Apr 14

Immortality

    A story? Yes, I have a story I could tell, if you will listen. I first heard it on a night much like this one, a cold, quiet night, sitting by a bright fire. Now let me think, how should I begin? Hm. Ah, yes. I think I know.
    Many years ago, I met a traveller on the road. It was bitter autumn. The ground was strewn with fallen leaf-corpses, the branches of the trees laid bare by an icy wind. It was after a long day of walking on weary feet that I came upon this stranger’s fire, and I was lured in by its bright warmth. It was not until I drew near that I saw the figure, hooded and cloaked, a shadow just beyond the flames.
    The stranger bade me come forward and join him by the fire. He removed his hood and greeted me kindly, telling me that he was glad to see another soul on this long and lonely road. I agreed to join him, also eager for companionship, and as night closed in around us, we ate by the fire and talked.
    At first the conversation was of trivial things, and the specifics escape me, but after a while, silence fell. We sat for a time in our own thoughts, and then at length the stranger offered to tell me a story.
    I agreed, but for a long while, he did not speak. I watched as he added fuel to the dwindling fire, coaxing heat from the fading coals with the prodding of a stick. Finally, once he was satisfied, he put down his tool and began his tale. And this, very nearly, is the story he told.
    Once, there was a boy who loved life. He loved waking in the morning to fresh sunlight on his face. He loved walking with his sister along the riverside, eating fresh berries until their faces were stained with juice. He loved speaking with the travelers that passed through his village, for they told him wondrous tales about the big and wild world. He saw life as something wonderful and precious, and so it pained him to know that life must end.
    Often he would lie awake late into the night, considering this problem. Why must it be so? Why must something so beautiful be tarnished by the existence of something as terrible as Death? And so the boy decided that he would find a solution. He would find a way to live forever.
    His family laughed when he told them of his plan. “That is a fool’s errand,” they said, dismissing him. “Find yourself some proper work.”
    Only his sister paid his quest much mind, for she was the one person who took him seriously, the one person in which he could confide. “Be careful, brother,” she said. “Your path will be full of dangers, if this is truly your goal.”
    “I will be wary,” the boy promised. “Do not worry about me.”
    The boy began to learn all that he could about the ways of magic. He read books, studied nature, and listened to masters of the art. And after years of preparation, he finally deemed himself ready to face his enemy.
    Now, Death is everywhere and nowhere. It is always watching, yet it rarely pays attention, and it is hard to see even when you know it is there. Everyone who knows anything about Death knows this. And Death is also a great keeper of secrets. It knows a great many things, things that we cannot imagine, and it keeps these things locked away. The boy knew that no one would know how to conquer Death except Death itself, and if he were to defeat Death, he must trick Death into teaching him how.
    And so the boy purchased a fine bull, a strong and handsome beast in its prime, and killed it. Taking a vial of the animal’s blood, he drew upon the magic that he had learned and reached out, calling to Death in its distant and shadowy dimension. And Death, curious, answered.
    Why do you wish to speak with me? Death asked. 
    I wanted only to know if I could, the boy replied. I have been studying matters of yours, and I have great interest in the balance of the world.
    Is that so? said Death. That is good. There are many who do not appreciate the balance. I am glad to see that you do. Keep hold of that, boy, and all will be as it should.
    Yes, of course, said the boy.
    Very well, said Death. Until we meet again. And then Death disappeared, leaving a cold chill in the air.
    Though the boy was somewhat disappointed with the short length of the exchange, he was pleased with his success. Slowly, ever so slowly, he would win Death’s trust. But first he would need to speak with Death again.
    It was several years before Death paid the boy any more attention, though he tried many different methods, for Death is something that is invited, not summoned, and it comes only when it wants to. The boy spent those years learning and brooding, and ultimately waiting for an answer.
    And then, standing over the bloody corpse of a lamb, the boy once again found himself with Death in his ears. And once again Death said: Why do you wish to speak with me?
    I have been thinking, said the boy, and I would like to serve you, if I can. I have heard stories of people you have taken to do your work, to keep the balance of the world.
    Very well
, said Death. I am impressed by your persistence. But before you earn the title of my servant, you must complete three tasks.
    What are these tasks?
    I will not tell you all of them now, for you need only know the first. And that is this: you must create life where there should be none. For only with life can there be Death.

    Surely I have done that already, said the boy, thinking of the crops he had managed to grow in fields of rocky earth. But Death seemed to guess his thoughts.
    The task I have in mind is much more difficult than tilling fields, it said. I will give you an acorn, and you must get it to grow in the rocky cliffs of the highest mountain. If you can give it life in such a cold and desolate place, then you are worthy of me.
    How can I do this? said the boy. How can I bring life from stone? But there was no reply. Once again, Death had left him.
    The boy looked down at the lamb, and only then did he see the acorn lying amid the blood. He picked it up and stared at it thoughtfully. How could he get it to grow? How could he bring life from stone?
    It was there, covered in bloodstains, that his sister found him.
    “What has happened here, brother?” she asked, unable to hide the unease in her voice. “We have seen little of you lately, and I have grown worried.”
    “I am making progress,” he replied. “My plan is working well.”
    But still she seemed wary. “Be careful, brother,” she said. “Death is clever, and does not like to be tested.”
    “Death may be clever, but so am I,” he replied. “You need not doubt me.”
    And indeed the boy was clever. He was well learned in the art of magic, and after some thought, he knew what to do. There was nothing for the acorn to grow in on top of the mountain, and so the boy would bring what it needed with him.
    It took many weeks to travel to the highest mountain and scale its steep sides, and the journey was not made easier by the large amount of soil that the boy carried with him. Eventually, the boy reached the top of the mountain. It was cold and barren, and nothing grew there. But despite all this, the boy set to work. 
    Using rocks he found nearby, the boy built a shelter for the acorn seed, and filled it with the soil that he had brought with him. Then he buried the seed deep in the soil, and watered it with water from a nearby stream. And as he did so he said, “I do this in the name of Death. See this and know that I am faithful.”
    For many weeks, the boy stayed with the acorn. He kept it warm using the magic he had learned. He watered it when its soil grew dry. He sheltered it from the wind when the storms raged. And out of his care and dedication came life: a little green sprout that eventually grew strong enough to stand on its own.
    Several months after the boy had first left on his journey, he returned. He was thin and tired, but despite his weathered body, he wore a smile on his face. His family and neighbors asked where he had been and what he had been doing, but he answered few of their questions. “I have been learning about the world,” he told them. “And now I have returned.”
    The boy had little trouble contacting Death a third time. He did it in the same field as always, and as always, Death said: Why do you wish to speak with me?
    I have completed the first task, replied the boy. I wish to know the second.
    And what have you learned from the first?
    The boy thought for a moment. He had learned that anything can be accomplished if one is ambitious enough. But he was not sure that Death would like that answer. Finally he said: I have learned that anything can be done, if given enough care.
    Death considered the boy’s answer. Very well, it said. The second task is this: you must take life out of mercy. For the giver of Death is not always hateful, and is sometimes kind.
    Whose life must I take? asked the boy. But there was no reply. Once again, Death had left him.
    I suppose I must find someone in great pain, thought the boy. I will kill them, and ease their suffering. And so the boy set out to find someone whose life he could take.
    He traveled for some time, passing from village to village. And everywhere he went, he searched for the sick and the weary. But with every person he met, his doubts increased. How could he know whether someone truly wished for Death? For surely everyone who said that they wanted to die would change their minds when the time came, and the boy feared what might happen if he took the wrong life.
    One day the boy was passing through the forest when he came across a young deer caught in a snare. It was half-dead, its mangled body bloodstained and hollow, and it did little more than look up at him as he approached.
    I have been looking for a person who is suffering, thought the boy. And I have found people’s suffering to be difficult to judge. There is always hope, always another way. And yet if I were to kill this deer, I would feel no hesitation. And so he did so. With one swift movement of his dagger, the life left the animal’s eyes. And once the deed was done, he wiped the blood on his trousers and said, “I do this in the name of Death. See this and know I am faithful.”
    Several days later, he returned home.
    It was his sister who greeted him first. “Where have you been?” she asked. “You have been gone for far too long.”
    “I had important business to attend to,” he replied. “You know that.”
    “I do,” she said. “Only I wish you hadn’t missed my wedding. I was married some weeks ago. I thought perhaps you would be there, on such an important day.”
    “I have no time for weddings, and I am weary from my journey,” he said. “Can you not greet me kindly?” And then he left her without waiting for her to respond, and went to seek out Death.
    Contacting Death took little effort. It arrived with a chill in the air, and once again, it said: Why do you wish to speak with me?
    I have completed the second task, replied the boy. I wish to know the third.
    And what have you learned from the second?
    This time, the boy knew his answer. In truth, he had learned that it is easier to judge animals than to judge people. But he knew that Death would not like that answer, and so he replied: I have learned that all lives have value, even those that seem insignificant.
    Death paused for a moment. Very well, it said. The third and final task is this: you must take the life of the innocent. For Death is not always kind, and is not always easy.
    How can I judge someone’s innocence? asked the boy. But he was met with silence; Death, once again, had left him.
    No one is perfect, the boy found himself thinking. No one is pure. Everyone is cruel in some light. So how can some people be innocent, and others not?
    He pondered this problem for some time, and then the answer struck him, suddenly, like a blow to the chest. Of course. People were not born corrupt. They were corrupted over their lives.
    But could he do it? Killing animals, planting seeds, that was nothing new to him. Murder, true, cold murder; there was no going back from that.
    But that was the point, wasn’t it? He didn’t want to go back. Life was about moving forward, and soon he would have as much life as one could wish for. This was just one last step, one last way to prove his dedication. And then Death would truly be his.
    It could not be avoided.
    No, it could not be avoided.
    The next question was how the task was to be done.

    Some days later, a child’s body was found at the edge of a village. No sign of the cause of his death could be seen. How, they wondered, could such a thing have happened?
    If only they had noticed the larger footprints near the scene. If only they knew of the magic that lingered there, or the words that had been spoken: “I do this in the name of Death. See this and know I am faithful.”
    When the boy returned to the village, he returned much changed. He seemed older, more tired. He was a man now, the villagers realized. The child he had been was gone, and in his place was a person who made them nervous, and so they paid him little attention. They seemed to hope that if they ignored him, he would ignore them. Even his family spoke to him only in quick and distracted sentences.
    “Where is my sister?” he asked them. “She wouldn’t greet me so harshly.”
    “Your sister has moved away,” they replied. “She is living in the next village over. We didn’t expect that you would care.”
    “Did she not leave me a message? A note?”
    “She just said to tell you that you are welcome to visit her, but that she doesn’t expect you to come. She knows there are more important things to you than family.”
    The man was hurt, but he tried not to show it. He left the house without another word, and went to seek out the one person he knew would speak with him.
    As always, Death said: Why do you wish to speak with me? 
    The man found comfort in the familiarity of those words. I have completed the final task, he replied. I am ready to serve you.
    And what have you learned from the final task?
    The boy had learned that killing was far easier than he had expected. But that is not what he told Death.
    I have learned that serving you will not be easy, but that I am ready for the challenge, he said. For this, he expected, was what Death wanted to hear.
    There was a moment of silence, and then Death said: Very well. You have passed the tests, and you shall be my servant.
    And so the man became both herald and agent of Death. But despite giving him the title, Death sent him on no missions, and gave him no orders to carry out. And perhaps the man’s life would have become stagnant, if it were not for the task he still worked towards: gaining Death’s trust, entirely and fully, so that he could trick Death into telling him what he wanted to know. 
    Often, the man would spend his days walking along the river. To most he appeared to be alone. He no longer had his sister, for he never went to visit her, and she never bothered to visit him. And yet he was not alone. He walked along the riverside, and he spoke with Death.
    As time passed, the man’s conversations with Death grew more frequent, and he became more and more distant from everyone else. Soon it seemed that Death was the one person who took him seriously, the one person in which he could confide.
    One afternoon, as they were walking together along the riverside, Death asked: Do you still find life to be beautiful?
    Of course I do! the man replied. What sort of question is that?
    Only you have seemed unhappy of late.
    I have been thinking. Now that I am your servant, my thoughts extend to many great things.
    And the little things?
    What of them?
    Are they not worth your time?
    Does it matter? What do you want from me, anyway? Why do you ask me these questions?
    Because I focus my thoughts on both great things, and the small sufferings of mortals. I care about you.
    It seems you are the only one. Everyone else despises me.
    They do not understand what you do. Few can. 
    I know, said the man. I am sorry that I grew angry. But tell me, do you have a mission for me?
    Not yet. 

    Each conversation ended in this way. Perhaps Death thought that this would make the man frustrated. But the man could tell from the tone of Death’s voice that he was making progress. Death was beginning to trust him, and soon, the man believed, he would get Death to tell him its secrets. Just a little more time, and he would be ready.
    It was some weeks later that the man finally brought up what he had been waiting to discuss.
    I have heard rumors, the man said. There are people who speak of cheating you, of living forever. 
    That is true.
    I wish to end their foolish notions. Surely such a thing is impossible!
    Death said nothing.
    It is impossible, is it not? said the man.
    There was a pause. Finally, Death said, It is not impossible. Not impossible, yet few would dare attempt it.
    Why is that?
    And then Death told him the terrible truth that he had waited so long to hear. And the man listened, cherishing each hideous word.
    Now you understand, said Death.
    I do, said the man. Thank you, Death. Thank you. And then he left, and though it pained him, he never spoke to Death again.
    The sun sank behind the hills as he began his walk. Soon it was dark, and his way was guided by the light of the moon. Hours passed as he traveled on and on, and eventually he reached the village, a small collection of homes that looked much like his own.
    Finally, as the night was beginning to grow old, he reached the door. And yet he hesitated. His skin prickled. He felt as if the night was watching.
    Before he could make up his mind, before he could walk away, the door opened. His sister stood in the doorway, her surprised face bathed in moonlight.
    “What are you doing here, brother?” she said. 
    “Will you walk with me?” he asked. “I feel… I need someone to talk to. Everything has become such a burden.”
    “Of course,” she said, coming out and closing the door behind her. Together they walked in silence away from the village, towards the paling sky in the east.
    After a time, the man said, “I am sorry that I was not there for your wedding, or when you moved away.”
    “You were busy working on this quest of yours, I suppose?”
    “I was.”
    “But it has grown to be a burden, has it not? I can see it.”
    “A burden? My goals are not a burden. It is the fact that I have not yet achieved them that weighs heavy.”
    “But you have been so distant,” she said. “You have no time for family, no time for friends. No time for laughter, or music, or the beauty of the changing seasons.”
    “Of course I don’t! They are insignificant and trivial, compared to what I will accomplish.”
    She stopped walking, turning to look at him, and her gaze seemed to search for some hint of doubt in him. “What has happened to you, brother?” she said, her voice full of sadness. “You are lost to the world. You hardly sleep, you hardly eat. Where is your laugh? Where is the boy who walked with me by the riverside, the boy who loved life?”
    “I am not lost,” he said, growing angry. “I am found. I have seen more of life than you could ever dream, and I love it more than any other soul. It is precious to me! It is beautiful! Do you not see that, sister? Or do you mock my endeavors?”
    “I only wish that you would be careful,” she replied. “Death is not one to be-”
    “Do not speak to me of Death! You do not know Death. How can you be satisfied? How can you live with yourself, with your short and inconsequential life?”
    “Better a short life of happiness than an eternity of pain.”
    “You don’t believe that. You say it because you know you can never have eternity.”
    “I say it because it is true.”
    “You will see how wrong you are, once I am immortal.”
    “And will I be there with you, brother? Will you share this eternity with me?” She was crying now, tears streaming silently down her face, and he could feel his own eyes welling up.
    “Of course,” he said, softly, letting his anger leave him. He held his arms out to her. “We will go together. We will see the wonders of the world. There is just one last thing I must do, and then it will all be over.”
    She hesitated for a moment, and then accepted his embrace. Perhaps, she thought, she could forgive him. Perhaps this was an apology, and things could go back to the way they were. Not until it was too late did she realize that things would never be the same.
    He held her for a long time, held her tight. Held her until her last breath had slipped away, and she fell limp in his arms. Then he laid her body down with shaking hands, as gently and lovingly as he could, and looked up at the sky. And though he knew it was not true, though he knew that his sister was not the only one he would betray that night, he still spoke the words, for he had grown so used to them that he could not help himself. “I do this in the name of Death. See this and know that I am faithful.” And then he pulled the knife out of his sister’s back, reached deep into the web of magic that he knew so well, and ripped his body, mind, and soul apart.
    Time passes differently when you don’t die. It is only natural, and yet the consequences can be painful. Days, months, years, they mean nothing to the immortal, and it was only because of the bodies he wore that the man noticed the passage of time at all. There were many, and they each eventually grew old and useless. He remembers none of them clearly, none except for his sister’s, for that he can never forget.
    That first day of eternity, that day of reckoning, it was many cold, grey ages ago, time that blends together into one long stretch of nothing. Everyone the boy knew has long since passed away and been claimed by Death, but not him, for he lives at the expense of others. Their bodies he wears like clothes, their minds, their thoughts, their consciences he consumes until they are him and he is them. But he rips out their souls and scatters them across the world, for he cannot make them his. He thought he would be rid of them, and yet they have stayed. They are the cries heard on the bitter wind, the screams that come with every storm, and so he walks on, a pilgrim on a never ending road, trying to outrun their vengeful voices.
    Sometimes he crosses travelers on that road, and when he does, he often finds his hunger to be greater than the cries that hunt him. And so he lures them in, the lonely, the lost. They come to his fireside, eager for companionship. Perhaps, he thinks, one of them will truly see him. Perhaps one of them will understand. And when they don’t, and he takes them, one by one, and makes them his own.
    He could stop at any moment, oh, he could stop, but he is afraid of Death, and so he continues, ever on, ever on. For Death, he fears, is watching him, waiting for him, waiting to torture him for his years of stolen life. And why should he stop? It is beautiful, life, beautiful and precious, every piece of it irresistible. Why should he give it up? Wouldn’t you continue, if you could?
    Yet sometimes, deep in his darkest hours, he wonders whether Death has not already punished him, for then he feels that he has lost his soul. He feels that Death has already taken it, and he is simply a wandering empty shell. Perhaps it was not he who tricked Death, but Death who tricked him.
    But enough of this. There is no more story to tell, and this body grows tired. Come closer. Come to the fire, to the warmth. Why do you shy away? I promise, soon you will understand what I have told you. You need not fear Death, for you have me. There is so much you haven’t seen.
    Oh yes, you will understand.
        
About the Author: QueenofDawn
"I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say." -Flannery O'Connor
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