“I have been ready to die for an eternity now.”
THE KNIFE IN BOTH hands, I give a quick thrust and pierce the skin of my throat. The snap reminds me, all this time later, of the German wieners of my youth. Now I’ll lie here on the floor for what will seem an eternity. But like every other time, I won’t die. I won’t even bleed, or feel pain.
An eternity! The word mocks me. I used to wonder what it would be like. A world without time, I thought, as opposed to time stretching out infinitely. Even then I could see the difference, not that it mattered. Speculating about something is one thing, living it another.
I’ve tried everything conceivable: fire, leaping from heights, starvation. I knew it was futile. Here, eating is optional, for pleasure and not necessity. The look on some faces, when for the first time they were offered meat, was one of the things that amused me in the early years. Or the blank incredulous stare on being informed that, yes, people fuck. Well, I was once one of them too, all of my preconceptions blown to smithereens on arrival.
It was exhilarating at first. Like coming out of anesthesia, at least as I can recall this, there’s a feeling of disorientation and dizziness. Your eyes open to a swell of cloyed light, like looking through a lens coated in Vaseline. I threw up, which should have been—I suppose was—my first warning. Followed by the reassurances of my designated Liminary.
It’s okay, he tells me, as I stare punch-drunk into the indistinct pool of what I guess to be a human face.
Henceforth, the absorption of stunning improbabilities. Some I’d anticipated, like the imperishable body and the singing of hymns. Most I hadn’t. But even if you’d come into this having done your homework…well, let’s just say a rude awakening lay ahead.
Looking back I suspect that Charles—he was my Liminary— hadn’t been here long when he was assigned to the transition. I’m sure that’s a matter of policy, although I can only speculate how many others there are like me. There must be others. I stopped disclosing my thoughts when I could see quite clearly the incomprehension with which they were met. And even then I was only hinting at my feelings, which have since grown stronger. Am I a freak of nature? A mistake? It doesn’t seem possible, but then what does an objection like that have to do with anything here.
As far as I’ve been able to tell, everyone else is happy. They sing these interminable goddam hymns of praise with apparent enthusiasm, and when they see you on the street they say, “Isn’t it wonderful, having eternal life.” No one asks how long you’ve been here—most of us have no idea—although the Parousians will sometimes self-identify. But since there were so many people living at the end, there’s nothing particularly special about having arrived with the Harvest. In any case, what difference does a few hundred or even thousand years make now? We’ve all been here for at least what would have been, on the former Earth, two trillion one hundred and seventeen billion sixty-eight million four hundred and seventy-nine thousand and one hundred thirty-four years. I know this because I have a friend in the Records Division.
There you have it: the difference between a world without time versus a world in which time stretches on, endlessly. Both may be said to be “eternal,” but they’re not the same. We have clocks and calendars, as a matter of necessity. People say Let’s do so- and-so, and of course you reply When and Where? And they say (for example) On the fourth day of Seraph at the Radiant Hill of Kairos. Then you put it into your calendar, and on the appointed day you go to the Radiant Hill of Kairos for the umpteenth zillionth-billionth time.
It doesn’t help much that, despite all my resentment, I still carry my guilt—even though I think I’m right to feel as I do. You see, there was a time I loved life and loved its creator. In my previous and fallen state, I was needless to say imperfect and not always willing to hold up my end of the bargain. I didn’t deserve—don’t deserve—to be showered with blessings. Every morning and night I prayed. Petitioned would be a better word. Lust, that was my besetting sin. And now? I no longer remember what desire of that nature feels like. All I have are the memories, as static and desaturated as old photographs. A woman lies on the bed, her pants drawn to the knees. I stroke her with the fingers of my right hand, and soon there are tiny globes of moisture in her hair. It means nothing.
Well, I say that now, having lost—I no longer say “having been freed from”— my concupiscence. Sex, like eating, is a somewhat enjoyable way to pass some time. I can take it or leave it. And this inability of mine to feel gratitude is the source of my guilt. Here, no one goes blind or gets cancer or mourns the departed. There are disappointments, to be sure. One arrives at the bakery to discover the croissants are all gone. The day of the picnic arrives, and it rains. But the next day there is sunshine and croissants. We even joke about it—how the disappointments of this perfect life are mock-tragedies.
As it happens, the humour was one of the first things I noticed. A joke is always at someone’s expense, and in a world without even the possibility of cruelty humour must suffer. You don’t think about that when you’re listening to the sermons on the glory of paradise—or in any case I didn’t: how the jokes will all be bad. I told myself this was a petty complaint, and that it was a small sacrifice in exchange for a world in which genocide, rape and racism no longer existed. To say nothing of the casual everyday filth in which our species dabbled.
So, yes, it has been a slow but inexorable journey that has brought me here, where I now search out the silver bullet or wooden stake or Kryptonite—or whatever it is—that will finish me off.
After the initial reactions, I decided it was best to keep this effort of mine a secret. What I said was: Do you ever sometimes feel that you’ve had a full life—that you’ve seen and done all you care to? Or words to that effect. The first time was just down the road, at the florist’s. The woman froze, her uncomprehending eyes fixed on my face as her thumb hovered lifelessly an inch from the cone wrapping’s seam. I quickly learned to be more cautious.
To my closest friends, I said: “this eternal life has been filled with surprises.” It was a carefully crafted statement that could mean so many things. My hope was that someone would take the bait, and that he or she would be thinking and feeling what I was and would say so. But while the former often happened, not once did the latter.
Invariably came the response I would learn to think of as predictable.
So for many, many billions of years since I have kept my innermost thoughts to myself. I was surprised to discover (there is that theme once again) that I was able to do so. Firstly for the obvious reason, but also because secrets are hard to keep, even from mere human beings. Having said that, I’m well aware it’s possible my thoughts are known. If that’s so, succour has been deliberately withheld.
You are wondering how it is that I’m able to dissemble this way, æon upon æon. Don’t my friends notice that something is awry? As I’ve said, our lives are not without disappointment. I tell them that today the florist was out of chrysanthemums; that I’m impatient for this evening’s “Holy, Holy, Holy”; that it feels a couple degrees too warm, or too cool, for me. Ridiculous, I know, but does it even occur to anyone that I might be lying? It seems not. Nor does anyone bother to dwell upon these admittedly insignificant inconveniences of mine. We are living in paradise, after all.
That, precisely, is my problem. Everything here is perfect, but not as I once, long ago, understood perfection. Or rather misunderstood it. For there are what could be considered imperfections. For examples: our household appliances break down and need replacing, there are days in which one feels tired, or perhaps a bottle of wine has soured. These things pass, but across the vast distance of time what one notices—in any case, what I have noticed— is the stasis at the centre of everything. Change is of the moment and without meaning. The rain arrives, and the rain departs. Then it is sunny again. As for the work of those living and dying generations of old, that is all finished now. Consummatum est. There is nothing even to argue over, excepting perhaps that last year’s Merlot is better than the Pinot Noir, or that tonight’s singing of Amazing Grace was the best so far this month, and other such trivialities.
Even before it had occurred to me to kill myself, the day had arrived on which I wanted someone, anyone, to die. How wonderful it would be, I told myself, to know that this civilization will one day fail, to fight over a cause even to the death, if necessary, or to watch a familiar face grow old—a fantastic notion in a world where bodies are forever in their prime, where there is neither birth nor passing, and where your son and your grandfather may as well be your brothers. I used to think the fanatics were mad, fixated as they were on the end of times. Now I would welcome with my arms wide open the all-consuming fire. Instead I behold these bookstores and theatres and their endless outputs of uplifting stories about the greatness of our saviour and the blessedness of our condition. The music is all in a major key. No longer are there unanswered, much less unanswerable, questions. It’s astonishing to me that there was ever a time I could imagine such a world and not revile it, but then I was looking at things from the other side of a chasm.
No longer. Now I am in the sweet hereafter, lying on the floor of my handsome downtown apartment, arms at my sides, with the useless knife still lodged in my throat. Eventually I’ll pull it out and the fissure will heal. In the meanwhile I listen to the outside world, the vocalizations of birds and dogs and people, the general restless commerce of an eternal city. I am only some several dozen yards from Principality Park; if I were to look out my front window, I would see the magnificent cypresses, pines and sequoias—ancient giants eclipsing the understory of distant tablelands and the ravines in which the Cavalry and Lamb creeks flow south to Manna River. How devilishly clever—I can think of no better word for it—to have repristinated an exhausted Earth with these faux-evolutionary flourishes of alluvium and moraine.
Am I truly offended by this apparent contempt for authenticity? Not really. Even here, there is nothing extraordinary about hypocrisy. Despite our miraculous bodies, we are still human. What else should I have expected? The more outrageous acts of our species were extirpated. Murder, obviously. And infidelity, since procreation was no longer necessary and no one in any case saw the point of marriage in a world without death. (How obvious that seems once you are here, even if it had never occurred to you in your previous existence.) The desire for beauty and diversions, on the other hand, remained, as did the capacity for dislike of others. We all pretend to like one another, and to enjoy most everything, which you’ll agree must be counted a form of hypocrisy.
The wiping of every tear from every eye, the purge of sickness, pain, sadness and death—all this seemed to me like a good and simple enough proposition. Doubtless it was also a clerical nightmare. Here there are former child soldiers, women burned at the stake, heretics, victims of lynch mobs and pogroms, the stillborn. I’m told we all came back in the same way, out of—as I describe it—the anaesthetic haze. Confused and disoriented, sometimes vomiting, sometimes uttering gibberish. A few minutes, at most, and then you get the individual personality. How I wish I could have seen them with my own eyes: the stillborn child who awakens as a woman in her prime, the antediluvian clay worker who beholds in wonder (and I imagine in terror) our advanced technology, the peasant whose limbs have inexplicably returned.
What a day’s work, sorting out the nuts and bolts of this business of remedy! In the era that I was alive, there was something called normality. The proper role of a man was to love a woman, to marry, and to produce children—sons, preferably. The role of a woman was to love, and submit to, a man. Deviation from the norm was an abomination.
I’ll credit eternal life with this much: it teaches human beings to regret the stupidity of their former ways.
What I mean is that we have come back in the full integrity of our inner selves, not in some idealized way founded upon this notion of what is proper and normal. And so at any time I can go to Principality Park, and there I will find Temi, my deaf neighbour, or the two-spirited park warden Angelia. Or my friend Nadeem, who was eleven months into his transition from female to male when the War began. Many of my co-religionists had learned to see these fellow creatures of mine as broken, abhorrent or depraved. And as I’ve noted, it was exhilarating, for a time, to be of this bold kingdom where all of that was blown instantly and forever to pieces.
Now that I think more upon it, what I said of humour is not entirely true. There were moments, early on, of genuine wit. No one reads the scriptures—why would they? But we all remember the stories. One day the Tower of Babel came up. I was in the Latin Quarter of Israfel with a woman who was for the first few hundred years my constant companion. (This was before I finally abandoned the old habit.) We were in the market, browsing the trinkets. All around us we heard the languages of the world’s peoples. I observed, rather off- handedly, the irony of a paradise of confounded tongues. Hadn’t this diversity been originally calculated to bring us to ruin?
I put it better back then. We laughed. And now it’s just one more joke I’m unable to make. We’ve all had the time to learn most every dialect, which wasn’t the case for me back then. Nothing seems foreign or exotic—which is a good thing, but a bad thing too.
I think of the women that I loved. There weren’t many. Eventually this love came to an end, the way everything came to an end. Only here nothing ends. What have I learned? Simply that no one can make two plus two equal five. The sunsets are less beautiful when you know that they must go on, infinitely. It is no one’s fault, and there is nothing to be done about it.
Shall I lie here then, for eternity? No, eventually I must rise and confront the day. They will greet me, saying, “Hallelujah, all praise to Him,” and I will reply, “Praise be!” Everything will be perfect, as it always has been, as it always will be. A world without end. •