Meanwhile, having left these poor loveable sinners, my troupe, to their misguided pursuit of perpetuity here between the earth and sky, I sighed at being forced, once again, to take up the path that never left off, on my way to new adventures myself, same as the old ones I had just completed. From that incident on, if I kept any friends at all, I was exceedingly careful to make note of the elapsed time since the initial encounter. Were I careless in my calculations, compelled to witness that questioning stare on yet still another face I had grown fond of, I spared not a moment in making haste to the nearest stage coach, or sailing ship, or airplane, whichever the case might have been.
Still, it’s hard to leave, time and again, the people who feel good to be around—rather like losing a well-worn leather jacket, which has done no worse than to fit a little better with each passing year. I’ve become accustomed to it, this mandatory bidding of adieu, simply accepting it as part of my fate, part of my calling, whatever that might be.
You, the reader, might assume that I would have worked that side of the equation out long ago—nothing could be further from the truth. A clear picture of how I’m supposed to use my mutated characteristics for the benefit of all humanity has never properly formed in my mind. I’m no closer now to knowing the utility I have in this world than when I first realized, several thousand years ago, how different I was from my fellow brethren.
* * *
Born on the eastern plateau of what used to be known by the beautiful word “Palestine” now the much less sonorous and unimaginative “Middle East,” I do not know, and cannot know, exactly what year I burst forth onto the scene, for it was long before my group of sapiens kept track of any sort of calendar, as you so meticulously do in these modern times. [Incidentally, I use the term with deprecation, for the modern does not properly exist for me. All people believe they are living in modern times, and doing modern things, not realizing that it is all simply a snapshot they are a part of for the briefest of moments. What you see as the vivacious colors of your unduplicated life will soon be nothing more than a discarded photograph in some large unorganized suitcase that sits in the darkened attic of your progeny. Or worse, you’ll only make it onto a hard drive, thumb drive…no drive.
Don’t let it depress you—I could paint much more bleakly, should I so desire, which I don’t. Perhaps if you all stopped to realize how fleeting your existence truly is, you might paradoxically take more time to pursue what is rightfully the most enjoyable. Stop working so hard, start smelling the flowers. You’ve heard it all before. But I’m preaching again, I admit. It’s all just the turn of a wheel].
Nor do I know exactly where my mother reached the triumphant push that shoved me out of her womb and into the light of day, as we did not take up residence in any hint of permanent structure. We were a band of wandering nomads, never resting in the same place for long, always following the herds of wild beasts, gathering what sparse vegetation there was along the way to sustain us when the meat ran out, as it almost always did.
I will not detain you with the intricate details of our existence; suffice it to say that your archaeologists and anthropologists have largely gotten the record straight, and, for the most part, things did evolve in a manner similar to what they have assumed to be the truth. We kept as close to the water sources as we possibly could (although they were as unreliable as anything else in the world), afoot on any given day, relentless in our pursuit of nothing more grandiose than the procurement of our next meal. Not very awe-inspiring, all that traipsing around, following a dinner that refused to stand still for very long—stories that might amuse a school child, or interest an adjunct professor working out her thesis statement.
I watched every morning as my father set out with his gaunt and sinewy collection of fellow hunters, he ever hopeful that the long hours (sometimes days) away from family would at least prove worthwhile in bringing forth the protein necessary to survive one more season in our inhospitable surroundings. As the only offspring, I spent the days of my youth learning the ways of my people under the almost hourly tutelage of my loving and attentive mother. Tagging along behind, I was ever open-eyed to her patient illustrations regarding the proper ways to coax, sometimes wrest, the life-sustaining offerings from Nature’s bosom. On those evenings when he was due back, however, how I looked forward to the return of my father, whether he arrived empty-handed and despondent, or full of elation, wading into the fire’s light, proudly carrying the spoils of the successful hunt draped around his leathery neck.
He never tired in telling his adventures—where he had been, what he had seen. A good man, gentleness and ferocity inhabiting the same body, I well knew that he wanted his boy to grow into manhood every bit as strong as himself, able to face the darkness of the night with a bold heart and a sharp spear. The day finally arrived when I was old enough to take my place beside my father, an uncomplaining and smiling teacher who imparted the unfurling mystery to me, the adrenalous adventure of the hunting party.
It was a serious and joyous undertaking of Man if ever there was one, the likes of which are no longer to be found anywhere on Earth, except in the remotest pockets of the rainforest, and other pouches of undisturbed primitive cultures, where small tribes still boldly set out with nothing more than spears and arrows as their indispensable weaponry. Thundering into the forest with a four-wheel drive pick-em up truck, laden with all the luxuries of modern life, a high power rifle or two shoved into the gun rack in the rear window all falls far short of the mark and the spirit that existed in ancient hunting rituals; still, I suppose it is better than nothing. Some traditions are worth keeping alive, even if they are represented by a much-diluted and warped version of the ideal.
A natural part of our cruel and austere desert existence was the expectation that my father should pass away at a relatively young age. Even when thirty or forty seasons was considered ancient, did we know, inherently, somehow, that there was the potential for so much more life, if we could only improve our circumstances? Perhaps it was more realistic to believe it then than it is now, when Westerners expect, almost as a God-given right, at least a century’s worth of respiration. But, as I said, it is never enough.
When my father did pass on, silently in the night, as people often did, my dear mother followed him closely behind. It was, of course, expected that I should succeed them in assuming the role of provider. The time to put childish things aside had arrived, and, so, as was the tradition of our people, I took my own wife (pairing off has long been the norm); we produced two children, a boy and a girl.
I don’t know how to ascertain the true age of my body when it ceased to mature any further but, based on the images I still hold in my head of my children as they began to look at me with curiosity, then suspicion, and finally, bewilderment, I estimate myself to be in the physiological health of a man approximately age 35. This was a time of great confusion for me, not knowing the reasons behind my predicament. Living in a time when critical thought, as we think of it today, was never a part of my existence, what with being preoccupied in just mere survival through the night, I had neither the time, nor the necessary mental tools, to even pose a thoughtful question regarding my situation.
Humanity as a whole, you have been correctly taught, was never able to enjoy the luxury of leisurely rumination until we came to understand the concepts of farming and herding, allowing us the requisite time to ponder nature with a less distracted mind. We, as a people, were still a few generations away from such life changing events; as an individual, I had no resources to help me understand why things might be as they were in my own unique case. Although it was an aspect of my being that I simply accepted (what else could I do with it), nevertheless, it was deeply painful and infinitely troubling to see my children surpass me in years and then die, leaving their own children behind in my care and company.
Slowly, or maybe more quickly than I recall, I came to be revered within the tribe, rising to the position of a great chieftain, purely out of my ability to go on living while others all around me passed on of simple old decrepitude. I was able to improve the condition of my people by never failing to bring back the kill. It isn’t a trait of biology that has a neon light flashing around it, so it goes largely unnoticed by affluent capitalists: no matter how aggressive a species’ breeding habits may be, their numbers will be sustained only to the point that their niche can accommodate those numbers.
My people experienced a high infant mortality rate, the result of an existence that was more formidable than you can possibly imagine, situated in your reclining chairs, punching your remote controls, munching on your cheese doodles. [Do we do any great favors to the peoples of the so-called developing countries by throwing them a bone every now and again? The problems of the world will never be solved with such flimsy attempts at humanitarianism? Isn’t the incessant footage of all those skeletal, fly-ridden people, squatting in the sun-baked soil—isn’t that good enough proof of the “Give me a fish and you feed me for a day…” parable, thrust under our noses so we can smell the stench of our ways? Yes, dammit, I am a preachy old bastard].
Only the strongest survived, and only if Nature decided that it should be so. It was my ability to maintain my strength and stamina, unaffected, even for long periods, by exposure to the heat of the day and the chill of the night, which allowed me to stay with a herd for as long as I needed to before finding my targets. Everyone knew that when I arrived back at camp, there would be a bountiful feast. Eventually, the population of my people reflected an improved health and longevity.
Our travels in the desert expanded. We were crossing paths ever more frequently with other nomadic clusters, itinerant lineages like ourselves, traversing the plains and steppes in pursuit of the same object as any other—food for hungry mouths. Word got around of my prolonged existence, taking on mythical proportions. I became a celebrity to others, a prize to be hoisted high by my own kind. Yet, a new twist to the story began to take shape, something to be tacked on at the very end of a growing procession of exploitive narratives: the murder of the great warrior of a thousand suns, should it prove possible, would bestow the capacity to cheat death, by fiat, on his assailant. I became the target of plotting, and war campaigns, and deception within my own numbers. I began to wonder silently if perhaps even I would soon experience the long sleep of death.
Unaware of what my full potential for immortality truly was, and under what circumstances it might be terminated, I had performed a few experiments on myself—mild self-mutilations, leaps from distances a bit too high for the ordinary man, underwater sojourns well beyond reasonable lung capacities, starvation, dehydration, setting myself on fire…those sorts of things—all resulting in little dire consequence to my physical well-being. But what would happen if I were to be savagely attacked by weapons that could cut deep and cause far graver harm than I had ever inflicted on myself? I was soon to find the answers to my questions.
* * *
It was a chill, starry evening, in the late fall of a happy, prosperous year, our encampment situated more and more permanently by a babbling brook that was asking us to stay. Lately, however, it was also whispering ominous warnings in my listening ear about a swiftly approaching future. I often remained awake well into the night, attentive to every sound outside with one mind, yet at the same time, able to perceive the gentle breathing of my third wife—beheld in my mind as so precious, so fragile.
[You might laugh at the reference to body count, but I find it necessary, given that each marriage ended in death, as it must. Does that fact alone not offer reason enough to behold life as dear? Does that not qualify me to offer advice where life and death are concerned? If you do not think so, perhaps this book would be best read by someone other than you. I only offer such observations because I am able to. Where you only contemplate your own death, I am witness to the demise of each succeeding generation. What can you make of that other than something that is either highly liberating, or terribly depressing? The light in which you view it tells me volumes about your soul. As you go about your daily business, you should try much harder to do one simple thing—practice being humble. The shadowy figure will also come for you one day, and he’s lurking much closer than you might assume].
While she lay there nestled by my side, her smooth skin warm against my own, her dark hair spilling over my chest, I wondered when her day would arrive. The night was oh so still. Then they fell upon us, we, the unvigilant, awakened by those haunting taunts that sprang up out of the calm. I had fallen asleep on watch—now the tribe would pay.
The tranquility, a peace that had lasted for generations, was finally broken, like an heirloom, having been passed so carefully from mother’s hand to daughter’s, ultimately dropped, in one shattered moment of carelessness, irretrievable for all eternity. The sudden commotion pierced me, as it must have pierced us all, roused from the comfort of slumber, some of us sitting up abruptly, only to be struck down at once, like so many young saplings, part of a larger tree that must fall.
Small in numbers, but large in fierceness, these savage fighting men had slunk across the desert to arrive at the edge of my world, and had then embarked on its systematic destruction. That brutality still exists among us even today, even within the trappings that delude us into believing that we are somehow more civilized because we are more connected, more accommodated. But we’re not above it, nor can we ever be.
They swung their clubs and they plunged their knives into everything they could catch. Every living thing, young and old, was running this way and that, unorganized and unprepared. Even then, I knew that I would rightfully be blamed for the loss of so many lives, for a lack of caution when it was most warranted.
The consequences, big and small, were racing through my mind when I spied him, on the far side of the melee, swinging his heavy stone club in wide arcs, making sickening contact with so many of his targets. He seemed to relish the act of killing, this woolly mammoth of a man, whooping like a mad dog whenever his efforts resulted in the spillage of blood. I became frantic, needing to reach this enemy far worse than I had ever needed to reach any prey that had come before him.
Then I saw her, my darling wife, running in the wrong direction, running toward him without seeing him, blinded with fear. We were all blinded by that same fear. I wasn’t afraid for myself; rather, I was glutted with the agony that I would be unable to prevent what I saw about to happen. As though it were a weapon that might somehow thwart this ruthless warrior’s best attempts, I hurled her name into the night, casting it into the heavens, screaming with more pulmonous force than I had ever mustered before.
She stumbled and turned, searching for the source of her name, finding me in a flash of recognition. I even think I observed a fleeting reassurance in those soft eyes as she watched me flying straight at her with all the speed I was capable of…but it was not enough, and I was too late. Looking on, helpless, I felt the hitch in my throat, catching my breath as he lunged out, snagging her, just barely, by her small wrist, connected to a gentle, outstretched hand.
Reveling in the victory, he reeled her in quickly, as though she were tethered to him by a spring, then, without hesitation, he unloosed his knife and slit her open in a manner that suggested the esteem he must have held for each of us, nothing more than common desert beasts, one and all. As her innards spilled onto the frost-dusted ground, he released her from his grip, letting her drop, sliding down and down his bare and bloody leg, until she crumpled in a lifeless heap at his dirty feet. All the while, this killing machine never took his wild eyes off me, the trophy he so coveted, so desired to obtain. His face was splattered with my loved one’s own blood.
Oblivious to her body’s weight pressing against his own, he stood, motionless, poised to strike, scrutinizing me intently as I came barreling at him like a wave, wishing to break over the top of him with a terrible and awesome force, wishing to break his every bone like a tumbling boulder might do to a careless climber caught in its unmerciful path. I had no weapon, and my reasoning had abandoned me; I could think of nothing else but to throw myself at him as I would an armament, with all the momentum I possessed.
Willing my body to become heavier, thicker, denser, I launched my bulk into the air twenty feet before I reached him. He seemed to have planned for this and, as though it were a well-practiced maneuver, swung his club with a blood-lust I had not witnessed before, nor have since, catching me squarely on the side of my head as I started my descent, arms outstretched, mouth wide open, voracious with hunger, aching to devour this monster in one gaping bite.
Now you, my thoughtful reader, always in search of clarity, must have that one curiosity answered. Yes, I feel pain the same as any other human, but, it is different for me in that the pain is being ceaselessly followed by a healing process, a soothing hand, if you will, that eases away all injury. Sometimes, it is more of a spirited chase than an effortless relief, depending on the severity of the wound. It is an automatic response to any physical harm that comes to me, and I am nearly powerless to stop it or control it in any fashion. At times, however, I have felt that, by simply concentrating intently on the area of infliction, I have hastened the progression of recuperation. This, then, is the key to the why that is me.
The best way to describe it is to say that this healing is just like your own, only accelerated a thousand times over. The blow my enemy dealt me in that moment would have easily split a mortal man’s skull wide open. I do not pretend to understand the physiological methods that grant me what they do, endowing me with the ability to roam this planet through the ages, time after time denying the Grim Reaper what is properly his due. All that I can add to this non-explanation, after having been “fatally wounded” several times throughout the centuries, is that this recuperative power residing within me becomes proportionately stronger the more profoundly my life is threatened.
I did, in fact, black out after I was struck, and my skull, most probably, was momentarily shattered. When I came to, there was an unbearable burning sensation in my abdomen, as I watched my vivisectionist’s agitated attempts to disembowel me. In a manner I was now familiar with, I observed him using those same unrelenting strokes of his knife to complete the urgent and selfish task he had set for himself. As I stated before, a healing process was following closely behind each intensive stab and stroke, my wounds closing up almost as quickly as he could open me. Exhausted and frightened, he rose shakily to his feet, dropping the ineffective scalpel from his bloodstained hands.
His look of disbelief was a horrifying thing to behold, even to me, though I stared at him all the more, with wide, unblinking eyes, hoping to shock him to the highest possible degree. As he turned to run, screaming, moaning, crying with misery at having witnessed the impossible, his accomplices began to back away from both of us, as well, waving their hands in front of themselves, as though to ward off the unspeakable fates I was planning to visit on every one of them, each in his own good turn.
I stood up slowly, carefully, glancing around at my remaining family and friends, seeing the masks of sheer terror on the faces of one and all. Picking up the man’s knife, dripping with my own coagulating blood, and satisfied that no further harm would befall the diminished clan this dreadful night, I began the pursuit of my quarry, fast disappearing into the deepest shades of the dark.
Receding away, like the waning light of a spent day, the glow of the campfires’ embers edged steadily further toward the far horizon. I listened, without emotion, to the final choked breaths issuing forth from this pathetic disbursement of field mice. They must have realized that an undesirable demise was soon to befall each member of their scurrying war party. They knew I was there, following in close pursuit, tickling their neck hairs. The moon was all but gone and, but for the uncaring twinkle of a million blinking stars accentuating the smallness of our situation, it was pitch black in every direction. A vast desert stretched for hundreds of miles all around, offering them little consolation in the form of a way out. How the panic must have set in quickly, with all that room to run in, and yet no merciful place to hide.
I growled in my own dialect, a language they may have vaguely understood, asking if they believed all their scampering hither and yon would grant them the first rays of the new morning. As the dawn approached, I felt the wind come up slightly, just as I moved in on my first victim, my snarling now only intended to unnerve all the players from the other side. Making certain that death came slowly to each of these cold-blooded murderers, praying that they were related—brothers and sons and nephews among them—I was careful to ensure my techniques would force the shrill cries of pain and agony from the parched throat of my latest catch and into the ears of the leftovers. Echoing across the dry, cracked earth, their outbursts were carried into the others’ nightmares by the morning breeze, that delicious zephyr, lofting the promise of a fresh-sprung day into the air of a beautiful and deadly landscape.
At last, I arrived at the monstrous one. He could make out my silhouette in that dim, barely perceptible light that was creeping in from one side. He, like the others, would die utterly alone, with me as his only company. I would serve as his judge, jury, and executioner, concepts I had never heard of yet. Each one had begged for forgiveness in his own unique manner, using a language that was foreign and harsh to my ears. I could only guess what ungranted pleas their last words had held. I was happy to crush such hopes out of existence with nothing but my own bare hands.
Somehow, I knew that this one would fall silent. Slumped over, panting in his labored breaths, retching up his guts, having run through the night, he was now spent, his trembling paws trying to support his weight on wobbly, bloodied knees. As the leader, he was tougher than all the rest, mentally and physically. I raised his knife high above my head, hesitating only for a moment, awaiting any declaration that might spill from his cracked lips. When none came, he submitted to the Pale Horse as bravely as I had imagined he might. The blade, most likely crafted by his own efforts, plunged deeply into this mortal’s flesh, allowing me to finally acknowledge the death of my tribal family as thoroughly avenged.
I realize now, having lived these many centuries, that we were all part of a savage and brutal race, but no more so then than we are now. Little has changed, other than our choice of weapons, now greatly expanded. Our one true means of achieving our sincerest and most satisfying triumphs still comes by way of a single, time-honored skill: the spillage of enemy blood. I think the reason that it flows so bright red is because of some deep-seated need within the reptilian brain of our species to visually verify its triumphs…and its losses. Were blood the color of water, much of the allure of these brutally ruthless clashes would be lost on the battlefield. It all must be a contrivance of God, or the Devil, or perhaps the two in tandem. I can only wonder how much we humans might have gained had we stuffed the stolen quality of cleverness back into Pandora’s box, rather than putting it to our own good use. And, indeed, we are a clever species. Now, all that is required to annihilate the opponent is a series of well-timed button pushing. The bright red colors need not be viewed close up, nor acridly acknowledged through heaving nostrils. Progress is a wondrous thing.
With arms limp by his sides, and a head that was suddenly too heavy for its neck, he fell over, crashing into his grave, eyeing me with dead eyes all the way down. The sound of his body thudding against the ground was as pleasing to me as any I had ever heard.
I peered into a giant yellow orb, slowly ascending into an eternal sky behind some far off mountain range, its edges being crisscrossed by the flying scavengers who would have a sumptuous feast this day. Burdened with reluctance to take my first steps toward home, I knew that, after this morning, it would no longer be mine to possess. My path, once again, had just changed direction.
* * *
When I came upon the desecrated scene, several hours later, that same sun had settled high overhead, bringing the events that had stretched across a desert the night before into the flat and blinding starkness of the wasteland’s midday heat. They watched me warily as I approached, these fellow creatures I had hunted with, had shared bounty with, had told stories around the fire with, now finding it impossible to entrust their lives to me. Never more would I fold the little bodies of my grandchildren to my breast, comforting them, kissing their fears away. I had become the object of their trepidation, and my presence among them meant that more callous attacks would follow. They knew with certainty that I was not like them. I was an outsider, the thing who kept bringing danger into their midst because of my uniqueness.
Their eyes were burning into my back, quickly averted when I tried to catch a compassionate face to gaze upon, to find meaning in all that had transpired, to pick out a lone supporter amidst the subdued mob, indicting me with their united glare. There was none to be found, not in the adults at least. My grandchildren were crying, clinging to one another, huddled together near the center of the burned out shelters, their faces grimy with sooty tears. When I thought about approaching them, I saw the fear expand, the way their little hands dug into each others’ flesh all the more pitiful to see. It was now beyond doubt that I would be traveling soon.
I smiled in acquiescence at all who dared to see me for who and what I was in that moment of turning away. Heaving a great sigh, I felt my shoulders sag, knowing they didn’t want me to leave them; I also knew they were hoping with all their remaining heart that I would. Only moments after my arrival back at the fringe, I felt the sting of my own tears as I prepared to cast myself aimlessly away from them all, never to see them again, except in my dreams.
Then, raising a hand to my squinting eyes, shielding them from the glare of that unfeeling sun, I suffered a lump, rising in my throat, pushing its way ever upward as I watched a lone little girl running bravely out toward me. Having broke free from the grasp of an older sibling, she raced across the rocks, being tossed this way and that by their scattered jaggedness, like a little boat braving the fiercest waves. I feared she would fall, as she carelessly stumbled on, her long, tangled hair flowing out behind her in the hot dry wind that blows relentlessly on us desert sojourners.
Weeping with indescribable sadness, she rushed into my arms, burying her tiny head in my shoulder. I couldn’t hold back my emotions any more than she could her own, our tears mingling together in a salty tempest, reminding us both of all our terrible heartbreak. A few sharpened and lashed stones, some flint pieces crafted into weapons of undeniable efficiency, profoundly severing the ties that bind, more so than any natural disaster we had ever endured together. In just a tick or two, in an endless sea of time, our lives were altered by devastation that would follow us through the remainder of our days.
In that moment, I hugged this angelic child tightly to my breast, praying that I could die, that whoever or whatever had conferred this horrible spell upon me would take it back then and there, that the ground might rush up to receive my mortal bones and flesh, that I would fall wearily into the bosom of my maker, my torments finally over.
Then, hoisting this baby girl high up in the air, I screamed, loud and long, to all my distant onlookers, assured that they would discern my meaning. Crying all the more in body-racking sobs as I heard an uproar come across that empty expanse, no longer bridgeable, accentuated by the movement of a few brave souls, I watched their spears, thrust high above their heads, shaking in acknowledgment, shaking out of respect for their broken chieftain.
After what seemed like an eternity, I reluctantly, gently returned this little warrior to her place on the soil, then knelt on bended knee and kissed her. Patting her leather-clad bottom softly, brushing off the dust, I told her in our rustic, undecorated language how much I loved her, how I would never forget her for as long as I lived, my darling great-great-great granddaughter, more courageous than all the others left standing.
Covering my ears to the sound of the sorrowful wailing that would not end, a song that hung in the air like the dwindling moisture over a dying oasis, I tore myself away, leaving them, alone now, forever more.
* * *