1. Koyashi Kumiko
Every schoolchild knows this story.
Of how Koyashi Kumiko set out from home one fall morning on her daily run and was thinking about hardly anything at all. About her two children and whether it was worthwhile to insist that her daughter continue with the violin when it was such a stereotypically Japanese thing to do. Maybe the French horn, or no instrument of any kind. It didn’t have to be done: she didn’t have to be musical: there was a choice.
And afterward Dr. Koyashi could never say just what the point of departure was, only that somewhere in between the rhythm of her footfalls and the patterns of her heart and lungs, she began to think again on questions that were themselves the outline of her research career. They came to her as they always did, but this time they formed slightly differently and led her down a different path. Literally, as a matter of fact; she was a literal woman, and unimaginative, and she kept running as she followed her thoughts, watching only the blacktop just in front of her. The path her feet followed turned from blacktop to gravel, and then the gravel trailed away. Afraid to stop, or turn around, she ran across a field toward the sound of cars but was unable to reach them—still thinking, still only thinking. Running, only running, she ran until the dark came down around her, lost.
The man in the cabin on the hill could have been any kind of a man, could have been an unblinking monster; perhaps he should have been. Then Koyashi would simply have seemed to vanish. But the man in the cabin had a soft straw-colored beard going white on the chin, and he listened to her try to speak out of a mind that had been plumbing the depths all the livelong day. She got out her name while he coaxed, one diplomatic hand on her arm. She got out her husband’s name. Then her children’s names, then where she lived, and, at last, a phone number, which he called, summoning her worried husband to come.
Her husband came, and before she gave him a word of his own, she demanded pen and paper, so that nothing from her racing mind might be lost.
For some time, science, and parts of the general public, had known that aging, and even death, were printed into the genetic code: the body tells itself to fail and to die. Many knew, too, that outside this programmed decline, there was what might be called a hard limit, past which the capacity to renew cells and prevent general decline failed of its own accord, the living matter simply exhausted, like a juiced orange. This hard limit, a holy grail for researchers, was estimated to be at about five thousand years.
It was this that Koyashi had written down before she explained to her husband and daughters why she was sweat-soaked and cut on the legs by briars and had to be retrieved from a stranger’s cabin—fifteen miles away as the crow flies. Yet she had missed nothing and was in no place mistaken. In continuous elegance and in every varied implication all of it spooled out, every number and symbol, line and letter.
If Koyashi’s genetic therapy had been a shade less brilliant or complete, if all that were living had still been born to die, then things might have been all right. The generations already upon the earth would have had to accept that they must go quietly and leave the world—and births would now have to be regulated, that went without saying—to the small perpetual generation to be born, the truly chosen.
But Koyashi was inarguably a genius and her therapy was retroactive and desperately cheap and impossible to keep secret. The result was a free-for-all in some absolute sense of the term. There was no possibility of coherent governmental response, and on the matter of death almost no individual is reasonable. The pope himself took the therapy, provided (and published, in Latin) tortuous reasoning of how this was actually a very Catholic thing to do, and blessed those who did in a widely ridiculed open-air mass at St. Peter’s. The choked crowd between Bernini’s arms, served only as an illustration of what was to come. The number of ethical suicides, even of simple refusals, was negligible.
Almost overnight things became very bad; Malthusians everywhere were vindicated. Cincinnati was like Tokyo, Tokyo was like Calcutta, and Calcutta was like hell. When the first plagues broke out it was almost a relief, like opening a window on a summer’s day.
But that feeling quickly passed. Desperate to preserve some measure of order, the decimated ministers of shambling governments announced a vast plan to preserve the dead for some future time when further secrets of life had heroically been unfolded and the viral menace was, at last, quenched. Pursuit of happiness, long thought possible inside of a century, was now a natural right of fifty hundreds, less which every citizen began to howl. They had not yet tasted their new freedom but demanded its preservation.
An unrelated new technology made this feasible. This was a chemical freeze, rendering tissue rock-hard. In low temperatures the state would be almost perpetual. An innovation of the food industry, aimed at rendering refrigeration obsolete, the process had been stymied in development by one unmarketable side effect: the process left frozen matter, chicken or human, tiger-striped with blue. Not a faint freezer-burn blue, but alternations of lapis lazuli and cerulean. But this was not a time to quibble.
Great stone cairns were erected above the Arctic and below the Antarctic circles. There were two south and three north to which there was a frantic but steady exodus by huge container ships crammed with the newly frozen dead. The few who were proving to be immune to every tiny monster worked these vessels and stocked the cairns in a fever-dream of forced labor. The cairns had been sold to all the publics of the world in an admired public-service campaign featuring a pleasant middle-aged model in a Nehru jacket who depicted the cairns as pleasant rooms bathed in white light in which each blue body would lie, almost in state, on its own glowing plinth. The reality of course was far removed from this or anything anyone would care to dream. Stacked like cordwood in massive piles arranged between stone uprights, the dead in the cairns evoked all the nameless horror of the century past. Each body had a kind of loose clear plastic bag, until these ran out and the bodies were stacked stark-naked. The piles were rigged in place with durable netting, until this ran out and they were stacked as best as they could be. The discovery of how much weight the bodies below could bear from the bodies above before bursting like china was one of trial and error. No one really knew or could guess what percentage of the world made it safely into storage: more than one ship was lost en route; more than one container fell from cranes.
Of course I was there—how else could I be speaking? On the ships and in the cairns and in the slow peculiar world we made afterward. Telling you what it was like for me would be telling you nothing. What it was like for me is what it was like for everyone: for some time I had the individual blasted out of me. But that came back. Quick enough.
I don’t want to belabor you with details or long causal chains. This happened, that happened, it all came undone, in spite of very well reasoned arguments why it wouldn’t, or how, if it did, it would only go so far. It turned out that our finest minds had only a pinball conception of the world and its vicissitudes, while the world had something else in mind entirely. Mind, mind. Even now I can’t help but speak of it except as a plot, a murder, repeated several billion times over. Although I could think of no motive to go along with it as it unfolded and I repeatedly did not die, as I have become more and more used to doing without the balance of humanity, I feel that for the most part—however things stood originally—the motive, well, the motives for these murders have become my own. If you stand to benefit, you’re guilty, was how things used to go in France, and while I find that idea limiting, I cannot dispute its essential accuracy.
When the last body of the last dead was in the cairn and the door was shut, the exhausted survivors made their way back to form little enclaves all over the suddenly vast earth. The feeling was so layered as to be impossible to communicate to those who were not there. Most remember it as joy.
2. Me, Going Out
Just as every schoolchild knows what preceded these lines, much of what follows is known to comparatively few, and some of it only to me. Now that it seems certain that part of what was lost will soon be walking and talking among us, I feel that I should at least try to set down an account of certain events, while I can still claim to be disinterested.
Some time before, I had been a figure of note. Not much note, but of a particular sort, so that now there were people who held up my very old work and said, Look! He agrees with us. My main writings were impressions of the cairns, oral histories of the men and women who had stocked them, research into where various groups had been shelved. Croatia? Antarctic I or Antarctic II? Rows 70 to 80 or 170 to 180? The initial records were ambiguous, but we were sure. This massive task gave me, for a time, a kind of elder-statesman role that I had played up—such was certainly my literary persona—until, in the natural passage of time, people ceased to be interested in anything I had to say. This, not long after, was fine with me.
I had written sensitively, but was careful never to suggest that we who survived should press for immediate resurrection. This wasn’t the resolution that I had written toward hadn’t written toward, but now that was precisely what my essays, books of photographs, introductions, and speeches were being used to promote. The author whose name was mine, who had written all those words, with whom I felt no affinity, was fast becoming a major figure in the movement to begin the redemption of the last dead.
It wasn’t an entirely unfair association. Keep it to yourself, but I had been deeply sympathetic to the cause—though at the time mine was an easy loyalty as that cause scarcely existed—but I had never declared myself, and despite the many callers and gently pressuring well-wishers on the street or the sporadic letters I received via our sporadic post, I was not about to resurrect my career to bring it to its logical conclusion. The dead are better dead (as Orson Welles used to say, before my last film projector broke beyond power of recall), but to say so outright was anathema; so, the advocates spoke and the rest of us spoke back, trying not to just say that they should leave well enough alone. Because much of what was said against me was underpinned by my words, I often felt as though I were arguing with myself. Old friends, whom I insisted I agreed with, began to look at me suspiciously and to quiet their conversations when I entered the room. Several wives left me. And whole years passed where the post contained only letters from zealous strangers who thought I shared their beliefs. Why not say it? I had no friends, because my old self appeared under a byline in resurrectionist broadsheets turned out on old printing presses and in leaflets stuffed into your pocket while you were just going to pick some tomatoes. I wished hourly that copyright law had survived into the present day.
One man, Michael, wished to see me most of all. He was their major figure, a brilliant mind and natural leader but not yet a martyr. Although Michael claimed otherwise, there were rumors that he could already make those blue-striped bodies breathe and walk. He felt sure that, with concerted effort, we could do it: bring nearly all of them back. He was looking to change a few more minds and then set to it. A real can-do type, they said, none of the vagueness that plagued the rest of us; wouldn’t take noes for answers, that sort of thing. And it was this man, Michael, I most wished to avoid.
So I headed out into the great wilderness, after several hundred years still in the process of reclaiming itself. We call this, rather simply, going out, and it is regarded by most as a sign of being a little off.
On the other hand, there is a whole school of thought that says you have never really lived this new life until you are standing in some jungle or forest at night and feel the eyes on you. One of the most unexpected side effects of our peculiar state is that no vertebrate, certainly no higher mammal, will come near us in anger. They are wary but not fearful, and I myself will admit that to bury your hand in the fur and folds of a tiger’s neck while it stares at you with an expression hard to define, is a very good thing indeed.
No one knows why. We don’t smell anymore, some say, but this makes little sense. The pause in their step simply happens—they want nothing to do with us, certainly none of our strange blood dripping from their mouths. So, too, do herds of buffalo, reindeer, and kudu part round you on the plains. This is very thrilling.
But there are other dangers. Rocks to fall on you or to fall from. Temperatures. There is no reason not to drown.
For example, one of the first rules of going out is never, ever, however certain you might be that it’s safe, do you enter even the smallest or sturdiest-looking structure. I’ve seen men rest their hands on houses and watch them collapse as though they were made of cards. At this point there isn’t much that’s man-made that time hasn’t reclaimed, but those that are left are deadly piñatas. The absurd phrases the world drags screaming into being.
Sometimes you’ll come on a little village or house out there and its still standing, ruined of course—but for all that, you feel you’re walking in a dream. Like Marie Antoinette’s peasant village at Versailles or Disney World.
The greatest highways are now faint discolorations, appendectomy scars in old age, and it’s easy to overlook them. Sometimes plantings give the game away, a whole tangled mass of trees or bushes or bulbs that would never occur naturally, cancerous gardens bulging out of their layouts in the most patient mockery.
3. Davos, the Aklavik Cairn
On my way out, up the Pacific coast, I stayed a few nights with Davos, my sometime co-author, whose little farm and home were models of domesticity. I knew him from the cairns. We had seen each other through the most desperate straits and had held each other’s face away from the freezing ground when one or the other had collapsed. He had filled out; you had to look for the man you had seen spit blood.
Above Davos’s hearth hung an oil painting of exceptional beauty. A bright-faced young woman in a loose linen nightgown is beginning to bathe. Her calves are planted in reflective waters; she looks down at them, and holds the hem of her nightgown gathered—almost above her thighs. The painter’s emphasis on the index finger guiding the hem is more like life than life. The dark beneath the cloth is suggestive and loving under the lacquer and wash; her expression makes her just the sort of girl you would want to meet—or to have met. I tapped the surface of the paint near her head and turned to my friend, who stood slicing radishes.
“Is this the same Rembrandt you had last time I was here?”
“No. I lost that one playing bridge.”
“Where’d you get this one?”
“Won it playing pinochle?”
“Is that a joke?”
“Would you like it to be?”
“Not much is very funny. Or I wouldn’t be going out.”
“You shouldn’t go out. Stay and have it out with them, clear your name of any altruistic association.”
“I can’t seem to. Although I try. I was a better persuader before, apparently, though I don’t see it.
“You were more eloquent before you turned bastard.”
“I’d like to convince them that I’m not their man. Or hide until they’ve forgotten about me.”
“Maybe. They don’t say he’s a reasonable man, but he can be stopped, same as anyone.”
“I don’t want anything to do with him.”
Davos fiddled with radish rounds, then said, “But are you sure he’s wrong?”
“You’re not with him, are you? Please tell me that.”
He shrugged. “If you mean, do I want them all back, everywhere, probably still shining blue? No. But neither am I sure that we can go on like this and remain recognizable to ourselves.”
“Are you saying you feel a change?”
“Not exactly a change, but I’ll tell you something that happened to me. About a year ago, a calf strayed. I put down extra fodder for the animals, took a bundle, and set out after it. I didn’t find the trail, but in not finding it I stumbled upon a place nearby that I had somehow missed, not ten miles from here. I was shocked. By now I thought I knew the position of every fallen tree.
“It was a camp, I think, once. Rough, simple buildings, a watchtower that had fallen down. Rust stains on the forest floor that had been automobiles. But two or three structures still stood. Obviously I didn’t go into them, but there was an old aluminum water tank on a stone foundation. The top was off. I walked up next to it and touched the skin of the metal. It felt like paper.”
Davos sat forward in his chair. “I climbed onto the tank’s stone base and lifted my foot. Just barely kicked the tank with the side of my boot. Just a tap, but where it struck a jet of water shot out—ten feet, before falling off. I walked around some more and was about to continue on and look for my calf, but I saw that the stream was still going strong—ten feet straight out, then falling off. When I stood by it, the stream was at eye level.”
My friend continued, apparently embarrassed. “I kept watching this stream. For three days, even at night when I could mostly just hear that it was still there. I didn’t want to touch it for some reason. At dawn on the third day it slackened, from a straight line at ten feet to a weak diagonal at three. By midday it was a burble on the side of the tank, and in the afternoon it—became a little, writhing . . . nub. A nipple. Then it stopped, and was just a wet place on the side of the tank.
“I walked home, got back at dawn. The calf had returned and was wandering about in the yard. The other animals were desperate from no food, no water. My milk cows were bellowing from the pain of their full udders. I couldn’t bear to listen to them, and fell to milking although I was dead on my feet.”
He stopped, took a bite, and chewed and thought.
“Okay. Okay, I give up. What are you trying to say?”
“Sorry. Just that . . . it’s more of a struggle all the time. We think there is no difference but the difference widens all the time. Like crawling from the back of a cave to be able to say hello . . .”
“We assume they’re the same. But I can’t tell the difference between what is interesting, and what interests only me. That’s beginning to be frightening.”
The next day I helped him clear a field that he had once cleared himself but that had now lain fallow for some dozen years. After dinner, Davos set us up by the fire. He had brought in some of the sickly yellow tobacco he was able to grow in the thin soil, that only he could smoke.
“What if we smoked the tea rather than this tobacco?”
“And make the tobacco into tea?”
“It would be a change.”
He grinned at me from behind his pipe, through the smoke.
“You do need to go out. Pet a panther or something.”
He threw the rest of his tea on the fire.
“Going to see to a few things. Rest awhile. Be warm for a while.”
I fell asleep in my chair.
When I awoke Davos was sitting across from me and had a lamb draped across the shelf of his belly. The little creature seemed to be sleeping, only its lips worked at the bottle my friend supported in the warmth of the firelight. I watched them awhile and then Davos looked at me and withdrew the bottle. The lamb’s eyes darted half open and its lips puckered, but then the eyelids dropped closed to sleep. Davos began to speak low to me, and I thought the rumble of his voice must have thrummed through the heart of the lamb without disturbance, as if, measure by measure, the man’s speech and the lamb’s breath could be part of the same simple evening.
“His mother shuns him. I can’t say why.”
“He seems to be in good hands.”
Davos considered the lamb. “If Michael wrote to me, I know that he wrote to you.”
“He did,” I told him. “I haven’t answered. I’ll try to leave.”
“That won’t work.”
Davos stretched his long arm toward the fire and stirred it while barely shifting in his seat. He looked back at me, glad to be himself and not me.
“He came here. He wanted me, but not like he wants you. I told him no, and that was that. Then we mostly talked about you. He can quote you—chapter and verse.”
“You know, I could never tell your style from mine.”
“Well, I can. He could.” Davos smiled. But if it was a kind smile the kindness was for the lamb, the garden, the worn wood of his table and the consecrated earth he had claimed, not for me; and I knew that I could not stay.
“What is the difference, then?”
“Yours was more . . . sympathetic.”
* * * *
I thought about this on my first night alone, eating from an ancient can of beans. There were no copies of my work in the house that I had boarded up and left. I hadn’t read any of it in years. There was something to what Davos said, of course, but the new furrows in my mind had their own legitimacy, surely? I didn’t want to defer to my old self. I liked the world empty.
With Davos, I had worked the two southern cairns. They were where I had wished to die but hadn’t. Later, while writing, I had visited Arkhangelsk, the western Russian cairn, just below the Arctic Circle, built on the ruins of the gulag of the same name. I had also been to Stavrogin, on the Laptev. But I had never been here, to the Aklavik Cairn on Mackenzie Bay, and I had never seen the foolish words cut into the stone above the entrance.
requiring all virtues, we suffer many vices.
Big block letters, each as tall as me. The doors were jammed open with ice. When I went in, the first few rows were neat and orderly.
If you have never seen a cairn, they are impossibly large. Would make an airplane hangar seem an outhouse. They go on, gallery after gallery, and change only in detail. And detail is what you must not notice. Eyes front, they say, in a cairn. Don’t look, you’ll stop; worse, you might recognize. If you must go, go quickly. Davos and I, of course, had disobeyed all these strictures. But I didn’t now. I noticed the big problems, the many death knells for this cairn. Inferior stone, I could see, was causing some walls to show curvature—ice was creeping in and splitting a block here, a block there. The roof was gone in places, and many piles had fallen, some because the netting had failed, others because there had been no netting. When, on some unrecorded afternoon, the shift in a pile had passed some invisible point, the blue bodies would have gone over as one, and the top three or four would have been hurled through the chamber to land on their frozen heads. With predictable results. I stepped over the detritus, circled back through a few other galleries, walked here and there, marveling at what I saw.
Mistakes were made, is what it should have said above the door.
4. Fires and the Ferryman, A Conversation
It was after I turned west, heading for the strait, that I saw the first fire. I thought that it was some trick of the eye or that I was already funny in the head and shouldn’t be going out at all. But the longer I stared at it, sitting by my own fire in the wilderness, the more certain I was that—as alone as I should have been—someone was out here with me. Moreover, I was certain that I was meant to see it. The point of being out is to be alone, and yet this was an invitation for an invitation. I was having none of it. I faced west and tried not to look behind me.
The ferryman was sleeping in a lean-to, one that faced inland, away from the wind off the water. I had thought the place was deserted; the cabin was foul and bare. There was frost in his beard and snow on his cracked boots and a little orchestra playing. Of grumbles, grunts and syllables, noises from his breathing—the music being stepped on by the words. The music of breathing. An old song played a new way. I leaned close to hear what he might be saying:
I wan . . . wa. I want, wanna. I want. I want.
Like learning the words to an old familiar tune.
When I put my boot on his chest, his eyes jumped open.
“What do you want?” he fairly screeched.
“Are you the ferryman?”
“There you go.”
He sat up and shook his head.
“Can’t take you.”
“And why is that?”
“Uchida run off. My helper run off. Too much ice. Someone has to pole it away, someone has to row. Takes two. Can’t go. Can’t go.”
“I’ll pole the ice away.”
He began to shriek. “Oh! Well enough, well enough. But how am I to get back? Answer me that. All alike. They think of themselves.”
“The last time I was here there was a cabin on both sides. You’ve lived on this side for a while. Make a change. Try the Russian side. Of course I really don’t care, but we’re going across the strait.”
He looked appalled. He never formally acquiesced but simply began to gather his things. It took us about an hour to break the ice from the boat, and once we had it in the water, there was a goodly flowing leak to staunch. The ferryman cursed Uchida loudly, the ice, the strait, calling the names Alaska and Russia both. Then cursed the rest of the world, and me for good measure.
When we got the boat to rights, the ferryman went to a shed and came back with two brittle-looking oars and a long metal pole, flecked along its length with concrete; it looked like a section of rebar. I reached for it and he pulled away.
“No! You row. I know the ice.”
“What do they call you?”
But he withheld his name. Had played his hand with me and was standing pat. We considered each other again. He was blue already, a blue cast under his skin—what had brought him here to this misery? Ferrymen were sent to their posts, compelled to remain there for crimes committed since the dead had been shut away.
“Look,” I began again. “What are you up here for?”
He thought about it, about saying it, and what that might mean.
“What did you do?”
“I hit a man.”
“With your fist?”
“With an ax handle.”
I smiled and took the rebar from him.
“Just the handle. Just the handle.”
“And where is Uchida?”
“Oh no. If no one has seen him. If he fell in mountains or drowned in water—not my fault. Nothing to do with me.”
We just stood there awhile and then he turned suddenly, climbed into the boat and dropped the oars into the oarlocks. I stepped lightly into the bow.
The crossing was easy enough. The ferryman rowed poorly because he didn’t trust me with the ice and was always breaking stroke to turn and check. If he thought I hadn’t stood soon enough to ward off a particular berg, he gave up rowing entirely and cried, Keep away! Keep away! He tried to turn back and I almost capsized the boat persuading him not to. The ice circled us with intent indifference and when he calmed down there were only the little water noises of his uneven strokes and a small, grinding crunch each time I planted the end of the rebar into ice.
On the other side, he forgot I existed. He dragged the boat up without even waiting for me to clamber out. The wetness on the hull crystallized as soon as the air reached it. He kicked open the door to the cabin and disappeared. As I began to climb the ridge, I could hear him speaking to no one, appealing and complaining.
From the top of the ridge, I could see that he had, despite the risk, started back. His hysteric progress was marked by zigs and zags and backtracking. He flailed at the ice with the rebar and the occasional curse floated up to me through the empty air. It was a shame. I had hoped that my pursuer would have had at least that small delay.
The fires continued. There was practically no respite at all. Whatever means my pursuer used to convince the ferryman to risk the strait again, they must have crossed no more than a day or two behind. At the beginning of the pursuit, I felt that it was a real race, that I might outdistance this phantom. Now I believed that regardless of what I did, whatever pace I kept, he would stay there behind me, close enough so that I would see a fire every third or fourth night. Sometimes the barest dot against the horizon during the day, or a fixed place in the flowing grass, this as I moved down onto the steppes. The most I could do was ignore him.
Several weeks into our pursuit, when I woke one gray morning, there was a card pinned to my satchel. This was unequaled cheek. On the card, in a strong, bold hand:
In these halls is human potential beyond measure. We must never forget this resource or pretend that we have replaced or superseded the implicit promise contained herein. But numbers alone are nothing, for each of these, in these halls, waiting, is unto themselves a key . . .
It went on like this. The words were familiar, and sure enough, at the bottom he had written, That’s you. Who you are. You wrote that.
I took out a pencil and turned over the card to write:
“We know no time when we were not as now.” That’s Milton. Now leave me alone.
I left it behind for him, under a stone by the remains of the fire. Whether he appreciated it I’ve never known—almost certainly not, for the fires continued in the dark each night, and also, every so often, a card with more of my words, in his hand. He began signing his name, Michael, just as I’d suspected, known, and feared. The days with Davos, the side trip to Aklavik, without them I might have lost him and waited out his interest. Reappeared when it abated, as I was still certain it would. But now it seemed I would have to face him and get him to see that I wasn’t the man for the job, maybe even that he was wrong.
So one night when he walked out of the dark and sat down at the fire, I pretended not to notice, finished my meal, waited awhile, and then spoke.
“You’re a rude one.”
He grinned at me. Relentlessly familiar, he spoke as though our many weeks’ pursuit amounted to a warm acquaintance.
“Believe me, I also find this unpleasant, but I didn’t have time to wait for a mutual friend to happen by and introduce us.”
“You don’t have time?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Let’s not speak in a manner of speaking. Let’s not speak at all.”
“All right,” he allowed, “let’s be quick. Frank with one another. They don’t have time.”
“I don’t want to talk about this with you.”
“You’ve seen the cairns—they’re failing. In a hundred more years there won’t be anyone left to resurrect. The chemical freeze is only proof against so much. Everyone you know is in those walls and soon there won’t be walls.”
“Everyone I knew is.”
“Everyone you knew.”
I suppose we both understood that it was a pitiful thing to say. Michael proceeded to tell me about his way—their way—forward. As though I’d agreed, or would soon. He had grand plans for Australia, largely given up by the rest of us because of the deadly spiders and the dangers of ocean travel. Michael meant it to be the place where the blue women and men could live safely away from us, isolated from any new outbreaks. As he spoke to me, Michael was grandly familiar, like some Old Testament patriarch.
But he was an excited little boy when he explained how they had built their wooden ships.
“We learned how to do it from Thor Heyerdahl. Loads of copies of Kon-Tiki still lying around. Sure, sometimes we lose people, but it’s worth it—safety of one kind can mean danger of another.”
We watched the fire. We could hear a herd out in the darkness, probably reindeer. They would avoid us as much as the fire. I stirred the coals and rested my chin on my chest and listened to their hooves striking the steppe.
“That reminds me of . . . you’ll like it. Back then, back when. Many miles west of here, many years ago, when Stalin took power: he pretty much eradicated all that first generation of revolutionaries, anybody he could find. People who had survived all the Red Cavalry adventures fighting the Whites in Poland were sure to die by Stalin’s hand.”
He watched me with a curious stare.
“So that, later, when the Germans began to blitzkrieg toward Moscow, there were no Russians left who had ever fought behind enemy lines, who knew anything about partisan tactics. So the Soviets, who had translated, printed, and bound copies of For Whom the Bell Tolls before banning it, wound up handing out Hemingway as training manuals.”
He smiled and laughed politely.
“Isn’t that something?”
“I didn’t know that.”
He took a brand from the blaze and stirred the fire before speaking again. But now he was neither patriarch nor boy, but righteousness itself, leaning across this spot of light, that the herd was coursing round. He waited for the herd to pass us in the dark, the hoofbeats becoming, just as the shapes had, indistinct: it was one many-hoofed creature. Michael continued in his new prosecutorial tone. “A true little fact—you have lots of them, I’ll bet, locked inside your little brain, shards of a world that was, bound in you in ice. Remind you of anything?”
“Be quiet. Go away.”
“You want to tell me anything about Chinese painting? About the War of the Spanish Succession?”
“Isn’t this about you trying to convert me? Isn’t this about you trying to get me on your side?
“Did you think it would all be flattery?”
“You came to me because of my work, my writing, because of what I could still write.”
“You’re still a powerful voice, even if you’ve joined those who roam these wastes.”
I stood up, waved my hands like a crazy person. “Wastes? Have you seen Lake Baikal? It’s as clear as it was before man ever saw it. I took a skiff out into the middle and was struck with vertigo from the height the water held me above a bottom I could still see. Have you seen the forests? In five hundred years there’ll be as much old-growth forest as there ever was.”
“Wonderful. We’ll have big trees.”
“An old-growth forest is an entire system, an equilibrium, something that did not exist when this all began. Don’t you want to see it?”
“You have a lean look to you, you know. Speaking of what’s impolite, have you noticed how we never speak of the webs we were plucked out of?
“All of us, we had families, friends, enemies, colleagues. Almost all gone. I don’t know more than five people still here that I knew before. One a man I met at a conference and spoke to for ten minutes about my room at the hotel—pointless conversation that seems fundamental now. I’ll bet it’s the same with you. Has to be. Who is it you wish for? Funny thing, thanks to Koyashi, without the aging, memory doesn’t really fade. I remember my father as though I saw him yesterday. Not as a figure of speech. A literal fact. Antarctic I, Hall 77, row 294, midway up the first pile. That’s where he should be. Your research. Who is it for you? Mother, daughter, lover, son? Uncle, even. Infinite world. Infinite variety.”
“Don’t misuse that word. You’ve walked the world round; did it seem infinite to you?”
“No. Just big.”
I didn’t say anything. Kicked the ground. Kicked dirt at him and into the fire.
“We made a promise!” he declared, as though he were speaking to all the world.
“Who are you talking to?” I shouted back, pointing at the dark behind me. “There’s no one there.”
“But there will be,” he said. “Life springs eternal.”
“Life? Hope. Hope, you maggot. Hope springs eternal. Get it right. Hope is a figment. Life requires physical things. Blood, air, water, tissue, bone, time.”
“Time is a physical thing?”
“Have you been paying attention these last years? How is it with you?”
It was the first time I’d managed to make him stop smiling. “That worries me. I feel it. The weight. What if the body goes on, a terrible system, a tyranny, while more and more of you and me leech away? Your bravery is gone. What if mine goes? What if all the miserly measure of basic decency that’s left goes?”
“You think I’m a coward?” I said, more put out by the insult than I thought I’d be.
“I’m still not sure. I want to give you every chance.”
To that I said nothing. So we sat in silence. He stood up, dusted himself off, walked into the night.
“Quit following me,” I called after him.
The fires continued. Never as close as they had been, but they were always there—not every night, but never so long between that I could persuade myself he might be gone. Great grasslands gave way to broken, mountainous ground before me and it would have meant very much to be alone. China was hard by, and empty. The Yellow River flowed untroubled to the sea.
5. Troubled. Ten Days, Six Weeks
When everything began, new terms abounded. For example, the original meaning of the phrase the last dead was very different. It meant people who had died just before Koyashi set out on her run or before her therapy became available. People who were irretrievably lost, a tragic term. Then there were the next dead. Those who died in the plagues. Also known variously as the temporary dead and the new dead.
The survivors lost to accident as things began to settle in, who did foolish things, who insisted on needless risk and died for it, were called, when spoken of with any respect at all, the learning dead. I could go on, but see no reason to.
Over time, the terms themselves collapsed into the one phrase, the first phrase. I admit I contributed to this myself. Everything became a massive elegy. Every word, nostalgia. The air itself seemed choked with spirits. The last dead came to mean much more than a few billion frozen friends, it was a phrase that was code for . . . something else. Something gone missing down the paths in our own minds.
The last dead were missed. The last dead were the best of us; we were the worst. The last dead were wonderful. Warm, witty, and wise.
And I could not bear it, or them.
* * * *
For ten days we had been traveling, never more than two or three miles between us, through a series of small valleys with low mountain rivers and high mountain walls. They were among the most beautiful—my favorite—the most beautiful places on earth. When I reached the extreme limit of a valley, I’d stop and turn around. Michael was usually partway down the far slope. But sometimes he would be entering the valley I was just leaving, and we would stare at each other, almost level, with three miles of mountain air between us hung with white canopies of mist. Below them, below us, broad-winged raptors hung in the air, riding thermals. How strange to look down on the earth and a bird’s back!
Sometimes, in those pauses, Michael would raise his arm. I never responded. But on the tenth day, I stood and stared longer, and then, just as he took a step down into the valley between us, I raised my hand to him, and held it there. He stopped, I could see, in midstride, and after a hesitation of but an instant, he raised his hand and waved. I think he shouted, but I could not hear. He began to hurry down the slope. Then I turned and passed through the break in the mountain’s continuous wall.
* * * *
After that it was a simple matter to step out, when he passed my hiding place, and strike him across the back of the neck with a stone the size of a good rye bread, strike him just where the spine goes to ground in the skull. He staggered but could not turn and did not fall. So I stepped toward him and struck again, truer this time, and harder. Then he did fall, and I turned him over and watched his face while he finished.
I could not count on any easy help from wilds around me, as only the smallest invertebrates did not shy away from man-flesh. Murder, as you might imagine, was very much frowned upon. Although I had heard murmurs of those who wanted to take the matter of the resurrectionists into their own hands, I could not count on absolution. When you plan to live for several thousand years, cases like these never close. People who know people who disappear out in the wilderness or the wastes always keep an eye out, and some are far more persistent. I imagined there were people who had liked Michael very much indeed, probably a group of schoolchildren who believed him to be a kind of prophet—and surely his step had been as certain as Moses’ when he walked past me. He had never doubted but that the world would spare him for his great work.
Those schoolchildren worried me. They would grow up and would come to me and ask me again and again where I had seen him last, and I would tell them that Michael could not convince me and had gone away and left me alone. They would find the remains of our campfire and would circle through these mountains, leaving no stone unturned. I had to be thorough.
I sank my hands into anthills and brought them up to the flat stone on which he lay. I grew used to their bites, to my hands swelling and aching. I grew used to the sights and smells as the days went on. I risked a great deal and trekked down to the forest floors and found beetles and carried cupped handfuls to the stone. I shepherded my herds to where they could do the most good, and did the big work for them, using his own knife. I wore his coat in reverse as a butcher’s apron and slept in it, on a slab nearby.
After a week, I was able to reach into a black spot near his hip and lift the femur free of his pelvic bone, like lifting a trailer from a hitch. From there the work went much faster. I cut pieces of cartilage and tendon loose, beat them flat with stones, sliced them into strips about the size of chewing gum, and chewed them while I worked.
My own ingenuity astonished me. I dammed a small mountain stream and let the empty bed bake in the sun for two weeks. When it was dry, I brought wood and tinder and burned his clothes, including his coat—my apron. There was little blood left, in any case. I burned the pile several times and then I broke my dam and let the water course over the ashes. Everything I did felt considered.
I began to work on the bones. On the same slab, I broke down each one, grinding it to dust between his hard bed and a rock well suited to the purpose. In a notebook I kept careful tally of the bones; I remember the day a beetle came from the ruin of his right ear and seemed to be bringing me the hammer and anvil. I scrabbled in the dust for the stirrup.
When I was nearly finished, I carried the bag of bone dust down to the stream and let it go, in batches, into the quick water. After that I began to haul water back up to the slab and boiled it over a fire. I mixed in the sand and scoured the slab. My swollen hands cracked, but I ground the sand in and slowly drew the stain away. It took me hours and hours to decide whether I could see it only because I knew it had been there.
Six weeks to the day after I stepped out behind him with the stone, I carried his clean, dry skull up to a fresh ledge, one exposed to the fiercest storms, and looked its round blankness in the face. It was just a skull and I was just a man. A man has a skull, but a skull is not a man. I look the lower jaw off and set it aside, then broke the cranium down to several large pieces. Counting carefully, I broke the teeth out of the upper jaw. Took the lower jaw and did the same. Leaving the teeth aside, I made the skull dust, and then lay down to sleep. Half the teeth the next day, and half the day after that—the molars were particularly troublesome. Then I was finished. I climbed down and left the valley.
Traveled south through the fall migration. Walked amid the marketplace noise of huge mixed flocks, and stood close to three kinds of cranes, looked into their golden eyes embedded in pink featherless skin. A heightened sense of being filled me and worked to scour those hard-to-reach places in the soul. Perhaps then I only dimly knew that whatever time left to me would end in an account of these events—but so it has.
Then, though, I was sure I would reach the frontier before the first snows came, which suited me well—I was tired of discomfort. I wanted nothing more than a place to be—undisturbed ease in my time—and thought it could not be denied me. I wanted that, and could think of no reason why it shouldn’t be mine.
This morning, before I sat down to finish this account, this preemptive confession, I found a goldfinch lying stunned outside my study window. I picked it up and held it, extending its wings to be certain that neither were broken. Then I drew my finger down its length until, at last, it fluttered away. The feathers on its back, the deliberate hatch-work pattern they had made, seemed less like something I had seen with my own eyes than—and perhaps it is just Davos’s Rembrandt that draws my mind in this direction—something of Dürer’s. Although of course it is Carel Fabritius whose reputation rests on a painting of a single goldfinch, and Mandelstam whose poem about this small golden bird springs to mind.
Fabritius was a pupil of Rembrandt’s, you may recall; he died young in the 1654 explosion of the powder magazine at Delft. It gouged a hole of many blocks in the city center, entirely eradicating the painter of a little avian gesture, this trompe l’oeil. Along with many others whose lives there is no call to imagine, having nothing—not even a name—that might hold us to that doubtful duty.